The first time it happened was the last. When Nicole volunteered to help clean up after class, she marched onto the playground 10 minutes after everyone else, all lanky limbs she hadn’t grown into and fiery red hair her mother braided for her every day, and she found Waverly Earp sitting alone on a bench with a new graze on her knee. The tall redhead froze at the sight and Waverly, having noticed her friends presence, tried desperately to swipe the tears from her eyes and put on her ‘happy face’ which she wore so well. But it was too late, and Nicole saw through the facade easily.
“Are you okay?” She asked, kneeling down in front of her to inspect the wound. The younger girl nodded dismissively.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. I just… tripped. When playing hopscotch.” Waverly, bless her sweet little heart, had not yet learnt the art of hiding things from people, her honest eyes betrayed her easily and Nicole’s gaze hardened.
“Who did it.” She demanded to know, standing to her full height to inspect the playgrounds occupants in search of the guilty person as anger surged through her tiny body in a way she had never felt before.
“Waverly… You can tell me.” The ginger glanced at her friend, a small, comforting smile appearing on her lips. She hoped the gesture would help in this situation, assure the little Earp that Nicole was her friend, and, thankfully, after a moment of hesitation, the brunette spilled.
“It was just Champ being a jerk again…” The youngest Earp didn’t get to finish her sentence as she picked at a loose thread on her dungarees, her taller friend already marching off to where Champ and his friends were kicking a half-deflated football about. Whilst Nicole sometimes found her height to be irritating, as her sister always picked on her for it and it amplified her clumsiness, right now she was glad for the extra inches she had at her age. She marched right up to Champ Hardy and pushed him, making him stumble, trying to remain confident like they did in the movies.
“You leave Waverly alone!” She ordered him, her eyes fixed on the boy who was scowling back at her.
“You can’t tell me what to do! You’re just a girl!” At this he stepped forward and pushed her back. By now a small crowd was forming, and they gasped at his action. Nicole froze for a few seconds, unsure of how to respond, because she had never been in a fight before, but this was for Waverly,
“Shut up, Champ. You’re just a big bully.” She pointed an accusatory finger at him,
“Am not!” And with that he pushed her back again, but this time she lost her balance and hit the floor with a thud, stinging pain coursing up from where her hands had caught her fall. There was silence for a few moments as both stared in shock.
“Champ Hardy! My office! Now!” The head teacher cried, eyes blazing as he grabbed Champ's collar and lead him towards the building, him yelling accusations the whole way. The crowd quickly dispersed at the head's sudden appearance, not wanting to be caught in the aftermath, leaving Nicole sitting on the floor as Waverly pushed through their classmates towards her.
“Nicole! Why would you do that?” She shrieked, hurriedly blowing the granite and dust from her pink, stinging hands.
“I don’t like it when he’s mean to you…” The redhead answered truthfully, avoiding eye contact.
“You’re worse then Wynonna… You can’t fix violence with violence, Nicky. ‘Specially if you wanna be a police officer. It’s not right.” The brunette answered, her honey eyes taking Nicole’s lanky form in for any damage. Thankfully, her hands hadn’t cut on impact and her jeans were left un-touched by the friction, the colour having been already fading. Nicole couldn’t argue with that logic, so she blushed, ducked her head, and nodded, before stumbling to her feet.
The two walked over to the bench Waverly had been occupying and sat, side by side.
“Nicole?” Waverly said after a few moments to silence. The ginger turned to her brunette friend and was met with a small smile and warm brown eyes holding care and gratitude.
“Any time, Waves.”
A little head came to rest upon a tiny shoulder.
“This is your house!?” Nicole’s eyes took in the huge expanse of space, littered with rusting farming materials, and a rickety building leaning slightly to the left, the wind whistling through the gaps in the wood.
Nervously, the tiny brunette turned around, her hazel eyes filled with fear,
The redhead grinned,
The rest of the evening was spent playing hide and seek and tag and several variation until it got dark and they stumbled inside, red cheeked, for a meal of microwave macaroni cheese, as it was the only thing either of them knew how to make.
The night Waverly’s Daddy left was like any other night, really. She and Nicole had been splashing in the creek they had found all day long, ideas of a tire swing for the looming branch over the river already buzzing the atmosphere between them.
They swatted away angry mosquitos as they dried out in the orange glow of the evening sun, a comfortable silence settled between them as they dozed in and out of consciousness. Waverly compared the shine of the sun and the dried grass on their backs to a big, cosy, nature blanket and Nicole couldn’t help but agree.
When they both awoke, however, it was night time and they hurried back to the homestead, conscious of getting into serious trouble. Tripping over rocks in the dark, clutching their bundles of towels to their shivering, half-naked bodies, Nicole noticed Waverly’s skin was almost a pale white in the darkness. She was still pretty.
When they got to the homestead, it was dark, unsurprisingly. But as they crept inside and Waverly glanced over cautiously to the chair her Daddy spent most nights in, she realised the sinking fabric, still illuminated by the flickering light of the television, held nothing but empty beer cans. Nicole checked the house, even her Daddy’s room, for her, but he wasn’t there.
A little panicked at the prospect of being alone, she called Gus on the house phone, Nicole having to grab it from the hook for her as she wasn’t quite tall enough yet, because that’s what Gus told her to do. She picked up almost immediately and was around the homestead even faster.
In the morning, it was confirmed Ward had stuffed a duffle bag full of socks and simply left.
Without even a letter.
It didn’t really take Waverly that long to adjust at all; Gus and Curtis’ house was similar to the homestead, only a little better maintained. Wynonna had been pulled from her boarding school for ‘troubled youth’, or ‘the crazy kid bin’ as she so quaintly put it. But she still hugged Waverly when she cried and showed her how to make things other then mac and cheese (hot pockets), so it was easy to see that she still worried for her little sister more then she was willing to let on. Willa, at college somewhere in the states, was also notified but she didn’t come back.
And, of course, Nicole was there the whole time; to distract Waverly from the darkness that followed her, and talk to her about it when she needed to talk. And grow with her because people needed to grow.
Every Friday she would bring a lollipop to school and give it to her as she walked her home. Then those lollipops turned into ice creams from the ice-cream van by the park. And those ice-creams turned into invitations to stay overnight.
Soon, they weren't just friends, but inseparable, ‘practically joined at the hip’ Gus would laugh. Nicole would grab the cookies from the counter that Waverly couldn’t reach, and Waverly would help Nicole with her maths homework. They were partners in crime; you couldn’t find one without the other.
At Shorty’s bar, where they wondered in in search of Curtis, they were often placed upon bar stools and given small glasses of milk. The men around them would laugh at the two of them, and every one in Purgatory just grew to know them as ‘Waverly and Nicole’. With Nicole by her side, Waverly no long felt like the ‘poor littlest Earp girl who got left behind’. No, now she was Waverly Earp, Nicole Haught’s best friend. Nothing could tear the two of them apart.
Apart from each other.