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i never felt this way before

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They’re at the arcade and it’s Friday and everything’s normal, until it isn’t.

Claggor’s on his third slushie refill, lips stained blue, watching Powder play the duck hunting game with terrifying accuracy. Holding a pink plastic gun and squinting down the barrel, blasting cartoon birds out of the sky.

“New record, Pow,” Vi whispers, enthralled, one hand frozen in a bag of Doritos. “Five hundred k!”

“Six hundred or bust!” her sister shoots back, eyes on the prize.

Mylo groans, his high score obliterated.

“This is such a stupid game.”

Vi flicks Nacho Cheese dust at him, tongue stuck out, and Mylo kicks her in the shins so she smacks him over the head with orange fingers.

Clag intervenes earlier than normal, maybe because they’re in public and none of them want to get banned from one of their favourite hangouts. He takes Mylo by the back of his hoodie and tugs him away from Vi before he can retaliate again. He doesn’t even look away from Powder – he’s just like, freakishly good at avoiding nuclear warfare at this point.

“No,” he says, in that quiet tone of his. “Stop.”

Mylo simmers in his brother’s grip, staring daggers at Vi. As far as she’s concerned this wouldn’t always be enough to stop a brawl, but this is Vi’s third bag of Doritos today and she’s more primed for videogames than violence.

“Dick,” she mutters, back on the ducks and the digital explosions.

“Stupidass,” Mylo shoots back, and snatches the chips off her.

Benzo appears then, maybe sensing Vi’s one second from knocking Mylo into the air hockey table and stuffing the puck in his mouth.

Not a lot sets her off like being called stupid.

“Going alright, boys?” Benzo asks, his usual friendliness radiating off him.

It’s not the first time someone’s seen her with her brothers and Vander’s bulky denim jacket with the sheepskin collar and lumped them all together. Vi smirks at the carpet, not unhappy about it.

“Oh, sorry, Vi,” Benzo adds, scratching at his arm. “I, uh… I thought you were one of Mylo’s ring-ins. Look who got a haircut!”

Claggor did it last week. It’s kind of a mullet and kind of not.

“S’fine, Benny,” Vi says.

“Let’s pretend I said boys and girls, hey?”

He’s embarrassed, like she even cares.

Boys are cool, sometimes. When they’re not dumbasses. Vi can be cool. And a dumbass, according to Powder. But her best friend Caitlyn thinks she’s funny when she’s a dumbass, and Caitlyn looks hell cute when she’s laughing at Vi being a dumbass, so it’s chill.

Vi just shrugs. Powder’s deep in the vortex of High Score Central and Benzo knows better than to drag her out of it by trying to talk to her. If he’s correcting himself all for Vi, she’s not interested in being singled out.

Even though she like, is a girl. Obviously.

Vi grimaces at the thought, for some reason.

“We’re good, thanks Mister B,” Clag says, and he nods at the screen they’re all crowded round. “Powder’s gonna go on the wall again.”

“Is she now?”

“Not for long,” Mylo grumbles. “Game’s rigged.”

“Well well, Mr Mylo,” says Benzo. “Are you accusing me of fixing up some of my old games so that one of my very favourite customers can keep her winning streak?”

Powder cracks the end of the level and the console erupts with flashing colour and the sound of quacking.

Jeez, this game is dumb.

Vi watches her little sister bounce from foot to foot while she waits for the next part to load, a kind of happy dance. Normally Vi would make fun of her for being a massive dork about it, but the kid’s eleven and likes videogames more than she likes most people. It’s cool to see her win.

“Nailing it, Pow,” Vi says, squeezing her shoulder.

“Dang right,” Powder mutters, already focused on the screen again, and Vi laughs at her single-mindedness and Benzo laughs at Mylo’s quiet bitching.

“See you next week then, lads,” Benzo says, clapping them on the back. “And ladies,” he adds, winking at Vi and wandering off.

Vi ignores him.

Lady.

When did the truth start to feel so annoying?

 

////

 

Powder beats the game – “I didn’t know you could do that,” Clag says – and Benzo takes out the beat-up Polaroid he uses to keep his Wall of Game up to date. Powder’s already on there three times. Chest puffed, teeth on show.

They collect their bikes from behind the arcade building and start the trek back down to the trailer park. Mylo starts going on about a new burger place that opened up in the city.

“They make milkshakes with donuts and shit, man!”

Vi trails behind them with Powder seated on her handlebars.

“You didn’t correct Benzo back then,” she says, leaning against Vi’s front with a lollipop stuffed in her mouth. “When he thought you were a boy.”

“You were supposed to be focused on takin’ a bunch of duck names and pissing Mylo off.”

“I can multitask. What gives?”

Vi shrugs. Her standard response, apparently.

“Didn’t feel the need,” she says. “Doesn’t bother me.”

“I’d hate it.”

“Then we’re different.”

“You do kinda dress like a boy.”

“That’s ‘cause most of my clothes are hand-me-downs from Mylo and Clag. Or Vander.”

“And because you like it.”

Vi nods. She’s never envied any of Powder’s skirts and leggings and hair clips.

“And because I like it,” she agrees.

Powder’s quiet, stewing on it all.

She’s a brilliant, curious kid. Her eagerness to soak up as much as she can about anything she doesn’t understand makes it easy for her to accept info from people she trusts. And she trusts Vi.

“Okay,” she says eventually, legs swinging under the handlebars. “Only care if you care.”

Vi presses a rough kiss to the side of her head.

And she stews, too, over the thought she’d be happier if Benzo didn’t feel the need to correct himself, either.

 

////

 

Vi keeps up her stewing.

She thinks of how Powder once pointed out the mould stain on the wall by the bathroom door looks like Woody from Toy Story, years after they moved into the place, and now every time Vi goes to pee, the you’ve got a friend in me song pops into her head.

Like as soon as you notice something, no matter how long it’s been sitting there waiting for you to see it, all you can do is notice it harder.

 

////

 

They’re at the river and it’s Sunday morning and everything’s good, again.

Better than.

Caitlyn’s here.

“Are you wearing sunscreen?” she asks Vi from her spot on her deckchair, a stickler, with her giant sun hat on her head. “You don’t want to get burnt again.”

Vi turns, waist-deep in the long thin track of water that runs the whole length of the trailer park they all live in. All except Caitlyn.

“I’m barely gettin’ out the water, Cherry Coke.”

Caitlyn’s face rearranges into an unimpressed stare.

Probably.

The only thing bigger than her hat is her sunglasses.

No,” she says, firm. “Absolutely not.”

Vi raises her eyebrows, a portrait of innocence. “No what?”

“You will not be calling me Cherry Coke.”

“You’re the one who keeps ragging on cupcake. ‘Scuse me for trying out alternatives.”

Honestly, Vi’s pretty sure she nailed it the first time around.

No way is this bookish, self-righteous girl with the – the long pale legs and the – man, that cute little tooth gap… No way is she anything but one of those iced vanilla cupcakes. With like, sprinkles.

Vi decided on it a week after they met, at an interschool sports carnival thing last year, and Caitlyn’s been railing against it ever since.

“No,” Caitlyn says again, the blush of her skin meeting the colour of her neck in what little space her long-sleeved linen shirt leaves uncovered.

The water’s not warm, but looking at Caitlyn always makes Vi feel like it is.

“You’re being picky.”

“My standards aren’t that high.”

“I’ll run out of inspiration soon and then you won’t have a nickname at all. Are you sure you didn’t like ‘marshmallow’?”

“It cannot be food related.”

“Cherry Coke isn’t a food.”

“You’re more creative than that.”

“I’m really not, though.”

“Enlist Powder’s help, then. She is.”

“You wanna end up getting called mudlips or something, do you?”

Caitlyn laughs, softly, and Vi feels her own face crack at having achieved that.

“Maybe don’t ask Powder,” she concedes, a wry grin.

The girl’s piercing squeal pulls Vi’s attention, like their joking around has summoned her.

Claggor and Mylo have got her in the air, arms and legs apiece, swinging her side to side in a wind-up on the riverbank. Poor thing’s so little and skinny, and this happens all the time.

Vi!

“What?”

Do something!

Vi squints at Claggor’s calculation and Mylo’s glee, the strain in their arms while they swing her back towards the trailers and forwards again. They’re idiots, but their hands grip her wrists and ankles tight, Vi can tell. The surface of the grubby river water is clear of sticks and whatnot and like one foot from where they stand.

“Nah,” Vi says, scratching her nose. “You’re fine.”

You jerks-

The boys cackle, swing once more, and let her go when her twisting furious body reaches its apex; she screams through the air, hits the water with her hands out in an uncoordinated somersault and alarmingly big splash.

Claggor and Mylo high-five.

“You get one of those a week, remember?” Vi calls out to them, pointing and pointed. “You just cashed it.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Mylo grumbles, waving her off. “Give it a rest, Mom.”

Vi grits her teeth.

The M-word’s loaded enough on its own – Mylo’s pushing Vi’s buttons deliberately again, like an ass. He’s an orphan, too, they all are, taken in by Vander, a giant man with giant hands who drives trucks cross-country for a living. Vander knew their parents. He doesn’t talk about them much. Probably hard, talking about all the friends you lost in one hit in a riot gone wrong.

Mom.

What Mylo means – what Vi hears – is you’re just a dumb girl.

And yeah, she hates being called dumb.

And she hates being called a girl.

That’s where all the stewing’s got her to. She knows that much for sure.

“Vi?”

She starts at the sound of Caitlyn’s voice.

“He’s just trying to annoy you,” she says.

“It’s working,” Vi responds, jaw tight.

“I know, but you might want to redirect your attention…”

Caitlyn points to the spot in the water where Powder went in. Vi looks in time to watch her surface, gasping and splashing. Her heart sinks and she gestures lamely.

“I better…”

“Yes, go.”

There’s only so far the boys can toss her and they all know the river like the back of their hands. The water where Powder is comes up to Vi’s chin, enough to make standing still tricky for Vi, which means Powder can only tread water or float. Deep enough to make throwing her in safe and leaving her there not unsafe.

She’s just not a great swimmer.

Vi’s not a great teacher.

“C’mere,” Vi says, and her sister shoves her in the chest weakly, trying to keep her head up.

“I hate you.”

“Come here, piglet.” Vi catches her waist and pulls her in so she can hold on to Vi’s arms. “Like I’m gonna let you drown in three feet of water.”

“It isn’t three feet!”

“Two feet, then.”

“People drown in puddles, buttface. Puddles.”

“You’re way more powerful than a puddle.”

“That’d be real nice if you hadn’t just let our brothers–”

“I’ll dunk you.”

“Don’t!”

“I’ll dunk you if don’t quit being a baby!”

Vi grips her sides, tickling her under the water, and Powder wriggles, trying not to lose her outrage to laughter.

No, no, oh my-”

“Dunking ahoy!”

“No no no - HA - my hair my hair-”

Powder scrabbles and folds, elbowing Vi in the gut. She oofs, gives in.

“Alright, alright, be cool. Hop on.”

Powder scrambles around to Vi’s back when she swims them both back to land. She takes her time, makes a point of moving along the river a little first. Powder likes the ride and Vi kinda owes her one.

Caitlyn’s up out of her deckchair, waiting for them with a towel. Her own, Vi notices, huge and fluffy and definitely meant for use post-massage-and-hot-spa, and not… whatever the hell Vi’s done here with her brothers nearly every Sunday since they were kids. Unless it’s snowing.

The towel’s white, too, which Vi always thinks is totally stupid, except for right now, when she’s too busy feeling that warmth rise in her throat at the sight of Caitlyn holding the towel open for Powder and Powder stepping into it.

Caitlyn closes her arms around the girl, rubbing at her back, and Powder leans against her, sulking.

“Thanks, your majesty,” she mutters.

“You’re welcome, my royal subject.”

She catches Vi looking, her face disarmingly soft. Vi can only grin, which makes Caitlyn grin, and then they’re both grinning at each other for no reason other than they both seem to feel like it.

“Alright,” Powder says, extracting herself from the whole thing. “If you’re gonna be gross, I’ll take my chances with Dumb and Dumber.”

Vi’s face burns hotter than the surface of the sun.

She watches Powder stalk up the riverbank, wrapped in a towel almost as big as she is. Mylo and Clag are lounging on one of the picnic tables now, sharing a paper bag of lollies and a bottle of Pepsi.

“Thanks,” Vi squeaks, when she thinks she has her voice back. She clears her throat and tries again: “Thank you. For that.”

“Powder already thanked me, Vi.”

“Yeah. Still, though.”

Caitlyn waves it away, settling on her chair again.

The first time she joined them at the river, Caitlyn had sat gamely in the dirt in her shorts and her giant sun hat and watched. Barely said a word, and didn’t swim. Vi didn’t push. This weird, shy, super smart girl had finally started coming out of her shell, and Vi did all she could to not screw it up.

Soon Caitlyn started bringing one of her towels to sit on, like a little dirt was gonna ruin her week. Then she went and added the whole sunscreen schtick into the mix.

They all teased her, a rite of passage. She made it a little too easy, to be fair.

Then Vi realised the skin on the backs of Caitlyn’s legs was turning red, itchy, from whatever unthinkable stuff’s mixed into the dirt or washed up on the bank, courtesy of Zaun’s putrid waterways. They probably shouldn’t swim in it, half the time.

Vi forgets how much growing up here acclimatises her to all kindsa dumb shit.

Clag saw the chair on the side of the road on his way Topside one day, the city in the north where he does odd jobs for rich assholes. He threw it in the back of Vander’s truck and put it in place for Caitlyn to find the next time she joined in on their weekly tradition.

Caitlyn maintains she did not cry at the gesture, but they were all there.

Vi still remembers hugging her.

Now, Caitlyn crosses her ankles on the decrepit deckchair – her throne, they call it – and Vi scratches at the side of her neck.

“Think that might have put an end to the swimming,” she mumbles.

“Yes,” Caitlyn agrees, finding her page in her book. “Your brothers giving Powder a scare does tend to do that.”

“We were gonna watch a movie, too. If you want. Get a pizza.”

She knows, idiot.

Swimming and movies and pizza.

Every Sunday.

“That depends. Is this my hundred-and-tenth invitation to your hundred-and-tenth viewing of Spider-Man?

Vi snorts.

“It’s The Amazing Spider-Man, and obviously.”

“Or maybe it’s two-hundred-and-ten…”

“You find a better movie, and we’ll watch that, alright? Until then, anything else is – like – blasphemy.”

Caitlyn’s smirk grows an eyeroll.

Vi grins some more.

She can hear the boys goofing off with Powder, who’s giggling and squealing, already over her moodiness. It’s not noon yet. The sun’s warm. Vi drips onto the dirt, her bare feet sinking in the almost-mud. Runs her hand through her hair to push it all off her eyes and ears. It stays slicked back, logged with water.

It’s been a good morning.

“You look nice,” Caitlyn says then.

Which has nothing to do with Spider-Man.

“What?”

“I mean, you look – Not nice like - I meant you look like you’re having- Shoot.

She stops, and Vi waits for more, but she looks all… nervous. Flustered.

She only does that when she’s said something she didn’t mean to.

Vi wades into the wild possibility of catching her out.

Thing is, Vi’s swim shorts are sticking to her thighs and her red sports bra fits her good, and she went a few rounds with Vander’s punching bag yesterday. Her arms ache, her shoulders and her back. She feels solid. She likes feeling solid.

Except like, the way Caitlyn’s looking at her turns her to jelly, also.

So.

Solid jelly.

It’s complicated, alright?

“You said nice.”

“I did not.”

“You totally did.”

“What’s nice about how I look, cupcake? You like the haircut?”

“Happy,” she says, spitting it out. “You look happy. It’s nice.”

“Oh. Well. Yeah.” Vi scratches her neck again. This isn’t what she expected. Not that she had expectations. “You’re here, so.”

Caitlyn’s eyes go wide, and so do Vi’s.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck-

“Handsome,” Caitlyn says, recovering first. Turning the tables with her own flash of boldness. “You look quite handsome, when you’re happy.”

Vi stills.

She takes in the word, and the look on Caitlyn’s face when she says it.

The way it makes her heart pump liquid sunshine and her veins thrum with so much light she could surely sustain every other lifeform with the power of it.

Caitlyn looks like she’s figured something out. Or she’s getting closer to.

Vi swallows.

Twice.

“You can’t call me – I mean, I’m not…”

“Why not?”

And well, isn’t that the question.

Vi doesn’t answer, and Caitlyn smiles at her book.

 

////

 

Handsome.

 

////

 

Ah, shit.

 

////

 

“Do you like her or something?”

“What?”

The movie’s over and Vi’s stuck watching her walk away down the gravel road to the front entrance of the trailer park, where her Uber’s gonna collect her.

Vi offered to give her a ride on her handlebars, like always, and like always, Caitlyn stared at her, horrified. Started in on her mini-lecture about safety and the physics of balance.

Not to mention it’s like, eight miles each way.

“You like her,” Powder sings, having all the confirmation she needs. “She’s your girlfriend.”

“Shut up, she is not,” Vi says, still watching her head out. Not always super safe around here, for a cupcake. Can’t wait to get her license soon and be able to drive her herself. “Get back inside.”

You get back inside.”

“Make me.”

“Make me!”

Vi bolts after her, slams the door between the two of them and returns to her spot on the drive.

Watching Caitlyn’s tiny figure from a real distance, squinting when a car pulls up by the front entrance and she hops in the back. Vi’s phone buzzes in her pocket a second later.

Caitlyn: I am safely secured in the car. I highly doubt the driver is going to abduct me, as ever, but I will text you when I’m back at school.

Vi nods at her phone, satisfied.

Pockets it.

Watches the car drive away, just to be sure.

Maybe she should ask Cait for like, the license plate. The driver’s details.

Vi groans, head thrown back to stare up at the heavens. The sky is purple-blue, the sun nearly down.

How many more times is Powder gonna get her to notice stuff that’s right in front of her face?

 

////

 

It’s Friday again and she’s outside Caitlyn’s with her phone in her hand and her heart in her throat.

She had to ditch her bike at the gate, tucked behind the shrubs. The academy locks up early before the weekend. Gotta keep the riff-raff out.

Vi squints up at the red brick building, all six stories of it, joined to others just like it by sheltered walkways and staircases and neatly paved paths with pretty gardens and manicured lawns. So perfect and elite it makes Vi want to barf. Kinda how she always feels, though, when she comes Topside.

Piltover, technically, it’s called. But if you grew up in the southern half, like Vi and her siblings – if you grew up being reminded where you sat in the pecking order, by shopkeepers and Enforcers and teachers and anyone who spared the oxygen to tell you – you can’t think of it as anything other than the top.

Caitlyn answers on the second ring.

“Vi? What is it?”

“Open your window.”

“Why?”

“Just – open it before somebody busts me.”

“You didn’t…”

“Didn’t what?”

Vi listens to scuffling in the background of the call, a little grunt of exertion.

A pale head of dark blue hair pops out from the second story, third window from the right.

Vi waves.

“Heya, cupcake!” she shout-whispers.

Vi,” Caitlyn groans, a weird echo from being fifteen feet up and still in Vi’s ear. “I told you not to come!”

“I do what I want, woman.”

“How did you even get in here?”

She looks around, as if she’s expecting to see the huge wrought-iron gate at the front of the property bent on its hinges, courtesy of one extremely lovestruck 16-year-old.

“Same way I always do,” Vi says. “Climbed. The security here – I’m worried for you, cupcake. Sure hope your folks don’t pay a ton for you to be here thinking it keeps you safe.”

“Yes,” Caitlyn says, dry. “I’m clearly in mortal peril.”

“I’m coming up.”

“You know I can’t let you in after hours without a pass or an ID check or a permission slip from – What are you doing?”

“Coming up.”

You are not.”

Vi hangs up on her, gripping at the trellis at ground level and eyeing off the drainpipes, the balconies, the footholds.

Vi,” Caitlyn hisses from above. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

“And you want an insult to be your last words to me?” Vi mutters.

Caitlyn wouldn’t hear unless she shouted, and she is so not here to get caught. Again.

Vi scales the wall with only one curse and a tiny flash of panic. She’s started wrapping the fabric stuff Vander uses around his hands when he boxes on her chest, winding the roll round her underarms to keep her boobs in place. She got the idea when wrapping her hands, figured it’s the same concept as a bra only less bulky and no annoying pressure on her shoulders. It helps all the shirts she wears sit right on her body, too. She hadn’t even realised they weren’t until she tried it out.

She just would have swapped it for a sports bra if she’d thought ahead to the climbing-walls part of her evening. The material’s not super stretchy, because it’s not meant to be, and it’s pinching a little on one side.

Whatever.

Worth it.

“You’re an idiot,” Caitlyn says when she reaches her.

She's the only person who calls Vi that without making it sound like a bad thing.

“Move out the way.”

“Are you alright?”

“Are you? You were all freaked in your texts so I came over.”

Caitlyn sighs, annoyance evaporating in the face of Vi’s gesture. “I’m fine,” she says. “Other than that little stunt of yours taking ten years off my life.”

“Please. Walking through Zaun’s more hazardous to my health than relying on one of your drainpipes to hold my weight.” Vi closes the window behind her, straightens the lace curtain. “The maintenance budget here must be insane.”

Caitlyn’s got her own room at the academy, all polished floorboards and high ceilings and cream-coloured walls. It’s all one space – the bed by the window, the desk, a little couch – and still it’s nearly as big as every common area in Vi’s whole trailer-park-house-on-bricks combined.

Vi watches Caitlyn stand in the middle of the room, arms folded around herself. She’s staring at her desk, and the trophy sat on it. Silver, with a plaque at the bottom and a blue ribbon stuck to it.

Second,” she mutters, like the word’s a curse.

Vi sits on the end of Caitlyn’s bed. Her plummeting self-esteem is a dark cloud hanging over her head. Hell, over the whole city.

“You tried super hard, Cait,” Vi offers. “That’s all you can do.”

“Obviously not hard enough.”

“Nah. Somebody just tried harder.”

Caitlyn raises her eyebrow sky-high.

Vi fumbles at whatever her point is.

“No – I mean, like – You’re like – And silver is still totally-”

“Would you be happy with second place?”

“I’d – I’d be happy to finish. Hate running. No idea why you even bother with track.”

“Pretend it’s a boxing match, then.”

“You know I don’t compete. My opponent’s a bag of sand.”

“Pretend the bag of sand wins, then!”

Vi startles at her tone, and the volume of it. Caitlyn’s not much for yelling. Her anger sounds too much like hurt for Vi to want to bite back.

Sure enough, the moment passes. Caitlyn deflates. Her eyes are all watery, and so is her voice when she speaks next.

“I’m sorry,” Caitlyn whispers. “Mother’s – She thought I’d win. I told her I would. I wanted her to be proud. I’m just – I’m being silly.”

She wipes at her face, sniffling, and seems about to turn away. Vi stands, bracing for – for whatever her friend needs. Can’t handle the thought of this girl going off to cry on her own. Not when Vi’s right here. Not when she can help.

She tries to think of something to say. She tries to think of something to do.

The first thing Vi thinks of has her opening her arms and stepping forward, slow. Sincere, but not pushy. Caitlyn doesn’t move, her fists pressed into her eyes, shoulders hunched. Vi chances a small step closer. Waits.

Jesus, this is a stupid idea. Caitlyn’s not Powder, she’s not gonna want this. She’s not even looking at you. How’s she supposed to know you’re even offering to–

She knows.

Closes the distance and slams into Vi with her arms crushed between them when Vi wraps her up in the biggest hug she can manage. You can’t even tell Cait’s supposed to be the tall one.

There’s that solid feeling again.

“It’s okay, cupcake,” Vi whispers, finding her words with her arms tight around as much of Caitlyn’s body as she can manage. Her hair’s soft against the side of her face, still damp from her shower. “I’m real sorry you didn’t win. You did work super hard. You trained for ages.”

“I did train for ages,” Caitlyn cries, shaking with her head tucked under Vi’s chin.

“I know you did. I know. You like, haven’t shut up about it for weeks.”

“It wasn’t enough. Wasn’t good enough.”

Vi can feel wet hot air on her neck, fingers at her collarbone. She squeezes harder.

“Cait. You’re literally always good enough.”

Caitlyn doesn’t say anything for a long while. If it didn’t ache so bad, being able to hold her together like this would almost feel nice, for Vi. Getting leaned on, literally and not. Something… satisfying in it.

The room dims while the sun sinks on the other side of the window. Caitlyn pulls back before it’s truly dark, sniffling.

“God, sorry,” she mutters. “I’m sorry. You didn’t come all this way, for – for this.”

Vi clicks her tongue, annoyed.

“I’d do a lot more for a lot less, y’know,” she says.

Caitlyn looks right at her. Right into her eyes, unexpected. Vi still has her hands on her, which – oh.

“Seriously, don’t sweat it,” she says, making more space. “Sometime I’ll make you get on your bike and climb through a window so I can get snot on your favourite shirt.”

Caitlyn laughs, even if it still sounds like a sob. Better than nothing.

Vi brushes under her eyes with a few careful swipes of her thumb, convinced she could be doing more.

“Here.”

“God, no,” she protests, gently pushing at Vi’s hand after she pulls the end of her sleeve into her palm to keep wiping. “Your clothes have been through enough.”

“Clean yourself up, then,” Vi instructs, tone light. “You’re a dang mess.”

Vi waits on the bed while Caitlyn goes to her bathroom. The light in the room changes again when she flicks the switch. When she comes back out a minute later, she looks red-eyed and tired in her oversized sweatshirt and her silly blue yoga shorts.

“That was a nice hug,” she mumbles, loitering by the nightstand.

“Sure.”

Caitlyn doesn’t say anything else. Just keeps looking at her. Vi is not always super bright, but she thinks she knows why.

Even if it feels like, too good to be true.

“Do you… want another one, or-”

“Okay.”

Vi doesn’t get up this time – Caitlyn’s already beside her, arms thrown around her sideways.

Vi tucks her under her chin again, arms thrown right back.

“There’s probably a more comfortable way to do this, y’know,” she whispers.

“Probably,” Caitlyn says, and doesn’t move.

 

////

 

Vi lets her pick the movie.

Caitlyn’s so tired and so bummed about her epic failure she doesn’t even poke fun at how rare that is.

She loads up something Studio Ghibli and they settle on the bed with a blanket and the laptop.

Vi watches Cait watch the screen. She looks more relaxed, at least. The movie ticks along and her relaxation turns to enjoyment. Vi’s glad for it, even if she’s still not sure what the fuss is about. It’s like the fifth time she’s seen it. Something about a loner wizard and a house with legs.

“You called me handsome the other day.”

Caitlyn blinks over at her, her eyes heavy.

“Sorry?”

Shit. Now is not the time, Vi.

The dorm attendant will do the rounds in half an hour to check everyone’s behaving and going to bed, and Vi will have to bail before then.

This is about Caitlyn and not leaving until she feels better.

“At the river. You – You told me I looked handsome.”

Shut up.

Caitlyn shifts her head on her pillow to look at Vi in a careful kind of way.

“I thought you did,” she says. “That’s why I said it.”

“Nobody’s ever called me that before. Nobody… calls me anything. Nothin’ I like hearing, anyway.”

“Did you like hearing that, then?”

Vi raises the shoulder not dug into the bed.

“Be kinda weird if I did,” is all she manages.

“No,” Cait responds, firm and soft. “It wouldn’t.”

Vi glances at the space between them. Pokes at a hole in the knitted blanket, makes it bigger.

“Made me feel…”

“You can say it.”

“Good. I guess. Like you… were seeing something cool. About me. I dunno, whenever people say stuff about how I look or my hair or my clothes they call me like a tomboy or whatever and it… it just feels like they’re making excuses for me. And then I’m like, why? What am I doing that’s so weird they feel like they’ve gotta explain it? Can’t I wear what I wanna wear and have short hair and play sport and shit, without there being a reason for it?”

Caitlyn’s looking at her now – really looking. Vi turns to the ceiling. She has no idea where all this is coming from.

“When you… you looked at me and said that, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong. I just felt… strong.”

“You are strong.”

Vi looks to her. She’s smiling a tired little smile, her attention unwavering. It is really hard to argue with her.

“Okay,” Vi says, quiet.

“‘Handsome’ is a traditionally masculine word,” Caitlyn adds. An observation.

“Guess so.”

“Do you feel like you shouldn’t use it, because you’re a girl?”

Vi looks her way again.

Gets the impression she’s hearing a lot more than what Vi’s actually saying.

A magical animated world plays out on the little screen between their legs, colour and light flickering.

“I think I want to use it because I don’t feel like a girl.”

 

////

 

The messages start coming like, a day later.

Caitlyn, sending links.

Links and emojis.

“You don’t have to read all of them,” Caitlyn reassures her, one night when they’re on the phone together. “I just – I thought you might find some of it interesting. I did.”

“Interesting?”

“Maybe there’s things in there you’ll relate to.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Just read them. If you want to.”

“You’re being weird.”

“And you’re being difficult.”

“See how annoying it is, not having a straightforward conversation?”

Caitlyn sighs, long and loud into the phone, exasperated.

“You really don’t need a reason for feeling the way you feel, at all,” she says. “About your appearance and people’s – people’s perception of it, I mean. But if there is a reason to be had, I wanted to help you find it. Some people get a lot of comfort from that.”

Vi stares at her bedroom wall, winded.

Of all the things…

“How d’you know about any of this?”

“I’m a lesbian, Vi,” is her response. “I do know a little something about feeling different and finding clarity.”

 

////

 

Vi reads everything Caitlyn sends her, and then some.

Her discoveries take the form of questions she’s only just started asking herself.

Vi: did u kno some people arent boys or girls?

Vi: have u heard about pronouns??

Vi: jus read that like a person can like feel like a dude n basically be a dude and think of themself as a dude but doesnt have to actually be a dude! like what!

Vi: sry that last one didnt make sense hangon

Every message fired off with frantic excitement. Waiting. Wondering if she’s jumped the gun.

This is all happening kinda fast, and all.

Or it’s been happening for ages, and the only difference now is she’s letting it.

Clarity.

Caitlyn sends emojis. It’s Caitlyn so there’s like, 20 different kinds and only half of them are relevant to anything, if you ask Vi.

There’s a lotta love hearts in the mix, though.

Solid motivator to keep learning, that.

Solid.

 

////

 

It’s fuckin’ Sunday.

It was never gonna last.

Good things don’t, in Vi’s experience. Why should this be any different?

They come in from the river and Vi aches in ways she can’t enjoy.

The bandages around her underarms have been there for… three days? Four? The river water’s made the wrappings slick and shrunk and so has all the actual swimming. It chafes in a way Vi knows it shouldn’t.

Vi leaves Caitlyn with Powder in the kitchen pouring cups of soda while the boys get the movie going. Stands under the bare light bulb and pulls her wet swim shirt off her head, slowly.

Her ribs hurt when she reaches for her collar, when she lifts her arms, when she grips the fabric.

She can breathe okay, but can’t shake the feeling she’s done something wrong.

She drops her shirt, the wet fabric slapping on the tiles, and avoids the mirror while she tries to find the end of the bandages she tucked somewhere in her front. Even doing that, the skin under her arms pinches, hard. She grits her teeth, an uncomfortable cocktail of shame and pain settling in.

You totally fucked this one up, didn’t you?

The closer she gets to being rid of it, the more she realises how uncomfortable she’d started to get. A snake constricting, bit by bit, around her body for days.

It starts to feel like peeling off the world’s shittiest band-aid, so she goes slower. Mutters a curse and commits to the last foot or so – which is when the door swings open.

“Oh!”

“Hey!” Vi snatches her shirt off the floor to cover herself. “Shit, Caitlyn!”

“I’m so sorry! I thought–”

“Can’t a person get a little privacy?”

“I thought you were in your room! The door wasn’t locked and…”

She stops, taking Vi in with her hand still on the door handle.

Vi adjusts her shirt, trying to cover more with it. Some of the wrappings are still stuck to her chest; the rest trails down to the bathmat.

Caitlyn frowns at Vi and Vi sees, in one horrible moment of blinding self-awareness, exactly what she must be.

Vi, standing in the middle of her bathroom trying to unwrap soggy bandages from around her boobs, like that’s a totally normal thing totally normal people do.

“Are you okay?” Caitlyn asks, concern creeping into her face and her tone. She’s trying not to look at Vi’s front, but Vi catches her doing it.

Fear confirmed.

She’s seen.

She doesn’t get it.

Shit, what’s she gonna think?

“Are those bandages?” she asks, and it looks like she’s gonna move forward, gonna want to see more, and embarrassment claws at Vi’s face and she steps away.

“I’m fine!”

Caitlyn stops, alarmed.

“It’s okay,” she says, “I didn’t see much, I just–”

Vi groans. The shirt’s not helping and the room’s too small, goddammit.

“Seriously, just get out!”

“Vi–”

“Fuck off.”

Vi shoves her out, slams the door.

Pitches her shirt across the room and leaves a wet explosion on the wall.

“Fuck!”

 

////

 

Yeah.

Fuck.

 

////

 

She calls, and Vi doesn’t answer.

Not like she can ever talk to her again.

Or look her in the eye.

Or anything.

Vi skips the river and the movie the next weekend.

Who gives a shit.

 

////

 

Powder cracks first.

Talk to her.”

They’re supposed to be eating breakfast, only everyone in the house is sick to death of the ringing and the not-answering.

“Shuddup,” Vi mumbles, staring down her bowl of soggy Lucky Charms.

“What’d she do?” Mylo asks. “What’d you do?”

“I said, shut up.”

Claggor pushes a bit of toast with jelly on it Vi’s way, with a sympathetic little smile.

Vi takes it and retreats to her room.

 

////

 

She kills time reading. More and more.

Hides in her room with her headphones on, blasting Nimrod on repeat and singing along to Billie-Joe Armstrong’s comforting boy-man angst, and seeks out articles and reddit threads and all sorts.

It’s interesting, when it’s not overwhelming.

Useful, when it doesn’t make her feel stupid.

Not that she needs any help in that department.

 

////

 

Vi’s phone stops ringing.

Claggor has to pull her away from the punching bag behind the house before her knuckles bleed.

 

////

 

“I have something for you.”

Vi looks up from her phone. Caitlyn’s standing in front of her trailer with her school bag and a careful expression.

Vi tenses, tugs her headphones off. Chews on her gum, wary. No way is she not here to tell her off about the silent treatment.

It’s been twelve days.

“You what?” Vi asks.

“I have something,” Caitlyn says again. “For you.”

“For... me?”

“It’s in my room. At the academy.”

Vi waits, stuck on the fact she’s even here.

“If you wanted to come with me you can – I can show you.”

“You couldn’t say that in a text or something?”

“You’re not answering your phone.”

“Oh.”

“And I wanted to see you.”

Vi has nothing to say to that. She knows the feeling.

Shit, Mylo’s right.

She is stupid.

“What is it? The… thing?”

“It’s – I will tell you, if you want, but it’s – It’s really easier if I show you.”

Vi leans on her knees. She wants to be irritated – cupcake’s really doing a number on the grand apology Vi’d been trying to come up with by breaking the stalemate herself – but it’s too nice to be talking again.

She pretends to think.

“This feels like some kinda trap…”

Caitlyn shakes her head, serious. “It isn’t. You just said you wanted privacy.”

Privacy?

Privacy…

Vi hunches over again, fiddling with the cord on her headphones.

“That was nothing,” she mumbles, the remnants of her embarrassment tickling her senses. “Don’t worry about it.”

“You don’t have to be ashamed.”

“I’m not - You saw me without my shirt on!”

“I’ve seen that before. At the river.”

“Not like that, with the – I was – Not like that.”

“I know I saw something you weren’t ready for me to see, but Vi, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to–”

Vi stands, fists scrunched. “Please stop talking.”

She does.

Vi breathes, deeply.

Can’t look back at her, yet. Can’t slam the door in her face, either, so chalk up a point for personal growth.

Truth is, the bandages left marks. Little ones, two or three, under her arms where they pulled tightest. They’ve healed over. She’s back to sports bras. She does not want to talk about it.

“Just, leave it,” Vi says, determined not to lose her cool this time, or be engulfed in the fiery pit of her own humiliation. “We’re fine. I'm sorry for ghosting you. You didn’t have to come here or - or get me anything.”

“I wanted–” Caitlyn comes closer. She’s got her uniform on, all pleated skirt and knee-high socks, clutching a textbook like a lifeline. Bet she spent like 40 bucks Ubering here. “I think I understand. And I want to help.”

“Help what?

“Help you feel good. About yourself. In your body. If that’s something you want.”

“Who says I don’t already?”

“Call it an educated guess.”

Vi leans against the front of the house, more confused than caught out, now.

“You couldn’t just… bring it here?”

“Privacy,” Caitlyn repeats. “You have more of that in my room than you do here.”

“Not if you’re there.”

“I don’t have to be.”

Vi’s not making it easy on her, and Caitlyn keeps pushing through like it’s nothing.

“You’re gonna invite me over to your room and leave me on my own there so I can have privacy for some reason I don’t even know?”

“I’d do anything if it meant helping you.”

Vi nearly chokes on her gum.

Caitlyn nearly chokes on thin air.

She looks away, toeing the dirt with her polished black shoe.

“You know what I mean,” she says, then steels herself. “Are you coming with me, or not?”

 

////

 

Caitlyn says it’s called a binder.

Vi already knows.

She holds the little parcel in her hands and wonders when the room got so hot. She’s sweaty. She’s sweaty and hot and her eyes are burning and her mouth’s full of cotton. Has the air conditioning stopped working in here?

“I had to guess your measurements,” Caitlyn says, a sparkly mixture of apologetic and enthusiastic.

She didn’t talk the whole car ride over, and now she hasn’t stopped since she pulled out the no-brand shopping bag from her closet.

“I know your sports bra size and the brand of the one you like – I have no idea when I picked up on that but it came in handy here. I looked up fitting guides and things and, well, this is where I got to. It can’t be too small so I erred on the side of something a little larger, but I gather bigger isn’t always helpful either so if it’s too big to the point of not working for you we’ll take it back and get the next size down. That’s a lie. You can’t take them back, unfortunately, it’s a hygiene thing, but we can donate this one to somebody who can’t afford their own and I promise I don’t mind spending the money on another one that does fit you, and you are not going to pay me back because this was my idea and I owe you for about a hundred pizzas at this point anyway so… Vi?”

The plastic in her hands crinkles when she grips it. Holds on, for dear life.

She looks up, and everything's blurry.

“Huh?”

“I… I didn’t mean to, um… Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she chokes, blinking furiously. She sniffs. “Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”

Caitlyn hugs her.

“No reason,” she says, quietly, her voice as warm as her body. “No reason at all.”

 

////

 

“How’s it going?”

Bad.

Terrible.

Shit.

Fuck.

“Fine!” Vi calls, through the bathroom door. “One second!”

Then she looks at her half-naked self in the mirror, miserable and lost, and whines pathetically at the black garment crumpled in her hands.

“You can step into it,” Caitlyn calls, probably alarmed it’s taken 15 minutes and counting for Vi to get the thing on. “Like a dress. If it’s hard to get on. You can step into it like a dress and pull it up that way, rather than over your head.”

“I don’t know how to wear a dress.”

“I just told you!”

“I’ve almost got it!”

She tries one more time.

It’s not too small, she doesn’t think, it’s just unlike anything else she’s ever put on. Stiff, with a weird smooth material. It’s not all that different to her sports bras, though. It’ll fit. Her arms just don’t bend that way.

The lining scratches at her nipples, which isn’t great, until she pulls it down some more and adjusts the way it all sits.

Raises her arms. Twists around.

Takes a breath. Seems okay.

Looks up, into the mirror.

“… Whoa.”

 

////

 

Caitlyn keeps talking. Vi keeps not being able to.

“If you wear it with a jacket or something, or anything a little baggy, it should look even better. Layering helps, in any case.”

Vi focuses on her reflection, and Caitlyn’s, behind her.

“Don’t wear it for more than seven or eight hours at a time, if you can help it.”

Turns sideways again.

“And you can’t sleep in it.”

Runs her hand down her front.

“Or exercise in it.”

She’s not holding her breath, not sucking anything in.

“And you definitely can’t swim in it.”

Her shirt sits right, nothing pushing on the buttons from the inside.

“Sorry. You probably already know all this.”

It looks… good?

“Shit.”

“What? Is it okay?”

“Cupcake, it’s – It’s great.”

“So you like it?”

She sounds relieved. As if she’d been waiting for a verdict and there was any chance Vi would hate it.

“I’m flat,” Vi says, and that’s not the half of it. “Really, really flat.”

“It’s clever, isn’t it?”

Clever. Leave it to Caitlyn to be a huge nerd about this.

And… to care, about a thing she has no reason to be interested in, other than it means something to Vi.

Wild, to matter that much to someone else.

Vi turns side to side again. She keeps waiting for a weird angle to appear and the illusion to shatter. It doesn’t.

She is ten feet tall, and the world is nothing but a series of inconvenient doorways she can’t fit under.

“S’like I recognise myself,” she says, to nobody. “Don’t think I’ve ever done that before.”

What?

“Which is dumb,” she backtracks. “I’m still me and stuff.”

Caitlyn smiles at her. “Maybe at the moment you’re more you than you’ve ever been.”

Vi doesn’t know what to say to that. Telling her she’s right will only give her a big head.

She smirks at the mirror, eyebrow raised.

“Think the world can handle more of me?”

Caitlyn laughs softly. She has a funny look on her face Vi’s never seen before.

Or just never noticed, until now.

Apparently she has a habit of that.

“Well?” Vi asks, when Caitlyn still hasn’t answered.

Caitlyn clears her throat and picks a bit of fluff off the material.

“Did you hear anything I just said,” she starts, “or you do need me to run through it all again?”

“No, yeah, totally,” Vi says, returning to her chuffed preening. “I’ll look after it, promise.”

“No, you bloody - It’s about looking after you. Listen, it’s perfectly safe, but you have to do it right. Not like…”

The bandages.

“It’s okay that you made a mistake,” Caitlyn says, gently. “There’s a lot to learn. And now you have this, and if you like it, you can get others in different colours or designs. Binders are – I suppose they’re like sports bras on steroids, from what I’ve read. It’s just important, to – It’s a fair bit of pressure to be under for too long.”

Vi frowns at the mirror. In all the stuff she’d learned in recent weeks, she’d kinda skimmed over the less-positive parts.

“You'll be fine,” Caitlyn says. “There’s lots of stretches and things you can do. I’ve found some excellent yoga videos. I might even join you.”

Yoga?

“Yoga is really quite–”

“I’m not spending an hour sitting and breathing and doing stuff all.”

“The point is, there’s lots of things you can do to look after your muscles during and in-between the times you wear it. You’ll be fine.”

“Oh, I get it now. You’re worried about my muscles.”

Vi flexes in the mirror, not that there’s much to see, especially with her shirt on.

“So vain,” Caitlyn says, arms folded. “So extremely vain.”

“I’m hot. You love it.”

“Oh – don’t wear it if you get sick. While you’re sick, I mean.”

“Right.”

“And you can’t wear it for more than eight-”

“Eight hours, I know, you already said.”

“As long as you’re listening.”

“What can I do in this thing?”

Vi keeps poking at her chest, never much for rules and not super invested in anything other than flat.

Caitlyn doesn’t answer.

When Vi glances her way, she finds her looking at her again. Which she’s been doing a good few minutes now, so that’s not new. That look on her face is, though. Vi can’t find a word for it.

Vi says, again, “What?”

 

////

 

Caitlyn Kiramman is very, very sensible.

Vi Anderson is very, very cute.

These, Caitlyn decided long ago, are the facts.

Sensible people pay attention to facts, live their life by them, never stray, never veer off course.

Other facts:

Vi Anderson is a menace.

A big-hearted lug of a human with the tact of a toddler and the table manners of an overexcited dog.

And also, in the way she cares for her sister and her brothers and anyone she considers her responsibility, anyone she loves, she is quite amazing.

Ahem.

Vi Anderson is a fighter.

She picks a fight with everything.

It doesn’t always go well.

It is still hard to not like it, once Caitlyn finally started seeing it for what it was.

That care and responsibility and love, all writ large and loud, either artfully begrudging or outwardly ride-or-die.

Because Vi Anderson is not one for half-measures.

Now, Caitlyn’s struck by another fact.

Vi studies herself, delightfully smug in the tall mirror in Caitlyn’s room, and Caitlyn’s face feels like it did that time she had that reaction to that moisturiser and her stomach’s doing this fluttering type of thing that would be nauseating if it weren’t kind of pleasant and she knows, finally, what to do.

What she wants to do.

She’s suspected a while, if she’s honest, and kept ignoring it.

It made sense, at the time.

But now, with Vi looking at her like this, every inch the person she has always been, her realness teased out by the gift Caitlyn spent a solid week researching, giving her the honour of being the very first person to see it besides Vi herself… well. Continuing to do nothing with the feelings Caitlyn’s been holding on to for quite some time makes absolutely no sense at all.

And yes.

Caitlyn Kiramman prides herself on being very, very sensible.

 

////

 

“You could kiss me.”

That’s what Caitlyn says.

That.

Vi stares at her.

did she

uh

kiss

what

wh…

wh…

what?

“What?”

Caitlyn gapes at her, unblinking.

“You – Um – I mean, if you – You could…”

Caitlyn stops. Keeps gaping, open-mouthed. So does Vi.

She’s… seventy?... percent certain her best friend just invited her to kiss her.

She’s ninety-eight percent certain she would really freaking love to do that.

She’s a thousand percent certain her brain has melted.

“What?” she says, again.

Well, squeaks.

M e l t e d.

Caitlyn’s face is pinker than pink.

“You asked what you can do,” she says, her words all rushed, but like, she’s still actually speaking, so she’s totally got the upper hand here. “I made a suggestion.”

Vi’s face gets hotter.

Is this a binder thing?

Is the binder making her mouth dry and her heart pound and her words vanish?

She latches on to the first thing she can say, half a question, grates her frozen vocal cords together:

“A suggest – A – You-”

Nope.

Maybe in a year or two she’ll be back on full sentences.

“You don’t have to. You don’t have to, I’m sorry, I didn’t-”

“No, I just–”

“I’ll let you get changed and–”

“Do you wanna kiss me?”

Caitlyn stops by the door. Turns back around.

“Do - Do you want to kiss me?”

It’s not an answer, but the way she says it makes it sound like one. Vi knows.

She’s getting pretty good at this knowing thing.

“I asked you first.”

Caitlyn’s eyes narrow but her cheeks don’t get the memo, pinching, amused.

“Mature.”

“I did, though.”

“I brought it up.”

“Wasn’t a question when you said it.”

“The question was implied because–”

“Cupcake.”

“Yes. I do. Yes.”

Vi relaxes.

Some things you know, but they are super nice to hear, anyway.

“Yeah,” she admits, a breath out, a sigh, a kind of relief bundled up in nerves. “Me, too.”

 

////

 

Hard to say how they get from different sides of the room to a few inches apart, after that.

Hard to say how they ended up here at all.

An upper-crust Piltie girl with her bright eyes and her fancy clothes and a grubby Zaunite with the chip on her shoulder and the one pair of Vans with a hole in the toe.

They meet in the middle, is one option.

All Vi knows is, one second there was no Caitlyn and the next there was nothing but Caitlyn.

Vi’s mouth’s dry and she can feel and smell and hear Caitlyn breathing against her face. Her eyes are so big. Blue. Beautiful.

Vi freezes and Caitlyn doesn’t.

Her lips are on Vi’s. Just like that.

Her mouth.

It’s happening.

It’s happening.

I should’ve chewed gum first.

Is that lip balm?

Is my mouth too dry?

She is so soft.

Should I do something or do I just let her ah fuck do not make it weird stay put dammit-

Breathe. Breathe.

No not through your mouth your nose your nose oh shit it’s still happening oh shit oh shit-

They stand with their mouths together and their hands at their sides and Vi quietly implodes. Is she doing it right? This is, technically, kissing. Right?

Caitlyn shifts back. Their mouths come apart and their foreheads bump together a second.

“Oh–”

“Sorry–”

“No, no–”

They both stop, silent.

Vi touches her mouth to make sure it’s still attached to her face.

Everything’s tingling.

"Whoa..." she breathes.

She’d only meant to think it.

“Mm-hm,” Caitlyn hums, nodding, tucking hair behind her ear. “Yes.”

“That… Was that okay?”

“I… think so?”

“Oh. Yeah, sorry. I wasn’t–”

“I mean! Yes. No, yes.”

Her hand holds Vi’s wrist, tight.

Vi's not the only nervous one.

Tingle tingle tingle.

“No yes?” Vi repeats, teasing gently.

“I don’t… I’ve never… done that,” Caitlyn says. “Before. So. I don’t know.”

“But you’re like, so pretty.”

Caitlyn goes pink.

Again.

Vi thinks about taking it back, but apparently this girl needs to hear it.

“You are,” she says, wiping her sweaty palm on her jeans before slipping her hand into Caitlyn’s. “Like, the prettiest.”

“Thank you,” Caitlyn whispers.

Vi hopes it’s okay to like holding hands even more than she likes kissing.

“And you go to a girls’ school,” she adds, spouting facts now.

“Yes.”

“You never… with any of them?”

“No. I… I’ve never really been interested in those girls.”

“Oh. Cool.”

“I’ve always been a bit more interested in someone else, to be honest.”

“Yeah?”

Caitlyn nods. She’s gotten closer again. Sneaky. She’s so close her hair brushes Vi’s.

“Yes.”

“Who?”

Caitlyn smiles.

She’s so close it makes Vi smile, too. Like it’s infectious.

“You’re kind of a dope, do you know that?”

“Total dickhead.”

Caitlyn smiles some more, her hand tight around Vi’s, and then she’s leaning forward with her eyes closing and her aim improving and Vi thinks holy shit she’s gonna kiss me again.

I’mnotagirl.

Caitlyn blinks.

Vi freaks.

“I mean – Shit. I just – I dunno. Uh…”

Vi looks down at herself, at a loss.

The binder wrapped round her chest is still so comfortable. Everything is.

Having it, and feeling it.

Just… not explaining it.

“You don’t have to explain,” Caitlyn says then. How does she always know? “This is… It’s new, for you. It’s normal to be uncertain. I don’t want to push you. Ever. About any of it.”

“You’re not,” Vi says. “You’re like, the best. The awesomest. And this-” she motions at herself, the newness and the rightness “-is like, unbelievable. And I’m not even – I think I’m pretty freaking… certain. But you… like girls, y’know?”

“Yes?”

“And if I’m…”

She stops. The possibilities are endless, and not all of them are positive, and she is so enjoying holding Caitlyn Kiramman’s hand.

Oh,” Caitlyn says, when it clicks. “Oh, Vi, no. Hey.” Her other hand is on Vi’s face now – and maybe, after everything, that is the Thing Most Likely To Make Vi’s Heart Explode. “You do not have to worry about that,” she says, encouraging their eyes to meet up with the gentle way her hand moves. “I’d like any version of you. I promise. I just… I just like you.”

Vi swallows. Caitlyn's gone all blurry again.

“Yeah?”

“Yes,” she says, and she sounds so sure. “Girl, Not-A-Girl… I don’t care. Or – No, I do, very much, about who you are or who you’d like to be. But all I really want is for you to be you. You can always be yourself with me. Okay?”

Vi rests her fingers on Caitlyn's cheek, careful. Has to make sure she’s real.

Turns out, she is.

“You really like me that much?”

Caitlyn blushes again. “Quite.”

For the billionth time that day, Vi thinks, Wow.

But this is gonna be a long conversation if she can't get her shit together, so she gets to blinking and clearing her throat and letting out a wet breath to make room for other, less embarrassing things.

A little smirk, for starters.

“If you had to measure it…”

Caitlyn narrows her eyes. “Less, when you’re being insufferable.”

Vi grins, keeping hold of her other hand so she can’t move away. So neither of them can.

“I like you, too.”

“I guessed.”

“Now who’s bein’ insufferable?”

“How much, would you say? You know - if you had to measure it...”

“How much would you like it to be?”

“Enough to let me choose the movie again?”

Vi whistles, rubbing her thumb over Caitlyn's knuckles in thought.

“Jeez, that’s – that’d be big.”

“Take your time. You don’t have to answer right away.”

“What if I pick, like, ten movies, and you pick from those?”

“Are all ten of them Spider-Man movies?”

Vi grins wider. “Stop being so clever, would you?”

“Sorry,” Caitlyn says, mock-serious. “Sorry, I do apologise.”

“Alright, I forgive you.”

The lightness of their stupid banter fades to a heavier kind of quiet. It’s not uncomfortable, but it does make Vi realise they’re still holding hands.

“Can I try kissing you again?”

“Oh.”

“I dunno if I did great before and–”

Caitlyn cuts her off by leaning in. A little umph escapes her, and that’s it.

It’s like it was, except better.

Caitlyn’s hand is back on her face, holding.

Vi remembers to open her mouth, to close her eyes. To move, or turn her head, or press or suck – whatever.

She’s happy to make it up as she goes.

 

////

 

They watch the movie, and don’t.

It’s never really about the movie anyway.

Vi dozes, off and on. Caitlyn’s bed is comfortable and her company is comfortable and her lying closer and closer until she gets up to refill her water bottle and comes back to lie against Vi is – shit, that’s on a whole other level.

So, dozing.

Doesn’t matter. She’s seen this one before.

“You remind me of him, actually,” Caitlyn murmurs, at one point.

Vi lifts her head to squint at the laptop on the end of the bed.

“Martin Sheen?”

Caitlyn laughs.

Vi thinks about adding making her laugh to the list of kissing, hand-holding and all that, but there’s no point. It wins. No contest.

Andrew Garfield,” Caitlyn says, poking Vi in the side. “He pretends to be all tough, but he’s really a sweetheart.”

“I’m tough.”

“Well. As tough as Andrew Garfield being Peter Parker.”

“I’m plenty tough!”

“Say that after Uncle Ben’s died and you’re weeping again.”

“It’s sad. And I didn’t weep, I had something in my eye. And it was one time!”

“You even dress alike. All those baggy shirts and layers. I can even see your boxers over the top of your jeans.”

“You look at my boxers?”

“And he’s handsome,” she adds, a coy glance Vi’s way to make sure her words hit their target.

Caitlyn must be able to tell that they do, looking that pleased with herself.

“Shut up,” Vi says, shoving at her, embarrassed and hating it and loving it, and Caitlyn shoves back, because she can tell.

When they settle again, Caitlyn’s head finds its way onto Vi’s shoulder and Vi holds her breath for eight minutes straight.

Lot of pressure, being someone’s pillow.

The whole thing adds a layer of closeness that’s downright disorienting. Like the kissing hadn’t already done that.

Like they weren’t all that close to begin with.

It’s just, they’ve… swapped spit, now.

That is fuckin’ wild.

And they’re lying on Caitlyn’s bed together, like they’ve done a hundred times before, and most of Caitlyn’s entire body is resting against Vi’s and Vi can feel her chest against the side of her arm and smell her shampoo and Vi does not know what to do with her hands.

Then Caitlyn starts playing with one of the drawstrings of Vi’s hoodie. Half-rests her hand on Vi’s front and fiddles with the toggle at the end of it, absently, still watching Peter Parker test out his new powers in a weirdly romantic montage.

The pressure lessens. It’s all less new, and all more normal.

Scary, how fast things can turn that way.

Vi relaxes. Even goes as far as to put her hand on Cait’s arm and leave it there.

Winner.

“You remind me of her,” Vi says, when Gwen Stacy comes back onscreen.

“Emma Stone?”

“Yeah.”

“Is this your way of telling me I’m pretty again?”

“No. She’s a huge dork, but it’s cute.”

Caitlyn pushes her off the bed.

 

////

 

Vi makes a decision.

They dig their phone out, to do what they always do.

Vi: i wanna try they pronouns

Vi: can we do that?

They’re not worried.

They know.

Their phone dings a minute later:

Caitlyn: Hmm. Let’s see. “Gosh, I hope they’re home safe.”

Caitlyn: “Lord, they better not break their neck trying to climb up to my window.”

Caitlyn: “Oh, I hope they know how much I care about them.”

Caitlyn: Yes, I think it fits quite nicely.

Vi puts their phone down, grinning like a maniac.

It dings again:

Caitlyn: (It’s wonderful, and so are you.)

Then like, fifty hundred emojis. Love hearts of all colours and the face with the party hat and cake slices and balloons. So many balloons.

Vi floats in the wake of her enthusiasm, tears in their eyes for the second time that day.

Ain’t nothing quite like feeling celebrated.

 

////

 

Sunday.

The river, the sun.

Vi floats in the water watching Caitlyn read. She’s got her big hat on again. Vi watches her way too long to be not-creepy, glad the boys and Powder are too busy indoors with a new board game Clag brought home and not out here wolf-whistling and being idiots about everything.

“Yo!” Vi calls.

Caitlyn looks up, all sunglasses and practical clothing.

“Can I do something for you?”

“Yeah. You can get in the water.”

“No, thank you.”

“Cupcake, the thing about being invited to go swimming is that sometimes you gotta actually swim.”

“I like reading.”

“Nerd,” Vi mutters, besotted.

“Reading uninterrupted.”

Vi paddles closer, scrunching their body so they can stay underwater when it gets shallower.

“What is it?”

“What’s what?”

“The story.”

“You wouldn’t like it.”

“If that’s a textbook I’m gonna throw it into the other side of the river.”

“No, it’s – You’ll laugh.”

“Probably.”

“It’s sci-fi. Sort of… epic sci-fi. A trilogy, about a race of aliens–”

“Nope, okay, nope.” Vi stands, sloshing towards her. “You’re not spending the morning reading about aliens.”

“Says the superhero fanatic,” Caitlyn shoots back, eyeing them suspiciously.

“Superheroes aren’t aliens. Well, not all of ‘em.”

“What are you doing?”

“What do you think?”

Vi stands by this cupcake on her throne, rivulets of water spilling off them. Some of it lands on Caitlyn, discolouring her clothes.

“Books bad,” Vi says, tugging it off her with a wet hand. “Swim good.”

“Have I mentioned you’re looking very handsome today?”

Vi’s face burns.

They’ve given this girl way too much power.

“Don’t.”

“Don’t what? I’m only being honest. I was just thinking, goodness, they’re looking exceptionally handsome today.”

And now Vi’s just cinders.

On fire, crash and burn, hasta-la-later.

However it goes.

“Not listening to you,” Vi grunts, lifting the hat off her head. “Not ‘til you’ve gotten your feet wet.”

“Vi-”

“Glasses, too.”

She takes her sunglasses off, slowly. “Why…”

“No reason.” Vi plucks at the sleeve of Caitlyn’s overshirt. “This is cute. Care if it gets wet?”

“Thank you and why?

Vi gets hold of Caitlyn’s arm and pulls until she’s half-standing and they can angle their shoulder into her stomach.

Allie-oop.

Vi.”

They stand with her slung over their shoulder, her hands clutching their back, waist, hips, wherever. Her being a little taller makes it awkward.

“Put me down.”

“House rules. Swimming is going to happen.”

“Violet!”

“Violet? ‘Kay, just for that we’re goin’ all the way to the deep end.”

“You wouldn’t.”

Vi wades back into the water while Caitlyn squeals and wriggles and giggles. Vi holds onto her tight, arms around her legs.

“Seriously, last chance to opt out, but I think you’re secretly enjoying this.”

“You will pay for this.”

“Big breath!”

The water’s deep enough. Vi hefts her off their shoulder, arms open for her to slide down their body so they can catch her before she goes under, if she wants.

Caitlyn drops into the water on her back with a shout, flailing to stand up fast.

Arse,” she accuses, splashing them with her eyes alight and all her teeth on show.

“Oh, really?”

“Yes, really!”

“Right, that’s a dunking – get here.”

They catch her easily, because Caitlyn’s not really trying to run, and Vi’s not really trying to make her.

Vi chuckles, wiping water out of their eyes, and then hers, careful. Caitlyn rests her hands on their shoulders, catching her breath, and it’s only then Vi realises just how close they’ve gotten.

Wild, how easily this girl gets the drop on them.

“Cheeky boy,” she mutters, brushing wet hair off their forehead with a whole lot of affection in her big blue eyes.

Vi blushes at the word choice, even though they asked for it.

You know how I don’t like being called a girl? Would it be super weird if you called me a boy?

Just still can’t believe she said yes.

Well, technically she’d rolled her eyes harder than ever and said, You really are such a boy.

Now she brings it out almost as often as the handsome thing. Because she’s the worst.

Determined to have the upper hand for once, Vi tugs her closer, water sloshing between them, and she makes a little surprised noise and they kiss her before they can chicken out. The faint taste of sunscreen lip balm.

Their teeth touch.

Caitlyn’s smiling.

They both are.