Victoria was a pragmatic woman. She’d always been, if not always by choice. She’d learned at an early age who she was and had fought, for years, to be who she was. After some time, the fighting had become less necessary, and she’d learned to relax. These days, things were, in a practical sense, a lot easier. That wasn’t to say that Victoria didn’t ‘enjoy’ the luxuries of major discrimination. By virtue of her birth, she’d managed to double up on hateful attitudes from people, so both ‘easier’ and ‘relaxing’ came with a few caveats. Even though her transition had been incredibly kind to her and she didn’t get the looks she used to when she was younger, the colour of her skin still meant she had to struggle for recognition in some places, and invisibility in others.
So, Victoria was pragmatic. She had to be. Partly because the world was full of racists and other breeds of asshole who would try to harangue her about the colour of her skin or the letters on her birth certificate (which she was getting changed too, thank you very much), but also partly because Victoria had to be pragmatic. Her parents had been kind and supportive and she’d always played it smart, but life had a tendency to get in the way. In Victoria’s case, life had a tendency to get, well, weird.
Other than her exploration of what it meant to be Victoria, which she’d started doing when she was eight, all of her life, Victoria had found her path leading her on the way to strangeness. She’d tried different names, and V had come out on top at the age of nine, when she won her first junior martial arts tournament. Her parents had been so proud they cried. A boy her age with bright eyes and bright hair had told her that Victoria meant “to come out on top” and then he’d turned a corner and disappeared. She’d never told her parents, and never saw the boy again.
She’d been eleven when she’d started puberty blockers. It had been, despite a life filled with warmth and caring, the best day in it so far. She had been ecstatic. She had wanted to show her classmates, but they hadn’t understood, and she had slowly become an outcast at school. She had wanted friends, but neither the boys nor the girls considered her one of them. She had spent a lot of time in a corner of the playground, talking to the crows. They had taken a liking to her and would bring her shiny things. It helped a little bit.
She had tried to focus on her academic career and her fitness -- and had continued to excel at both -- but the isolation had been extremely difficult for her, since she'd never had many friends to begin with. Her peers had found her strange and a little unsettling, when they had even managed to use her name. They had also refused to play games of chance with her. Her most common die rolls were one and six. Her most common coin toss result was ‘edge’.
She had been thirteen when she was diagnosed with depression and started seeing a slew of therapists. Some had given up because she had a swift tongue and talked circles around their attempted methods. Some had been frustrated because they felt she didn't want help, which had been both true and not. She simply hadn’t understood how talking could’ve helped. One day, she’d met a therapist, a beautiful woman with a shattered spine and the warmest smile, who would be her therapist for the next fifteen years. She never found out that the woman had considered retiring just hours before Victoria’s parents had made the phone call. She and Victoria would mostly sit in her greenhouse and drink tea, sometimes in complete silence. Victoria had felt listened to and understood. It took her three years before she understood why.
She had been fifteen when she had tried to date an older boy from another school. He had been cute and rowdy and belligerent. It had lasted for three weeks and she’d broken his nose when he’d touched her leg. It was only then that she’d realised that she might not like boys, starting identity crisis 2.0: electric boogaloo.
At sixteen her therapist had explained to her not just that her own gender but sexuality, too, was on a spectrum, and that there was no wrong place to be on that spectrum so long as you didn't hurt yourself and were happy. She had done this while introducing her wife. Victoria had cried. Nobody had ever told her she was allowed to be a girl who liked girls and it was one of the most important things she'd ever heard.
At the age of seventeen, she had dated a girl she met on a field trip. It had been nice, but the girl had been uncomfortable with Victoria’s body and ended things. The girl had later found her favourite hat pecked to pieces by several angry crows. It had brought Victoria no pleasure, and she’d spiralled back into a depression. Her therapist had increased their number of appointments. Unbeknownst to V, the sessions had been offered to her parents free of charge. More tea in the greenhouse. A lot of crying.
She had been nineteen and on HRT. They had kicked her ass in the best way, feeling better about herself than she had in years. Her therapist had helped her navigate the medical landscape and an appointment for GRS had been made three years down the line. She still hadn’t made many friends, finding it difficult not to annoy people with what they referred to as incessant questions and general air of weirdness.
She had been nineteen and a half and a sophomore when she had first come into contact with something that was outright impossible. If her life up until that point hadn’t been peppered with mildly improbable things, she would have been a lot more disturbed than she had been.
She had been dating a girl, Dee, from applied engineering. Things had been going well. Dee had felt isolated at school and V had felt a kinship. They had been happy together, but Dee had been miserable on her own, and often worked late in the university lab on her thesis. When Victoria had come to surprise her one day. It had been late and dark, and V would never forget the smell of crisp evening air, the Chinese food in her hands, both mixing with the unmistakable pungent aroma of chemical fire.
When she’d gotten to the building, she’d seen Dee stumble out. She’d been on fire, no, glowing. Dee’s skin had appeared to be emitting light itself. She’d turned to V as the light dimmed until she was no longer glowing and had then dimmed some more. She’d stood out darkly from her environment as she’d seemed to absorb light. After a few seconds she hadn’t even appeared at all anymore. Light had appeared to bend around her, the only proof of her presence had been footprints in the snow, a distortion in the air, and two silhouetted eyes. “I'm sorry, Riri,” Dee had said before she vanished. Victoria had never heard from her again. That had been harder than the invisibility.
More therapy. She’d dove back into martial arts, top five in her weight class. She’d given up on gymnastics. She would still talk to the birds on the roof after training. Still no real friendships. She had found things normal others would find strange. She had found things funny others didn't. Others had considered things funny that simply seemed offensive to her. She had been a junior when she tried dating again. She and Lizzie had been together for five months when it had turned out Liz was a wanted fugitive. Victoria had found out because SWAT broke into her dorm looking for her. She’d never seen her after that night. She had tried not to think of it as a personal failing, but failed.
More therapy. More martial arts to help her focus. All things considered she had been pretty content. She had been a senior when she’d had surgery. It had been the second best day of her life followed by some truly miserable weeks, every one of which, pain and fear included, had been worth it. She had met other people like herself online, who she could share her experiences with, but she’d found digital connections difficult to maintain.
She’d been a few weeks from earning her bachelor's degree when she’d met a wonderful girl on campus she'd never seen before. They had tentatively started dating. Somewhat apprehensive, Victoria had taken things very slow, which turned out to have been reasonable when the girl came clean, confessing to have died on campus twenty years ago. She’d confessed to coming to Victoria because she looked exactly like her girlfriend at the time. While hypothetically okay with the concept of dating a dead person, Victoria had drawn the line at being someone’s rebound.
She’d sworn off dating for a while and had achieved her master's degree with flying colours, pushing to pursue a doctorate on a scholarship. Her parents had been proud, but curious why she’d never talked about her relationships.
She had been twenty-five when she had met Mercy. Mercy had been kind and sweet and smart. Mercy had made her feel powerful and beautiful. Her self-esteem had been through the roof. They had dated for two blissful years. When Mercy had lost her parents in a freak accident, she had left to go back home with her siblings, needing space. Space had become a rift. They had grown apart but had kept in touch. They would occasionally still call each other on bad days.
At twenty-eight, she now spent most of her time on her doctorate, spending most of her free time wandering through the city, holistically following her instincts. When she’d passed by the little bookshop, nestled between two larger buildings, it had felt important. Something about it had tickled her interest, and when she’d needed new books, she’d called the place to order new books. That had been a week ago.
“Are you still open?” she asked. “I tried calling last week?” The boy in front of her looked dazed, as could be expected from somebody working retail who had been asked thirty seconds before the listed closing time if the store was still open.
“Eh…” he said, and she wondered if he simply wasn’t aware of the order made. Still, if he was managing and closing the store on his own, he had to know how the system worked. She just wanted to know if the books had come in, so she smiled at him again. That didn’t seem to help much, and she was getting a little worried now. “I’m looking for some textbooks I ordered,” she said. “My name is Victoria.”
“Eh, hi. Hello,” the boy said, doubling his verbal output in a single sentence. “I’m, J-- uh, I’m Max.” Something seemed to click behind his eyes, though, as if someone had suddenly turned on a light. “Right! This way,” he said. Victoria couldn’t help but be happily surprised. She wasn’t sure if the store didn’t get a lot of orders and clients -- it was certainly remote enough -- or if there was another reason he immediately knew where her order was.
“Order of Johnston, right?” he said, opening a cupboard behind the front desk and retrieving a stack of books with practiced precision. He put them on the table in front of her with a weary smile. “Sorry for the delay. Fridays, you know?” She was a student. She knew.
“Do you always find your orders this fast, or should I be flattered?” Victoria asked with a playful little smile. She found that she put uncomfortable people at ease by being jovial and casual with them. Maybe it was her smile, or maybe it was the light air of familiar oddity. She’d stopped questioning it. He shook his head, the corner of his mouth curling up.
“Actually, it’s because I don’t see a lot of people ordering books on astrophysics.” He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “I had a little leaf through it. The math escapes me, but the rest of it is wonderful stuff.” Then he leveled his gaze with hers and, for the first time, she saw him smile with actual confidence. “I’m available for flattery later if you give me time to close up.” She couldn’t help but laugh as she retrieved her wallet.
“Consider me flattered, Max. It’s good to meet you.” They made eye contact and she saw two things. The first was that Max had a twinkle in his eye. The second was that the twinkle seemed to be in danger of being drowned out in a dark sea she’d seen in the mirror a thousand times. She smiled warmly. “Do you want to grab a coffee?”