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The Sum Total of Living

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She's the first one there, memories fully intact and fully awful, her forearm aching even though she can look down and see there's only a scar there.  

No one else comes for a while, though later she's not sure how long it is. Time is strange in this place, wending its way along with little for her to hang new memories on to. Her gut keeps telling her she's been here a long time, even though she knows that can't be true.

On day one, she sits in front of a desk in a soft chair, taking in the older man's sharp jawline, his neat white hair, his deep green bow tie, his animated eyes. The first words she hears are "Welcome to the good place!" and then Michael is telling her that everything is going to be fine.

She sits quietly and tries to take everything in. Her first blurred thought is: Where is Waverly Earp?

While Michael issues forth a series of thoughts about human mortality, she catches the lightness in his eyes. "—Anyway, this is my first good place and, as architect, I have been given the chance to try something new. I am," Michael preens—his peacock green bow tie winks at Nicole—she thinks of the green in Waverly's eyes, "the very first architect to live in their good place, with their humans."

Michael beams. Nicole notes his possessive pronoun, and realizes her face is too placid a beat too late. She rearranges her features into something she knows will pass as pleased, grateful.

She takes a deep, internal breath and asks the only thing she knows to ask. "Where is Waverly Earp?"

Nicole recognizes some mixture of frustration and amusement flicker in Michael's smile. Then it's gone, and he looks only sympathetic. "We can't tell you that, Nicole; I'm sorry. It would mess everything up here—mess up the chance for peace and relaxation!—if people got to hear about all the little things going on in their previous world."

Nicole has had plenty experience in keeping a poker face, not least in the academy, and certainly not least when playing cards with Doc. She knows how to bluff, and Michael doesn't have a shade on John Henry Holliday. The goosebumps erupting on her forearms are an alarm.

While suspicions start stitching together at the back of her mind, Nicole is just plain mad. If Michael won't tell her how Waverly Earp is—and it's clear he's the one with all the power in this relationship right now—she will have to find some other way to figure it out. But she has limited intelligence about this place, her head feels fragile, and not knowing about Waverly is the most goddamn awful feeling she's ever had.

When Nicole was straight out of the academy, she shadowed a senior officer in a child abduction case. She understands now the unique and tearing pain of not knowing what is happening to someone you love.

Nicole's knuckles turn white where she grips the chair's arms out of Michael's sight. "Can you at least confirm that she's alive? She must be alive, right? Otherwise she'd be here?"

Michael pauses. "That's right." He leaps up, suddenly, spinning over to a framed picture of a normal-looking guy on the wall. Nicole is almost amused, behind all the pain and anger, that Michael's trying to distract her. He launches into an anecdote about the only guy ever who figured out what the afterlife was. Nicole tries not to scream, polite smile fixed in place.

 

 

After Michael encourages her to explore Main Street a little while he gets them bagels, Nicole takes in where she is. If her cop instincts were embryonic yesterday, they're a full-on raging demon today. First, and most important: where in all hell is Waverly Earp? That's the main inconsistency in Michael's story. If Waverly Earp is not here, she's alive; if she's alive, why has Nicole been sent here before Waverly is ready to meet her? She's pretty sure that the physics involved in creating this place do not preclude the possibility for just keeping her in suspended animation, or whatever, until Waverly dies.

No place is a good place if Waverly Earp is not with her.

Second, where is the snow? This place is so bright, so warm, so shiny. Nicole loves the snow, the bleached scrub of Purgatory's hills, the deep, clean cold, the sharp wind that cuts through everything. This place has her itching all day long, a light sheen of sweat on her upper lip blooming constantly, and no Waverly Earp to make sweating worthwhile.

Third, why is everyone here obsessed with frozen yoghurt? Why is there not one goddamned ice cream shop in this place? She stands in the main square, grumbling quietly to herself.

"Waverly would be all over this shirt."

Nicole frowns. "Shirt. Shirt?" She glances around. "Muffle-forking what?" She notices Michael looking at her from outside the Bagel on a Stick storefront. She wanders over to him, taking in the sight of the bagels on sticks, resigning herself to yet another bizarre food choice here, and still no taco restaurant in sight.

"Michael, why the heel can't I swear?"

"Ah, it's not in keeping with the good place! All swears are edited out, for the very best good place experience."

Nicole frowns. That's number four. No swears out loud? She's suddenly, briefly, grateful the Earps aren't here, after all.

Michael rocks on his heels. He's got crumbs down his gray and pink striped shirt. He thrusts a second bagel into her hand. "Nicole, I think it's time for you to meet Jeremy."

A beat after Michael finishes his sentence, a small, neat, beaming guy appears out of nothing, to Nicole's right and Michael's left, creating a little triangle of their bodies, and bursting a "Hello!" into the small space between them. Nicole startles.

"This is Jeremy! He's our... helper. Jeremy knows everything that it's possible to know about this place, and he can help you with all kinds of things. And requests! If there's anything that doesn't meet your needs, you just let him know."

Nicole takes in Jeremy's genuine smile, how he comes up only to her shoulder; his air-steward suit, his overly shined shoes. She can't help smiling back at him, and he gets the first real smile she's given all day. "Hi, Jeremy. It's nice to meet you."

He smiles even wider. "It is super great to meet you, Nicole. Is there anything I can help you with today?" Nicole pauses, but before she can think of anything to ask, Jeremy launches back into an excited chatter. "I've just uploaded an additional series of advanced physics tracts, including some real page turners by Longair, Sommerfield, and Feynman. Would you maybe like an exposition of theoretical concepts in physics?"

Nicole almost agrees, Jeremy looks so enthusiastic. Michael is smiling wickedly at Nicole's inability to be rude. "Oooh, do we have a closet physics fan? Nicole Haught, I had no idea." He rubs his hands together with open glee.

Nicole may be too polite, but she also has some tricks up her sleeve when it comes to conversational power plays. She makes a minor calculation of odds before deciding to show her cards.

She turns to Jeremy and gives him a winning smile. "Actually, Jeremy, that sounds fantastic, but I have a more specific science question for you: I am hoping you can explain to me the physics of why I wasn't held back a year or fifty or whatever, until Waverly Earp was ready to come to the good place, too."

Nicole is watching Jeremy's face, her features all innocence, peripheral vision burning on Michael's face. She's gratified to see surprise, frustration, confusion.

"Nicole, I would most love to explain that to you, but I am afraid it is something of a black hole in my current knowledge." Jeremy smiles at his own physics joke, infectiously happy, then a tiny frown crumples his brow. "Actually, I am not quite sure why I am not quite sure. I will have to get back to you on that question, Nicole."

"Sure, Jeremy. Sounds good." Jeremy grins again at Nicole's easy drawl, her broad, dimpled smile. Michael fidgets at the weird sense of alliance in the air.

"So, Jeremy, do you just appear whenever I say your name?"

"That's right! Whenever you need me, I'm here."

"Fancy."

Michael clears his throat. "Nicole, maybe you'd like to see your house, now? Or, rather, I should say, your cabin?"

Nicole's hopes rise a little. "Cabin?"

"Yup. I told you, we try to get everything exactly perfect for everyone, and we know you're a cabin girl at heart."

"Can Jeremy come?" Nicole sees Jeremy grin again, out of the corner of her eye.

"I think Jeremy might need to recharge himself just now. Thank you, Jeremy, you can go." Nicole is sure there's no such thing as a recharge for whatever artificial being Jeremy is, but doesn't argue. Jeremy evaporates, still smiling.

 

 

When she finally loses Michael, Nicole's left in her cabin, trying to figure out what's bothering her about it. From the outside, it looked almost exactly like a combination of her Purgatory home and the Earp homestead. The rough wood exterior walls, low-slung wide windows, the wrapped porch. The hopeful feeling continued as she stepped through the front door, and took in the pale walls, the old faded wood floor, the fireplace.

When she approached the couch, though, a tickle of weirdness raised hairs at the back of her neck. She rubbed idly at the spot while staring at the couch. Wynonna's precious couch, with all the wrong throw cushions. Every single one an affront to Wynonna's covert mission to collect a set of perfect pillows.

The strangeness continued when Nicole went up to the bedrooms. In the doorway to a half-approximation of Waverly's room, Nicole stood, unable to enter.

She is there for a good ten minutes, stuck. The first minute is spent dealing with feeling winded by the sight of a bed so similar to the one she's lain in with Waverly. Her eyes dart around the room, caught over and over by the sight of the headboard and coverlet, some visual combination that sets off a train of memories of Waverly's hair fanning out, Waverly's hand gripping sheets, Waverly's eyes flashing; Waverly.

She slows down her breathing by force and makes herself look at the room like it's a crime scene rather than a memory. She looks next to the bed, and realizes there's a book on the table beside it. Tilting her head to read from the doorway so she doesn't have to go in yet, Nicole makes out Demonry and Ancient Black Magic. It's ostensibly something Waverly would read as research, but Nicole remembers Waverly mentioning that same book less than three weeks ago, and it's not something that anyone good reads. It's all about summoning demonic powers, and while that might seem to mark it as good counter-defense research, Nicole remembers Waverly's warning words. The book's form is its function: whoever reads it doesn't just achieve enlightenment about how to summon demons, they actually summon them in the act of reading.

Nicole frowns. She glances at the cheerleader outfit neatly folded on a stool by the dresser, and forces herself over the threshold to read the labelling. When she gets close enough to read a rival cheerleading team over the shirt front, Nicole stumbles backwards and decides that's enough. This room is weird. It's like some alternative universe that reminds her of Waverly, but muddles all of Nicole's best memories with something dark and confusing. She can't understand it at all.

When she opens the fridge, she's relieved to see her second-favorite beer. She'd rather her favorite, but wouldn't have got as far in life as she did without being good at compromise; without being able to know which battles to pick.

 

 

On day two, Nicole doesn't venture out to the main square after waking up on the couch. Instead, she takes a cold shower, trying to remember what it feels like to be Purgatory-cold. She stands under the freezing water for a good five minutes, teeth clenched, before she remembers properly. When she steps out, she stands in the bathroom, dripping wet, and thinks about the hurt of being cold. She thinks about pain. She looks at the scar on her arm, and touches under her breast, feeling for the mark of Willa's bullet. When she doesn't find it, her brow crumples a little. She walks out of the bathroom holding a towel, figuring out an investigative route.

Her uniform isn't here, a strange enough absence in itself, because being a police officer is all wrapped up in who she is. Not being able to put a uniform on makes her feel naked. She idly considers asking Jeremy if he can get her regulation pants, shirt, and hat for her, but then decides she'd feel silly alone in the cabin wearing it. Instead, she finds one of her favorite white shirts in the closet, ironed completely crisp, and puts it on. She finds some faded jeans and tucks the shirt into them neatly, cinching a wide, soft leather belt around the waist of the jeans. She plays with the top buttons of the shirt, remembering how Waverly had the habit of coming very close and playfully flicking open the third button, only for Nicole to laugh and re-fasten it to the less eye-opening option.

She leaves the third button open, pulling on boots, and brushing out her hair. She doesn't have regulation report templates, either, and the lack of police paraphernalia around her is discomfiting. She settles for a leather-bound notebook she finds on a bookshelf and sits at the kitchen table.

On the page before her, she writes The good place: intel. Under that heading, she neatly prints Experiment 1.

Nicole stands up again to riffle through the dresser in the main room. In a bottom drawer, she locates sewing supplies, and under some fabric, a pin cushion. She shucks off a boot and sock, and sits on the couch, crossing her right ankle over her left knee and turning the soft bottom of her foot upwards. With a small flick, she pushes the pin a few millimeters into the sole of her foot.

Registering the small prick, she takes the pin out, frowns a little in preparation, and makes a purposeful second stab a little to the left, pushing the pin in more deeply. Teeth clenched, she makes a third, fourth, and final stab of the pin, going deeper each time. Then she pulls back to watch as the tiny wounds of the fourth and fifth stabs heal over. 

She returns to the table to note down Pin to sole of foot: wounds heal immediately but pain is real. Under that line, she writes the heading Scars, and frowns with the pencil between her teeth as she thinks through all the places she'd accumulated scars over the years.

She writes the most recent ones first, Widow's bite, Willa's bullet, Waverly's cut. The last one was an injury to her right thigh she'd sustained in a fight with an angry local dickhead holding a broken bottle. She thought of it as Waverly's cut because, as she'd worked to disarm the drunk, an angry Waverly, not seeing the bottle, had tried to knock his legs out from under him, which only made the guy collapse against Nicole, bottle glancing past her leg. Waverly had been so remorseful and tender over the small cut that Nicole ended up loving the scar.

Under the most recent wounds, she writes shoulder surgery in academy, bike injury age 17, falling off swing double cuts age 6, and, finally, remembering her wrist, accident with handcuffs.

She stares at the list for a minute, then rubs her hand along her aching forearm. The widow's bite thrums like an echo, and she puts a tick beside the first item on her list. She touches through her shirt in memory of stepping out of the shower, frowning as she puts a cross beside Willa's bullet.

Nicole stands up, loosening her belt and pulling down her jeans. She considers the windows behind her for a brief minute, then shrugs internally at the thought of anyone seeing. Nothing about this place feels real, anyway.

Jeans at her ankles, she runs a hand down the side of her right thigh, brow creased as she feels the smooth skin. Twisting her body to look, she sees no scar. She locates the raised skin on her left knee, ticking off the bike injury, then pulls her jeans up. Unbuttoning the fourth and fifth buttons of her shirt, she reaches through to her shoulder, finding the neat small scar, and leaning down to tick it off. She buttons her shirt and carefully folds over both cuffs to above her elbows, finding the double scar on her left elbow from falling off a swing as a child, and locating the faint horizontal line by her left wrist where she'd fallen over with a perp attached to her by handcuffs.

She has somehow lost two scars: Waverly's cut and Willa's bullet.

Nicole walks into the kitchen, opening the fridge. Eating always helps with hunches; she learned that from Nedley. She pauses at the thought of Nedley, grief tugging at her. There are so many people in Purgatory she loves, so many places where people gather, so many quirks that don't exist anywhere else.

She spots some cheese wrapped in a plastic pack, and breaks into it. Rummaging through all the kitchen drawers, she can't find any sharp knives. Standing in the middle of the room, Nicole gives a small huff, then begins opening drawers from the upper far left side of the cupboards, moving systematically through all the spaces until she's swept the whole room.

No sharp knives. Just dull butter knives, blunt forks, and a lot of spoons. She cuts her cheese with more force than is necessary, even with a useless knife, idly considering if she should use a chopping board and then realizing that food poisoning is not likely. She cuts straight onto the counter, relishing the smack of metal onto Formica. She returns to her notes, printing Cabin: no sharp knives, and speaks gently into the quiet kitchen.

"Jeremy?"

Jeremy appears at once in the main room, back to Nicole, facing the interior wall. Nicole can almost hear his grin as he whips around to face her. "Nicole!"

He's wearing a different air-steward suit: a white shirt, baby blue jacket, pants with dark blue piping, and a matching dark blue Western bow tie, long thin ends in perfect vertical lines from his neck. Everything about him is easy and honest, and Nicole almost regrets what she's about to do.

She starts easy. "Hi, Jeremy. It's great to see you again; how are you?"

"I am most excellent, thank you, Nicole. It's wonderful to see you again, too! How is your cabin? Do you need anything? Can I do anything for you?"

"My cabin is... kind of weird, to be honest. You can do something for me, Jeremy, actually. How would you feel about answering some questions? I have a few, and I know you're the right person to ask." She doesn't have to fake the charming smile, though it's not clear if Jeremy would be able to tell a fake smile from a real one.

"Sure, Nicole! My knowledge is your knowledge." He gives a little giggle.

"Great. Would you like to take a seat?"

"Oh, no. I like to stand."

Nicole suddenly realizes that Jeremy probably has no real working knowledge of cop procedure, and that the choreography of police interviews might be entirely lost on him. Standing up will not be any real loss to the same end goal, she thinks, unfolding to her full height and coming to casually lean back against the kitchen cabinets. Even leaning a little, in the small space she's still considerably taller than Jeremy, and she looks down at him to fix him with the level, friendly, uncompromising stare that she gives all non-hostile sources.

"So, Jeremy. Where are you from?"

She expects surprise, but Jeremy seems rarely surprised by other people's questions, and he answers immediately. "The good place?"

Nicole pauses. "So, here?"

"The good place. Yes. Here. The good place." Jeremy looks confused, as though some memory is pulling him down, but his face clears quickly, and he adds. "Deidre's place!"

"Deidre?" Nicole pictures her grandmother's crochet circle, small, gentle women with similar names who fuss over her dimples and gush about their friend's brave cop granddaughter.

"Deidre! Deidre is the head of the good place. She is the one who came up with all the Jeremys."

"All the Jeremys? Tell me more about that. Please."

"There's one of us for every good place. You know, Michael is the only architect who lives in his good place, but every good place has a Jeremy, to make sure that everyone has everything they need."

"And where do you go when you're not here?"

"A boundless void!" He says the words with such enthusiasm that Nicole almost laughs. At this point, though, she can see the appeal of a void.

"So you can't go beyond this... good place? You can't go to other good places?"

"Nope."

"What about the bad place? Where's that?"

"It's... not here? I'm not really sure. That's one of the limits to my knowledge; I'm sorry. I do know that sometimes people from the bad place come here, though."

"Human people?"

"No, the people who run the bad place. Trevor. And sometimes others. Bad Jeremy."

"Bad Jeremy?"

"Yes," Jeremy looks bright, "Bad Jeremy is me, but he belongs in the bad place. Michael says he has an attitude problem."

Nicole tries not to smile, level stare in place. "Jeremy, why do people from the bad place come here?"

"Deidre likes to keep open the lines of communication. I think that's it. She's a very people-person." Jeremy laughs at his joke. Nicole looks confused. "You know, because Deidre isn't people? She's an immortal being, just like Trevor and Michael and, I guess, me, too."

"Ah." Nicole gives a small smile. "And what about revenants, Jeremy? They can't be in the bad place, with everyone human?"

"Oh, no. There's a hell for them. Revenant hell is out in the boondocks, and no one is invited there, not even Bad Jeremy. Only Trevor knows what it's like." His voice drops to a near whisper. "I don't think it is a nice place at all."

Nicole has to suppress a laugh. "I bet."

"Did you have more questions?"

"I do. But I need to think a bit, now, Jeremy. You've been so helpful." Jeremy gives his beaming smile.

"You are so welcome."

Nicole remembers her last thought before falling asleep the night before. "Actually, I do have one final thing for now. Can you get me my hat and a horse?"

 

 

Nicole feels instantly better once she's pulled herself up onto the dark chestnut mare and can feel the power of the horse underneath her. She might not have any hope of leaving the boundaries of this place, but she figures she might as well have some fun. She strokes a hand through the mare's dark black-brown mane, unable to stop herself from thinking of Wynonna's hair, and she grimaces at the twist in her stomach she keeps ignoring.

Speaking in a soft, even voice that betrays none of her heartsickness, she encourages the mare into a gallop from a dead start, with a Come on, girl and a gentle nudge. She feels the effects of thunderous muscle ripple up from the ground through the mare's legs, up into her own seat, and she heads them towards the patch of woods away from the Main Square, interested in at least reaching some kind of edge, some kind of end to this place, even if she can't cross over it into where Waverly Earp is.

 

 

Three hours after Jeremy delivers Nicole's horse and hat to her, she admits defeat, urging the mare onto Main Street, stroking the damp, shining hair down the horse's neck. Nicole's shirt is damp, too, the hems pulled out of her jeans in the warm sunshine, the white fabric clinging at the small of her back. She was carried around in vertiginous loops over and over, entering the woods at a gallop only to feel a sickening twist of the ground so that she and the horse were racing in one direction, and the earth was slowly, incrementally, turning around to face the other way. After a few hours of being pushed back into the opposite direction over and over again, the horse was lathered across her flanks, snorting anxiously, tossing her head, and stamping the ground before every urge into gallop.

Nudging the mare around the first sweep of Main Street's shops, Nicole realizes that she's drawing stares from the other residents. She self-consciously lifts her hat with one hand and uses her shirted forearm to wipe down her face, hat winking beside her head. Switching the reins to the hand that's also holding her hat, she pushes her other hand through her short hair, fingers evening out the dampness, tucking strands neatly behind her ears. She takes the reins back into her now-damp hand and puts the hat back on with the other, tipping it gently forward with her right index finger at every person she passes, a polite "Ma'am," for every woman. She notices Michael deep in conversation with a woman and a man she's not seen before.

Michael's suit has an expensive shine. His bow tie is a deep, almost-black purple and his shoes are black tasseled dress shoes. Nicole stares at the shoes until she's close enough for all three people to look up at her, a tall woman on a tall horse, blocking out the sun. Nicole looks down at Michael's face, registering a familiar emotion flickering in his wide smile.

"Nicole! I trust you enjoyed your ride?"

Nicole holds Michael's gaze for a moment, body still flexed into a held frame from riding the horse at a gallop for hours. She stays on the horse for longer than necessary, enjoying the friction between Michael's smile and the unease she can smell on him whenever she gets close. She smiles evenly.

"Sure, Michael. I had a great time in the spinning woods." She takes any edge of sarcasm out of her voice, smile in place.

"How curious. I would have expected that to be... a little seasicky, for a human?" Michael appears confused; his face opens and he looks up at her. Nicole raises an eyebrow, but instead of answering, she runs a hand down the mare's neck before smoothly dismounting, keeping one hand on the mare's flank as she adjusts the reins. Speaking softly so that the horse can locate Nicole in her blind spot, she steps around to the mare's head, thanking the horse by stroking from under her jaw down to the velvet nose.

She turns to the three people in a line facing her, smiling broadly. The feel of the horse's soft nose still in her palm.

"Hi, I'm Nicole." She puts her free hand out towards the woman, taking in her dark brown slacks and light shirt, crossed with an abstract pattern in peach and brown; her simple gold jewelry; curling mop of hair; and deep red lipstick. The woman smiles and squeezes Nicole's hand. "Hi, I'm Nina, and this is my soulmate, Bart."

Nicole looks at Bart, his wire-framed glasses and khaki pants, his lemon-yellow polo shirt. Nicole idly wonders at the predominance of pastels in the good place. Waverly in a deep, deep blue dress that's almost black flashes into her mind.

She smiles at the man, eyes facing toward a memory from another life.

"Hi, Bart; hi, Nina. You're the first soulmate couple I've met." She makes eye contact with Nina and then Bart. "Michael told me yesterday about the soulmate thing—I'm still a bit fuzzy on how it all works, though." Nicole's face is unreadable as she looks at Michael.

"My soulmate is still alive, right, Michael?" She turns back to Nina. "I get my kicks riding horses in circles, instead." Her smile is wide; rueful. She pushes nails into the fist holding the horse's reins to stop anger blooming on her face.

Michael takes a little intake of breath and changes the subject. "Nina and Bart are wonderful company, Nicole. We were just discussing the little snafu we're having here, though. The sinkhole." Nicole looks blankly at him. "Oh, gosh! We thought you would have heard."

"I didn't see any of those fancy TV screens out in the woods." Nicole winks at Nina.

"Of course! You've been busy." Michael rushes on. "It seems we have a small engineering problem. Nothing to worry about! I'm sure we'll fix it right up." Nicole tries not to narrow her eyes. "In the meantime, Bart and Nina are a little... homeless."

Nicole thinks three chess moves down the line, and speaks before Michael's next, predictable, words can come out of his mouth.

"Well, you guys can stay with me. There's plenty of room in my cabin. I also have a huge collection of spoons, if that appeals to your interests."

Michael is speechless for a beat, then claps his hands together. "Wonderful! I think you'll have so much to discuss."

 

 

Nicole opens the cabin door, holding it open for Nina and Bart, then following them into the main room. She gestures toward the couch, wincing inside at the thought of strangers sitting on Wynonna's and Waverly's favorite places to sit. She busies herself making coffee with her surfeit of spoons.

Balancing two coffees as she walks towards the couch, Nicole smiles at them both. "So, Nina, Bart, what did you do?"

She's referring to jobs, but she doesn't clarify the ambiguity out loud. She watches for the glance between Bart and Nina, minute, fleeting.

"Well, I was a marriage counsellor. You could say I wrote the book on healthy relationships." Nina looks at Bart, and Nicole thinks of choreography, body language. "And I did!" The words are delivered in a delighted laugh, and Nina shrugs happily, looking between Bart and Nicole, slapping Bart playfully on the arm. "It's called, How to Spot Problems in a Marriage From 100 Miles Away."

Nicole pushes away the thought of Shae, the crumble of quick decisions, a drunken wedding, dying married. Waverly's face in the hospital, forgiving her for everything. Leaving that place before finding out if Waverly's forgiveness was entire.

Nicole composes her face into nothing. And smiles.

"Wow, I bet you're a real expert on communication, then." Nicole idly wonders if Nina has ever had a conversation with a cop. A cop who spends their life trying to talk into solutions. A cop who urges out into the open the complex, human mysteries of a small town where everyone has an opinion, everyone has some secret, and people are afraid all the time, frayed by strange things that keep threatening to bubble over into waking life like the unravelling of a nightmare.

"What about you, Bart?"

"Oh, well, my job wasn't nearly as interesting." He sips on his coffee. "I started a company that investigated identity theft. Analyzing body language, tracking and catching people pretending to be someone they're not."

Nicole stares at Bart, surprised that Nina has not only spoken to an investigator, she's apparently living with one. "That's super interesting, actually. I'm—I was—a cop."

She catches the anxiety that flutters on Bart's face, and instinctively keeps speaking. "What training did you have? Were you ex-force, or a private investigator?"

Nina starts choking, loudly spluttering coffee onto Wynonna's couch, and Nicole moves swiftly to stand beside her, delivering precise, open-palmed slaps to her back. Nina wheezes then puts up a hand, croaking, "Thanks, I'm fine, thanks."

A memory comes unbidden of Waverly trying to distract Nicole from the fact that she'd run off half-cocked into a fight with a revenant by throwing pillows at Nicole's body.

"Well, you guys sure sound like you had amazing lives."

Nina coughs once more, then speaks. "And you, Nicole, you mentioned your soulmate—I bet you guys are adorable. Michael actually told us about the two of you. It sounds like you have a great relationship—I'm sure you don't have any problems with communication!" Nina looks at Nicole brightly, and the prickle starts at her neck. She rubs at it, remembering the last fight she and Waverly had. Waverly mad as hell, leaving her at Shorty's with Rosita. Waverly's awful snap, the closed force of her words when she was angry. Nicole's stomach writhes. She stands up suddenly.

"Nina, where were you born?"

Nina answers immediately. "Dayton, Ohio. 1966."

"Who was your best friend as a kid?"

Nina pauses, lines at her eyes, forehead wrinkling. "Uh, what?"

Nicole sighs. "Yeah, that's what I thought. It's fine, you can stop pretending. I'm going to go see Michael, now."

Nicole walks out of the cabin, jogs down the porch steps, then breaks into a run, heading straight for the center of the town.

 

 

It's half a mile to Main Street, and Nicole breaks into a sweat in the warmth, completing the distance in the regulation academy time of four minutes. She slows to take the stairs up to Michael's office, running her hands through her hair and smoothing her shirt before pushing open the glass door.

"Michael." She strides into the room, halting before his desk. Michael doesn't hide his surprise. Nicole fixes him with a stare.

"This is the bad place."

Michael coughs, and Nicole rolls her eyes. "Yeah, yeah. Nina already did that routine. Tell me what in fork is going on here." Nicole sets her teeth. Places her hands on the edge of Michael's desk, leans in towards his face. "Tell me what I did that means I am here."

Michael starts laughing, a fricative sound, half-frustrated, half-disbelieving, not entirely mirthless. "Nicole Haught. You dark horse." Michael keeps laughing, meeting Nicole's glare. "Relax, Nicole. You won't remember this, anyway."

"What?"

"Yeah, I can wipe your memory. To be honest, Nicole, I was banking on you not figuring it out. At least not so fast. Oh, well! A learning curve! That's what this process will be. We'll just have to figure out better how to keep you busy." Michael narrows his eyes. "How did you figure it out?"

"Wait. Answer my first question. Why am I here?"

"I'll tell you if you answer my question first."

Nicole considers her position, grits her teeth, and gives Michael the best kind of lie: a half-truth. "Fine." She doesn't break her stare. "One. No snow. Two. Frozen yoghurt; no ice cream. Three. No swearing out loud. Four. My cabin is from some weird alternate universe. Five. The scars that remind me of good memories with Waverly have disappeared. Six. My cabin has too many spoons. Seven. You wear dress shoes with tassels. I hate tassels. Eight. Nina and Bart are lying about their identities." Nicole snorts at the irony, and adds, "Nina couldn't name her best friend from when she was a kid."

Michael stares back. "Sorry, Nicole."

Nicole thinks she's never seen anyone look less sorry, the room rushes away, she sees a different place altogether, and she's muttering, "You fuck." Listening to Michael snap his fingers, watching everything go black.

 

 

On day three, Nicole sits in front of a desk in a soft chair, her body shifting with uncanny familiarity, her eyes not recognizing anything, living memories clanging against her dazed thoughts, forearm a dull ache.  

She takes in the older man's clean-cut features, his sparkling eyes behind smart glasses, his ink-blue bow tie. The first words she hears are, "Welcome to the good place!", and then Michael is telling her that everything is going to be fine.

She sits in silence, and her only thought is: Where is Waverly Earp?

Michael babbles about the good place, his role as architect, the pleasures in store for her. His denim-blue shirt is the color of Waverly's favorite throw.

Nicole blurts, "Is Waverly okay?"

Michael smiles smoothly. "We can't talk about what's happening in the other place, but you don't need to worry. Everything is going to be fine," he repeats. "You're in the good place! You've been picked out of millions as one of those who are truly worthy of this place—you deserve to relax."

Nicole thinks about the last time she saw Waverly. I need you to know. I have never loved anyone the way that I love you. Waverly smiling. Eyes wet and the lines showing by her eyes, stubborn and frantic all at once, smoothing the hair by Nicole's face and refusing to acknowledge that Nicole was staring down the barrel of a gun.

She fidgets in her chair, gripping the arms until she has to force three even breaths and can loosen the grip. She looks around Michael's office properly. Michael clears his throat.

"One of the great things we can do here, is ease people into their new life with a little celebration of everything great that happened in their previous one." He stands up, fiddling with his bow tie, flicking one arm and then the other out to reveal his shirt sleeves, adjusting both cuffs, then smoothing a hand over his stomach to make sure his shirt is flat. He steps out from behind his desk, offering Nicole a hand.

"Please, come with me, Nicole."

Nicole hesitates for a second, looking at his hand, then stands in a fluid motion and takes it. Michael's skin is cool, smooth. She can feel the damp of her palm, and she's itchy all over. She lets Michael lead her out of his office, down a corridor, and into a dimly lit room.

Hung across one wall, there's a small cinema screen, and three seats are lined up on the opposite side. Michael gestures towards the seats with his free arm, giving Nicole's hand a gentle push in their direction. He snaps his fingers while she walks over, turning the room almost black, then back out of the room, whispering in a dramatic undertone, "Enjoy, Nicole."

Nicole sits in the dark, almost claustrophobic from expectation. She waits for what feels like minutes dragging by. A hum starts up, and a quiet, soft light spreads over the screen, fading into Waverly Earp's face. Nicole's fists re-clench. The perspective tilts, and then she's watching both of them—herself and Waverly—and the visual is unsettling; her own memory, but turned inside out. Unnerved by seeing herself, she focuses on Waverly. Instead of seeing Waverly come closer, feeling her touch, she's watching Waverly close the gap between their bodies, seeing the touch of Waverly's right hand on hers, then her left hand, then the transfer of the envelope from Waverly's left to right hand, her twist around to throw the envelope onto the bed, the way she doesn't let go with her left hand. Nicole's eyes are frozen on the story she missed the first time round. The way Waverly awkwardly transfers the envelope so that she doesn't have to break contact with Nicole.

She forgets to feel strange about seeing herself, feeling punched instead by the sudden visceral memory of Waverly's hands at her belt, her hands brushing the shirt away from the top of her breasts, the gasp of her heartbeat as she picked Waverly up, her skirt hitching under Nicole's hands and the touch of warm skin at the back of Waverly's thighs; the seize in her chest as she rested Waverly down carefully, grinning into her deep kiss, Waverly keeping her legs tight around Nicole's waist and only releasing her to hastily pull off Nicole's jeans and then her own skirt.

Nicole feels like the room tilts as the scene flashes to Waverly holding her arm and leaning in to her side; Waverly driving like a maniac, laughing as the wheels of her Jeep squeal and Nicole visibly braces in her seat; Waverly stealing Wynonna's favorite throw cushion and chasing her sister through the homestead with it, batting Wynonna's ass; Waverly touching Doc's arm and throwing her head back to laugh at his words; Waverly bringing her flowers; Waverly saying Where did you come from?; Waverly pulling her into Nedley's office and kissing her like time is pressing down on every bit of her and she has no choice; Waverly—

The whole movie is Waverly Earp. One hour of Waverly's thrum, her delighted laugh, her steely resolve, her sweetness. Nicole sits in silence for ten minutes when the projector has run out and the last bit of light has guttered into blackness.

Then she stands and walks into Michael's office.

"Nicole! Did you enjoy remembering your life?"

Nicole stops in front of Michael's desk, fighting the reflexive recoil of her fist.

"Just what kind of con are you running, here?"

Michael startles at the fury in Nicole's voice, the fix of her face, the stillness of her body. "What?"

"This is not the good place. Is there a bad place? This is definitely the bad place. Who are you, really? What the hell are you playing at?"

Michael stares at her, then spins a little to the side in his chair, looking out the window. "Seriously?" He mutters.

Nicole glares, waiting. He sighs. "Fine." He throws up his hands. "Fine! Fine, fine." He stands up, comes out from behind his desk, and starts pacing. He gestures towards a couch; Nicole shakes her head, crossing her arms, standing still, watching him pace.

"I really thought this one would work."

"This one?"

"Yeah, Nicole, big surprise. You arrived two days ago."

"What? Why don't I remember?"

"I wiped your memory."

"Why?"

"Because you figured it out!" Michael huffs. "You figured it out."

"Okay, I get it, this is not a good place, and you like... torturing me, I guess. But why am I here?"

Michael rolls his eyes. "It doesn't even matter if I tell you, Nicole; you won't remember."

"Wait," Nicole starts to walk towards Michael. He raises a hand and she knows—she knows—she has to stop his fingers clicking—she sees the walls flatten away and the place turn into an elsewhere—she seethes, "You fuck," —Michael snaps his fingers as she's about to touch his hand—everything goes black—

 

 

On day four, Nicole sits in a chair, looking at a desk, and a man behind it. She looks at the man say the words "Welcome to the good place!" and something in her twitches. She feels hungover, and looks around the room. She thinks about Waverly Earp.

 

 

Michael links his arm through Nicole's. She's not sure how she feels about it. He leads her through Main Street, past innumerable restaurants and fast food shops, The Pesto's Yet to Come; Chicken Soup for the Mouth; From Schmear to Eternity; Beignet and the Jets; Steak on a Stick; Hot Dog on a Stick on a Stick; Caviar on a Stick. The word stick starts to look all wrong. Nicole pauses outside Caviar on a Stick. She raises an eyebrow and pulls away from Michael's grip to peer into the window.

"Okay, but, how? I've seen Doc Holliday shoot a bullet from fifty yards through a crack in a shack wall, but this? This seems impossible."

"Yes, this one is having some... teething problems. They can get the caviar to stick on to the stick, but only briefly. The question is: how long does the food have to stay stuck? What time limit should be put on the pleasure of having food on sticks? What I don't fully understand about humans is whether it's the stick itself, or the ability to eat from it." Michael strokes his purple-and-orange bow tie contemplatively. "Humans are so mysterious."

"We're really not." Nicole's voice is more of a mutter than anything. She looks at Michael. "All we want, really, is one of three things, and preferably all three at once."

Michael looks expectantly at her, eyes wide. "One, the people we love to be safe and generally okay with what's happening to them. Two, the opportunity to express who we are, to get to do the things we love, you know? Be ourselves."

Michael looks fascinated. His eyes flash; he looks like he understands. Nicole's neck prickles.

"And three? What's three?"

Nicole's face is casual; impassive. "Oh, you know. Swearing. The ability to conjugate one swear word into a longer form. The joy of swear words that can be verbs and nouns and adjectives and, when you're super lucky, adverbs." Nicole thinks of the Earps.

He smiles at her. "Nicole Haught: a rebel and a grammar fan. Who knew?"

 

 

Outside Pump up the Clam, Nicole wonders at the number of clam diners and stands, eyes narrow as she sees a couple leaving the shop with cups of chowder. She looks around, then looks at Michael. "Are there any taco outlets around here?"

"Ah, yes, the taco." Michael's smile is bright. "What is it with humans and the taco?"

Nicole starts to ask him to answer her question, but Michael's arm reaches across her line of vision, an enthusiastic wave pushed out in the direction of a woman standing opposite the chowder fountain. Nicole registers that the woman is walking around the fountain towards them, but is really looking at chowder bubbling into a pool, in a public square.

Michael is rocking on the balls of his feet with excitement, and that alone makes Nicole look more closely at the woman walking towards them. She registers long legs, a tight red dress, long blonde hair, heels, and she could swear that some breeze starts up just at the right moment to sweep the woman's hair back in a choreographed flair.

Michael is practically levitating. "Sharleen! Hi, hi, there's someone you have to meet."

The woman is smiling at Nicole. Nicole's hand starts to reach for her hat, ready to tip it with the appropriate level of friendliness. She stops when she realizes it's not there, reaching for the woman's hand instead. "Hi, Sharleen, nice to meet you. I'm Nicole."

Sharleen's hand is cool and soft, skin smooth, and she holds on for several beats too long, fixing Nicole with a deep gaze. "Hi, Nicole, it is so good to meet you. Michael has told me about you." Nicole looks at Michael, surprised. "He says you were a cop? That's hot." She laughs suddenly. "Oh! Hot! Haught! Hot."

Nicole smiles politely. "Yes, I was a cop. What did you do?"

"Oh, I was a microbiologist. But my real love is horses."

Nicole looks at Michael out of the corner of her eye. "That's really cool, Sharleen."

Michael clears his throat. "Sharleen, didn't you say something about a party?"

"Oh! Yes. Nicole, we would be so pleased if you came to our celebration tonight, to welcome all the newcomers. I'll be hosting it with some other party-planning people; it should be a hoot."

Michael interjects. "It will be a hoot, that's for sure. And it's so good of you, Sharleen, to take people's minds off the sinkhole. I know we'll all have to pass by it to get to your venue, but a party is just what we all need."

Michael looks at Nicole expectantly.

"Sure, that sounds nice." Nicole smiles, making eye contact with Sharleen, but her sight is elsewhere, turned backwards, a sharp pull to another place, mind focused on Waverly Earp planning parties—her pin boards covered in ideas, her excited smiles, her careful math to pick the elements that would please the highest number of guests. Waverly in a snug black dress, hair loose, whirlwind of happiness; eyes only for Nicole, but delighted smiles for everyone.

 

 

Left alone in her new cabin to prepare for the party, Nicole tentatively says, "Jeremy?" and smiles when a small suited man appears in front of her again. "Hi, Jeremy."

"Hi, Nicole! It's nice to see you again."

"And you, Jeremy."

"What can I help you with?"

Nicole smiles warmly at Jeremy, mind ticking over different angles, picking the right one. "I need your fashion skills, please."

Jeremy's face transforms into an even more excited version of his usual beam. "I would love to give them to you! What are we working with? Is there an event?"

Nicole laughs at Jeremy's delivery of event, all hushed, awed tones, an eyebrow cocked. "Yeah, I guess? There's a big party I'm invited to."

He claps his hands in delight. "Formal?"

"Yeah, I think. Michael mentioned a shrimp pyramid, so I am guessing yes."

Jeremy clasps his hands together. "I love shrimp."

"You eat?" Nicole looks at Jeremy curiously. "I know Michael eats sometimes, but I thought you were... different?"

"Oh, no, I don't eat eat. It's more like an abstract thing." Nicole cocks her head to the side, eyebrows raised. "Like, I love the idea of shrimp. There's something about it, I guess. It's an excellent idea." Jeremy laughs a little, but he looks like he's thinking about something else, too.

Nicole waits for Jeremy to come back. "Jeremy, maybe you'll tell me more about yourself while you help me pick a dress." Her sentence doesn't rise into a question. Jeremy nods immediately, responding to the gentle command in her voice.

She smiles. "Great."

Jeremy looks at her hair, head titled. "How about... turquoise?"

Waverly's face when she opened the door to Nicole, black jeans and heels, a silk turquoise blouse, silver jewelry, nervous inside, but all dimples. The visible shadow of quick breaths in Waverly's chest, the skin above her dress flushing, the way she immediately took a step closer to Nicole, wrapping an arm around hers, voiding the space between their bodies. Waverly mentioning how good the color looked on Nicole at least three times that night. One last time before kissing her deeply and gaspingly in the front seat of Nicole's car.

"Yes."

She looks down, and she's wearing a turquoise dress, cut above her knees. She can't breathe. "Maybe something a bit... longer? And less tight?" She looks back up at Jeremy.

Jeremy cycles through endless variations, short sleeves, no sleeves, hem an inch lower, hem six inches lower and let out, V-neck, round neck, light turquoise, green-turquoise, inky-blue turquoise. She asks him a question before every costume change, accumulating facts.

"Will I get to meet Deidre?"

Jeremy pauses, left arm crossed over his waist, right elbow cupped by his hand, right hand at his mouth, finger over his lips, thinking about the dress that cuts halfway across Nicole's shins.

"I don't know, actually. Deidre can be... elusive. She loves people, though." He smiles brightly. "But she also overwhelms human people. She's a lot to take in. I think maybe she knows that, and doesn't like to make people uncomfortable." Jeremy frowns a little.

"What about Trevor? Bad Jeremy?"

"Oh, yeah. I bet you'll meet them. They come here kind of often." Jeremy's frown deepens.

Nicole watches his face, and gives him a few extra beats.

"Hey, Jeremy?" Nicole gestures at her body, outlined by the close cut of a three-quarter-length dress, asymmetric neckline across her chest, one sleeve, a deep turquoise. I think this is the one." Jeremy beams, frown disappearing.

 

 

Curiosity getting the better of her, Nicole makes a small deviation on the way to the party, right to the brink of the famous sinkhole. She approaches it by following the procedure for unknown situations, then laughs sharply into the silence as she remembers she's already dead. She can't help completing the police procedure, anyway, and then stares down into the dark hole. As she watches, she could swear it gets a little less deep.

She's straining into the dark when she feels Michael approaching. She keeps staring, trying to look from patch of rock to patch of rock to keep her vision working, frustration mounting as she senses Michael is going to pull her away to the party. Surrendering to his claim that they'll be late, Nicole takes a last look into the void; notices a flash of shining rock catch the moonlight; sees the rock move out and grow and fill up some of the empty space; considers multiple things at once; thinks again of Waverly Earp.

 

 

There is a shrimp pyramid at the party; also more shrimp, and music that's all the kind which gets stuck in Nicole's head for days after. She looks around for food that isn't shrimp- or chowder-based, grabs a glass of champagne, and scans the room. She sees Sharleen clock her, and then start striding over, small flirtatious wave at her side beginning after she takes three steps.

Nicole watches the wave warily, and sets her teeth. She glances at Michael out of the corner of her eye. He's rocking on his heels again.

"Nicole! I am so glad you're here. Do you want to dance?" Sharleen's hand goes out to Nicole's bare arm, lightly glancing down its length, reaching for her hand.

Nicole looks down at Sharleen's tug on her hand. She feels the brace in her legs, hip-width apart, like she's about to fire a shot. She can almost feel the ground tilt as she gently tugs her hand free. She looks at Sharleen's surprised face, and speaks gently.

"Sharleen, who was the first girl you had a crush on?"

Sharleen's body is suddenly tense, jumpy, her eyes looking between Michael and Nicole. Nicole waits out the silence, eyes on Sharleen.

"I—"

Sharleen doesn't carry on, but looks helplessly at Nicole. Nicole sighs. "Michael, why don't we go to your office?" She turns on her heel, and walks out of the hall without looking back.

 

 

Nicole gets to Michael's office a full minute before he rushes in, breathing fast. She stares at him, glad for the extra height in her heels that put her just taller than Michael.

She glares at him. "This is the bad place."

Michael, panting, throws his hands up. "Really? Are you serious right now?"

Nicole raises an eyebrow. "Why do you sound as if this has happened before?"

Michael huffs.

"Oh, God. This has happened before." Nicole takes a step towards Michael so that she can make the height difference clear. She folds her arms. "What is this? I get now why Waverly isn't here, but why am I here?"

Michael sighs, tilting his head up a little to Nicole's eyes. He steps back, spins dramatically, and sits down on a couch with a flounce. "You're really annoying. Did you know that, Nicole? Super annoying."

"Tell me why."

Michael's voice gets a little higher. "How did you figure it out?" Nicole opens her mouth, but Michael cuts her off. "I know, I know, tit for tat. I'll tell you everything. Just, please, tell me how you got it this time. I know why the last two times," Nicole opens her mouth again and is cut off once more, "but this one had Sharleen."

Nicole raises an eyebrow. "Yeah, Sharleen."

"But, Sharleen is so... appealing. Surely? She's my most attractive employee."

Nicole rolls her eyes. "Sure, Michael. She's... like a model." Michael looks confused. Nicole can't help but soften her voice a little. "Do you really not get it?"

Michael just keeps staring at her. Nicole considers what to say; thinks about what she needs to find out. She looks away from Michael. "Sharleen is... beautiful, sure; smart, charming. But Waverly is Waverly. People don't work in such an obvious way, Michael."

Nicole bites her lip, thinking. She looks back at Michael, voice at the same pitch. "What am I doing here, Michael? Really?" She swallows heavily, tries to keep her gaze even. "Did I do something?"

Michael laughs. It's a hollow, echoic sound. "Yeah, Nicole, you did."

He stands back up, and starts pacing.

"When you died, Nicole, I got the opportunity I've been looking for for years." He stares at her, mid-pace. "You're part of a bigger plan,"—he puts up a hand to silence her—"not relevant right now. When you died, you were obviously going to the good place. Obviously," he rolls his eyes extravagantly at the last word, "but I wanted you here. And I figured out how to get you."

Nicole reels a little; she thinks of Waverly, considers the logistics of what Michael is saying. Tries to lock some part of her up against the prospect of never seeing Waverly Earp again.

"How?"

"I woke you up." Nicole opens her mouth. "That's right, we can do that. I woke you up, and I asked you one question." Michael pauses dramatically. "I asked you if you'd consider a trade."

Nicole is staring, hairs on her forearms raised, itch at the back of her neck, gut roiling. She clenches and unclenches a fist, anger bubbling, pulled between fury at Michael and fury at herself, for whatever goddamn stupid trade she made. For whatever choice she can't remember making.

"I explained everything to you. Good place, bad place, revenant hell. How everyone obviously, inarguably good"—the look on Michael's face is the same as Nicole's when she saw the chowder fountain for the first time—"goes to the good place; everyone inarguably terrible goes to the bad place; how all revenants, bar none, go to revenant hell." Michael pauses in his pacing to look Nicole in the eyes. "How everyone who is in the middle gets fought over. How all those middling people who are just average, not-great people, come to the bad place. Where we torture them."

Michael looks a little brighter at his last sentence, then carries on. "So, anyway. I asked you if you'd come willingly to the bad place, if I got Trevor to create a less-bad bad place. Not quite a middle place, but a bad place for the middling people, minus the really bad torture."

Nicole sighs deeply.

"You didn't even hesitate." Michael looks annoyed and weirdly gratified at once. "You didn't even let me finish. I was barely done explaining about the less-bad bad place, and you were all, I'm in, like some dumb cop hero who can't wait to run in front of innocent children, taking bullets for them."

Nicole bites her lip. "I won't see Waverly, will I?"

Michael rolls his eyes. "I don't know, Nicole. Maybe you will." He smiles, suddenly, and Nicole shivers.

"How long have I been here?"

"Less than a week. But I can erase your memory."

A familiar sensation settles in Nicole's body. "So when you said two times, you mean I've figured it out twice? How did I do that the other times?"

"First time, you just did cop work, and got together all your little facts about why this wasn't really a nice place, after all. Second time, I made the error of showing you a movie of all your favorite memories of Waverly. Boy, was that a mistake." Michael looks out of the window, to the darkened street. "Lesson number thirty-five: do not, do not, remind Nicole Haught of Waverly Earp." Michael looks back at Nicole.

"Ok, your turn. I know Sharleen wasn't the only reason. How did you figure it out this time?"

Nicole thinks for a second, then comes up with the best non-answer she has. "The human to puppy ratio. There should be at least three puppies to every human. Here, it's more like five humans to one puppy."

Michael rolls his eyes again, lifts a hand, and Nicole's body is bracing before she knows why. Her hand goes to her neck, the black outside the window comes into the room, she whispers, "You fuck," black comes up from the floor, and all the lights go out.