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prince(ss) in the tower

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He’s just lying on his bed, scrolling through Twitter – probably has been for a few hours, but he can’t bring himself to check the time – when he sees it.

@abi10498: quarantine day idk: kinda questioning my gender

Ignoring the squirming in his stomach, he looks closer. Who...? Oh yeah – that girl from sixth form who Ben briefly had a thing for; might have been on the hockey team.

But it’s more than who tweeted it. He knows that.

It makes him pause, because it’s not about who said it, but how it resonates with him.

Like, he may be a rugby player, but he’s also twenty-one years old with internet access.

Years ago, before all the rugby stuff started getting serious, he spent the bus journeys to and from school on his phone, secretly clicking through forums called things like I think i’m trans -help!!! and how to pass pre-HRT.

He’d always kept the phone screen carefully angled away from his brother and shielded from the window so it wouldn’t reflect. He couldn’t risk it.

But then he and Ben were called up to England U18s, and signed contracts with Sale, and he knew it had to stop.

The little blue-white-pink flags on the edges of his schoolbooks, the late-night Googling, the tugging on his fringe to make it seem longer – there wasn’t space for any of that. He was a professional rugby player now, with half a foot in the door of the England senior men’s side. It had to stop.

Something in his stomach twinges. He winces. He’d said it had to stop, but had it really?

(His hair is shorter now than it has ever been, but he still idly runs his fingers over his cheekbones. Someone had complimented his delicate bone structure once and he hasn’t been able to get it out of his head.)

Biting down hard on his lip to suppress the swelling emotions – fear and regret, before he could push them away – he clicks on her profile, trying to distract himself.

A new tweet had been posted in the time he’d been thinking.

@abi10498: how am i supposed to experiment with my gender presentation during lockdown w/ my family lol this sux

It's like being in a car crash. He can see the thought barrelling towards him in inevitable slow motion, fully-formed.

He could do that.

It's only him and Ben in the house, and his twin spends half the time on the phone to his girlfriend anyway. It wouldn’t be hard to hide any evidence – and the lockdown is going to last for ages, he knows, so it's an opportunity to get his head on straight for once and actually be able to think without cordoning off a corner of his brain as out of bounds.

He closes his eyes. Is this what he wants?

There's a bird singing in the tree outside his window, rejoicing in the arrival of warmer days.

He breathes in. Yes.

He breathes out. Could he take the risk?

His breath stutters. It’s now or never. Is it though, really? He could just wait another few years, decades, retire and then reassess-

His eyes snap open.

He’s going to do this. Subtly (of course) but concretely.

With shaking hands, he types in the name of his teenaged self’s favourite advice blog.

The reassuring neon colours (so 2012) fill the screen.

He breathes out.

*

He manages to repress the itchy buzzing under his skin for a few more days – he’s got nothing but time, and he’s scared of it as much as he’s been longing for it for years.

Ben keeps pestering him to work out with him in the mornings, using the gym equipment they’d borrowed from the club when it became clear that it would be more than a nice month off after an intense Six Nations campaign.

But in the afternoons, Ben retreats to his room to call Annie and Tom is basically left with the run of the house and nothing to bloody do.

After a few weeks of Netflix and cuddling with the cats, he admits defeat and starts cleaning the house.

(It’s like Ben did it on purpose: he left it in enough of a state that, sooner or later, Tom would have to tidy it for him.)

He’s digging through the bathroom cabinets, pulling everything out and onto the floor so he can properly clean the shelves, when-

The mascara rolls to a stop against his socked foot. Tom can imagine it taunting him.

You said you were going to do it. Here’s your chance.

He picks it up, inspecting the label and ignoring the fierce roiling in his stomach. He can touch it. That’s allowed. Ben wouldn’t have an issue with that.

Waste not, want not.

One of Ben’s girlfriends must have left it behind, to be shoved into the back of the cupboard and ignored. It’s the perfect excuse, really.

Carefully closing the bathroom door behind him, he twists the wand out of the tube. The dark liquid glistens irresistibly, oil to a prospector.

He screws the lid back on and puts it down. He can’t – not now. He would have to be properly prepared. Tissues to clean it off with, a good set of excuses, making sure to do it at the beginning of Ben’s call…

Tom tucks the mascara into his pocket and continues to clean as if nothing had happened.

Tomorrow would be the day. Finally, he could put into practice all the videos and advice posts he’d consumed over the years. A few swipes of makeup, that’s all.

But if that was all, and he’d wanted this for nearly half his life – why are his hands shaking and his ears pricked, hyperaware of Ben’s movements around the house?

He isn’t wrong for feeling this way, he knows. But there’s a difference between having a feeling and acting on it, and now the line has presented itself, he’s reluctant to cross it.

He presses his hand against the tube and smiles. At least now he has the opportunity.

He’s antsy for the rest of the day, fidgeting through dinner and then tossing and turning when he goes to bed.

It feels like the night before Christmas, and the World Cup final, and A-level results day, all rolled into one.

Tom wakes up early the next morning, still jittery. He rolls over and checks the drawer: the mascara is there, nestled among all the other junk he’s thrown in there over the last year.

The morning workout flies past, and he barely bothers paying attention to Ben’s rambling during lunch. The sooner this would be over, the sooner he would call his girlfriend, and the sooner Tom could-

When he hears Ben’s door close, he counts to a hundred, grabs the mascara, and scuttles to the bathroom.

He locks the door behind him. It pays to be careful.

He washes his face first as a prologue to the main scene; extending the delicious suspense.

The afternoon light shines in through the window, catching the edge of the mirror and sending rainbows scattered around the room. Spring is tipping into summer.

He dries his hands carefully. Then, at last, he takes out the mascara wand.

He makes sure to coat it fully, twisting it a few more times like he’s read in so many articles.

He looks in the mirror. A young man, ugh, stares back at him, half a smile on his face as he brandishes a tube of makeup.

He raises his eyes to the ceiling and brings a trembling hand up.

This is it.

Slowly, he brushes the mascara onto his lashes. They feel immediately heavier, but that might be more the gravity of the moment than the makeup.

He adds a second coat. He’s taken the leap, but now he can’t bring himself to face the outcome.

He doesn’t know how he’ll cope if it looks – stupid, wrong.

Avoiding the mirror, he turns and stores the mascara at the back of the cupboard again. Plausible deniability.

He looks at his phone. He has about forty-five minutes before Ben would usually finish his call.

He looks out the window. It’s a lovely day. He doesn’t want to have it spoiled.

He looks at his hands. Calloused and tough, but with neatly filed nails. He’d like to think it’s an accurate representation of himself.

He squeezes his hands into fists, buries them in his pockets, and forces himself to look up, make eye contact with his reflection.

His eyes are somehow bigger and more – ha – eye-catching. He doesn’t look stupid, or wrong. He looks-

Right.

He’s blinking furiously, trying not to ruin the illusion with smudges.

It’s all he’d wanted and more.

The mascara draws attention away from the hard line of his jaw and the severe cut of his hair. He watches the young person opposite him smile softly, bringing their hand up to trace the curve of their cheek.

He reaches out until their fingertips touch. He’s happy for them, he really is.

As he washes the last of the illusion down the drain, he knows he isn’t that person yet.

Not yet, but he’s going to be.

*

More days slip past. The Premiership season is postponed again. It’s getting harder and harder for Tom to remember that he’s a rugby player, not just a teenager on a very localised gap year with time to experiment.

It’s another week before Ben announces at the dinner table that he’s ordering some hair clippers. “It’s just too long at the moment. Even Annie noticed,” he says, frowning at the offending locks.

Tom is enjoying the new fluffiness of his hair, not that he’s going to tell his twin that.

“We could shave each other’s hair – would make it easier,” Ben continues, taking another bite of pasta. Tom tries not to choke on his own food. He doesn’t have the words – or, more importantly, the excuses – to explain why the idea fills him with such horror.

(He suspects it has something to do with curves and soft and care and other such unspeakable things.)

“I fully support that, mate,” he finally gets out, “but you’re by yourself on that one. I like mine as it is.”

Ben narrows his eyes. “But then we won’t match,” he says petulantly. “We always look the same. It’s our thing.”

“Yeah, but – maybe this is the best time to try out a different look. Nobody’s going to see us like this anyway.” Tom has to look away from his brother’s frown. He hates arguing with him, if that’s what this is.

“Fine,” Ben mutters, standing up. “I’ll cut my hair like a normal person, and you can go around looking like – like bloody Rapunzel for all I care.” He drops his plate in the sink and leaves the room, making sure to slam the door against the wall as he goes.

Tom sits at the table for a while longer, picking through the rest of his food with little enthusiasm.

It hurts that Ben had dismissed the idea out of hand. He hasn’t realised before now how much their matching appearances matter to his twin.

If he were to have his own way, they would barely look alike, and where would that leave them?

And – Rapunzel? Really? Tom could think of a hundred better examples than that, but then he is the one who researches that sort of thing for himself, not just for a girlfriend.

He lets his fork fall onto the plate and runs his hands through his hair in frustration. It’s his hair and his life, and Ben shouldn’t get much of a say in it, he decides.

After washing the dishes, he grabs his phone and heads out into the garden. If he’s going to commit to this hair thing – and Ben probably won’t let him use his precious clippers now anyway – he might as well ask for advice from the best.

“Hey, Faf,” he says with a grin as the Springbok accepts his video call. “How’s it going?”

They chat for a while, Tom feeling the nerves bubbling up in his stomach at the mere thought of bringing up the hair question.

Eventually, the older man notices his stiffness. “What’s up, mate?” Faf asks softly. “Not to be rude, but I’m not usually someone you talk to, right?”

Tom squirms, hugging his knees to his chest. “It’s kind of stupid…”

“Go ahead.” Tom sneaks a look at the screen. Faf’s smiling, thank God.

“I just – with the lockdown and everything, I was thinking – I’d like to try growing my hair out a bit, and-”

Faf beams at him. “And you want advice from the hair master himself? Not a problem, Tommy. Now, have you got some paper nearby for making notes?”

Tom bites his lip, forcing down his quiet joy at being taken seriously. Faf doesn’t need to know just how much it means to him – not yet, anyway.

The scrumhalf walks him through the basics, rightly assuming that Tom would have very little idea of what to do.

“So that’s pretty much it,” he concluded. “Any questions?”

Tom held up his notepad. “I think I’ve got enough here to be going on with, thanks,” he laughs.

“Alright. Stay safe, mate, and say hi to Ben for me. See you soon, Curry.” Faf hangs up, leaving Tom feeling lighter than he has done in ages.

Maybe hair wouldn’t be as quick a transformation as the mascara (he still puts it on a few times a week, to remind himself of what could and will be), but it feels more concrete, less ephemeral.

He goes back inside the house, whistling. Every cloud, and all that.

*

Over the next few weeks, he works up the courage to order some more makeup online. There’s never going to be a good time for it, with Ben in the house all day, so he adds a few random things to his cart alongside the two lipsticks.

The rush that comes with pressing the ‘order’ button is like nothing he’s ever experienced before.

It’s a bit sad, really.

No. No, it isn’t.

It’s scary and exciting and he can feel this way, he knows. It’s allowed, and it’s important for him.

The three-to-five working days it takes for the package to arrive is another kind of all-encompassing tension. The house thoroughly cleaned by this point, he wanders around the garden and contemplates calling his mother to ask for plant advice.

But all thoughts of seasonal vegetables and loamy soil are forced from his head when a nondescript brown box is left on the doorstep one morning.

“It’s mine, don’t worry!” he yells through to Ben in the kitchen. He snatches it up and jogs up the stairs, tremors of excitement reverberating through his body.

He sets the box down on his bed and smiles at it for a moment. Then he finds some scissors and opens it to reveal the bounty inside.

He casts aside the batteries and the sports book and pulls out the two tubes.

Unlike the mascara, these are truly his.

(Theirs? Hers?)

He bought them, he wanted them, and now he has them.

They’re his: they aren’t some mistaken, forgotten things come upon by chance.

Tom clutches them to his chest with a sigh. Even having them in his hands settles him.

Just for the kick of delayed gratification, he stores them carefully at the bottom of his wardrobe next to the mascara and a pile of old receipts. He knows Ben would never notice them there.

Time dribbles past.

He goes out and weeds one of the long-neglected flowerbeds. His nails fill up with dirt, and he remembers – years ago, he must have been a kid – his mum telling him how it was easier to get the soil out from longer nails.

He scrubs them well before preparing lunch. He hates being messy, and if that means he has to let his nails get a bit longer, then that’s a sacrifice he’s very willing to make.

They eat lunch, Ben calls Annie, Tom locks himself in the bathroom. It’s a routine at this point.

He applies the mascara first, relishing the transformation. His hands are steady and his smile is bright.

Then it’s time for the next step.

He considers the choice before him. He’d opted for a safer nude pink as well as a vivid red.

For the moment, the pink. He likes the red – visualised how it would look growing up, when he really should have been envisioning successful tackles and support lines – but not for today.

He’s working his way up to that.

Double-checking the door, he uncaps the pink lipstick.

He presses it to the top of his upper lip, swipes out to each side. The process is repeated for the lower lip.

He doesn’t avoid the mirror, this time.

He smiles, revelling in the way the colour stretches across his face. It’s subtle, but unmissable.

He loves it.

Glancing at the time, he sees that there’s still another half an hour before Ben would usually stop talking to his girlfriend. It would be a shame to take the makeup off so soon…

Suddenly caught up in his own daring, he shoves the mascara and lipsticks into his pockets and unlocks the door.

He checks the landing outside, listens for any changes in the sound of the phone call emanating from his twin’s room.

Satisfied, he sneaks back into his own room and shuts the door, propping a chair against the handle just in case.

He sinks down on the bed and exhales. It feels good. He wants to be like this all the time: pretty but and normal.

Tom gets out his phone and takes a few selfies to commemorate the occasion.

(He deletes them again. Can’t be too careful.)

He sets an alarm for twenty minutes’ time so he’ll have time to remove the makeup before Ben has a chance to see it.

Then, he flicks through social media for a bit, relaxing.

Abi – the girl who started all this – has cut her hair short. He’s happy for her.

He zones out so much that, when he sees an incoming video call from Sam Underhill (orc shoulders 🧝), he doesn’t think twice before accepting the request.

“Hey, Sammy,” he says with a grin, sitting up on the bed and leaning back against the wall. “How’s it going?”

His friend seems momentarily distracted. “It’s alright, mate, yeah.” He recovers his smile. “I’m just happy Josie decided to move in with me before all this happened. It’s made it a lot easier.”

Tom raises his eyebrows. “I’m sure it has!”

Sam blushes. “Look, I’m not going to say I don’t appreciate that too… But her and the dog get me out of my head a lot, so it’s good.”

“I’m happy for you. I think Ben’s talking to Annie more than he is to me at the moment, so at least one of us is enjoying himself.”

The other man frowns. “That’s a shame. If you ever want to talk, though – I’m here.”

Tom groans, rolling his eyes. “When will you get it into your head – you’re two years older than me, not my dad!”

Sam laughs and the conversation flows easily between the two flankers.

Suddenly, a beeping noise breaks into their uncomplicated banter. “That’s at your end, isn’t it?” Sam asks, looking around him.

“Uh, yeah, hang on,” Tom says, rifling through his drawers and hitting his alarm clock a few times for good measure.

“Oh.”

It’s the alarm on his phone.

Which he’d set to remind him to take off the makeup before Ben saw it.

Which he’d just worn during a ten-minute

video call

with his England teammate

a rugby player

shit

“I’ve got to go,” he gasps, ending the call and collapsing to the floor, head in his hands.

This couldn’t be happening. He’d been so careful.

The one time he lets his guard down-

His phone buzzes where he dropped it on the bed.

Desperately needing something to ground him, Tom opens the message.

Sam: you okay?

Sam: call back if you need ❤️

He digs his fingers into his leg. A tear drips onto the phone screen, and, somewhere in the manic haze of his thoughts, it registers that he’s probably smudged the mascara.

If he didn’t before, he definitely looks like a freak now.

And Sam saw it. He saw it, and he didn’t say anything. What…?

Another message.

Sam: hope it’s all good

Sam: and I know I’m not your dad, but I love you no matter what

A flicker of hope in the darkness.

Tom: promise?

Sam: of course

It’s the speed of the reply that prompts Tom to call his friend back.

Tommy,” Sam says, voice impossibly soft and eyes crinkling at the corners.

Tom scrutinises the small image of himself on the screen, wipes away the worst of the smears.

“You’re not – angry?” he asks quietly. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if Sam isn’t okay with this.

“Never, mate. We’re friends.” He smiles. “Maybe I was a bit surprised at first, but that’s on me, not you.” Tom lets his shoulders relax. “And – whatever this means to you, if it’s a one-time thing or more serious – it’s absolutely fine. You look nice.”

The tears are back again, this time of relief. “I wish I could hug you right now,” Tom sniffles, wrapping his arms around himself.

He never should have doubted Sam.

“Me too,” the Bath player says sadly. “Love you, kid.”

Tom hears Ben’s bedroom door open and panic grips him again.

“Christ, I need to get this stuff off my face right now – talk soon?” He barely leaves time for Sam to reply before he’s murmuring, “Love you too, dad,” and hanging up.

He watches Sam’s face morph from concern into laughter as the call ends, then jumps to his feet.

No time for sentimentality – this is dangerous.

He presses his ear to the door (why did you leave the wipes in there, you idiot) and skulks across the corridor to the bathroom.

Tom locks the door behind him and stares in the mirror.

His makeup is a mess, of course, but there’s a bit more calm mixing with the fear and shame in his eyes than before.

Slowly, he removes the streaks of mascara and the remnants of lipstick.

It’s not like before, though.

The feeling of the makeup stays with him, an invisible coat of armour.

Maybe he will always have to play the fierce knight for rugby, but he can also be the gentle princess.

(He could be the dragon as well – it’s 2020, after all.)

And that’s just fine with Tom.