[And, yes, I know that it doesn't seem like Cinderella yet. That comes later.]
Content note: emotional abuse, transphobia, bullying, homophobic language
"You stole your sister's clothes!" Dad shouted.
"They're not my--" El tried to say because they weren't her clothes.
"You, young lady," Mom said in a menacing tone that didn't need Dad's volume to convey a threat, "are in trouble for encouraging that pervert, one more word out of you and you'll have the same punishment as your brother.
El was ready to say that word, and several more after it, but she caught Ash signaling for her to be quiet.
* * *
Their parents were snoring, there were no creaky floorboards, and El had excellent night vision. She had no trouble making it to Ash's room unnoticed.
Ash was lying on the bed --over the covers and still in the clothes their parents had made Ash change into-- facing away from her and crying quietly. You had to cry quietly if you lived in a house like this.
El wasn't sure what to do. She sat on the bed and placed a hand on Ash's shoulder.
For a while they stayed like that. Finally she said, "It was a really pretty dress."
"Thanks," Ash said. Then sniffled. "That's why I got it."
"They were convinced it was mine," El said, "so I can give it back to you. We just have to find somewhere not-here for you to keep it."
"Thanks," Ash said again. "You don't have to keep me company; I don't want to keep you up."
"I'm not sleepy," El said. She pulled her legs onto the bed, laid down beside Ash, and pulled Ash into a hug. "And besides, we're family now. Your dad and my mom might not know it, but family is supposed to be there for each other."
For a while Ash didn't say anything, then Ash said, "Thank you, El." After a short pause Ash added, "I love you, sis."
"I love you too," El said, but she honestly had no idea if Ash was her brother, her sister, or something else entirely. Her sibling for sure. Now wasn't the time to ask, she knew. Now was the time to be supportive. She could be confused later.
* * *
Once they were safely out of the house, El said, "I don't know how you take it, Ash. I mean, grounded for a month and doing every chore in the house is just..." she found she didn't have the words.
"They just don't want to do their own dishes," Ash said.
"But, I mean, they treat you like--"
"Dad's always been an ass," Ash said, "and as far as he's concerned our relationship was dead the first time he caught me in your clothes."
"Sorry about that," El said.
"Sorry for what?" Ash asked. "I asked if you if I could try them on, you said, 'Yes.' It was my idea: my fault."
"No," El said. "It was his fault, I'm sorry that I--" she stopped when she realized that Ash wasn't going to acknowledge her being to blame. She felt bad though, Ash hadn't just asked her out of the blue. She'd known there was something wrong since they first met. It took ages of coaxing and gentle encouragement and work on her part to find out what it was that Ash wanted but was afraid to pursue. Then, finally, when Ash decided to act on those hidden desires, it was about twenty minutes before their dad burst in and said --no, shouted-- some of the most hurtful horrible things she'd ever heard.
She still felt like a horrible person for not providing a safe space for Ash to be ... himself, herself, themselves? She wasn't sure.
Still, it wasn't as if no good had come of it. Ash smiled more, and was clearly getting braver to have bought a dress and been in it without her acting as a lookout. That had ended in epic failure, but she was still proud of Ash.
* * *
Some people had taunted Ash by saying that Ash "hid in his stepsister's shadow." It was one of the few taunts that was actually true. El and Ash hadn't become best friends the moment they met, but it didn't take long before El was the best friend Ash had, which wasn't that high of a bar when you thought about it, and Ash was ... maybe not El's best friend, but someone who she'd protect to the exclusion of her own safety and well-being.
In all ways that mattered, they were siblings before their parents got married and, with El around, for the first time Ash could remember, Ash felt safe. But El wasn't always around. They didn't have the same class schedule, they didn't have all the same interests, they weren't always in the same places. El's shadow wasn't always there to hide in.
In the first class of the day they were on opposite ends of the school, so Ash had to leave El's shadow and brave the halls alone.
Where possible Ash stuck to the walls, leaving them only when someone at a locker forced a small detour. Ash tried to be as small as possible. Ash tried to never touch anyone, not even for an instant, for fear of what they might do.
Eventually Ash made it to the class. It was the lab unit of science class, chemistry this year, and for once Ash wasn't afraid, uneasy, or awkward, or otherwise ill at ease around the assigned partner.
Zee was both a breath of fresh air and a strong check on Ash's assumptions. Before they were stuck together Ash knew her mostly by status, she was popular, pretty, and rich. Untouchable. The kind that the likes of Ash never mixed with. Ash just assumed that she was a jerk because every high status person he'd encountered had been a jerk. In fact, usually if a high status person interacted with with Ash it was for the express purpose of being a jerk to Ash, which was apparently an end in itself.
Then they were assigned to be lab partners for the whole year. Yes, she was still popular, still pretty --downright stunning in Ash's opinion-- and still rich. But she was also smart, she was also funny, and she was also kind. She was all the things Ash didn't expect, things that Ash sometimes doubted existed.
Still forever beyond Ash, as her friends were quick to point out if given the chance, but when they were lab partners that somehow ceased to be true and they were temporary equals.
Today they were sticking samples of metal into a Bunsen burner flame to see the pretty colors of excited atoms. Ash liked the green that copper made. Zee liked it too, but was more into purple. Caesium for her. They put one of each in and let their colors mix. They didn't, actually, mix very well.
After the burner was off, and they were filling out papers and doing the other drudge work to prove that they could, indeed, play with fire and get results, Ash accidentally touched Zee's hand.
Just a brush of the fingers, but that could be more than enough. Instinctively Ash's hand flinched back. In fact Ash's whole body turned away, automatically preparing for the blow that might come.
Zee seemed confused. "Did I hurt you?" she asked. Ash didn't know what to say; was it a trick? "I didn't feel a shock or anything." Ash just stayed silent.
Trying to appear relaxed failed. It was so easy to tense up, so much harder to un-tense up. Zee had been great since they'd been assigned to work with each other. Impossibly nice. But that didn't mean touching was ok. Touching might well have dire consequences.
Ash almost wished she'd just throw a punch and get it over with.
She did something else. Something unbelievable, unimaginable, inconceivable. She took the hand that had touched hers, took it gently in both of her own, in a way only El ever had, and made Ash feel safe.
Then she spoke again.
"Are you..." She said. "Are you ok?"
Ash didn't really try to relax this time, it just happened.
"I ... I'm fine," Ash said, and almost believed it.
Zee still had Ash's hand, was still holding it gently in a way that was strangely reassuring. Strange because the kids at school weren't there to reassure Ash. Ignore Ash? Yes. Belittle Ash? Sometimes. Hurt Ash? Too many times. Reassure? Never.
Zee asked, "Did I do something wrong?" Ash didn't even understand what that meant. Sure, Ash knew the words. Had even heard them said. But never addressed to Ash unless they were full of sarcasm, mockery, or scorn. As an honest question? No, never.
This had to be a trick, right?
"Because if I did ... I didn't mean to," Zee said. "Just tell me and I'll try to make it right."
It was too confusing. A trick? A trap? A set up for something later? But none of that fit with Zee the lab partner. She was nice. She was kind.
People like that didn't trick you, they just failed to notice you.
Ash didn't know what to do. Just pulled the hand back and said, "No, you didn't do anything wrong," while looking at the table.
Barely noticed the sound of the burner being turned on again.
"Ash, it's your color," Zee said.
Ash looked up and saw that she had the copper sample right at the base, so that the whole flame was green.
Ash smiled. It was only a half smile, but it was better than a moment ago when there was nothing but confusion.
"Zenia!" The teacher called out. Zenia quickly turned the burner off. The teacher came anyway. "We're supposed to be done with the flame tests; what were you doing?"
"There was an error in my notes," Zee said. "I had to run one of the tests again," Zee pointed to a line on her worksheet. "I did it as quickly as I could."
The teacher turned to Ash. "Is that right?"
"Ok," the teacher said. "But next time check your notes for errors and omissions before you start goofing off. Then you won't need to turn your equipment back on after everyone else is done."
Then the teacher walked away mumbling.
Zee looked to Ash and asked, "Are we cool?"
Again, Ash understood all the words, but they made no sense in context. Ash just nodded. "Yes" was obviously the right answer, and giving the right answer was always the path of least resistance even if the right answer in a situation wasn't true.
* * *
"It must be hard to be the new girl in town and suddenly have that freak for a brother," Sarah said.
El's head snapped around so fast she worried about giving herself whiplash.
They'd been talking about the difficulty in finding a good date for a dance that was coming up in three and a half weeks. What the fuck did that have to do with Ash and what in Hell or the outlying provenances would make Sarah think it was ok to talk that way about her sibling?
El didn't try to unravel things. She just said, "Screw you."
"Jeez," Sarah said, "I'm just trying to show a little sympathy for your situation. No need to bite my head off."
"Ash is not a freak," El said, "so unless I have some other sibling, a freaky one, who you know about and I don't, don't you dare talk that way, Sarah Rigby Holmes. I don't care about your intent when you--"
"Girls!" the gym teacher shouted. "What's going on over there?"
"Sarah was telling me that my free throw style was all wrong," El said. They were practicing with basketballs, and El was always good at making up bullshit in a hurry. "So I was telling her that if she's so much better maybe she should show me how to do it instead of just telling me what I'm doing wrong."
"Is that so?" Ah the wondrous sound of a teacher who knew you were lying but was coming to the realization that the truth wouldn't come out.
El nodded, Sarah was frozen like a deer in headlights for a moment, but then she nodded, said, "Yeah," and after nodding again amended, "Well, mostly. I wouldn't say that I was just telling her what she was doing wrong."
"Well why don't you show her how to do it right," the teacher said, "and then watch her shoot one and tell us both where she could improve?"
* * *
After she left the locker room, about to head off to her next class, El heard the gym teacher call, "Eleanor."
She walked over, but pointed out, "I have to get to class."
"This won't take long."
"It's a big school."
"I'll write you a note." And that was the end of back and forth and the beginning of, "We're having this conversation whether you want it or not." So much could be communicated with tone of voice.
El waited to be told what it was about.
"I prefer El."
"And I prefer not to be lied to."
"If this is about that then shouldn't Sarah be here too?"
"This isn't about that directly."
El examined the teacher with her best, "Oh, really?" look.
"You seemed to be adjusting well when you first came here, but things have been getting worse."
"Have they now?"
"Yes, they have." It was more punctuation than an actual sentence. Meant to be a period on the end of an exchange.
The teacher waited, El was guessing it was to make sure she wasn't in back-and-forth mode.
Then, "If people are mistreating you; you can't deal with it on your own." The teacher looked at her for a moment, probably gauging whether the words were sinking in. "If you try, then you'll get in as much trouble as the aggressors. So if trouble comes up, come to me."
Nice. Heartfelt. Either an expression of truly caring about students or a very good faking of the same.
El thought for a moment and then said, "You look out for all the students, do you?" It wasn't a question, it was a trap, and the teacher had to know it. Did know it as evidenced by a sigh.
"I try to."
"So what if I'm not the target of the aggression?" El asked, doing her best at naive innocence.
"Sticking up for other students is good," the teacher said, "noble even. But if you don't use the right means, you'll still be punished for it. Actions are at least as important as intentions, usually more so."
Good solid reasoning, and people looked down on gym teachers.
"So I should just leave everything in your capable hands," El said. The sarcastic addition of, "because you're doing such a good job," didn't need to be stated. Naive innocent voice aside, she could see it was understood.
"No, you should put it there," the teacher said. "Tell me. I can't help people if I don't know they need help."
"And if I tell you, then you'll take care of it?" El asked.
The teacher tried to dodge the trap: "I'm trying to help you, you know?"
"But what if I'm not the one who needs help?" El asked.
"And now we're talking in circles. Eleanor-- El, You're a good student. I've talked to your other teachers and they think so too, but not every confrontation can be weaseled out of by tricking someone into showing off how bad they are at making free throws."
"What about ferreted out of by tricking someone into looking in it for a fictional contact lens?"
And that was when the teacher broke down and laughed. But only for a second. Not a win for El, and she wasn't even sure what the victory conditions really looked like. She had an endgame in mind, but it was more likely to stalemate than win.
The teacher took a deep breath and put on a stern expression. "No more word games. If someone is mistreating you in my class, you come to me. If they're mistreating someone else, you come to me. If you try to deal with it on your own by responding in kind then by the time I get there you're going to be in as much trouble as they are.
"It isn't fair, it isn't right, but it's the way things are because I can only deal with what I know about and by not coming to me you're making it so that I don't know about it until you've sunken to their level.
"You know this. You're smart enough that you can get out of almost any situation and come to me before it escalates, so start doing that."
"And if I do," El said, "You'll deal with it?"
"So if I knew that someone were being bullied, say Ash--"
"Is that's what's this is all about?" the teacher asked, realization visibly taking over.
"This is the third time I've asked about if someone else were the target," El said. "The other two times you seemed to think I was evading the point, this time you seem to think we've gotten to the root of the matter."
There was nothing more to say. The accusation hung in the air unstated.
The only difference was Ash's name, but that had changed everything, and the change meant everything. The teacher knew that Ash was a target, and Ash was no better for it. The problem hadn't been solved.
The silence wasn't awkward; it was damning, and the teacher's posture showed it.
"Now I'm definitely late for my next class by now," El said, "so where's the note I was promised?"
The teacher silently wrote a note, but before handing it over had one last thing to say, "How much good are you going to do your brother if you end up in detention?"
El just shrugged, took the note, and headed off toward a class she was glad to be missing part of.
* * *
Just as Ash was about to sit down for lunch, a girl took Ash's chair. She didn't take it out from under Ash, of course, if she'd done that it might have led to Ash falling and then teachers might have actually gotten involved. No, she'd waited until Ash pulled out the chair and then let go of it in preparation for sitting in it, and that's when she snatched it an walked away.
Sometimes El hated the world in general and the people in it in particular.
But that wasn't what was important right now.
She got out of her own chair, making sure to stay in contact with it the whole time, and said to Ash, "I suddenly feel like eating standing up. Use this one."
"El, you don't have to--"
"I'm eating standing up," she said, picking up her lunch tray off the table. "But right now I don't have a free hand to eat with." Her left hand was holding her tray, her right hand was holding the chair in case anyone tried to take it. "Could you maybe help me by keeping this chair safe for me?"
Ash sat in the chair and started to eat, El moved to the spot where Ash's chair had been and leaned against the table a bit. Then she started to eat her food. It wasn't bad for cafeteria food.
"Thanks, El," Ash said.
"No, problem," she said to Ash.
* * *"What the hell do you want, weirdo?" random person who was in the way said to Ash. It wasn't really a question. It was a statement: get the fuck away from me. Normally Ash would be happy to comply but...
"You're leaning on my locker," Ash said.
The halls were too crowded to run. This could go very badly very fast. Still, Ash needed to get into the locker.
"So, I need to use my locker," Ash said. Ash tried to mentally prepare for a blow. People said relax, but how do you even do that?
"Like I care."
Then random other person spoke, "I'd care if I touched anything that belonged to him. Gross."
"Good point," the kid on the locker said, and left.
Now Ash was able to relax. Ash got the appropriate books and headed to the next class.
* * *
El was playing a fighting game with Ash and they were both having great fun.
Video games were safe. Boys were supposed to play video games. Ash could play video games without any trouble from their parents. El got leeway so she could play too. The leeway had made her think she had a cool mom, until she saw how her mom treated Ash.
Of course if their parents ever realized Ash was playing as Talim, a middriff baring girl, instead of the random male characters El played as to cover for Ash, then things would get very bad, very fast.
They were careful though. They never talked about who won, or who was losing, unless it was for the purpose of giving their parents the wrong idea.
* * *
On these days Ash and El had two classes in a row right at the start of the day. It was the longest Ash ever felt safe in school, and whenever Ash started to get scared, El took Ash's hand and it made Ash feel safe again. But it didn't last forever.
After they parted ways, someone bumped into Ash in the hall so hard Ash hit the wall and then fell the floor. There was some laughing as Ash picked up stuff that had been dropped, but nothing really worthy of note. Just another day.
* * *
On the days she didn't have lunch with Ash, El was in the least crowded of the three lunch sections. She was sitting at a table with a friend named Amanda, waiting to see if anyone else would join them. A boy she didn't know asked, "Can I sit here?"
"You know Ash?" El asked.
The boy looked confused and visibly had to think for a moment. Finally he asked, "Your brother?"
Maybe, maybe not, El thought. She really did need to get around to asking. But that thinking wasn't for here. "Yeah, what do you think of Ash?"
The boy shrugged, "Nothing really, I don't think we've ever met."
"You can sit here," El said. The boy did.
"What's with the pop quiz?" Amanda asked.
"Yesterday Sarah made me realize that taking all comers isn't a viable strategy," El said.
"Is that what she's pissed off about?" Amanda asked.
El shrugged. She didn't know Sarah was pissed off.
"So," the boy asked, "is this a family is off limits thing, or are you trying to protect everyone?"
"The rest of my family is totally not off limits," El said. "My stepdad is openly an asshole and since my mom married him I've come to realize shes an ass too, it's just she's less open about it. Ash is off limits because all that happens is Ash does nothing wrong and is mistreated in return."
El took a moment to think about the rest of the question. "I can't protect everyone and I don't want to try, but not being there for my own sibling is not an option."
"Go you," Amanda said.
The boy nodded, "I can understand that. I didn't know Ash had it so bad."
"He does," Amanda said. "If I could do anything I would, but we're in totally different circles."
"So..." the boy said. "My name's Brian.
"Amanda," Amanda said.
"El," El said.
"I don't think I've ever met someone named El," Brian said.
"If you call her Eleanor she'll spit at you with force that a llama would envy," Amanda said.
El said, "I don't spit,"
* * *
* * *
Ash took the tray of food to the edge of the cafeteria, sunk to the ground against the wall, and ate.
Hoping that no one took notice, or if anyone did, no one would care enough to interact. Lunch was particularly dangerous. Lots of students, relatively few teachers.
* * *
The gym teacher had called Ash aside at the beginning of class. Apparently El was sticking up for Ash even when Ash wasn't in the room and that was strictly against school rules. Or something.
"Maybe if you talk to her about it, it'll keep her out of detention," the teacher concluded.
Ash just looked at the teacher for a few moments. For the longest time there had been three types of people in Ash's world. There was Dad who could drive Ash to tears with loud angry hurtful words. The arrival of new-Mom expanded the category from "Dad" to "Parents" but did little to change things in the category.
There were other students, the most varied, volatile, and unpredictable of the groups. The good ones ignored Ash. The bad ones ... well, Ash had things to fear.
And then there were the teachers. Some could be hurtful, some were nice, but they all were useless. They weren't threats, they weren't assets, they were just big piles of do-nothing. Ash learned in elementary school that, for all they might talk about wanting everyone to be safe, they couldn't protect anyone. Nothing since then had changed that knowledge.
El merited a new category unto herself, which was the major change in the kinds of people in Ash's life.
El didn't change teachers. They were still useless, and still harmless.
And right now Ash needed to vent a bit. So given the safety, Ash let words fly free.
* * *
Zee was trying to listen to a conversation between the teacher and her lab partner. Something about his sister getting into trouble? Then her lab partner did something he'd never done before, at least not that she knew of, he spoke clearly, a bit loudly, at greater length than a few words, with apparent confidence, and sarcastically. She'd never heard him do even one of those things before, much less all at once:
"Yeah, and maybe if I write to the state legislature they'll vote for a massive increase in spending on education that we can use for security cameras in the halls so that bullying doesn't come down to 'lone victim said / bully and posse said' every time, more teachers so that there were actually enough to police their students, and easy bake genetics labs for biology class so that we can make tuatara-pigeon hybrids as part of learning about using retroviruses to transfer DNA between species."
Their teacher didn't reprimand him or anything. Just walked away and mumbled something about, "The whole damn family."
Zee went over to her lab partner, Ash, and said, "I've never heard you talk that way."
Ash looked away --down at the ground-- and asked, "What's a teacher gonna do?"
"Hey, Zee," a friend named Maggie shouted. "Get away from that loser and come--"
"Maggie!" the teacher shouted. "Laps. Now."
Zee watched the exchange between the teacher and Maggie, but didn't really care. Maggie had brought it on herself. When Maggie started running she turned back to Ash, put her hand on his shoulder, and said, "You're not a loser."
* * *
Ash always felt uneasy in the locker-room. This time was worse. Someone had written, "faggot," in permanent marker on Ash's locker.
It didn't make sense to Ash. Ash had never been a fan of male bodies. Ash was uncomfortable around naked or partially dressed guys, not aroused. Ash only liked porn that had a total absence of men in it.
How could someone possibly think Ash was attracted to guys?
Ash didn't say anything. Just changed in silence.
* * *
"You're lucky gym is at the end of the day for you," El said to Ash.
Based on the way Ash reeked, it had been a real workout.
"I really don't like group showers," Ash said.
El wondered if that might have to do with the question she'd never gotten around to asking.
"Is the reason that you don't like them," and then she stopped. Looked around. She didn't see anyone. Still, not in public.
"What?" Ash asked.
"Later," El said. "Remind me after you've showered at home, so I don't forget, but not now."
"How mysterious," Ash said flatly.
"There's something I've been meaning to ask you, but I don't feel comfortable in public."
"I can relate to that," Ash said.
El realized what she had, and thus what Ash could relate to: "That's not what I meant, I meant--"
"I know," Ash said.
It didn't change what Ash had meant though. El felt uncomfortable asking about a certain topic in public. Ash felt uncomfortable in public full stop. No need to qualify with specific circumstances.
"But you shouldn't feel uncomfortable in public," El said. "You should feel as comfortable as I do. It's not fair."
"I'm told life isn't either," Ash said.
"I'm more concerned with the people in it," El said.
Ash had nothing to say to that.
* * *
"You smell much better now," El said.
El looked at the clock, they had hours before either parent got home. A rare day when the stars and schedules aligned to give them time without their parents.
El was nervous. That was rare for her. "So, um..." and she was out of words.
It felt like an eternity later when she said, "You don't have to remind me to ask you, I remember, it's just that... um..."
"You ok, El?" Ash asked. It was weird for concern to flow that way. She knew it did, of course, that's what love was about, but she was supposed to be the strong one supporting her ... sibling.
"So it was showers that made me remember that I wanted to ask about this, maybe that's be easier," El said. "Is the reason you don't like the group shower after gym class because it has boys in it?"
It was easier to actually get to a question that way.
"Uh," Ash said. "I have no idea what you're getting at, El."
So much for that idea.
"Ok, I don't know a way to ask this that doesn't sound stupid," El said quickly. "I've just been wondering about... lately I've been wondering about your gender."
"Ok?" was Ash's response.
"What is it?" El asked.
"What is what?" Ash asked back.
"Your gender," El said and she felt stupid, and she felt bad, and she felt like she wanted to disappear, and she was afraid that she might have hurt Ash.
"I-- um..." Ash said.
Silence. Very, very awkward silence. Maybe she shouldn't have asked. Did she really need to know?
"Like, I'm totally fine with whatever it is," El said quickly. "I just want to know. You know? Are you a boy, girl, both, neither, something else?"
Ash didn't say anything.
"I'm sorry; I shouldn't have," El said. "I'll go and ... um, study in my room or something."
She was already starting to leave the room when Ash said, "No."
She turned back.
"I mean, if you're embarrassed or something and want to be alone you don't have to stay if you don't want to," Ash said. "But you don't have to leave."
Ash took a deep breath. Looked down. Then closed eyes.
Was this what contemplation and introspection looked like when Ash was doing it?
"I... I'm not really," Ash said. Silence. "I don't..."
"You don't have to do anything," El said. "I'm sorry--"
"No. Don't be sorry. It's ok, El," Ash said. "Really, it's ok. I'm just..." Ash sighed. "I don't know what ... I'm always--" Ash made a frustrated grunt and spun away.
Silence again. Damn should she not have brought this up. Was her curiosity really worth this? El mentally kicked herself for being a bad sister.
"And then when you let me wear your old clothes it just feels right, and like it's how it should be, but then I notice how my body doesn't fit the clothes, there are supposed to be parts here that there aren't, there aren't supposed to be parts there and there are, and it makes me sad, but not so sad that I'm not going to do want to do it again, and when I bought myself that dress I was so proud of myself, but then mom and dad caught me and if the kids at school ever found out and," Ash let out a wordless scream.
"Ok," El said. How could she avoid screwing this up? Should she just stop? That had come out like it'd needed to. Like it'd been bottled up inside without Ash even knowing it was there, waiting to explode like a secret time bomb or something. So, maybe not stop. But where to go?
"Forget about mom and dad and the kids at school," El said. "In a world w--"
"No, no you don't get to do, 'In a world,' without the movie trailer voice," Ash said.
El smiled, a small laugh even escaped her.
"Ok," she said. "You win. In a world without assholes," Ash smiled a bit at that, "in a time when people can be themselves, one sibling needs to give a straight answer."
"Do I at least get a question?" Ash asked. As if they hadn't been ankle deep in the muck of the question for a while now.
"You. Gender," El said. "What's up with that?"
"I think..." Ash said. Ash looked at the floor. "I think that..." Ash looked up and looked El in the eyes, "I think I'm a girl."
"Well then I think I have a sister," El said. She went up to Ash and hugged her. "I love you, sis."
"I love you too." Ash said.
After they broke the hug, El said, "You will keep me updated as to any changes as the story develops, right?"
* * *
Everyone else was asleep. Probably. You never could tell with El. But Ash was alone in the bed. In her bed, trying to come to terms with what was said --what she said-- earlier. It wasn't hard because it was bad. It was kind of a relief. Like finally understanding a concept in calculus you'd struggled with for ages.
Things made more sense now.
Ash had always known that ... that she wasn't very good at being a boy. Now Ash knew why.
But still. Ash was a "she" and that would take some time to get used to.
"I'm a she," Ash repeated in her head. Hoping that at some point it would take.
* * *
"You seem better today," Zee said. "More upbeat or something."
Ash looked up at her. Ever since they'd become lab partners Zee had been surprising nigh constantly. No one cared if Ash was up or down on a given day. No one but El.
And yet ... Zee had asked.
"El helped me realize something about myself yesterday," Ash said. "It put a lot of stuff in perspective."
"Oh," Zee said. "That's good."
There was a bit of silence and then Zee asked, "If you don't mind sharing, what was it?"
And that threw Ash into a panic, she was still coming to grips with being a she and hadn't really thought about other people. Some of the kids would beat Ash up, or worse, over this for sure.
"Hey," Zee said gently, "it's ok." Zee took Ash's right hand. Not as much of a flinch this time. She held it gently in her own, one of her hands rubbing the back of Ash's slightly in a way that was strangely reassuring. "I don't need to know; don't tell me," she said. "I know how scary things can be, and I promise that I'm not going to tell anyone anything.
"So you just keep whatever it is to yourself and I'll keep to myself about the fact you have something you're keeping to yourself."
Gentle. Reassuring. Calming. Like nothing Ash had experienced from the other kids at school.
"Thanks," Ash mumbled.
Zee let go of Ash's hand. They were silent for a bit. "You don't need to worry about me blabbing about this. I can keep a secret, you know.
"I first thought I might be different when I had feelings I didn't understand for Astrid in How to Train Your Dragon and when I saw Roxanne Ritchi in Megamind I knew for sure that I was a lesbian." Ash looked up, looked Zee in the eyes. Why was Zee telling her this?
Zee just kept on talking, "So I knew since middle school, but no one suspected until I came out in sophomore year. That's" she counted on her fingers, "five years I kept a secret without anyone even knowing I was hiding something.
"No one's going to find out there's something to pry about from me," Zee said. "You're safe."
For some reason, Ash believed her. Not about keeping the secret, Ash would have taken that as a given. Zee was nice. About being safe. Ash actually believed she'd be safe when Zee said she would be. It was irrational of course, but, for the moment, Ash believed it.
* * *
"Hey," someone said. El turned to see who was talking. It was a girl she didn't know. Michelle maybe? "Is it true that you took Sarah to task over insulting your brother?"
My sister, El thought. "Yeah."
"That's cool," Michelle maybe said.
"Uh... thanks," El said.
"So, I find this whole, 'Have a ball, aim at hoop' thing boring," Michelle maybe said. "Want to play an actual game?"
"I don't know the rules," El said.
"I could teach you," Michelle maybe said. Then she grinned, "Or we could make up our own."
* * *
El had her legs wrapped around the chair she wasn't in. She wasn't going to let someone steal Ash's chair again.
Once both were safely in their chairs, El asked, "How was your day?"
"Pretty good, actually," Ash said.
That one was a shock. Ash's days were usually bad, worse, and worst.
"You have to tell me," El said.
"My lab partner in science, Zee, is ... um ... she's different."
"She have horns or something?" El asked.
"She have horns or something?" El asked.
Ash laughed. El smiled.
Ash shook her head. "She's ... um," a moment's pause, "nice to me."
Ash had said it as if it were more outrageous than the horns theory.
El felt good and bad. Good that at least someone was being nice to Ash, bad that it was all of one someone.
"I should give her a prize," El said. Ash rolled her eyes. "No, seriously: 'I award you this great honor because you have succeeded where so many others have failed. You are,'" El made a drum-roll on the table with her fingers, "'a decent human being.'"
Ash laughed. El was winning at all the good sister things this lunch.
* * *
Ash managed to keep her up feeling for the rest of the day. After school was out, El met her and said, "So, it's Wednesday."
Ash nodded, "Drama club."
"Yeah, but I can skip it if you think you need an escort today." El said.
The day had been pretty good, Ash didn't see any potential dangers looming. "Nah, you go."
"You're sure?" El asked, "I don't want your good day ruined on the way home."
"I survived for years before you came along," Ash said.
"That's the thing, though, you deserve better than just surviving."
"I'm used to it."
"Which just means that you've been treated-- never mind," El said. "I'll see you after drama club. And Ash?"
"Yeah?" Ash asked.
"I love you," El looked around so Ash did too, it didn't look like anyone was listening. Even so El leaned in and whispered, "Sister of mine," into Ash's ear.
"I love you too, sis."
* * *
The first step of getting home safely was not rushing. Let everyone else run out the door as fast as they could, then you'd have more space to respond to any problems.
After the exodus of students moved from surge to ebb, Ash made her way to a side exit, and slipped out. The first immediate risk was being noticed between the school and the nearest houses, since the school's fields and tennis courts lead to large lines of sight.
After that it was a simple matter of knowing which properties had fences and which didn't. It was a longer process than when El was there to walk her home, but it was relatively safe. She hadn't been beaten up on the way home in almost a year.
* * *
"Was drama dramatic?" Ash asked, hearing El at her door. Ash didn't actually turn away from her computer to face El.
"Not really," El said. "Whacha doin'?"
"Research," Ash said. Ash said it because it was easier than saying, "I'm trying to find out what it means that I think I'm a girl when everyone since my birth has said I'm a boy and there's this whole biology thing going on."
Of course, giving such a vague answer had the potential to lead to confusion.
"What class?" El asked.
"Not for school," Ash said. "On me."
"Research on yourself?" El asked and walked into the room. When she looked at the computer she obviously read it because she said, "'Answers to Your Questions About Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression'?"
"Seemed like a decent place to look," Ash said.
"Learn anything interesting?"
"'Genderqueer' and 'multigender' are terms that describe real people but have little to nothing to do with me," Ash said. There was a lot of information on the page, not a lot of it seemed to be particularly useful to Ash.
"Can we talk?" El asked.
Ash was confused, what had they been doing?
El sat on Ash's bed and gestured for Ash to sit beside her.
"Since drama club was so very non-dramatic I had a lot of time to think about things," El said. "And people. People including you."
Ash nodded, but said nothing.
"You're not safe here," El said.
For a moment Ash considered not responding, but instead said, "That could have gone without saying."
"Yeah, but here's two things I was thinking about. First, you won't always be here. Maybe we should look toward the future and make plans."
Ash generally tried not to think about what was coming, since it was usually impossible to imagine that it would be something good. So Ash shrugged.
"The second thing," El said, "is that while we really need to be more careful, we could go out and do stuff together as sisters, if that sounds like something you'd enjoy."
It sounded tempting ... and terrifying.
Ash just said, "I'll think about it."
"Ok," El said. "That was it." El stood up. "I'll let you get back to researching you."
Ash stood up too, and El gave her a hug. After the hug El said, "If you find anything I should know, something that would make me a better sister to you, or something I could do to help, please tell me."
"I will," Ash said.
About ten minutes later mom got home. Ash cleared her browsing history, deleted all temporary files, and the research was over.
* * *
As they were walking between first and second class, a group of loud kids approached them. El felt Ash press against her side, trying to be as close to her as possible.
"El, I get that you got stuck with him as your stepbrother," one of the boys said, "but it's ok to ditch him."
I'm not abandoning my sister, El thought.
"Yeah," a girl in the group added, "you could be one of the cool kids if you'd just ditch the loser."
"Fuck you," El said, and walked around the group, an arm protectively around Ash's waist, as quickly as she could. She didn't know how they'd respond, she didn't want to know. She and her sister had a class to get to.
* * *
"So," Amanda said as El sat down at the lunch table, "What did you do this time?"
El was confused; Brian asked, "What are you talking about?"
"I don't know," Amanda said. "I just know that various people are suddenly upset with El."
El thought through the day, and the day before. Nothing stood out. Finally she said, "I did tell some people to fuck off this morning."
"Ash?" Amanda asked.
"I've been here since the beginning of the school year and I've always stood by Ash," El said. "You'd think at some point people would accept the fact that I'm not going to start shunning Ash."
"They'll start shunning you," Amanda said.
El thought about it for a bit.
"No, they won't," El said. "That's the worst part of all of this shit. Something happens to me and I get to slide. Bad stuff doesn't stick to me."
"Like water off a duck's back?" Brian offered.
"If it's old enough to make its own oil, yes," El said. "But with Ash ... even when there's no specific bad things, Ash is still forced to wade through shit. When there actually is something bad, it comes down on Ash precisely the way a bomb shelter isn't supposed to. I can get away with anything, Ash can't even get away with nothing.
"And that's what," El almost said, "she," but had to stop herself, it was just a moment's hesitation and then she continued with a safer word, "Ash has done to deserve that treatment: nothing. Nothing at all."
Brian said, "Damn."
* * *
Today was not a good day. It wasn't particularly bad, as things went, but it wasn't good. Ash got bumped in the hall repeatedly. One time her shoulder was hit so hard it spun her around. There was also stepping on Ash's feet, a few shoves, and being tripped once.
By the time Ash got to gym, enough parts of her body were sore that she couldn't keep track of them all.
The simple revelation, "I'm a girl," changed the way Ash viewed using the boy's locker room a great deal, but Ash was to tired and too battered to do any deep introspection.
The word "faggot", still written on Ash's locker, did cause some shallow introspection. Ash liked girls. Ash was a girl. Thus the assholes were so wrong they were right. Ash was gay. The hate speech was still morally wrong, of course.
After changing Ash walked out onto the gym floor to discover that today in their wondrous use of basketballs they were supposed to pair off with someone. It came as no surprise that no one wanted to be Ash's partner.
* * *
When Zee had seen the way Ash was walking in the hall, she knew something was wrong. When she saw that they'd be partnering up she knew that Ash would end up alone. The boy kept to himself so much that no one really knew him, and thus he wasn't anyone's first choice. She ran back into the girl's locker room and waited until Ash was, as predicted, without a partner.
Then she ran out the locker room and shouted, "Sorry I'm late, I forgot to take out my earrings," to the teacher.
Maggie asked, "Your earrings?" incredulously.
"Hey," Zee countered, "You may have no problem with your earrings getting snagged on--"
"We don't need to hear about gory mishaps," the teacher said. "Zenia, you're with Ash."
Zee nodded and went to join Ash.
"And Zenia," the teacher added more quietly, "Safety is important, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't take that long to remove earrings."
"Sorry," Zee said.
"Don't be late again," the teacher said. Apparently she hadn't been noticed when she'd come out initially.
When she got to Ash she said, "Partners again, huh?"
Ash shrugged, "Looks that way."
It wasn't too long before she had an opening to ask what she wanted to ask, "What happened to you?"
Ash looked at her as if she'd said something incredibly stupid. It wasn't a condescending look, though. Maybe a bit annoyed.
"You're moving like you're hurt," Zee said.
Another shrug from Ash, he didn't seem to take it seriously. But that didn't make sense, sure he'd never really opened up to her --or anyone else for that matter-- but she knew him enough to know that he wasn't the type to get into fights. So why wouldn't he consider this serious?
She could see it in the way he walked, in an occasionally wince, in the way he seemed to have limited mobility in his right shoulder. Something was very wrong, but what disturbed Zee most was that Ash didn't seem to think it was wrong.
"I can see you're in pain," Zee said, before she could get to her intended, "Why won't you tell me what happened?" Ash responded.
"I've been worse," he said.
She didn't ever really get information out of him, but it was fun practicing basketball with him,
* * *
When El met Ash to walk home, Ash was obviously hurt. No serious injuries, but definitely pain and, she was guessing, a few major bruises were hidden under Ash's clothes. Things had been --not good, things were never good-- but at least less bad lately. Why today?
Then she thought back to lunch, and how she'd learned that the confrontation in the hall had apparently not been forgotten.
It was like flipping a switch. She was instantly sad. "Did I do that?" she asked Ash.
Ash gave her what she'd come to call an "Ash look", the look of someone who was long suffering and didn't even see what the big deal was anymore.
"Of course not, El," Ash said.
"But I was the one who insulted them this morning," El said, more to the universe itself than to Ash. "They should have taken it out on me."
Ash shrugged. "I'm used to it."
"I am so sorry," El said.
"You don't have to be--" Ash said.
"Well I am," El said, "and you can't change that."
"Then you're forgiven," Ash said.
"Fine," said in mock outrage imitating how some people ended arguments.
"Fine," Ash said the same way in return. After that Ash had the slightest of smiles.
* * *
"I don't even understand what you see in your character," El said. They were playing a video game again, but since their parents weren't around yet, they could actually talk about things.
"She's built for speed, which goes well with button mashing, she's about our age, she has noble goals without needing a tragic backstory to get there, and she's the first Filipino character in a fighting game, a genre that is still dominated by white people of European decent, Japanese people, and Chinese people," Ash said.
"And you can't win with other characters," El said.
After their next match El said, "Break for a bit, there's something I want to talk to you about and--"
"Dad will be home soon," Ash said.
"Yeah," El said. "I was thinking about the future. About us."
"What about us?" Ash asked.
"As soon as we're old enough, once we're both eighteen and legal adults, we can leave," El said. "We can get out of here, we can put our savings together and get some crap apartment --I'm going to start saving money, starting today, even if you do the same it still won't be enough for something good but it'll be so much better because we'll be away from mom and dad, we'll be away from the jerks at school, and we can just live, openly, as sisters."
Were those tears in Ash's eyes?
"That sounds really good, sis," Ash said.
* * *
Ash looked up again when Zee saw him come into the lab. As usual they were done before some of the others were halfway through. Zee wasn't sure that they were the fastest, but they were definitely in the top three.
Zee told a story about her first, disastrous, adventure in dating. As she was doing it she noticed that when she spoke Ash listened in rapt attention, something even her best friends seldom did. She also realized that she felt like she could open up to Ash even though, really, she didn't know him that much.
So when she was done, she asked, "What about you?"
Ash seemed startled at first, and then asked, "What about me?"
"Since we've been partners I've talked about myself all the time," Zee said. "And you listen, and I like that, but I'm taking up all time talking about me, so you never talk about you."
"So?" Ash asked.
"So tell me about you," Zee said.
"What's to tell?"
"What do you like to do?" Zee asked.
"Well, what do you want?" Zee asked.
"I want to be left alone."
"Oh, s-sorry," Zee said. "I didn't mean to--I didn't realize I was bothering you."
Ash shook his head. "No, not you, not right now. Just in general. What I really want is for people to leave me alone."
Zee blinked a few times. "That's it?" she asked.
"No one making fun of me, no one picking on me, no one bumping, or pushing, or tripping me," Ash said. "No taunts. No threats; no insults. I try not to bother anyone and all I want is for everyone else to return the favor."
Zee tried to process that. It was just so ... bleak.
"What about your friends?" Zee asked.
"What friends?" Ash said.
Zee was shocked. She'd known Ash wasn't popular. She'd heard him be insulted. But that he didn't have a single friend? That was unthinkable. And yet ... she couldn't think of seeing him spend time with anyone other than his stepsister.
It wasn't like there was something wrong with Ash. In the time they'd been lab partners he'd been nice, helpful, supportive, occasionally funny, in very rare instances a bit playful, and never anything bad.
He ought to have friends. He deserved to have friends. She came to a decision.
"I could be your friend," Zee said.
"I don't think your other friends would like that very much," Ash said.
It was probably true. Still, if she made a list of qualities she'd like to have in a friend, Ash fit most of them. The ones he didn't fit were because he was almost always down and dreary, and who wouldn't be without a single friend?
"I'm not asking them," Zee said. "I'm asking you. Do you want to be friends with me?"
* * *
"So what did you say to her?" El asked between mouthfuls of food.
"I said, 'I guess so,'" Ash said.
"Very enthusiastic," El said.
"What do you even do with friends?" Ash asked.
"The same things you do with sisters," El said.
* * *
Writing without pronouns is HARD, which is what I had to do for Ash and El perspectives before it's established that Ash is a girl because neither of them was particularly convinced of the apparent male gender of Ash. (Nor are they familiar with gender neutral pronouns other than singular "they". "It" for what its worth, has the gender neuter which literally means "neither" as in "neither masculine nor feminine")
Sometimes I felt like I was writing, "Ash, Ash, Ash, the person named Ash, Ashy, Ash-Ash. ASH."
Also certain pronouns are hard to replace with the noun. "Ash closed her eyes," cannot be replaced with, "Ash closed Ash's eyes," without making things awkward. Also "Ashself" is not an adequate substitute for "herself".
I still have to watch out for pronouns because Zee doesn't know Ash is a girl and in fact believes Ash is a boy. Thus she uses he/his/him when if the same thing were written from Ash or El's perspective it would be her/hers/her.