Fiction: The Pride Conspiracy, Part Two

Banner image for The Pride Conspiracy. Banner features black handwritten type on a mottled green background with two green feathers and a black pencil. A translucent overlay of the dark green/light green/white/grey/black aromantic flag sits underneath the text. Text, feather and pencil images are boldly outlined in various shades of green and white.

December isn’t the best time of year for a trans aromantic like Rowan Ross, although—unlike his relatives—his co-workers probably won’t give him gift cards to women’s clothing shops. How does he explain to cis people that while golf balls don’t trigger his dysphoria, he wants to be seen as more than a masculine stereotype? Nonetheless, he thinks he has this teeth-gritted endurance thing figured out: cissexism means he needn’t fear his relatives asking him about dating, and he has the perfect idea for Melanie in the office gift exchange. He can survive gifts and kin, right? Isn’t playing along with expectation better than enduring unexpected consequences?

Rowan, however, isn’t the only aromantic in the office planning to surprise a co-worker. To survive the onslaught of ribbon and cellophane, Rowan’s going to have to get comfortable with embracing the unknown.

I’ll have a pride coat! And nobody will have the least idea what it means!

Contains: A trans allo-frayro trying to grit his teeth through the holidays, scheming aro co-workers, a whole lot of cross-stitch, another moment of aromantic discovery, and many, many mugs.

Content Advisory: A story that focuses on some of the ways Western gift-giving culture enables cissexism and a rigid gender binary, taking place in the context of commercialised, secular-but-with-very-Christian-underpinnings Christmas. Please expect many references to said holiday in an office where Damien hasn’t figured out how to run a gift exchange without subjecting everyone to Santa, along with characters who have work to do in recognising that not everybody celebrates Christmas.

There are no depictions or mentions of sexual attraction beyond the words “allosexual” and “bisexual” and a passing reference to allo-aro antagonism, but there are non-detailed references to Rowan’s previous experiences with and attitudes towards romance and romantic attraction as a frayromantic. Please also expect casual references to amatonormativity and other shapes of cissexism.

This section contains multiple depictions of platonic physical intimacy.

Links: PDF, EPUB and MOBI editions are available for download from Patreon.

Length: 4, 789 words (part two of two)

On the last working day of the year, Rowan staggers into the office holding a plate of homemade shortbread—the top layer of plastic wrap bearing the Sharpie-written words “NOT FOR HOUSEMATES BUY YOUR OWN FUCKING BISCUITS”, his mood sour. On the one hand, he’s free until January (although he’ll prefer that circumstance more should this be a paid break). On the other hand, Christmas and its family awfulness tag-team with the heat to curse him with mind-racing, restless 4 AM wakefulness.

He chose right. Didn’t he?

In six days, he’ll have survived the family dinner and his housemates will be with their people or travelling for the holiday. He can bag up his presents for their customary donating, buy something online and spend the day baking food he doesn’t have to share or hide.

Christmas will be an exercise in endurance, but it’s a known terrible. Better to suffer one day of hell and leave than to poke the hydra in each of its eyes and allow it, enraged, to hunt him across the earth. Right?

“Rowan!” Melanie greets him at the door, today wearing a silky blouse with a poinsettia print, a pendant shaped like a miniature tree bauble, and stocking-shaped earrings of the heavy, dangly kind. A Santa hat trimmed with silver sequins and a large golden bell sits atop her short hair. “Merry Christmas!”

“Uh … back at you?”

“You didn’t wear anything Christmassy!” Melanie flutters her hands at him: she painted her glossy crimson nails with white and green stripes like the fancier sort of candy cane. “Can’t you get anything in your size?”

“No…” Rowan glances at his usual outfit: dress shoes, jeans black enough to resemble slacks on forgot-to-do-laundry days, navy shirt.

Couldn’t he have worn his cherry-red Docs?

Her suggestion gives him a convenient out, but isn’t he trying to be honest about his feelings? “I didn’t look. Christmas … isn’t that exciting when you’re enduring family.” He barks a laugh, hoping Melanie understands. “At least being trans, nobody asks me if I’m dating anyone or when I’m going to bring someone home to meet the family, because they don’t want to think about trans people in a relationship.” He steps sideways, hoping to navigate around her, put his plate down and move the conversation towards something less fraught. “I made shortbread. Do you like shortbread?”

He stiffens, trying not to panic, when Melanie envelops him in a bear hug, smushing Rowan’s chest and one arm against her necklace. “You spend Christmas with your family?”

“Don’t most people who celebrate it?” He shuffles out of her embrace to slide his cling-filmed plate onto Shelby’s desk beside a plastic container of pizza scrolls. He slips the ingredients card from his jeans pocket, straightens the creases and rests it by the plate. “Uh … is cling-film better or worse for the environment than biscuits in a freezer bag? I had a set of clip-seal containers, but my housemates left me two condiment-sized ones in the cupboard. I could use a bit of plastic or defrost frozen stir fry, except I didn’t know what I’d put that in if I used the stir fry container for the shortbread…”

Rowan realises he’s rambling and presses his lips together before he rants on how his containers must be growing five types of mould in the bottom of Matt’s backpack.

“Happy Holidays, everyone!” Shelby, both arms burdened by plastic cake containers, enters wearing a red T-shirt with the legend “All I Want for Christmas Is a Unicorn”, a glittery ribbon tied around the end of her braid. Only twice before has he seen her without a blazer. “Mel! Your earrings! Millers?”

Rowan swallows a laugh and, freed from awkwardness, heads for the relative comfort of his desk.

A party day, he soon realises, possesses a distressing lack of work. He acquires plates and spoons from the kitchenette, he works on a few photos from last week, he sorts his emails. He notices Melanie pulling Damien aside to talk about something that requires the waving of candy-cane fingernails, but, before he can start to wonder, the volunteer ropes him into a conversation about a loving family with unusual pavlova-eating habits. Shelby saves him from that oddity only to tell the story of her family’s chipping in to get her granddaughter a four-hundred-dollar dollhouse. “My parents wouldn’t have spent that much on a toy! How can anyone charge four hundred dollars for plastic?”

That seems like a good time to head over to the food table.

Shelby does make a good chocolate cake.

“Rowan.” Damien heads towards him, his approach signalled by a trailing, bell-ringing Melanie. “A minute?”

Nothing good has ever been heralded by this question. Nothing.

Rowan nods and follows them over to the whiteboard, standing in front of the List.

“Do you,” Damien says, at least doing the decent thing of asking straight out, “need somewhere to go for Christmas?”

Oh, god. What provoked this horror? Melanie?

Why…?

“We’d non-romantically love to have you.” Melanie’s smile beams as bright as her nails—her lips a close match for their glossy crimson basecoat. “Me and my daughter and her partner, I mean—not me and Damien together. It won’t be anything fancy, but you’re welcome to come.”

“My wife said my telling her about being recipro makes so much sense, and she’d like to ask questions of someone who actually knows things.” Damien nods, his holiday cheer demonstrated in the absence of a tie, rolled-up shirtsleeves and reflectively-shiny shoes. “And I make beer batter fritters.”

Never has Rowan heard Damien speak in aromantic-identity terms with that much casual fluidity, and he would smile but for two co-workers waiting, expectantly, for his answer.

How does he express appreciation for their kindness while explaining that he can’t not go home for Christmas?

A few moments pass before Rowan’s lips and tongue produce sounds that aren’t “I”, “uh” and “I … uh”. “Thanks? But … well, I’d be fine being alone on Christmas and I’m not doing that because … that’d be bad, so… And, you know, family? And I want to see my dog? So … thanks, but…”

“But you’re one of us,” Melanie says with unusual solemnity, resting a hand on Rowan’s shoulder. “Just like Damien’s now one of—wait, we need to get you a mug! Why didn’t we get Damien a mug?”

“Well, actually…” Rowan, thanking the Aro Gods for Melanie’s willingness to head down any conversational tangent, darts towards his desk and satchel, the latter housing a heavy tissue-wrapped box. Pinkish-red, of course. “Here. Have a mug.”

“Oh! You should have told me!” Melanie’s lips tremble as she and Damien follow him back across the room. “I would have gotten a mug with you!”

Rowan rests the box on his lap, startled. Why didn’t he think to tell Melanie that he bought Damien a mug? (How else does one welcome another into aromantic kinship?) Why didn’t he wait until Damien was busy and order a mug with Melanie, instead of buying one on his phone on the train home from work?

Rowan owns skill in list-making, cross-stitch, baking, fixing other people’s photos and designing his own leaflets. He’s quietly proud of the many arts in which he dabbles with varying degrees of success. He’s mastered, too, survival on the fringes of other people’s lives, survival in a world where few are worth trusting. That ability though, makes him a man too comfortable in isolation. It makes him, in ways that have nothing to do with allosexual frayromanticism beyond his living in an aromantic-antagonistic world, a man who doesn’t know how to welcome other people into the house behind his five-metre fence.

He keeps everyone at arm’s length, even when—perhaps especially when—he plies his crafts for their benefit.

Does everyone experience acute flashes of insight at inconvenient times, the irrevocable sense that their personhood is one bewildering state of immeasurably fucked up?

“I’m sorry. Really.” He passes the mug to Damien, looking at Melanie. “I’m used to doing things on my own. I should have thought, but I didn’t.”

“We do realise that,” Damien says, tearing both wrapping paper and the box lid in a sharp tug. “You got the green-stripe one—oh, wait, it’s got both?” His hands render the mug’s size almost laughable, but Rowan couldn’t find soup-sized variants from a store willing to custom print aromantic flags on crockery. “Mel, there’s both. The recipromantic-only one and the shared one. Thank you!”

Is Rowan imagining that hint of passive-aggression? “You realise…?”

“That you’re independent, that’d you’d rather suffer alone than risk asking for help, even when it causes problems for you. That you’re only comfortable with people when you’re in a position of knowledge or authority. We learnt early on that you work best when we get out of your way.” Damien sets the mug on the desk with a soft clink. “I’m not completely useless in my job, so try harder to stop rolling your eyes over my photos.”

“They’re terrible,” Melanie says, squeezing Rowan’s forearm—apparently forgiven. “You know that, right?”

“The next person to say they can do better has to prove it—”

“My dog photos prove it!”

“At an event! Not in your backyard!”

For a reason likely tied up in internalised ableism, Rowan thought anxiety his designated, annoyance-causing personality failing. His tendency to overreact, freak out, let things get to him; his tendency to shaking hands and rambling incoherence. He didn’t consider that, in the company of people more inclined to decency and less inclined to avoid criticism on deadnaming and cissexism by casting him as the problem, they may find something else frustrating or difficult.

“Is this…” Rowan halts, thinking better of it, before he says the words “being fired just before Christmas”. Even he doubts Damien capable of inviting someone to join him for the holiday only to retaliate with a firing on Rowan’s refusal, although logic doesn’t still his hands. What’s the good of logic if my anxiety still ignores it? “What is this?”

Damien shrugs, tapping a finger against his new mug. “Yearly performance evaluation, maybe? Shame that I’ll have to write it down. I’d rather just call this sort—”

“What’d you say on mine?” Melanie blurts, clapping her hands.

Damien raises both eyebrows. “As if I’d answer that sober!” He shakes his head; Melanie trills her laughter. “We realise that there’s reasons, Rowan. It isn’t a real problem for us, but it may be one for you. If you find yourself in the company of a therapist at some point, consider mentioning it?”

Reining in Melanie wasn’t the reason Damien asked her to work with Rowan, he realises in yet another dizzying, revelatory moment, but that isn’t the cause of Rowan’s spluttering. “If? You think it’s only if? I’d have more aro shit on my desk if I weren’t paying a psychiatrist and a psychologist!” He sighs and nods. “January. I see them January.”

“I don’t like to assume.” Damien shrugs again; Rowan guesses it his attempt at conveying casualness. “Given that this isn’t quite the … er, situation for this conversation, I should—”

“I’m fine,” Rowan says, thinking Melanie’s heedless interrupting a contagious quality. “Really. It’s good. Like actually…” He doesn’t know how to voice this feeling that, for the first time in his life, someone has voiced a critique that doesn’t feel like he’s being disdained or unravelled. “Melanie … again, I’m sorry.” He thinks the time right for another distraction and grabs the second parcel from his bag—tissue paper tied with strands of aro-coloured embroidery floss. “Here. I’ve been working on this. I got your name.”

Melanie lunges for the parcel, struggling to untie the knot with her long fingernails until Shelby—was she close by?—hands over a pair of scissors. Blades click shut; Melanie pulls away the paper.

Twenty square embroidered patches in the purples and greens of many aro-ace and aromantic pride flags cascade from Melanie’s hands onto the worn carpet.

Melanie has always been given to laughter, but the way she bends over, resting her elbows on her knees as though she can’t hold herself up, has Rowan fearing that he’s given her a heart attack via pride patches.

“Aro-ace! Are these all of them?” She draws a shaking breath and carefully kneels, gathering patches. “I didn’t know there were this many!”

“Aro and aro-ace. The ones I know about, anyway. There’s probably a few I don’t.”

“Did you make all these?” Shelby asks. “You should sell them!”

Rowan considers explaining why he’ll never make even minimum wage selling hand-embroidered patches in aro pride flag colours, but Melanie’s pulling him into another grasping hug has him scarce able to breathe, never mind speak. He doesn’t know for how long Melanie smothers him, just that she, like an eventual retreating tide, steps back, leaving Rowan bewildered and giddy. Perhaps this is too much?

“You’re a liar, and this must have taken forever, and you shouldn’t have. I can’t believe you sew!” Melanie shakes her head, shuffling through the patches. “There’s the aro-ace flag with blue and orange, and a combined one, and one without black stripes—oh, thank you!”

Rowan shrugs, relieved that she seems happy. “Do you have something to put them on?”

“I have a coat. I’ll have a pride coat! And nobody will have the least idea what it means!” Melanie grins, shaking her head, before leaning over to tap Damien on the forearm. “Should the rest of us swap gifts now?”

Damien settles himself down on the closest chair. “Good idea. Do you want to—”

“We’re doing Secret Santa now!” Melanie stands on her tiptoes, waving the hand not clutching a handful of patches. “Find your person and give your gift, and then come here and show me what you got! Rowan made me aro-ace patches! All the aro-ace patches!”

“You know your evaluation says ‘needs to stop interrupt—’”

“Quickly, because Damien’s nattering on about performance evaluations!”

Damien sighs, shakes his head and leans back on his chair, looking up at the ceiling. “Lord give me—is that mould up there?”

“Probably,” Rowan says, hoping that he doesn’t look like a man expecting to open a set of golf balls. Did Shelby get him and lie about Melanie? Does that explain the voice recording? “Does the janitor have a step ladder? It’d be easier to tell if we got up close.”

“She does, because of the lighting.” Damien shakes his head. “Remind me first week back to get someone in to look at that. Or to write it on the whiteboard before we leave.” He reaches inside his left trouser pocket, removes a small card-sized parcel held between thumb and pointer finger, and flips it onto Rowan’s lap with surprising deftness. “I think this will be appropriate? While I didn’t know what you planned for Melanie, I saw you working on the train one evening. You had earbuds in and were too busy looking at your hands to notice, but I guessed then you’d made your bag’s patches.”

“It’s hard to cross-stitch on a moving train,” Rowan says by way of apology, a shade confused: what gift needs this explanation? “Hard to cross-stitch well. Not so hard if you don’t care about neatness.” He peels back the tape—Damien wrapped the card the way he presses his suits, the edges inhumanly crisp—and finds a gift card for his local sewing store. Rowan stares, drops the card on his lap and slides his hands under his legs, doubtful he can say anything comprehensible past this isn’t a gift pack of golf balls.

“That’s what you got him? A gift card?” Melanie shakes her head and pokes Damien in the shoulder with startling vehemence; only Damien’s size and his feet, firmly planted on the ground, keep him from falling. “Did you put any thought into that? I don’t like to be that oldie—” She stops, scowling: Rowan can’t hold back his spluttering laughter. “As I was saying, gift cards are the laziest way to—Rowan’s laughing at me, isn’t he?”

Damien tucks his hands behind his head and leans further back in his chair, grinning up at the popcorn ceiling.

Moments—in which Shelby gives Damien a six pack of fancy-looking artisanal beer—pass before Rowan’s ribcage resumes its regular pattern of movement. Finally, he manages to rasp an explanation: “Buying a gift card for a department store? Impersonal, but okay if they shop there. Buying a gift card for a trans man at a clothing shop where every tag has woman on the label? Hateful, unless you know he wants it. Buying a gift card related to someone’s interests so they can pick what they want? Good. And I need fabric, so … thank you.”

“Did someone get you a Millers gift card?” Melanie asks, her hands raised to cover her mouth. “That’s horrible!”

“That’s Aunt Laura,” Rowan mutters. Melanie’s expression of horror, Damien’s surprising evaluation and the wonder of a good, useful present leaves him inclined to truth: “That’s the most considerate gift I’ll get. One with thought that isn’t ‘outright cissexism’ or ‘you’re a man so we’ll ignore your personality to give you the most generically-male of generically-male items’.” He places the gift card and paper on his desk before nodding at Damien, who continues his overgrown Cheshire Cat impression. “Really, thank you.”

Even though Rowan isn’t standing atop his desk to blather about names, the room falls into an uncomfortable quiet.

Shouldn’t someone rustle some wrapping paper? Bite into a biscuit? Thank somebody for their gift? Why aren’t they making noise?

Melanie breaks into a broad smile, threading her fingers together like a self-congratulatory cartoon villain. “Oh, I don’t know about that.”

Rowan’s body, ever alert to strangeness in the people around him, stiffens long before his brain concurs that this change in conversational direction is at minimum odd and veering towards confronting with a high likelihood of I’m so not going to like it.

Damien jerks upright, chair creaking. “Didn’t we talk about how to do this—”

“His aunt gave him a Millers gift card!” Melanie grabs Shelby by the arm and drags her towards the meeting room like an illegal firework gone out of control.

Damien isn’t much an arbiter of this office’s brand of chaos, but he’s the closest thing to a pillar of stability inside this mouse-scented bewilderment and therefore the person at which Rowan directs his questioning: “What…?”

“You know how Melanie gets all enthusiastic?” Damien runs both hands through his already-mussed hair. “She comes up with plans and you can’t so much stop her as guide her in the safest direction and hope you’re alive come the landing?”

Does Damien know that is the worst answer anyone can give to a man with more than one anxiety disorder? At least short of pronouncements like “we volunteered you to give year 12 biology students a seminar on recessive genes and you’re starting right now”? Wasn’t that something to do with the monk who grew beans? Hendel? Mendel? Or did he just grow beans at a monastery for some reason? Or was it peas?

What…?” Rowan croaks, staring at the dark meeting room like a man waiting to face a starving tyrannosaurus.

“She thought we should demonstrate our acceptance of you, after our failures in this. And then she realised Christmas isn’t a great time of year for you, which made her even more … uh, enthusiastic. I made her promise she’d do this after everyone else left, but…”

Melanie staggers out of the meeting room with a large basket held in both hands, a basket covered with glinting cellophane and decorated with a mix of blue and green ribbons.

Shelby trails after her, clasping another pair of scissors.

Rowan will never understand, never mind be able to explain, the thought processes leading to his diving off his chair for the sanctuary underneath his desk—just that one moment he’s sitting on his chair and the next he’s crouching beside computer cables and a lid from someone’s Pikachu lunch box. Some primeval sense of cave as safety, perhaps … but didn’t prehistoric humanity fear cave bears and cave lions? Aren’t large, bright spaces, with visibility and room to run, safer than small, dark places concealing unknowable predators? What about drought, then? Or deserts? Are there any safe places, really…?

Melanie holds no respect for the ancient tenets of let the hiding man hide undisturbed until he’s ready to stop hiding, but she does rest the basket on the ground at the entrance of Rowan’s desk-cave, blocking legs and chairs from sight. “Merry Christmas,” she warbles from behind the mountain of cellophane and wicker. “We hope there’s something there that you like!”

“Happy Holidays!” Shelby echoes, followed by a few more rounds from the rest of the office. “Do you want scissors? Melanie wraps things like she’s paid to use sticky tape by the metre.”

“We only have cheap tape in the office! It won’t stick unless you use heaps!” A thunking sound echoes from above Rowan’s head, and then Melanie’s candy-striped hand reaches around the leg of his desk, offering Shelby’s scissors. “Here. You’ll … probably need them.”

There’s something to be said for this workplace’s willingness to treat escapades atop and beneath office furniture as normal, Rowan thinks. Breathe. “Than—uh—thanks.” He takes the scissors, staring at the back of shining cellophane; a miscellany of shapes wrapped in green paper sit within like an aromantic dragon’s treasure hoard.

“Damien, can you make them give us better tape next year?”

“We can have good tape if we stop spending the stationery money on good coffee and your fancy teas?”

“The tape’s fine,” Melanie announces before changing the subject: “Rowan? Are you opening anything? You have to tell us what you’re opening if you’re going to do it down there. Oh, do be careful—I think Liam used to shove his chewing gum under the table.”

Rowan shudders, but better his hair brushing old chewing gum over seeing his gift-opening become the focus of everyone’s attention! He draws a steadying breath, tells himself delay won’t help and slits the cellophane until he can draw out a wrapped box, one suspiciously weighty. At least fifty pieces of tape fasten the flaps on each end; Rowan promises himself that he’ll wrap everything in string and tea towels from now on before ripping into the paper. A mug with five horizontal bands wrapped around its body, the trans flag fading into the aro flag—blue into green, pink into green, white unchanged, pink into grey, blue into black.

Shelby, he thinks in disbelief, the non-existent golf balls making their appearance inside his throat. He rests the mug in his lap before reaching through the cellophane with shaking, sweating hands for another box. Another box with the same dimensions and weight…

“Oh, god,” he whispers.

His co-workers got him a basket of pride mugs for Christmas.

Melanie breaks into ringing laughter.

He needs a moment to find his voice, a moment in which he unwraps a mug with a gradient allo-aro design and another with the aromantic flag on one side and the bisexual flag on the other. “Did you  … did you … uh, get me any coffee to go with all my mugs?”

“It’s on the bottom!” Melanie trills. “And it isn’t just mugs!”

Mostly mugs,” Damien says.

After another couple of minutes, a gradient frayromantic and a frayromantic-and-allo-aro mug join the collection precariously balanced on Rowan’s thighs. He sighs in relief when the next item in the basket feels soft, flat and light, something rustling underneath the wrapping paper, but a second lot of golf balls settle in his throat when he spots the pink and blue stripes, the drape of fabric: a trans pride flag.

He can’t swallow, can’t lessen the burn in his eyes or ease the stiffness in his jaw and neck; his fingers fight to tear, peel and grasp. Bewildered to the point of dizziness, he finds an aromantic flag with its glorious green stripes, a frayromantic-and-bisexual mug and the expensive coffee Rowan permits himself on special occasions.

He scoops wrapping paper and boxes back into the basket before hugging his clinking pile of mugs and flags.

Inchoate feeling abounds: a tangle, a knot of emotion with trailing threads of pleasure and overwhelm, surprise and gratitude, guilt and shame … and something like the shock of being slapped across the face. They shouldn’t have done this! He shouldn’t be like this! Why is this too much? Why can’t he say “thank you” and express a normal, sensible gratitude for these people doing what Rowan’s family can’t … instead of struggling with the feeling that Rowan, ungrateful and demanding, doesn’t deserve anything from people who have provoked his annoyance, frustration and alienation?

Mugs. Mugs and flags.

Why does something this wondrous have to hurt so much?

After a few moments, the only sound from him the chink of shifting crockery, someone moves the basket. Melanie sits on the floor and wriggles herself backwards underneath the table, grunting, to sit beside him. For once, she doesn’t speak; she rests a hand around his shoulder and lets him be a shivering mass of man clasping mugs.

Finally, Rowan’s rasping, croaking voice manages a few words: “Is this why Shelby recorded me … talking about my identities?”

“I told you he thought it was suspicious!” Shelby crawls to Rowan’s other side, her braid trailing over the carpet. “Mel said you’d think it was just me being old—no, nobody does that!” She clasps his forearm, squeezing like a vice on wood. “Mel tried seeing if you’ve got a … all those accounts that aren’t Facebook, where you might say what you are? But she couldn’t find you, so I had my granddaughter show me how to record you. We knew we wouldn’t remember if you just said them.”

“I don’t know all the flags yet,” Melanie says in apologetic tones. “And I thought if I made the others check, they’d learn more about us!”

Part of Rowan feels a habitual spike of terror at the thought of offline people finding his social media accounts; part of him feels a quiet pride at Melanie’s using him to educate others in aromanticism. Most of him, fearing a blubbering breakdown, clings to the lifeline of asking questions: “And why Damien started that whole conversation?”

“We had to know where your mug seller was.” Damien bends down to peer underneath the desk and, at Melanie’s brow-arched stare, adds: “I’m not getting under there! You’ll have to call the SES to cut me out!”

Rowan nods and draws a breath. “I … I…”

“You’re very welcome.” Shelby squeezes his arm again. “Can I have your shortbread recipe? They’re good!”

“Yeah. Bag. Front pocket, left-hand side. People ask, so…” Rowan tries for another slow inhale. It’s supposed to help. Supposed.

His family expects gratitude said clearly and directly, even when undeserving; they’ll never take emotional speechlessness as its shorthand. They want the formula followed, interactions never deviating from the same narrow structure: gift given, thanks provided, everything right in their world where it’s the thought that counts justifies disrespect of another’s personhood. They avoid messiness and honesty; they fear navigating and acknowledging mistakes and missteps.

They won’t see him as a man, or understand the pain they cause in believing his masculinity something he can put aside for their comfort, because they fear a world with unpredictability and fluidity.

Mum and Dad will never conspire to give him a gift like this. They’ll never want to get to know Rowan well enough to try. They’ll never put his needs ahead of their comfort. They’ll never speak of challenges or difficulties with Damien’s kind casualness. They’ll never want to acknowledge their failures. They’ll never give him an awkward, chaotic Christmas that veers from their notions of how things are supposed to be.

Does he want to endure their narrowness, now that he knows what better looks like?

Does he want to endure their truth that Rowan Ross isn’t a real man to them—and won’t be a real person until he remembers his deadname and the stereotypical trappings of the gender presumed to accompany it?

Or does he want to expect and get something else?

Maybe he doesn’t want a world so predictable his erasure becomes acceptable collateral damage for sticking to the pattern.

Maybe, despite his anxiety, he wants a world where people can surprise him.

“Melanie? Damien?” Rowan, shaking, pokes his head out from underneath the desk. “Can I … can I still spend Christmas with one of you?”

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