INTERLUDE: Be strong to be useful
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"Adam! What's good, bro?" Dilruk called out to me.

I shook my head and walked past him to the staff lockers. I felt like a dick for brushing him off but I was pretty sure if I tried to talk I would just start crying again.

My gym stuff was still at home, but I didn't care. I threw my coat and jacket into the locker and slammed the door. I needed to work out. I needed the rush of dopamine to carry me away from how shitty I felt.

I grabbed two dumbbells off the rack and started doing curls. I focused on my breathing and my form, felt the weights straining against my arms, and let the rest of the world blur away. I was facing the mirror that took up one full wall of the gym, but I barely registered my own reflection: the pathetic, musclebound idiot doing bicep curls in a suit.

I reached the point where I should have finished my set but I just kept going. I wanted my muscles to burn. I wanted the pain to distract me. I wanted to forget about... her.

It didn't work.

* * * * *

The first time I really thought about dating Mel, I still thought she was a guy. It had been a couple months since I helped him start working out, and things between us were going awesome. His level of fitness had improved so much, and I was as excited about as he was. I loved the way his face lit up after a successful workout, and even though he still shrugged off any compliments I tried to give him, I could tell he was feeling more and more proud of himself. I loved that. I had never really been good at emotional stuff, so I felt like this was my way of paying him back for all of the emotional support he had given me. After that one time we cuddled on my bed, it had kinda become a habit. About once a week we would end up lying together on the couch, hugging and talking about our feelings. It was really nice. Kinda weird, but I didn't really care about that. I liked it.

Unfortunately, despite Mel's help, I still felt scared about trying to date again. I hadn't made a move on a girl in ages, even though the option was definitely there. My gym was very male-dominated, but somehow most of our female clients seemed to end up requesting me as their trainer. At first I had been proud of it. I thought I had built up a reputation as, like, some sort of expert. After the third time a client asked me out I realized what was going on.

It sucked. Honestly, it made me feel like shit. Okay, yeah, I knew I was hot, but I had also taken courses in nutrition, and physiotherapy, and I had even started learning sports massage. I cared about getting the best results for my clients. I had read about an old French physical instructor named Georges Hébert, who had worked under the philosophy "Be strong to be useful". What was the point of being strong if I couldn't use it to help people?

But as much as I tried, it seemed like the only person who appreciated my help was Mel. As the weeks went on I realized I was spending most of my time at the gym looking forward to going home and seeing him. While I was holding up boxing pads for some hot college senior to listlessly throw jabs at, I would be picturing the look of intense focus on Mel's face as he worked out in front of the TV at home.

"I guess I must have impressed you today," said my client, Diane, after we finished her session.

I blinked. Honestly, she hadn't impressed me at all. I had planned out a whole program using rubber bands and bar hangs to target the areas where I thought she needed the most improvement, but she had brushed it off as "too weird and complicated", which meant we had to default to boxercise, which she barely put any effort into anyway. After a while I had just zoned out and spent the whole time thinking about Mel. He would have tried my new program. And sure, maybe he would have fallen off the bar, but he would have made some sort of funny joke about it and tried again. I smiled. I hoped his review meeting was going well. It had to be. They'd be crazy to risk losing him.

"Hey!" said Diane, snapping her fingers, "Meathead! I said, I must have impressed you today, right? You had that goofy smile on your face the whole time."

"Oh, yeah," I said quickly, snapping out of my reverie. I had no idea what Diane was talking about, but I wasn't gonna miss the chance to encourage her, "Yeah, totally! I can tell you have so much potential, dude! We just need to figure out the workout that suits you the most."

"Mm," Diane smirked, "That sounds great. Why don't you come over to my place and show me some of your moves?"

I perked up. Diane was actually willing to put in extra effort outside of a session? Unheard of. And sick!

"Awesome!" I grinned, "I actually think we can figure it out right now! So, if you're not into the rubber bands--"

Diane laughed, "Oh my god, are you as dumb as you look? I'm asking you back to my place. For sex."

Oh. Right. All the enthusiasm and positivity that had built up during our session drained out of my body. My shoulders slumped.

"Sorry," I said, "That's super flattering but... I don't date clients."

"Who said anything about dating?" Diane smirked, "I just want to put that hot body to use."

I shrank back. Put that hot body to use. Damn. I was pretty that was not the kind of use Georges Hébert had been talking about. I knew Diane was just trying to be flirty. Maybe she even thought it was a compliment. But... man.

"Sorry Diane," I muttered, "I don't think... did you still want to try and figure out next week's..."

"Yeah, no," said Diane, "I'll see you around."

She sauntered off to the locker rooms. I sighed. Maybe I should have just said yes. Diane was really hot. She was skinny and tan and had a great ass, and two years ago I probably would have just gone home with her. But now thinking about it just made me feel nervous and sad.

Luckily, Diane was my last client for the day. I felt better as I left the gym. Tonight was gonna be great. Once Mel got back from his review meeting, which he was for sure gonna ace, we were gonna hit up Leon's bar together. It was gonna be sick. All of his hard work, dieting and working out and even having to wear women's clothes, was gonna pay off. I was gonna make sure he hooked up with someone. I knew he didn't have much experience with girls, but he was so funny and nice and cute! All he needed was the chance to talk to someone. That was where I came in. Be hot to be useful.

I got home, changed, and started having a couple drinks in the kitchen. I was still a little nervous, but I knew that worst case scenario, Mel and I would end up back home by ourselves. And then maybe we would cuddle and talk about how the night went. That almost sounded better than hooking up.

I blushed and took another swig of vodka. Okay, man. Chill. These kinds of thoughts had been popping up more and more recently, and they weren't helpful. I liked Mel, a lot, and I had to admit he did look pretty good in women's clothes. But he was a guy. A straight guy. More importantly, so was I. And even more importantly, I didn't want to screw up the relationship we had. If I said something dumb like that and freaked him out, that meant no more late night no judgment emotional cuddle sessions. Where else was I gonna find someone who would do that? I was pretty sure Dilruk or Leon wouldn't be into it. So whenever I started thinking about how it might be kinda nice to kiss Mel again, I pushed that thought down. And when I had accidentally seen him naked that morning, I tried really hard not to stare. I didn't need to start fantasizing about the way he blushed, and his amazing ass, and his soft, smooth, curvy body...

The door slammed.

"Fuck me!" I heard Mel groan, and then a thump as he collapsed on the sofa. I hurried over to see what was up.

Mel told me the whole story, about clothes shopping, and the bra that didn't fit, and bombing the employee review meeting. I felt really bad, especially because I didn't really know how to help. I was sure the review didn't go as bad as he said. He was such a great guy, he just wouldn't let himself see it for some reason. I tried to tell him how he was so smart and charming and hard-working....

"...and your ass is amazing," I blurted out.

Mel snickered, "You like my ass?"

"Oh, uh," I stuttered. Oh shit! Why did I say that? I was just thrown off, by the way Mel looked in a bra, the way it felt to have him straddling my waist, pressed up against me. Push it down, man, "Sorry, that, that came out super weird. I meant, uh, meant like, one guy to another, like, the squats are paying off, and it's strong. It's, it's a strong ass."

"Oh my god," Mel giggled, "You are such a dork."

It stung for a moment, before I realized he was just teasing. He was smiling cheekily. Was he... flirting? My heart quickened. No way. I was just seeing what I wanted to see. But I liked it a lot more from Mel than I had from Diane.

I grinned, "It's a strong ass!"

"Well, thank you," Mel smiled, "I work hard on my ass. I just wish my chest was progressing as much. That stupid bra had, like, no support. My chest and back really ache right now."

My eyes lit up. I could help! I was still a beginner but I couldn't be worse at massage than I was at talking. If I was just using my hands, there was no way I could screw things up!

At least that's what I thought. For a while the massage went really well. I could feel Mel relaxing. It felt good. I felt useful. I was providing physical comfort, as payback for all the emotional comfort he had given me. I tried not to listen to his soft moans and sighs as I caressed his back. Fuck, he sounded so... cute. So feminine. I pushed the thoughts down again. I wasn't into Mel. He was a guy. He was my friend. This was a total breach of professional masseuse etiquette.

Things only got worse when Mel rolled over. I was kinda scared he would be weird about seeing me topless and oiled up, but he just made a joke and made everything better, like he always did. I tried to push down what I was feeling while I massaged his chest. He was still making those cute little moans, but now I could see his face as he gasped with pleasure, and it... it was hot. Fuck. It was hot! I wanted to kiss him. He must have felt the tension because he started making jokes, making me laugh, but that just made him hotter.

I tried to pull away and he grabbed my wrists.

"Don't stop!" he gasped. Fuck! Was he... was he feeling it too? This was so far beyond a normal massage. I should just ask him. But what if he freaked out? What if he laughed at me?

I tried to play it cool, "Okay, relax! I was just gonna get some more oil, bro! You're such a demanding little princess."

"BEAUTIFUL princess," he pouted, and he looked so fucking cute I couldn't resist.

"Beautiful princess," I said, and kissed him.

The moment our lips parted my heart stopped. What was I doing? What if I ruined everything? He had never actually given any indication he was into me like that, not really. Yeah, we cuddled, and I had kissed him once, as a joke, and we called each other cute pet names, and I... and I really wanted him to be into me...

All of that went through my head in an instant, and then Mel moaned approvingly and squeezed my wrists tighter and I felt a huge wave of relief. Relief, and... something else. I started rubbing his nipples again. I wasn't even attempting to massage him at this point. I was just trying to turn him on.

He moaned, "Keep doing that?"

"Which part?" I asked, but he didn't respond. I kept kissing him, and he grabbed me around the shoulders and pulled me down onto him. Our hot, oily bodies rubbed against one another. I gasped, and felt Mel reach out with his tongue. I did too, and I felt a pulse of excitement. Our first actual kiss!

And then the phone rang. Mel sprang up, leaving me breathless on the couch. Holy shit. I had a boner. I had tried to hook up with four different women in the past two years, and every time I wasn't able to get it up. But one kiss with Mel and I was rock hard. Was I... was I gay?

No. No way. I had never been attracted to guys before. Women were definitely my thing. Mel and I were just... I dunno. We were, like... friends that cuddled and did massages and kissed, but weren't gay. Was that a thing?

I sat up and watched Mel excitedly talking on the phone. He looked so adorably happy, smiling and laughing, flushed with pride. The review meeting went well! I knew it! I told him! I wanted to jump up and punch the air. I didn't even care about the gay thing any more. Mel looked at me and he was glowing. Fuck, he had such a beautiful smile.

Mel finished his phone call and pointed at me warningly, "Don't say you told me so!"

I smiled, and we talked, and cuddled, and made plans for tomorrow. Mel felt so soft and warm and relaxed as he leaned back against my chest. I wanted to kiss him again.

"Hey, bro," I asked, nervously, "Was everything about that massage, uh, were you comfortable with that?"

"It's okay, bro," said Mel, "I know. It's just jokes."

He got up on his tiptoes and kissed me softly. My heart leapt, and I held him tightly, feeling the heat of our bodies pressed up against each. Mel let go headed to bed. I watched him walk up the hallway, his shapely ass jiggling in his panties.

Damn. I was officially super attracted to Mel. I'd have to be crazy to try and deny it. But the weird thing was, the best part about tonight hadn't been making out with him. It had been sitting with him, comforting him when he was sad, helping him get through it, and then being there to see him smile on the other side. I wanted to keep doing that. It felt like a purpose.

And I also really wanted to make out with him again.

* * * * *

I grunted and threw down the dumbbells. Fuck! I was so fucking stupid. I had been projecting this whole time. Mel had said it, way back then, when I asked her if she was okay with the kissing. "Just jokes."

I put the dumbbells back in the rack and wiped a hand across my eyes. I was sweating enough that I could almost convince myself I had stopped crying. My biceps hurt. I hadn't warmed up or anything, and I knew my arms would be killing me tomorrow. Good. I deserved it.

The next time Mel had a bad day, I wouldn't be there to help her. I wouldn't be there to comfort her, or see her smile when everything worked out. I sobbed. I felt like a hole had been punched through my heart. Fine. Fuck my heart. It was time for cardio.

I got on a treadmill, cranked it up way too high, and started running.

* * * * *

Ashanti tilted her head, "So it's not a gift? It's just normal underwear? And she decided to send you instead of coming here herself? I mean, I'm not judging. Everyone's relationship is different. Sometimes that is worthy of judgment. There's this one guy I met who really needs to get a restraining order on his sister. Step-sister. That's not the point. I'm just saying, it's unusual. Why did she send you?"

"She's lost a bunch of weight recently, but now none of her clothes fit properly," I said, desperately trying to cover, "And... she's really self-conscious about her body. Which is stupid, because she's so hot. Like, really hot. But she just doesn't see herself the way I see her."

I wasn't sure how much of what I was saying was part of the cover story, and how much was actually true. Okay, that's a lie, it was pretty much dead on.

Ashanti nodded thoughtfully, looking at the list of measurements again.

"I'm really sorry if this is invasive at all," Ashanti said, "But does your girlfriend happen to be transgender?"

I blinked, "Uh. Maybe? What does that mean?"

"Well, I guess, basically," Ashanti paused for a second, "I guess the simplest way to explain it would be that she was born with a male body, but she identifies herself as a woman."

Whoa. Hang on. Was Mel transgender? He had never said anything about it, but he was kind of naturally effeminate, and he seemed way more confident and happy since he started wearing girl clothes.

"Wait," I said, "How would I know? If she identifies as a woman?"

Ashanti gave me a weird look, "I mean... she's your girl-friend, right?"

I blushed, "Oh, yeah. Totally. I guess she is. Transgender. I mean. She was born with a male body, for sure."

"Cool!" said Ashanti. She clapped her hands, "That's actually SO cool. Sorry, not to exoticize your girlfriend or anything, but this is actually a really exciting opportunity for me. Wow! Okay, correct me if I'm wrong, but she doesn't have any female clothes, does she?"

"Um," I stuttered, "I guess, um, she has, like, some gym clothes?"

"That's it?" Ashanti gasped, "Oh, no, we so have to get her some actual options. I know this might sound shallow, which I have been accused of, a lot, which is not really fair because this is literally my job, but I truly believe that the way you dress can really influence the way you view yourself. Don't you think? And especially since your girlfriend is putting so much effort into getting in shape, she really deserves to be able to see the benefits, right?"

Ashanti looked at me expectantly. I mean, I guess she had a point, right? I didn't know if Mel was actually transgender, but if he -- she? nah, had to go with he unless he told me otherwise -- was, then he deserved clothes that would make him feel good!

"Yeah!" I said, "You're right!"

"Yes!" she beamed, "Oh my god! This is gonna be so fun. Again, I absolutely don't want to objectify your girlfriend or anything, but this is, like, a really interesting challenge. I actually have done research on this, just in case any transgender people came in and needed help buying their first clothes. It would be so scary, right? So I wanted to be able to help. So! If your girlfriend is transitioning, and she's also losing weight, then I think we should find some clothes that will help emphasize her feminine features, and will also be flattering while her body shape is changing. Does that sound right? And obviously we need stuff that she's actually gonna like! Ugh! This is gonna be so fun!"

I grinned. Ashanti's excitement was totally infectious.

"Yeah, this is gonna be sick," I said, "I mean, I don't know shit about clothes, but I'm really excited to learn."

Ashanti started showing me around the women's section, discussing all the different styles and the options she thought might suit Mel the best. It was actually pretty fun. She was obviously really good at her job and super invested in getting the right outcome for her customers. She put together a wardrobe the same way I put together a workout regimen. And she was really positive, and excited, and wasn't trying to hit on me. I got swept up in her energy really quickly.

"How about lingerie?" she asked, "I know I said we were just getting practical stuff, but I actually think this is really important. I mean, everyone wants to look sexy, don't they? And it's such a huge self-esteem boost. What do you think about this?"

She gestured to a mannequin. It was dressed in a full set of lingerie, black, lacy, clearly designed to be torn off immediately.

Ashanti pointed out the key features, "Push up bra, actually offers a lot of support. High-waisted panties, they almost have like a girdle situation going on, so they'll really smooth out her curves and make her ass look incredible. Thigh-high stockings, cause you said she has amazing legs. And then the gloves and the choker are just, like, sexy. Perfect, right?"

I stared at the mannequin and took a deep breath. Oh my god. I imagined Mel dressed up like that, cleavage pushed up, bending over to adjust a stocking, blushing shyly, then getting more confident, sauntering over to my bed, showing off her perfect ass, looking over her shoulder, beckoning to me to come join her...

To come join him, I corrected myself. Come on, dude! I didn't even know that this is what Mel wanted. And even if he did, that didn't mean he wanted it with me. Just because we made out once didn't mean he was into me.

"I don't know if she would be willing to wear that," I said, blushing.

"But if she did," Ashanti teased, "Super hot, right?"

My imaginary Mel ran a gloved finger down my chest, seductively licking her lips.

"I mean, I'll buy it, I said quickly, "Just in case. But she's already super hot."

"Oh my god," Ashanti giggled, "You're literally the best boyfriend ever, you know that, right?"

I blushed, "I guess that's what I want to be."

* * * * *

I stumbled and nearly fell off the treadmill. Fuck! Dress shoes weren't designed for running. I turned off the machine and stepped away. My heart was pounding now, but it still wasn't enough to distract me from how I felt.

Mel finally built up the confidence to tell me she was a girl. That was amazing. That was so, so awesome. I had never had to do something that terrifying. And instead of being there for her, I fucking ruined it. I ruined it by giving into my own feelings. I wanted to be with her so much I had ignored all the signs that she didn't feel the same way.

I felt sick to my stomach. Okay then. I dropped to the floor and started doing crunches.

Of course she didn't feel the same way. She had so much going on in her own life, figuring out her identity, getting in shape, making new friends, getting promoted. What did I have to offer her? I was stuck in stasis. My whole life revolved around the gym. I was just a tool that she used to help improve herself, and she paid me back by putting up with my neediness and pathetic insecurity.

How the fuck did I ever convince myself that she would want to go out with me?

* * * * *

It was Saturday night. I had just had an incredibly shitty day. First I let that sales lady talk me into buying a bunch of clothes Mel didn't want. Then our trip to the gym, which should have been awesome, ended up being.... awful. I was so sure Mel was ready to try lifting weights, he had made so much progress! He had the strength, he just needed to believe he was capable of it. But once again I had totally failed to help him see that. I ended up totally freaking him out, and even though he said he was ready to try again, I could tell he was really embarrassed. Then Kevin passed out trying to beat his PB, and by the time we woke him up, Mel had ditched me for some smug asshole with perfect hair.

When I got home I had tried to play one of his video games. It was stupid, but I thought maybe if I got good at it, we could hang out together more, and he would see that I was more than just some dumbass gym bro. But I couldn't do it. The more I tried, the dumber I felt. Then Mel got home, and we almost got in a fight, and I stormed off to bed feeling completely worthless.

Like an idiot, I had let myself start fantasizing about me and Mel being together. But it was pretty obvious that was never gonna happen.

And then...

I was sitting in bed, trying to wrap my head around what had just happened. Mel had come back to my room, wearing a nightie, looking... fucking incredible. And then he had given me the sexiest, most fulfilling, wonderful, amazing, heartwarming, tender sexual experience of my life. For a while I had been worried about my attraction to Mel. I didn't know if it meant I was gay, or bi, or maybe it was different if it turned out he really was transgender? I didn't care anymore. I didn't need to know. I didn't need a label, because now the only person I wanted to be with was Mel.

I was pretty sure I was in love with him.

Okay, that's a lie. I knew I was in love with him.

Mel came back into the bedroom. His wet hair was wrapped in a towel, and he was wearing one of his old video game t-shirts. Now that he wasn't all dressed up, and I wasn't feeling horny, he somehow looked even more beautiful. My vision wasn't being warped by lust. I just saw the guy I loved.

He climbed into bed and his shirt rode up a little, giving me a glimpse of his panties. My dick twitched. Okay. Maybe there was still a little lust going on.

I wanted to kiss him again, and cuddle with him, and whisper 'I love you's into his ear until we both fell asleep. But I couldn't do it. What if he freaked out? I couldn't risk it. Couldn't risk losing him.

"Hey, bro," I said softly, "I really hope this doesn't ruin our friendship, or..."

"No way," said Mel, "I was just helping you out."

Okay. That was okay! We talked some more as we snuggled in together, and it really seemed like Mel was fine with everything. But that was it. I tried to control my breathing. Okay. Maybe he wasn't in love with me like I was in love with him. That was okay. Maybe he would get there, if I tried to play it cool, and didn't push him too fast, and didn't say anything stupid and ruin things.

"Hey Adam," Mel murmured, "Do you want to go out for dinner next Friday?"

My heart quickened. Was he... was he asking me out?

"Wait," I said, "Are you being serious?"

"Yeah, just like a casual thing," he said, "And, y'know, if we happened to see anyone we know they could tag along or whatever."

Okay. Just a casual thing. That was okay. But maybe... maybe he was just playing it cool? Maybe this was the first date before the first date. Maybe when we were getting dinner, it would be really romantic, and we would, like, kiss each other out in public, where everyone could see, and then he would ask me to be his boyfriend.

And then I would be his boyfriend. We would be boyfriends. I would be Mel's boyfriend, and we could go to the gym together, and we could cuddle every night, and I could introduce him to my parents, and we could kiss all the time, and when we met people he would be like, hi, I'm Mel, and this is Adam, he's my boyfriend.

I hugged Mel tight, hoping he couldn't hear my heart racing.

"That'd be sick, dude," I said, "I'm definitely down."

"Good," he yawned. Oh my god. How was he so cute? "Good night, sweet prince."

"Good night, beautiful princess," I said.

* * * * *

I clenched my eyes shut, squeezing my head between my fists as I kept pounding out crunches. Fuck! It wasn't a date! Of course it wasn't a date! Why the fuck would it be a date! Idiot! Stupid fucking idiot!

I rolled over and got to my feet. This late at night, the gym was practically deserted. The only people I passed were Kevin, who was preparing to start deadlifts, and Dilruk, who was trying to stop him.

"Adam!" Dilruk said as I passed, "You good, man?"

"Thought you had that date tonight, dude," said Kevin, "What happened?"

I didn't respond. I just walked over to a punching bag and started hitting it. Each strike was like a hammer blow into my own heart.

* * * * *

I had never fantasized about anyone's dick before. Even when I fantasized about Mel, which I did all the time, her dick never really entered the picture. But now, seeing it in real life, it was the hottest thing I had ever seen. It was so... cute, just like the rest of her. It was so small and smooth and hard, and it was hers, and I was going to make her feel so good with it.

I had given up on thinking of Mel as a guy. It was just so against everything I saw when I looked at her. Seeing her in the dress was the final blow. She looked so happy, and confident, and even more perfect than she had as a guy. This was who she was meant to be, I could tell. I was pretty sure that tonight at dinner, she was going to come out. And I would be really supportive, and she would realize that I had been there for her all along, and then...

I wrapped my fingers gently around her dick. It felt so warm, and so sexy. Nobody else got to touch her like this. That thought thrilled me.

"Adam," she whined, "You don't have to do this."

"Hey," I said softly. I moved up so I could look in her eyes. She peeked nervously between her fingers. God, she was so adorable. Like a kitten. My little sex kitten. I definitely didn't say that shit out loud. Instead, I stroked her cheek and told her, "I want this."

She took a deep breath and I saw that flash of resolve in her eyes that was always there when she made her mind up to try something scary. Oh my god, I loved her. She moved her hands away from her face. I kissed her softly as I began rocking my hand up and down her dick, trying to be as gentle as possible. She moaned and shivered beneath me. She was so fucking sexy. This felt so right! I fought down the urge to tell her I loved her. Maybe I was thinking it so loud that she heard it anyway, cause she blushed, and giggled. I laughed too, almost feeling giddy with happiness. I started kissing her cheeks and her neck, stroking her faster and faster. Part of me wanted to go down on her, taste her in my mouth, but more than that I wanted to be there for her in case she got scared again.

"Adam," she whined, "I'm really close."

I smirked and copied her, "Yessssss."

She laughed breathlessly and kissed me. I kissed her back, slipping my tongue into her mouth, and she sucked on it greedily. I tried to move my hand faster, smoother, coaxing her to the edge. I decided, right then. Tonight, when we went on our date, no matter what happened, I was gonna ask her to be my girlfriend. Or boyfriend, if she wasn't ready for that. I didn't care. I just wanted to be her boyfriend. I wanted to feel this close, this intimately connected, every single day.

"Who am I, Mel?" I asked.

"You're my sweet prince," she gasped.

"Who are you, Mel?"

"I'm your beautiful... Ohhh!"

She moaned and shuddered. I felt her dick pulsing in my hand, and for some reason my first thought was to try and protect her dress. I had almost ruined her nightie when I blasted her the other night. I quickly moved my hand down and gently milked the last of her cum into my cupped palm. She sighed and relaxed back onto the sofa.

I sat back on my heels and just watched her for a couple minutes. Her dress was all askew, and her hair was all over the place, and she was sweaty as hell. She was the sexiest thing I'd ever seen. She opened her eyes and smiled at me, and my heart melted. She looked so happy and peaceful and content. Then she looked at my cupped hands and smirked.

"Don't waste the protein, bro," she said.

* * * * *

My face burned. I slammed the punching bag harder. Fuck! What had she been thinking when she saw me do that? Licking up her cum from my hands like a lovesick fucking puppy. It must have taken all of her restraint to not burst out laughing at how totally fucking pathetic I was.

The worst part is, I knew it was funny. I had mostly been joking. But it had also genuinely felt really hot. That was one of the things I liked the most about being with Mel, the way we could go from joking around, to being emotionally vulnerable, to raw physical passion, and it never felt weird or forced or anything. She was my best friend, and my dream girl, and the love of my life, all rolled into one.

I punched the bag harder and harder. All the muscles in my body were screaming at me now. The blood was pounding in my ears. Idiot! Fucking loser! Memories started flashing through my mind. The sleepy joy I felt waking up in the morning and seeing Mel next to me. The disappointment I felt when I realized we weren't gonna have our date. The fear and excitement I felt when I confessed to Ashanti at dinner, and she told me to go tell Mel the truth.

* * * * *

"I'm in love with you," I said.

Mel looked away, "I think we should stop seeing each other."

* * * * *

I yelled and smashed my fists into the bag. My knuckles were bleeding now. It was all over. She was gone. I pulled away from the bag and started punching myself in the face. It hurt, bad. I did it again. It was what I deserved.

"Yo! Adam! What the fuck!"

My arms were pulled away from my face, and I was dragged over to a bench. Dilruk and Kevin sat me down. They stared at me in shock. I started crying.

Dilruk looked at Kevin, "Fuck, bro."

"I don't think the date went well," said Kevin.

They sat down on either side of me. For a while we just sat there, until I finished crying. Then we sat there some more in silence. Neither of them said anything, or acted like they were getting sick of waiting. We just sat there together staring out across the empty gym.

After a while, I started talking. I told them the whole story. I didn't know how they were gonna take it, but I kind of didn't care. If it made them think less of me, I guess that was fair enough. I finished talking, and they let the story hang in the air for a while.

"Fuck, bro," Dilruk said at last.

"That's fucked," Kevin agreed.

"Yeah," I muttered.

Dilruk patted me on the shoulder, "It's not your fault, man."

"Yeah, man," said Kevin, "You did all you could."

I looked at them, "Man, were you listening? I fucking ruined things."

Kevin shrugged, "I dunno, bro. Sounds like she has her own shit going on."

"Legit," Dilruk nodded, "Self-hatred, man. Denial. Body dysmorphia. I mean, I don't wanna project or anything. But that's what it sounds like man. Shit's fucked."

I sighed. They were right. I knew Mel had a lot of her own issues to deal with. But if she had only been able to see herself the way I saw her...

"I should've helped her, man," I said, "What was the point of everything if I couldn't even help her?"

Kevin put his arm around my shoulders.

"You did good, bro," he said, "You know how you're meant to treat depression? Eat better, exercise, spend time with loved ones. You gave her all of that. Only other thing she can do is go to therapy. Maybe get some medication."

"I mean, if she's depressed," said Dilruk.

"I'm not saying she's depressed, man," said Kevin, "I'm just saying, she's got some deep-seated shit going on. And Adam gave her the support and the foundation to try and confront it herself. And it sounds like it helped. I mean, she realized she was trans, right? That's big, dude."

"I guess," I muttered, "I don't really know."

"Nah, dude, that's huge," said Dilruk, "My sister's a lesbian, so. I kinda get it."

"Not the same thing, man," said Kevin.

We sat in silence again. Dilruk put his arm around my shoulders too. I sighed. It was nice. But it was nothing like hugging Mel.

"Do you think she hates me?" I asked.

Dilruk chuckled a little, "Based on that story, I'm pretty sure she loves you, man."

"Yeah," said Kevin, "Kinda sounded like it. She just needs time to figure her own shit out."

"What if she doesn't?" I asked, "What if she needs my help?"

Kevin sighed, "I don't think you can help her right now, dude."

"Yeah," said Dilruk, "It's like recovering from an injury. You can't go right back to the same exercises."

He looked at Kevin pointedly.

"I'm easing into it, man," Kevin protested, "Anyway. It sounds like she has a good support structure. Those friends you were talking about, the gay dude and the girl who talks a lot? She's gonna stay with them, right?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Yeah," said Kevin, "They'll help her get through it. And then... who knows, man."

I looked at the floor.

"Hey," said Dilruk, "If you're looking for something to take your mind off it, this just came in."

He handed me a recruitment flyer for some new "Fitness Modelling" company. I stared at it blearily.

"I know you're not into modelling and shit," he said, "But it's kinda different. They run workshops and stuff, for corporate events. I've done a couple jobs with them. They're good, bro. Might keep you distracted."

I thought about it. Right now, anything that kept me away from home sounded good. It was going to feel so empty without Mel there. I had been approached about modelling gigs before, but I had always turned them down. I couldn't handle being objectified like that. But... fuck it. Why not? Being strong to be useful had failed when it came to helping the one person in my life who actually needed it. Might as well put my hot body to use.

"I'll try it," I said, "I don't have anything else going on."

"Dope, dude," Dilruk said solemnly, "Could be good for you."

"How about you, Kevin?" I asked, kinda just going through the motions.

"Nah, bro," said Kevin, "My day job keeps me pretty busy."

"What do you do?" I asked.

He shrugged, "I curate an art gallery."

I looked at Kevin. We never really hung out outside the gym, and we didn't usually talk about personal stuff. I guess this explained the one time he kept talking about Monet while he was spotting me on the bench. Kevin shrugged.

"Huh," I said.

"Hidden depths, man," said Dilruk, "I thought he was a fucking dumbass too. Turns out he's only a dipshit when it comes to his own body. First impressions aren't always right."

"I guess not," I said.

Dilruk and Kevin got up and went back to continue working out. I sat there for a while longer. Deep down, I knew they were right. But it still hurt, thinking about what I had lost. Was it worth it? If I could go back in time, before I had fallen in love with Mel, would I tell myself not to bother?

How far back would I have to go?

* * * * *

"Adam!" Mel moaned.

I put down the saucepan I was holding and poked my head into the kitchen. I had only known Mel for two weeks, but I already kinda liked him. He was thoughtful, and clever, and he always helped with the dishes even if they were all just from me doing meal prep, He also had a wicked sense of humor, even if most of his jokes were pretty harsh on himself.

"What's up?" I asked.

Mel pointed with an embarrassed smile on his face. He had dropped his X-Box remote under the sofa. I laughed. I could tell he felt kinda silly asking for my help, but, hey, that's what muscles were for. I lifted up the end of the couch so he could retrieve it. Georges Hébert would be proud.

"Thanks," Mel mumbled, and bent down to get it.

For a second, as he bent down, the light caught him in just the right way, and my breath stopped. He brushed his hair away from his face and bit his lip, then looked up at me.

I had never noticed how bright and blue his eyes were, or the way his hair caught the light like a river of gold, or that he actually had a great ass. Mel was staring. I had to pick something to say. Not about his ass!

"Hey Mel, don't take this the wrong way," I said. I saw him wince, "But you've got great hair."

"What?" he asked. I saw a tiny glimmer of a smile, a little flush of pink in his cheeks. Shit. Was he... was he kinda cute? I tried to push that thought out of my head.

"Yeah, bro." I said, trying to play it off, lean into the gym bro thing, "Do you use a special shampoo, or... I dunno, is it just natty?"

Mel blushed, and giggled. And at that point, it was too late.