It had been four years since the birds. Since Ziggs and Emma had had to prove that they were fighting for their lives. Since they’d spent six months in jail for choosing to live. It still haunted Ziggs. Not a night passed where they didn’t dream of it. Where they couldn’t still hear Ezekiel. They lived in a cottage near the lake. It depended on the day whether they could do people. So they stayed away from the city to give themself the option to be alone if they needed to be- they’d dropped out of school too for that reason. Their policy was you could always knock on their door. They’d turn you away if they needed to. They were getting more and more social every day. It was just… hard to recover. They’d tried therapy, but the therapists kept insisting the birds were a metaphor for something bigger, and… they just weren’t . It was fucking frustrating! It was hurting more than helping.
They were by no means okay. They likely never would be again. But were they surviving from day to day? Yeah. Were they starting to find bits and pieces to make them happy? Yeah. Especially in the Hatchetfield teens. They were by no means sober. They had, however, started buying their weed from anywhere but Hatchetfield. Anyways, the whole bird fiasco had delayed the college thing for them, so they were kinda serving as a mentor to the kids in Hatchetfield. Mostly the ones in high school. Figuring out their lives. There had been a point not too long ago when Ziggy had had to do that. They tried to help, but they mostly just listened. It distracted them from their own problems. They were starting to hear talk of a ‘Doc Ziggy’. They weren’t sure whether to shut that down or not… as long as it was a harmless nickname it was fine, right?
It was one day in August when Ziggs got a knock on their door that they probably would never have expected. When you’re Ziggs , you expect a certain caliber of person to associate with you. Listen, Ziggs was the first to admit that they weren’t posh. They were living in a solid middle class. They were a bit sketchy. They made bold choices, and sometimes people didn’t like that. Actually, as popular as they were, a lot of people didn’t like them. Especially in the high society communities where Ziggs was just ‘trouble’. So when a member of one of the most respectable families in Hatchetfield showed up on their doorstep… they weren’t sure how to react. They hoped that they were coming in peace. If it had been an adult they might have been more cautious, but… it was a kid. A kid couldn’t do too much harm, right? They peeked out the door.
“Hey… lemme guess… Jordan?” Ziggs tried.
“River.” River blushed. “It’s okay. We have the same hair.”
“Sorry.” Ziggs chuckled. “Y’know, you really oughta, like… dye it or something so people can tell the difference.”
“Someone tried to tell my mom that… she got crazy mad.” River shuddered.
God, the kid was nervous. Ziggs wasn’t sure whether the nerves were their doing, or the Monroes’. To find a Monroe in their neck of the woods was like spotting a unicorn. And the kid wasn’t making threats yet, so… maybe it was a good thing? Damn, he seemed sweet too. Like, really sweet. Look at those nervous little eyes… kinda pleading. Fuck it, Ziggs was gonna trust him. They opened the door to their cottage a little, gesturing for the kid to come in. He couldn’t have been much older than ten. He was tiny… and, if Ziggs’ gaydar was serving them right (and it usually did) this kid was not cishet. Look at all those nerves. Ziggs was getting a more clear idea of why he was there with every moment. The kid didn’t seem to be getting the memo that he could come in. Ziggs sighed.
“You can come in, kid. I swear I won't bite.” Ziggs teased.
“You sure?” River bit his lip.
“You think I frickin’ bite?” Ziggs scoffed, half offended.
“No! No, I meant…” River blushed. “I meant are you sure I’m allowed in?”
“Oh.” Ziggs started to snicker. “Yeah… don’t even worry about it, man! Get in here!”
“Thank you.” River nodded politely, making his way into the cottage. He stood awkwardly. Ziggs sighed. Were they really going to have to lay everything out for this kid?
“You can sit.” Ziggs offered.
“Thank you.” River gave a soft smile, taking a seat on Ziggs’ loveseat.
“Want anything to drink?” Ziggs offered.
“Do you have sparkling water?” River asked.
“Sparkling- why would I have that crap?” Ziggs blinked.
“That’s what I get for a treat at home.” River shrugged.
“You gotta be kidding…” Ziggs chuckled. River shook his head, and Ziggs stopped their laughing. “Fuck, you’re not kidding?”
“Mommy doesn’t like that kind of language.” River winced.
“I get the feeling Mommy wouldn’t like that you’re here at all.” Ziggs pointed out. “So I’m gonna keep this hush hush for you. And we’re gonna let loose a little. Deal?”
“O-okay…” River nodded. “Can I have… oh…”
“Have you never had anything other than sparkling water?” Ziggs realized. River shook his head, looking a bit embarrassed. “Hey, kid, it’s okay. That’s your parents being shitty. Nothin’ on you. I, uh… you know what kids your age usually like? Fanta. We’re gonna get you a Fanta.”
“Okay…” River nodded nervously. Ziggs reached into their minifridge, pulling out two orange Fantas. They cracked them both open, passing one to River. “Thank you very much.”
“Hey, don’t mention it.” Ziggs smirked softly. They held it up. For once, the kid got the signal, and they clinked their cans together. Ziggs decided to see if being goofy would help with the kid’s nerves. They made like they were going to down the can. “Bottoms up!”
“Is that how you’re supposed to-” River asked. Shit, he took everything so literally. Ziggs changed their course.
“Nah, don’t worry. It was a joke.” They assured him. What kind of fucked up family must you come from where drinking pop was apparently as foreign and scandalous for a child as drinking alcohol, or doing drugs? “Just… enjoy it.”
“Oh… ok.” River blushed, sipping at it. His eyes widened, and a small smile formed on his face. He took another sip. “I like it!”
“Damn right you do! Look at you go, with your small acts of rebellion!” Ziggs encouraged him.
“This isn’t going to lead to-” River started to ask worriedly.
“Please don’t go there.” Ziggs cut him off. “No. No, it is not gonna lead to anything dangerous. It’s a fuckin’ can of soda.”
“Ok…” River nodded, continuing to sip at it.
“Y’know what, I think you oughta really live it up while you can.” Ziggs smirked. They walked over to the cupboard, pulling out a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos. Then they walked to the mini fridge and pulled out vegan cream cheese. They opened both items, setting them on the table, before sitting next to River. They took a cheeto, dipping it in the cream cheese, popping it into their mouth and humming. “Go on! Y’know, people call me crazy for liking this… I say they’re crazy for not giving it a shot.”
“Ok…” River nodded hesitantly. He shakily took a cheeto, dipping it and nibbling at it. Once again, his face fell into one of shock and then delight. “You’re right!”
“‘Course I am! I always am.” Ziggs scoffed playfully. They watched the kid enjoy himself for a moment, a pride swelling in their chest. They’d done that. And look at how happy he was! They sighed. “So… what brings you to my neck of the woods?”
“Oh…” River bit his lip, looking down. He hesitated. Ziggs sighed, trying to put him at ease.
“Listen… someone like you doesn’t just pop in to visit someone like me.” Ziggs chuckled. “I do this all the time, bud. What happens here is totally confidential. So spill.”
“I think I’m a girl- maybe.” River blurted out, before blushing and freezing.
“I fucking knew you weren’t cishet!” Ziggs cheered, pulling (or more tackling) her into a sloppy side hug. “I’m so proud of you! Congratulations!”
“For what?” River furrowed her brows, confused.
“For coming out!” Ziggs grinned. “That’s huge!”
“I… I don’t know for sure.” River backtracked.
“Dude, gender is something that might take a while.” Ziggs soothed her. “But… you gotta trust your gut, and actually give yourself that space to figure it out. So… right now, you’re feeling like you’re a girl?”
“Yeah…” River nodded, looking to her feet. “It’s hard to see myself that way because I don’t look-”
“Oh, fuck that.” Ziggs scoffed. “Fuck gender roles, or how gender is supposed to ‘look’. No one knows shit about you by looking at you. And if they think they do, they can go fuck themselves. No. People gotta find out from you who and what you are. For now, you just do and wear what feels safest for you and what’s most comfortable.”
“Those are two different things.” River bit her lip.
“I feel that.” Zigs sighed. “For a while, I wasn’t out. And… It felt so wrong walking around the way I was. But I also didn’t feel safe coming out… fun little paradox there, huh?”
“Yeah…” River sighed. “What do I do?”
“Well… you made a great first step telling me. Finding someone you could trust.” Ziggs hummed, continuing to snack.
They tried to make it as casual as it could be. Because, for one, they weren't professional. They didn’t want their advice to be taken as professional. They were, however, someone who had gone through what River was going through. Maybe not that exact journey. But similar. And they, as a friend , wanted to help. So they’d share their experience. The second reason why they were making it casual was because they wanted River to see that her experience was completely normal. She wasn’t some freak. She was just a girl who’d been born wrong. It happened all the time. Just like Ziggs was accidentally assigned a gender when clearly that wasn’t for them. They watched as River slowly started to snack along with them, visibly relaxing.
“I can trust you, right?” River checked.
“‘Course you can!” Ziggs assured her. “You got anyone else you feel safe telling?”
“Uh… maybe my friend Oliver.” River considered. “From school.”
“Good. You tell him too. And you tell whoever you feel comfortable telling.” Ziggs advised. “That’ll grow soon. Soon, you may even be able to go public.”
“What about Mom and Dad?” River bit her lip nervously.
“K, I don’t know you guys so I can’t say I’m like… 100% right. But you want my honest advice there?” Ziggs offered. “And again… I like barely know you guys, so it might be shit…”
“Please.” River pleaded. Poor thing…
“Tell your dad first.” Ziggs suggested. “He does plastic surgery. Probably deals with this stuff a lot. Maybe he can even hook you up when the time comes. And with his support… your mom might be easier to deal with.”
“You’re right.” River nodded. “When should I tell him?”
“When you feel comfortable doing it.” Ziggs sighed.
“I dunno when that is… I kinda do now, but I’m also scared.” River admitted. “He might think I’m too young to know.”
“Nah, dysphoria hits at different times for everyone.” Ziggs assured her. “Hell, I think I had my first gender crisis at age three! Didn’t quite register for me what was going on, but looking back...”
“Really?” River blinked.
“Yeah!” Ziggs chuckled. “You got a preferred name, or are you sticking with River?”
“I think River for now… it sounds like it could be a girls name too.” River considered.
“Cool beans!” Ziggs hummed. They considered something for a second, before getting up. They pulled a bag of honey dijon kettle chips off the shelf, and some fresh guac out of the fridge, setting them on the table, all the while subconsciously humming the tune to that one guacamole Vine. They smirked. “If you liked the last combo, may I present to you…”
“That… does not look like it goes well together.” River cringed. “What even is the green stuff?”
“What even is the green stuff?” Ziggs mocked teasingly, glad to see River relaxing a little. “Fuckin’ guacamole, god’s gift to vegans! A million times better than that sad excuse for a cream cheese substitute- or any real cream cheese.”
“Oh… what’s in it?” River checked.
“Avocados, onion, cilantro, tomatoes, jalapenos, garlic, lime, and salt. But mostly avocados.” Ziggs rhymed off.
“I’ve never heard of an avocado.” River admitted.
“It’s a fruit.” Ziggs blinked, astounded. God, what was Linda feeding these kids? Although to be fair, avocado was one of the more fattening fruits, which would factor into the big diet…
“Oh!” River smiled, satisfied with that. Then she stopped. “But if it’s a fruit…”
“Only by definition. It’s… why don’t you try?” Ziggs sighed. River apprehensively took a chip, dipping it in the guac. She smirked softly. “See what I mean?”
“That’s good..” River hummed. “Anyways, what was I saying?”
“Oh, you’d just told me River was still your preferred name.” Ziggs reminded her.
“Right!” River nodded. “That’s part of why I have doubts… because Trent always jokes about how a lot of trans people feel like they gotta change their name, and I don’t.”
“And that’s completely valid.” Ziggs encouraged her. “Plus, like, a ton of people weren’t given a name that vibes with their gender. But you were.”
“How’d you get the name Ziggs?” River asked them.
“First of all, it’s Ziggy. Ziggs is a nickname.” Ziggs corrected. “And I stole it from Ziggy Stardust.”
“Who?” River blinked.
“Ziggy Stardust.” Ziggs repeated. “Like, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars…”
“Huh?” River blinked.
“Come on… David Bowie!” Ziggs exclaimed. River’s face was blank. Ziggs’ face fell to one of disbelief. “You don’t know who he is either, do you?”
“No.” River blushed.
“Ok, we’ve officially found our ambience music.” Ziggs sighed, getting up. They pulled out their Ziggy Stardust vinyl- everything sounded better on vinyl. They set it up in their turntable, and returned to where they were sitting. “This is your gay christening.”
“Oh I don’t know if I’m gay, just-” River started to explain.
“I meant it as a generalization.” Ziggs clarified.
“Oh.” River nodded.
“Bowie was an LGBTQ icon.” Ziggs explained. “A real trail-blazer. You ever watched the movie Labyrinth? Now there’s a gay awakening.”
“No.” River shook her head.
“How much time have we got, kid?” Ziggs asked.
“My mom thinks I’m at a sleepover.” River blushed softly.
“She let you go somewhere on your own?” Ziggs whistled.
“She trusts me compared to my brothers.” River shrugged. “Plus Dad told her to ease up when I asked to ride my bike. She took that as a challenge.”
“Oh yeah, definitely come out to your dad first.” Ziggs chuckled. “Ok, so we’re gonna talk things through while Ziggy Stardust is playing. And then we’re gonna watch Labyrinth. And… if you do wanna stay over… did you bring stuff for that? I mean I’d imagine…”
“Yeah. I got a bag on my bike that Mom packed.” River nodded.
“You wanna sleep over?” Ziggs offered. “I mean, I know we’re only new friends, but… I dunno, it could be fun, having a little gay sleepover party and… I mean, I could answer questions, introduce you to some actual LGBTQ culture...”
“Sure.” River shrugged
“Whose house do they think you’re at?” Ziggs asked. “Like, are you covered?”
“Grandpa’s. I told him I was actually having a sleepover date with a girl I liked.” River shrugged.
“At fucking 10 years old?” Ziggs started to snicker.
“He started asking me where my girlfriend was at age five, and he wasn’t joking.” River chuckled.
“Damn.” Ziggs whistled. They sighed, picking up their can of Fanta only to find it was empty. They got up again.
“You want another one?” Ziggs offered.
“Yes please.” River grinned.
“Hell yeah! I’ve corrupted you!” Ziggs teased.
“You sure fucking have!” River giggled.
“Whoa whoa whoa!” Ziggs snickered. “Who is this and what have you done with River Monroe?”
“Oh, he can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Because he’s dead.” River smirked. Ziggs whooped.
“Now that is how you comeback TSwift style!” Ziggs cheered. They set both cans on the table before holding their hand up for a high five. River gave them one, and they smirked. “All hail the Queen .”
“Hell yeah!” River beamed.
“Hey, you wanna have a funeral for the old River Monroe?” Ziggs smirked. “My friends made me do that when I came out, and I thought it was gonna be really fucking stupid, but it actually… I mean, it ended up being one of the best days of my life, and it made the transition feel so much more real, even if I couldn’t like physically transition yet. My old self will always be a part of who I am, of course, but… I dunno, it just kinda set me on the path, and made me feel… like I was really starting fresh.”
“Sure.” River shrugged. “Hey, Ziggs, how did you know you were nonbinary? Because like… I dunno. I’m trying to sort out exactly what my gender is.”
“Like I said earlier… gender’s a bit of a journey.” Ziggs sighed. “I actually thought I was a guy for a bit, but then that also felt wrong. I didn’t know what nonbinary was, but when I heard the term, it just sort of clicked and I realized that was exactly what I felt like. That was exactly how I saw myself.”
“Is there like… nonbinary, but also a girl?” River asked.
“Yeah! Gender is a spectrum, which is super cool. You could honestly go unlabelled, or label yourself a demigirl, if that’s where you think you’re sitting.” Ziggs explained. “Whatever you’re feeling, it’s so, so valid.”
“I think I’m still a girl… I’m just… y’know, for later down the line when I get to know myself better and figure it out more.” River shrugged.
“Hell yeah.” Ziggs smirked. They accidentally dipped a cheeto in their guava, eating it and freezing. “Oh my god, it’s like nachos…”
“Mom never lets us get nachos… but they look so good.” River bit her lip hungrily, before reaching for a cheeto and doing the same. “Oh god…”
“I know…” Ziggs groaned, savouring the taste. “Sometimes I’m an idiot, but sometimes I’m a fucking genius! ”
“You’re smart.” River told them, completely serious.
“Nah, I’m really not.” Ziggs chuckled. “I’m an art school dropout. And a stoner”
“Well you knew everything you needed to to help me today.” River pointed out.
Ziggs blinked. Huh. Maybe the kid had a point. Maybe intelligence was more than just a grade. Maybe a part of it was whether you could do anything good with the knowledge you had. Ziggs hoped they were doing good things. They were trying to do good things. And hey, it seemed to help River. God, they loved doing this. Yeah, in comparison to the other kids that came their way, River was young. Maybe that’s what made this so fun. So easy. Because fuck, Ziggs wasn’t an adult yet. They may be legally considered one, but that was a number, and it in no way reflected their actual maturity. Anyways, they’d just been called smart! For a real reason! That was a first!
“You may be onto something.” Ziggs smirked proudly.
“Plus you know all that stuff about avocados and David Bowie.” River added.
“Oh that’s common knowledge. That’s just your mom filtering what you know.” Ziggs chuckled. “Okay, so for that funeral… we’re gonna need a headstone.”
“Yeah…” River nodded. Ziggs smirked, standing again and leafing through their art supplies. They pulled out what they needed, setting it down on the floor.
“Alright. Then let’s get going.” Ziggs grinned.
For the next hour or so, Ziggy and River worked on the headstone, first making the actual ‘stone’, and then personalizing it. It was bonding, sure but also deeply therapeutic for River in a sense. Watching River find some peace through art made Ziggs’ chest swell. Because that’s what art is supposed to do, really. And they loved getting to share that. When they were done, they headed out to stand by the lake, setting up and securing the headstone by a willow tree. Ziggs had brought out their jacket, and had found River a nice dress she could wear. They barely kept any feminine clothes anymore, but they’d kept that dress for some reason. They hadn’t known why until that night. River looked beautiful in it, and the look on her face when she’d seen herself had nearly made Ziggs cry. Not that Ziggs was soft. Maybe just a little bit. But anyone with a heart would get a bit teary eyes, seeing the pure euphoria. They stood by the lake, a gentle breeze blowing. Ziggs cleared their throat.
“We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of River Monroe, son to Linda and Gerald Monroe.” Ziggs started.
“That River was a pretty great guy who got a lot of shit from his brothers.” River continued. Ziggs snickered at that. Oh, they really had corrupted this kid. “He died at ten years old. In that time, he was denied a pony five times even though he was doing great at horseback lessons, he was not thrown off the Nantucket bridge no matter how many times Trent told him he would be, and his mother paid for him to be the captain of the football team once, which he swears nearly did him in.”
“He was loved by many.” Ziggs hummed. “But he’s gone now.”
“May he rest in peace.” River sighed. “He’ll always live in our hearts.”
“You got any particular favourite song we could sing to send him off?” Ziggs asked River.
“Uh…” River thought aloud, before smirking. “ When I was a young boy, my father took me out to the city to see the marching band. ”
“Your mom lets you listen to My Chemical Romance?” Ziggs snickered.
“Not really.” River shrugged.
Ziggs joined her, singing Welcome To The Black Parade to bid goodbye to an old River Monroe. Well it wasn’t so much singing as it was screaming at the top of their lungs. They got very into it. Any passerby might wonder exactly what was going on, but they didn’t care. It felt good. For River, it felt right. Precisely how things should end for the old River. The entire funeral had felt right. Was it to be taken seriously? No, not at all. But that was the beauty of it. It was perfectly and entirely River. When the song ended, both laughed for a few minutes at the absurdity of what had just happened. Or perhaps simply because they both felt so damn good. Once they’d calmed down, Ziggs sighed.
“Tonight is also a birth. A christening, if you will.” Ziggs smirked. “Of River Monroe, daughter of-”
“Tonight’s not about them.” River cut them off.
“Fair enough.” Ziggs hummed. “Whaddya want me to say instead?”
“River Monroe, a girl.” River sighed. “That’s all.”
“Tonight is the christening of River Monroe. A girl.” Ziggs smirked softly, setting a hand on her shoulder. “A beautiful girl.”
“Thank you.” River beamed.
“What do you say we head inside and watch Labyrinth?” Ziggs offered.
“Yeah!” River grinned, following Ziggs back into the house.
Maybe Ziggs wasn’t perfect. Maybe they were carrying a lot of baggage. Maybe they were haunted by a past that really should never have been. Maybe some days they couldn’t even fathom doing half of what they’d done that night. But it was moments like these that made it easier to live day by day. When they had the motivation to actually help someone, and they got to impact a life as deeply as they had River’s. Yes, it was times like these that could counteract the memories of Ezekiel. That could make them feel safe again. They hadn’t done it for themself. They’d done it for River. And that was precisely what made them feel so good. The joy of spreading joy. God, they hoped they’d be able to spread joy for the rest of their life. It finally felt like they were doing what they were meant to.