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Crowns of Rust

Chapter Text

They meet by complete accident on the evening of Waverly's eighth birthday. 

"Oof." Waverly hoists herself up into the saddle of the draft stallion, struggling to swing her leg over his flank.

"Need any help, babygirl?" Wynonna asks, trying and failing to hide a smile. 

"Nope," the young girl grins, finally settling into the saddle. She pats the great beast's neck, giggling as it nickers softly.

"Hmm," Wynonna feigns hesitance, eyeing them both up and down. "Are you sure he's not too big? I could always ask Daddy for a different-"

"No!" Waverly interrupts quickly. "He's perfect."

"Remember, always keep one hand on the horn and your feet in the stirrups," Wynonna takes the reins from her sister and glances over her form one last time, noticing the way her legs dangle several inches away from the leather straps. "Maybe scratch that last part, though."

She leads them out of the stables and out towards the city gates, where they are met with the rest of the parade. Wynonna hands Waverly's reins to a guard before mounting her own steed, winking. "Enjoy yourself, Waverly. We're doing this for you."

They travel through the city, past the winding villas and down into the timeworn surrounding villages. Noblemen bow and toss gold into the streets, and cultivators cheer, offering the ripest vegetables of their harvests. A baker and his wife in particular approach Waverly, presenting her with a hearty loaf of cinnamon rye bread. The sweet bun nearly melts in Waverly's mouth, and she thanks them profusely, promising them they will never have another want for as long as they run the bakery. 


 

As the sun begins to set and they are reaching the furthest outskirts of farmland, Waverly's eyes begin to droop. "Can we go home now?" she yawns, slouching down in her saddle. 


"Yes, my lady." The guard tugs on her stallion's reins, leading the pair in a U shape back towards the castle. 

Suddenly an orange blur darts out in front of them, causing Waverly's steed to rear up in fear. The princess screams and throws her arms around the neck of the stallion in a desperate attempt to hang on. 

"My lady!" the guard steps in front of them, spreading his arms to calm the beast down. Waverly's heart is still roaring in her ears as the horse begins to soothe, her knuckles white on the horn of the saddle. Finally, she peers over the top of her steed's head.

The source of the ruckus, as it turns out to be, is a girl. 

She can't be much older than Waverly herself, she thinks. The child is shaking like a leaf, eyes wide as she gazes up at the mouth of Waverly's horse. In her arms she grasps a small orange bundle.

"What's all this commotion?" the king comes cantering up from the rear of the cavalcade, followed closely by her older sisters. He stops just short of the girl with a glower cold enough to freeze hell. "Tell me, girl, did you not see the hundreds of soldiers and horses milling about?"

The young redhead swallows and sinks to her knees, head bowed in submission. "N-no, Your Majesty, I did see them."

"Then tell me," Ward eyes her smudged and tattered clothes, "what would compel you to hurtle into the street as you did?"

"I meant no harm, Your Majesty," her voice quivers. "It was my cat, sir. She ran into the street just as the princess was approaching." She unfolds her arms, revealing a tiny orange kitten. "I couldn't just let her get trampled."

Ward stares at the feline before running a hand tiredly through his hair. "A kitten," he echoes. "My daughter was nearly thrown off her horse for a kitten?"

The girl nods hesitantly. 

"I could have your head for this." He towards towards one of the guards, who immediately steps forward, gripping the hilt of his sword.

"Wait!" 

Waverly breaks her silence, sliding off of her horse. Her boots land with a soft thud in the dust, and she makes her way over to the girl. "My name's Waverly," she greets brightly. "What's yours?" She offers her hand out to the girl, who stares at it for a long while before accepting it.

"Nicole," she answers, warily eyeing the king. 

"I like your kitty," the princess smiles.  

Nicole brightens at that. "Her name is Janey. She's only a few weeks old."

To the bewilderment of the adults, the two girls begin to make conversation, seemingly oblivious to the people around them.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Ward's eldest daughter huffs, rolling her eyes.

"Willa," Wynonna grits her teeth, glaring at the brunette. "She's eight years old. You could at least try to keep your voice down."

"Why should I? She should know better by now than to engage with. . .her like," Willa disdainfully gestures towards Nicole. 

Thankfully, neither girl seems to notice, both too enraptured by the other's presence. 

"Again, she's a child, Willa. Let her make some friends," Wynonna snaps before turning her attention to her younger sister. "Babygirl!"

Waverly looks up from her conversation, hazel eyes sparkling with delight.

"Tell your friend goodnight. It's getting late," she calls.

Waverly sticks out her bottom lip but begrudgingly obeys. She turns to Nicole and wraps her arms around her. "I guess this is goodbye."

Nicole nods, slightly dazed, and hesitantly returns the hug.

"Can I see you tomorrow?"

The redhead blinks in surprise and nods again, a grin slowly splitting across her face. "Of course!"

 

Chapter Text

 

"How come we never see your mom around?" As soon as the question leaves Nicole's mouth, she instantly knows she's made a mistake. She rolls over on her side, now facing the princess directly. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked."

 

They're twelve years old and lying in Waverly's bed, trying and failing to sleep. For the hundredth time this night, Nicole feels as though she's overstepped her boundaries, even though this sleepover was the princess's idea. 

 

"No, no, it's okay," the melancholy in Waverly's voice betrays her. "She left us when I was barely old enough to walk. One morning she was here, and the next she wasn't."

 

Nicole's tongue feels dry. "I'm sorry. How did she. . . ?"

 

"Oh, she didn't die," Waverly answers. "At least I don't think so. She just. . .left. Nobody really knows why, or where she went." She stares blankly off into space, her eyes unreadable. "What about you?"

 

"Huh?"

 

"Your mother. I've never met her."

 

"Oh." Nicole shifts again, this time pulling the blanket up around her shoulders. "Well, I couldn't tell you. My father adopted me. Said he found me in a wrecked wheelbarrow on a country road when I was just a few weeks old. He searched for days for any signs of my parents, but eventually realized that whoever left me in that wheelbarrow was long gone, dead or otherwise. His own wife had passed less than a year ago from childbirth, leaving him with little Chrissy. But he took me in anyways." She shrugs, smiling faintly. "He always was a stubborn old man. I do wonder sometimes, though. What she looked like. If our hair was the same color."

 

A blanket of silence fills the room.

 

"Is that why you don't take Eddard as your last name?"

 

Nicole pauses. "That's part of it, I suppose. I could have, but there's so much history and legacy behind it. A history my father has fought tooth and nail to make a name for. I wouldn't feel right bearing it when I haven't taken part in that." 

 

Waverly snuggles closer to her, their noses almost brushing together. She can barely make out the brown of Nicole's eyes in the darkness, save for the reflection of the firelight. 

 

Nicole swallows, praying that her heartbeat can't be heard above the crackle of the hearth. 

 

"A satchel was also found with me in that wheelbarrow. A shabby old thing, nothing valuable. 'Haught' was scrawled on the inside flap. We think that was the name of my birth parents." 

 

The edges of Waverly's lips turn upwards. "Well, it certainly fits you."

 

Nicole wants to laugh. She wants to giggle until the entire bed shakes, because her face feels like a thousand rays of sun.

 

All because of the girl laying next to her.

 

"Yeah, I guess it does."

 


 

As the years go by it becomes harder and harder for them to see each other. 

 

Waverly becomes busier, attending lessons nearly every day with her tutor. When Nicole isn't needed tending to the pastures by her father, she's out shoveling coal for the local blacksmith and pounding out ingots of metal. Anything to build her strength and prepare her for joining the soldier's recruitment. 

 

For all Waverly knows, this could be their last summer together. She's seen how some of the flatfoots return, disciplined to the point of emotional vacancy. The mere thought of losing Nicole in that way terrifies her to the very core. 

 

Waverly shakes her head, clearing the thoughts from her mind. Enough of all that. Today is about surprising Nicole.

 

She carefully removes the bottle from the hole in stone wall, wincing as it grinds against the rock. She glances over her shoulder before gingerly setting it down on the floor, and replaces the brick back into the wall. She exits the cellar quietly, clutching the phial to her chest. 

 

The passage is just where Wynonna said it would be, tucked inconspicuously behind a statue near the front of the castle. She follows the tunnel for about ten minutes, guiding herself slowly against the wall until she can see the faint glow of light softly emanating from a grate at end of the pass. Waverly sighs in relief, and lifts the iron plate, thankful to be out of the stale darkness. She crawls out, taking a deep breath of fresh air, and quickly scans the area. Not a guard in sight. 

 

She grins, before raising her hood above her head and setting off down towards the rolling plains of farmland. 

 


 

 

The Eddard establishment is nothing fancy. In fact, tattered would be a kind word for it. 

 

The entire abode is a quarter size of the Homestead's gatehouse. Broad planks of wood make up the four walls, smooth and gray with age, and a thatched roof blankets over top. A massive rack of antlers is mounted over the door, a prize Waverly is positive Randyll won himself. 

 

Beneath the awning in a rickety wooden chair sits a girl not much older than Waverly herself, intently focused on mending a square of quilt.

 

"Hello, Christina," Waverly smiles warmly in greeting. 

 

The blonde glances up from her work, rolling her eyes with a faint smile on her lips. "She's in the fields, your highness." 

 

"Nice to see you, too. And I told you to stop calling me that." 

 

"Can't. It's what you are," Christina pulls the final stitch through and ties off the end of the string. "She really misses you, you know. There are days she can hardly even focus because she's thinking about you." She folds the blanket over the wooden fence. "I swear, you two act like an old married couple sometimes."

 

Waverly bristles at the comment. She opens her mouth to argue, but Christina holds up both hands. 

 

"It was a jest, Waverly."

 

Waverly flushes, and she snaps her mouth shut. "I knew that."

 

She overlooks the all too knowing look in Christina's eyes and the way her heart is left pounding in her throat.

 

*
*

 

The walk down to the fields is short, albeit excruciatingly humid, and Waverly curses wearing such a dark dress. More than once she is tempted to break the seal on the bottle of cordial, if only to relieve her rapidly drying throat. No. This is Nicole's present.

 

Speak of the devil. . .

 

Her breath catches in her throat at the sight of her best friend. 

 

The sun beats down on her back, leaving the nape of her neck damp and skin glistening, and her loose shirt clings to her back. Nicole drags the rake through the soil one last time before thrusting it into the ground. She leans idly on it, breathing heavily. A few stray wisps of hair escape her braid, frizzy from the heat. 

 

A blush begins to creep it's way across her cheeks, and Waverly chastises herself. It's just Nicole.

 

The redhead gazes up, breaking into a smile when she sees Waverly, and motions for her to come over. She does so, the hem of her dress dragging through the dirt as she tip toes through rows of carrots and cabbages.

 

"Hello, stranger."

 

"I brought you a little treat!" Waverly grins, presenting the glass canteen. "Try it."

 

Curiously, Nicole removes her gloves and takes the flask from her. She breaks the wax and pops the cork off the top, taking a long drag. Her eyes widen in surprise as the sweet, cool liquid engulfs her mouth. The thick flavor of fermented strawberries washes over her, leaving her tongue begging for more. 

 

"Oh my god, Waves," she sighs in bliss, lowering the flask from her lips. "Where did you get this?"

 

"Wynonna's been teaching me how to brew my own spirits, since shipments can take quite a while sometimes. How does it taste? Please tell me I got it right this time."

 

 

"To put it lightly? It currently ranks as the best thing I have ever drank," Nicole laughs softly and Waverly beams, leaving a silence to fall between them. They stare at one another, soaking in each other's presence as a choir of cicadas fill the air with song. 

 

"I've missed you," Waverly begins just as Nicole is opening her mouth to say something. Her heart swells at the words. 

 

"Waves. . ."

 

"I'm sorry I haven't come to see you." Guilt begins to fill the brunette. "I've tried to get away, I really have. But Daddy has at least three guards escorting me to lessons everyday and-"

 

Nicole steps forward, bringing a finger up to rest on the princess's lips. She gazes down at her, brown eyes warm with affection.

 

The words die in Waverly's throat, all of her attention focused on how close Nicole's body is to her own. Her face feels like it's on fire, and an unfamiliar heat begins to creep into her stomach. 

 

"I understand," confesses the taller girl. "I've tried to come and see you as well, but I think the security is becoming less tolerant of my visits." She chuckles and gestures down the smudges of dirt that litter her cotton woven shirt. "After all, I'm just a farmer's daughter."

 

Waverly bites her lip in anger. 'Of course you aren't', she wants to say. 'You're the most courageous, kindhearted woman in the entire kingdom.' But she doesn't. 

 

She lowers her head. "I'll have a word with them," she mutters. "I'm sorry your birthday has turned out to be shit."

 

"Waverly, the fact that you're even here is the greatest gift I could ever ask for," Nicole assures her. "Besides," she tosses her gloves to the ground, "the day isn't over yet." Her mouth settles into a mischievous grin and she takes Waverly's hand. 

 

She leads her through the plowed field until they come to the wicker fence lining the edge of the forest. The redhead leaps over it with ease, and helps Waverly slide over. 

 

A small, barely visible path winds in front of them, trampled nettles and ferns betraying it's existence. Eventually, the firm ground gives way to a softer forest floor, moss cloaking the earth. Waverly is temped to abandon her shoes to bask in the spongy earth, but Nicole leads her on further. 

 

"Patience, Waves."

 

They enter a small clearing surrounded by eroded walls of rock and soil. A babbling stream runs through the center, flat round stones lining its belly. 

 

"I found this place a few weeks ago," Nicole answers Waverly's silent question, unlacing her boots. "Janey bolted into the woods one day after my father spooked her by accident, and I followed." She chuckles. "I was sprinting so fast that I didn't notice the creek and fell face first into the water."

 

"That cat is always leading you into trouble," Waverly breathes, gazing around at the glade. 

 

The sun filters through the canopy, casting dappled light across the shores.

 

She leaps in, disrupting the clear flow, and laughs. "Come on, my lady. You aren't afraid of getting a little wet, are you?"

 

Waverly's ears turn pink at the suggestion and in this moment she wants nothing more than to wipe the smirk off of Nicole's face. "Oh, now you're gonna get it!"

 

She kicks her shoes off and plunges into the stream, sighing in pleasure as the cool water surges over her toes. Her dress is now soaked up to her shins, but she could honestly care less.

 

She bends down to scoop up a handful of water, feigning innocence as Nicole eyes her warily, before hurling it towards the other girl. It soaks through her shirt, earning her a yelp of surprise.

 

"I guess I deserved that," Nicole squints, wiping droplets out of her eyes. She cocks her head, scrutinizing Waverly's dry form. "However, it is my birthday, and it's not everyday that you turn sixteen."

 

She rakes her leg though the brook, splashing a massive wave up onto the princess. Waverly throws her arms up, trying and failing to block the shower raining down on her.

 

Nicole howls with laughter, and after seeing the playful glare on Waverly's face, takes off running. 

 

Waverly chases her across the banks, sand and pebbles crunching clumsily underfoot. Nicole laughs again, this time several paces farther away.

 

Her breaths are coming in ragged gasps now, her heart thudding wildly against her chest. She doesn't really have a plan for if she catches Nicole, and the idea of that alone is enough to send a spurt of adrenaline into her belly. 

 

And with the wind against her cheeks and a flame in her lungs, Waverly wonders if this is what it's like to want someone. 

*

*

*

Nicole lets her catch her eventually. And when she does, she tries to ignore how when the sun hits the farmhand's hair it looks as if the world is on fire. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Please, don't leave me. The plea rests on the tip of Waverly's tongue, threatening to spill over. She buries her face into Nicole's shoulder, fingers digging into her back. She bites her tongue, a lump resting like a stone in her throat. No. That's not fair to Nicole. Not after everything she's worked for. 

 

"Hey," the redhead rubs soothing circles into her back. "I'm coming back. Nothing in the world could stop me from coming back to you."

 

Waverly lifts her head, looking into the warm chestnut gaze. 

 

Except plague. Or a training accident. Or-

 

She finds her eyes ghosting over the delicate beauty spot on Nicole's left cheek, before falling lower to the soft curve of her lips. The taller girl is clad in the customary leather armor given to all new recruits, an accent that compliments the harvester's lean form. 

 

The look fits Nicole so well it makes Waverly's heart ache. Gone is nearly every trace of the girl she grew up with, replaced instead with the pungent scent of boot polish and steel. The redhead stares back at her with a reassurance so genuine it nearly sweeps all of Waverly's anxieties away. Almost.

 

A burst of adoration blooms in Waverly's chest, aching so fiercely she wonders if her heart could physically break. 

 

"You'd better." The brunette leans in for a final embrace, but realizes too late that she's leaning in at the opposite angle. She barely has time for confusion to register before their faces are only inches apart and okay she's really doing this

 

Her lips barely brush the corner of the farmhand's mouth, but the slight touch is enough to send a leg-buckling thrill into Waverly's stomach. She pulls away, blood roaring in her ears.  

 

Nicole inhales sharply, pupils as wide as the moon. She's sure that she must look like an opened mouthed fish, but her mind is currently drawing a blank for anything else to say or do.  

 

A scoff, barely audible, sounds from somewhere nearby. Nicole's head snaps up and she regains her composure immediately. Her eyes dart around, searching for the source, and come to rest on the eldest princess.

 

Willa's eyes seem to bore into Nicole's skull, reading every line and groove in the ivory skinned girl. And then, with a twitch of the lips so tiny Nicole isn't sure if her mind is playing tricks on her, Willa sneers.

 

*

*

 

The sight makes Nicole's blood run cold.

 


 

The first raids begin about a month into Nicole's absence.

 

Waverly awakes to the sound of hurried footsteps and shouting. Rubbing her eyes blearily, she slips out of bed and makes her way over to the stone window. The sun has not yet risen, but the eastern gray horizon glows with a soft orange. No, not a glow, she thinks, squinting her eyes.

 

Fire. 

 

Thick plumes of smoke that she previously thought were clouds curl into the air, ashen smudges against the sky. 

 

In the distance, she can see about twenty men on horseback, thundering in and out of the the villages. A man on a hulking stallion tosses a torch into the thatched roof of a small home, shouting in victory as it catches flame. 

 

A young woman clutching a bundle to her chest stumbles out of the home, coughing fitfully. She sinks to her knees, pleading with the man. 

 

Bile rises in Waverly's throat as two more mounted horses surround her and the first man makes a grab for her. She tears her gaze from the scene and backs away from the window, collapsing back onto her bed. 

 

She curls into a ball, burying her head beneath the pillows until she hearts the trumpets of the cavalry.  


 

 

"No."

 

"Waverly," the king sighs for the hundredth time, rubbing his temples.

 

"I can't believe you didn't even ask me. How the hell could you do this?" Waverly storms, pacing in long strides.

 

"Language," Ward growls, venom lacing his words. He straightens his back, stretching to his full height, and suddenly Waverly feels very small. "I'm putting our people first. Believe me, I didn't ask for this responsibility."

 

"As if you've ever given a shit about our people," Waverly spits. "If you had ever cared for our kingdom you would have noticed the body count of last winter alone. You are doing this for the gold. Don't even try to pretend otherwise." She clenches her fists, enjoying the bite of her nails against her palms.

 

"We need a larger military. If these raids continue at the rate they're happening, we won't have a kingdom to call home. Then the peasants won't be the only bodies feeding the maggots in the ground."

 

A lump begins to well in Waverly's throat at the frustration of it all, but she swallows it out of spite and blinks away the stinging of her eyes. 

 

"You're marrying him."

 

The words are unyielding, interwoven with a finality that Waverly knows means the conversation is over. The king gives his daughter a final displeased glance before turning away.

 

 

"Baby girl."

 

Waverly pauses, hands shaking, and turns to look at her sister. For the first time, she notices just how tired her blue eyes look, how dark circles permanently rest above her cheekbones.

 

The elder princess rises, placing two hands on her sister's shoulders. "He wouldn't be doing this if we had an option. I'm sure of it."

 

Waverly knows she's right. At least, she mostly does. "I-I know." Her shoulders slump and she leans into Wynonna's embrace, seeking comfort in her warmth. And for the first time in her life, she wishes there were another pair of arms around her.

 

 

Chapter Text

She is introduced to her fiance in the early spring. 

 

The Hardins are a. . .boisterous. . .family. Her fiance perhaps most of all. 

James is very handsome. There's no denying it. 

His face, though seemingly unkissed by the sun, is chiseled in all of the right places. Trimmed blonde hair flops over his eyes as he bows to her. He smirks, revealing perfectly straight teeth, and kisses the back of her hand. 

The little action is enough to cause a blush to crawl across Waverly's cheeks, but there is no thrill, no butterflies, no heat.  And his eyes, a warm honey color, are several shades too light, nothing like the deep umber she is used to. 

But that is not a fair comparison, Waverly thinks. After all, if the priests do not compare men to the gods, why should she?

*

My dearest Nicole,

There's not a day that goes by that I don't ache for your return. So much has changed in your absence, I don't even know where to begin. I'm sorry that I have not written to you; the courier only comes around every two months or so, but I suppose that's no excuse. 

"You know, you'd be so much prettier if you weren't reading and writing all the time."

Waverly looks up from the parchment, quill hovering in the air, and a drop of ink splatters onto the crossed out sentence. "I'm writing to my best friend. We haven't spoken in months."

James shrugs. "If she wanted to speak with you, she would have written to you by now. What is she doing again?"

"Nicole is training for the military. She's going to be a knight when she's done with her service."

He barks out a laugh. "Peasants aren't bestowed knighthoods, let alone maidens. Those titles are reserved for the sons of lords." He ruffles her hair affectionately. "You're so cute when you try to explain politics."

Something sharp snaps inside of Waverly, and she recoils from his touch. "Things may be that way in your kingdom, James, but shit doesn't work like that here. Anybody can be anything they please if they work hard enough for it." She drops the quill back into the well of ink and folds the letter into her pocket, seething. "Enjoy your time in the library." She all but storms away, leaving him sitting alone amongst the stacks of leather bound books.

"I told you," he shouts after her, "call me Champ!" He shakes his head. Women. 


Mud and soil fill her mouth as Nicole is thrown to the ground. She grunts, pain flaring in her shoulder.

 

That is definitely gonna bruise.

"That all you've got, Haught?" her sparring partner taunts, twirling his sword in hand.

Nicole spits the grit towards his boots. "Please." She rolls forward and swipes her leg across his ankles.

He yelps in surprise and topples backwards, landing flat on his ass. Nicole scrambles up, snatching his weapon from the mud and kicks him square in the chest. He lands on his back, gasping as the wind is knocked out of him.

She grins, pointing the wooden sword at his throat. "Dead. Try not to be so cocky next time, Dolls."

The older man narrows his eyes and pushes the tip of the sword away with his index finger. "Well fought."

Nicole tosses the battered blade into a dry patch of grass and offers him a hand. Dolls accepts and lets her pull him to his feet. 

The sky rumbles and they glance up towards the dark swell of clouds. The air is thick and heavy, yet another presage of the weather to come. Damn the spring storms.

"We should head back." Her companion notes. 

"Afraid of a little rain?" Nicole asks teasingly.

"No," Dolls replies, slinging his pack over his shoulder. "It's pneumonia you need to watch out for." 

Okay, apparently humor isn't his strong suit. 

They set out at a steady pace, ever conscious of the silent flashes of lightning that dance overhead.  Though the training camp is planted in the middle of nowhere, Nicole has to admit the scenery is beautiful. 

The base lies in the shadow of a magnificent gray mountain, who's peak carves a stark wedge into the sky. Surrounding the valley are rolling hills and ridges, blanketed with oak trees.

Nicole feels a dull ache in her chest, reminded of the backwoods of her farmland. Perhaps if she squints hard enough she'll see an old man snoozing up against the trunk of a tree, with a warm ball of ginger fur curled on his stomach. Perhaps she'll be able to make out the glimmer of a stream and the silhouette of a brunette wading into the shallow waters. Maybe-

She shakes her head. Enough of the homesickness. Right now she needs to focus on reaching her tent without getting drenched.

They make it back just as a light drizzle begins to fall, coating the already soggy land with even more moisture. Nicole bids Dolls goodnight and all but sprints to her tent.

She ducks under the cowskin awning and ties the flaps securely closed. Piece by piece her armor comes off and is carefully laid on the ground in a neat pile. She slips out of her undershirt, exchanging it for a relaxed cotton tunic.

The soft material is a relief against her skin after a day of wearing the rough spun vest. Nicole sighs as fatigue finally catches up with her. She undoes her braid, allowing her fiery locks to fall freely around her shoulders, and runs a hand through her hair. 

"God, I need a haircut," she murmurs to herself. Maybe Waverly can cut it for her when she returns. Nicole can't help but smile at the thought of the princess reacting to her long hair. 

She unlaces her boots and collapses down onto her cot, head filled with images of her best friend. The soft patter of rain has turned into a heavy din, battering the roof harshly. The sound relaxes her.

I should have written to her by now, Nicole thinks, her eyes beginning to droop. And she should have written to you, a small voice whispers in the back of her mind. She rolls over onto her side, pulling the blanket tighter around her.

Nonsense. Waverly is royalty, after all. She's probably just as busy as I am these days. I'll write to her tomorrow, first thing in the morning. 

Yes, tomorrow.  

 

Chapter Text

 

Three more months pass before Nicole returns home from training.

The soles of her feet throb and her thighs ache from straddling her horse for days, but at the end of the night her heart sings. With every pang comes another step towards her dream, and another step back home to Waverly.

Her stomach flips at the thought of their last encounter. The softness of Waverly's lips against her cheek, a mere hairs width away from her mouth. The way her eyes had significantly darkened when she'd pulled away-

Nicole groans. As if she hasn't spent every night for the past year replaying it in her mind. I'm probably overthinking this.

After all, friends kiss each other all the time, right?

Friend's eyes don't glaze over after a peck on the cheek.

She bites her lip, wrestling with the two thoughts, when a purple blur catches her eye. Nicole slows their pace to a trot and veers to the side of the road. Her mare snorts as she pulls them to a halt.

Heliotropes.

Well, if she was looking for a sign she needn't look any further.

She picks enough to fill a small bouquet and tucks them away in an empty saddlebag, praying they won't be squished. Another idea springs into her head, causing a grin to ebb onto her face.

She remounts her horse and waits, watching her fellow trainees trot along until she sees Dolls rounding up the back. He spots her eyeing him and tilts his head, steering his steed towards her.

"Something wrong?"

Nicole shakes her head. "No, there's just something I need to take care of before we head up to the castle. Don't wait up for me."

Dolls spies the violet stalks poking out of her bag and bites back a chuckle.


 

The ride is short to the western side of the village, and Nicole remembers every street and road sign. The bakery is just where she remembers, tucked snugly against a tailor shop and cobbler. She dismounts her steed, securing his reins to a post outside the market, and enters through the open door.

A woman with short, graying hair is tending to the counters. Her eyes widen in astonishment. "Do my old eyes deceive me, or did Nicole Haught just walk through my doors?"

Nicole smiles warmly. "Hello, Augusta."

The older woman draws her into a tight hug. "There's no need for formalities anymore, dear. Just call me Gus."

Nicole hugs her back, breathing in deeply the scents of nutmeg and yeast emanating from her clothes.

"Just look at you!" Gus pulls away, gazing at her with pride. "That armor fits you like a glove. You're not the scrawny little farm hand that left us a year ago. Waverly might not even recognize you!"

Nicole blushes, fishing into the small leather pouch on her belt, and pulls out three copper pieces. "That's actually why I'm here. Do you have any apples roses left?"

"As it just so happens, I do. Curtis made a fresh batch this morning." Gus smiles, making her way over to the display counter. "Have a special occasion in mind?"

Professing my love for the most unattainable girl in the kingdom.

Nicole smiles faintly and lies through her teeth. "There needs to be an occasion?"

Gus hums, a knowing twinkle in her eyes. "No, I suppose not. These always were her favorite." She delicately grabs two of the blossom-like pastries and wraps them in cheesecloth, tying off the package with a length of string. "Here."

Nicole opens her mouth to protest as Gus pushes the coins back into her hands, but the other woman gives her a stern look.

"These are on the house. Now don't make a fuss. Take these and enjoy your reunion." She hands the cloth pouch to Nicole and ushers her out the door. The soldier huffs, exasperated, and hugs the baker one last time before mounting her horse and setting off down the path.

She makes sure to slip the copper pieces into Gus's pocket on her way out.

The ride up to the castle is brief, but every minute feels like an eternity. By the time she reaches the gates, Nicole's heart is galloping in her chest, and she barely notices when the guards grant her entry.

To her surprise, a stable boy offers to take her horse for her, and states that her saddle bags can be delivered to her barrack quarters in advance. She accepts, dismissing the unusual treatment in light of not wishing to delay any longer.

Her boots thud against the marble tile of the castle floor, echoing down the empty halls. She breathes deeply, inhaling the familiar must of crumbling stone. Home.

A sound of footsteps that are not her own alerts her, and Nicole turns her head, searching for the source of the sound. She glances up, her eyes coming to rest on the balcony, and freezes.

Waverly peers down at her, as beautiful as ever. Her hands rest on the railing, mouth parted in a soft 'o'.

Nicole drinks in the sight of her, dumbfounded at how much her best friend has changed. Her tawny brown hair now reaches just past her elbows, cascading down her back in waves that Nicole is dying to bury her face in. A navy blue cloak envelopes her shoulders, draping in front of her chest.

"You're home." Waverly breaks the silence. There's a slight tremor as she speaks.

Nicole's stomach leaps, and she nods, dimples slowly blooming. She fumbles nervously with the bouquet behind her back.

It's only as the princess buries her face into her hands that she realizes something is terribly wrong. The smile drops from her mouth.

"Waves?" she calls worriedly, immediately sprinting up the stairwell. She rushes to the brunette's side, uneasiness washing over her.

Waverly shakily reaches out to her, cupping the side of Nicole's face. She inhales sharply, as though she can't believe the redhead is actually there, and begins to sob once more.

Nicole pulls Waverly into her arms, gently trying to calm her. The heliotropes drop to the floor.

She can barely hear Waverly murmuring quietly through her hiccups, so she holds the girl tighter, running a light hand through her hair in an attempt to soothe her.

It's amazing how quickly a pile of guilt can land on your shoulders. It hits Nicole over the head like an anvil.

It was a mistake to leave , Nicole thinks. God, how could I have been so stupid?

Waverly tightens her grasp around Nicole's torso, pulling them impossibly closer. The redhead wonders if her armor is uncomfortable against the princess's cheek.

She needed me and I wasn't there for her.

Eventually the Waverly's cries die down to silent tremors. It's almost worse, watching the soundless anguish wrack through her body. Nicole's heart breaks a little more with each sniffle.

Waverly takes a quiet, shaky breath, steadying herself against Nicole's frame.

"Daddy and Willa are dead."

 


 

The funeral is over almost as quickly as it began.

Some words are spoken by the high priests, a few blessings bestowed, and the king and his eldest are sealed away in the tombs beneath the castle.

It's cruel, almost, how briskly everything is over.

Wynonna's coronation happens later that evening. Nicole stands beside both of them, offering comfort in any way she can to either sister. Wynonna's eyes are empty and voice is hollow as the bishop anoints her high queen. The silver crown weighs heavy on her head, slipping past her dark brown curls and resting low on her forehead. Her eyes are so glassy that Nicole wonders if she even realizes that she is the new queen.

There are whispers in the barracks, murmurs that the middle child finally snapped.

"I heard it from the butcher's son," a fellow soldier ushers. "He said he saw her lure them into the woods himself. Once the wolves got to 'em all she had to do was finish the job."

"Wouldn't come as a surprise to me," another replies. "That one never seemed right.

Nicole bites back a growl and rolls onto her side, burying her head under her pillow.

Wynonna is not a murderer. She doesn't need to know what went down on that hunting trip to be certain.

 

Chapter Text

Waverly is engaged.

Honestly, Nicole doesn't know why it came as a surprise. Ward always was the kind of man to look for business opportunities, no matter the source. Of course he would sell his daughter off to the neighboring prince and seal the contract without a post-death termination agreement. And of course said prince had to be everything Waverly could possibly want.

 

Nicole swallows the bitter taste in her throat. There's no time for heart ache, not when Waverly needs her.

 

Not that the princess has needed her much, as of late. While the passing of the king came with sorrow and heartache, there had been little time at all for the sisters to grieve. Wynonna refused to speak in detail of what had happened, muttering over and over something about a wild boar and how she hadn't meant to do it. And Waverly, god sweet Waverly, had swallowed her anguish as best she could and stepped up to the plate as her sister began to wither away. At the end of the day life went on and there was still a kingdom to run, whether either of them were ready to accept it or not.

 

With newfound responsibilities came less and less free time, specifically less time for the redhead to visit the youngest Earp. Though Waverly claimed that Nicole could now come and go as she pleased, it still felt wrong for the young soldier to waltz into the castle without prior notice. Hell, she had learned her lesson after one day stumbling into the library to find Prince James and the princess locked in what appeared to be a rather heated engagement.

 

The image had been seared into Nicole's brain for weeks.

 

With the wedding being less than a year away it should be no surprise that the two are beginning to get to know each other. From the few encounters she's had with James Hardin she's been easily able to conclude he is nothing more than a pretty face who's head is filled with air. Nicole's stomach turns at the thought of him perhaps one day sitting on the throne of the kingdom, let alone producing heirs with Waverly. The mere thought of him being with the brunette in such a way makes her head spin. If what she had witnessed in the library had been any shadow of what he is capable of. . .

 

Now Nicole feels legitimately sick.

 

She rubs her temples and takes a deep breath. It won't do her any good imagining scenarios that will only distress her. She shakes the thoughts from her mind and swings her legs over the side of her cot to begin lacing up her boots.

 

Dawn has begun to spread its cool fingertips over the parapets of the barracks, and as Nicole trots down the western stairwell she can see that most of the valley is still cloaked in darkness. She breathes deeply, savoring the sweetness of the air.

 

God, she's missed this.

 

By the time she reaches the ramparts Nicole can see that a small portion of soldiers have already congregated around who she presumes to be the captain of the kingsguard. From what she can make out the task for the day is disaster relief. She frowns.

 

Of course she's heard of the number of skirmishes that have taken place in her absence, but since when did it become barbaric enough to require disaster relief? 

 


 

Nicole smells the village before she sees it. It's a putrid, smoldering scent, the kind that only clings to substances that should never be burned.

 

What had once been a wealthier district of the upper city now lies in shambles. Skeletons of the previously magnificent buildings stand twisted in the pale morning light. Ash plumes beneath her feet with every step she takes, causing her throat to burn and eyes to water.

 

Something snaps beneath her boot, and Nicole lifts her foot to reveal a charred portion of a ribcage. It requires every amount of discipline in her being to keep herself from dry heaving. Once the initial wave of shock passes she straightens upright, regaining her composure.

 

Several refugee tents are scattered among the less damaged potions of the street. Hundreds of families and lone persons alike occupy each one to the brim, and among some of the less damaged residences huddle those less fortunate. Somewhere wail of a baby alerts her. 

 

Nicole snaps her head around to search for the source of the noise, and her gaze comes to rest upon a woman desperately trying to soothe her child under one of the poorly lit tents.

 

She approaches quietly and knocks gently against the taut side of the wall. 

 

The woman glances up to meet Nicole's eyes, weariness stitched into every line of her face. She doesn't look a day over twenty-three, though the gray wisps streaking her hair suggests otherwise. "Is there something you need. . ." her eyes drift across the royal crest on Nicole's jerkin, ". . .my lady?" 

 

"Nothing at all," the redhead replies. She takes note of the bedraggled interior of the tent. "Is there anything I can do for you? Can I get you a blanket? Maybe a toy for the little one?" 

 

The woman shakes her head no, giving Nicole a weak smile. "The fact that you and the other soldiers are here now is more than I could ever ask for." The baby nuzzles fussily into her side. The sight of him makes Nicole melt, and anger bubbles into her chest at the thought of the men who ripped away everything the two had. 

 

She bites her tongue, searching for the gentlest way to voice her question. "I know this may be a sensitive topic," she begins softly. "But is there anything at all that you remember about that night? A face? A symbol? Anything?"

 

The blonde's face darkens at the mention of that night and she pulls her son even closer to her chest. "Yes." She exhales shakily. "There was a man and about twenty of his vermin. I didn't get a good look at the others, but the leader was enormous." She shudders. "He was strong enough to overpower my husband."

 

"If we found this man, do you think you would be able to point him out in a line up?"

 

The woman nods, wet pools of anger welling in her eyes. "Yes. I'll never forget that face. That man took my son's father away from him."

 

Nicole's gut twists with guilt. "I'm sorry. You don't need to say any more." She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a scrap of parchment. "Here," she scribbles briefly on the piece of paper and hands it to the woman. "If you need anything at all you'll know how to contact me."

 

The woman takes a deep breath and composes herself. "Thank you," she murmurs, taking the slip from Nicole's grasp. The baby has long since stopped crying, transfixed instead by one of the brass buttons on Nicole's jerkin. Nicole smiles softly and the woman notices her soft expression. "Do you have any of your own?"


Nicole blinks. "What? Oh, no. No." She shakes her head. "I don't think I could ever. At least not for a long while." Tiny green eyes stare up at her in curiosity, and despite herself Nicole can't help but envision a child of her own. A girl, perhaps, with unabashed brown locks just like-

 

Great. That's just who she needs to be picturing right now. 

 

"Well, if you're sure there isn't anything else I can do for you I'd best get going." Nicole shuffles her feet awkwardly, her a blush creeping through her cheeks. She turns, making sure to lower the tent flap as she goes.

 

"Wait." The woman reaches out and catches her arm.

 

Nicole stops and pokes her head back though the opening.

 

"I did hear the cobbler saying that he thinks they make their base in the southern forest.” The woman chews her lip and lowers her voice. 

 

Nicole’s pulse quickens. “And do you know where I might find this cobbler?”

 

"Yes." The blonde smiles grimly. "But you shouldn’t waste your time. He was one of the first to be buried.”


 

 Though she hates to leave the woman and her child so soon, Nicole is eventually dragged away for other duties. They clear away rubble and sweep away ash until the sun is high in the sky. The captain, who's name Nicole comes to learn is Holliday, dismisses them from their shift after the last hearth is demolished. Though wishes she could have kept going, her muscles can't complain when she finally settles back into her saddle. 

 

Since the sun won't set for many hours to come, Nicole decides to spend the remaining portion of the day investigating the lead the blonde woman gave her. It couldn't hurt afterall, she thinks. The sooner they find the plunderer's camp, the sooner these attacks can be put to rest.

 

She rounds up a party of three to go with her: Dolls, who agreed the moment she asked, and two other young soldiers who volunteered as they overheard them speaking.

 

"You can't go around promising gold to every poor family we come across," Dolls glances at her sideways.

 

Nicole clenches her jaw, bracing herself for the incoming lecture. Of course he had overheard that.  "I know," she sighs. "I know." She squeezes the reigns a bit too tightly and her mare snorts. "I just can't stand knowing that lives could have been saved if we returned earlier."

 

"If we had come home sooner you would have been a fourth of the soldier you are today and gotten yourself killed," Dolls responds, shaking his head. "Compassion will be your downfall oneday."

 

They come to a halt at the top of a grassy ridge, their forms casting long shadows onto the plains below. The southern forest stretches out before them, seemingly going on for ages. 

 

"Lonnie!" Dolls barks. The soldier on Nicole's right flinches.

 

"Yes, sir?"

 

Nicole can't help but chuckle at his formal response.

 

"You and Brian will cover the first mile stretching from here to the western edge of the woods. Nicole and I will examine the treeline." He dismounts his gelding and smacks the backsides of the boys's steeds. They bree in alarm and take off at a wild canter, causing their masters to shout in surprise. 

 

Nicole watches them until they are no more than specks in the distance. She raises an eyebrow. "Was that really necessary?" 

 

 Dolls flashes a rare grin. "Let me have my fun. They could use a bit of a hazing now and again."

 

Nicole snorts. 

 

They make their way to the edge of the trees and tie their horses to a sturdy oak. The woman had not been lying about the in-tell, Nicole notes. Though faint, the evidence is there. A trail of hoofprints here, a broken arrow shaft there. Yes, a large party had definitely come through here.  

 

"Keep your eyes out for anything out of the ordinary."

 

 His timing couldn't be more impeccable, because just as her friend utters those words she spots something out of the corner of her eye.  

 

She crouches down and dabs a finger into the powder. Flour? No, flour isn't blue. She rubs the dust between her fingertips, observing the unusual hue.

 

Nicole frowns. "I think I've got something!" she calls to her partner. 

 

The taller man discards broken arrowhead in his grasp and promptly joins her. He follows Nicole's gaze and cocks his head.

 

"Look at this," Nicole mutters. "Have you ever seen a substance like this before?"

 

"No, I haven't," Dolls breathes. He pulls a tiny glass bottle from a pocket in his jerkin and tosses it to Nicole. "Here. Collect some of it."

 


Carefully, she brushes a good amount of the powder into the vial and presses the stopper back into place. "What do you think it could be?"

 

"A marker of some kind, most likely," Dolls frowns, scrutinizing the ground. "Probably to indicate where something's hidden."

 

Nicole scans the forest floor for any signs of disturbance. Not a twig or leaf seems out of place. She squints, turning towards the treeline. If it wasn't buried, then perhaps it was hidden. It's not an uncommon trick to hide things in trees, after all. Her father did it when he didn't want the rabbits eating the freshly harvested barley, and when they were younger Chrissy would often hide Nicole's toys in the branches just to frustrate her.

 

She turns her gaze to the treetops, and her stomach leaps in excitement when she spots something glinting from the top of one of the old oak trees.

 

No.

 

Nicole's eyes widen in dread as she recognizes what it is and she leaps to her feet. "Fuck!"

 

"What?" Dolls snaps his head up.

 

"Get down!"

 

She barrels into him and they both tumble to the ground. Dolls falls flat on his stomach and wheezes as Nicole comes crashing down on top of him.

 

"Nic," he gasps, the wind knocked out of him. "What the hell?" He shimmies out from under her and rolls onto his side. 

 

The redhead doesn't get the chance to answer before a single silver arrow embeds cleanly in her back. 

Chapter Text

The pain is what wakes Nicole. She groans, rolling her good shoulder, and grimaces as it releases several loud pops.

 

The first thing she notices, as she looks around the room, is the bundle of red Chrysanthemums resting on her bedside. A lump forms in her throat.

 

Gingerly, Nicole lifts one of the flowers. Most of the petals have begun to wither, curling inwards towards the last splashes of color.

 

How long has she been asleep? A couple of days? A week?

 

She bites her lip and sits up. Sunlight is filtering in softly from the infirmary window, bathing the small room in a fawn yellow.

 

She sighs at the peacefulness and nearly jumps out of her skin when she notices the sound of quiet breathing. Nicole's gaze snaps to the corner of the room to discover a slumped Wynonna Earp dozing on a wooden stool.

 

Her chin is tipped down against her chest, her neck crooked in a position that can't possibly be comfortable. She can't clearly see her face from this angle, but she can imagine the queen's eyes are serenely shut.

 

Nicole wouldn't consider herself to be close with the queen. Growing up, she was always the distant teenager that would smile whenever she and Waverly were cooking up mischief on the castle grounds. Even after they grew older, Nicole still knew very little about the elder Earp.

 

For this reason she can't fathom why the queen would come to visit her.

 

Maybe Waverly sent her sister to watch over her while the princess attended to royal duties. Or maybe, Nicole spots the empty bottle of wine near Wynonna's feet, this was the only place no one would think to search for the drunken, grieving queen.

 

Nicole thinks the latter is most likely.

 

"Wynonna?" she asks cautiously, wincing at the gravelly tone of her voice.

 

The brunette stirs almost instantly. Nicole wonders idly if she was ever asleep in the first place. "Haught! You're awake."

 

"What happened?"

 

Wynonna tells her. She explains the late patrol, the ambush, how Nicole was brought in on Dolls's back with an arrow embedded mere hairs away from her lung. She scolds her for investigating a band of criminals without wearing proper armor or calling for back up.

 

Nicole listens. "Is there any news of them?"

 

Wynonna nods. "Yes and no. Captain Holliday sent out a large patrol to the southern forest." She scowls. "There wasn't a trace. I don't understand how they keep vanishing into thin air."

 

Nicole bites her cheek, mulling the information over.

 

"On the bright side, there have been no more attacks on the town. Maybe you've scared them off for good."

 

"Please," Nicole ducks her head and scoffs lightly. "They have no reason to be afraid of me."

 

Wynonna raises her eyebrows lightly. "I disagree."

 

An uncomfortable silence falls between them. Nicole can't explain why, but something about Wynonna's gaze unnerves her. She scratches the back of her head. "So what else have I missed?"

 

Wynonna sighs and slumps back against the wall.

 

"The Hardins want to host a ball next month to commemorate the engagement," she mimes a gag. "As if I need another reminder that those creeps are going to be my legal family." 

 

A thousand weights seem to settle back on Nicole's shoulders at the mention of the king and his son, accompanied by a whim of irritation.

 

"Aren't there more useful things to spend that kind of coin on?" the biting remark slips out before Nicole can think twice. "You could rebuild an entire village with those funds."

 

"One would think," Wynonna replies. She picks the wine bottle up from the ground and shakes it, frowning at its lack of contents. "It's all coming out of their pockets, and somehow I doubt that King Hardin would take financial advice from me well. Or any advice, for that matter."

 

Nicole laughs humorlessly, though it offers her a tiny bit of comfort to know that Wynonna shares just as much distaste for the neighboring royalty as she does. "So when is this ball?"

 

"A month out. You should be back on your feet by then."

 

"A month?" the redhead scoffs incredulously. "I can still serve in the meantime." She goes to test her dominant shoulder and hisses when pain laces through it.

 

Wynonna chuckles. "You couldn't lift a spear right now if you tried."

 

The smugness in her voice makes Nicole's frustration begin to boil. She eyes the thin sword attached to the brunette's hip. "Try me."

 

"I have better things to do than duel an injured teenager," the queen smiles.

 

"And I have better things to do than lay around while there are criminals at large!" her voice carries just loud enough to make the walls ring. 

 

Wynonna's teasing smile settles into a thin line. Her expression turns stoney. Nicole instantly knows she's made a mistake.

 

"Take the time off or I'll discharge you from the guard." The words are spoken with a cold sobriety.

 

Nicole opens her mouth and then closes it, at loss for words. Surely she's bluffing?

 

The eyes of Ward Earp harden. Nicole averts her gaze.

 

A heavy silence blankets them again and Nicole is left to ponder the brunette's words. Wynonna rises, leaving her authority behind her. Her eyes soften. "Think about what I've said and rest up. I'm going to need all hands on deck on the night of the Ball." She eyes the bouquet on Nicole's nightstand. "Bring a date if you're feeling up for it."

 

Nicole follows her gaze to the wilted flowers. Yeah, she's positive there's nothing in the world that could make her feel "up for it."

 


 

Time passes at a steady rate.

 

With some helpful prodding from Wynonna, Nicole is released from the infirmary early.

 

Unable to be near the castle walls without becoming restless, she returns home. Randall greets her with open arms and sets her to work the moment she can walk without pain.

 

She doesn't mind. It's nice to be able to work alongside her father after being apart for so long. She wakes before the sun rises to feed the chickens, just as she did when she was young, and harvests the wheat fields during the day.

 

When night falls and her family is asleep, Nicole runs. She runs until her knees are weak and sweat burns her wound. And then she collapses, only to do it all over again the next morning.

 

It's draining work, but Nicole is content, and it's almost enough to forget about the princess and her withered bouquet of flowers.

 

Almost.


 

The date of the Midsummer Ball arrives quietly, so quietly that Nicole nearly forgets until Christina insists on taking her to the market to buy formal wear.

 

"This really isn't necessary," Nicole insists. "All of the guards are required to wear uniform armor. Accessorizing isn't a big priority."

 

"Exactly. You need something to make you stand out tonight. How else are people going to be able to spot you in a crowd?"

 

Nicole purposely avoids her gaze and busies herself in browsing the aisle of shoes. "I'm going because of legal obligation. Who says I want people to spot me?" she grumbles.

 

The blonde holds up a ludicrously bedazzled belt with a hopeful expression. Nicole looks at her flatly. She sighs again and turns away.

 

"Honestly, Chrissy, I don't need anything here." She crouches down to inspect a pair of gaudy boots. Nope. Definitely not for her. "There's nothing here that would even go with what I'll be wearing."

 

"Nothing?"

 

 

*

 

*

 

 

They eventually leave, but only after Christina buys something that she refuses to let Nicole see.

 

"You'll like it, I promise," her sister assures. She helps Nicole

thread her still tender shoulder through the top of her chainmail.

 

"It's not that I don't trust you," Nicole slips on both of her bracers and ties them with her teeth. "But-"

 

"But nothing." Christina smiles gently. "Have a little faith, Nicole."

 

The redhead surrenders.

 

"Now I want you to keep your eyes shut for this last part, okay? The blonde combs her fingers through Nicole's hair and parts it into threes.

 

Nicole relaxes and closes her eyes. Chrissy's hands feel wonderful against her scalp, and the light tugging and twisting of her hair nearly puts her to sleep.

 

Before she knows it, it's over and her sister moves on to retrieve something from the back of the room. Nicole listens intently, trying to discern any noise that might give her a clue, but Christina returns quietly with nothing but the sounds of her own footsteps.

 

She moves to Nicole's side to fiddle with something around the stop ribs on the back of her breastplate. Finally, Christina rests her hands on her Nicole's shoulders. "Take a look."

 

Nicole turns towards the square of polished brass hanging on the wall and her eyes widen. She runs a hand over the back of her head.

 

 The corner of Christina's mouth curls up in a smile at Nicole's expression. "I told you. Knock em dead, soldier."