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When Freya first sees him, she thinks that she for sure won’t like him. He appears imposing with his thick, tattooed arms on display in a muscle top and the light scruff on his face.

His smile, however, is gentle and friendly right from the start and it’s probably the only thing that makes her feel like maybe she can stand to be in the same room as this guy for at least a little while.

Truthfully, the only reason why she doesn’t turn around and run the second she sees him is because there are other people around and the chance of him attacking her in front of a dozen witnesses is slim to none.

Percy is exactly the kind of man she tends to avoid. Freya still doesn’t do well in the company of large men. They scare her, and make her skin crawl with the urge to get away and be somewhere safe. She’ll even cross to the other side of the street if she sees someone like Percy walking towards her.

Much to her surprise though, he respects her boundaries and doesn’t try to touch her or invade her personal space. He doesn’t know anything about Freya’s past or her fears – at least she doubts he does. Maybe he’s just good at reading body language – Freya most definitely has been projecting “stay away” like hell tonight.

It’s Merlin’s birthday party, and Merlin is one of the few men Freya trusts implicitly, helped by the fact that she’s known him since they were little kids, both of them in cute dresses, and with matching pigtails. That was long before she was attacked, and before Merlin came out as trans and began transitioning. No matter how much men in general scare her, Merlin never did.

She keeps her distance from Percy for most of the evening and only dares to go near once Merlin gently takes her by the arm and walks her within speaking distance of where Percy’s sitting surrounded by a bunch of people.

Next to him sits Arthur, Merlin’s boyfriend – another large and muscly man, but one that Freya has met several times before and whom she has learned to trust almost as much as Merlin. Morgana, Arthur’s sister, and her wife Vivian are there as well, smiling at her encouragingly. Their girlfriend Elena is sandwiched between them, and she, too, is beaming at Freya despite barely knowing her.

Even years down the road, Freya still won’t be sure whether she’d have let Merlin take her over to the group and talk to Percy if Percy hadn’t been outnumbered by three women and two men whom Freya trusted to keep her safe.

Probably not.

Merlin’s birthday is only the first in a seemingly endless procession of occasions on which the friends like to get together and celebrate. Elena’s birthday follows in February, to which Freya has been explicitly invited by Elena herself after they spoke to each other for a while at Merlin’s do. And then there’s Gwen’s birthday in March, followed by her girlfriend Mithian’s, also in March, and finally Sophia’s anniversary of “coming the fuck out and being fucking true to myself”, as Sophia herself puts it.

Freya goes to all of them, revelling in the joy on Merlin’s face whenever he sees her there. It’s not always easy for Freya to take that step, to go out and ignore the voices in her head that tell her she isn’t safe to leave the house, that something bad will happen to her… that no one actually wants her there.

However, after almost two years of therapy and constant positive reinforcement by Merlin and his closest friends, Freya finally feels ready – and she’s glad for it. While isolating herself at home, she’d forgotten how good it felt to go out and meet people and how much she enjoys meeting people and forming new friendships.

Now, every time she goes out to a party with her friends, she feels like she’s reclaiming that part of her life and getting back at her attacker for what he took from her.

And every time she meets her friends – her friends now, not just Merlin’s friends who tolerate her out of politeness – Percy’s smile becomes a little softer, a little more hopeful, and Freya, bit by bit, allows the distance between them to lessen.

In April, when they’re getting together to celebrate Leon and Elyan’s second anniversary, Percy shows up not in the muscle top, jeans, sneakers and leather jacket that Freya is used to seeing on him, but tight black leggings, ankle boots, a short red skirt, and a floral t-shirt. It actually takes Freya’s breath away for a second, and she cannot help but gape at how good he looks.

She goes up to him to say hello, letting him take her hands and gently squeeze them. It’s how they’ve been greeting each other for a few weeks now instead of hugging like most of their other friends. Freya secretly thinks that Percy probably gives lovely hugs, but she doesn’t trust herself not to freak out just yet if she lets him put his arms around her.

Given his outfit today, Freya feels obligated to ask if he lost a bet. To her surprise, he doesn’t laugh, instead rubbing the back of his neck nervously and shaking his head.

Until then, Freya had no idea of Percy’s true pronouns. She’s never referred to him by anything other than name, or if she has, no one had corrected her. In a group where so few people are cis or straight, Freya doesn’t like to think that no one would’ve gently pointed it out to her had she misgendered anyone, but Percy explains that the gender-specific pronouns don’t bother him when he’s feeling like that gender.

But Freya also learns that Percy prefers to use gender neutral pronouns, that there are weeks, sometimes months, when ne’s happy to present as nir assigned gender, but that inevitably there’ll come a time when ne’s feeling much less masculine and prefers to present as female for a while, or as neither gender. During those periods, it’s especially important to nim that only gender neutral pronouns be used.

They spend a lot of time that day talking about gender, and societal norms, and how it’s all pretty much bullshit anyway because the gender binary is an arbitrarily assigned matrix that isn’t actually working in the real world. They also discuss how both of them still catch themselves believing this narrative sometimes, and how hard it is, especially for Percy, to unlearn some of the toxic masculinity ne’s been internalising while growing up.

Something shifts between them then – maybe it’s due to Freya’s realisation that Percy’s even less of a stereotypical cis lad than she assumed upon first seeing nim, or maybe it’s because this has been slowly building between them since they first met months ago.

That night, when they say goodbye, Freya allows Percy to hug her. Afterwards, she apologises to nim for not allowing it before today. Haltingly, she confesses that likely, to her mind, it’s okay for them to do it now because of the same internalised shit they talked about earlier, and that Freya now, subconsciously, sees nim as less threatening because she no longer considers nim to be ‘purely masculine.’

Percy, bless nim, only keeps on smiling tenderly, slowly reaching up to cup her cheek in nir large, warm, and impossibly gentle hand. Ne promises that it’s okay, that ne’s glad that Freya trusts nim, and that ne only wishes nir mood had shifted sooner if it had helped to put Freya at ease around nim earlier.

After this night though, they start meeting outside of group activities with their friends. Freya asks Percy to go to an art exhibit with her, and Percy in turn asks her along on a walk through the park with nis dog Galahad – Gal for short.

By the time they’re all getting together to meet for Mordred and Lancelot’s engagement in late October, Freya knows that what they’ve been doing could be considered dating, and that she would very much like to confirm that with Percy and make it official.

In the end, their formal getting together is dated on a day in the first half of November, neatly filling a hitherto unclaimed spot for group celebrations. They dutifully throw a party every year on that day (or close to it, depending on weekends), but there’s another date that’s only for them, to which none of their friends are invited.

The day of Merlin’s birthday party is the day when things truly began to change for the better for Freya, when she started to find her way back to the person she was going to be before her path was violently derailed.

And now here she is, safe and relaxed in Percy’s arms, feeling nir skin against hers, idly following the lines of the floral tattoo on nir chest with her fingers while Percy plays with her hair. Four years ago, she didn’t think she could ever feel peace and safety like this again, but Percy’s height and nir bulk has long since stopped intimidating her. Now she can appreciate it for what it represents, and why Percy continues to work out no matter how dysphoric ne sometimes feels about the shape of nir body.

It’s so ne can protect the people ne loves and shield them from the evils of this world.

Freya could spend years regretting not knowing Percy when she needed protection the most, but what would be the point?

The past is in the past, and while it still gives her nightmares from time to time, and some men still scare her with just their appearance and demeanor, she no longer lets it dominate her life – no longer lets it stop her from living.

She’s able to trust again, and grab with both hands what life has to offer.

She’s got a wonderful partner who loves her with all nir heart, and she’s got amazing friends who will always have her back.

She didn’t let her attacker dictate how she spends the rest of her life.

She won.