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throw me in the deep end, i'm ready now to swim

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They’re upstairs when Nicole arrives, a quiet kind of nervousness making their hands restless. The bell above the door tinkles and Nicole zips up their jacket. Cold day.

Behind the register, Bunny sighs, put-upon and long-suffering, a rag over one shoulder. The bottom of the stairs is right by the door. Nicole hovers. They don’t really need permission.

“Whatever,” Bunny says, turning her back. “Like I can keep you away from her.”

They chew on their smirk.

You’re damn right you can’t.

It’s an old building and the stairs are wooden, narrow, oddly steep. At the top is a storage room, a little office to one side, a toilet. A chair in the corner next to a shelving unit loaded with dry foods and bottles and napkin boxes.

Waverly’s slumped there, elbows-on-knees, a bucket by her feet.

Cole sags, every inch of them crinkling in sympathy, concern, discomfort-by-association.

“Oh, baby…”

Rosita’s crouched next to her, holding a glass of water.

“Thank God,” she mutters, with no heat at all. “I think she was about to make a break for it.”

Waverly looks up at Rosita’s voice, or Cole’s. Probably Cole’s, they reason, crinkling all the more at the thought.

“I was not,” she says, pushing her hand through her hair, impatient but not moving any further. Her voice is too soft. Weak, even.

Cole moves forward and Rosita holds a hand up.

“Careful,” she says, motioning. “Had a little accident.”

Broken glass on the floorboards. Cole sidesteps it, kneeling with their hands on Waverly’s knees, thumbs stroking. She sways slightly towards them.

“What’s going on, beautiful?”

“I got dizzy,” Waverly mumbles. Her hands rest over Cole’s, their fingers slipping together, less coordinated than normal. Her skin is all tacky. “Just… needed a minute.”

“You need more than a minute,” Rosita says, standing. “She looked like shit when she got here and it’s gone downhill quick since the first sneeze, but she wouldn’t listen. I heard her drop the glass and found her sitting on the floor.”

“You fainted?”

No.”

“Yes.”

“Wave…”

Waverly huffs, eyes closing and head dropping back to rest against the wall. Cole plays with her fingertips, waiting her out. When she swallows, the discomfort it causes is obvious.

“You didn’t have to come.”

“Rosie called me,” they whisper. They recognise the signs of a headache in her pinched, unfocused expression. “Like I’m gonna leave my girl stranded when she’s not feeling good.”

“I was offering to take you myself, on my break,” Rosie defends. “The call was an FYI. But your gallant boyfriend here wouldn’t hear of it.”

“Seems like you’re getting a little sick, baby.”

Waverly groans, fussing with the collar of their work jacket.

“Maybe.”

Nicole and Rosita share an eyeroll.

“Hey,” Waverly says, finding indignation even in this state. “I saw that.”

Maybe,” Cole teases, quietly.

She tips her head enough to look at them, and they give her a little smile, and she touches their face, clumsy about it, and they close one eye to avoid getting poked, and then she’s curling forward, and that’s it.

Cole holds her in a careful hug, rubbing her back through the diner’s polo shirt.

“Let’s get you to bed, okay?”

“I have work to do…”

Dios mio, this girl. We’ll leave you up here if you don’t take this opportunity to abandon us all and get some sleep. Let’s see if Bunny comes looking when you faint again.”

“My money’s on not,” Cole says. “But I’d be interested to find out.”

“It probably depends on how busy it is down there. Woman really hates talking to people.”

“She really does, doesn’t she?”

Shush,” Waverly groans, grip tighter on the front of Cole’s jacket. Pain laces her words, impossible to miss.

Cole exchanges another look with Rosie. No eyerolling, this time.

“Come on, babygirl,” they whisper, a gentle kiss on the side of Waverly’s head. “We’re going home.”

 

////

 

It’s not until the conversation’s half over that Cole realises how much they enjoy talking about gender with Rosita Bustillos.

Their gender, specifically. But really, any kind.

Rosita has questions, and like Waverly, she’s not afraid to ask them. But if Waverly – beautiful, intelligent, compassionate Waverly – is a scientist with a microscope and a newly-found something-or-other she can’t wait to understand, Rosita’s a kid with their first LEGO set, pouring wide-eyed over the instructions and the picture on the box. It reminds Cole of the first time they read the R.L. Stine books, or saw Princess Leia in Star Wars; worlds within worlds within worlds, that you never dreamed existed.

What a discovery.

They’re a couple months or so in to the weekly ritual they’ve set up with Rosie that involves helping her restock her abuela’s kitchen and getting a drink or a pizza, and this… feeling… has been sitting in their chest the whole time. It’s nice, which isn’t always the case with feelings. They haven’t wasted much time trying to find a name for it. Too busy with the niceness.

Now Cole watches Rosita leave an avocado in the middle of the restocked fruit bowl on Maria Fernanda’s kitchen counter, and they’re smiling and waiting for her to start grumbling about how she hasn’t eaten all the food they brought last week, like always happens, and honestly?

Happiness.

That’s it.

“It’s hard to explain,” Nicole tells her, shifting the last bag of groceries from the floor to the table. “Cowboy is just… it really is a gender, all on its own.”

“Is it the assless chaps?” Rosita teases.

No. Maybe. I think people like the queerness of it all. You know? The lonesome cowboy, rugged on the outside and soft on the inside. Spends lots of time in nature. Journeying from place to place. Lives in his head. It’s kinda romantic. And it involves thinking about masculinity a lot. A nice kind of masculinity. Waverly explains this way better.”

“I bet. You haven’t even mentioned the horses.”

“Cowboys do love their horses.”

“Is that a gender, too? Liking horses?”

“A sub-gender, if I’m not mistaken.”

Rosita flashes them a mock-serious look, pretending to think, then tosses another empty bag their way.

“It’s nice,” she says, light, “listening to you talk about this stuff.”

“Yeah?”

“Seemed like you wanted to, for a while. From what I could tell.”

“Yes and no,” they say, not hearing the meaning in it until they say it, and doubting Rosita will get it anyway.

Yes and no,” Rosita repeats. “That a gender, too?”

Cole smiles back. Or they just haven’t stopped since they stepped into this small, old house that smells of mothballs and sunshine.

“Absolutely.”

 

////

 

Waverly’s tune changes less than half an hour after they’re in her apartment.

“I’m dying,” she moans, while Cole makes tea and wonders if she’s eaten today.

They’ve set her up on the big couch with a bunch of blankets and a couple pillows from her bed.

“You’re not,” they tell her. “I’m sorry it feels like it, baby.”

“I’m hot. I’m never hot. I have to be dying.”

“That’s your fever, Waves.”

They sit on the coffee table in front of her, placing her mug on a coaster at their side.

Waverly huffs, weakly. Her face is all screwed up.

“You sure I can’t take you to the doctor?”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Nuh-uh you don’t wanna go, or nuh-uh you’re not sure?”

“Ow,” she mumbles, screwing her face up even further.

Cole looks her over, glad they managed to get her to shower before they got her into some more comfortable clothes. Which includes one of their sweatshirts, two sizes too big for her. When does she keep taking those?

They brush at the hair on her forehead and her eyes close.

“You want the TV on?”

“Gonna stay?”

“Nah. I’ve got better things to do. Could go see a movie. Or give Wynonna a call and fuck around.”

“What?”

Waverly squints at them and Cole feels bad for making her think too hard. Whatever virus has dared to take on Waverly Earp’s immune system isn’t being subtle about it.

“I have work in the morning,” they say softly, stroking her forehead again, “but I thought I’d stay here until you’re better, if that’s alright?”

She sighs, relieved. At the information and at not having to ask for herself, Cole bets.

“’kay,” she mumbles, burrowing into her blankets and pillows some more.

Cole sighs at her, playing with her hair. They hope the motion’s soothing. She’s not “dying”, but hell if witnessing any ounce of their girlfriend’s light temporarily dim isn’t a special kind of torture.

“It’s okay if you go to sleep. Chrissy’s gonna stay at Dolls’ tonight and I won’t go anywhere without saying bye.”

Waverly hums, catching the hand playing around her face and holding it loosely. Which means they’re kinda stuck, until she really does go to sleep.

But she looks peaceful, which she hasn’t since they found her upstairs at the diner.

“I love you,” they whisper, thumbing at her fingertips gently.

Some things are nice to say regardless of who’s listening.

 

////

 

Maria Fernanda appears at the other side of the kitchen, woken from her nap in front of the television. She shuffles in muttering, smoothing out the crinkles on a plain blue dress Cole recognises from a previous visit.

Lo siento, Maria,” Cole says, trying not to butcher the apology. “Were we being too loud?”

“Oh, mi amor, you be as loud as you like.” The old woman pulls Cole into a crushing hug, holding their head and kissing the side of it loudly. “Always so handsome,” she says, almost like it annoys her, and Rosita waves her off.

Abuela, you’re embarrassing them,” she says, “and you’re also hugging the wrong person first, uh?”

Rosita’d asked early on if she should try to explain to Maria Fernanda Nicole’s pronouns.

“Her eyes and ears are so bad, we’d probably get away with telling her you’re a man, if you want,” she joked. “She wouldn’t question that.”

Cole gave her permission to say whatever, glad to be spared the awkward chat. They figured, worst case, they scratch her house off the short list of places they visit. If anything, the old woman was just likely to not understand, or misinterpret the importance of remembering. Or forget altogether.

Maria Fernanda did no such thing.

Cole loves it here.

Disculpe,” she says to her granddaughter, dramatic. “I thought Nicole was the one who changed out all the taps for me. Was that you the whole time?”

“Alright, alright.”

“Aw, you bring me Timmy’s though, don’t you, mi amor? So is okay.”

“Fortnightly,” Rosita reminds her. “Next week, abuela. You know you can’t eat that much sugar. And it’s Tim’s, not ‘Timmy’s’, for the hundredth-”

“Bah,” Maria Fernanda says, ending it, and pointing to Cole even while she kisses Rosita’s cheek. “This one my favourite again.”

“I can teach you how to use a drill if you want, Rosie.”

Rosita hangs onto her grandmother, pointing at Cole, too. They look so much alike.

“Shut your smug ass.”

Maria Fernanda switches her coffee pot on, using the furniture and counter to balance while she moves around, and guilt rises when Rosita tells her they can’t stay. Cole searches for a topic of conversation while it lasts.

“How’s the bathroom door going for you, Maria?”

“It opens, it closes. You did good job.”

“Did you still want that ramp out the front?”

“Ramp?”

“Yeah, those stairs a major pain in the butt. I bet a ramp out front would work way better. I’ve always wanted to try building a ramp.”

“I am not stupid, Nicole,” she says, only slightly terrifying. “I can do stairs. Ramps are not fun.”

“You say that, but we’ve never tried sitting you on your walker thing and pushing you down one.”

Maria Fernanda titters, unhooking a mug from where a line of them hangs above the sink.

“Going fast would be fun,” she admits.

“Think about it,” Cole says, relenting easily. The long game works best with her brand of stubbornness, they could tell that within five minutes of meeting her.

Rosita stands off to the side and quietly eyes them both, bursting with something like gratitude.

 

////

 

“Have you eaten today?”

Waverly frowns at her fresh mug of tea.

Food.

Cole waits, patient.

Food…

Endlessly patient.

Curse this freaking stupid cold.

Stupid.

Focus.

Oh, my head hurts… shoot.

Did I eat today?

Was the granola… yesterday… or…

It’s not a difficult question, but Waverly’s learning when you’re riddled with germs and running a temperature high enough to fry an egg on your forehead, your capacity for most basic human tasks dwindles to diddly squat.

Egg.

Food.

Her stomach rolls.

The steam rises from her mug, soothing. She inhales, braces herself. Really needs to gather her energy reserves for this next bit:

“Don’t remember.”

She’s not sure Cole will hear her. First thing she noticed when she woke up on the couch – could be hours later, could be days – was a throat made of sandpaper and shrivelled vocal cords to boot. That her head weighs twenty times what it normally does was the second.

It is a miracle they managed to get her sitting up.

“Okay,” they say, unphased by any of this. “Well, I’m starving, so I’m gonna make us some toast and fruit, and after that we can go to bed. I charged your laptop. I’ve been waiting all week to keep watching Locke & Key with you.”

Waverly smiles into her tea. She wants to tease them.

Told you you’d like it or aw, has the ‘daggy kids mystery show’ got its hooks in you?

She settles back onto the couch instead, mug in her lap, and only opens her eyes again when she feels it being pried gently out of her grip. She’d drifted off, already.

“Careful, baby,” Cole says. They’d been watching her. Of course. “Hey. Your job is to stay awake for the next ten minutes, okay? This is my challenge to you. Do you accept your challenge?”

Waverly smiles. Even with her brain operating at twenty percent capacity, she can tell their upbeat casualness is all for her. She hates losing her independence, and asking for help, and wasting time by sleeping during the day. Being sick? The trifecta.

Cole knows.

“Seriously,” they add. “I’m gonna put an offensive amount of peanut butter on your toast and I don’t want to have to eat it for you if you bomb again.”

It’s nice.

Her boyfriend is so nice.

With their handsome dimples and their bright eyes and their soft hair.

Their expression softens, care and concern melting together in their big warm eyes, dimples on show. It’s an awful lot of love and affection to receive in one dose and-

Oh, crap, they’re gonna make her cry.

Don’t you dare.

You’re fine.

It’s a cold. You have a cold.

Get it together, Earp.

“Okay,” she says, and fudge-darn-nuggets, talking hurts. “I accept.”

They grin, kissing her forehead. “That’s my girl.”

Waverly doesn’t hear the exact words; it’s not the point of it. She hears what’s underneath. Cole told her, the first time the words slipped out and they panicked, not wanting to be the latest in a long line of possessive dudebros.

There’s the incredible woman I’m so lucky to know and love, they explained. My girl.

Waverly watches them get set up in her kitchen. They got changed while she was asleep, into sweatpants and an old flannel, red and blue. She’s pretty sure their binder’s on under it; she can tell in the way they move, their shoulders square, head up. Confident. At ease.

My boy, she wants to respond, the words as easy as breathing.

She can’t imagine a world where she doesn’t have this. Cole, being entirely themself, in front of her, with her. Waverly will never stop being grateful Cole weighed up the possibilities and decided, for whatever reason, to choose the version of themself that made them happiest, and then invited her to see it for herself.

She’d like to think she had a little something to do with it – Cole’s told her enough times she did, that they could never do any of this without you - but she knows the truth.

They were ready.

They were brave.

And it paid off.

It doesn’t always go like that, for so many people like Cole.

Waverly can’t imagine that, either.

In the kitchen, the toast pops, and Cole gives a satisfied nod at the shade of brown on the bread. They flip the plastic peanut butter jar from one hand to the other with a flourish. Waverly wonders if they know they’re being watched. Doesn’t look like it.

Goofball.

It’s such a nothing moment, all considered. But her neck aches and she’s hot again and the reinforcements Waverly had barely started working on crumble at the sight of her perfect partner making her toast, and she starts to cry.

Cole’s in front of her in two seconds flat, cooing loving nonsense and making it all worse.

“Hate you,” she mumbles into their chest, while they bundle her up in their arms and kiss her forehead and squeeze next to her on the couch.

“I know, baby. It’s okay. I got you. You’re okay.”

“You… jerk.”

“I am, I am a huge jerk,” they respond. She can feel their chin shift from the top of her head while they plant another kiss there. “I’m sorry. I know.”

“Good.”

“What am I sorry for?”

“Being you.”

It’ll have to do.

She can feel her throat getting coarser with every pathetic, wheezing sob.

“Oh, of course,” they say, and she feels them kiss her hair yet again, ignoring how desperately she needs to wash it, their arms secure and safe around her. “Well. I can’t say I’m particularly sorry for that, love.”

 

////

 

Their first stop after Maria Fernanda’s is Chipotle. Rosita’s choice.

They sit by the windows to eat, side by side. Rosita picks at the foil around her burrito and takes a bite. Cole enjoys the silence, and their soft tacos.

“Hey,” Rosita says after a minute. “What’d Big Earp say? When you told her?”

“About…”

“You being non-binary.”

“Oh.” Cole dips a corn chip into their little dish of salsa. Can’t lie. Shame the truth is so… lame. “I haven’t, yet.”

Rosita pauses with her mouth around her burrito. Backs up.

“Really?”

Cole shrugs and attacks the salsa with another chip.

“I mean, I’m not judging,” Rosita adds. “I just didn’t think I’d rate a mention so early in the game.”

“S’not that early. Waverly’s known for like, six months now.”

“Six months.”

“Something like that.”

“Long time to sit with something important…”

“I wasn’t ready,” they say, glancing across at her. “There’s no time limit or deadline on this sort of thing.”

“True.”

She goes back to her burrito, and the silence returns. Nicole can’t help but notice it’s not as comfortable as it was before.

“You want to know why,” they guess.

Rosita swallows her mouthful, carefully picking at the foil again. “I think the right answer here is that you don’t need a reason to not tell someone… right?”

“Something like that.”

“Phew. Good.” She chuckles at herself. “That was a close one.”

“Congrats. You passed gender studies.”

“Shit, did I? Look at me now, haters.”

She pushes her tub of guac their way and they scoop up some with their fingertip. Waverly always tells them off for doing that.

“Honestly, Haught, Wynonna’s a pain in the ass on a good day. No, like, I adore that hot mess,” she adds, watching Cole’s face turn defensive, “but she’s muy loca half the time. I get why you might not wanna tell her something so… personal.”

Personal.

That’s one way of putting it.

Cole prefers to go with has the potential to forever change her opinion of me in a way that I’d never be able to undo if I wanted to.

They’ve tried, a few times now. Telling Rosita – Rosita taking it so well – was a kick in the right direction. Wynonna’s always distracted, or drinking, or saying something about a guy she’s pissed at – Doc, usually, her would-be boyfriend flakier than ever lately – that amounts to her swearing off anything manly or masculine or penis-oriented, in a way that always has Cole biting their bodies-don’t-equal-gender tongue.

What’s she gonna think when her favourite Haught Potato opens with oh, by the way, I’d prefer if you thought of me as a guy, but not a man, and also let’s talk about pronouns?

“She’s my best friend, Rosie,” they mumble.

“I know.”

“I want to talk to her about this stuff.”

“What’s stopping you?”

Cole shoves their tray away, fiddling with their drink straw.

Rosita can’t be that interested. She’s only being nice. She’s not Waverly – who’s nice, too, but is also tied to Cole’s wellbeing and existence in a different way. Invested. And more aware of anyone else on the planet of all their history, the work they’ve done, alone and with her, to get to where they are now.

Where the hell do I start?

“Nicky,” Rosita says, putting her hand on their arm. “Seriously. You help me with stuff. Maybe I can help you with this.”

“Sorry,” they say, and their face heats up. “I’m not used to talking about it with anybody who…”

“Isn’t Waverly?”

Yeah.”

Rosita squeezes their arm and goes back to the remnants of her burrito.

“You just haven’t had any practice.”

 

////

 

Waverly’s phone rings around ten o’clock. Nicole jolts, hyperaware and pissed, dozing off with their own phone in their hand.

Fuck, I should’ve turned that off.

They jump off the bed, Waverly asleep and unmoving next to them under the covers, and dart round to grab it off her nightstand.

“It’s the middle of the night, Wynonna.”

“Why are we whispering?” she whispers back.

“Waverly’s asleep.”

“Oh,” she says, voice normal, and then: “Oh… okay yeah, I thought babygirl sounded real different for a sec there.”

Cole sneaks out of the bedroom, pulling the door to behind them. After her initial nap on the couch, it took hours for her to settle enough to sleep, fighting that tired restlessness only an oncoming illness knows how to stir up.

“She’s sick,” Cole says. “She’s been out of it most of the day.”

“Mystery solved,” Wynonna says, huffing into the phone. Some kind of scraping, banging noise takes over in the background. “Shit, that’s gonna stain,” she mutters. “Whatever, I hate this shirt.”

“What’re you doing?”

“That is just none of your business, Little Miss Nosy, now, is it?”

“You’re drunk.”

You are.”

“Wynonna.”

“Oh, excuse the hell out of me, Judgeyface. My sister ditches me and I’m not allowed to drown my sorrows by my lonesome?”

“Waverly didn’t ditch you, dude. I told you, she’s coming down with something.”

“Something that – that renders her unable to send a damn text?”

Cole waves their free hand in the air and comes up empty. Waverly hadn’t mentioned any plans with Wynonna, but if they’re following this unexpected departure into indignation right, she must have made some.

“She probably just forgot,” they say, like a moron.

“Oh!” Wynonna yells, latching on. “That makes it better. Nicole Haught, everybody!”

“Chill out, you know I didn’t mean-”

“Fixer of all things. Hail the baby Jesus. She’s here to explain everything.”

Wynonna.”

“No, shut up, whatever, it’s fine. I’ll go add forgettable to my long list of totally stellar personal qualities, and then I’ll go right ahead and fuck myself, how about that, Red Tor-lame-o?”

Cole flops onto the couch.

They know how this goes.

They push back, and she pushes back harder, and somebody hangs up on somebody.

Except it’s approaching ten-thirty on a Tuesday night, and Wynonna’s calling her little sister, drunk and hurt. Looks like they wasted time getting changed into their Lazy Sweats.

“Where are you right now, Wyn?”

Wynonna cackles. For a bit too long.

“Dude,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

 

////

 

Rosita tips her sunglasses up on top of her head not long after they get to the park. It’s come over cloudy, a glare in the sky and a greyness, too. Cole stuffs their own glasses in their jacket pocket, wishing they’d left them in the car.

“When I realised I was gay, it felt like nothing, in a way,” they tell her, already glad to be around some trees and greenery. “I was like, 13? I didn’t have a word for it yet, but I knew I felt about girls the way most boys did and most girls didn’t.”

“Identifying with the boys already, huh?” Rosita grins. “Sounds like you could’ve skipped a whack of confusion if you’d just followed that thought all the way to the end.”

Nicole snorts, kicking at the pathway with their hands in their pockets. “You’re telling me.”

“Hindsight’s a little bitch, sometimes. The slut.”

“Total whore,” Nicole returns, grinning.

The fact an older couple passes them right when they say it pulls them up short. Nicole falters at the wide-eyed look they get, and the horror on the lady’s face.

“Oh,” they say, “we were just – no, sluts are great.”

Rosita clamps one hand over her mouth and drags Nicole along with her other.

“Sorry!” they add.

“Sex work is work!” Rosita calls, at a safe distance.

“Shit. They probably think we’re depraved.”

“Or super judgemental.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t be having this conversation in public…”

“Screw that. We’re talking about your gender identity, not planning a murder. Hazlo, Haught, spit it out.”

“It was different when I was a kid. Being gay, it never felt like something I had to tell people.”

“So you didn’t say anything?”

“I was lucky - it’s not like I had a hundred reasons to be afraid people would find out. But making some big announcement never felt… necessary? I told my best friend at the time, and she was fine, like the way kids, you know, absorb significant information pretty easily, not realising how big it is. I just figured everybody else would figure it out, or not.”

“Sounds fair.”

“And I was always a tomboy, which – I kinda hate that word now. It’s like. Uh… I don’t know what it’s like…”

Rosita stops walking, reaching for the crook of their elbow.

“Hey, you know I’ll listen to whatever you wanna say. But, not everything needs a backstory, you know?”

“Uh. No, sorry, I don’t… understand.”

“You can just tell me things, Nicky. You don’t have to explain yourself all the time. You do it a lot. Must be exhausting.”

Cole stares at her.

“It is,” they say, and they have to look down right after because hell, their eyes are stinging and the look of easy understanding on Rosita’s face is making them feel like somebody’s giving them a sandwich right when they realise they haven’t eaten all day.

I did not know I needed this.

“My gender identity makes me different in a new way,” they say. “My… transness, it’s something people are a lot more likely to dismiss, unless I correct them.”

They’ve reached the place where the ducks sometimes huddle up on the grass at the edge. Doesn’t look like there’s any out today.

“I know my clothes and hair and everything outs me like, immediately, to anybody with half a brain. I used to hate it - total strangers making assumptions about me based on how I looked. Gay, lesbian, dyke.”

“What changed?”

“They’re right, for one thing. And I’ve seen how frustrated Waverly gets when people assume she’s straight, just because she’s pretty feminine.”

“It’s like they’re taking something away from you,” Rosita muses. “I don’t even care if people know I’m bi or not until somebody thinks I’m straight. Then I wanna stuff a bisexual flag down their throat.”

“Gender’s different,” Nicole tells her. “Less… mainstream, maybe.”

“You’re one of the cool kids, in your cool underground movement.”

“Most of the time, people look at me and they see gay, which is fine, but… they see a gay woman.”

Rosita’s face falls.

Point made.

“You know I, uh, I wear a binder, to like, flatten my chest. And do other stuff. Exercise. But, I don’t know. Unless I start on testosterone or get surgery, feels like there’s a limit to what I can do.”

“Do you want either of those things?” Rosita asks, and the look on her face makes Nicole think ah, shit, too far – I’m outside her comfort zone.

Hell, I’m outside mine.

“No,” they say. “No, I don’t think so.”

“It’s okay if you do,” Rosita says, the flash of surprise gone from her features. “It’s all about what makes you feel good, chico.”

Nicole recognises the Spanish word for guy, and realises Rosita keeps using all the masculine derivatives when she’s addressing them.

A language with its own internal binary.

Yikes.

“I’ve thought about it. Hormones and everything. I just want to be sure I’m doing it for me, if I go down that road. I mean, if people can’t look at me and see me, how’s that my problem?”

“That’s a good outlook, Nicky. Good for you, dude.”

“Except…”

“Except?”

“Wynonna.”

“Fuck! Right. Right. Yeah, she’s… God bless her, she’s not really gonna figure this one out on her own.”

“Not unless I get the word trans tattooed on my forehead.”

“Even then…”

“Which is where the pressure to tell people comes in. Correct them. Put myself at their mercy.”

“Mercy?”

“Underground movements don’t have an awesome track record when it comes to the welcome wagon treatment.”

Rosita sighs, running her hand through her hair and dislodging her old Ray-Bans.

“Shit,” she mutters, picking them off the dirt path and wiping them with the edge of her t-shirt.

They’re almost at the other side of the lake. There’s the ducks, out on the water. They pause by a metal bench anchored into the grass.

“It’s just messy,” they say, knowing this isn’t something they’re going to solve together today.

“Sorry, Nicky. I wish people weren’t so… close-minded. Oblivious. Big Earp, most of all.”

“It’s not fair to expect her to magically get it, I know that. She’s not a mind-reader.”

“No,” Rosita says. “But of course you want her to care enough to pay attention, or enough to give it some thought in her own time. Not to toot my own horn, but that’s what I did.”

“You don’t count – you’re a little bit in love with me.”

“Didn’t Waverly, too? You said you told her, and she kind of already knew.”

“Yeah,” they breathe, still - still - unable to believe their luck, after all this time. “She’s a lot in love with me.”

“So you got lucky,” Rosita says, clearly on their wavelength. “Twice.”

“I did.”

“Most folks aren’t like us.” She sits on the bench with her ankles crossed. “I’m sorry for that, too.”

“You should be,” Nicole says, joining her. “If you’d just been a huge asshole about it, I’d be better prepared for the rest of the world.”

It’s a joke, but Rosita doesn’t laugh.

“I hope the asshole-to-good-person ratio is way, way lower than that, Cole,” she says, eyes out over the lake. “If anybody deserves to live in a no-asshole world, it’s you.”

They sigh, following her gaze to watch some of the ducks play in the water.

“Thanks, Rosie. For listening and all. Waverly’s gonna be glad to get a break from me.”

“That is some bullshit, but I can’t wait to tell her how good I did. I can see it now.”

“Oh, no, she can never know about this. She’d murder you just for – for looking at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you know me.”

“Oh.” Rosita frowns at the ducks. “Is that okay?”

“That you know me, or that you look at me like you do?”

“Both?”

Nicole smiles.

They remember reading creepy kids’ books late at night under a blanket with a torch, and first times in a galaxy far, far away, and making friends at school by talking about it all, and how it feels when Maria Fernanda calls them handsome.

And to think, they’d almost never said anything about anything, on so many occasions they had the choice.

“Yes,” Nicole says, certain. They’re enjoying, a lot, their increasing sense of certainty. “It’s very okay.”

 

////

 

Cole makes it over to Wynonna’s house by around 11pm, and kinda wishes they hadn’t before they even get out of the car.

The weatherboard house is single story and wide, on a corner lot. Bigger than it needs to be for two people, especially people like Wynonna, who’s not known for being a homebody, and her partner Doc, who makes a habit of taking up as little space as possible.

Cole stands on the front lawn with their hands on their waist, scanning the line of the roof in the shadow of the streetlight they parked under, regretting putting their uniform back on rather than staying in their house clothes.

They can’t see her.

Shit. Maybe she fell off.

They lock their car and head down the short gravel drive, past Wynonna’s truck and along the side of the house.

In the back yard, they stand on the lawn just the same, with – with annoyance, that’s what it is, rising like steam off a sidewalk between their ears, because okay.

Sure.

Perfect.

Why the hell not.

“Are you lying down?”

Spreadeagled on the clay tiles in the middle of the roof, Wynonna moves, probably to look at them. They can’t tell. This side of the house is backlit by the streetlight. She’s a dark shadow in a dark shadow, the roof sloping up behind her.

“Who invited you?” she barks back.

“You did.”

“Oh,” she mumbles – or maybe it’s normal speaking voice. The height, the distance, it’s making everything too quiet. Cole feels like they’re shouting at her, trying to get their voice to carry.

“I really thought you were joking about all this.”

Surprise.

“People only hang out on roofs in movies and stuff, you know. It’s dangerous.”

“Fuck off.”

“Charming,” they mutter, glancing around the back of the house, the uncovered patio, the glass sliding door into the living area. How’d she even get up there?

“How’d you even get up there?”

“Why’d you come? That’s what she said! Ah-ha. Bam. No seriously.”

“I was worried.”

Wynonna’s shadow moves with a grunt. Cole squints – and steps back in time for something to skid along the grass at their feet.

“Rookie mistake,” she says.

“Did you – Did you just throw a bottle at me?”

“Consider it a warning shot.”

“I’m not leaving. You can’t sleep on the roof, you dumbass.”

“Oh, god. If you came here to yell at me you can turn right around and do it someplace else, Haught And Bothered. I can yell at me just fine, I don’t need your ginger ass for that.”

Right, they think, her self-deprecating rant serving as a reminder. We’re on search and rescue here, dude. And you’ve already completed the search part.

“Get down here and we can chat,” Cole tries.

“What’s in it for me?”

“A… chat?”

“Pass.”

“A pizza.”

Wynonna snorts. “Pity flavoured pizza. Yummers.”

“You did call me.”

“I called babycakes.” She groans, and a scratching, scraping sound – with glass bottles clinking together under it – floats down to Nicole. She’s sitting up, they think, squinting at her silhouette. “I mean. Babygirl. Wavel – Walevr – the little sunny chick.”

Not so sunny right now

They hated leaving her, despite the fact she’s probably – hopefully – only going to sleep through their absence. They’ve done all they can, for now. Made her a little meal, cleaned up the living room, took some of her dirty clothes down to the laundry room. Just about carried her to bed. It was almost nice; they can’t get away with doting on her like that unless she’s incapacitated.

Which, they’d rather she wasn’t, obviously.

But playing big strong man is more enjoyable than they’re willing to admit.

“I told you, Waverly has the flu.”

“Waverly, that’s the one…”

“She’s stuck in bed.”

“And you left her, in her hour of need? Some girlfriend.”

Yeah. I’m not much of a girlfriend at all.

Cole wonders if it’d be weird to sit down on the lawn. Probably not, considering what’s happening above them.

“To my everlasting dismay, you Earps are one-at-a-time types, and there’s not two of me,” they say. “You’ve got ten minutes before I switch back to my preferred sister.”

“Christ, that sounds dirty,” Wynonna mutters. She’s still moving around on the roof, crawling to the other end – trying to get to the other side? The menace.

“Come on, Wyn. It’s late. We must be annoying the hell out of your neighbours right now.”

“Let’s see if it gets less annoying after you shut up.”

“I really don’t want to get up there in my work clothes.”

“Aw. The one time you’re not dressed like a farm hand.”

“Wynonna.”

Another bottle sails down, this one caught by the sand in a dead patch of grass a few feet to their left. Cole swears, stepping away from the line of fire.

“Stop throwing shit.”

“Stop trying to fix me.”

Her voice cracks, as fragile as the bottles she’s pitching in their direction.

Cole sags, mentally searching again for a ladder or a well-placed chair. Did she climb a drainpipe? They’re pretty sure there’s no lattice mounted anywhere…

“Why would I want to fix you?” Cole calls up. “Your crazy ass is half the excitement I ever get.”

Silence from the rooftop.

Until:

“What’s the other half?”

“Waverly,” they admit, hoping the bout of sincerity will drag Wynonna out of her fog. “But it’s a different kind of excitement.”

Gagging from the rooftop.

“Please come down here. If you die on my watch, we’re both dead.”

“I’d be dead,” she says, but she sounds like she’s getting closer. “So I wouldn’t care.”

Cole steps onto the patio to get nearer to the gutters. Probably gonna have to catch her.

Wynonna’s head and shoulders hover over the edge of the gutter, looking down.

“I don’t need help,” she says.

“Okay.”

“I just wanted to make my sister feel bad for ditching me-”

“Nice, Wynonna.”

“And all I got was the Fun Police. The Fun Fuzz.”

“I’m… sorry?”

“Right. You’re sorry. I’m sorry.” She disappears again. “Everybody’s sorry.”

Her voice peters out at the end, heavy.

Cole realises they might really need to find a drainpipe to climb, at this rate. It’s like decoding a melancholic modern language with a Latin dictionary.

“What are they sorry for?”

And now, quiet, on the rooftop.

Cole waits.

Waits.

Could wait her out all night, if they have to.

But they don’t.

This.”

On some new life-saving instinct, Cole moves back in time for the bottle to shatter on the pavers in front of them. It’s not empty; un-drunk beer splatters the ankles of their slacks and stains the ground.

Fucking hell.

They should’ve left their sweatpants on.

 

////

 

It happens again the next night, much the same way, at first, anyways.

The main unfortunate difference being Waverly spent half the day in the bathroom, vomiting or trying not to. She goes back to bed after sunset, a half a piece of toast and some grapes in her belly, and passes out on her back with the blankets bunched at her waist and her tank top sticking to her. When her phone rings, closer to midnight this time, Nicole doesn’t have to worry about it waking her up.

“She’s still sick, Wynonna,” they say, rubbing sleep out of their eyes.

“What, does she have the plague? Thought you were supposed to be helping her get better?”

Well, that stings, doesn’t it.

Cole stays in the bedroom, listening to Waverly breathe heavy through her mouth.

“It’s not glorified hay fever, dude. She’s really unwell.”

Silence, for a second.

“Oh.”

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing.”

That’s a lie.

Nicole curses themself for being able to tell.

Probably for the best, in the long run.

Twenty minutes later they’re clambering over the gutter to the hard clay tiles of the roof a few metres from where Wynonna is, with her arms on her knees and a brown bottle dangling in her hand. Good thing Chrissy was home to take over nurse duties, as needed. Better thing they thought to grab a pair of jeans from their apartment during their angry drive home the night before.

A repeat performance seemed… likely.

“Girl, what are you doing?” Wynonna half-whispers, turning their way when they start their awkward crawl towards her – it does not seem this high from the ground – and Nicole thinks she sounds almost alarmed.

“What?” they shoot back. “Does getting up on the roof seem like a bad idea to you?”

Wynonna gives them the finger and takes a swig from her drink. Stays quiet while Nicole makes their way over. She’s got a half-drunk six pack of beer next to her, the cardboard holding the bottles together torn and hanging on.

Nicole settles next to her with a groan, impressed she even managed to get up here.

“Whoa,” they say, finally looking out in the direction Wynonna’s been staring. “You can see the lake from here…”

Houses and roads and streetlights, too, but further out, past all that, a thick black stripe under clouds and stars Cole recognises. Hears, if they focus. No sign of the moon, though.

“Looks like the ocean,” Wynonna says.

Nicole hums.

It does.

Funny, how so many things look like what they aren’t.

They help themself to a beer, twisting the top off and pocketing it. They can see the empty bottles from last night, dark dots on the lightness of the backyard’s sandy dead lawn. There’s even one that rolled into the gutter a few feet away. That’s gonna be fun to fish out.

“Doc did some work up here,” Wynonna says, quiet. “Few months back. Had a leak in the living room, shit dripping through the ceiling onto the sofa. Took him forever to fuckin’ get to it.”

“Sounds like Doc.”

“He came down sweating like a turkey on thanksgiving and wouldn’t shut up about how great the view was.”

“So you figured you’d get up here at stupid o’clock and check it out?”

“He talked about building some kind of – I dunno, something, we could like, sit on together to look at it. You believe that? Like we’re those people who make iced tea and watch the sunset together after work. How was your day, dear? Perfect, darling, how was yours?”

“How awful.”

“Oh, fuck off. You don’t count, you’re half-married to the exact kinda girl who loves any and every excuse to wear her big gooey heart on her stupid soppy sleeve.”

They ignore the jab, sipping their beer. No point trying to deny any of that, and Cole knows if they engage too deeply with her when she’s clearly got something on her mind, Wynonna will clam up and shove them off the roof.

“He never built anything,” she says. “Not a damn thing.”

She takes a deep pull on her beer and pauses to pitch the empty into the yard. It hits the back fence and smashes. Cole winces at the sound.

“Shit,” she mutters, and Cole glances at her to catch what little of her briefly wide eyes they can make out in the half-light hitting their backs. “That was loud.”

“You think?”

“I didn’t ask you.”

Wynonna fishes in the cardboard sleeve for another drink, kicks the packaging away when the breeze catches it.

“You owe me a beer,” she says.

“You owe me fifty,” they say back. “I’ll take it off your tally.”

She chuckles, leaning back awkwardly to sip. Fiddles with the cap in her other hand.

“Tally. Hah. Like the song. Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the-”

“No, don’t sing it.”

“-ninety-nine bottles of-”

She laughs, twisting away when they stretch to kick at her ankle.

“Shush, no – be less annoying, my God.”

“Buzzkill,” she says, but they can tell she’s grinning.

“If I were a buzzkill, I wouldn’t be freezing my ears off up here with you, when I could be at home. Looking after your sister.”

“Nope. She’s only my sister when she’s the picture of health. Sad And Sick Waverly is one-hundo percent yours.”

“Whatever you say, Earp.”

Wynonna shifts, and they can feel her looking at them.

“She really not okay?”

“She’ll be alright. Hasn’t been fun for her, though.”

“She always hated being sick. When we were little she used to bug me to let her go outside and play anyway, and I’d cave, and Daddy’d find us and yell, and I’d say it was my idea.”

Nicole wrinkles their nose.

They never like being reminded of the kind of man Ward Earp was.

“He was an ass,” they mutter.

“Fuckin’ A,” Wynonna responds, stretching her arm out to clink their beers together. And then she sighs, dragging a hand through her hair and letting her lips vibrate and sputter together while she breathes out a clumsy breath of air. “Think he’s really gone, this time,” she says, plucking nothing out from between the tiles at her side. “Doc. Think I really screwed it right up for good.”

“Did you actually do anything?”

She shrugs. Lets out another sigh trying not to be a sob.

“Got fired?”

“From Shorty’s?”

Yup.

“Why?”

“How many reasons you want? I’m a colossal fuck-up, isn’t that enough?”

Cole rolls their eyes. Keeps it light.

Their friend is oozing vulnerability, and it aches to see.

“Come on,” they say. “You know that’s not true.”

She scoffs.

“Do I?”

“You’re obviously a small screw-up. Huge is – that’s giving yourself way too much credit.”

Wynonna lets it out then, that one sob stuck in her throat, and swallows loud and wipes at her face. Nicole pretends not to notice.

“You’re a real prince,” she mutters, “I ever tell you that?”

“Probably never, if I’m remembering right. Go on, say it again.”

“I will not.”

She wipes at her face, clears her throat. Breathes in and out, slow. They can feel her shutters drawing closed already, her composure returning. They wonder what it’d take for her to just… not. To open the floodgates, once and for all.

Which is unfair, they know that.

Wynonna’s smart, in her way, to pick her moments and parse out droplets here and there, and Nicole’s no stranger to a feeling so big and scary the only thing you can think to do is hold on tight to whatever keeps the tidal wave at bay.

Wynonna grumbles about needing to find something else to drink, looking around as if trying to remember the way down or what else there is in the house or which liquor stores are still open, and Nicole doesn’t argue.

Learning to swim is hard, and nobody likes to drown.

 

////

 

They get back to Waverly around 4am, three beers deep and plenty annoyed they couldn’t justify driving. They set an alarm for two hours’ time so they can collect their car from Wynonna’s before work.

“Cole?”

Waverly’s soft, croaky voice startles them in the dead dark room.

“Sorry, baby. I was trying to be quiet.”

She snakes an arm out from under the covers to reach for them. Cole drops their jacket with their shoes and takes her hand, climbing carefully over her to pull her into them, knees tucked together.

“How’s your head?”

Uh,” is all she says, nasally and flat.

“You want some water?”

The grip on their hand tightens.

“Okay,” they say, kissing the back of her head.

“’kay?” she says, and they think she’s doing her echo thing she does when she’s sleepy, until they realise it’s a question. They do keep promising not to leave, after all.

“Everything’s fine,” they whisper. “Wynonna just needed help with something. She’s fine.”

Waverly shuffles back a bit, a nudge more than anything.

Their general motto is to never lie to her, but there’s no way she has the energy for a full rundown.

“Try to go back to sleep, for me, okay?”

She sighs, and starts coughing weakly, her body knocking against theirs with the movement. Cole waits, tense, in case she needs water, or shows signs of being sick again. She doesn’t.

They manage to stay awake long enough for her breathing to even out, and then they follow.

 

////

 

It’s a hell of a lot harder to climb something when you’re juggling a six-pack at the same time.

Should’ve bought cans, they think. Wouldn’t matter so much if I dropped those.

“Is that what I think it is?”

Cole holds the beers out to Wynonna, catching their breath. “Against my better judgment.”

“Well look who finally got the goddamn memo.”

She helps herself to one, leaning back on her elbows. It’s not until she’s downed half of it that Cole realises she’d possibly already made her way through a whole other pack without them. There’s more bottles in the gutter.

Three nights in a row.

Probably best to stop counting.

“I wanted to see what he saw,” Wynonna says, staring out to the horizon again. Doc’s view. Their view. Whatever. “Thought I might understand more, if I could just... I dunno. Listen to me, spending so much time wonderin’ what he… what he saw, whenever he looked at… anything. How’s that for a joke. Not like he cared, clearly.”

Nicole takes their beanie off, fluffing their hair to air out.

“Maybe it’s kinda shit,” Wynonna continues. “I think. I dunno how to – how to really tell. But Doc sure thought so.”

“What makes you say that?”

“He left. He keeps doing that. Good things aren’t easy to leave, Haught.”

Nicole can’t keep in a little laugh. A bitter chuckle.

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that sometimes good things are the easiest things in the world to leave, Earp.”

She snorts and goes back to her drink. “That’s a load of crap.”

“Is it?”

“You bet.”

“Why’d you leave Waverly when she was a kid, then? Isn’t she good?”

Wynonna winces. Shakes her head.

“Not the same thing.”

Probably not. After Wynonna and Waverly’s daddy died, Wynonna skipped out for a couple years, leaving Waverly, partway through her last year of high school, in the care of their Aunt Gus. Water under the bridge, now. A whole river of it. Or a lake that looks like an ocean.

“You’re not Doc,” Nicole says. “But you can’t tell me you don’t understand the appeal of getting the hell away from something valuable in case you break it.”

“Valuable, huh?”

Nicole shrugs.

“Priceless.”

“Jesus, you’re such a cornball. You and babygirl deserve each other.” Her eyes go wide. “Oh, shit. I have two cornball sisters.”

Nicole forces themself to smile.

They’re being claimed, after all. It’s really something, to know that.

And yet.

Sister.

Another thing they’re not looking forward to losing if they ever figure out how to rip off the bandaid they’ve all but absorbed into their skin.

“There’s loads of reasons people see whatever they see when they look at us,” Nicole says.

Not all of them good, is the part they leave out.

“Whatever,” says Wynonna, gulping down her beer with what falls short of a satisfied sigh. “If Doc’s gonna go around looking at things and not realising how awesome they are and – and leaving them behind all the time, then good fucking luck to him. Sad fucking life.”

“You’re not wrong,” Cole says, despite feeling a little bad, and being aware that in another week or two, Wynonna’s mind will change, or Doc’s, and they’ll try again.

Seems to be the pattern.

Always room for another once-over, in case one of them missed a crucial detail the first time around.

Maybe that’s all love is. Trying. Really hard. Again, and again.

“I mean, look at it,” Wynonna says. “Look at that fuckin’ view.”

Nicole looks.

Nicole can’t tear their eyes away.

The lake.

Or the ocean.

Who cares, really?

It’s still water.

It’s still so big, and so beautiful.

When the poor thing’s not glued to her bed, Nicole’s got half a mind to drag Waverly up here. They wonder how Wynonna’d feel about hosting a picnic on her roof. They do know Waverly would like it. They do know it would be worth the effort of getting her up here. They know that for sure.

Nicole looks over at Wynonna.

“Hey,” they say. “I’ve been meaning to tell you. I use they/them pronouns, these days.”

Wynonna turns her head, studying them. Eyes focused.

“What?

“I’m non-binary.”

Nicole’s not sure what her face is doing, and it isn’t entirely the fault of the light, but if they’re going to get this point across, they’re going to get it all the way over there.

“It’s different for everyone,” they tell her, “but for me that means I don’t like being called a girl, or lady, or whatever. It’s not how I see myself. Or how I feel.”

Wynonna sits up, eyes back over all the rooftops and cars and people.

Lake.

Ocean.

Still water, they think, a reserve of courage, because Wynonna’s being all quiet and nervousness is starting to eat into their bravado.

Still beautiful.

“I’m still me,” Nicole says, trying not to make it sound like a backpedal.

Shit.

It’s not happening right.

No, idiot, it’s not happening at all yet – give her a second.

When in hell has Wynonna Earp ever been rendered speechless?

“I’m just – I guess I’m more me, than I’ve ever been,” they say, and the truth of it – the words in their mouth, letting them out like this, clearly, an offering they’d wanted this woman to have for months now – is a warm pool of water they don’t need to hold their breath in. They can float. They are floating. They swallow, thickly, blinking hard. “I actually really like that,” they tell her, voice crackling. “I like who I’m becoming. And I want to share it with you.”

Wynonna’s gaze comes back to them.

For half an age, it feels like.

Then she rolls onto her side to get her leg under her, trying to stand without letting her bottle go. Until she does, tossing it clumsily over the side of the roof so she can stand. Nicole hears it shatter on the bricks. What a mess.

“What are you doing?” they ask, when she’s upright and wobbly, their hands out to catch her.

“I never thought I’d say this,” she mutters, bug-eyed and clutching their forearm, “but I need something to drink that isn’t booze.”

 

////

 

Waverly wakes to sunshine on her face and the sudden realisation she can finally breathe.

Not in long heaving gasps between rounds of sticking her head in the toilet.

Not through her mouth while she tries to rest, with her supply cut off every time she swallows and the knowledge that her mouth and lips will be dry as hell when she’s done.

Real, proper breaths, though her nose and everything.

She inhales deep – and coughs weakly when the air catches somewhere in her throat or lungs, still scratchy. Every muscle in her stomach and chest rails against her. Waverly drops her hand onto her face with a groan and waits for it to pass and focuses on her new trick of breathing.

It still feels like one heck of a tick in the win column.

She stretches, bleary eyes searching the room. No Cole. Can’t hear anybody in the kitchen or bathroom, either. Maybe they moved onto the couch in the night.

She scrabbles for her phone on the bedside, squinting at it. A missed call from Wynonna and a few texts from Cole. Waverly reads the messages, forcing the words to sink into her useless, soup-y brain.

“Wynonna… roof… late…” she mumbles to the screen, like it’ll help her comprehension.

Whatever, she thinks, dropping it onto the mess of blankets and steeling herself to sit up.

Her arms are weak. Heck, everything is. The world sounds like she’s underwater. She clears her throat and waits for the tingling in her head and feet to stop before gripping the corner of the side table and slowly, slowly, standing.

The room whirls, but sorts itself out quick enough.

She makes it to the bathroom – God, she’s so done with this bathroom – and pees quickly, before the environment can trigger some kind of psychological response and she ends up throwing up for old times’ sake. She splashes water on her face at the sink and by the time she’s in the kitchen, leaning on the bench waiting for the kettle to boil, she actually feels half-human.

The clock on the microwave reads 16:09. She… slept another entire day.

Waverly can’t find it in herself to care.

She wants to shower and open the windows. Change the sheets on her bed and put clean clothes on and drink two gallons of water without choking. And she’s hungry. She’s tired, too, and aching all over – her head still pounds dully, a stubborn kind of pain she can’t wait to be rid of. But she knows she’s dehydrated as much as anything at this point, and the fact she’d commit a felony for a couple peanut butter sandwiches tells her the worst of her brush with the bubonic plague must have passed.

God, please, let it have passed.

Waverly finds the energy to cut up a banana, on top of everything else. She’s arranging the slices on top of the peanut butter when the sound of a key in the front door catches her attention. Chrissy must have closed up early at the shop. Waverly takes a half a second to groan. She’s still wearing the sleep clothes she’s been trying not to die in for days and her hair is unwashed, like the rest of her, but then, Chrissy must have been listening to her barfing up a lung half the week. So who gives a crap.

“Wave!”

Waverly straightens, turning to watch Cole slam the door shut behind them and rush over before she can blink.

Their arms wrap around her as if with a mind of their own and she folds into the embrace, arms scrunched against their chest.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

“Hi, baby.”

“Hey, yourself,” they say, quiet and careful, like they have been this whole time. “What’re you doing up?”

“I got hungry.”

“Yeah? PB and banana?”

“Uh-huh.”

Their hand strokes through the messy strands at the back of her head, clasping the nape of her neck gently.

“That’s a good sign, then. You got some sleep?”

“Finally,” she sighs.

“Excellent,” they say, soft, and like clockwork – like the tide, like all the cycles of the moon – they shift enough to kiss the side of her head, their lips pressing into her hair and skin, a salve on a burn. Whatever’s left of her nagging headache halves, then and there. “That’s excellent,” they whisper, the relief clear in their voice.

Waverly’s stomach clenches at the weight of it and she staves off a brief brush with guilt.

The memories are hazy as all get out, but she knows they took two whole days off work to hold her hair back and feed her cough medicine, only to spend half the past few nights doing god-knows-what for her sister.

She kisses their neck.

“When I’m less gross and exhausted, you are going to get so much thank-you sex.”

Cole pumps their fist subtly against her back and whispers, “Score.”

“Hey, I can take back the offer just as easily as I gave it, mister.”

“Oh, like you don’t already know I’m only in this for the BJs.”

She whacks them on the stomach with as much strength as she can manage and pulls back to see the way their eyes sparkle when they’re being so dang cheeky – and she gasps, her hands flying to her mouth.

Cole,” she says through her fingers, before she reaches carefully for their face. “What happened?”

“Oh. Um.”

They keep their hands on Waverly’s hips and let her turn their head enough to get a good look at the wound on the side of their head, sticky blood dried over their ear and down their neck.

“I’m okay,” they say, squeezing her waist. “I’m okay-”

“You’re bleeding.

“No, I’m not, I’m okay, see? It’s stopped.” They tip their head away from her to touch at their temple, looking at their fingers. Which now have blood on them. “Oh.” They wipe it off on their shirt, the collar of which has gone crusty with the stuff on one side anyway. “Whatever. I swear I’m fine. Better than fine. Amazing.” Their grip on her waist tightens and they step into her, eyes bright, face crinkling. Beaming.

Waverly narrows her eyes.

All she sees is her boyfriend coming in with a ton of manic energy and a head injury.

“You have five seconds to tell me everything or I’m taking you to the hospital.”

“I don’t need the hospital, and if you’re too tired for sex you’re too tired for driving.”

Five seconds.”

“I can do it in one.” She yelps when they heft her on to the counter, propping her next to her forgotten food with an increasingly huge grin on their bloody, handsome face. They cup her cheeks with firm hands and brush hair off her forehead and look her directly in the eyes with all the warmth of a hundred million suns. Have they been crying?

“Sweetheart?” Waverly grips their wrists, a strange sense of excitement seeping into her sternness. They… They look so happy. “Seriously, what is it?”

“I told her. I told Wynonna I’m trans.”

Waverly stares at them.

Before she can react, they’re kissing her, and it’s lovely for half a second until she remembers she’s probably still contaminated and maybe hasn’t brushed her teeth in 24 hours.

She pulls back, their hands smoothing at her hair.

“Oh my god,” she says, and if her brain had trouble with a couple lousy text messages half an hour ago, that’s nothing on this. “Uh. Wow. Okay. Really?”

They nod, mighty pleased with themself. “Really.”

Wow.

Come on, come on, this is huge for them.

How did it go?

What did she say?

Are they okay?

Waverly shakes her head to clear it because yes – yes, that’s the question, that’s the only one that matters, out of all of it.

“And you’re alright? You’re okay?”

They nod again, emphatic. “Yeah,” they sob, sniffling, smiling. “Yeah, baby, I’m amazing.”

Waverly leans her forehead against theirs, her hands slipping up their neck, and holds them while they tremble and stutter and buzz.

“You are,” she tells them, no room for argument. “You are amazing.”

They sob again, the once, eyes squeezed shut. A few tears slip loose. Waverly feels her own emotions rise fast and warm, watching the aftermath of what was clearly a big moment wash over them.

She will never not hold them through this kind of wake. Always, if she’s wanted or needed, regardless of how strong a swimmer they become. How could she not, when the rush of the wave is this refreshing?

Cole takes in another big breath, settling some more, without an inch of their giddy euphoria easing out of their features. Waverly sniffs when they do. When their breathing’s calmed down, Waverly squeezes at the muscle between neck and shoulder, her thumb finding sticky blood on one side.

“My baby boy,” she says, softly, her hands drifting to hold their sides firmly. “So brave, baby.”

Cole’s mouth makes a self-conscious line at her, their eyes widening in a silent I know, right?

Then they’re gasping, a brief nervous chuckle trickling out, and Waverly giggles with them, kissing their neck again and again until they’re both in fits with it.

“I’m so darn proud of you.”

“I’m proud of me, too.”

“As you should be.”

“Jesus. Fuck. Wow.”

“So it went okay?” she guesses, hopes, prays.

“Yeah,” they say, swallowing down some more air. “At first I wasn’t sure – It’s not like she was gonna hate it or anything, but I just, I wasn’t sure she’d understand, and she’d been drinking, and it was late.”

“Sounds about right.”

“But it’s cool. She was really cool. She had questions and we talked. I think she’s gonna have like, fifty more things to ask me next time I see her, but it’s out there and she gets it. Or she’s trying to.”

They sniff again, still looking so intently at her, and Waverly realises they’re waiting for her.

For her what?

Approval?

God, this knucklehead is going to be the absolute death of her.

“I would kiss you so hard if I wasn’t all disgusting,” Waverly says, combing through their messy hair with her hands. “You did so, so good, sweetheart.”

“Your kisses could never be disgusting, Wave.”

“Nice try, Prince Charming, but you’re completely not ready for it. Trust me.”

Fine. But I won’t forget what you said about the thank-you sex.”

“You better not.” Her finger drifts up and she keeps her other hand anchored to their chest while she grazes over the dark patch on the side of their face. “So tell me what happened here.”

“Uh… Wynonnathrewabottleatmyhead?”

“She what?

“No, no, you do not have to kill her.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

“Are you sure you’re not supposed to be resting still?”

Cole.”

“It was an accident. It won’t make sense if I explain.”

“Give it a shot.”

“She… didn’t think her aim was that good?”

“Cole…”

“I promise, baby, I am totally fine. It was hours ago. I didn’t come back right away, I fell asleep on her couch.”

“Cole!”

“Let’s keep talking about sex.”

“Sweet Jesus,” Waverly mutters, and shoves at them to make room for getting off the counter, snatching at their hand and pulling. “We’re going to the bathroom right now to clean you up, and you’re going to give me every single detail, and then we’ll talk about Wynonna’s life expectancy.”

“Alright, alright,” they say, snagging her plate of half-stale half-sandwich off the counter on their way. “But then you’re eating this and you’re going back to bed.”

How adorable they think they have a say in it.

 

////

 

Cole stands in the bathroom with the light on and their shirt off.

Buzzing.

Bursting.

Cackling at fuck all, and everything.

“You’re cute when you’re kind of losing the plot,” Waverly muses, leaning on the doorway in her fresh nightgown. She’s still on the less-than-ideal side of pale, still lost steam halfway through the sandwich she’d been looking forward to, but she’s showered and was moderately useful when they offered to change the sheets.

Having her lucid and looking at them with more light in her eyes is a welcome sight.

“I’m always cute,” they respond, an ego the size of a house by now and zero problems flaunting it, especially when it makes Waverly’s amused smirk split into a full-on grin.

“Wow,” she says, coming up to them to kiss them sweetly. She tastes like toothpaste and peanut butter. “I forgot how big-headed you get when you’re all hopped up on gender euphoria.”

Cole takes the most mature and measured response they have available to them, and giggles loudly.

Waverly boxes them over their good ear and says, “Dork.”

She doesn’t mean it. She just knows what a heck of a day they’ve had.

By the time they helped Wynonna half-fall off the roof much earlier that morning – by the time they’d watched her stagger across the patio – they were convinced.

Fail.

Non-starter.

Crash and burn.

If Wynonna was at least a little okay with the whole non-binary news, if she was even half interested in having any kind of conversation with them about it, she would have said by then.

So, nope.

Time of death: 2:04am.

You dickhead, they told themself, following her into the house with their head down. You just had to rock the status quo and pop the lid on that can of worms, like she hasn’t already got enough on her plate. You stupid, selfish dickhead.

Wynonna stood at the sink under the one uncovered light bulb, refilling a glass tumbler over and over and drinking more water than Cole had ever seen her consume.

Great. You’ve broken her. You’ve broken your best friend.

Stick it on the front page of today’s paper and call it I’m-Not-A-Girlgate.

The glass went under the tap for what had to be the tenth time.

Cole’s thought process soured, hard and fast.

She’s never gonna look at you the same way again.

You’re such a fucking freak.

She’s gonna hate you even so much as thinking about her baby sister you fucking-

They were close to heading out the door, a sick rolling in their gut and the general feeling they were about to come out of their slimy, monstrous skin, when Wynonna turned around, gasping from all the mighty fast hydrating she’d been doing.

“Okay,” she said, leaning back on the sink with the glass still in her hand. “Okay. I think I’m like, half sober.” She swallowed, as if doing one last mental check on her current state. Then she looked at Cole. “I think I got it, but let’s pretend I didn’t, and you can say it again a little louder for the people in the back.”

“Which – Which part?”

“Hypothetically all of it.”

They swallowed. Repeated themself. It wasn’t as easy to say, that time, but they didn’t have the lake on their side then, so why would it be?

Non-binary. Pronouns. Masculine.

Maybe not in that order. The memory hasn’t fully formed in their head, and they were focusing too hard on Wynonna’s face to absorb anything.

When they were done, Wynonna nodded.

And nodded, and nodded.

“So… you, like… don’t gel with the whole… woman… thing.”

“No. Not - Not really.”

“Even though that’s…”

“What we’ve always thought. Yeah.”

“And you’re still… like a…”

“Lesbian. Yeah.”

“Okay. Okay. So. I can’t call you girl anymore, or lady, or like, sister-from-another-mister?”

They swallowed.

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

“But I’ve been doing that for like, ever.”

“Yeah.”

“You didn’t like it?”

“Not always. But, no, not recently.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“That’s what I’m doing.”

“Huh.”

More thinking.

At this point, Cole started to wonder if maybe they weren’t about to lose their best friend.

“Can I call you dude?

“Of course.”

“Can I call you buddy, or pal, or – or man, or-”

“Those are all totally fine. That’s all fine.”

“Oh, shit. What about Haught Potato? Haught Pants? Haught Topic?”

“Unfortunately, I guess those are gender neutral.”

“Which means…”

Cole gritted their teeth.

Still cannot believe they did it.

“They’re allowed.”

“Phew. Thought I’d have to draw a line there. Kidding! Kidding. I wouldn’t really, uh, I mean, if you – fuck.”

“I know this is – You’re not gonna offend me. I know you’re just trying to understand, and I really… I appreciate it.”

“Yeah. Well. Whatever.” She turned around, embarrassed, started clearing empty beer bottles off the counter. “Sounds pretty important to you. What kinda asshole would I be if I didn’t make, I don’t know, like an eensy bit of effort.”

“An eensy asshole?”

“Jackass. Hey, that’s another neutral one, right?”

“Shit. I’ve created a monster.”

“Hardy har,” she said, and that’s when she threw the bottle in her hand their way, smirking and not really looking, and harder than she’d intended.

Cue twenty minutes of swearing and apologies.

She was aiming for the cushion next to them, allegedly.

“We don’t have to go over everything tonight,” Cole had said, after. They were both lying on the sofa, Wynonna with a fresh beer in one hand, holding a container of frozen soup to the side of Cole’s head with the other. “You can always ask me or Waverly if you-”

“Whoa. Waverly. What are we gonna tell Waverly?”

“Waverly already knows, Wynonna.”

“Christ, that little snot knows everything before I do.”

It went on like that til sunrise, Wynonna peppering them with well-meaning questions and Cole sinking lower and lower, calmer and calmer, into the sofa with each one.

“So this is okay?” they asked her, once even their dumb brain couldn’t make them afraid of the answer.

Wynonna rolled her eyes at them. “Duh, you dingus. Why the hell’s what I think matter, anyway?”

They might have started to cry, then.

Relief does that.

The tears come back now, just remembering it.

I did not know I needed this.

Wynonna, in all her tipsy late-night earnestness, got up to pull them into a hug so hard they thought their ribs were gonna crack.

Cole grins like an idiot at their reflection while their eyes turn pink and their face scrunches and their teeth are gonna pop out of their gums.

I am so glad I have it.

Waverly holds them, smiling at the mirror, too.

I am so glad I gave it to myself.

“Always wanted a brother,” Wynonna mumbled, ruffling their hair.

They squeezed the back of her jacket in a sweaty hand, the leather squeaking where it creased, and tried to keep their cool when Wynonna clapped them on the shoulder and shifted back and cleared her throat.

“Good,” they said, voice wet and calm and pleasantly temperate, its own body of water. They’re going to enjoy splashing around for as long as they possibly can. “I think I’ve always wanted to be one.”