Over the next weeks came the wind and rain of the early autumn season. Encouraged by cheerful leaves of yellow and red drifting and floating down from bare branches, Nathaniel continued to share his thoughts in cherished conversations, his delight and enthusiasm at rediscovering his ability to do either empowering him as he opened up. The two exchanged the occasional story as they spoke on the phone but also playfully sent each other texts, asking one another random questions. They treated the textual exchange of randomly requested information as a game, as if the "dare" component had been removed from Truth or Dare.

Christian was patient and was transparent, sometimes agreeing and sometimes disagreeing with Nathaniel's perspective on certain things though, when he did dissent, he did so courteously. He never simply dismissed Nathaniel, regardless of the emotive quality of certain conversations they explored. There was no sense of competitiveness, hostility or real tension, and the two enjoyed social intimacy that was eagerly being built upon a foundation of mutual respect as their perspectives often complemented one another.

Christian, despite his openness in conversation, was an enigma. He was almost too open and almost suspiciously aware and understanding of the reality greeting Nathaniel each day. He always knew what to say, as if he had been close with someone in a similar position for several years. He accepted the opinions and anecdotes Nathaniel shared without criticizing him or belittling his concerns and asked for clarification or elaboration in ways that shrank the stress and fear of being heard.

His behaviour was always pleasant, amicable, and even tender during the moments that mattered, moments that frequently caught Nathaniel off guard. He wondered at times if it was perhaps he who, despite his general feelings of alienation, was too close-minded and cynical. After all, the unbending quality of his self-isolation was something he often struggled with, one of his undeniable character flaws. Upon thinking of their conversations, he wondered whether he was too inflexible to see that there could be people out there who were understanding and curious about his experiences.

Meeting and connecting with someone so engaging not only allowed him to become more at ease with communicating his thoughts but also brought him out of himself, away from his overly contemplative prison of words and irrational beliefs. He once pondered that maybe there was something Christian wasn't telling him, as if he had a secret hidden somewhere in the background, behind his pleasant demeanour. Before the thought spiralled out of control, Nathaniel snuffed out his paranoia, unwilling to engage in another mental free-for-all. He hated dwelling on it for too long because an overabundance of introspection was part of what did him in at the end of each day.

On a rare unscheduled afternoon, Nathaniel was home alone, flipping through the channels on the television in the mostly white and pastel orange living room. He had prepared a sandwich and munched on it, his taste buds thrilled with the flavours of feta cheese and cucumber. His thoughts strayed as a scene from a nature documentary played across the screen showing birds dancing in a show of virility as he thought of his relationship to technology and how he had been introduced to the virtual world.

He had grown up during an age when using the computer for online dating was still strange but also was becoming more normalized and less laughable in that vaguely stigmatized sort of manner. He channel surfed and landed on an advertisement for a program entitled Catfish, a reality show that featured a host striving to help individuals discover whether their online relationships were veritable or as false as the alter egos initiating them.

The tide of his thoughts quickly turned once the commercial was over, inspiring within him an alternative to his previous thought. The flip-side to the online dating experience was that there were stalkers and liars out there who wished to produce certain effects or situations without sacrificing their anonymity. Nathaniel knew all of this and had seen and heard enough cautionary tales to be able to tell the difference between someone playing with his feelings and someone wishing for a genuine relationship, though sometimes his certainty felt a bit cocky.

On the other hand, Christian hadn't seemed to be the type to manipulate or exploit others. After all, what could he possibly be gaining from hearing the woes and inner workings of a lonely trans man? He wasn't being given any money or sexual favours, whether virtual or over their phone talks, and their flirtatious interactions had grown quite naturally as they increased in number over the weeks that passed.

"I like you, I'm very much into you, but I don't want you to think I'm using you like those other types you mentioned before," assured Christian one evening as they revisited the topic of romantic and sexual aspects. "The feelings are there, but I'm a good boy. I'm not trying to be a creep or anything," he grinned through his voice, "I'm letting you take the lead, no pressure involved, and I don't ever want you to feel like you have to say or do anything you'd rather not do."

Nathaniel had remained at a point of near speechlessness, the conversation ending a bit awkwardly before he reached again for his cell phone and texted Christian later on, heart pounding, painfully aware that his loss for words may have been interpreted as disinterest. He took a risk that no longer seemed a risk in the first place.

You're not a creep. I have feelings for you.

Though their intimacy deepened even further once Nathaniel had learned his attraction was enthusiastically returned, they agreed to forgo the exchange of nudes and the carnal pursuits of sexting. As of yet, neither felt the time was appropriate for that sort of thing. To flirt and pay each other compliments was one thing, but neither wanted to potentially sour their interactions with an erotic shift. They wanted to know one another without distraction, something that was a relief to them both.

Nathaniel's mind and body relaxed at the lack of the familiar social pressure that so often went unaddressed throughout more conventional dating, his dysphoria mocking and thanking him all at once. The two continued to enjoy one another's company, combating loneliness at the touch of a screen as they bridged the physical distance between them with verbal and textual affection. Days of work-oriented tasks and relatively brief absences of discussion flew by in the meantime, granting them a reprieve from the loneliness that plagued them both before the initiation of their interactions.

As blustery autumn days began to greet the occasional flurries that melted just before touching the ground, Nathaniel had made up his mind about whether their interactions were superficial. He decided that Christian's openness couldn't be fake, not with the personal history he disclosed in their exchanges, and certainly not with his interest in the stories that were told to him. Nathaniel had spent much of their breaks in conversation turning over his thoughts, examining every single motive he imagined Christian might have entertained, whether sinister or playful.

He wasn't skilled in identifying or categorizing things like leaves, gemstones, mathematical equations, geography, or pop culture trivia, but his entire life had revolved around reading the emotions of others, including picking up on any iffy vibes that might have existed. He paid attention to his intuitive paranoia to an extent that could sometimes prove troublesome given his tendency to withdraw, but he chose to stop fighting his own heart and decided to do as he did before. He would continue to trust in their interactions with one another.

He began to take each day as an opportunity to feel closer to Christian, speaking thought after thought that lingered in his mind, which was fine in itself but the only problem was that he found himself wanting to take their relationship to the next level. He soon began to dream of what life could be like if they could wake up next to each other, or how their initial meeting might turn out and how they would react to one another in person. He craved physical intimacy, the desire strongest during quiet moments of the day when he found himself alone and trying to silence his mind before allowing his body to be welcomed by the heavy nothingness of sleep.

He felt himself wanting more, he felt as though he was parched, allowed only a quarter cup of water when all he could think about was to drink an entire lake. In more sensually riveting moments, he found himself imagining what Christian's skin smelt like, if his temperature ran hot or cool, or what it would be like to speak to him face to face. He then realized that, in the flurry of endless texts and calls, they had never returned to using video chats in their communications, which made him realize how badly he would have liked to meet over webcam. The thought stayed with him for quite some time after the initial realization.

One day, however, as the uniformity of grey clouds above spewed chilling rain at his window, Nathaniel finished up the proofreading of a paper, finalized the last document for his data entry employment project, and awaited Christian for their next call. He had researched how to troubleshoot someone's camera issues and, in the event of the laptop webcam proving useless, found a cheap plug and play that could be sent to Christian's doorstep straight from the manufacturer if he so desired. The plan was set and all that was required was to present the idea. Thinking back on the easygoing quality of their past conversations, he felt the outcome would be rewardingly desirable and decided to stop procrastinating by overthinking about what could go wrong.

There's no way he'll refuse, after all, he's into me… romantically, he thought to himself.

Though Christian himself had spoken of a reciprocated interest in the plan that had been presented to him, he gave mixed messages that confused Nathaniel, creating ripples of frustration within him.

Sure man, I'd love to see you, was what he focused on, though Christian's agreement and interest began to appear insincere the more he seemed to avoid the subject as it came up in future conversations. His initial excitement became less apparent when, during several phone calls, he either sounded distracted or extremely tired after Nathaniel had attempted to return the conversation to the topic of a video Skype call.

"Not tonight, I'm completely beat. Sorry. Another day, okay hon?" he breathed, sounding as if he were ready to turn face-first into his pillow for a long night's sleep, although it had only been seven o'clock at the time. Other nights found him distracted, his focus falling elsewhere as he was heard rummaging around his room, making noises of frustration into his cellphone as Nathaniel awaited his response. "Nate, sorry, I can't today. It's just not a good time, I have to go. I'll text you in a few minutes, okay?" was a familiar iteration of words he rushed out prior to ending the call. The texts that came some minutes later were increasingly affectionate but also denoted anxiety he tried to hide but was easily noticeable by his attentive partner.

It wasn't that the fatigue offended Nathaniel, although he soon realized the exhaustion or overpowering sense of distraction inevitably kicked in not only when the possibility of webcamming was brought up, but when they approached subjects that challenged Christian. He seemed to bargain, trying to compensate for his moody fatigue by sending one or two photographs of himself to appease the other.

The photos felt impersonal and bothersome, somehow, almost like they were sent just to halt the possibility of complaint or further scrutiny. Nathaniel, in his frustration, had resigned himself to changing the topic of conversation, instead complimenting the photos and zeroing in on certain qualities that appealed to him as he continued to prevent himself from imagining what his companion might be trying to hide from him.

Being in any long-distance relationship most often called for the exchange of photos and so this was not what bothered Nathaniel, this much he knew even as the pang of annoyance greeted him at the sight of the images he was sent via MMS. The tired old cliché of how a picture is worth a thousand words rang true in his experience since, being a visual person, the way someone looked was easily stored within his thoughts.

He longed to put a face and mannerisms to the words that captivated him. In his increasingly romantic fantasies, he found himself wanting nothing more than the closeness of a true embrace that could melt away the cobwebbed effect of emotional injuries he had sustained over the few decades of his life. He felt a mixture of overlapping forms of desire, losing himself in daydreams fabricated around his study of the photos he stared at, trying to put his consort's avoidance out of his mind.

Another day, upon sending a photo of himself wearing a compression shirt, a packer in his underwear, and a pair of shorts that were specifically chosen to highlight the angles and straightness of his body, Nathaniel decided to temporarily cast aside his insecurity. Their interactions had been going so well that his wish to entice and flirt with Christian had completely outdone the dysphoria that told him to conceal his body altogether.

He painstakingly adjusted every stray lock of his blackish-blue dyed hair, having been positioned and brushed this way and that until he felt satisfied with the end result. He wanted to be enjoyed now that he had successfully been seen and knew he was appreciated, the feared rejection of his sexed body thankfully melting from his mind as he received various flirtatious text messages in response to the photo he had sent.

Call me, handsome. Let's talk, he urged, his textual tone a mixture of what he hoped was assertive seduction. It took close to five minutes for his phone to dance across the desk he had set it upon, but the response was clear in its enthusiasm.

Your wish is my command, came the words, emojis of desire trailing after the text.

He selected the calling function and ran his fingers through his hair, clearing his throat in the process, smiling to himself as he prepared for another jaunty, tantalizing back-and-forth. "Well damn, that was fast," he grinned as he accepted the call, a low chuckle coming from Christian's end as he greeted him.

"I try to be punctual," came a response following the laughter.

"I like that about you," Nathaniel murmured. He heard Christian crack open a bottle of something, assuming it was some sort of alcoholic beverage. Having a drink could have meant he would be awake for some time still. "So, is it weird that I sent you that picture?" he bit his fingernail, half feigning bashful insecurity and half hoping he sounded endearing and not like a complete loser. Luckily the response he evoked was positive.

"You look so good to me, Nate. If you're implying that you're self-conscious, that's the anxiety bubbling up, you know. I'm attracted to you, but it's not just about how you look. You've got the whole package going on, lucky me" Christian's voice had a spicy sensuality about it as he unleashed the compliment.

"Might've just been the decent lighting in those shots, but thanks," Nathaniel's cheeks were on fire.

"You seem a little on edge, got something on your mind? Aside from the lighting, I mean," asked Christian.

The opportunity presented itself and was taken in stride, "Well, it's sort of something I've been thinking about this past while. I can't help but want something and I've been working up the nerve to ask," dead silence followed the start of his response, not a good sign. He continued, pressing onward as the words tumbled out, "I might be making it into something bigger than it has to be, though, maybe… embarrassing myself with this explanation," he hoped and expected Christian to ease his concerns, but nothing came of it. When the silence kept stretching forth, he inwardly kicked himself for bringing it up in the first place, "What I'm saying is that I want to see you… on webcam. I want to at least pretend we're hanging out together for real, you know? Just… just shut me up, already," he mumbled at the close of the sentence.

"I don't know," was all he heard, the response short, almost curt, and lacked the friendliness he was accustomed to. He heard Christian take another swig from the bottle as he listened to the sound of teeth lightly scraping against glass.

"You don't?" Nathaniel tried to sound playful but faltered as his anxiety took its familiar hold.

"Don't think so, no" sounded the bluntness of a response that made Nathaniel recoil a little, unexpected and jarringly brief. It seemed that, finally, after months of companionship, a mysterious nerve had been struck.

Christian spoke again. "Hang on, I have to put the phone down," he didn't wait for a response and could be heard shuffling in the background. After what seemed like an eternity, he was back, a hardness frozen over in his voice. "I can't go on camera," was all he said.

"But what about the camera on your phone? You could Skype from it. There's more than just webcam if you don't have a laptop or whatever," offered Nathaniel.

"No. I can't," he snapped back, another shortened response, his tone metallic and somewhere close to anger.

"Christian, why not?" Nathaniel's own voice cracked a bit, adding embarrassment to injury.

The first thing he heard was an exasperated sigh, "I listen to you, talk to you every single day and thought you trusted me enough… I thought we were hanging out. I hadn't realized you needed this kind of thing. You know how I feel about you," a strange detachment had made its home somewhere in his voice, "I didn't realize I was going to be nagged about something I obviously would rather not do."

Then came the sting of the words. A short lifetime of emotional shifts played through Nathaniel's mind. He found himself squinting into the air yet focused on nothing before him. After so many weeks had passed, he thought they had formed a type of bond but, in that moment, he felt as if he had fooled himself or misread the situation. He was struck with what he perceived as an absurdity of being denied what most others would be excited to do. They didn't even necessarily have to travel to other provinces or countries in order to glimpse each other's faces and could even build their relationship over webcam sessions.

Why wouldn't you want to, anyway? Nathaniel's thoughts screeched though his lips were still. The option he had presented on multiple occasions was something positive, fortunate for them both. He couldn't comprehend why this possibility was so off-putting.

And why is he so opposed to it? He looks worlds better than I could ever hope, came the thought that was enmeshed with dysphoric taunting, hiking his exasperation. "Christian, I don't get why you don't want to. It's not a big deal. You've seen me!" he exclaimed, overflowing with the disappointment he had struggled to keep from growing for weeks at a time. There flowed the emotion, irritating him as he heard it bleed into his tone.

"No, I said no. Why won't you drop it?" the sound of a bottle breaking filled the air, smaller and distorted in the background. The conversation had crumbled.

Nathaniel couldn't think to do anything except say the one thing that screamed to him from the conclusion of each of his thoughts, "But I don't understand," the truth in the statement was one of genuine hurt that wasn't just due to being refused. It made no sense, and the worst part was that he had assumed Christian enjoyed talking to him and had led him to believe he welcomed the idea in the first place. "Earlier you seemed like you'd be excited to see me. I mean, what the hell?" the hurt had successfully bled into his speech, making him feel plaintive and puny, "Do you seriously not want to see each other? What are we even doing here, then? I don't get you."

"I don't fucking need this tonight."

A barely perceptible click followed by a repetitive tone rang out, indicating that the call had been terminated. Nathaniel felt a wave of his own anger bring a trembling feeling to his shoulders as pressure collected in the pit of his stomach. He flung the cell phone onto his bed and left his room, taking advantage of a house that would be empty for another few hours. He mindlessly paced the hallway, then in the kitchen, driven through his contained wandering by the rush of thoughts boiling the edges of the calm he tried to maintain. He had taken a risk and yet here he was again, choking on his words in mute frustration. He tried to focus on slowing his thoughts, barely able to pick words apart from the soundless agitation he coped through.

I don't fucking need this. I don't. Are you fucking kidding me with this? I thought you gave a shit, I thought… After months and months... And you said you wanted to… you wanted me… or you acted like it. Who the fuck cares? You don't know... Why is this happening? What exactly is so hard about letting me see you? Let me pretend this is real… like I was hoping for so badly. I could've pretended to be able to actually touch you instead of wasting my fucking breath, assuming you would want the same. Why don't you want the same? Why wouldn't you?

Finally at his limit, he gave up, and the rest of the evening eventually faded along with the inceptive explosion of his vexation. Sleep found him late that night.