By Elizabeth Lux
“You decide which flag you want, princess?” Khali’s voice bounces in from the other room,
causing Madlen to tear their eyes away from the half dozen outfits laid out on the bed. They had
planned an outfit, and a backup outfit, for today, but it wasn’t working. Their brain felt fuzzy, like it
was full of angry bees, each one a different dysphoric thought. They’d reference their matching
chart again and again, hoping to find some combination of clothing that they would feel
comfortable in. They all just felt… wrong. They’d try something on, remembering the comfort they
normally feel, only for irritation to flood their system.
“Madlen?” Khali’s voice tears Madlen from their thoughts, planting them firmly back into
the real world.
“Yeah, sorry! I was hoping to do both flags? One on either side?”
“You’re a goober. Come to the bathroom when you’re ready.”
Madlen sighs, and puts down the shirt they were holding to their chest. It’s one Madlen
likes, a simple black tanktop with a cartoon rainbow pegasus on it. Khali always says it makes their
arms look good despite its ‘dorkiness’. Madlen always trusts her opinion, but it’s like that shirt had
been made for some different version of them; right now, it’s too restricting, too tight, too
scratchy. Carding their fingers through their hair, they pull out their phone and check the time. It’s
barely nine in the morning, so they still have two hours to get ready, get food, and take the train
into the city proper before it’s time to meet up with the rest of their friends.
If only they could decide on what to wear.
Madlen knows they could technically wear anything today. It was Pride, after all, though
that knowledge couldn’t calm the festering tension in their throat. They love that shirt, but today
the print is making them feel claustrophobic, the fabric is hooking into their skin like velcro,
restricting their movement.
“Ughh, why is gender stuff so exhausting?”
With a groan, Madlen tears themself away from the bed and wrestles their brain to move
onto the next task. At least Madlen could follow through with the rest of their plan and circle back
around to the paralyzing choice of outfit later.
In the bathroom, Madlen is greeted by the sight of Khali hunched over the sink, carefully
drawing on black eyeliner. She flashes Madlen a grin bracketed by incisors, the white of her teeth
stark against her ochre skin, and nods her head towards an open spot on the floor. Madlen follows
the order automatically, though the instant they sit down they can’t stop their busy hands from
looking through Khali’s large makeup box. A menagerie of colors, sizes, and textures blessedly
steal their attention from the gnawing anxiety at the back of their mind. It just feels so nice to let
their hands wander and toy with something kinetic. By the time Khali is crouching down between
their legs, Madlen is lost in thought comparing two subtly different maroon lipsticks.
“I don’t know why you have all this stuff,” Madlen says, rolling one of the tubes between
their fingers, hoping some arcane secrets about makeup will finally materialize for them. “There’s
no way you use all of it.”
“It’s not all for me, silly.” Khali’s violet eyes roll with the comment, Madlen pinned by their
beauty. “You have a preference for which flag goes on which side?” Madlen shakes their head a
little too forcefully, their auburn ponytail smacking themself in the face. Khali laughs and calls
them an idiot, her words bursting with love, as she digs through the small chest, coming away with
a colorful birchwood box.
Madlen loves the feeling of Khali doing their makeup. It isn’t something she does too often,
mostly since Madlen usually struggles to feel comfortable wearing any, but this is a special
occasion. They watch, eyes full of fascination, as Khali pulls the hair chalk out and starts to set
aside reds and oranges, before a strong hand pushes Madlen’s head to one side.
Madlen obliges, doing their best to sit still despite their body’s incessant demands to do
something. They can feel the growing tension in their wrists, the sudden compulsion to bite their
nails flashing like oil in a pan. Driving it back, they rub a thumb over their knuckles as the dull edge
of the chalk presses against the freshly buzzed hair on the right side of their head. They exhale,
close their eyes, and let the world fall away around them.
This is maybe the only thing that can get Madlen to fully relax. From helping them with
homework assignments to watching her be domestic, being under Khali’s watchful, protective
gaze makes their chest feel like a star going supernova. All of the hairs on the back of their neck
stand on end as they let the sensation of safety and comfort take control.
Madlen leans into that feeling, that frisson honing down the sharp edges of their mind, the
ones that catch on their thoughts, piercing the consciousness with thoughts of dysphoria and
It’s the perfect feeling; the knowledge that just existing is enough to make Khali happy.
Madlen is doing good, is being good, just by sitting here.
Madlen lives in this moment, trying to memorize the feeling of Khali’s hand wrapped
around the side of their neck, warm breath setting every single nerve aflame. They burrow further
into Khali’s touch, ready to make their home in the space between Khali’s heartbeat.
They let out a deep, shuddering breath and in the back of their mind Madlen processes
Khali’s giggle. The noise sends a warm pulse down their throat, wave after wave of affection and
love cascading through their system.
They’re safe here, in Khali’s hands. It’s a fact as immutable as the sun rising tomorrow.
A gentle kiss on their lips signals that their makeup is done. Madlen cracks their eyes open,
the sudden change from total darkness to soft lighting crowding their vision with spots and
sending them spinning. A concentrated effort, assisted by Khali’s grounding hand on their shoulder, is enough to land them back in reality. Khali’s radiant smile is brimming with pride so broad her face can barely contain it.
“Gods you’re adorable. Take a look in the mirror. You need to see how good of a job I did.”
Madlen does as they’re told, and turns around to inspect Khali’s artwork. The entire left
side of their head is covered in an array of oranges and reds and pinks, the lesbian pride flag
colored into their short hair. The right side has the same pattern, but instead it’s five rows of pink
and blue and white, for transgender pride. Madlen presses two fingers to their face, smaller details
coming into focus; Decorating the space on the outsides of their eyes, near their temples, are a few
drawn-on hearts. Mimicking Khali’s own burnt umber highlight, they have a small dusting of barely
there rose blush under their eyes and across the bridge of their nose. It makes their steel-blue
eyes look like stars plucked straight from the sky.
It’s not a lot of makeup, not compared to what Khali is wearing and what their other friends
will inevitably be caked in, but it’s so much more than they’re used to. And yet, despite it all,
despite the complex, warring feelings they’ve had about their outfit, they finally feel confident,
comfortable. They feel like Madlen.
“So what are you wearing?”
Khali’s voice lances through their thoughts, and Madlen feels a familiar, acidic panic
disintegrating their shield.
“I’m… I’m not sure. I planned to wear that nice dress but- but I don’t know, it doesn’t feel
right.” The words are sludge in their mouth; viscous and impossible to completely force out.
Madlen wishes they had the vocabulary to explain their thoughts, to align the words in a way that
would make sense, but they just don’t. They feel left behind, like they’re trying to fix a problem and
only have half their tools. “So my backup was the pegasus tanktop and jeans but I felt like I was
underdressed so I- I started pulling out more and more clothes and none of them fit right so I-”
Khali presses a finger to their lips, shooting them the ‘slow down’ look; one eyebrow raised,
lips pulled into a tight line, eyes brimming with concern and patience. Madlen focuses their
attention on their fingers, and the temptation to bite their nails thunders, shaking the bars of it’s
cage from the corner it’s locked in. They have to be better about that, Khali asked them to. “I’m
having trouble deciding. I-”
“Madlen.” —Madlen looks away from Khali, embarrassment burning their face. They know
full well what’s coming next— “Don’t apologize. We can pick something out together. And don’t say
you don’t want to burden me either. In case you’ve forgotten, I’m your girlfriend, and that means I
like helping you.”
Khali’s hand forces it’s way between Madlen’s fingers, interlocking like it’s just some
cosmic truth that they were forged for each other. Madlen latches onto Khali like she is the only
thing tethering them from flying away.
Sometimes, they wonder if that really is the case.
Madlen watches in shame as Khali cackles, her voice high and uncontrolled, bent over at
the waist from laughing. The heat building beneath Madlen’s cheeks is unbearable.
“You practically gutted our closet! Madlen, I would’ve helped if you’d told me,” Khali says,
fondness setting her words ablaze.
Madlen feels the telltale, overpowering heat of shame as their neck and collarbones flush a
Khali laughs again when she sees Madlen’s blush reaching well past their shoulders.
“You’re so easy. Run by me one more time why you decide to murder our closet.”
“I’m having trouble picking something to wear.” Madlen feels so defeated by the mere
concept of wearing clothes. “The outfits I planned just don’t… ughh, I don’t know, it’s complicated.”
Madlen feels a burning coal of frustration start to char their gut. Why is picking clothes so hard? Khali always teases them for their charts, but their ‘What matches with what’ chart has saved
them more times than they can remember. Improvising always makes Madlen feel like their
influence on the world around them is non-existent. That feeling is an ice-cold reminder that this is
why they plan everything.
Madlen’s stare burns a hole into the original outfit, a knee-length skater dress that Khali is
already hanging back up, apparently having decided it was a bad choice. They love that dress, or, at
least, they want to love that dress. There are times where they could wear it and feel like Madlen.
There are also times, like today, where it feels performative and just… not at all like them?
Madlen groans, wishing they could just wear a pair of jeans, a flannel, and their work boots. Which,
hypothetically, they can, but this is Khali and their first Pride. Madlen wants to look nice for the
hundreds of photos their friends are going to take. Even then, there’s more to it than that; Wearing
the wrong clothes makes them-
It makes them feel like they’re lying.
“You literally laid out, like, a third of our wardrobe. Do you not like any of these?” Khali is
already pulling clothes off the bed and putting things away, slowly reverting their plain gray
comforter away from the rainbow of shirts and dresses and socks and back to its original form.
Madlen lets out a small whine of defeat, their heart curling in on itself. Their hands pull at
the loose fabric of their pajamas, fists balling the cotton like they’re trying to squeeze all of their
negative thoughts into it. “It’s really frustrating! I just want to feel comfortable in something.”
Their palms press against their eyes now, shutters against the world. Maybe this is all just a bad
dream, and they’ll wake up and feel comfortable in literally anything.
Their chest is so empty; Someone must have gone in with a pickaxe and hollowed them out,
leaving nothing but cold, empty space and livewire nerves behind. They hate this, hate when their
dysphoria gets the better of them, making them question every little thing they do. “I just want to
be comfortable, but I’m afraid I’ll look stupid next to you.”
Khali looks at them, and Madlen knows that expression even if it’s in a foreign language.
“Madlen, all I want is for you to be comfortable. If that means wearing pajamas and muddy boots,
then I want you to wear pajamas and muddy boots.”
Her hands wrap around Madlen’s shoulders, comforting pressure tethering them to reality.
“I love you, you know that?” Madlen says, the words wrapped in a smile they want the
world to see.
Khali lets a small laugh fall from her lips as she kisses the hollow of Madlen’s neck. “You
only remind me a few dozen times a day.”
“What I’m hearing is that I could remind you more.”
Khali’s face is close enough now that static electricity could arc between them if it wants
to. Madlen is lost in the sea of Khali’s eyes, lavender skies washing away their worries. Each beat of
their heart sends more fire coursing through their nerves, feeding the warmth building inside their
core and the pleading, demanding need to kiss Khali.
So they do, and the world falls away.
Khali’s lips are made for Madlen and their’s are made for Khali, the shape perfectly
complementary. They are one, for just a moment, heartbeats brought into sync like the tides and
the moon. Khali finds her home under Madlen’s chin and Madlen takes in the familiar, comfortable
smell of Khali’s short hair, letting it bristle against the circles they’re carving into it with their
Madlen can live here forever, content to let the world go by, their love for Khali providing
all the nourishment they need. It can’t last though, and Khali shears the connection, leaving behind
a puzzle missing its final piece.
“I think you should wear that cute white sleeveless sweatshirt, and the maroon binder
“The one with the golden wings?”
“Yeah! And-” Khali’s sentence hangs in the air, a promise unfulfilled, as she digs around in
their dresser, “these pants.” Flying towards Madlen are a pair of plain, grey-green cargo pants.
They go to catch them, hands completely whiffing as they are greeted by the feeling of khaki
slapping against their nose.
Madlen pulls the pants off their face, running a thumb over the roughly hewn but somehow
still soft cotton. “Do you think I’m going to get gendered correctly?”
“Madlen, it’s Pride, I’m pretty sure everyone there is going to ask your pronouns. Also, you
have a fucking lesbian flag on half your head, and I’ll be hanging off your side the entire time. I
wouldn’t worry. Also, wear your combat boots.”
“You love me in those boots.”
Khali blushes, murmuring something that Madlen can’t quite pick up. She raises an
eyebrow, trying to egg Khali into repeating herself. “What was that?” Madlen says, trying to add an
inlay of mischief to their voice. It would be incredibly easy to throw Khali over a shoulder and
tickle her right now.
Khali sighs dramatically, her breath fanning out over Madlen’s collarbone, “I said ‘It’s not my
fault that you’re hot’! I don’t know how you live with your shitty hearing, honestly.”
“You think I’m hot?”
“Yeah, I know, how could I find a dumb jock like you hot? It’s so embarrassing-”
Before Khali can finish that sentence, Madlen gives in to their playful instincts, picking her
up and throwing her over their shoulder. Khali is laughing and screaming, her legs kicking wildly as
she tries to squirm her way out of Madlen’s iron grip, all the while pounding her fists into Madlen’s
lower back. Madlen fights back valiantly, doing their best to hold Khali aloft and tickle her one-
handed as Khali tickles and tortures them, her hands digging into their sides.
It’s not long before the two of them crash onto the mattress, hearts racing to the finish line
as they press their foreheads together. Both of their breathing is ragged, and Madlen knows their face is flushed a deep crimson from all the laughing, but they don’t care. They know a place where
the worries of the world don’t matter, and it’s right here, between Khali’s arms.