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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.

 

 

Chapter Text

The day that Nicole dies, Waverly stays for hours at the hospital until Wynonna finally pulls her away, bundling her into her own coat, then Dolls's thick woolen coat over the top, and carrying Waverly, despite her own eight-and-a-half-month bump, to the Jeep. Dolls drives with Doc in the front seat, while Wynonna holds Waverly in the back seat, swaddling her like a child, unable to stop tugging and re-tugging the extra coat around her sister, as though the pull of a blanket might help the pain.

When they reach the homestead, Dolls silently nudges Wynonna aside, reaching in through the open door and gracefully lifting Waverly into his arms as though she weighs nothing. He walks her all the way up to Wynonna's bed without being asked, and stands with her in his arms for a minute, head bowed over Waverly's, before delicately putting her down. Doc hovers in the door, hat in his hands, eyes panicked, looking too full of hurt and living; and Wynonna touches both Dolls and Doc with a brush to their arms, releasing them. She lies down around Waverly's body, bending awkwardly with her bump to try to spoon Waverly as best she can.

Doc and Dolls retreat downstairs, where Wynonna will find them the next morning, red-eyed and ashen, silent, but there, ready for whatever she tells them to do.

Around midnight, Wynonna fetches water from the upstairs bathroom for Waverly, and pulls out her stash of Twizzlers from her bedside drawer, ripping a pack open and gently pushing one toward Waverly's mouth.

"Here, baby girl. Just suck on this for a bit, okay? You need to have something, and I know everything will taste like shit right now, but sugar will taste the least awful, I promise."

Waverly rubs her eyes before giving a tiny nod, and opens her mouth obediently. Wynonna strokes her hair while she sucks on the licorice, twisting her body back around to spoon Waverly again. She ignores the tugging in her belly and silently mutters a prayer to the baby to just hang the fuck on.

Waverly utters the first words she's spoken since being told that Nicole was gone, voice wretched and hoarse and without any of the lightness Wynonna knows. Her jaw clenches and she wills down the gulp of her throat.

"Can you sleep here with me tonight, please?"

Wynonna's heart breaks over and over at the very fact of the request and then again at the tiny please, and she swallows tears almost angrily.

"Nothing could make me leave you, baby girl."

 

 

Three days after Nicole dies, they have a small wake, because everything is going to hell and Wynonna is worried that if they don't have one now they might not ever get a chance. She and Dolls and Nedley organize everything, Dolls silent, Nedley looking wrecked, his stubbled beard further washing out his gray face. Her ankles and hips kill her while they trudge around town informing people, grief plain on her face, and, under it, an anger that scares everyone who opens their door.

They try to keep the wake small, but it's packed, a full town turnout, and Shorty's is bursting. Wynonna notices how Nedley stays ten feet away from Waverly the whole time, quietly following whenever she moves around, keeping an invisible perimeter around her.

Waverly has a dazed face, but her hair is brushed and loose, and she's wearing a black dress cut below her knees, snug and plain, with a pair of simple heels, and her outfit at least looks like Waverly. She sits at the bar, Wynonna her keeper all day, silently sipping water and making sure that Waverly gets exactly the right amount of alcohol for grief, but not so much that everything gets even worse. Doc watches them both from a corner of the bar, a curve to his body, as though it's being pulled away towards some other place. He drinks whiskey all day, seemingly impervious to the alcohol, eyes drifting around and only really settling on Waverly's face.

Wynonna sees Champ Hardy approaching on the other side of Waverly, and tenses.

"Hey, Waverly," Wynonna sees Champ's hand appear on Waverly's left arm. "I'm sorry about Nicole. How're you doing?" Wynonna almost laughs angrily at the question, and she twists to stare at Champ. She sees open desire on his face, and starts to push herself back from the bar to a wobbling standing position.

She's too late. Waverly, turning to look into Champ's face, too, frowns at his expression and his question, and is smoothly off her bar stool before Wynonna has had time to negotiate her bump past the edge of the bar. Waverly hops off her stool to the right, avoiding Wynonna by coming off the seat in the same direction, overtaking her sister and rounding the bar stool, tearing her left arm from Champ's grip and pulling it back in one liquid motion, the shift backwards strong and practiced, and Wynonna can't help the reflexive pride in her body as she watches Waverly Earp, her baby sister, throw one hell of a left hook into Champ Hardy's smug face.

Champ is flung into the bar, holding his bloody nose, startled eyes looking over his hand. Wynonna gloats, then realizes she should probably restrain Waverly from going any further.

Waverly, however, is standing completely still, cold and furious and hard, staring at Champ with an expression Wynonna has never seen. When she speaks, her voice is all steel and stone, and Wynonna almost shivers. "If you ever so much as mutter her name again in my presence, I will end you."

Wynonna hears the involuntary noise Champ makes as he rushes out of the bar, and it's as close to real joy she's come since Nicole died.

 

The second night after Nicole dies, Wynonna pulls Waverly into her bed again, and takes up her awkward big spoon position behind her, pulling up and over them the extra blankets she's brought to her bed, tucking them around Waverly and holding her until she's in fitful sleep.

The third night, the night of the wake, Wynonna notes that Waverly falls asleep a bit faster. She takes the small victory, still herself barely sleeping, the baby kicking furiously, gut churning, desperate for a drink.

The fourth and fifth nights, Wynonna manages to get Waverly to progress to a full candy bar and even a tangerine, and she has never felt so proud of an accomplishment in her entire life.

The sixth night, Wynonna brushes her teeth while Waverly settles in her bed, then comes to hover in the doorway. Nervously thumbing the peeling paint of the doorjamb, Wynonna clears her throat.

"Waves."

Waverly looks up from her fixed stare at the wall. "Yeah?"

"Please can you tell me about the first time you saw Nicole?"

Waverly swallows visibly, the pulse working in her throat, and she looks almost pleadingly at Wynonna.

"I know, I know." Wynonna walks to the bed and sits on it, facing Waverly, one knee bent with the leg tucked under her bump, other foot resting on the floor. "I think it'll help, Waves. Please. Can you try, for me?"

Waverly bites on her lower lip, and swipes away at her eyes.

"Nicole came to see me at Shorty's," she starts. Wynonna suddenly winces inside, sharply regretting never asking Waverly the same question when Nicole was alive. She puts a hand over Waverly's, stroking encouragingly.

"She came through the door just when one of the taps had broken and drenched me. I didn't understand what I was feeling when she looked at me. I'd never seen someone look at me that way before. It was so open," Waverly pauses, looking quickly to Wynonna before continuing, "you know? She was so beautiful and so sure, and I couldn't figure it out. She cracked a joke about wet t-shirt competitions." Wynonna snorts; she can't believe that Waverly gives a tiny smile in response. "She made me stutter. And then she said she'd been meaning to introduce herself, and the way she said it made me know that she'd seen me before and had deliberately come to the empty bar so she could meet me properly, but alone."

Waverly pauses, looking out of the window to where the last light has caught at the edges of the mountains and the sky is deep black above them. She looks for Orion and sees Nicole, coming through the bar. She traces the gentle swagger to Nicole's hips in her head, hears the unspoken words in her voice. Thinks of Nicole's eyes meeting hers and not looking away. There's a retrospective catch of Waverly's breath, knowing everything she knows now; her memory of the moment is tight with other moments, other seconds, all now lost.

Waverly drags her eyes from the darkness outside and back into the room; back to Wynonna's waiting face. She wipes at her eyes, inhales slowly. "Everything about her was so confident and smooth, and I just babbled on, nervous about her attention. I even asked her to turn around so I could take my wet shirt off, and she smiled before she did, but I got tangled in the tight bits of the shirt, and I ended up having to get her to help me."

Waverly smiles again at Wynonna's chuckle. "And then of course she saw me without anything but a bra on, anyway, and I know you can imagine." Waverly gives a tiny laugh. "I know you loved teasing her, but I also know that you get it. She tugged that shirt over my head, and she was inches away from me, and I would have kissed her right then if she'd got any closer."

Wynonna smiles. "I do get it." She rubs Waverly's hand absently, looking out of the window, biting gently on her lip. "Did she ever tell you about the time she complimented my ass?"

"What?"

The word makes Wynonna look quickly to Waverly's face, expecting to have said the wrong thing, but she just sees a cocked eyebrow and a small, curious smile.

"Do you remember Stephanie Jones's engagement party?"

"Murder party, more like." As soon as Waverly says the words, she looks regretful, a frown beginning around her eyes. Wynonna rushes on.

"Well, I was stuck at the station. Dolls had just gone AWOL, remember? And Nicole was stuck at work, too, on a Saturday night. So anyway, I may have... encouraged her to drink with me."

Waverly's eyebrows raise.

"Yeah, I know." Wynonna sits up a little straighter on the bed. "I got Officer Haught to drink on police property." Her grin fades a little. "She may have made me wait until she was off-duty, but still. I bet no one else has succeeded in that feat."

Waverly bites her lip.

"What; no?" Wynonna says the last word in a hiss, mock horror on her face. "Et tu, Brutus?" She mimes being stabbed; pretends to fall dead onto the coverlet.

"Get up, you big goober. Get to the bit where Nicole told you how awesome your ass is."

Wynonna lets herself be pulled upright. "Right, so, I ply Nicole with bourbon"—Waverly squeezes the hand she's holding when she hears Wynonna using Nicole's first name; she smiles gently, and thinks about the one time she saw Nicole drunk and in cahoots with Wynonna; remembers no annoyance, just the look on Nicole's face—"and we're both a bit pissy, right? Because we clearly are supposed to be the main women in your life, and we're not invited."

Waverly looks surprised. "Wait, Nicole was pissed that I didn't invite her to the party?"

"Wow, dude, way to railroad right over my feelings. What about the fact that your very own sister was pissed?"

Waverly just stares at her.

"Okay, yeah, fine, I hated Stephanie Jones's fake ass; she thought I was dumb as all hell; I get it."

"Answer my question, Wynonna. Please."

"Right, yeah. Duh, Nicole was annoyed. No, not that bad. Not pissed, just... disappointed."

"But, I'd only known her, like, a few weeks. I didn't think she'd want to go to something like that, with the Sheriff's daughter, and... Stephanie."

Wynonna rolls her eyes. "Waves, Nicole would have gone anywhere you asked her to. You were, like, the person she always wanted to be around."

Waverly smiles, uncertain. "But she was disappointed? I wish I'd known she wanted to be there."

Wynonna squeezes her hand, lowering her voice. "Waves. It's okay. She did know you liked her, I know it. Only in hindsight, because I am a big dummy who was all wrapped up in her own problems, but it was blindingly obvious at the time."

"How?"

"The way she talked about you—it was," Wynonna stops, and Waverly expects a familiar little barf noise, but instead she sees Wynonna's throat move in a swallow before she continues. "She was already in love with you, Waverly. She said something like she thought you'd spent your whole life trying to fit in with the people around you, but you were just then starting to figure out what you wanted. If I'd not been worried about Dolls and ninety percent made of liquor, I would have heard what she was saying properly. She was talking about herself, Waves. She knew you liked her, that you wanted her back, and she was just waiting for you to figure it out. Just like the gentlewoman she was."

Wynonna gently wipes the tears from Waverly's cheeks, then carries on. "But the real point, the main point, is that she thought my ass was fine." Wynonna smiles at Waverly's laugh.

"Yeah, tell me about that already."

"So, I told Nicole that Stephanie once told me I should get a butt lift."

Waverly gasps, gratifyingly, genuine shock on her face. "She did not."

"Oh, she did. So—I tell Nicole, and Nicole has the same look that's on your face right now, and then she says," Wynonna pauses dramatically, enjoying the look on Waverly's face, trying out the first and last impression she will ever do of Nicole Haught, face indignant and voice a gentle drawl, "What? Your ass is like,"—Wynonna makes the motion of grabbing a peach, forcefully, from underneath, squeezing air with relish—"top shelf, man,"—she grimaces slightly with the force of emotion as she delivers the last words, shaking her head minutely—"it's top shelf."

Waverly laughs. Wynonna smiles, satisfied.

"Your ass is top shelf."

"I know, right?" Wynonna grins, pulling Waverly down onto her back, into a hug, snuggling up next to her, bumping her with her belly at Waverly's hip. Waverly starts stroking Wynonna's hair, her other hand drifting over to the baby bump.

"The baby is kicking a lot."

"Yeah, kid is just as feisty as you'd expect. It's been non-stop the last few days."

Waverly twists her neck to the side and turns her head to peer down at Wynonna. "Are you in pain? Are you getting cramps or anything?"

"It's fine, Waves. Don't worry."

She hears Waverly's head softly hit the pillow again and puts a hand over Waverly's on her belly. She strokes gently until she can hear Waverly's breathing get shallow, then she shifts her head by a tiny increment to note the time, satisfied. She waits until Waverly is deeply asleep, then reaches behind her to turn off the lamp, trying not to take her weight from where she's pressed against Waverly. Once the soft light has gone out of the room, she quietly shifts as close to Waverly as she can, then lies awake in the dark. Thinking about every memory she has of Nicole that Waverly might not know about; collecting all the deep laughs and each wild joke and every brave thing that Wynonna saw Nicole give. Counting quietly on the fingers of her free hand, tapping against her own hip, adding up, doing it again when she loses count. Figuring how she can portion out every memory for Waverly; how she can make them last.

 

 

On the eighth day, Wynonna goes into labor.

Waverly stands behind Wynonna, watching, terrified, held tight by the remaining Widow, her sister-wife standing twenty meters away on Main Street, and Doc Holliday spouting such nonsense that she should know he's bluffing, but she's too scared, too desperate, to know, and he's too far away for her to read his eyes. She struggles against the Widow and watches in horror as Doc shoots his gun towards Wynonna, then hears Peacemaker fire a split second later, and feels, rather than sees, what happens—feels the rush of air turning past her cheek and sees the White Widow up ahead fall backwards and immediately senses weight crumpling behind her, pulling her body back a step. Doc has surprised pride on his face, and it takes Waverly several seconds to understand that he's split a bullet in two. She slaps him for her terror—a scared, loving snap across his cheek—and then Wynonna is grimacing, and there's barely time to bundle her into Shorty's, get her onto a pool table, and steel herself for what's about to happen.

Wynonna's face is contorted, pain underwritten by panic, and Waverly tries to help Rosita, glad they at least have someone who understands basic anatomy and medical principles to help with the labor.

Grateful right up until she is hearing the heavy slap of something on the back of her head, and then she's simply surprised; everything turns black.

When she comes around, it's to hear Rosita and Wynonna arguing, and she knows it's about Rosita being a revenant, about how she's tired of Wynonna treating her with suspicion. She's groggy as she hears Rosita talk about helping to deliver the baby, but then selling it to guarantee her own safe passage. Waverly fights back the disappointment that threatens to overwhelm her, instead focusing on the cold, desperate anger that cuts through her half-blackened vision. She stands up, grabbing Peacemaker from where it's been knocked to the floor, and aims it at Rosita.

Rosita looks terrified; surprised; Wynonna yells to the gun. We need you to get in the goddamn game. The gun flares hot in Waverly's hand, she feels a deep tugging, black comes to the edges of her vision again; she sees Nicole's face, then a small, older woman with white hair the same length as her own; then there's a sickening twist as she sees herself from the other side of the room; a flash of a gun goes off in her mind, and she pulls the trigger.

She aims too high, glancing Rosita's shoulder, and making her flee from the bar.

She delivers her own niece, feels the warm wriggle of the tiny baby, heart thundering in her breast, and feels everything inside her bottom out. She thinks of Nicole; looks at the baby's face, part of her sister, part of herself. Overwhelmed and desperate and in love and terrified.

She watches Wynonna speak to the baby, hearing reverence and quiet love and incredible fear all at once, and then she understands what Wynonna is going to do, understands why she looks so wretched; she understands why Wynonna made Doc leave, and she asks softly, hurt in every word, "Why didn't you tell me what the plan was?"

Wynonna looks up at her, and meets her eyes. "I wanted to wait as long as possible before breaking your heart." Wynonna pauses. "And we don't even know if you can leave the Ghost River perimeter."

Waverly startles. "How did you know?"

Wynonna tells her about her vision quest; seeing Bobo, believing he's Waverly's father. She hands the baby to Waverly, her hand widowed in the air, drifting after her daughter.

Waverly tries to keep eye contact. "I'm not your sister."

Waverly's arms around the baby ache, the little body too much and not enough. She wants, suddenly, to get up onto the pool table and lie down next to Wynonna. Rest with the baby between their bodies; not get up for days. She thinks of how it feels when Wynonna grabs at her upper arms and pulls her tight into her body. She thinks about her earliest memory—Wynonna pulling her onto her lap, being wrapped in the same tight, fierce hold. Years and years of that cocoon, now unravelling in front of her. The science—hard, cold science, which Waverly respects—stark on the piece of paper; the words written in ink, setting her tiny family on fire.

Wynonna pushes herself up. "Goddammit, Waverly." Her look fixes Waverly into place. The pool table is hard underneath her, the green fabric itchy at the back of her thighs and calves. Her legs are getting cold. She grimaces against the dull pain that stretches from her belly to her knees, up all of the notches of her spine. She stares at Waverly's face, and reaches out, returning a hand to its place on the baby's head. Her voice is gravelly and hoarse. "You are as much a part of me as this baby."

She keeps staring into Waverly's eyes, willing her to understand. Waverly's eyes are skittish, and she looks back down to the baby in her arms. She takes a step closer to Wynonna, then a tiny step back. Wynonna gives her permission to take the baby and go by gently pushing Waverly's hip, but then catches her when she's near the door.

"Listen to me, Waverly Earp. Look at me." Waverly turns back to look. Wynonna half-lying, half-up on the pool table. "There is so much in life that we get no fucking choice in, but this. This, we get to choose. And I have been choosing you every moment of your life. There is no way in hell that I am about to stop that now."

Waverly looks at Wynonna's face, sees the honesty written underneath the pain, listens to her words.

"You are my baby sister."

Waverly nods and leaves. Closes the door and shuts away every crevice of pain, thinking of the baby in her arms; Doc's face; Nicole.

 

 

Doc pulls up in her Jeep, driving terribly, gears crashing, lurching into a shaky stop ten meters away from Waverly so as not to get even one millimeter too close to where she stands. He stumbles out of the car, rushing to her side. "We have to go," Waverly puts the baby in Doc's arms, gently pushing the small of his back, "Now. Get in, Doc, I'll drive."

Waverly drives twenty miles over the limit, but careful, so careful; waiting until the straight road out of town before speeding up. When she dares to glance at Doc, he's silent in the front seat, tiny thing in his arms, whole body hunched over to protect it, like he's ready to curl his entire being around it if the Jeep so much as swerves in the road. He's scanning the baby's face, one finger creasing down the side of her face, in between her cheek and the denim-blue throw that's wrapped around her. Waverly flicks her eyes to the rearview mirror, to the road, then back to Doc, seeing his mustache working and the muscle pulse along his jaw, finger moving to delicately wipe the wet, gentle flick of tears from the baby's face.

Waverly decelerates along the final stretch out of Purgatory, pulls up gently ten paces before the sign. She touches Doc's shoulder, and he startles from his gaze, looking at Waverly like a lost child. He sees where they are, and gently passes the baby to Waverly's arms. She gives him everything she can manage in a look, and tries to sound calm. "If I scream, pull me back quick, yeah?"

Doc nods mutely with his hand on the open door, and pushes out of the Jeep, rushing around to open the door for Waverly and put a hand to her arm as she steps down. She looks at the horizon, takes a breath, and strides towards the Purgatory sign, fighting the urge to close her eyes. She knows where the dividing line must be, because she feels a desperate tug in her belly, and the baby fidgets, but she crosses over, and she's confused, then relieved, then rushing back to Doc, kissing the baby's head, and handing his daughter back. Doc pulls the baby snug to his chest, bowing over its body, one hand to the dark hair at the back of its head; looking at Waverly.

"She's mine?"

Waverly smiles, swallows painfully, and manages a whisper. "I think she would have been, no matter what." She nudges Doc towards the open door. "Come on. We have to move."

 

 

It makes Waverly nervous, having to turn the Jeep around and go back the way they've come—back inside the Ghost River triangle—but it's the fastest way to where they need to be, to skirt back into the territory and quickly out again along a smaller, dirt road.

When the final stretch of the road comes into sight, leading to the fork where it splits into the right-hand track they need to travel back out of the triangle, six figures are standing in a line. Evenly spaced, three across the road, three across the track. Waverly slows instinctively, but then she thinks better of it, pressing her foot to the accelerator, until Doc's hand is on her arm, and his voice, strained and deep, is saying Stop, Waverly, pull over, and she does a one-two-three glance to the rearview, back to the road, and finally to Doc's face.

He's swallowing hard, but his face is set, and when she shakes her head minutely, he repeats his words, adding, "I need you to do this for me, darlin'." So she eases off, pulls over, hard and fast. She keeps her eyes on the revenants, barely daring to look at Doc, until she feels the snap of her seatbelt being unfastened, and she looks over to see him bending down to the baby.

Doc adjusts the fabric around the little hand that's thrown itself out of the blanket. Breathes in a gentle stutter as he puts an index finger into the hand, body in a curlicue bending to the baby. He smiles down into her face and whispers, "Delicate and dainty in blue." Then kisses the baby's forehead. Waverly watches as the baby's face wrinkles, tickled under Doc's mustache, and then her eyes open, staring at his face.

Waverly looks away, trying to gauge the distance between the car and the revenants; trying to figure the speed and acceleration and all the angles she can see.

She hears Doc say Baby girl, and she thinks he's speaking to his daughter, but then she looks over; and she realizes he's talking to her, eyes wet, searching her face. Rubbing one hand over his mustache, speaking.

"It has been an honor."

Then Doc is carefully placing the baby against Waverly's chest, moving her hands to keep the baby in place, and reaching over her body to pull the seatbelt loose. He extends the belt fully out and grasps it higher than the plastic catch, twisting and then tying the two strands into a knot. Then with the belt unable to move through its loop, Doc lets some of the length out, gauging the right amount by eye, and locks the belt into its place. The strap is taut and snug against the baby, who starts to mewl. "Don't crash, now. The belt will not work." Doc leans back, looking at Waverly. Gray in the outlines of his blue irises; Waverly's face reflected back at her in his pupils. Flecks of light deep in the blue and in the black all the unspoken words of his 166 years of living.

He takes his hat in his hand, strokes the back of the baby's head, then strokes Waverly's cheek, leaning over to kiss her forehead. Waverly grabs his hands, holding them in place beside her face.

"Tell them both," Doc pauses, staring out of the front window, jaw clenching. Waverly lets go of his hands so he can compose himself, her hands following after his before she pulls them back to rest on the baby's back. One of Doc's hands immediately goes to the other, worrying the ring that's not there.

The air comes out of him in a stutter; a wet, pregnant breath, and he swallows. "Please tell them. They were—the very finest part of my life."

He pushes open the door, leaving his knife on the seat for Waverly, right hand already moving to his pistol, and Waverly waits for the slam of the door before letting out the cry that's urgently pushing against her throat. She soothes the baby, watching as Doc runs slightly to the left of the main road, gun out and down, not revealing where he's going to shoot. She presses the clutch down hard, puts the car into second gear, gently eases off the clutch and, at the same time, starts to depress the accelerator. The engine turns slowly and she thinks it's going to stall, but then it catches and she's able to start the Jeep rolling in second gear, waiting for Doc's first shot. When he raises his pistol and fires at the revenant that's furthest away, on the far right, she pushes the accelerator down hard and smooth, feeling the engine burn and watching the road ahead.

The engine screaming, she quickly pushes the clutch and skips straight into fourth, then switches her foot to push down hard on the accelerator. When Doc shoots the next revenant, and then the last one that's standing on the right-hand track, she gently swerves toward the right fork, neatly avoiding the bodies as she cuts onto the track. She pushes the accelerator all the way until she feels the click of the floor against the pedal, and checks the rearview mirror.

The last thing she sees before the road curves out of sight is John Henry Holliday, standing still. Coat billowed, face in the shadow of his hat. Raising his pistol.

 

 

Wynonna waits with her back to the door of Shorty's, sitting with legs splayed in a chair, arms wrapped around an empty blanket, pelvis and lower stomach and her legs on fire, chest tight, every muscle angry and terrified, one hand reaching for Peacemaker.

She hears the door open and she plays her one card, twisting and standing and drawing the gun in the same motion, revealing the baby is gone; she watches the revenant at the front of the crowd frown, and feels sour pleasure. She fires six times, cutting through the first wave of bodies, watching the ones behind pulse forwards. She fumbles to reload; hears the door of Shorty's slam; looks for Dolls.

The new frontline of revenants surges forward, cutting through the empty air, and with only one gun and one trigger finger, Wynonna chooses to shoot to the left, stepping to the right to avoid a revenant's uppercut, blocking her shin against his ankle and sweeping her foot forwards and away. The momentum of his empty punch and her leg pushing his leg out from under his body sends him flat to his face. She fires again twice and tries to move into the spaces she's making. She wills Dolls to get there, straining past the sound of her gun for the noise of his SUV.

Two revenants charge her at once, and she's forced to use her fists on them, cutting close punches to their bodies, grappling for a hold. She sends one to his knees, and pulls the back of his jacket collar forward, dragging him into where Peacemaker is holstered at her hip, burning his face on the gun while she swings an elbow up to the other revenant's jaw. She catches the flash of watery sunlight that slants into the bar for a second, then hears a body being slammed against the door, the light leaving. She brings a knee up under the kneeling revenant's chin, drawing the gun and shooting him, realizing she's in the middle, and looking for the nearest wall to turn her back to. She sees a cut of dark hair and then Rosita, swinging a fist into a revenant by the door, and she's being grabbed from behind by another one, gripping the arm across her throat with both hands, and then she's lunging forward onto one knee to send the revenant toppling awkwardly over her back. She stands up, finds Wynonna's eyes. Smiles, small.

A revenant cuts across her view, and she steps left but takes a punch to her shoulder; she spins Peacemaker and uses the butt of the gun to knock a revenant out cold behind her, then she rights the gun to fire into the one in front. There are still too many between her and the door. She uses the fall of the revenant's body across the space before her to reload, fast, and fires into two, three, revenants that are ringing her. There's one of them left in her line of sight, approaching with a broken bottle, and a noise by the door.

She hears a grunt; she looks to the front of the bar and sees Rosita, caught in a headlock by a revenant twice her size, body facing Wynonna, the revenant using her body as a shield.

Wynonna ducks the broken glass that sweeps past her face, steps around to the side. Hears Rosita's raised voice, sees her face looking towards Wynonna, her eyes red and dark. Fucking shoot. Do it, now.

Wynonna raises her gun, whispers her forgiveness and her apology in one breath, fires once, and watches Rosita fall. She looks away and continues the arc of her arm to shoot into the final revenant.

 

 

Waverly keeps checking the rearview, but the track is empty in both directions, and she makes it over the boundary line and back out of the Ghost River triangle. She parks the Jeep carefully, and unfastens the baby from her chest, stepping down, little aches rivering up her legs as she hits the ground. She bundles the baby to her chest again once she's out of the Jeep, taking careful strides that are as long as she can make them, picking through the clumps of uneven, scrubby grass until she reaches the top of the slope.

She stands there, a lone figure on a hill. Fully ready to die for the life in her arms and be done with everything. But no revenant comes. And then the helicopter is there, and then the baby is gone, and then she's alone in the wind, arms hugging her chest, holding back a scream.

 

 

Nicole lost, the baby gone, Doc and Rosita dead, and Waverly is sucked backwards, pulling Wynonna with her. They spend a week in Wynonna's bedroom, one or the other getting up only to shuffle towards the soft knock on the door and receive the tray of food and drinks. Then the door shuts softly, and they sit in bed, drinking juice and trying to eat, unable to swallow, throats harsh and burning.

Dolls is a ghost downstairs, only coming up to bring them the things they need and take away the things they don't want. He answers every call to the homestead, demurring to pass the phone to either Earp, gently replacing the phone in its cradle. He sweeps out each of the rooms downstairs; buys groceries; and washes Wynonna's clothes, which he finds strewn on the upstairs bathroom floor, and Waverly's, which he finds neatly balled into the laundry basket.

On the eighth day, Wynonna descends the stairs in sweatpants and one of Doc's thick woolen sweaters, finds two bottles of whiskey, touches Dolls's arm, then salutes to him from the stairs as she returns to the bedroom. Taking the two glasses from the nightstand, she pulls down a cuff of the sweater and rubs out the insides of them. Then she pours out three fingers for herself and three for Waverly, but pulls the bottle away from her sister after the first drink is finished, gently pulling her into her arms instead. Settling them both against the pillow, she gets as close to Waverly as possible. Swallows up the air between them until there's no space at all. She whispers something against Waverly's hair, so muffled that Waverly pulls away a little to ask her what she said.

"I said, please tell me again about the time you and Nicole and Doc played drinking poker, and Nicole got so drunk she mooned a horse."

Waverly breathes "Wynonna," the word shaky; part question, part warning. Wynonna tilts Waverly's chin up with a finger so that their faces are close, then gazes into her eyes.

"Please, Waves?"

Waverly looks away, but she gives a little cough and doesn't argue. She takes Wynonna's glass from her and steals a sip. "Hey—" Wynonna's voice fades, and she lets Waverly finish the rest of the whiskey.

"So, one night, Wynonna Earp, the one and only Earp heir," Wynonna looks at Waverly's face; realizes that Waverly needs to turn the story into bombast to be able to manage the delivery. She tries to comfort Waverly by stroking her hand; already sorry, but compelled anyway to hear the whole thing.

"The one and only heir," Waverly repeats, giving Wynonna a rueful smile, voice scratchy as she continues, "Was away in the big city with the inimitable Deputy Marshall Xavier Dolls, following some lead; very covert, very Black Badge." Waverly whispers the last words dramatically. "Doc Holliday," her voice catches, and she pauses before carrying on, "took pity on Waverly, poor girl whose big sister bailed on her,"—Wynonna grimaces inside—"to go chasing a source with Mr. Beautiful Butt." Wynonna gives a tiny smile, relieved that Waverly doesn't sound angry.

"Doc offered to Waverly his most special service: an evening of tutelage in the fine art of..." Waverly pauses dramatically, gives a flourish with one arm. "Drinking Poker."

She puts the arm back around Wynonna. "But the plot thickens. For Nicole Haught," Wynonna hears the struggle in Waverly's small voice as it falls to a near-whisper, "greatest cop that has ever lived, decided that she, too, must learn of this mysterious Drinking Poker."

Waverly clears her throat, abandoning the flourishes, and returns to her normal voice. "So, Nicole comes over to the homestead, and Doc is out in the barn preparing his 'tools'. By which he means: his lucky cards, and two bottles of his favorite bourbon, which he's bought special for all three of us to share. He's borrowed a horse from the McAllister property to ride into town to get the bourbon, and it's mild out, so he ties the horse up beside the barn for the evening. It's prancing about all over the place, stamping its front hoof, snorting all excitedly. It won't calm down for Doc, and eventually he just gives it space."

Waverly smiles. "Nicole loved that horse. It was the one so black that at night it looked like it wasn't there. So Nicole arrives, and she immediately goes to say hi to the horse, and of course it calms down right away. She stands there stroking one hand down its nose with the other hand on its neck for ten whole minutes. Doc sets up in the kitchen while I get the right music for the occasion. And then we start playing, and, oh man," Waverly laughs, "do they clean me out. I am drinking three shots to Nicole's one, and six to Doc's one."

Wynonna frowns. "So, right, I've drunk something like twelve shots, and Nicole has drunk four and Doc only gets two shots of his favorite bourbon. Which, you know, I then asked him about; because I do not think he has thought his game through—he's winning nearly every round, and then not getting to actually drink. He just gives this little smile, though, like he did think of it, but he just really wanted me and Nicole to have a good time." Waverly glances at Wynonna.

"Then Nicole fell off her chair."

Wynonna snorts. "That's my favorite part. No—my second favorite part."

Waverly smiles wide. "I know. So Nicole falls off her chair, beautiful lightweight that she is. And, you know," Waverly glances at Wynonna quickly, "I have the Earp genes—I'm twelve shots deep, but I have twice the senses of Nicole at this point, and she stumbles up, like there's an intruder in the house who pushed her off her chair. I swear she reaches for her gun holster, though it's not there."

"Tell me about the thing."

"Right, yeah, so she's up from the floor, and she spins around to face the dark living room, and she says into the dark, I've got a gun; because, I'm a cop—, and then she looks at Doc and me, all big-eyed, and we're trying so hard not to laugh at her; and she thinks we look grateful that she's protecting us from the intruder-that's-not-there, I guess, because she finally realizes her gun holster isn't there, and she whispers, Oh rats, I left it at home." Waverly's voice stresses the home, and she's laughing lightly, tearfully, and Wynonna remembers Nicole at the bar, proxy drinking two beers in Wynonna's place while she was pregnant: the same thing all over again; her drunk tic, reaching for a gun that wasn't there. And in the homestead, drunk on four shots of bourbon, stumbling towards the dark shape of the couch, drunk but still Nicole, trying to lay down cover against an imaginary threat.

"Don't stop, Waves. Tell me about the horse."

Waverly wipes her eyes with the back of her flannel pajama shirt.

"Okay, so, after that Doc and I try to end the game, because we're afraid Nicole might have alcohol poisoning, and I tell Doc he should sleep on the couch, so he goes out to the barn to bring in some extra blankets. And I distract Nicole from the poker that we're no longer playing by asking her to tell me what random police codes refer to. And it's totally working, but then she realizes what I'm doing, and she gets all indignant, like Why are you distracting me? Where's Doc? Why has he abandoned our poker game? And then she's banging out onto the porch, yelling Doctor Holliday, get your ass back in this house and finish what you started! but it's dark out, and she can't really see anything. Then she must think she sees Doc by the barn, his black coat rippling in the wind or something, and she calls out, I'm upping the ante! and turns and moons what she thinks is Doc."

Wynonna is holding her belly, hurting from the laughter; hurting from the joy of a memory that isn't her own but which might as well be.

Wynonna chokes out, "Finish it," and Waverly smiles, still sniffing.

"And then the horse nickers, and Doc comes out of the barn, just in time to see Nicole pulling her pants up with a gasp, horrified that she just offended her favorite horse. Doc comes into the light from the porch, looks over at Nicole, his eyebrow raised. She starts blushing super hard, and Doc says, Well, darlin', I think you have won, with that most royal flush."

 

 

Wynonna gives them one drink every night until two weeks have passed, and then she tells Waverly to sit on the couch. She fetches Waverly's phone and carefully queues up the music she's bought her as a gift. She brings an armful of blankets into the living room and places them beside Waverly, lifting the top one and snapping it out into the air then sweeping it back around and over Waverly's body. She tucks the edges around Waverly's legs.

Wynonna leaves the room again to return with the small stack of the books she's found on Waverly's bedside table, plus a notepad and a pen. Then she makes her pancakes drowning in syrup, and pours them each a glass of bourbon to the rim. She hands the glass and plate to Waverly, and sits down on the couch next to her, drinking her bourbon and stealing pieces of Waverly's pancakes with the extra fork she produces from the back pocket of her jeans. She fixes Waverly with the strongest look she can, and opens her mouth.

"I called Dolls. He's going to keep you company while I go out, okay?"

Waverly brow rumples, but she just nods. "Okay."

 

 

Wynonna stands facing the machine, slightly to the left, waiting for the sound of the first ball to hiss and pitch through the air. When the first ball has been caught by the netting behind her, Wynonna loosely extends her bat to the middle of the batting cage, letting the second ball thump roundly into the wood, all the force knocked from it. Wynonna kicks the second ball out of the way, taking up position where she now knows the machine is sending the balls.

She stands tensed, body turned to the side, hips pushing her weight down into the dirt, bat wrapped around and raised, upper body clenched, left elbow up, shoulders down. Whipping the bat through the ball in a clean hit. An even melody starts up; the staccato hits making a round beat within the batting cage.

The resonance of the bat against the heavy balls empties out the air, until Wynonna's just watching the balls, swinging, swinging, releasing the bat at the right second every time. After an hour, she realizes her mind has been turning over by itself, and she stands for a moment thinking before leaving the cage.

On her way back to the homestead, Wynonna stops at a 24-hour mart, wincing a little at the florescent lights after the womb of the batting cage. She strides to the clothing section, tilts her head to the side and mentally compares pants and tops to Waverly's small frame, grabbing several handfuls of clothes from the rails. She almost forgets to pay, walking through the exit alarms; starting an urgent beeping. She quickly backs up, arms up, Whoa, whoa! Not stealing! to the approaching employee, receding into the store to pay.

As she leaves, she makes a large bundle of the clothes in their paper bag, and realizes too late that she doesn't have a way to transport them. She straddles her bike and pauses for a few seconds. She grimaces at the awful beat of memory, and rustles the bag under her tight sweater, ignoring the false roundness; starting the engine.

 

 

Wynonna enters the homestead quietly, smiling at Dolls rising from the couch when she gets inside the door, and thanking him with a squeeze of his hand. She asks him what time Waverly fell asleep, knowing he would have noted it. Then she counts slowly backwards from five a.m. in her mind, satisfied. She puts a soft hand to Dolls's cheek and reaches up to kiss his other one; hoping he understands the bigger thing, letting her and Waverly grieve for Doc together, that she's thanking him for. Hoping she doesn't have to say it out loud.

With Dolls gone, she looks in on Waverly, the sleeping form under blankets satisfying her anxiety; then she pours herself one more glass of bourbon, kisses the bottle sadly, and tips the rest of the liquid down the sink. She watches the warm-looking fluid against the white of the porcelain, caught by the sight. When it's all gone she does the same for the bottle hidden at the back of the cereal cabinet, and the one that's under a loose floorboard near the fireplace. She runs water into the sink. She strokes the labels before throwing the empty bottles in the trash.

Sipping the bourbon in tiny lasting tastes, Wynonna takes the glass to Waverly's computer. She waits while it warms up, fingering the loose cards on the desk; re-reading the card from Nedley and then quickly pushing it to the bottom of a pile. She takes a bigger gulp and then, realizing the glass is nearly half empty, pushes it out of easy reach while she opens a browser window.

Typing slowly with two fingers, almost painfully, she writes endurance training into the search bar, then stops before she presses Enter to make a reflexive little barf noise. She instinctively grabs the glass back and downs the rest of the bourbon—regretting it for an instant, but then shrugging internally; shuddering a little and enjoying the warmth of the alcohol as it takes away the bad taste in her mouth. She presses Enter, and starts scrolling through the results.

 

 

Wynonna standing at the foot of Waverly's bed with a hushed Baby girl tugs Waverly out of a dream; long pale hair; a gun firing, some fake green material; Nicole. She sits up, hair messy, face crumpled. "What's wrong? What is it?"

It's dark outside the window, and Waverly tries not to be spooked by Wynonna's shape standing in the gloom, holding a bundle of something.

"Nothing's wrong, Waves, but we're getting up."

Waverly leans over to pull the cord of her bedside lamp, screwing up her eyes against the sudden warm light, and struggles into a sitting position. She draws the multiple blankets up under her chin, and squints defensively at Wynonna's face.

Wynonna's holding what looks like warm clothes, and she's wearing thick black leggings, trail running shoes, and what looks like two gray skin-tight technical thermal tops under a Black Sabbath t-shirt with the arms cut off. She's also got a fleece headband over her ears, hair tied up.

Waverly struggles against waking; against the sight of her sister's hair neatly tied into a ponytail. She tries to remember the last time she saw Wynonna with her hair up, and realizes she's thinking too slow; Wynonna is starting to tap nervously with one foot against the floor.

"You—we're," Waverly tries again, "You got up—", she checks her alarm clock, "—before five? In the morning?"

Wynonna's face is a plea. "Yeah."

"And—we're going... running?" Waverly guesses, brain moving two paces too slow.

"Yes. We are."

"But, you hate—"

Wynonna rolls her eyes, one hand coming up from under the bundled clothes. "I know, I know. But I need to do something differently, ok? And I think this will help us." Wynonna tries to explain with a look rather than words, then adds, "With everything." 

Waverly's body returns her to the dream she was woken from; she can feel a flat, hard surface where her bed should be, and she sees a flick of hair in wind. She nods minutely, and starts to pull herself from the bed, shivering against the cold air of the room. Wynonna comes around beside the bed and gently hands Waverly hot-pink thermal tights, a light long-sleeved thermal shirt and a hooded gray sweater. She produces a pair of pink gloves and then, from under her shirt, pale pink leg warmers. "Here. I was warming them for you."

Waverly pulls Wynonna into a hug, then watches her leave, neatly tearing through plastic tags with her teeth, then pulling down her sleeping shorts and stepping quickly into the tights. She rummages in a drawer for a sports bra, dancing from foot to foot in the cold, then pulls off her Purgatory Sheriff's Department t-shirt to put the rest of the clothes on. She's sitting on her bed and about to pull the leg warmers up her calves when Wynonna comes back through the door of her room, holding a bottle with a fancy label and green liquid inside. She holds it away from her body a little.

She thrusts it towards Waverly. "Here."

"What's this?"

"It's some kind of healthy"—Wynonna's nose wrinkles; she raises her hands to make air quotes—"'juice'. I promise it does not taste like juice. But you should drink some. Because I did."

Waverly raises an eyebrow. "I need us to be in this together, Waves. Please drink the slime juice so I am not alone."

Waverly downs half the bottle, leaving a little green mustache over her upper lip, and smiles at Wynonna. "Actually pretty nice."

"Oh, you would." Wynonna rolls her eyes, but she's smiling. She pulls a packet of Twizzlers from the front pouch of the top underneath her t-shirt, offering the open end to Waverly. "You don't want a licorice chaser, then?" Waverly laughs. "No? Fine. I'll get you a banana instead."

 

 

Waverly opens the front door to pre-dawn brume; weak light to the east, and Wynonna placing a heavy boom-box onto the porch, facing down the homestead's entrance track. She stands, hugging herself as Wynonna looks over her shoulder and grins; watches as her sister produces a battered cassette tape, lovingly rolling her eyes as AC/DC's 'Back in Black' roars out of the ancient stereo. Wynonna turns the volume up to full crank, guitars crashing out over the silent hills. Waverly says silent thanks for their lack of neighbors.

Wynonna tugs her down the porch steps, and pushes up her cuff to reveal a smart, brand-new GPS watch. "Ok, so,"—Waverly's eyebrows are halfway to her hairline—"what we have to do is run out super fast—"

"Sprint?" Waverly can't help herself.

"—Yeah, Einstein, sprint, out to the end of the homestead track, then turn around and jog back. Then do that a bunch of times. I measured out the distance," Waverly starts to speak, but Wynonna cuts her off, "yeah, this morning, yes, I woke up at four in the morning; no, I haven't ever seen four a.m. from this direction." Wynonna slaps Waverly's ass. "Come on, baby girl, we have to, like, warm up."

 

 

Dolls pulls onto the road that leads to the homestead's track as the light is starting to break over the mountains outside Purgatory, driving at a measured 65 kilometers per hour when he feels a dull beat through the truck's engine. Slowing, he depresses the driver's window, leaning slightly from the car. There's a deep thudding beat that he can't place, and he immediately accelerates. A hundred meters from the head of the homestead's entrance, he cuts his headlights and puts the SUV into neutral, coasting a quarter of the distance to the right-hand turn, and pulls into a cutting at the side of the road, killing the engine.

He quietly steps out of the car, pulling his night-vision binoculars from the backseat, muffling the close of his door with a short, quick bump, and scans up to where he can see the homestead. He can recognize music now, but that makes him even more nervous; he makes rapid, controlled sweeps with the binoculars, looking for revenants. He pulls the line of vision slowly down the parts of the entrance track that he can see, bypassing the parts obscured by trees, glancing past two figures and quickly moving back to focus on them.

He sees Wynonna running fast, arms pushing up and down, legs pumping, body held in a motion of desperation. Her sister a few yards in front, running more easily, small quick and slightly bouncing steps, hair streaming behind her. Dolls scans back up the track, trying to see what they're running from, and his hand is reaching for his gun; his body is starting to move towards the entrance of the track.

He has covered half the ground when he sees figures up ahead, and pulls the binoculars back up to his eyes. Waverly pulling to a slow jog, turning to let Wynonna catch her, and putting up her hand for a high five. He can see the grin in Wynonna's body even if he can't see her face; he watches the loud slap of Wynonna's hand meeting Waverly's, and then they're turning away, jogging back to the homestead.

 

 

When Dolls pulls up to the homestead a minute later, the music is off, and he sees Wynonna tottering, holding the eastern wall of the homestead. He pulls the door of the SUV open, shutting it with a bang, and Waverly turns with a Dolls! and a wave; then he hears "Whoooops, there she blows!" followed by the unmistakable sound of Wynonna throwing up beside a tree.

He watches Waverly rubbing her sister's back and producing a tissue from somewhere under her sweater. He stands silently beside the porch, hands on his hips, watching them walk towards him.

He opens his mouth, then shuts it. "You—"

Wynonna grins happily. "We're gonna get so fit."

Dolls thinks of the image of Wynonna running; reworks it from his shock; imagines it as a choice. He looks at Waverly's flushed face, feels the calm coming off them. He nods, still scared.

 

 

A month after Nicole dies, Wynonna tries again to get Peacemaker to fire for Waverly. She and Dolls abduct a revenant, knock him cold, and tie him up in a warehouse on the outskirts of the business district. They leave the revenant there and are repaid for sloppiness when they come back from the homestead to find the warehouse empty. Waverly is mad when she finds out that they tied up the revenant and left him unconscious, but not because of the recklessness. A long streaming monologue about cruelty and decency lock Dolls and Wynonna into place. Dolls tries to reason with her, telling her that's why they knocked the revenant out; Waverly looks at Wynonna with stubbornness etched on her face; Wynonna apologizes and reminds them both that there's a revenant on the loose, maybe they should stop talking and start searching?

The revenant breaks out noisily from an old school building across the street, brandishing an old school desk lid, broken in half.

"Hey!" Waverly shouts. "You better not have vandalized school property." She lowers her voice to a mutter. "I hate vandals."

Wynonna shoves Peacemaker into Waverly's hands, giving her a little nudge to the middle of her back. "Go, Waves."

Waverly takes a few paces forward, raises the gun, and thinks hard. Wynonna looks at the gun, then to Waverly's face. "Come on, dammit." She puts a hand out to touch Waverly's body; tries to remember what she felt when she was lying on the pool table, desperate and raw. She frowns, clenches everything, mutters a few swear words.

Waverly reaches out for the memory of knowing Peacemaker would fire, but she's not held a gun since she saw Doc disappearing in her rearview mirror, raising his pistol, and she gets stuck on the image. She thinks about Nicole's smooth, practiced draw, and then she can't see the revenant properly through tears. Peacemaker flares weakly with light, then turns cold again, and Waverly shoves the gun back into Wynonna's hand, saying I can't, and Wynonna shoots the revenant and takes Waverly into her arms as the body hits the ground with a solid thump and the earth opens up into hell.

 

 

Waverly drags herself from sleep the next morning, her body almost enacting its own physical pull to tear her back from dreaming and into the weak morning sun pushing through the bedroom. She immediately pulls the lampshade cord to send yellow light flooding to the corners, sitting up, trying to catch the dreams before they flee.

When she comes down the homestead stairs, her eyes are red and puffy, and the skin under them looks bruised. She pulls the blanket she's wearing over her shoulders closer around her pajamas, and takes little steps into the main room, where Wynonna looks up from the pieces of paper she's sifting through.

"Waves?"

Waverly bites her lip; remembers her dreams. She fixes Wynonna with full eyes. Thinks Nicole is in the wrong place. Says nothing; pulls herself to the couch, and tucks into her space; pushes her edges into her sister.

 

 

Chapter Text

Nicole waits outside an office door. She looks around the room, tries to root herself; shakes her head, unsure suddenly why her body is caught in stasis; why she's waiting. She stands on instinct, obeying her body's desire to move. Feeling sick and dislocated, she tries to focus instead on where, walking to the window and looking out. Before she reaches the glass, the door behind her opens, and she hears her name in a soft, upbeat voice.

 

 

Nicole walks down Main Street, holding an unwanted piece of rocket-shaped cake from Cake Canaveral that she picked only because it would have been Waverly's choice. She tries to absorb details from her surroundings, her body still woozy. Feeling feverish, she thinks of the last things she remembers: Waverly, and the bone-deep ache in her body. She recalls pneumonia as a child: an awful sweat, her body burning, her throat raw, sweat turning on a coin's edge into a desperate shivering. She looks down at her arm—a neat, pale scar. Her body feels as though it's elsewhere; feet unrelated to the rest of her as they hit the ground. She looks at Michael, who is staring worriedly at You Do the Hokey Gnocchi and You Get Yourself Some Food.

"Michael?"

"It's just so concerning."

Nicole stares toward where he's gazing. All she sees is an Italian flag awning draped over the top half of a window; the bustle of people inside the restaurant.

Michael looks at her with faintly glistening eyes. Waverly's face when she'd easily beaten Nicole at ten-pin bowling flashes into her vision. Regretful but delighted in one moment; trying to hide happiness behind a little frown. Until Nicole had pulled her into her body and wrapped her arms around Waverly's waist, pulling her up and into a sweeping lift off her feet. Spinning her and feeling a thrill at Waverly's gentle squeal of delight. Whispering into her ear. You're so clever.

She looks at Michael, face tranquil. "What's wrong?"

Michael sighs. "They're having some problems with the gnocchi. Yesterday it kept turning into endless spaghetti."

Nicole raises an eyebrow, and Michael continues. "Enormous, endless spaghetti. Pasta that just would not quit. It flooded out of the kitchen. They've had to take a temporary timeout and sell pasta instead, working overtime to chop it into eatable pieces." He glances at the sign. "It's really not in keeping with the good place." Something tickles Nicole's hairline. She brushes at her neck, trying to read Michael's face. He sighs, a theatrical little rush of air. "Things are not supposed to go wrong here."

Nicole peers back through the window. She sees a woman behind the serving bar, beaming at a patron. The man turns, holding a full plate, carrying it to a table. Nicole sees he's got a bed of spaghetti with five pieces of gnocchi on top, sprinkled like a delicacy; a rare carbohydrate garnish. She opens her mouth to tell Michael; thinks better of it.

 

 

Michael takes Nicole to her house, diverting them from the straightest line from Main Street out to the edges of the town to avoid the sinkhole. Nicole, curious, fixes in her mind the location of the sinkhole that Michael describes. She glances around to situate herself during the ten-minute walk, taking in cacophonous houses; wood cabins among four-story townhouses; cottages next to mansions; treehouses and yurts next to modern glass structures.

She peers at the houses, trying to figure out which is hers. Michael walks them past a collection of bungalows, then past a crop of trees to a red-brick house: two stories, wooden slatted shutters across the upper windows, and an ornate metal knocker on the front door. Her childhood home, a replica from the past, uncanny in its new place. Nicole suppresses the rise of air from her lungs that threatens to become a half-gasp, half-sigh, and tries a smile.

The house looks identical to her parents' house, but the walk up the front path feels torqued in some small way; her feet try to take her slightly to the left, but the path twists a little to the right instead. When she reaches the door, she hears faint scrabbling: someone dropping a handful of needles onto a wood floor. She looks back at Michael, who's grinning from the bottom of the porch steps. She tentatively pulls open the heavy door, and she is immediately flung backwards a step by the five dogs that rush her, all immediately on two legs to walk themselves as far up her body as they can.

Nicole's voice drops to a low, happy register, and she bends her upper body to greet as many licking mouths as possible with her hands; "Hey," in a breath, "Hi," with a rub behind the biggest dog's ears. She grins, turning to Michael. "What are their names?"

Michael smiles back. "It's up to you. I've been calling them One, Two, Three, Four, and Five." Nicole laughs. Michael points as he continues. "In size order. One: Yorkshire Terrier. Two: Springer Spaniel. Three: Lurcher. Four: Husky. Five: Weimaraner."

"Number One is the little one?" Nicole smiles down at the tiny dog trying to throw herself up to Nicole's face, which is immediately covered by four wet noses as she bends at the waist to stroke the terrier.

"Number One is the boss of this pack, Nicole, don't you forget it." Michael pauses, looking at the terrier with apprehension. "She orders them all about."

Nicole grins, dropping into a crouch to be battered by the wiggling bodies. "Thanks, Michael." She turns to look at Michael, sees his curious smile; meets it with her own.

 

 

The dogs don't give her any peace, and she happily spends the next twenty-four hours distracted by their constant demands. Waverly floats into her vision with faithful regularity, accompanied by deep grief and a buried aching feeling that reminds her of leaving the oven on. But then the dogs are there: claiming her full attention; bringing her balls; knocking into her body happily and then racing away, begging her to chase them. The Yorkshire Terrier, newly named Wynonna, likes to gently nip at the bigger dogs' heels, then run off, looking over her shoulder and yipping happily.

In between endless wrestling matches, Nicole stands in the long, grassy backyard, throwing multiple balls and watching the five dogs rush away, held by the sight of the big ones deliberately slowing to let the terrier win the ball every time. Eventually, she calls for the little dog, sweeping her up and distracting her with the closeness of her face, letting the dog lick her cheek, its tiny paws on her shoulder, and she pulls balls from the bucket next to her legs, throwing four in quick succession; one for each dog.

They race out in a perfect formation, each dog knowing which ball belongs to them, the Springer Spaniel taking the first ball that spins out to the left, and the Lurcher unfolding its body after the next one that starts to fall a little further away than the first ball. The Husky rushes after the third ball, and the Weimaraner eats up the ground to the final one, which is whistling out and dropping in a slow arc. Nicole watches, enraptured, as the balls make a dull bounce one after another against the uneven grass, and the four dogs lift in one synchronized leap to catch them in their mouths.

She smiles, satisfied, then startles at Michael's voice.

"Nicole?"

"Hi, Michael."

"I was wondering if you'd like to join me for coffee? There's someone I'd like you to meet."

 

 

Nicole sips her coffee, looking around Brewed Awakening, taking in the people sitting at tables and low couches. For a second, the room becomes the Purgatory coffee shop, and she's on a second date with Waverly Earp. Waverly is smiling at her over the rim of her mug, eyes shining. She feels Waverly's foot knock lightly against her own, and then the tug of a smile starting. Waverly's face, bright and clear, full of pleasure and, also showing somewhere in her eyes, quiet nervousness and a familiar demanding look that pulls Nicole even further backwards in time. To Waverly's eyes in Nedley's dim office: tugging Nicole close to kiss her, desperate and reaching and grasping almost violently to pull her in, lips warm and soft, fingers firm at her neck. Barely letting go of Nicole's arms, her hands, her waist, for almost an hour, until Nicole's body startled under her in some twitch of temporal muscle memory, and she made them stop before Nedley could return to his office and find them lying on his couch, kissing wildly.

Michael appears beside her, clearing his throat, holding his espresso like it's a fragile thing. In his other hand is a hot chocolate. He's standing awkwardly, like he's blocking her view from something. Then he steps to the side, revealing a short guy in a purple velvet suit, complete with a shirt that's ruffled at his neck and a tuxedo bow tie. The outfit makes Nicole think of Prince. Then of the photos Waverly once showed her of the year she dressed up as Prince for Halloween. Wynonna a human guitar in an outfit entirely constructed by Waverly. She smiles.

"Hi!"

"Nicole, this is Jeremy." Nicole stands, putting out her hand. "Hi, Jeremy."

Jeremy's smile is infectious; a helium lift in Nicole's belly. "Hi, Nicole, it's lovely to meet you. How are you today?" His hand is warm, dry: a soft grasp.

"I'm—fine," Nicole glances at Michael, smiling at Jeremy's strange, familiar question, like they're already friends.

"I'm glad."

Nicole gestures to the seats opposite hers, inviting them both to sit down. Michael puts the espresso and hot chocolate down onto the table.

Jeremy opens his mouth, and Michael coughs into his hand. "Jeremy, sit down." Nicole looks sharply to Michael, and he keeps speaking, voice softening. "Why don't you? This seat looks like it's made just for you." He puts a hand out, using his height to gently push Jeremy down into the seat. Shoved down, Jeremy's smile barely breaks, and he happily fidgets in the chair.

Michael sits down, looks at Jeremy, then at Nicole. She can feel the shifting air, thinks of the feeling right before she lets off a warning shot from her gun. Michael opens his mouth again.

"Actually, Jeremy, I see they have lemon buns today—I wonder if you'd go get me one?"

Nicole frowns. "I can get that; Jeremy, you can stay here, if you like."

Jeremy's voice is light, even. "No, no! I am here to help."

Nicole's frown deepens, and she looks at Michael. As Jeremy stands up, he puts out his hand like he's beckoning something, and she sees what looks like space shifting around his fingers; a little haze of hot air; the swampy mass of a mirage. She blinks, then Michael is grabbing Jeremy's outstretched hand with one of his own, and reaching into his pocket with another. "Here, Jeremy. Go to the counter. Pay with this." He rises out of his chair, pushing a huge wad of notes into Jeremy's hand, and using his body to nudge Jeremy towards the counter.

Nicole watches Jeremy walking away, blocks an eyebrow from rising, and looks at Michael. When Jeremy is out of sight, he opens his mouth.

"Jeremy is." Michael pauses, stroking his bow tie. "He's—unique. Please don't draw attention to his oddities."

Nicole frowns slightly. "I wouldn't," She looks back at Jeremy, adding, "I like him. He's really nice."

Michael looks thoughtful, hand still at his bow tie. "He has—he had a strange life. He's not a usual human."

Nicole hears the present tense, has, before Michael restarts the sentence. When he finishes speaking, her body twitches: a weird hypnagogic jerk while she's fully awake. She instinctively looks around.

"What was that?"

Michael is staring at her, his eyes slightly widened. He clears his throat. "Oh, nothing to worry about." His voice is even; his eyes flicker away. She watches the way his wrist bounces once against the tabletop. "Just happens here, sometimes. Your body might be a little confused, is all."

Nicole rubs the back of her neck, suddenly tired, her legs a rough, prickling ache. She sees Jeremy returning to the table, and she stands up to welcome him back. Michael watches her rising out of her seat, looking at her with open curiosity, then copies her. He twists around to face Jeremy, his body slightly occluding Nicole's view, and she catches the chatter from different tables nearby.

Several things happen at once, registering with Nicole in a syncopated rhythm so that her sight and her body are pushed out of synchrony; her belly tightening, her eyes confused. She sees Michael shifting his weight, blocking her view entirely. She thinks about Doc, for some reason she can't place. A man from a nearby table is speaking, and she thinks she hears him exclaim Goodbye, enemy! but the last word could also be Jeremy or jealousy or possibly even lemony, although none of those things make any real sense to Nicole.

Michael's body is giving a twitch, and she feels a deep tug in her belly. Then there's a small commotion behind Michael, and it's as though he's trying to make his body bigger and wider, and Nicole can feel more than see the shift in the air. She hears a rush and a faint sound like a body surging down a water slide. Then Michael is saying Jeremy's name in a splutter, the air is shifting again, and Michael rights himself, steps back to his seat, and reveals Jeremy standing there.

He's not holding a lemon bun. Nicole wipes the frown from her face; tries for open curiosity. "What was all that fuss about?"

She watches the man who exclaimed enemy! at the next table, now looking rueful and squirrelly, and she notes the annoyance on Michael's face from the corner of her vision. She gives him a beat before turning her gaze fully onto his face. She doesn't sit down, better able to look at him from the same level while they're both standing.

"Oh, just a misunderstanding." Nicole raises an eyebrow; looks at Jeremy's smiling face; notes the placidity of his expression.

"Bertrand here—", Michael gestures towards the man at the adjoining table, who looks apologetically over, "—was clearly having a private conversation with his partner, and Jeremy must have thought he heard his name being called." Jeremy opens his mouth; Michael's hand is at his shoulder again, pushing him down. "Jeremy gets a little flustered when he thinks he's being... called. He just nearly fell over, that's all. And he seems to have lost my lemon bun."

Jeremy starts to speak again, but Michael carries on talking. "No matter, Jeremy! Let's just have coffee." He sits down, waiting for Nicole to follow, and takes another sip of his espresso. Nicole watches Jeremy pick up the cooling hot chocolate and sniff at it, looking at the liquid inside the mug with open pleasure. He doesn't drink it. Just stares, captivated.

There's a tickling at the base of Nicole's neck and she shifts in her chair. The babble of the coffee shop is suddenly too loud. She feels homesick and seasick at once.

The noise in the shop is cut through by a loud voice. "What up, dummies?"

Nicole frowns, looking to the door. A man is standing in the doorway, slight body in a t-shirt and jeans, sneakers, and a suit jacket; his jaw lightly stubbled, and a smirk on his face.

Michael stands up immediately. "Trevor. Did we have a meeting?" Michael's voice rises at the end, not quite uncertain; making a hum like a wire being pulled taut.

"We do now." Trevor strides over, not breaking eye contact with Nicole. "Hi, sweetheart. You must be Nicole. I've heard so much about you."

Nicole frowns, stares into his eyes, sees cards being thrown down onto a table. She stands on instinct, her hand thrusting out. She takes Trevor's hand; grip firm. "Hello."

Trevor's grasp is a vertiginous pull. Nicole doesn't break eye contact, steadying the falling sensation by staring into his pupils. Trevor laughs, a rough noise. "So polite." He looks over at Michael. "I bet you're all over yourself with happiness to have this one."

Michael clears his throat. "What can I do for you, Trevor?"

"Well, Michael," Trevor abruptly drops Nicole's hand, turns away. "We need to talk about Jeremy, here." Jeremy is still captivated by his hot chocolate. Trevor rolls his eyes. "In private." 

 

 

Nicole detours back to her house in the dusk, disappointed at Michael's command to Jeremy that he go attend to pressing business, preventing her from asking Jeremy to walk to the house with her. She replays Michael's earlier words in her head, tracing the line towards where he described the cavernous sinkhole. She finds the edge of the town center, structures growing sparse, the sun casting long shadows, buildings breaking into long scenery in the distance. She measures out her steps; comes to a stop. Stands, staring at a bare patch of ground among the grass. No chasm; only dirt. A serrate circle.

 

 

Nicole wakes from the suffocating push of five warm bodies rearranging themselves around her; an angled elbow in her thigh, a soft wet breath by her ear. She struggles against consciousness for a minute, burrowing into the warm blankets. One dog starts to thump its tail at the delicate waking shifts in her body, and the noise pulls her fully awake. She groans a little at seeing the time, opening her eyes to see the Husky staring at her, inches from her face. His tongue lightly panting, offending tail now a deep thwacking bump against the side of her leg. She smiles. "Hi, Randy."

There's a rapping from her front door, and Nicole pulls herself from the bed, looking for something to cover her threadbare t-shirt and flannel shorts. She pulls open a drawer and can only find sweaters, grimacing at the thought of adding more layers over her skin. The dogs' warm bodies and the sharp, low sunlight coming through the window have already heated the room; the back of Nicole's neck is damp, strands of her hair tangled together, and she peels the t-shirt off, twisting it into a ball and rubbing her neck with it before pulling the sweater on.

When she opens the front door, Michael is a statue. Standing on her porch, immaculate. In a finely tailored light gray suit with faint dark gray cross-hatching, a multi-colored bow tie, and a look of deep concern in his eyes. Nicole's greeting seems to break him from his stillness, and he looks at her with an elaborate frown on his face. His hands slowly wring together, and she ushers him into the main room.

Michael sits down on the couch, pulling a cushion to his body, and rocking gently while clutching it to his chest. "It's about—" Michael glances around the room, "our little friend."

Nicole opens her mouth to say Jeremy? but Michael interrupts in a rush. "Don't say his name. Please." He squeezes the cushion. "I can't bear to hear it right now."

Nicole stands, looking down at Michael; tries to decide if it's better to stay standing or sit down. Michael emits a weird little noise, and she sits in the chair opposite him; pitches her voice into a reassuring, steady tone. "What's going on?"

Michael reacts to her tone, looking up quickly from where he's watching his fingers worry the fabric of the cushion. "Trevor." He pauses, sighs. "Trevor wants to... bargain." He bites his lip. "Look, Nicole, I can't explain everything—there's some privileged information here, and I can't share all the details with humans."

Nicole opens her mouth; feels haunted. Closes her mouth. "Okay. What can you tell me?"

"Our little friend is in," Michael narrows his eyes slightly, "a pickle. He's being fought over."

"What? By whom?"

Michael sighs again. "Trevor thinks he belongs in the bad place. Our friend has an interesting past, Nicole, and Trevor is arguing that he should not be here."

Nicole thinks of Jeremy, staring, enraptured by his hot chocolate. Her gut twists, body feeling like it's being pulled in two different directions. A feeling in her belly like seeing a pair of fake dice rolling and coming up six, over and over. She frowns. "But, he is—he's," Nicole tries to put instinct into words, "he's a good person."

Michael clears his throat. The dogs choose that moment to suddenly barrel down the stairs from Nicole's room, an irruptive, wagging fury entering the living room. Nicole greets them all, one by one, and Michael raises his voice over the soft clatter of paws on wood, hot excited breaths, and gentle, slow whines.

"Yes, well, be that as it may. Trevor is somewhat old school, and he is bargaining in an unusual manner."

"What does he want?"

"What he wants, Nicole, is an old-fashioned contest. He's challenging our friend to a sword duel and an archery contest. Which he's calling a biathlon." Michael pauses, looks at Nicole. "I know, I know. I keep telling him that 'biathlon' is cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. He won't listen,"—Michael throws his hands up in an approximation of despair—"he keeps telling me to stop being such a wet blanket and join him in a word orgy." Michael grimaces.

Nicole thinks of Jeremy holding a sword, imagines his attention being caught by the glitter of the metal; an opponent thrusting their weapon into his body. She rubs at the goose pimples raising on her forearms. "Does he even know how to fence? Or use a bow and arrow?"

Michael sighs deeply. "Who even knows, Nicole? He is not exactly practical." The look of mournfulness on his face is tight. He stands, suddenly, turning his back to Nicole to walk to the window, hands clasped behind his back. "Trevor said that our friend doesn't have to stand for himself. Someone—"

"I'm in."

 

 

Nicole hasn't held a rapier before, but the movement that her body needs to follow to balance the sword isn't that different from being in a fight. Her muscle memory recalls academy training, pulls her instinctively into jujitsu and judo footwork, her feet shifting to read the balance of Michael's weight as his legs lead the whip of his wrist. She manages not to get hit by him, although she doesn't exactly win, either. His attacks are a flurry of combinations, thin metal whistling, and she's panting hard after an hour.

Michael raises the guard from his face that he insisted on wearing, despite Nicole's quizzical eyebrow. She wipes the cuff of her long-sleeved t-shirt over her forehead, dreaming of water.

"Not bad, Nicole. I don't know that you'll win, but you definitely won't lose." Michael rests the helmet on the ground beside a tree. "How about archery? Have you done it?"

Nicole shakes her head. A target appears at the far end of the garden; a bow in Michael's hand; quiver planted in the ground beside him, ten colored arrows dancing gently to a stop inside it.

Michael gestures to Nicole, beckoning her next to him. He adopts a turned stance from the target, nocks an arrow to the bow, retracts the tight wire to a humming string in a swift motion, holds the bow stretched to breaking point for a moment, eyes narrowing, and then releases the arrow into the very center of the bullseye. Nicole squints at it.

"The trick is to imagine someone you hate is the target."

Nicole's face opens in surprise. "Isn't that—" She stops; looks away. "Who did you think about?"

Michael smiles mysteriously; pauses. Picks up a second arrow from the quiver. "Trevor, of course." He hands the bow and an arrow to Nicole.

Nicole copies Michael's stance. She tries to see faces on the target, but they all flicker away. She pictures Waverly and Wynonna and Dolls and Doc fighting unseen revenants, instead, and the muscles in her right forearm spasm painfully. She smoothly draws back the bow and doesn't see the target, looking too hard at Waverly's face, caught by the memory of her flashing with panic and anger. Feels the blow of it in her stomach and down her legs. The taut thrum of the wire pulls through her arms and meets the blow in her middle. She lets off the arrow with an exhalation. It breaks through the air with a whine. Hits the target with a dull impact and a brief creaking.

When Nicole looks at the target, her arrow is flush against Michael's, the two lengths shuddering slightly together.

 

 

With one day of relentless practice, Nicole's body is stiff, and she lies in bed with the morning sun cutting onto the covers for an hour, trying to relax all her muscles one by one. The dogs shift over her body, patiently waiting for her to get up. She idly pats at their heads, silently rehearsing everything Michael told her the day before. She dresses slowly, trying to find clothes that will give her the right freedom of movement for fencing. She roots around in the dresser, gently pushing away the inquiring wet noses that nudge into the drawer, locating a pair of dark leggings and a short-sleeved gray t-shirt that feel like they will stretch. She finds sneakers in the closet, and drops them in the hallway on her way to the upstairs bathroom.

Standing under the showerhead, Nicole grimaces at the hot stutter of the first water hitting her chest in a rush, and twists the setting to a cool spray without thinking. The tiles under her feet shift slightly on a flat angle, and her hand reaches out to grasp the temperature dial, gripping it unconsciously until it's fully rotated and freezing water is hitting her face and shoulder. She gasps, mind a second behind her body, then she settles into the cold, thinking of snow. She turns her body in a slow circle, fighting the deep shiver, twisting to let the hard jet hit the sore muscles between her shoulder blades. The blank white of Purgatory in her eyes. Waverly Earp, nose pink, neck wrapped in a wool scarf, arms hugging her chest, feet stamping in the snow.

 

 

Trevor is waiting in the field, alone, when Michael and Nicole arrive. Nicole looks around, startled by the new expanse of flat grass that has appeared overnight a mile from Michael's office, out past the roller rink and arcade. Trevor's body is an easy shape, holding a bow in one arm and a rapier in the other.

"Hi, babe." Trevor smiles, ignoring Michael, his voice a slither. Nicole narrows her eyes and looks into his face.

"Hello. What's first?"

Nicole looks around for Jeremy, feels Michael and Trevor looking at one another, and turns to Michael. "Where's Jeremy? Shouldn't he be here?"

Michael's eyes dart to the target in the middle distance. "Actually, Jeremy is indisposed." Nicole frowns; Michael carries on. "It's complicated—just, please, trust me?"

Nicole's fingers twitch around the bow, a ghostly spasm. "Okay." She turns to Trevor. "Which first? Swords or bows and arrows?"

Trevor looks her up and down, eyes working from her legs to her chest and back again in a slow leer. Nicole's hand clenches around the grip of the bow. "My eyes are up here."

"Oh, I know." Trevor's grin doesn't break. "I was just assessing your potential." He loads the last word with unmistakable weight. "You're definitely good at archery. Let's start with that, and then I can beat you at your strong suit right off the bat."

Nicole rolls her eyes; mutters. "Fine."

Trevor's first arrow whistles into the bullseye. He smirks at her, stepping around and behind Michael. As Nicole is settling her feet into position, bow lowered, she hears Trevor shift behind her. She pulls her arms up, left arm extended out in a line with a small flex at the elbow, right hand drawing the string backwards to her face, eyes focusing on Trevor's arrow.

"Nice." She feels Trevor's eyes on her ass. Her jaw clenches, right hand copying the flex of the muscle, and she replaces the feeling of Trevor behind her with the memory of Waverly's eyes, cutting across a room with plain desire; want slicing through the noise of people and settling in Nicole's stomach. A deep warm pull inside at Waverly's smile, and the promise in her look. Knowing the kiss before it reached her lips.

When Nicole blinks and opens her eyes again, her arrow is buried into the center of the target, the halves of Trevor's arrow splintered at its sides.

She releases her breath and turns to see Trevor's face, lit up with delight. "Damn, girl. That was super hot."

Nicole stiffens. Trevor slaps at Michael's upper arm, grinning at him.

"I can't lie, this is really doing it for me." He steps a bit closer to Nicole. "I have to ask. Is this going to happen?" Trevor's hand gestures in between their bodies, a suggestive flicker. Nicole feels the hit of understanding; the slotting together of a key into a lock; thinks of Nedley. She tenses, looks at Michael.

"This—" She looks at Trevor. Looks back at Michael. "You. You're the bad place."

Trevor looks surprised, grinning desire still on his face as he gives a low whistle. "Wow, Michael. You were right about this one."

Nicole's eyes flash to Michael's face in an unspoken question. Michael sighs, a huge exhalation, body a toddler's flounce. "Dammit, Nicole. I had—" he pauses; continues, "sixty-three hours and twelve minutes, in human time."

"What is going on? Why am I here?"

"What was it, this time?" Michael puts up a hand to silence Trevor. "What made you figure it out?"

Nicole thinks of Jeremy in the coffee shop; the rushing memory of cold water on her body. The torque of the ground, the itch at her neck. The voiding absence that pulls on everything.

"This duck." Nicole grits her teeth against her censoring mouth. She looks at Trevor, meeting his gaze, and tries again. "This walking penis." Her lips form a hard line, and she stares at Trevor for a beat. "I get that he wasn't pretending to be anything other than his own true awful self, but he must know I am one hundred percent interested in women. One woman, to be precise." She looks back to Michael. "And he does not seem the kind to pursue a lost cause."

Trevor grins. "You're really exceeding expectations, here, sweetheart."

Michael huffs again. "This is becoming ridiculous."

"How many times have you done this?"

Michael shakes his head, a flustered, annoyed gesture. "This is the fourth."

"Four times?" Nicole's body feels out of time; out of place; lost.

"Yes. I tried so hard this time, Nicole."

Nicole pushes away grim satisfaction, sets her face. "Tell me."

Michael makes an involuntary noise, disgusted. "You're like a dog with a bone, is the whole story. Speaking of which: that's exactly why I gave you five dogs. The first three times, you kept figuring it out so fast. The first place had too many little clues. I think that the lack of ice cream was a real deal-breaker. In the second one, I tried to make you focus on Waverly's absence; everything you were missing, thinking it would distract you." Nicole's face twists. "It didn't. You got super mad. The third time, I gave you the full attention of a beautiful woman, but, it didn't work?" Michael's voice rises in a question. "I still don't really know why."

Nicole gives a laugh, a small, bitter noise. "No, I wouldn't think you do."

Michael's voice is maddened, swatting away Nicole's words. "This time, though, you had five dogs, and someone to save. Jeremy—"

Jeremy appears to Michael's left, smile a twinkle. "Hi!"

Nicole starts. "Wait," She looks back to Michael; can't finish her question.

Trevor laughs. "Yeah, Jeremy is totally not human, babe."

Michael gives an irritated flick of his wrist. "Go, Jeremy," and Jeremy's gone. "Let me tell you, pretending he was human was one hell of a thing. He comes every dang time his name is called. I had to reset him to try to keep him occupied while we had the contest. I thought that this ridiculous biathlon"—Michael's face is clear of disgust this time when he uses the term—"would keep you busy; worrying away with your little human morality about his fate."

"Why am I here?"

Michael takes a deep breath; raises his hand. Nicole feels the contraction in the muscles running down her back, feels the lurch of her stomach and the taste of adrenalin flooding her mouth. Her voice is in her throat, expectant, as the seconds seem to become pregnant and slow. She's gazing behind Michael, unsure why her sight is shifting; then Doc Holliday is standing in the still air of the field; a faint figure, his long coat swelling around him in an unfelt wind, his hat tipped a little forwards over his face, his pistol raised and fixed in place. Some awful expectation to the shape of his body. His face fades and she sees instead a flash of dark hair; a flicker of the inside of a dark bar. The lurch in her stomach turns to nausea and she desperately tries to unravel meaning into a coherent thread; thinks about Doc, wills him to be alive; sees Michael's fingers move together into a known motion; lets the air out of her mouth, and fights the thick black that's turning her legs cold.

"You fuck."

 

 

The black dissolves, and Nicole forgets it was there at all. A room comes into view. She's sitting on a waiting room couch, staring at pale gray walls; three orchids; a large window. She sweeps the walls with her eyes; finds the doors. Shifts, uneasy, grasping at her memories. She remembers, rather than feels, the pain in her forearm; looks down and sees a neat scar. She frowns and thinks about Waverly Earp, a blurring memory of her face leaning over Nicole's body. She stands up and walks to the window, seeing a neat, bright street, pastel storefronts, a fountain. She squints at the fountain, trying to figure out why the water is so opaque, so gray. She feels the vertiginous sway of déjà vu in her legs, and then she's turning to look at the door opening to the left behind her.

"Nicole. Come on in." The tall, white-haired figure poking around the door gestures with a graceful flourish of his arm. Nicole reads his face; pauses. Steps forwards and around the door, into a large office.

Doc Holliday and Rosita are sitting in two of the three chairs in front of a large desk, bodies twisting around to see Nicole come through the door.

Doc stumbles out of his chair, pulling his hat from his head, closing the gap between their bodies. He pulls Nicole into a deep hug, his mustache tickling her cheek. Over his shoulder, she sees Rosita standing up, hands wringing. Nicole gives her a sad, questioning smile, grabbing onto the back of Doc's shirt. Before she can speak, Doc is whispering into her ear. Darlin'.

The man clears his throat behind her, and sweeps around to the other side of the desk.

"Nicole, please. Take a seat."

Nicole stays standing while Doc pulls away, holding onto her hand until he has to let go to be able to sit back down. She waits until the man is sitting down behind the desk, then takes a seat.

"I'm dead, right? What is this place?" She grimaces; looks at Doc and Rosita. "Why are you here?"

"Nicole, please, everything in its time. I was just explaining to Doc and Rosita why they're here, and now that you're here, too, I will explain everything."

Some itch starts at the base of Nicole's neck; she brushes it away and reaches out to squeeze Doc's hand where it rests on his left thigh.

"My name is Michael. Welcome, Nicole, to the good place!" Michael's smile is a winking diamond. "You have been chosen, from many, as one of the real gems." Nicole looks quickly to Doc and Rosita, seeing the almost invisible frown at Rosita's eyes.

"I know you are wondering why Doc and Rosita are here, too." Michael raises a hand at Nicole's shift forwards, the opening of her mouth. "Let me say first, Nicole—this is a highly unusual situation." He pauses dramatically. "Usually, when someone dies, if they come here to the good place, they are held back until the people they love who are also destined for the good place arrive, too. That avoids the problem of untold stories. By bringing people together at the point of death, we don't have to worry about some people coming to the good place only to be tortured"—Michael's eyes flicker—"by their ignorance of what's happening to the people they love."

Nicole frowns, thinking of Waverly Earp; pushes down the sick wave in her stomach.

"However," Michael strokes his silk plaid bow tie. "As I said, this is highly unusual. It was deemed," Michael emphasizes the last three words with a lowering, mysterious intonation, "that enough of your family had died to allow you a reunion of sorts. And Doc and Rosita here are very special. As such, they have been allowed to wake up early, too, and get to see you."

Nicole feels the room tilt; feels punched. She's glad to see Doc and Rosita; relieved that Waverly is still alive. At the same moment, terrified that Waverly isn't here.

"What happened?" Nicole turns again to Doc and Rosita.

Michael clears his throat again, pulls her attention to his face. Doc squeezes her hand one more and draws her eyes back to him. He speaks softly, knowing what she's really asking. "Last we saw, both Waverly and Wynonna were living, and Waverly was taking the baby to safe passage."

Nicole feels an arrhythmia, losing several beats in her chest. "Wynonna had her baby?"

Doc smiles, the large window behind him, the tears glinting in the light caught in the room. "Indeed, she did." Nicole's questioning smile turns to relief at Doc's happy smile. Doc Holliday, proud father.

Michael taps a hand on his desk. "What Doc hasn't said is that both he and Rosita laid down their lives for the Earps."

Nicole looks to their faces, gratitude plain. Doc smiles gently at Nicole, then turns to Michael. "And you, sir—you said that you would explain to us how we came to be here."

Michael's smile glimmers. "Yes, John Henry, of course."

Nicole interrupts, mind caught on the image still unfurling before her; Doc and Rosita standing in front of Waverly and Wynonna. "Wait, what do you mean?"

Doc clears his throat. "Well, see. I was expecting—I believe I belong in the place where the revenants are."

Rosita opens her mouth; speaks in a tight rush. "Me, too."

Nicole feels her forehead tighten, her eyebrows raise. "Wait, what? You're—" She breaks off, seeing Rosita's face.

"Yeah." Rosita's voice is tiny; quiet. Nicole looks at her in apology.

Michael begins tapping the desk with his fingers again. "Well, yes. You both maybe should have gone to a different place. But, really, you're a little off on a few counts. First of all, Doc Holliday here would never have gone to revenant hell."

Doc leans forward. "But—I saw it. I felt it."

Michael frowns briefly. "Only revenants go to revenant hell, Doc. That's just the way it works. And revenants only go to revenant hell. Or they're supposed to. So Rosita is half-correct. But you two produced something of a... unique situation. Doc, your life was so much longer than normal that your existence produced its own law of physics. All the years you spent down that well—unfortunately, during most of that time, you couldn't stop yourself feeling ambivalent about a lot of people." Nicole looks at Doc's face; sees the worry in his eyes and the twitch of his mustache, so small she barely catches it. She looks back to Michael. His smile is strange; a hook. "It's understandable, really; it's just what happens to humans when they're tortured." Michael's eyes glitter; he taps the fingers of one hand in a neat chorus against the desk.

Doc clear his throat. "All those years—were a count against my name?"

Michael's face becomes smooth; his voice almost sweet. "The sheer number of years you spent being angry added up, John Henry. The sum total of that time swung you into the red."

"So why are we here, then?" Rosita's voice is faintly hoarse; she speaks in a rush. Like she doesn't quite want to hear the answer.

Michael waits a bit, filling the air with his silence. Nicole shifts in her seat.

Michael looks at Rosita. "You're the first revenant to die for an Earp." He looks back at Doc. "Your deaths." Taps his fingers on the desk. "Your deaths tipped the balance."

Nicole feels a warm flooding in her stomach; not entirely pleasant, like a drunken nausea flaring, half-sweet and half-awful.

 

 

Nicole shuts the door to the large cabin, closing it carefully. She turns back to Doc and Rosita. Doc is striding into the center of the room, hat in hand, his boots a familiar, welcome sound. Nicole's body aches like she's been alone for years. She puts a hand out, finds Rosita's arm, squeezes. Turns to look into her eyes and thanks her silently. Desperate to ask about what happened after she died—to find out every tiny detail—but scared that she'll open up some unhealable wound.

She's glad to have stayed quiet when Rosita instead fills the silence with light words. "So, Michael is kind of fun, right?" She smiles playfully. "He's so straight-laced. It'd be fun to torture him. You know, really wind him up. I don't think he understands people very well." Nicole smiles at the mischievous tilt of Rosita's grin.

"Well, as I live and breathe." Nicole looks over to where Doc is standing, looking down at something. She and Rosita walk around to his left side to see what he's staring at.

On the low coffee table in the middle of the room, there's a sprawling, brightly colored board game laid out: elaborate three-dimensional structures around the board; multiple small arrows; dice; three stacks of cards. Three tiny figurines; one holding a cocktail shaker; one with a gun belt and uniform; one with a minute cowboy hat. Doc looks up at Nicole and Rosita, his face made of warm delight. "I do enjoy these elaborate games you have nowadays." His eyes flicker back to Nicole's face. Reading her slight frown. "Do you not enjoy them, Officer Haught?" Doc's voice is full of levity; Nicole smiles at his teasing address.

"No, I just—I guess I didn't expect a board game, is all." She stares at the table, trying to shake the strangeness from her skin. She glances around the room. "I'm going to look around."

Rosita breaks her gaze from the board game. "Me, too."

Nicole leads the way up a creaking flight of stairs out onto a wide landing, facing four doors. She chooses the door on the far left; Rosita chooses the next one, immediately to its right. Nicole walks into a full saloon bar, decked to bursting with shining bottles of liquor, a mahogany bar, ornate lamps. There's a pool table to her right; a heavy table to her left by the large window. She hears a chair scrape on wood through the wooden walls.

"Rosita?" She turns her head slightly to the shared wall, pitching her call through it. She hears Rosita come to the doorway behind her.

"I think this room might be for you and Doc." Nicole enjoys the look on Rosita's face; surprise and bliss, and a widening smile. Rosita whistles gently as she rounds the bar and starts pulling down bottles to peer at the labels.

"Good?"

Rosita looks up from the bottle she's holding, nods, grinning. "This is so rare." She pulls two shot glasses from under the bar, uncapping the bottle and pouring one for each of them.

Nicole lets Rosita have the first taste, then snaps her head back to drink the shot. The alcohol is a full and deep pull as it flames down her throat, and she feels the heat settle inside her. She smiles. "Wow."

Rosita just grins.

"What was in the other room?"

"Oh, definitely yours."

Nicole raises an eyebrow. Rosita nods; Nicole places the empty glass carefully back on the bar with a small click.

She stands for a moment in the doorway of the room, squinting. There are two windows, but they're smaller than the one in the room next door, and this room isn't as well-lit as the bar; there aren't lights hanging from the ceiling. She hears Doc give a whoop downstairs. There's a desk in the center of the room; heavy and old; the wood faded. A single angle poise lamp is casting a diffuse circle on the surface, and Nicole adjusts her eyes to the semi-dark, focusing on the paper that's reflecting the light.

She walks over to the desk and finds an open police file. Next to it, there's a stack of them, all stamped with the Purgatory Sheriff's Department mark. She adjusts the lamp, puts her hands on the edge of the table, and leans down to read the open page. It's an unsolved murder, one she vaguely remembers Nedley talking about, from 1998. She reads every page standing up, then sits down, pulling open the next file on the stack.

 

 

Rosita walks past the doorway, sees Nicole sitting at the desk reading, and carries on along the corridor. She hears Doc rolling dice and muttering, the sounds floating up as she passes the throat of the stairs. She walks to the third door, pushing against resistance, then opening it inwards. She stares into a long tunnel with a door in the far distance. A deep high whistle, barely audible, pulling the air down towards the end.

"Nope." Rosita backs up, shutting the door. Walks back down the hall; down to the room where Nicole is sitting at the desk, forehead creased, right hand rubbing the nape of her neck. She stands next to Nicole and clears her throat.

Nicole looks up; her eyes elsewhere. "What's wrong?"

Rosita glances down at the file, then puts a hand under Nicole's left elbow, gently pulling her to her feet. "Come on."

Rosita opens the third door again, watching Nicole's face rather than the tunnel. Sees Nicole's hand twitch uselessly at her hip.

Nicole looks at her. "Uh, how about." Nicole reaches for the door knob, pulling it shut. "We just keep that one closed?"

"Okay, absolutely agreed, but—what the fork?" Rosita's eyebrows raise. "Fork. Shirt. Beluga. Cook." She looks at Nicole, desperate. "I—I'm trying to swear. Please tell me the sounds coming out of my mouth do not sound like swears to you, either."

"No. Fork." Nicole's mind makes fuck; her mouth disobeys. She frowns at the dissonance; the out-of-place imbalance of her body's mutiny. "Come on. Downstairs." They descend the stairs to the sound of Doc's laughing mutter, talking to the board game.

Nicole stands next to him, waiting until he looks up. "I must just roll a seven, and get myself through that swamp, and then I can win." He's holding the figurine of himself, hat on the seat next to him, looking pleadingly up at Nicole and Rosita.

"Okay, Doc, but—wait. Are you playing against yourself?" Nicole looks between the tiny Doc and the other two figures, carefully placed to the side.

"Well, yes, ma'am. You two were awful keen to get upstairs, so I assumed you were not interested in this wonderful entertainment."

Nicole smiles gently. "Doc," she starts, picking up his hat and sitting where it was resting, placing it carefully on her lap. She looks at Rosita, asking her to sit with her eyes. "Doc," she starts again, "I know you're having a great time with—"; she gestures at the coffee table, sweeps a hand over the board game, "—this, but." She pauses, looking away from his face. "Is there anything weird about this place to you?"

She looks at his face, sees everything he's pushing against flood into his eyes; the wound opening. He looks away. She speaks softly. "I know. I'm sorry."

Doc stands, suddenly. He walks three paces from Nicole, then turns to look at her, gazing into her eyes hopelessly. "They're not—" he breaks off in a gulp, his eyes a closing door.

He stares at Nicole for several seconds, then gives her a tiny nod. Rosita shifts in her seat, frowning. "Wait, don't you think we need to discuss the creepy tunnel upstairs that, like, goes to nowhere? And the fact that we can't swear?"

Nicole looks over to Rosita. Doc steps closer to Rosita, falls into a crouch beside her chair. Takes her hand. "Rosita, we are in a very awful place."

Rosita looks between them, her eyes narrowing. "Wait, so—Michael lied? We didn't—" Her eyes cut to Nicole's, her voice lowering. "We didn't make it to a good place?"

Nicole swallows. Looks at the light outside the window, fading.

"But," Rosita clears her throat a little, her voice straining. "Nicole, you—you shouldn't be here. If this is..." Her voice trails off. Doc stands abruptly, turning to Nicole.

"Indeed. You should not." His face is crossed with pain. He places a hand onto one of hers. "Officer Haught, what is it that we should do?"

Nicole struggles against the coil in her muscles; the desperate urge to pull a trigger. She focuses on Doc's hand, gently curling over her own. Rosita stands up behind Doc.

"If I can throw my penny in, I vote we kick Michael's ass."

Nicole looks to Rosita's face; sees she's half-serious, half trying to defuse the pain coming in waves off Doc's body.

Doc speaks, his voice still soft, but with the sound of years of living at its edge, threatening to pull all the words into raw anger. "Although I certainly can see the appeal," he directs a slow smile to Rosita, "I would suggest we call his bluff." Nicole looks to his eyes; listens as he carries on. "Let's smoke him out." She nods.

 

 

They manage to bluff for four days.

On the first day, Doc and Rosita and Nicole hole up in the cabin, drawing out endless maps on the backs of the old police files. Doc drinks a bottle of whiskey, claiming it helps him think clearly. Rosita takes the second bottle from him, promising him something better if he waits until after they've finished writing down everything they know. At the end of the day, she makes them each an Old Fashioned, placing an extra cherry at the rim of Doc's glass.

On the second day, Nicole sits, talking with Jeremy on a bench in the park near the cabin when she figures something out. After that, she carries a carefully folded piece of paper in the rear pocket of her jeans.

On the third day, Nicole spends hours at the ten-pin bowling alley with Michael, keeping him busy while Doc and Rosita try to pump Jeremy for information. When she returns to the cabin, arms aching, cheeks hurting from keeping a smile in place, Doc and Rosita are standing in the fourth upstairs room, which has evolved into a pulsing space, covered with intricate mismatched puzzle pieces on all four walls, the ceiling, and the floor. Nicole pulls them out of the room with one hand each to their upper arms and makes them dinner.

On the fourth day, Michael catches up with them all outside Steak on a Stick, Doc holding an enormous steak and trying to figure out how to eat it without the meat falling to the ground or down his shirt; Rosita and Nicole just watching him, caught in silent bemusement. Nicole feels Doc tensing before she sees Michael appear. She meets Michael's gaze, shifting in her heeled boots, lifting her chin a little and feeling suddenly, deeply cold.

"Nicole, Rosita, John Henry. I think maybe we should have a little talk. Come to my office?"

Nicole arranges her face, tries an easy smile. "Sure, Michael. Let me meet the three of you there. I just need to use the ladies' room."

Without giving Michael time to object, she turns on her heel and strides back into the restaurant. Passing the table nearest the bathroom, she sweeps a chair smoothly out from the table and carries it along with her to the bathroom. Once inside, she shuts the door, placing the back of the chair under the handle.

"Jeremy?"

Jeremy appears, his face already smiling. Then he glances around, taking in where they are. Smile unbroken; ready for whatever adventure awaits him in the ladies' bathroom. "What're we doing?"

"We're running contingency. Here, Jeremy." Nicole digs into her back pocket. "Could you open your mouth, please?"

Jeremy obediently opens his mouth. Nicole puts the folded square of paper into his mouth; gently closes it for him. "Thank you, Jeremy."

Jeremy speaks, words broken around the wad of paper lodged against his cheek. "Sure thing, Nicole."

 

 

Michael has arranged three chairs in a line in front of his desk, but this time he's placed two enormous angle poise lamps at either end of the surface, sharp light cutting down onto Rosita's and Doc's faces. Nicole enters the room, notes the parody of a police interrogation, and suppresses a barking laugh. She registers that Doc and Rosita have been placed in the seats either side of an empty chair in the middle, clearly marked for her. She absorbs the choices Michael has made, keeping eye contact with him as she slips through the door. She sees immediately that he's figured everything out, and tries to relax her legs against the bracing instinct to start running.

Michael is leaning back in his chair, fingers a steeple, a pleased smile on his face.

"Well, Officer Haught." Nicole's teeth clench briefly at the name. "It seems that you and your buddies have figured it out."

Nicole glances to Doc, then Rosita. Sees apology and confusion, at once. She turns back to Michael.

"What tipped you off?"

Michael hums. "Oh, how the tables have turned." He smiles, frustration and pleasure colliding in his eyes.

Nicole frowns. "What?"

"Let's just say, Nicole, that this is not the first time you have figured it out, and this is also not the first time we have had this conversation. Except, all the other times, it has been me asking you how you figured it out, and you withholding answers until I told you the things you wanted to know." Michael spins a little, side to side, in his chair, looking to Doc and Rosita.

"This time, I am not going to tell you how I figured it out until you tell me how you figured it out. And then we're going to have an honest conversation about humans."

Nicole glances at Doc's face, reaches out to touch his hand, reassuring him with a squeeze of her fingers.

"Fine. You gave us things that were not about happiness. They were about keeping us distracted. Rosita's bar. A shiny board game for Doc—his Achilles' heel. Unsolved cases for me." She pauses. "That tunnel in the house was super weird." She looks at Michael, eyes narrowed. "What was that for? And the puzzle room? Were they supposed to distract us, too? Because they were just creepy."

Michael sighs. "I thought humans enjoyed mystery. Was it too much? It's so hard to find the line between fun and macabre."

Nicole tries to stop the maddened, half-furious smile threatening to appear on her face. "Definitely too much." She pushes nails into the palm of the hand that's not holding one of Doc's. "Your turn."

Michael flashes a smile at Nicole. "It was you." Nicole fights surprise, feels the awful pull of guilt, and looks to Doc and Rosita in apology. Rosita gives her a small smile, shaking her head. She looks back at Michael. "What did I do?"

"You went ten-pin bowling with me for a whole day. First of all, you're awful at it. Which is weird, frankly, because I've seen you shoot an arrow right through another one lodged into the bullseye of a target, and I've also seen you wield a sword." Nicole frowns, opening her mouth. Michael carries on. "The last time you figured it out, before I wiped your memory. Plus, I've seen you in living competency at any number of other hand-and-eye coordination activities." He grins, delighted. "It's quite the sight, watching you bowl. Your whole body makes exactly the right perfect smooth action, but then the ball travels into the gutter every time."

Nicole sighs. "That can't be all."

"No. The real tip off was that we spent a whole day at a bowling alley, where I know you have good memories of one Waverly Earp, and you did not mention her name once."

Nicole bites her lip, angry at herself. "Fine, you beat us. Now you have to tell us about why I'm here."

Michael looks out of the window, brow furrowed. "Well, Nicole. You and your little gang here all apparently have a thing for sacrificing yourselves." He looks back to Nicole. She feels Rosita and Doc tense beside her, Doc's hand tightening in hers.

"You see, Nicole, I had a plan. In the bad place, we usually only get to really torture humans who are crappy people. And we'd like to torture some good people, too. And you," he smiles again, Nicole's body lurching. "You. You and Waverly and Wynonna Earp. You three are top-shelf human potential."

Nicole feels Doc's panic at Wynonna's name. She resists the sweeping dizziness that pulls her chair a little to the side. She tries to focus on Michael's face.

"You have a unique capacity for suffering psychological torture. You're all just too good." Michael grimaces. "And I wanted you. Turns out, when you died, it was easy. I just asked if you'd sacrifice yourself to save some of the not-quite-so-awful people going to the bad place."

Michael sighs. "What I don't get, and maybe you will explain this to me, is why humans don't just give up. You all die, eventually. It's such a crappy deal. How do you not just stop functioning? How do any of you manage to keep going with the fact that your lives will end and you'll be flung into some unknown place?"

Michael looks at Doc and Rosita. "And then, you two. You go ahead and even hasten the process, letting yourself die for someone else. How is that logical?"

Michael stares into the silence. His eyes land on Nicole, watching her face fall into grief. Waiting expectantly for her answer.

Nicole thinks of Waverly Earp, standing in the snow, smiling at her. Her chest tightens beyond its limit; her heart an awful, sick pulse. She meets Michael's eyes. "You have answered your own question." Michael's eyebrows raise in confusion. Nicole breathes out. "Knowing that we would die for someone else. That's what makes us able to live."

Michael's eyes narrow. Nicole feels the lift of his fingers, trying to hang onto the memory of Waverly's pink cheeks and pink nose, the turn of Waverly's face towards her, grin turning to a serious smile before pulling Nicole's face to her own. Everything blackening, Nicole's breath an angry, cursing address.

 

 

Chapter Text

Wynonna stands, legs hip-width apart, stance fixed, Peacemaker drawn and at her side. Her back is to the thick glass. The low February sun cuts through it, flowers of dust and cobwebs blooming from the corners of the window, the light caught and thwarted away from the edges of her body. There are three small chips in the glass, the lines between them making a triangle around Wynonna. Her outline is clear enough, but when the rusting show lights have been hooked up and turned on, the false light cuts into her, casting a deep shadow from her body. She stands still in front of the window; brightness touching her silhouette; gun a reflecting wink of light.

The revenants start coming exactly as they'd hoped, a stuttering progression down the narrow street. The closed storefronts, empty and neglected, suck some of the light from the abandoned theater, its looming shape perpendicular to the street, cutting across the T-junction at the end of the main drag. The lobby is lit up like a Christmas tree; a woman standing against the window; a beacon.

Waverly stands, silent, inside a storefront, halfway down the street. The first three revenants walk past the window, and she chokes the baseball bat with her hand, the smooth rubber of the grip slipping slightly under her damp palm. She waits to move until the third figure has cast a shadow over the weak light coming through the window, then shifts the bat into her left hand to swipe her right hand at the back of her jeans.

Waverly starts counting in her head, waiting for the splintering sound and the dull bang and the low roaring before she opens the door. She watches the storefront opposite; says a low prayer and tries not to think of Nicole's face; focuses instead on the gaping black of the empty window.

At the end of the narrow street, the first revenant reaches the clearing, stepping out past the edges of the final two buildings and into the space in front of the theater lobby. He calls something out, some taunted shout to Wynonna's back, some mockery of her high sense of drama. Wynonna pulls Peacemaker up, holsters the gun, and steps away from the window. She picks up a tattered, ancient upholstered chair, and swings her body around in a fast, sweeping arc, letting go of the chair at the apex and letting it fly through the lobby window.

The heavy chair hits the glass, the three nicks in the glass crumpling first and fracturing, pulling the entire window out of its frame in sharding pieces. The musical crash of the window is followed by the chair landing heavily into the street; a deep thud. The revenant standing five yards from the lobby window watches the crash then turns his face away to avoid the sharp flying glass. With the window in pieces on the street, he turns back to the lobby to see Chrissy Nedley ripping a dark wig off her head, looking at him. He hears a click and then a percussive burst to his left, hitting his head with a low, twisting hurt, and then the street below his feet is tumbling, heat coming under his soles and twisting around his legs.

The second revenant is moving headlong into the space the first revenant has made, tumbling into the fire that's opened up in the solid ground his feet are reaching for. The first revenant is gone, and the second one starts to fall into the abyss while he's still alive. Wynonna takes a step forward, still hidden by the final building of the row of stores, firing into his dropping figure, sending both revenants on the same path to hell.

The third revenant is confused by the noises coming from different directions, still running for the lobby, when sniper fire from the roof of the building makes him twist to the right, looking for cover, getting closer to Chrissy. Wynonna feels the panic coming off her in waves from the theater lobby, and she squints.

"Hey, loser."

She aims the gun, catching the running figure and then turning away to start running herself. She pushes deep into the ground; the familiar wrench of a standing start.

She sprints in the opposite direction from the revenant, along the rest of the theater's front, to the next block, then slows slightly to reduce her paces to chopped, even steps as she takes the corner in small twists that turn her left, sweeping back around down the street parallel to the main drag. Racing down past the backs of the left-hand storefronts.

Wynonna counts, concentrating hard not to lose her place, then slows to run through the door that's been left open. She jumps over the various fallen pieces of furniture inside, runs to the front of the building, and pushes open the front door, the ancient bell giving a small, broken jangle.

The revenant that's coming headlong up the street stops abruptly, hearing the door open and the bell ring discordantly. Wynonna grins at him as she watches her baby sister step from the darkness of the opposite store front, baseball bat a recoil, hair neatly scraped back, body tightly expectant in black boots, snug black jeans, and a long-sleeved black t-shirt, the only light the reflections of her eyes and the glint of her earrings, short flecks of silver that twist as she steps forwards.

Waverly watches the revenant start to turn in the direction Wynonna is smiling; feels him beginning to see her. Her body thinks of Nicole before she can stop it; her legs a twitch to another place; hands a vice against the past. She squeezes her right hand above the left on the rubber, exhales, and whips the metal out from stillness. The bat swings around in a powerful snap, the revenant's face a shock as he falls to the side, Wynonna still smiling as she steps over to shoot him.

Bat released and flung wide to the left, Waverly's body sweeps to complete the swing by letting her arms cross over her body. The next revenant appears from the darkness five paces down the street, and Waverly lets her left hand drop, the bat lightly tipping to the ground, as she ducks the revenant's right hook, his knife flashing past. She uses the bat as a ballast to push herself back up, right arm out in the air to steady herself, using her left arm to draw the bat upwards and back, between the revenant's legs, sweeping upwards and making sharp contact. The revenant gasps out a curse, and Wynonna shoots, releasing his body down into hell.

The sound of the truck at the end of the street is a roaring squeal, and Wynonna and Waverly look down to the far end, then back behind them, their eyes a working unit. At the theater end of the road, Chrissy Nedley has the fake Peacemaker drawn, an old government-issue pistol, and Dolls has come down from the roof, covering Chrissy as they jog down the stretch, working towards Waverly and Wynonna. At the other end of the main drag, Randy Nedley has stopped the truck, blocking the opening of the street, stepping out of the truck to rest his upper body onto its hood, rifle extended across the metal. They hear the first flare of the gun and break into a run, matching pace until they come to the truck, and then breaking apart, Wynonna to the front of the truck and Waverly to the back.

Nedley lays down cover for Waverly while she swings the bat at the three revenants on the left of the vehicle, sweeping the metal through one revenant's legs and swiping another one's forearm away from her with a crack, disarming him. She hears Wynonna shoot one revenant, and glances over to see her reloading. She can feel the beat of Wynonna's paces as she comes over to finish the ones Waverly has knocked cold. The ground roars open in a deep, shuddering twist, and then all the bodies are gone, the air still warm with the remnants of fire.

 

 

Nedley knows better than to invite them back to the Sheriff's Department to celebrate, and instead he quietly accepts their offer of pizza at the homestead, a pleased smile on his face, gratitude at being next to Chrissy again obvious; the worry leaving his tense stance. Chrissy rides up front with her father and Waverly slips into the backseat of the truck with her bat. She watches out of the window as Wynonna and Dolls walk away to where his SUV is parked. She shivers in the cooler air now that the revenants are gone, a late winter chill, and Chrissy hears her teeth chatter once, pulling off her own furred coat and passing it wordlessly back to Waverly. Waverly smiles, her hand grazing Chrissy's in thanks. Nedley looks at her in the rearview mirror, his eyes a gentle smile.

On the drive back to the homestead, Waverly empties out her mind, replacing it with swings of the baseball bat, low, resonant cracks of hitting a ball; hours on a softball field as a kid, Wynonna teaching her how to swing so she could defend herself against bullies. She looks through the dark outside the window, trying to find the edge of the mountains in the black; allows herself one memory of Nicole. Standing in a black dress, face lit by candles, smiling at her. Her fingers a gentle stammer against Waverly's hand, a soft lingering touch; the sight of her heartbeat at her throat, quickening the pale skin. The feeling of Nicole leaning over and drawing close; stopping when their faces are inches apart, her smile an opening door, the brightness flooding Waverly's body.

And then Nicole's lips, a soft thrill; her mouth a question; and Waverly answering with a hand to the back of her neck and her own mouth opening, breathless and awake and with the desperate pull she felt every time Nicole came close.

 

 

Wynonna wants them to have pizza and beer in the war room, but Dolls looks at Chrissy's nervous face and suggests they sit in the main room and open beers and then maybe Wynonna can show Randy the war room. Wynonna shrugs in smiling consent, and pulls a single beer for herself and one for Waverly from the six-pack, lazily knocking the caps off using the edge of the mantelpiece, handing over the beer and then reaching out for Waverly's arm to wind her own through it. Nedley is peering at the set of photos on the mantelpiece; Nicole's face smiling out at him from one of them, and Wynonna sees the muscles in his body tense. She unwinds herself from Waverly, steps close to Randy, and places a soft hand on his arm; an invitation. He looks at her, grateful, and follows her upstairs to the war room, Waverly's huge, ordered cork boards on three walls, one large green chalkboard on wheels pushed against the fourth wall. An old desk in the middle of the room, a lamp Nedley recognises as Nicole's, and stacks of paper. Wynonna is flushed, leading him through each board slowly, talking in a fast whir. Nedley smiles at her, compliments them on their tactics. Thinks of Nicole, blinking slow.

 

 

As winter breaks, Waverly's sleep becomes an irruptive, firing thing. Her dreams are a tangled mess; she wakes every morning with the covers flung off her body or wrapped around her in a thick caul. Sometimes she's in a room with Nicole, everything slightly tilted. Nicole touching her face, hands cold, like she's been out in the Purgatory snow. Her eyes a flashing sentence that Waverly can't read. Sometimes Doc is there, too, and Rosita; shadowed figures standing either side of Nicole. One time they stand in a row, holding hands, a thick layer of glass in between their bodies and Waverly on the other side, banging the glass with open-palmed slaps, screaming to make them hear her.

Another time she only sees Nicole from a distance. She is out in a scrubbed, wild field beyond the Ghost River triangle; Nicole is several hundred meters away, standing at a forest opening to the east. The trees are a choking, tight mass that cuts the sun away from Nicole. Waverly can recognize her shape even in the dim light; her height, the way her shoulders are down and her back is a straight line that points down to the ground; the way her right hand hangs, relaxed at her right side, forever ready to draw her gun. She starts running, knowing already it's a mirage, legs a burning rage and lungs a desperate sob before she reaches the edge of the forest and Nicole is gone. She wakes with all the blankets kicked off, the weak spring sunshine trying to warm the room.

Sometimes Nicole isn't there, and it's Curtis instead. She started dreaming about Curtis several weeks before he was gone, the dreams a hazy fluttering memory that dissipated before she could recall them. She only remembered them several weeks after he had died, waking mid-dream to one and feeling the strange, awful déjà vu of it.

She knows Nicole isn't in the right place, and she also knows she can't tell anyone; the knowledge a clear, ringing bell. She's caught in some waiting room, forced into expectancy. In every dream, at the edge of her vision, there's always a small figure she can't quite make out. A flash of pale hair, and every time she tries to turn to the unknown person, she wakes in a gasping rush, the mattress hard for a moment under her before she comes back to her room; her bed; no Nicole.

 

 

Dolls huffs into the walkie-talkie. "It's not even a code name, it's just a descriptor."

Wynonna's reply is a smirk. "Whatever, you're just mad because you don't like us talking about your amazing butt." She grins at Waverly, hunched down beside her behind the shard of corrugated roofing that's resting against the stack of wood, the unexpected April snow a crunch under their bodies. Waverly rolls her eyes, grinning back, and peers out from the edge of the roofing. She sees the revenants looking around, confused, and rolls her eyes again.

Dolls is still huffing on the other end of the radio.

"I'm not using any of them. You're Earp 1 and Earp 2. Waverly is now Earp 1, by the way."

Wynonna gasps, and depresses the button on the radio. "You wouldn't."

Dolls voice comes over the air, staticky. "Watch me."

There's a muffled thudding from the radio, and Wynonna startles, twisting around to look out from the cover. She sees Dolls approaching the revenants, swinging his fist into the first one.

"Dammit, Dolls." Wynonna's voice is a clenched mutter, and she looks at Waverly.

Waverly tucks her head back behind the cover, meeting Wynonna's eyes. "Why did he do that?"

"I don't know. I think we made him mad with his code name."

"Well, go."

Waverly gives Wynonna's back a small shove, and Wynonna stands up from the roofing, calling out as she unfolds her body. "Hey, Cute Butt. I'm coming."

Dolls grimaces at the name before the revenant he's fighting swings a fist into his jaw. Wynonna runs towards the revenant, throwing her body into his on the last step, and pulling him to the ground underneath her. She blocks the revenant's fists that immediately come up to grasp at her clothes, drawing Peacemaker and shooting. Another revenant is immediately on her, slicing at the air around her face with a long, dirty blade. She sees Waverly at the edge of her vision, shooting into two of the revenants with her shotgun. Dolls is to her left, and she feels the contact as he gets hit by another revenant; her body alert to the impact as his body is flung back onto the ground. She yells to Waverly.

"Unicorn Sparkles! Help him."

Waverly turns, already in a run towards Dolls, then stopping beside his body and shooting the last revenant at close range while Dolls sits up, winded, gasping.

He coughs, words a splutter. "Thank you."

Waverly smiles down at him. "Sure thing, C.B."

Dolls smiles back at her. "I'll accept the short version."

Wynonna shoots the last revenant, then comes over to hit Dolls lightly on the shoulder. "No way, Cute Butt. That's your name for always, now. Punishment for being an idiot and rushing them before we agreed."

Waverly stops smiling; replaces her grin with a serious frown. "She's right; you were an idiot." She gives Dolls a hand and pulls him upwards, her small body bracing against the load.

Dolls grimaces. He looks between the sisters, standing, unharmed, breathing evenly. He looks away from them, to where the revenants were.

 

 

When summer starts to push over the Ghost River triangle, making the snow retreat into shrinking patches, Dolls knocks on Waverly's bedroom door. She stands up from the bed, sheets of paper spread out carefully on the coverlet where she's been researching Thomas Bell, retreating from the main room to avoid Wynonna, her mild mania as July approaches a tangible presence. Sitting on her bed, Waverly keeps getting wild flashes of the fireplace, a disturbing pulsing vision accompanied by blurred strands of blue yarn being flung into the periphery, some echo of Wynonna's curses rattling in her ears.

She opens the door to Dolls, a tall, looming body who blocks the entire doorway.

"Hey," Waverly steps back, realizing that Dolls has only been in her room once—in late January, when, wild with grief, Waverly had ventured into her room to find some clean clothes, instead finding a lost shirt of Nicole's at the back of her closet. Unable to do anything but sit on the floor and cry, body rebelling; a furious, wrenching reflex. Wynonna had rushed into her room at the first sound of tears, but after a while had to bring Dolls up from downstairs and ask him to lift Waverly from the floor and take her out of the room. Away from a place too full of Nicole for her to be able to bear.

"She's, uh—" Dolls takes a tentative step into the room, eyes flicking around to take it in. Waverly sees the quick sweep of his line of vision; notices how he looks to all the things that have changed since he was last here. "She's knitting." He pauses, meets her gaze. "Wynonna."

Waverly rolls her eyes, smiling. "Yeah, and she's intolerable. Why do you think I came up here to work?"

"She keeps yelling about dropped stitches?" Dolls's voice rises in a confused tone. "And there's a completely unraveled ball of yarn on the floor. I tried to ask her if she needed help and she told me that she was the Earp heir, and that a dumb activity involving big needles should be in her skillset. Then she started cursing the pattern and begging me to take her to just buy a sweater instead."

Waverly smiles, starting to clear up the papers on her bed. "What did you say?"

"I told her that Alice would love it."

Waverly swallows against the pain rising, smiles harder. "She will." She shuffles the papers into order, gathering them into a bundle.

"Is that the file on Bell?"

"Yeah, I just wanted to have another look. I feel like there's some piece of information missing. I can't shake the feeling that I know something."

Dolls looks at her, curious. "Hey," he starts, a gentle exhalation. Waverly looks up at him, expectant. "I was wondering, actually." Dolls's eyes shift away and back; a minute flicker to where Nicole's hat is carefully rested on Waverly's dresser and then back to her eyes. "There's some files Nedley has got for us. At the station." Dolls's sentences are small, fractured things. He looks away from Waverly's face again. "You could come." He finishes, leaving the sentence without a question mark, the small crack of an open door for her to push open or close.

Waverly bites her lip. A mess of blue yarn comes into her sightline, Wynonna's voice. She looks back at Dolls, and tries a smile. "Sure. Let's take Wynonna. She needs a break."

 

 

Nedley's face as they crowd his doorway floods with surprise, worry hot on its heels. His eyes immediately find Waverly's, her body flanked by Dolls and Wynonna, a sturdy entourage against grief. Nedley abruptly stands up from behind his desk, coming around to Waverly, trying to read her eyes. He puts a warm, rough hand out to take hers, squeezes gently, then turns to Dolls. "Xavier, you didn't tell me I'd be having the pleasure of the Earps, too."

Wynonna rolls her eyes, smiling. "Whatever, Nedley. Don't pretend you're happy to see me in your station. We both know it's Waverly you want to see."

Nedley's eyes flash to Wynonna's. His objection unspoken. Wynonna nods slightly, accepting it; silencing him against speaking with a cleared throat. "So, you have some files for us?"

"Why don't you come to the basement?"

Nedley pulls the door shut behind them, carefully letting the latch click, then leads them past the main desk to a back door. Waverly forces her eyes over to Nicole's old desk; counts silently to five; clenches the retracting muscles in her legs, pretends she is about to break into a run to steady herself, and makes herself walk in a slow, measured pace. Wynonna's hand has found her own; it's a warm oath around hers, calming the threat in her breathing.

When they've passed the desk, Waverly lets herself remember Nicole, sitting behind it, waiting for Waverly to bring her lunch. A memory she doesn't know why she has, because it never happened. Nicole's face already turned to see her come through the door when she rounds the doorway and steps into the room. A look she knows in her gut on Nicole's face: plain wanting and a soft pleasure shining directly at Waverly. The memory is both right and wrong at once. Nicole's eyes meeting hers the way they have thousands of times; but with Waverly feeling out of place, and a ring glinting on Nicole's wedding finger.

Nedley opens the door of the archive room, leading them to the 1990s, pulling out three files. He looks at Dolls's face, then places them gently in Waverly's arms. Waverly pulls the heavy stacks of paper against her chest, looking to Nedley's eyes.

"I just got this feeling you need those." Nedley pauses, looking embarrassed. "Call it cop instinct." He finishes in a gruff mumble.

 

 

In early June, Dolls drives them out past the edge of Purgatory to a cluster of low warehouses. The evening is warm and there's still strong light in the air at seven o'clock when the SUV sweeps off the main road and rumbles quietly down uneven paving. The buildings are surrounded by parched scrubland; the land is a flat valley and the mountains are jagged teeth out behind them. The warehouses are quiet, completely abandoned, but not crumbling; windows in place, structures intact, as if some strange event forced all the occupants out in a rush. The only signs of decay are the thick layers of dust over the windows and the fading paint of the doors. Dolls parks the SUV neatly, despite the absence of any other vehicles, and steps silently out of the driver's seat, walking towards the smallest warehouse.

Wynonna looks over at Waverly in the backseat, eyebrows raised. "Mysterious, much?"

"Maybe he's throwing us a really early surprise birthday party."

Wynonna scoffs. "This is Dolls, sis. More likely that he's engineered some secret conference with covert ops experts, and this is our punishment for refusing to send 'Cute Butt' into retirement."

"You don't know. It could be a party."

Waverly hops out of the backseat, waiting for Wynonna before walking after Dolls. Dolls raises a hand and locks the SUV without turning back, pulling another key from his pocket and opening the warehouse door. Wynonna speeds up her walk to catch Waverly's quick strides. Dolls waits for them both before pushing open the door; a deep inviting gesture and a crooked grin on his face. Wynonna signals for Waverly to go in first, then steps behind her.

The outside of the warehouse is dirty still but the inside is immaculate, an almost discomfiting reversal; the only evidence of the outside the choked light that is trying to push through the high windows into the building. Waverly looks around in the gentle light, stunned. At one end of the building is her research, the contents of three cork boards neatly transferred from the war room onto one new, enormous, expensive-looking board. There's also a Perspex board on wheels, blank and expectant. There's a bookcase with files and books neatly ordered. A new wood table with three chairs and lamps.

In the middle of the space are a set of thick tatami mats. In the opposite corner to Waverly's research is a gun cabinet and a set of trunks. In the corner to the right of the entrance there's a couch, a small set of kitchen appliances, and three huge jars of Wynonna's snacks. Everything is neat, a strange echo of the homestead combined with the old Black Badge office, but everything clean and bright.

Wynonna is grinning. "Damn, it really is a surprise party."

Dolls is leaning against the wall to the right of the main door, watching their faces as they take in the vast space. Waverly looks to his eyes, lightness flooding her face, and her voice is a hushed pleasure. "You got all my research over here today." She looks back across the room, reads the order of familiar photos and the shape of labels quickly, turning back to Dolls.

Dolls keeps grinning. "Why do you think I bought Wynonna an all-day laser tag pass? I knew she'd drag you along."

"How did you get it all in the right order?"

Dolls raises one eyebrow; grin in place. "I have some skills, Waves."

Waverly puts a hand out to Dolls's arm, squeezing. She's walks over to the research board, and starts pulling out books from the shelf, flicking through pages.

Wynonna is looking longingly at the jars of snacks. Dolls walks over to them, opening one and pulling out a candy bar, lobbing it over to Wynonna in a smooth overarm arc.

Wynonna catches the candy, tearing into it and walking over to him.

"Dude, did you buy this? How?"

Dolls looks away from Wynonna to watch Waverly pulling out two files from the bookcase and take them to the table to read. He steps close to Wynonna and looks back into her face, speaking quietly.

"Nicole and Doc left you both a legacy. For Alice, too."

Wynonna looks up at him sharply. "What?"

"Nicole left eighty percent of everything she owned to Waverly, ten percent to your baby, and ten percent to charity. Nedley made a—" Dolls pauses, clears his throat. "—A posthumous award to Nicole for her service, which added another lump sum to that value. And Doc made—" Dolls looks away, pausing on the final word. "Doc made some kind of deal when he found out about Alice, cashing in a long overdue debt with the descendants of James Hallway."

Wynonna raises an eyebrow.

"The gold man. You know?" Dolls rolls his eyes. "Waverly literally spent a week talking about nothing else when she found out Doc knew him. You really don't remember?"

"Oh!" Wynonna's face brightens. "Slimey Jim!"

Dolls nods, a small smile at his lips. "Yeah."

"But what debt? I thought Doc knew James from Mariposa in, like, '85? Didn't he back Doc in a poker game against Frederick Banart?"

"Yeah, but what Doc didn't tell you was that that backing was gold reserves James stole from prospectors in the 50s. Doc convinced Jim to reform, told him to invest the gold into something worthwhile, and he could keep any profits and Doc wouldn't make the theft known. Jim put his wealth into a school for orphans. He was able to run for Mayor on that platform, and wrote a legacy to Doc, but John Henry Holliday was reported dead before James died. I helped Doc locate the original will in an archive in early December, and he went looking for James's descendants—"

Wynonna opens her mouth, surprise forcing the words out in a rush. "You went on some kind of mission together without telling me? Something for my child, and you didn't even tell me?" She hits Dolls's arm lightly. Waverly looks up from the research corner, checks that there's no raised voices to accompany the slap of Wynonna's palm on Doll's skin; returns to the papers.

"Not cool, dude."

Dolls takes her hand from where it rests on his arm, squeezing it lightly. "Would you really have wanted to know? Doc wasn't sure he could convince Jim's family that he was Doc Holliday's great-great-grandson, and that he deserved the original legacy. It could have all been for nothing."

"How did he convince them?"

Dolls looks away. "He took a picture of you and Waverly with him. Showed them Wyatt Earp's descendants. Told them you two were the best people he knew, and that you were going to have his child. Asked them to honor the memory of Wyatt Earp and what John Henry had done for James a hundred and thirty years ago."

Wynonna looks over at Waverly, unable to meet Dolls's eyes. "Is this what he wanted with the money? And Nicole, too?"

Dolls takes Wynonna's other hand into his, too. "They must have discussed it, because they wrote the exact same stipulations in their wills. One, that you and Waverly were the primary recipients of their respective estates. Two, that, in the event of their death, I was to do what needed to be done to use their money to support your long-term interests and happiness. They meant doing whatever it took to give you the best shot of breaking the curse."

Wynonna looks back at Dolls's face. "Waverly doesn't know any of this."

Dolls nods. "You can be the one to tell her." He checks his watch. "You might want to wait until later, though, because she's going to need to focus right now."

Wynonna raises an eyebrow, already turning to follow the sound of the main door opening gently and a small figure coming through it, carrying a bulky bag.

"What's this?"

"You're going to learn judo. Properly."

"I already know judo."

"You know bits of it. You don't understand the main principles, though, and this isn't just about you." Dolls looks over to where Waverly is sitting at the desk, looking up with curiosity at the person walking over to her. Dolls looks back at Wynonna. "Waverly is tiny."

Wynonna rolls her eyes. "Yeah, duh."

"Judo is her best chance of disarming revenants twice or three times her size. You'll see."

Wynonna looks back at the woman who has taken a seat next to Waverly and is gesturing calmly and fluidly with her hands; Waverly's face captivated in interest.

 

 

Christine has the three of them put on the judogis she pulls out from the canvas bag that's almost the size of her own body, lifting out the smaller, crisp and stiff white suits from their new plastic and handing them over, then taking out two softer-looking judogis and handing one to Dolls. She passes a white belt each to Wynonna and Waverly, and then produces a black belt for Dolls, and a red belt for herself. Wynonna looks at the stream of fabric that comes out of Christine's bag, then looks again at Christine.

"Christine, please tell me that your belt means you can kick Cute Butt's cute butt."

Christine is smiling, but quizzically looks at Dolls before looking back to Wynonna. "Do you mean Xavier?"

Waverly laughs. "Yeah, that's what we call him now." Christine raises her eyebrows. "Not always, just, like. It's our code name for him." Waverly looks embarrassed.

Dolls clears his throat. "The Earps have an unconventional style, Christine." He starts to lead them towards the two changing and showering spaces he's installed through a door beside the weaponry corner.

He gestures Wynonna and Waverly in front of them, then hangs back behind Christine to speak softly to her out of their ear shot. "It helped them when they were deep in the middle of it." Christine looks at him quickly, nods once. "They couldn't use the old ones because Waverly's name reminded her too much about Nicole and Doc and Rosita."

Christine glances ahead to see Wynonna and Waverly safely going through the door. "What was it?"

"Angel Pants."

Christine winces, touching Dolls's arm and squeezing it. She follows Waverly and Wynonna into the changing room, seeing Wynonna holding up the judogi with interest.

"I love it, Christine, but I feel like mine should be in black, not white. Maybe with a cool logo or something on the back? The outline of Peacemaker maybe."

Christine laughs.

"Seriously, though, you can kick Dolls's ass, right? I know he said you'd known each other for years, since before the military, and we can trust you with our lives, blah-de-blah; we totally get it, you're super cool." Wynonna grins at Christine. "But like. You can beat him, yeah?"

Christine is still smiling. "Yeah, Wynonna. I can beat him. We last fought at his black belt grading."

Wynonna fist pumps, then grows serious. "Tell us everything. Immediately. Please."

Waverly interrupts. "Wait, though, so, red is better than black? I thought black was the best one."

Christine looks at Waverly, starting to pull off her clothes to put on the judogi, gesturing to them to do the same. "Black belt is the highest grade, but it has its own grade, dan, separate from the other colors, and Dolls is a first dan black belt. You have to fight everyone on the mat as part of black belt grading, so he had to fight five black belts to get his, as well as beat twelve color graded judoka, too."

Waverly picks up Christine's red belt, stroking its thick, worn fabric. Her voice is an awed hush. "And what's red mean?"

"Red is reserved only for ninth dan and above."

Wynonna lets out a low whistle. "Damn, Christine. How high do the dans go?"

"In principle? There's no limit."

Waverly hands the belt back to Christine, suddenly unsure if she's supposed to touch it. "Yeah, but, like. In practice?"

"Ten dans. Sixteen people have been awarded tenth dan by the Kodokan."

"Fuck, Christine. You're coming everywhere with us, now. I hope you realize that."

Waverly is standing still, her judogi pants and jacket on, jacket loose over her white tank top, staring at Christine. "But." She looks Christine in the eyes. "Dolls's arms are the size of your legs. My legs." Waverly looks down at her body. "How?"

Christine smiles, tugging her belt into its neat knot, then stepping close to Waverly. She takes the unyielding white belt in her hands, massaging it back and forth to loosen it, then steps around to behind Waverly. She passes her hands around Waverly's waist, pulls her jacket closed, then presses the belt's middle flat against her stomach. She winds the equal lengths around her waist twice, so that the ends come out at Waverly's front again, then makes Waverly hold the ends while Christine shows her with her hands how to complete the knot. As she finishes, she steps back in front of Waverly, and gently rests a hand on her forearm.

"Waverly, do you know what 'judo' means?"

Waverly looks nervous; unsure. "No?"

Christine looks over to Wynonna, who's holding her own belt, looking between it and Waverly's neat knot, confused.

"Um, does it mean 'how to kick ass while looking really good'?"

Christine laughs. "No. It means 'the gentle way'. Judo isn't about hurting your opponent. It's about disarming them. But you know the really cool part?" Waverly is staring at her, looking hopeful.

"The really cool part is that judo is about efficiency. The reason that it's possible for me—" Christine gestures down her body, "—to beat Dolls is that Dolls's body can be used against him." She fixes her gaze into Waverly's eyes. "Anyone's can, Waverly. If you can figure out where someone is moving their weight—if you can learn how to feel their momentum—all you need to be able to do is let them keep moving. Do you see?" She glances to Wynonna. "Do you both understand? The principle is that you let the person do what they want. You make your move an extension of what they were already doing." She looks back at Waverly. "You adapt your body to where they're going, and you let them make their own fall. You just lead them to it."

Christine turns to Wynonna, helping her put her belt on. "I'll show you how, don't worry."

 

Out on the thick mats, Christine won't let them do anything until she's happy that they understand how to breakfall. It's a short lesson; Wynonna can already do it, she just needs to understand how to dissipate energy with a slap of her arm. Waverly can cartwheel and somersault neatly, and it's a short step from there to a full breakfall. Christine has them do it properly while she and Dolls throw them lightly from a variety of positions, and then she gets them to stand a short distance away while she demonstrates on Dolls.

"Ok, now that you can safely fall, I'm going to show you a main principle of how this works."

She abruptly takes hold of Dolls's head, one hand either side, reaching up and over to pull it down towards her. She waves it around smoothly, Dolls's hands a brief flap, surprised.

"Three things. First of all, you're never going to grab someone's head like this in a sanctioned judo fight, ok?" She looks at Wynonna, narrowing her eyes. "If you needed to outside of the dojo, fair enough. Here? Only grips on the judogi, please."

Christine lets Dolls's head come to a gentle stop in front of her. "Second: surprise. Dolls wasn't expecting me to grab his head. Learning how to hide what your body is about to do is half the battle. Three: humans are scared of hurting their heads. If you have control of the head, the body is going to follow."

Christine steps in, taps Dolls on his arm to signal him to begin moving, her hands finding his lapels in seconds. When Dolls takes a step towards her, she pulls his upper body down with a deep motion, twisting and dropping all her weight, hands on his upper lapels, falling to her knees and throwing Dolls over her back. He lands with an enormous, echoing smack on the mats.

Wynonna immediately whoops, starting to clap. Waverly looks at Dolls, who is standing up with a rueful look on his face. "Did it hurt?"

He smiles at Waverly. "Not at all. A bit winding, but it doesn't hurt."

Christine smiles at her. "Gentle, remember? Remember the point of the arm slap in the breakfall—the slap's noise releases some of the energy of the throw itself. And the throw doesn't block the direction of momentum; it just allows momentum to complete its full motion."

Waverly nods, hands fiddling at the ends of her belt.

 

 

At the summer solstice, Wynonna holds a party for them all, a shambling disorganized event that mainly involves an all-night drinking party around a bonfire in the scrub at the back of the homestead. She starts planning the booze a week before, greeting Waverly's accusing look with the complaint that she's been drinking a solitary bourbon and a single beer each week since January. Waverly rolls her eyes and lets her continue to gather up a collection of liquor bottles on the kitchen table.

Nedley arrives with Chrissy, and Dolls comes half an hour after, dusk finally settling in, when Wynonna has already stacked up all the wood and is restlessly pacing around it, desperate to start the fire. She hears his SUV and her head responds immediately, her body a meerkat's call to attention. She whips her body around to see Dolls stepping out of the driver's side, and yells. "Butt, hurry up!"

Waverly can see Dolls rolling his eyes from twenty feet away in the dim light, his body in resigned amusement. Nedley's gruff voice floats across from the other side of the unlit bonfire.

"Butt?"

Waverly smiles at him. "Cute Butt is his full title."

Chrissy laughs. "He does have a cute butt."

Nedley frowns, bemused. "You use that name in public?"

Wynonna sighs, mock frustration on her face. "He needs to be punished. We only use it among revenants who are soon to be gone, and friends." She looks away from Nedley's face, quick.

Nedley is smiling, happy. He mutters, "Friends," then he looks over to Waverly. "What are your names?"

Waverly beams. "I'm Unicorn Sparkles and this—" Waverly gestures at Wynonna with a flourish of her arm and a slight bow. "This is Tasty Taco." Wynonna winks and salutes Nedley.

 

 

Christine walks silently around the perimeter of the mats while Wynonna stands, watching Dolls and Waverly engaged in groundwork in the middle of the space. Wynonna watches the way that Christine walks, trying to imprint the quiet motion in her brain. She looks back to where Dolls is letting Waverly practice grips on the thick lapels of his judogi.

Christine's voice is gentle, a soft calming drift. "Good, Waverly, you've got it. Now try to take that same grip faster. Dolls, shift your weight different ways for Waverly, so she can try to read where your balance is."

Wynonna watches Dolls move his kneeling weight from his left knee to his right, arms attached in a grip on Waverly's lapels, his mass a thick sweep from side to side and back and forward as he varies his direction. Waverly's fists are a grip on his lapels, knuckles white. Wynonna can feel the determination in her body, watching it from behind. She hears Christine speaking to her left. "Good, Waverly, now do it when you feel the opportunity."

Wynonna watches as Dolls moves his weight forwards into Waverly, and Waverly's limbs coordinate at once. She suddenly pushes her legs forward under her body, neatly dropping onto her back in front of Dolls, arms still grasping his lapels, tucking herself into the space. There's resistance and a moment of locked stasis before Waverly manages to follow Dolls's momentum fully, using her arms to pull him to the ground on her left, using her right foot to push his left knee out and back out from under him. Dolls's body twists and hits the ground next to Waverly on his back with an awkward smack, and then Christine is speaking again. "Good, Waverly."

Waverly grins over at Wynonna, and Wynonna gives her a dizzy thumbs-up and a returning grin.

"Wynonna. Your turn. With Waverly—let's move to standing work."

Wynonna slaps Dolls on his ass as she passes him. "Good job, Cute Butt." She sees Christine smiling in the corner of her vision, and she bounces on her feet a few times before getting close to Waverly, hands up and ready to search for a grip. Waverly is still grinning at her, happy.

"Ok, randori, two minutes. Dolls tells me that you two have fought each other a lot, so you should be able to go all out. Proper techniques always, please. That's my only rule. No dropping each other in a throw without making sure you've properly followed through and protected the other person's head."

Wynonna puts her hands down to turn to Christine, affront on her face. "Dude, I would never. She's my Waverly."

Waverly keeps grinning, strands of hair at her forehead damp and tangled from groundwork, cheeks flushed. She can feel a shift in the mats; almost dizzying, but not tilted, like her feet are under her body but also facing the other way. She shakes her head a little to clear it, her smile fading into concentration as Wynonna steps forward, lunging her right arm out to try to grasp Waverly's lapel. Waverly dances back, moving them both in a circle, blocking Wynonna's hands with twists of her body and her own reaches to Wynonna's lapels. Wynonna makes contact first, her left hand crossing over and bunching Waverly's left lapel, her body turned away as she tries to read Waverly's shifting weight.

Waverly moves into Wynonna's grab, reaching her right arm over the top of Wynonna's and grabbing Wynonna's own left lapel. Their arms make a flexed bridge between their bodies, locking them into an even distance apart as they move around the mats, trying to find the moment of imbalance. Waverly makes low sweeping steps with her feet, making sure she's ready for the minute pull and expectant pause before Wynonna gathers her body into a throw.

She feels Wynonna start to push her backwards, feels the slant in Wynonna's body and the coil of combined movements. Waverly can't read the motion; Wynonna is feinting slightly and the direction of her movement is lost. She closes her eyes, trying to feel rather than see.

The ground shifts and rights itself in a tiny gaping moment, and Waverly's body is suddenly where Wynonna's is. She feels her own hands; feels Wynonna's. Her body is suddenly more tired; her lungs hurting against her ribs, and she opens her eyes, her own face flashing before her for a second. She closes her eyes again, knows where Wynonna's body will move before it does, and is ready when Wynonna continues moving forward, her extended leg reaching to try to sweep behind Waverly's legs and push her to the ground.

Waverly lets Wynonna's weight move forward and, rather than resisting, she commits to the same direction, mimicking the same drop of her body she used against Dolls. She drags Wynonna's lapels down with her as she puts one foot up against Wynonna's stomach, using her leg as a ballast, dropping her whole momentum down and onto her back, pulling her arms over her head and propelling Wynonna's body over her own. Wynonna flips over Waverly's body in a circle, legs flying over her head, and she lands on her back with a deep smack, her head a few feet from Waverly's, safely raised above the mat by Waverly's release, their bodies facing opposite directions.

Waverly leaps to her feet, yelling. "Aw, yeah!" She dances over to Dolls, reaching for a high five, then over to Christine, to grab her in a hug. "Ippon, right?"

Christine smiles. "Yes. Good job, Waverly."

Wynonna, slightly winded, dizzied, sits up. Grins at Waverly. "Get it, girl."

 

 

At the height of summer, Wynonna finally finishes the tiny dark blue sweater. Waverly tucks the letter, without any names written in it, inside a plain envelope, and wraps both in light blue tissue paper and a silk ribbon, then two layers of brown wrapping paper, leaving the outside blank. She drives out past the Ghost River triangle, pulling in to park at a cutting by the road ten miles from the perimeter. She has the package in a backpack, and steps out of the Jeep, ready in light leggings and a loose t-shirt; pack fastened over her shoulders; cap on her head. She starts running, taking the four miles out through the woods and past two abandoned farms. She stops in an empty field, waits for the helicopter, its whirred arrival pulling her back six months to another field, a deep cutting grief. As it casts a deep shadow over her, she sees the inside of the homestead, a small poured glass of bourbon; a solitary bastion against pain. She passes the package to Perry's assistant, turns, and starts running the four miles back to the Jeep.

 

 

In August, Waverly abruptly stops dreaming about Nicole. The absence of the dreams, no matter how awful the wrench of them, hits her like a double loss. She wakes in the mornings, the night a dark blank, body a hollow and empty place. She spends nearly two weeks remembering nothing about her dreams, every morning waking as if she's been dead herself, pulling herself from bed to immediately go to the dresser and rest a hand on top of Nicole's hat. The feel of the fabric soothing her.

Wynonna looks at her with concern every morning, noting the dark circles under her eyes, bringing her coffee with sugar and cream and sitting beside her quietly on the couch. Snuggling her body close, stroking Waverly's hair, a silent warm presence.

After twelve days, she starts to dream again; Nicole still gone, but the figure Waverly has been seeing for months and months stepping into her vision. A tiny woman, long white hair. Weathered, brown face, eyes bright, somehow beyond age. A pleasured smile, reaching out to take Waverly's face in her hands. Waverly wakes thinking of Christine, confused, wanting Wynonna. She walks sleepily to Wynonna's body in a flung-out star on her bed, tucks herself under the blanket and falls back asleep next to her sister.

She dreams again, and the woman is there, nameless but weirdly familiar, and Waverly silently follows her while they walk about in an empty field. Then she's somewhere else, lying on her back on a green hard surface; legs a throbbing pulse; body hurting in a way she's never felt before; and then she's back at the homestead and it's the night Willa and her father are lost, and she's small and terrified.

But the woman is there. Waverly feels again as though she's looking aslant at some answer. An itch at the back of her neck; a phantom pull in her head. She feels the woman's hand on her arm, and then there's a shuddering in her belly and she is the heir, a deep knowing in her bones and resigned grief in her chest. She is holding Peacemaker, the gun a cool anchor, not like when she held it in Shorty's and it was an angry burning weight in her hand. She looks around, back in the empty field. The burden a load that's pulling her down into the ground. Her chest a stenotic clamp, air gone and a suffocating wrench in its place like she's run a desperate mile.

She looks around, and then she's still the heir but Nicole is there, finally again. They're not in a field anymore, their bodies are lying parallel to one another, in Nicole's bed. There's a small space between them, and Nicole is deeply asleep, hair long and loose; a memory that's never happened. Waverly reaches out with a hand to tangle in Nicole's hair, and her eyes open, stepping away from sleep and smiling at Waverly's face. Waverly feels the muddled pull of a place that hasn't been, and then she reaches for Nicole, kissing her to stop the bed tilting and the world spinning backwards. Nicole's kiss is deep and familiar and Waverly moves her whole body against her, the warm skin of Nicole's stomach meeting her own, and then the bed angles in a lurch and she's no longer there; she's back in the field, alone; no gun, no Nicole, no one.

Waverly wakes up in her empty bed, skin a shiver in the morning heat, her neck slick with sweat. Knowing. She feels the bottomless weight of Peacemaker in her hand, remembering the way it felt to see herself from Wynonna's place, remembering Nicole from her dreams, seeing Doc raising his pistol. Thinking that she needs to make Wynonna understand, in some language other than spoken words.

 

 

Revenants number fifty-one and fifty-two stand ten feet in front of the crumbling barn, one at each corner of the barn's facing wall, looking across the bare field towards them. Two hundred meters at least in between the barn and where Waverly stands. Revenant fifty-three is approaching noisily from the break in the trees to the right; gaining ground; twenty meters away, swinging a whip from one hand and carrying a pistol in the other. Waverly takes in the spaces between each figure and takes one pace forwards, coming slightly in front of Dolls and Wynonna at her flanks, making a small triangle of their bodies. She speaks softly. "Three-point?"

Waverly glances to Dolls on her right, sees his small nod of agreement, then turns her eyes to Wynonna, who gives her own assent. Waverly orders her legs to tighten, then pushes through the ground to rush the revenant on the right-hand corner of the barn. She crosses in front of Dolls, running out at an angle. She can feel Wynonna making the same sprint start to her left, and then their paths are diverging; making a narrow angle to reach the two revenants across the field.

Wynonna counts in her head to focus away from the sear of her thighs and the deep pull in her hips as she takes fast, urgent steps. The field is silent but for the noise of her feet and the faint sound of Waverly's to her right, much softer than her own. She shifts her focus to the image of Waverly running, a light fleet figure, tries to make her body mimic the motion. Feels the warmth of the Indian summer on her back; her hair mercifully in the wind, the heat at her neck cooled by the breeze.

She hears a crack and a familiar grunt. Her body already slowing before she's taken in the sounds. The revenant still fifty meters away, Waverly running in her vision as she stops and twists to the right, looking behind. She sees Dolls taking a glancing punch to his jaw and the revenant using the whip to cut into Dolls's exposed forearm, the snap slicing into his skin. She sees Dolls push the revenant away while shooting into his lower abdomen; sees the revenant crouch to the ground and rise upwards, swinging a plank of wood, ancient debris from the farm. Sees the plank hitting Dolls under the chin as her body is already running. Dolls's body falling backwards, the revenant clutching his belly, staggering a little.

Then she must be screaming, because she can feel Waverly stopping and turning behind her and to her left; can feel her sister's body taking off from a stuttering start and sprinting back towards Dolls. She doesn't take her eyes from his still body in the field, everything in her sight narrowing around his body, a familiar horror.

Her vision widens again when Waverly comes into her periphery, catching up to her in a desperate run, then matching her pace so that they're running ten meters apart as they hit the halfway mark between the barn and Dolls. She can feel Waverly trying to gather enough air to yell, and she glances over to her; Waverly is looking between Dolls and Wynonna's face. She gives a faint pointing motion with her right arm; Wynonna looks to where she's gesturing and sees another revenant emerging behind Dolls and number fifty-three. Her lungs a collapsing balloon as she makes herself accelerate anyway, Waverly a few steps ahead of her.

Then Waverly is slowing incrementally to match her pace again, and she feels the break in the air before her sister shouts over to her. Throw. It.

She pulls Peacemaker from her hip, throwing it in a desperate flat jerk, trying not to let it twist in the air. She sees Waverly slow slightly to make sure she doesn't pass in front of the gun's arc; sees her hand reach out and grab it from the air. Sees Waverly's body turn and start to make a loop behind Wynonna; realizes that the revenants are no longer by the barn, but chasing close behind. Then she's trying to close the gap between her body and Dolls. Feeling her body flood with black, hurting anger at the thought of losing someone else.

She barrels into the revenant who is fumbling with his gun, trying to hold his stomach while reloading. Her momentum pushes the revenant back and away from Dolls, and she grapples for the lapels of his jacket as she pushes him over, making fists of the leather and absorbing the impact of his body hitting the ground by tucking her chin and flexing her forearms, not bothering to pull back at the last moment to protect his head. She looks up to see the other revenant raising his gun, and immediately pulls the revenant under her back up into a sitting position; using his body as a shield and letting the round fire into his back. The second revenant stops to reload, and she pushes the first one back down, unconscious from the bullets in his back. She twists her upper body to look back, sees Waverly has led the other two revenants in a chase closer to her, but not so close that they're a danger to Dolls's unconscious body.

Waverly is faster than anyone Wynonna knows, and she's made enough space to stop running and turn back towards the two revenants. She doesn't look over but Wynonna can still feel everything in Waverly turning towards her. She is completely still for a moment before she lifts the gun and then she's holding the pistol up in a level, steady drift of her arm. Wynonna can feel the restraint in the way that Waverly won't look over to her. Her body with the gun raised becomes entirely still again. Her eyes look down the barrel of the gun to where the revenants advance, her body as if quiescent for years, face a patient knowing.

Wynonna feels some fathomless wave that is her sister come into her body, and she's on the green felt of the pool table in Shorty's, her legs burning with effort and deep in her belly the vacated awful pain of birth. Her child is leaving again, going out of the door and being taken away, and she tries to pull herself to the now, the woods out at the edge of the field, her sister watching two figures getting closer, the body underneath hers. She hears a roaring in her ears and then she sees Nicole's face in front of her. The revenants are suddenly in her eye line, getting closer, and she grabs the revenant harder to try to ground herself, swaying a little to right her body. She shoves back against the revenant's sudden waking resistance, turning her upper body back to face him and blinking away the spiral of her vision. Closes her eyes. Tightens herself; thinks of nothing; thinks of Waverly. Holds Waverly inside her head and turns back towards her, seeing the revenants too close now, and tries to release every part of herself out across space to her sister; a desperate surrender.

Wynonna's voice rises, a clear furious shout that slices across the empty air between her and the gun.

"Goddamn do this for me, you piece-of-shit gun, or I swear we are over."

The gun fires twice in quick succession, Waverly's hand fast at the trigger, and both revenants lose their footing and begin to fall. She turns in one fast swing and fires into the revenant that's approaching Dolls's body; then looks at Wynonna in warning and fires a final shot into the revenant she is on top of in the same second that Wynonna rolls off his body and away to the side. Peacemaker is glowing and Waverly is standing. A look of some small revelation on her face. Eyes in another place, looking backwards; a cut across time.

 

 

Chapter Text

Michael stands on the beach. The air is warm and Californian; the sea is gray-blue, frothing onto the sand. The day is still, but the ocean's roar makes it hard to hear from more than a few feet away. He starts gesturing as he speaks, arms flinging out in wild directions. Jeremy's body stands in a composed line, making a slight lean towards Michael's words.

"And then you do this every single time! Can we not? It's so unpleasant. It's so human."

Jeremy twitches a little as Michael gets closer to the wooden rod sticking up out of the sand. His hands come out from behind his back, and Michael freezes.

"Jeremy, please. Can you just try to be quiet?"

Jeremy's mouth opens and then shuts. Michael takes a tiny shifting step forward in the sand, and his mouth opens again, a tiny crack Michael watches with narrowed eyes.

"Jeremy." Michael's voice is a high-pitched plea. "How about turning around? Why don't we try that? Or—" Michael takes a step backwards, unknotting his bow tie. "Here." He holds the material out to Jeremy. "Put this over your eyes."

Jeremy takes the silk bow tie, bunching it into a mass, holding it up to his eyes. He stands incredibly still with it blocking his vision.

"Jeremy. Tie it. Wrap it over your eyes and tie it at the back. Like a blindfold."

"Oh. Oh!" Jeremy unfolds the scrunched material and places it over his eyes, tying a knot at the back of his head.

Michael takes a noisy inward breath. "Okay. Just stay really, really still, okay? I'm not moving."

While the last word is leaving his mouth, Michael takes a small step forwards, his hand a slow creep towards the button mounted on the top of the stick between them. Jeremy starts screaming. Michael judders back, frowning.

"Jeremy! For the love of everything bad in this world, can you just—try?"

Jeremy smiles, apologetic. "I'm sorry, Michael. It's the programming. You know I can't override it. I have to make it hard for you, so that you're sure this is what you want."

Michael grits his teeth. "It's just—I thought the number of reboots you've had might have increased all your skills, not just your social abilities." He sighs. "Apparently not. Apparently you are still as much of a stickler for the rules as ever."

Jeremy smiles. "I like rules."

"I know." Michael walks forward in a rush, cringing while he reaches for the button.

"Please, no, Michael, no! Don't kill me, please, please, I am begging you—"

Michael turns his face away to depress the button, shoulders hunched as Jeremy falls forward, unconscious, his body a ramrod, deathly still and fixed, his arms at his side, face in the sand. Michael looks back to Jeremy, shoulders relaxing. His face troubled.

The waves stop breaking on the sand for a moment and the sea becomes completely static, locked with the water stuck in its unfurling crest. Out onto the silent beach, a tiny, human noise breaks from behind an outcrop of black rocks. Michael twists his head, locating the small sound before the ocean begins roaring again, waves crashing onto the beach. He walks towards the rocks, long heavy strides silenced by the noise of the sea.

Behind the rocks, Doc and Nicole are lying flat on their stomachs, hidden from view. Michael's head comes over the top of the rocks, and he's met with two faces looking up at him, identical in defiant frustration.

"Nicole. John Henry. I should have expected this, honestly." Michael sighs. "I assume you saw everything?"

Doc pushes himself to a standing position, fists clenching and hat lying on the ground beside where he had been positioned. He pulls himself up to full height, glaring at Michael.

"What have you done to Jeremy? Is he alright?" Doc looks past Michael's body to Jeremy's still figure, and then steps nearer to Michael, bringing their faces close. "If you have hurt him, you will be meeting my fists."

Nicole stands up, brushing sand from the front of her jeans. "Doc." She places a hand on his arm. "He can't kill Jeremy. Right, Michael?"

Michael glances away, then back. "Well, not in a human way."

Doc pulls back a fist; Nicole takes a grip of his forearm; Jeremy stands up on the sand behind Michael, calling a bright Hello! to a seagull that has landed on the sand five feet from him. Doc pushes past Michael, walking towards Jeremy.

"Jeremy, are you harmed?"

Jeremy turns towards Doc. "Hi! No, I am perfect!" Jeremy produces a feather duster from the air, reaching out with it to tickle Doc's face. Doc's nose twitches and he ducks away from the feathers.

Nicole frowns. "Is he really okay? What did you do to him?" She watches as Jeremy picks up a handful of sand and starts eating it. She turns to meet Michael's eyes. "Why is he eating sand?"

Michael sighs. "He needed to be rebooted, okay?"

Nicole squints, mind a flash to sitting in Michael's office, body objecting, a weird dislocation of time. She watches Doc chase after Jeremy, who's about to run into the sea. "Why, because we figured it out?"

Michael turns to Nicole sharply. His breath a seething rush between his teeth. He rolls his eyes. "Oh, why not?" He looks out to the sea. Nicole watches his face, her body seizing into a strong desire to start running. In her mind, she suddenly, abruptly, sees something being pulled out of reach and out of sight. Michael's voice breaks through the weird lull in her hearing, and she grounds herself on it.

"One day. Apparently not attempt number forty-six, but one day."

"What?"

Michael turns back to her, looking away from the ocean. "Sorry, Nicole."

Nicole feels her lungs fill with air, her throat constricting, her mouth opening to speak. The sea turns black, and Doc and Jeremy disappear, replaced by a rushing void. Nicole's curse falls into a disappearing space and then she loses time completely.

 

 

"Anyhow, that's the full story, and why you're here." Michael fidgets a little in his chair. "I'm sure you have more questions, but—there's something else, too."

Nicole fights against the flood of new information, her head feeling as though it's being badly massaged and her body a throbbing ache, all wrong. Michael keeps speaking into the silence, Doc rubbing his mustache; Rosita's crossed legs jangling up and down. Nicole tries to focus on the edge of the desk in front of her, squinting a little to check the room isn't swaying.

"One of the great things about the good place is that you will have your soulmate here."

Nicole's head jerks up, her eyes pulled towards Michael's. Her voice is a strained rasp. "What?" Her hand goes to her forearm, the healed-over scar a faint line, the disconnect between what her skin has done and the amnesic flush of how long she's been here making her feel seasick.

Michael fiddles with his bow tie, fingers a dance. "Waverly won't be here yet, Nicole, but she knows about where you are."

Nicole frowns, a sudden headache spreading from her temples and behind her eyes, vision hurting. "I have to wait—until—"

Michael's hands still. "No, we will work with time; it won't feel that long, I promise." His eyes stare steadily into Nicole's face.

Rosita clears her throat. Michael looks away from Nicole's face and over to Rosita as she speaks. "And Wynonna, too?"

Michael's eyes widen, and he looks at Rosita for a beat before answering. "Wynonna will be here, yes."

Doc's voice is a choked drawl. "And, we are all to—we all have the one soulmate?"

Michael's eyes flicker between Doc's and Nicole's faces. "Well, not exactly, actually. There's some kinks in the system."

Doc shifts in his seat. "How so?"

"Some people are, shall we say, complex. Doc, it seems you may have more than one soulmate." Doc frowns; Nicole watches his face cloud over. "Wynonna, too." Nicole puts out a hand, taking Doc's in her own.

Michael stands up, a sudden springing motion, leaving his desk chair twirling in a useless spin. "Doc, why don't I introduce you to one of your soulmates?"

Nicole feels Doc's hand tighten in hers. Michael clicks his fingers with a twisting flick of his wrist. "This is—Jeremy."

Jeremy appears beside Michael's desk, his hands clasped in front of his body. Doc is completely still; Nicole can feel the contraction of the muscles in his thigh under her hand.

"Hi!" Jeremy's suit jacket is on backwards. "I'm Jeremy."

Doc looks at Jeremy; looks back at Michael. "This is—my soulmate?"

Michael beams.

 

 

Rosita reaches over the bar to pull down a bottle of tequila, then over and under it to pull out two glasses. She pours several glugs into each, pushing one over to Nicole. Nicole tips her head back and takes the entire drink in one. Rosita raises an eyebrow, immediately pouring out another measure into the glass, resting the bottle carefully on the bar. She hops onto the chair next to Nicole, twisting her head to look across the empty bar to where Doc is showing Jeremy how to hold a pool cue. She rubs at the back of her neck, extending her chin and releasing the vertebrae in a quiet click. Nicole takes a sip of her refilled glass.

"That was really weird, right?"

Rosita looks over at her. "Totally." She tips more tequila into her glass. "I'm glad there's alcohol here."

"At least it seems like Doc might have a soulmate who's an immortal being. And also possibly a computer program. It adds a new special dimension to his relationship with Wikipedia."

Rosita snorts gently, smiling. "He does love 'the Wikipedia'."

Nicole glances over her shoulder to see where Doc is removing Jeremy's suit jacket, placing it carefully on the back of a chair, then gesturing with his hands and pointing at the pool table. He comes to stand behind Jeremy, reaching around to gently guide the cue, his hands resting on top of Jeremy's.

"That other stuff, though." Nicole looks back at Rosita's face. "Don't get me wrong, okay? I am really, really glad you're both here."

Rosita's smile becomes a small, despairing thing. "But."

Nicole puts a hand out, covering Rosita's with it. "Yeah. But."

Rosita glances over her shoulder, finishing her drink, and lowering her voice. "I was really, heavily under the impression that revenants only went to one place, yeah? That was pretty much the deal."

Nicole chews a little on her lower lip, trying to meet Rosita's eyes. "So—you've never heard of anything... bucking the trend?"

Rosita shakes her head abruptly, her high ponytail flicking in the wake of the forceful gesture. "Never."

"It just seems... strange, you know?"

"Very strange." Rosita's eyes flicker over to her. "And the deal with you having to wait for Waverly."

Nicole's eyes flit over to Rosita's. She can see her own grief reflecting back at her. "Yeah." Her voice is soft, a slowly clenching fist around fabric. "Did... When you left them, was it bad?"

Nicole can see the heavy swallow Rosita makes; her eyes catch on the fragile bob at Rosita's throat. She waits in silence.

"It was—it wasn't good." Nicole looks away as a muscle flutters in Rosita's jaw against the strain of her teeth grinding together. "The baby—Doc said the baby must be safe, because otherwise—" Rosita pauses, swallows again, "—she'd be here, right? And they must have both made it. Wynonna and Waverly." Nicole nods, rubbing at her eyes, trying not to let the tears fall, allowing Rosita to continue. "Waverly." Nicole looks up, meets Rosita's eyes. "Waverly wasn't so good."

"Tell me."

The fingers of Rosita's right hand start a stammering tempo on the mahogany. She gently drags her left hand out from under Nicole's, pulling the tequila close again, pouring herself another measure, throwing it back in one gulp, then reaching her hand out to take Nicole's hand back. She turns to look at Nicole's eyes, trying to focus on them.

"She punched Champ Hardy. Broke his nose. He had two black eyes when I saw him two days after. It completely wiped the smug smile from his face, I'll tell you that."

Nicole tries to suppress the humorless laugh that wants to erupt from her closed mouth. She raises an eyebrow. "Really?"

"Yeah. He made the mistake of saying your name to Waverly at your wake."

Nicole's laugh collapses in her chest, threatening to become a sob. Her voice is a painful exhale. "My wake."

Rosita takes a firmer hold of her hand. "Wynonna and Dolls and Nedley organized it. Doc told me—he watched Waverly the whole time. Nedley was watching, too. Wynonna made sure she didn't drink too much. Nedley wouldn't let Waverly move too far away from him before he'd stand up and make sure he was close enough to be there if she needed him."

Nicole feels a smile on her lips and a harrowed vacancy in her chest. Her voice will barely come. "But, she was—she was coping?"

Rosita inhales deeply. "Wynonna was taking care of her." She looks Nicole straight in her eyes, her face a smooth affirmation. "She and Doc saved Wynonna's baby. I think that would have helped her, in some way."

Nicole keeps a firm grip on Rosita's hand. "Yeah."

Behind Nicole, the pool ball makes a deep smack against wood that resonates out into the room and is followed by the sound of the ball hitting the floor, rolling madly away under the bar. Rosita and Nicole turn around as one to see Jeremy standing, holding the cue, watching the ball's trajectory, a confused look on his face.

"Oops." Jeremy turns to Doc. "I can't seem to get this, Doc. My limbs are all behaving weird. Like they're akimbo."

Doc gives a sad, slow smile. Nicole meets his eyes. He tucks the loose strands of hair behind his ears, keeping her gaze. Nicole slips off the bar stool, falling into a crouch to pick the ball up from where it's reached a stop. She walks over to Jeremy, holding the ball out. "Here."

"Thank you." Jeremy is smiling; a deep, wide smile. He looks at Nicole's face. "You're sad."

Nicole startles, looking to Doc's face, then back to Jeremy's. Jeremy also turns to Doc. "So are you." He looks over to where Rosita has come off her own bar stool to stand a little behind Nicole. "And you."

Jeremy looks back at Nicole. "You're all really, really sad." His voice is still light, but much softer; some confused catch at the back of his throat. "Can I help you?"

Doc steps closer to Jeremy, taking the ball from his hand and gently releasing it onto the table. "Well, Jeremy, you are a sweetheart."

Jeremy beams at Doc. "I think I love you, John Henry."

Doc's smile is a slow, sad curve. "And I do appreciate it."

Nicole puts a hand out to halt the ball that's still moving on the table. "Jeremy, maybe you can help us."

"Anything." Jeremy is still smiling.

"We're—we don't really understand this place."

"This is the good place."

"Yeah, we know; Michael told us that. He also told us why we're all here, together, but—"

Doc interrupts. "But Rosita and I should surely not be here, and Waverly and Wynonna surely should."

Jeremy looks to Doc, his brow wrinkled, eyes wide. "I—"

Nicole leans against the table, her legs suddenly shaky and tired. She starts speaking before she knows what she's saying, the words falling out of her mouth unbidden. "Jeremy, I feel as though I've been here forever."

Jeremy's frown deepens. "You've been here as long as me."

The ground feels suddenly soft under Nicole's feet, as if her legs have fallen an inch, and will buckle completely. Jeremy steps over to the chair his jacket is resting over. "Hang on, let me put this back on. I should be properly dressed to help you."

Jeremy lifts his jacket, opening it out like a cape to draw it around his body. The inside is a dark blue silk, a flash of white. Nicole steps towards Jeremy.

"Wait." Jeremy pauses, jacket open, arms up and half into the sleeves. She reaches into the inside pocket, fishing out a piece of paper. "What's this?" She looks up. "Jeremy, may I read this, please?"

Jeremy is frowning. "Yes. I don't understand why that would be here. My clothes should be empty of everything except me." He starts patting down his clothes, turning his pants pockets inside out.

Nicole unfolds the note; reads it. Passes it silently to Doc, watching him read it and pass it to Rosita. Feeling as though the ground is dropping again, taking her with it.

 

 

Nicole steps out of the house, alone, leaving Doc and Rosita at the kitchen table, Jeremy hovering, unable to sit down. She walks out in the general direction of the center of the town, at a slight angle, picking a road she didn't see the day before. Her legs feel as though they're on a deliberate track; she surrenders to their angle and tries to ignore the shoot of a pain that unwinds down her left leg in a sharp ribbon.

She finds the edge of the town center, the buildings easing away, the sun low on its rise. The landscape extending to the horizon. She listens to her legs, keeps walking until she comes to a stop. She stares at a low, circular mound of dirt. A weird lumpish hill. The back of her neck prickles, her leg a throb. Nicole stares at the ground. She turns and sits on it, pulling out the note from her jeans pocket before she does, unfolding and staring at her own writing. She runs a finger over the words, trying to locate herself, thinking about time.

She tries to empty out her brain entirely. She remembers Doc's words, half a life ago, Sight ain't your only sense. She shuts her eyes tightly, frowning with the effort. She pushes back against the immediate image of Waverly that appears before her, taking a deep breath and picturing blackness instead. The ground feels as though it's wildly bucking, and she puts out both hands to hold on to the earth. Her eyes open suddenly, and she stands to walk back to the house. Back to Jeremy; where the note belongs.

 

 

Nicole strides into Michael's office, pushing open the door with a shove, cutting up the space between the door and where Michael is sitting, looking at papers spread over his desk.

"Nicole, hello." Michael's eyes are wary, roaming over her face.

"Michael." Nicole sits down in the chair opposite. "We need to talk."

Michael blows all the air out of his lungs in one low stream, his cheeks rounding out. "Of course we do." He spins his chair in a slow circle, once, coming to a stop facing Nicole again. "Of course we do."

Nicole opens her mouth, and Michael puts up his hand. "Look, let's just get this over with, okay? Yes, you're in the bad place; no, you aren't supposed to be in the bad place; yes, obviously Waverly would be here if it was the good place; yes, I can reset your memory; yes, you've been here for several months; no, Jeremy doesn't know. What else? Oh, yeah, Jeremy can be reset, and that is why he's a weird hybrid right now of a super capable human and also a newborn baby." Michael strokes his chin. "Also, possibly, why he's growing strange new social skills."

Nicole opens her mouth again. Michael speaks before she can. "Yes. I know. I didn't make it up; Jeremy is actually, truly, potentially one of Doc's soulmates. The science is... unclear. But Doc is definitely Jeremy's soulmate, which is a whole other thing that I do not have the will to explain right now."

"What about Rosita's soulmate? Why doesn't she have one?"

"Rosita is—was a revenant. They don't get soulmates."

Nicole gives a small huff, looking away. "I don't believe you." She looks back at Michael. "If Rosita isn't in revenant hell, that means she's better than you think she is. And she should have one, too."

Michael shrugs. "Whatever. You and Doc and Rosita are just your own special little team, aren't you? She doesn't need more than that. You're like the three musketeers." He shakes his head. "But worse. You seem to be evolving."

"What?"

"Yeah." Michael's exhale is a frustrated, loud rush of air. "When you first got here I had days—whole days!—in a row when you hadn't figured it out."

Nicole clenches a fist, the burn in her left leg a smoldering fire, threatening to deafen her reason and make her punch Michael in the face.

He narrows his eyes at her. "You're getting worse. Every time I wipe your memories, it's like you come back stronger. Even more the terrible threesome; made of wile and plots."

"Wait. Why are we here, though?"

Michael sighs. "Bargains."

Nicole frowns; Michael looks out the window, his brow creased.

"You and Doc Holliday made bargains. You dumb, caring humans. Both of you."

Nicole starts to speak, and Michael carries on. "Aren't you curious about the small dirt hill, though, Nicole?"

"How did you know I'd seen it?"

"Oh, I followed you."

Nicole frowns. "You what?"

"I can be very sneaky when I try."

Nicole rolls her eyes. "I bet. So, yeah, okay. What was that hill?"

"It used to be a sinkhole. That appeared right when I got you, while I was preparing this place." Nicole frowns. Michael ignores it, continuing. "And then, it started filling in. And now it's a big terrible-looking dirt hill." He glares at Nicole. "Honestly, Nicole. You fix stuff."

Michael sighs again, standing up from his chair. Nicole instinctively stands, too, keeping her eyes fixed on his. He raises a hand, and she can feel an itch on the soles of her feet. Waverly and Wynonna's faces flash before her eyes, then an older woman; small, slight, a warm face.

Michael frowns slightly. "How does one person keep on fixing things they don't even know are broken? When they aren't even meant to be here?"

Michael doesn't wait for an answer, clicking his fingers, sending a thick blackness down over Nicole's vision as her mouth opens and she tries to form the words that always come.

 

 

Nicole sits in Michael's office, alone, feeling the phantom loss of a person at either side of her; some eerie, creeping sense that she shouldn't be here alone. She looks to each side, seeing tiny indentations in the carpet. She frowns.

"Did there used to be other chairs beside this one?"

She looks up to see Michael staring at her, his eyes narrowed. "Why?"

"Just—look; it looks like there have been two heavy chairs in the same place either side of this one, for a while. The dents are pretty deep."

Michael stands up to peer at the carpet either side of Nicole's chair.

His voice is flat. "Interesting." He sits downs, rearranging a sheaf of papers on his desk with a flourish. "Anyway, Nicole, welcome!" He arranges his face into a bright smile. "Welcome to the good place!"

Nicole frowns. Her hand itches. Waverly's hand is suddenly on hers, and she's sitting at the homestead kitchen table, drinking coffee. Morning light filling the room. Wynonna's clomping steps a cascade down the stairs; her presence a whirling energy entering the room.

Waverly won't look away from her. The green in her eyes catches the sun filtering through the windows. Her smile is a delicate curve, full of knowing. Nicole feels like her feet are locked into the mud at the bottom of a shallow creek, her body unable to move. She tries to hold Waverly's gaze, her hand warm under Waverly's and her feet getting cold, like they're being pulled away. She blinks, opening her eyes back on Michael's face.

"This isn't the good place. This—"

Nicole stops, seeing Michael's face. He's caught in some moment of interior horror; his face frozen.

The mud beneath her feet becomes a thick, pulling thing, and the lights all go out.

 

 

Nicole wakes from an uncomfortable, twisting dream. There's light in her room like it's a warm summer evening, and her body is hot, an itching ache spreading over her skin. Her legs hurt like she's run a marathon. She sits up in the bed, trying to orient herself. The dream is a shuddering vestige, threatening to break out into the light. Winter seems like it was days ago, but her body feels as though it should be summer. She rubs at the stiff muscles in the back of her neck, trying to vacate the strangeness from her body.

She limps out of bed, seeing the clock, remembering that she had lain down on the bed only briefly, hours before. The events of the day unravel in a wobbling memory. Michael's office. Learning about this place, Jeremy, a long afternoon of confusing events, finally seeing the house that Michael told her belonged to her and Doc and Rosita, falling onto the bed, fully clothed and exhausted. She walks out of her room to the bathroom and splashes cold water on her face, running her wet fingers back through her hair. She hears noises downstairs; Doc's rumbling voice.

She goes back into her bedroom, pulling out drawers, trying to find something clean to sleep in. She opens the top dresser onto a mess of underwear. Frowning, she pulls out several items, then begins rummaging through, looking to the very bottom of the drawer, and then sighing deeply, abandoning the effort, stuffing multiple pairs of thongs back into the drawer. She pulls open the next drawer, sees a pair of flannel pajamas, lifts them out. She holds them up to the evening light filtering through the window, shaking them out. She pulls off her jeans, leaving them in a heap on the floor, and puts the pajama pants on. The waist won't come fully up to her hipbones, and the flannel is a tug over her ass. The cuffs fall halfway down her shins. She looks down, head to one side. She leaves her white shirt on, and goes to the top of the stairs.

Doc is audible from the stairs, pacing in the main room. Nicole pauses at the bottom of the stairs, looking through the doors. Rosita watching Doc from an easy chair. He's compulsively tucking his hair behind his ears. She steps into view, and Doc stops pacing.

"Nicole," He walks over to her, taking one of her hands. "My hat."

Nicole raises an eyebrow. "What's happened?" She looks over to Rosita, who looks back, some combination of bemusement and nervousness on her face.

"My hat. My hat." Doc gestures wildly about his head. "My hat is no more."

Nicole looks into Doc's eyes, seeing the same desperate look that was reflected back at her in the bathroom mirror. Doc looks down at her legs. "Why in heaven are you wearing pants that have been made out of one of my shirts?"

Nicole looks down, letting go of Doc's hand to smooth the worn fabric under her palm. "These are not mine." She looks back at Doc, standing back and lifting up a lower leg so he can see where the cuff falls. "See?"

Doc looks between the pajama pants and Nicole's face, recognition blooming. "Waverly."

Nicole nods. "Doc, this—I think, maybe—" She stops at the look on his face, the small nod. Rosita stand up from her chair. Nicole looks between them, joining her voice to Doc's, their words a chorus. "This is the bad place."

 

 

Michael has three separate whiteboards neatly flanking him as he stands in the middle of his office, Doc and Rosita and Nicole arranged on three hard chairs in front of him. The room is warm, the sun outside bright. Nicole is sweating lightly, the damp at the base of her spine an uncomfortable distraction. She looks at the complex diagrams and writing on each whiteboard, thinking of Waverly. The information on the boards has become increasingly cramped as Michael ran out of space, the writing in the bottom right hand corner of the third board a tight, sloping print.

"So, you see—here," Michael points at a dizzying formula, an endless stream of figures and numbers and signs. "Jeremy's programming simply can't compute the interruption of human love."

Nicole glances to Rosita's face, trying to read the expression out of the corner of her eye. Rosita is frowning, her eyes narrowed. She's looking over the entirety of the board, and her eyes are flicking about restlessly. "What's that figure, there?"

"Oh, that." Michael gives a curling gesture with his hand. "It's not a figure known to humans. It's a little like... Actually, there's no direct comparison in your math. You should all figure it out in, oh, about three hundred years."

Rosita looks at Nicole, raising an eyebrow. Doc's face is the same as when he found out about the Mall of America. Michael hurries on, his voice slippery. "Anyway, anyway, so. All this means that Jeremy isn't handling it well, okay?"

Nicole clears her throat. "So, like. Back up. We've been here a few weeks, now, and something keeps going wrong, wiping our memories?"

Michael smiles broadly. "Exactly! Yes."

"And Jeremy has... repeatedly fallen in love with Doc."

Doc strokes his mustache. "Well, Nicole, I am a very charming man."

Nicole smiles at him. "Yeah, Doc, I'm not doubting your appeal, I'm just trying to establish a timeline here." She looks back at Michael. "This good-place, bad-place deal. You said there's Trevor, but is there—a god? Satan?"

"The devil never even lived, Nicole."

"What?"

Michael grins, a white flash. "Just a fun palindrome!" He pauses, starting to frown. "I thought humans liked palindromes?"

Nicole tries to plant her feet firmly against the knife-edge of pain that runs up her left leg; trying to hold onto the floor with her boots. "Yeah, sure. So, okay, no Satan. And we have soulmates, but some of us have to wait for them?" Her voice rises at the end. Nicole digs her fingernails into her palms to strangle the uncertainty in her voice.

Michael strokes his orange bow tie, looking down at Nicole with a grave expression. "An admin error, as I said, Nicole." Nicole feels a sudden flickering brush over her forearms, like leaves falling. She shivers, the cooling sweat on her back a chill down her spine. She thinks of Waverly, looks outside the window. Michael is speaking and she waits for him to finish before looking into his eyes to ask him the next question.

"And it's summer?"

Michael looks outside, frowning slightly. "It's always summer here. It's the preferable season, isn't it?"

Nicole gives a small laugh. She looks between Rosita and Doc. "I don't know. I think we're all winter people, to be honest."

"Oh." Michael's frown is off-kilter; his brow furrowed, but his eyes shine, mouth threatening a smile. "Well, anyway, the weather is always warm here."

"And it's warm—it's summer, where Waverly and Wynonna are?" Nicole swallows past the names, an awful throb in her throat.

Michael's frown becomes deeper. "We can't really talk about that, Nicole."

Nicole looks back outside, seeing things that aren't there; replacing the green trees lining Main Street with gold ones.

Michael clears his throat. "Anyhow, while we're having these snafus, it would be great if you would all be... tolerant. Doc, if you could give Jeremy some space, that would be fantastic. I don't think he's really equipped to be near you at the moment. Maybe don't say his name, okay? Then he won't come to you. If you and Rosita go out of this building, some nice people will be there to take you to your house."

"Our house?" Rosita looks away from the whiteboards, which she's examining again.

"Yes. Yours and Doc's and Nicole's." Michael starts to wheel the whiteboards away, walking over to his desk. "You three are—" Michael pauses, turning away. "Inseparable." He turns back, meeting Nicole's eyes. "Nicole, maybe you could stay for a minute? There's something I'd like to discuss with you."

Nicole feels Doc and Rosita turn to her, and she looks over to them, reassurance in her smile. She keeps looking at them while she answers. "Sure, Michael."

Michael picks up one of the three chairs in the open space of the room, taking it to a spot in front of his desk. He gestures to the seat, a wide sweep of his arm. Nicole sits, the hard back of the chair returning the damp fabric of her shirt to her skin. She runs a hand through her hair, trying not to rub at her leg where the ache is pushing up from her toes to run all the way to her hip.

"What can I do for you, Michael?"

"Well." Michael sits down delicately, meeting Nicole's eyes. "I have a favor to ask of you."

Nicole shifts uncomfortably, trying not to think about Waverly, avoiding Michael's eyes. Her hand goes out to her thigh, massaging at the pain, sending it back, dissipated into her foot. "Sure, Michael."

She can feel Michael sit up in his chair, a brightening tilt to his body. "Wonderful. So, Nicole. Let me tell you something."

Nicole looks up sharply, finding Michael's eyes. The air is like a dream; suddenly tenuous. Nicole focuses on the throb in her leg to root herself. "Yes?"

"Every single time you have been here, you've been very good friends with Jeremy."

"Every time? I thought it had only been a few weeks?"

Michael fiddles with the cuffs of his dark blue suit jacket. He makes a small noise in his throat. "Well, yes, maybe a bit longer than that." He rushes on, "We've had some issues, okay? Nothing to worry about. The point is: you and Jeremy are kindred spirits. Soulmates without the—" Michael frowns slightly, his nose wrinkling, "—sexiness."

Nicole raises her eyebrows, tilting her head to one side. "So when do I meet Jeremy?"

"That's just my point, Nicole. I was wondering if you could help me keep Jeremy occupied while he is recovering from his case of broken heart blues." Michael pauses thoughtfully, fingers smoothing the line of his jacket lapel. His frown has no depth, and Nicole thinks of a bottomless pool of blackening water. She shakes her head slightly to try to clear the fog and the headache.

"You want me to help him get over Doc?"

"Precisely!" Michael gives a small, gentling smile. "I think you have a lot in common, Nicole. You're both struggling with the weight of... loss. Maybe you can help Jeremy while he grieves for his lost soulmate."

Nicole sucks in some air through her teeth, prevents herself from standing up and walking out. "Sure, Michael." She squeezes her left thigh with her hand. "Is that all?"

"Yes, thank you, Nicole. Don't forget you shouldn't invite Jeremy to the house, though—it'd kill him to see Doc right now."

"Sure." Nicole turns to leave, muttering whatever under her breath, making herself walk without a limp despite the burn that threatens to disrupt her stride.

 

 

Nicole sits on the mound of dirt at the outskirts of the town, watching the sun slowly settle to the west, the sky a deepening red. She flexes her left foot in front of her, trying to fight off the fatigue in her body, rubbing at the aging, neat scar on her forearm. She sighs into the quiet, looking around a last time to check she's alone, then speaks into the early evening.

"Jeremy."

Jeremy appears, a sudden body from nothing, wearing a hot pink suit, the jacket creased. He's facing away from Nicole, showing a small trail of his pale blue shirt that's untucked at the back and peeping out under his jacket. He turns around, an uncertain smile on his face. "Hello?"

"Hi, Jeremy?"

"Yes!" Jeremy walks over to the mound, putting his hand out as Nicole pushes herself to her feet. She takes his hand as she rises, a soft, familiar hold. "I am Jeremy." Jeremy's smile becomes more solid. "How can I help you, Nicole?"

"You know who I am?"

Jeremy's smile remains in spite of the small frown on his face. "Yes! I always know who you are." He pauses. "All people, really. But especially you! We're friends." He pauses. "I think?" Jeremy takes Nicole's hand back with a gentle touch. "I'm sorry, I'm a bit foggy. I keep needing to be rebooted."

Nicole smiles, squeezing his hand. "I think we're friends, too, Jeremy." She looks down into his eyes. "Actually, Michael told me as much."

"Did he tell you about my problems? I think the rebooting is supposed to help."

"He told me you were struggling with—" Nicole breaks off, her mouth frowning before she's said the words, "being in love with someone. With my friend."

Jeremy gives a small, manic laugh, his eyes widening in surprise at the noise.

Nicole takes a step back. "Why don't we sit, Jeremy? I think maybe we can help each other out."

Jeremy nods, falling into a neat crossed-leg sit beside Nicole, who leaves her left leg out, drawing her right knee up and resting her chin on it. She doesn't look at Jeremy, staring instead at the sky.

"So. It's always summer here, huh?"

"Oh, yeah. Did you know that, for 73.1455 percent of humans, summer is the preferred season?"

Nicole smiles. "I did not."

"Yes, it's the optimal time of year."

"I think it's actually September, though, not summer."

Nicole can feel Jeremy's head tilt to one side, the question a shift in the air before he speaks. "Why?"

Nicole turns to look at him. "The person I love was born in September." Jeremy stares at her. She looks away again, embarrassed. "I don't know. It just feels like September."

"It—I don't know, Nicole. My ability to know what's happening to people you left behind is—all closed off." Jeremy's voice stutters, a confused block of words. "I'm sorry."

"You don't need to apologize. Anyway, I thought you might be able to help me out."

"Anything I can do, I will."

Nicole smiles at him. " I knew you'd try to help. I want you to be on my team."

Jeremy smiles, light in his eyes. "I like being on a team. Yes, please."

"I need a radio transmitter. And a microphone. And access to Michael's office." Nicole pauses. "Also, I need you to not tell Michael." She looks in Jeremy's eyes. "Is that going to be a problem?"

Jeremy frowns. Nicole puts her hand back on his. "How about—what if you think of it as a game? It's not a lie, because we are going to tell him eventually, I promise."

Jeremy's frown clears, his smile returning. "Okay. I can do that."

 

Doc's hat rests on a table to the side of theirs, turned upside down. Rosita casually drops pistachio shells into it as she speaks. Doc stares out the window of the empty, dim bar onto Main Street, watching people walking by. Nicole fidgets her left leg, trying to shift the weight of it into comfort. She stands up abruptly, pacing over to the bar to release the ache a little.

"I'm still listening," she calls to Rosita, pulling the bourbon from the shelf.

"And that part at the bottom," Rosita continues, "I'm ninety percent sure that was the non-relativistic time-dependent Schrödinger equation in quantum mechanics, only substituting that weird—" Rosita drops a pistachio shell, lifting both hands up to make quotes into the air, "—'top-secret from the future' figure for what should be time." She pauses, looking to Nicole's face as she sits back down at the table. "Time. It doesn't even make sense to substitute something else for time."

Doc takes a sip of whiskey, looking over to Rosita's face, focusing on her eyes. "So what you are telling us, Rosita, is that Michael was selling us some bunkum."

Rosita picks up another pistachio. "Well, I can't be sure. My training wasn't in quantum physics, so I could be wrong." She smiles at the doubtful look on Doc's and Nicole's faces. "Okay, no, I am definitely not wrong. So, yeah—that whiteboard display was definitely something. I don't know what, though." Rosita looks at Nicole, tossing the shell into Doc's hat without looking. Doc grabs his hat, peering inside, his brow wrinkling.

"You have not been using my hat as an ashtray." He looks up at Rosita, wounded.

Rosita laughs, a light, familiar sound that chases off some of the ache in Nicole's leg. Doc turns his hat right way around, dumping the pile of pistachio shells onto the adjoining table. He mumbles a few sentences Nicole can't quite make out, honor, and a person's hat, and she watches him pick a few pieces of nut out of the hat before tucking the hair behind his ears and returning it to his head.

"So, list. Definitely fake: those formulae, which were bunkum;" Doc smiles at Nicole as she drawls the word in his voice, "it's apparently high summer here constantly, which is hell to us; Michael said we'd been here a few weeks, but then told me that I'd been friends with Jeremy 'every single time' we'd been here, and got real squirrelly when I suggested it might have been longer than a few weeks." Nicole pauses. "In the definitely true column: We've been here before, Jeremy is my friend, and he is also absolutely one hundred percent suffering from a bad case of unrequited love."

Doc frowns, looking at Nicole with concern. "I do not remember this Jeremy, at all, and yet it seems I have hurt him."

Nicole puts a hand out to Doc's arm. "I'm sure you haven't done anything dishonorable, Doc."

Rosita pats Doc's arm from the other side of him. "What else?" She looks at Nicole. "What else do we have? I feel like I know stuff, I just don't know it."

"I know. Me too. Okay, so, the weird, but not verifiably wrong, column: my body is telling me that it's September, which would mean we've been here nearly nine months, definitely a lot longer than a few weeks. My forearm is a long-gone scar, which fits that theory, too. Michael's 'things keep going wrong' line and his 'admin error' both suggest there's stuff he doesn't want us to know about all the time we've been here." Nicole sucks in a deep breath. "That admin error, especially." She looks at Doc, then carefully at Rosita. "I don't think anyone would really have to wait indefinitely for their soulmate, right?"

Rosita nods. "Yeah, big red flag."

The door of the bar makes a loud creaking as it's roughly pushed open, and Jeremy steps inside the bar, his body lit by the bright sunshine before he walks into the gloom, squinting against the darkness.

"Yo, it's like the inside of an elephant's ass in here. Why are you all sitting in the dark like a bunch of losers?"

Jeremy comes to a stop beside the table. He reaches over and picks up Nicole's tumbler, downing her bourbon in one, grimacing. He's wearing heavy black boots, acid wash jeans, a ribbed white tank top, and a battered leather jacket. The sleeves of the jacket are rolled half way up his forearms, and there's a tattoo visible on his right arm. His hair is gelled into an Elvis peak. He looks down at Doc, raising an eyebrow. "What up, hottie?"

Doc looks at Nicole, frowning, then back to Jeremy. He stands up. "I do not believe I have had the pleasure." He extends a hand, his eyes flicking back to Nicole's. "I'm John Henry."

Jeremy takes Doc's hand, a smirk on his face. "John Henry. Well, well."

Nicole shifts her leg under the table, looking up at Jeremy's smile, her body on fire. "Hello."

Jeremy turns to Nicole, face a blank. "Hi."

The door to the bar makes its creak again, and there's a sudden interruption of the noise from the street into the quiet interior. Then the door swings shut again, and Michael is rushing over, a half-walk, half-run, his suit jacket flapping. He comes to a stop beside Jeremy, out of breath. He puts a hand around Jeremy's upper arm, a tight cinch. "Here you are! I think we should leave, now."

Nicole looks to Michael's face, seeing the deepening frown on his forehead. She makes her face blank, looking to Jeremy. "Are you okay?"

Michael clears his throat. "He's fine." His hand tightens around Jeremy's arm, his voice a lowering hiss. "You know you shouldn't be here. It's not good for you to be around Doc."

Jeremy opens his mouth, but Michael is dragging him towards the door. Michael calls back over his shoulder as they reach the door. "Nothing to see here! Just a broken heart acting out!" And the door swings shut behind them.

Doc looks at Nicole. "That was my soulmate?"

Nicole scratches the back of her neck, watching the space where Jeremy was. "No, Doc. That was someone else. Here, I have an idea." Nicole stands up from her chair, stepping out behind it and leaning on the back to take the weight off her leg. She speaks into the quiet. "Jeremy?"

Jeremy appears, holding his pink suit jacket in a crumpled bunch in one hand, his pale blue shirt untucked at the front and his bow tie undone. He looks at Nicole, dark shadows under his eyes, and then sees Doc, his body becoming tense. He shakes out the jacket in a rush, struggling to put it on, and a flap of white paper falls to the ground. He pulls the jacket on and starts trying to tuck the shirt into his pants, flicking quick glances to Doc. Doc stands up, taking off his hat. "You must be Jeremy." He puts out a hand. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Jeremy."

Jeremy's eyes get full, and he whispers, "Hello, John Henry," as Nicole ignores the pain in her leg to crouch and pick up the loose piece of paper. She winces on standing up, and holds the paper out to Jeremy. "Here, you dropped this."

Jeremy pulls his eyes away from Doc slowly, taking the paper from Nicole. He unfolds it, staring at the words. "I think this is yours, actually." He hands the note back to Nicole. She stares down at it, feeling the weird buzz of time reversing, a sudden headache blooming behind her eyes. She looks up at Jeremy.

"Jeremy, I have an idea." Jeremy turns to look at her. She looks back at the note. "How do you feel about tattoos?"

 

 

Nicole and Doc and Rosita walk from the tattoo parlor that they found down a small alley back towards Main Street. There's some kind of parade going on, a marching band, and various stands delivering food. Nicole counts three chowder stalls, her eyes narrowing. At Michael's office building, she holds open the door for Rosita and Doc, trying to wiggle her toes to prevent the limp from emerging as they take the stairs up to the office.

Michael is sitting behind his desk as they walk in, a solitary whiteboard beside it, the words "Attempt #127" written in large letters. He stands up in a rush, sending papers fluttering to the floor, his face stricken as Nicole comes through the door last, her eyes stony. He looks to each of their faces and back to the board, watching them stare at it.

Michael throws his hands up in the air, palms facing them, a low huff of air escaping his mouth. "Fine, fine. I get it. I know those looks."

Nicole takes a seat opposite Michael. "Hi, Michael." She rubs at her left thigh. "Are you going to tell us the truth, now?"

Michael fiddles with the papers left on the desk, pulling them into a pile, leaving the ones on the floor where they are. He puts a glass paperweight over the stack, then takes off his glasses, rubbing at his eyes. "Why not? I'm near my wit's end with you three, anyway. Honestly, I'm going to need to change course entirely, soon, if I want to get anywhere." He puts his glasses back on his face. "Where do you want to start? The chowder? Bad Jeremy?"

Nicole watches Doc and Rosita sit down on either side of her, waiting for them to give her their silent assent, then opens her mouth. "Yeah, Bad Jeremy. How about that?"

"There's a lot of Jeremys. That was a Bad Jeremy from a bad place—" Michael stops at Nicole's look. "Fine, yes, from another bad place. Your real Jeremy is from a good place, though. Hence his crushingly, ridiculously annoying habit of falling in love with Doc within twenty-two minutes of meeting him, every single time. That Bad Jeremy you saw was one that Trevor sent to check up on Attempt Number 127. Which is where we're at. And which has not gone well."

"So when you said 'things keep going wrong', you really meant that we keep figuring it out, and you keep—what, erasing our memories?"

Michael claps, slowly, a pained smile on his face. "Well, yes. Except also, no. Things do keep going wrong, Nicole. In that they keep going right. There was a sinkhole, something I realized in retrospect that was just a necessary eruption from me messing around with the usual order of things. But then you fixed it. Filled it right up. And other stuff keeps breaking, but as soon as you know about them, they fix themselves." Michael narrows his eyes. "How's your leg?"

Nicole stares at him, level. "Fine."

"No, it's not. It's killing you, isn't it?" Michael's smile becomes clear and light. "You keep fixing stuff, but it's costing you."

Rosita clears her throat. "What about that stuff you told us about why we're here? Why Doc is here?" She looks at Doc, then quickly back to Michael. Her voice drops. "I shouldn't be here, should I?" She frowns, face turning to Nicole. "Wait, though, what about Nicole? Why is Nicole here?"

Michael's smile is fixed, a grimace. "Excellent questions, all, Rosita." He pauses against the expectant silence. "Your friends here are suckers, is the answer to all of them."

Nicole opens her mouth, but Michael puts up a hand. "I'll get there, Nicole. Just let me enjoy this, would you? It is quite literally the only pleasure I get these days."

Michael stands up, walking over to the window to gaze down at Main Street, hands clasped behind his back. He addresses the street, back to the room. "You know what really gets me? Doc and Nicole had the choice to just go to the good place, no questions asked. Literally no one would have been the wiser." He spins around, fixing Doc and Nicole with a stare. "No one would have known you chose to save yourselves. You could have just gone to paradise, spent eternity there."

Michael scratches the back of his neck, his head tilting. Rosita puts a hand out to Nicole's, squeezing it. Michael sighs.

"Nicole, I gave you the choice between going to the good place and coming here, and if you came here, I'd arrange with Trevor for the upper class of bad place humans to get to go to a place with less torture. So that's what happened. You came here, to the bad place, and sent a whole bunch of fairly terrible, but not truly heinous, people to a suitably middling place." He turns to Doc. "And you, John Henry. You would have gone to the good place. Absolutely no contest, all told." Doc starts to speak, his face a confused frown. Michael talks over the beginning of his objection. "No, it really wasn't in question. The stuff I told you about the attrition factor is true, but the time you spent in the well was a slight bump in the road. The overall equation also takes account of pure intentions. And you have those in spades." Michael looks regretful, fiddling with his bow tie. "Anyway, I gave you the choice of just skedaddling to the good place, too. But I also gave you the choice of coming to the bad place, and saving Rosita from revenant hell. A choice you took."

Doc's face clears and he gives a small nod. Rosita's hand clenches around Nicole's, and she meets Doc's eyes. Michael gives another sigh, breathing in sharply through his nostrils and then back out through his mouth in a noisy rush of air.

Nicole squeezes Rosita's hand back, a gentle constriction. "Why, though? Why did you want us here?"

Michael picks up the paperweight from his desk, turning it over, watching the threads of colored glass inside change shape as he twists his wrist. He holds it out in his hand so they can see. "Do you see this?"

Nicole stares at the dark blue and purple strands inside the glass, and the ground feels like it's curving under her feet.

Michael looks into her eyes, talking to her. "You're like the bits of color. The plain glass is just glass without it."

Nicole frowns, looking back at the paperweight, and the blue parts of it turn inky black. The inside of the glass becomes the outside and the room drowns in the dark.

 

 

Michael's bow tie is undone, his shirt lightly creased at the stomach. He runs a hand through his hair and then gestures down Main Street. "So, here, this is what we had designed for you."

Nicole and Doc and Rosita all stare down Main Street, empty of people. There's a dry fountain where the street widens into a fork. The sun is bright and uncomfortable. Nicole uses the sleeve of her shirt to wipe at her forehead, squinting into the sunlight. Her body is hot and cold at once, some deep fever under her skin. Her forearm is tingling at the sudden lack of pain in it; the ache is instead in her leg, as if her body has been taken apart and put back together wrong.

Michael keeps talking. "But after three hundred and forty-four days, and you don't want to know how many attempts, I'm just a little tired." He turns to face them, wariness in his face. "I don't have it in me to think up any more elaborate ways to distract you at the moment. I thought we'd just try some more traditional torture, and I'd just let you all recognize you're in the bad place without the people you love most in the world." He looks at Nicole, and his face brightens a little. "It doesn't matter now, anyway. The game is changing, soon."

Nicole feels a rush of the past come hurtling past her body, and she tries to stand still against it. She feels Doc's body move a little to her side, and puts a hand out to steady herself against his arm. His hand immediately moves to cover hers.

Michael turns to face them. "So, what do you think?" His smile is wide; Nicole looks away to the end of the street. "How terrible is this? You're stuck here, indefinitely. With no Waverly Earp. No Wynonna. No child. No one." Michael looks expectantly at their faces. Nicole ignores the pain in her leg, and clenches her jaw. She stares back at Michael.

Doc clears his throat. "Well, now. We have each other." His voice is all wrong, lightness forced over the top of pain. Nicole can hear the scream of his anger and the desperate scrape of his grief, and a defiance that's bigger than everything else, but Michael can't hear any of it. He frowns, staring at Doc. His face a collapsed smile, turning dark, making everything fade.

 

 

Standing alone outside the bar, Doc and Rosita start fading, full-on disappearing, and it's the strangest sight. Nicole can look through Doc's hat as it starts turning transparent, and before she's been able to do anything but grab on to his hand in alarm, the wave of nothingness sweeps down over his eyes.

Nicole looks around frantically. "Doc! Wait! I can get help—"

Doc's eyes are gone; his lower face is turning into blank space. His mustache twitches a little. Nicole grabs his arm, and he mutters softly. "Don't worry, darlin'. It's okay." The last thing Nicole sees of his face is the gentle curve of his smile, then she's holding nothing. Rosita gone too. Suddenly alone, when she is already vastly alone; when she feels as though she's been missing Waverly Earp for years and years.

Before she's had a chance to absorb the loss of Doc and Rosita, she hears an unmistakable scream further up Main Street, and her head jerks instinctively, her ears recognizing the noise before her brain catches up. Scanning down the street past the storefronts and stalls, she sees two figures in the distance, sprawled on the pavement. One body in a heap; the other starting to stand up: the source of the noise. Nicole can feel her leg seizing, and then it is moving of its own volition, and she's running towards the sound, towards Wynonna's yells.

Wynonna is standing up, pulling Waverly to her feet. Nicole feels like the ground is slowly moving down, shifting lower under her feet, preventing her from pushing off into full strides. Her lungs are a rending tear in her chest, and the pain in her left leg is a howl that unfolds in deep spasms up into her hip. The distance seems to stretch. Waverly is facing away from Nicole, her hair running loose down her back. Nicole sees Wynonna put her hands on Waverly's shoulders to gently turn her around, and then hit her lightly on her ass, pushing her towards Nicole. Waverly's body twists around, her face too far away to make out, and then her head is raising and she looks at Nicole, stumbling a little. Wynonna's hand flickers out to grab Waverly, steadying her. Nicole wants to call, but it comes out as a sobbing gasp instead, all the oxygen immediately wrenched into her lungs to keep her legs moving. Waverly's only a hundred meters away, and then she's pushing into her own run, hair flying out behind her and closing the space between them.

Waverly comes out of the shadow cast by the tallest building on Main Street, and Nicole can see her face clearly, finally, the gap of days turning into the chasm of a year. Nicole's body feels ragged, exhausted by the billowing expanse of time changing. Her vision is a narrowing pinprick on Waverly's face, which is looking right towards her, serious. Waverly's jaw is tight. She's sprinting, but breathing through her nose, her mouth in a line, and Nicole is worried that she's not happy to see her, but then Waverly is flying into her and sending them both off balance, her body immediately attached to every part of Nicole she can find. Nicole is pushed back a step and almost trips, but then Waverly's leg finds the ground between hers and her arms are around her waist, holding her up. Nicole reaches both hands to Waverly's face to keep it still before her. She sees the neat scar on Waverly's cheekbone, close to her hair; the ground becoming a dizzying lurch. The space in between them too great. She tries to stop the sway by looking into Waverly's face.

 

 

Chapter Text

Lucky Strikes is lit up from the inside out; the neon sign turned off, the interior fluorescents casting pools of light out onto the concrete parking lot. There's a sign on the door in big, messy print, reading Closed for private function. There's a scattering of cars parked around the building and a layer of deep September frost on the ground, opportune with the early dusk. The noise coming from the inside is a muffled roar as Dolls pulls the SUV into the lot, driving to a careful stop beside a car that Waverly immediately recognizes as Chrissy Nedley's.

"Is Chrissy here?"

Dolls turns to Waverly in the back seat, giving a mysterious smile, and refusing to speak.

Wynonna rolls her eyes, unbuckling her belt. "Drama queen."

Waverly pushes open the car door, stepping down in high-heeled boots and listening carefully to the crunch of her heel as it breaks into the frost. She breathes out a plume of warm air into the dark, trying not to think about the last time she went bowling, and clenches her fists in the deep pockets of her woolen coat to distract herself from memories that threaten to spin past her. Wynonna comes around to her side of the car, linking an arm through Waverly's arm, and turning their bodies to Dolls as one.

"So, what's the happening, Dolls?"

Dolls is smiling, gesturing towards the door of Lucky Strikes. Wynonna leads Waverly towards the door, and when she pushes it open into the bowling alley, they are greeted by the sound of Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' coming out of the speakers, flooding the space. The corners of the building are dark, the lights turned off in a pattern; there's a line of light from the entrance leading to one alley, where Chrissy is in a sparkling black dress standing next to her father, who's wearing jeans, a smart blue shirt, and brown leather dress shoes. Next to Chrissy, Gus has a shine in her eyes visible from ten paces away, and Waverly breaks away from Wynonna's grip to rush into Gus's arms. Wynonna grins at Nedley and then at Chrissy, touching them lightly on their arms, then turns to Christine while she waits for her turn to hug Gus.

Christine is in dark jeans and boots, a thick fisherman's sweater, silver jewelry at her wrists. Wynonna grins down at her. "Dude. It's good to see you in real clothing. I was starting to think you only had sweats and judogis." 

Christine smiles back at her. "Happy birthday, Wynonna." A small frown starts on her face. "I hope it was okay to come—Dolls invited me."

Waverly is unwinding her body from Gus's embrace, and she turns to Christine. "We're really glad you're here."

Christine's frown disappears, and she looks to Gus. "Your aunt was just explaining to me that Purgatory doesn't care about copyright infringement."

Wynonna frowns. "What?"

Christine gestures loosely around the bowling alley. "Lucky Strikes?"

"Oh, yeah, I had stopped noticing." Wynonna grins. "Purgatory has its own rules, Christine."

"So I gathered."

Nedley appears at Wynonna's elbow, holding two beers; he presses one into Wynonna's hand, and the other into Waverly's. "Happy birthdays, girls." His smile is shy. Chrissy hovers behind him, a happy grin on her face. Waverly smiles at Nedley and gratefully takes several gulps of the beer, the cold crispness pushing against the rising tide of memory. She turns back to Gus. "Did Perry bring you? Did he not want to stay for this?"

Wynonna places her beer down on the alley's table, next to the bowling balls. "Yeah, he would have been welcome, too."

Gus takes a sip from her whiskey, then rests the glass down beside Wynonna's beer. "No, he thought it was safer not to." She looks at Wynonna. "He doesn't like to be seen with me, Wynonna. Dolls told him it's better that way. Fewer links."

Wynonna nods, satisfied, her face a smooth blank. She clears her throat and picks up a ball, turning it over to read the numbering. She hands it to Waverly, picking up another ball. Dolls is walking back from the bar, holding a tray of snacks and new drinks for Chrissy and Nedley. Wynonna calls over to him. "Can we get this party started?"

He smiles as he walks closer, resting the tray on the bar at the throat of their alley. "Sure. Birthday girls first."

Wynonna takes the ball back from Waverly's hands, handing it to Christine to hold, and reaches to Waverly's lapels at her neck, gently shucking her coat from her shoulders and stepping around behind her to pull the coat off. She places it on the seating and takes the ball back from Christine, putting it into Waverly's hands again. She leans over, planting a kiss onto the ball, and then straightens back up to grin at Waverly.

Waverly's face is scrunched into amused disgust. "Ew. That ball is probably really gross, Wynonna."

"I don't care. Now it's been blessed with double birthday luck." Wynonna leans in to Waverly's ear, whispering. "Kick Dolls's ass, okay? He hasn't seen you bowl, and he thinks he's king of all sports."

Waverly smiles, nodding. She steps lightly down to six paces before the foul line of the alley, lifting the ball up and close to her body. She releases the tension in her shoulders and braces her upper body, takes two short strides, and then lengthens out her steps into a final quiet lunge, the ball spinning out in a smooth release from her fingers, making a near soundless contact with the wood and a clean swelling noise as it rushes towards the pins. The knock of the ball through the pins makes a deep clattering, and they all fall neatly back into the black mouth at the alley's end.

Wynonna whoops noisily, dancing over to Waverly to deliver a high five and then turning back to make finger guns at Dolls. Dolls's face is fixed in surprise. Nedley is smiling. Wynonna stalks over to the rail of bowling balls, taking a long time selecting the one she wants, setting them spinning over with a few fingers and examining the numbers thoughtfully. Eventually she settles on a sixteen-pound ball, turns to find eye contact with Waverly, grins widely, and rushes the lane. She releases the ball with a war cry, the ball coming out of her grip in the air and dropping with a clattering bang to the wood alley, spinning widely down it and knocking five pins over with a mad rattle. Wynonna grins, turning to Waverly, shrugging.

Dolls frowns a little. "Wynonna, you're terrible." He's still staring at the place where the ball has disappeared from sight.

Wynonna hits him lightly on the arm. "Rude."

"No—I mean, you're," Dolls turns to look at her, smile soft, his eyes looking down, "you're an athlete. I know you can coordinate yourself. But that was—" He looks back down the lane, eyes clearing. "Oh."

Christine passes Wynonna another ball for her second bowl, smiling. "Dolls, you should know by now that this one likes big noises."

Gus picks up her drink again, laughing. "She always did like to make a racket. When Waverly was still in diapers, she decided to change Hide and Seek to Bang and Find It." Dolls gives a small snort of laughter. Waverly shakes her head minutely, smiling. Christine raises an eyebrow, waiting for Gus to continue. "She'd go somewhere on the homestead and bang something really hard, then make Waverly and Willa and anyone else who'd play find the thing she had banged. They wouldn't win unless they could identify the correct item that she'd hit." Gus gives a low chuckle. "Waverly didn't quite understand the game, but she would just chase Wynonna around the house and yard in her little toddle, wouldn't you, sweetheart?"

Waverly smiles at Gus, shy. "I just liked to chase Wynonna."

Wynonna puts an arm around Waverly, planting a noisy kiss on the side of her forehead, up by her temple. "You played it just how I wanted to play, Waves." Waverly leans her head into Wynonna's shoulder, working her arm around Wynonna's waist, and smiling at Dolls.

"Dolls, I think it's your turn." Dolls picks up the heaviest ball, takes several steps, and sends the ball whistling down the alley. He ends up with a spare, and then Chrissy bowls a seven, Gus a nine, and Nedley a spare, too. Waverly bounces a little on the balls of her feet, clapping at Nedley's score, and he softly smiles at her. Waverly turns to Christine, grinning. "Your turn, Christine." Christine pulls off her thick sweater, leaving her silver earrings twisting back and forth, and smiles at Waverly. She finds a mid-weight ball, and steps lightly down toward the line.

Gus looks at Wynonna. "Dolls told me Christine is some kind of ninja, and she's been teaching Chrissy things, too?"

Wynonna gives a proud smile, eyes flicking to Gus's face quickly before moving back to watch Christine take measured steps toward the start of the lane. "She's a serious ninja, Gus. And yeah, she invited Chrissy down to our practice sessions, didn't she, Chrissy?" Wynonna turns her head to smile at Chrissy before looking back to the lane.

Christine takes a final fast step before her weight drops and the ball unfurls from her hand, shooting out with no friction, released almost horizontal to the lane. The ball traces a neat unwavering line down the center of the wood, knocking all the pins down in a musical crash.

Wynonna laughs, looking at Christine as she turns around. "Of course you're amazing at this, too." Christine smiles sheepishly, and gives a lopsided shrug.

Waverly is grinning. "I guess it's on, Christine."

 

 

After two games, Dolls adds the combined tallies and concedes that Christine and Waverly have him beat. Their scores are tied; Wynonna suggests they hold a final game, just Christine and Waverly, to decide who has won. She insists they place bets, ignoring Nedley's grumbles, and pulling a notebook and pencil from Dolls's jacket, silencing his hey with a bright smile. She flips the notebook open with a snap, her smile dissolving into a serious look.

"Okay, so. Dolls?" She looks at him, eyes narrowed, then addresses everyone. "Dolls definitely knows what Christine is capable of, but does he know all the tricks up Waverly's sleeve?" She raises an eyebrow, turning back to Dolls.

Dolls's face is inscrutable; Waverly watches the twitch at the corner of his mouth that means he's trying not to smile. Dolls looks at her, then Christine, then back to Wynonna. "Christine."

Wynonna gives a low whistle, making a mark on the notebook. Dolls directs an apologetic shrug at Waverly. Christine twists the ball she's holding around and over in her palm.

Wynonna looks up. "Nedley?"

Nedley clears his throat. "Waverly. Sorry, Christine."

Christine smiles at Nedley. "No worries. Waverly is quite the opponent." Waverly grins, gently bumping against Christine's shoulder with her own.

"Okay. Gus?"

Gus almost cuts Wynonna off. "Waverly."

Wynonna grins at her, then turns to Chrissy. "Chrissy?"

Chrissy bites her lip. She looks quickly from Wynonna, to Waverly, then shoots a glance to her father. She mumbles, "Christine," and watches Wynonna rear back slightly, eyebrows raised. "Really, Chrissy?"

Waverly laughs. "Wynonna, you're the one who's forcing our friends to place bets on us. You're the problem here, not Chrissy." Waverly smiles at Chrissy. "I have no hard feelings." Chrissy smiles at her, relief loosening the frown on her face.

Wynonna rolls her eyes. "Okay, well, obviously, I'm all in for Waverly." Her voice catches at the end, a flash of tired grief passing over her eyes. Waverly tenses, searching out Wynonna's eyes; trying to push back on the feeling of Doc's long-ago note in her hand. She finds Wynonna's gaze, trying to fasten it to hers. Wynonna stares at her, looking dizzy.

Waverly walks over to her, putting an arm around her waist. She takes the notebook from Wynonna, gently squeezing her side with her other hand. "Okay, are you satisfied? You've officially turned this birthday party into a den of iniquity."

Wynonna makes a small moan and tries to snatch the notebook back. Waverly pulls it quickly out of reach, laughing low. "No. We are not making people place money bets, Wynonna." She reaches over and hands the notebook to Dolls. "Christine, do you want to go first?"

"Sure, Waverly."

Wynonna grumbles a little, but doesn't move from Waverly's side, passing her own arm around Waverly's back and tilting her head to the side to watch Christine bowl, resting her cheek onto Waverly's hair.

 

 

After six frames, Waverly has 65 plus two strikes, and Christine has 71 plus a spare. Christine takes a ball to open the seventh frame, scores another spare, receives a high five from Waverly, and then returns to her place next to Dolls, listening to him discussing Thomas Bell with Nedley.

"Waverly followed your recommendation to check out the repository at U of C, and she was sent to the High Density Library. She found two articles matching national archive records, both of which indicate Bell was in Purgatory in 1868, after the Civil War, and then again ten years later, in 1878." Dolls pauses, taking a sip of his beer. "Waverly also spoke to a researcher at University of Georgia who located Bell's war records for us. They were released in 1922, and they indicate Bell was a Confederate agent running reports through the Secret Line."

Nedley frowns, his head tilting slightly to the side, and Christine sees, putting a hand to Dolls's arm to get him to pause. She looks at Nedley. "The Confederate Signal Corps set up a body called the Secret Service Bureau that facilitated a system of espionage between Washington and Richmond."

Nedley nods, frowning, and Dolls continues. "Bell was born in the backwoods of Georgia, and his scouting skills were exploited by the Confederates. They turned him into a spy, but they also ordered him to complete multiple raids in Union territory. After the end of the war, an investigative committee unearthed a string of assaults and three murders across the South. Bell fled west, wanted in five different states for the murders. He ended up in northern California and opened a boarding house where several women were killed in the 1870s. Wyatt Earp hunted Bell and killed him outside of Purgatory in 1878."

Christine finds her drink; takes a gulp. Dolls finishes his sentence, then looks over to Christine. "What do you think?" He looks down at Christine. "How do we find him?"

Christine takes the ball Wynonna hands her, twisting it over to take a proper grip. She looks up to see Waverly smiling as she walks past Gus and Chrissy, who are standing by the rack of bowling balls, deep in conversation.

Christine turns to Dolls. "Why Purgatory? Did he have family here?"

"He was obsessed with Ada Marie Kellick, a childhood acquaintance who left Hiawassee in January, 1861, at the first whiff of the war, and settled in Purgatory. Bell found out she'd moved here and followed her. She rebuffed him, and he moved to Madeline in California. He assumed the name James Green, and married Jane Hapburg. They had two children, Thomas and Amelie. Bell lived in Madeline until 1878, after the investigations into the deaths at his boarding house had fizzled out. He abandoned his family in search of Ada, but Wyatt caught up with him before he entered the town and challenged him with an arrest for murders during the war. Bell drew on Wyatt and was killed before he'd managed to release a bullet." Wynonna smiles grimly. Dolls doesn't look away from Christine. "What do you think?"

"If he was a scout and then a spy, and he doesn't want to be found, it's not going to be easy."

"Yeah."

Christine scratches idly at the back of her neck. She looks at Waverly. "What happened to Jane and Thomas and Amelie?"

Waverly frowns. "I couldn't find any record of them."

Christine spins the ball in her palms, looking Waverly in the eyes. "Usually, when someone's really good at hiding, they hide in plain sight."

Waverly gets caught in Christine's gaze, and it takes Wynonna gently shoving Christine towards the alley for her to be able to bring the room back in to focus. Wynonna puts a hand at Christine's back, ushering her to the lane, turning back over her shoulder to address Dolls. "Enough shop talk, man, this is our birthday. Christine is here to bowl."

Christine knocks all the pins down, and her score moves to 109 plus a strike. Wynonna stares at the screen above the lane, trying to figure out what that means. Waverley shakes her head, walking past Wynonna and bowling a nine to close out the frame. Wynonna watches, frowning, as Christine steps up to bowl an eight, leaving a split, and managing to knock one of the remaining pins down to also log a nine. Christine's score moves up to 137, and Waverly's is 131 as she bowls to close the ninth frame.

Waverly takes small strides and releases the ball, her leading foot stumbling slightly at the end, sending a ball veering to one side, where it knocks five pins over. Wynonna hisses through her teeth, looking at Waverly in concern, and calls out. "Waves, are you ok?"

Waverly smiles, standing awkwardly to rearrange her weight. "Yeah, just twisted my ankle a bit. It's fine, though."

Christine frowns, taking a step closer to Waverly. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, guys, really, I'm fine. Last frame, Christine. It's pretty close." Waverly grins. "Do you think you have it?"

Christine smiles back. "We'll see."

Christine selects a heavy ball, walking out to the lane, and releasing the ball in a resolute line down to the pins. They shatter into the gaping black. Christine grins at Wynonna's face, retrieving the same ball from the dispenser, and striding back. Her second ball follows the same line as the first, but some small swerve or re-balance of its weight at the last second causes only eight pins to fall down. Christine stares at the remaining two, waiting for her ball to return, then stands still behind the line for a pause before unfurling her arm and sending the ball spinning down to the pins, knocking them both over.

Dolls starts clapping as soon as the sound of plastic against wood starts, and Wynonna looks over to him, frowning. He raises his eyebrows pointedly, and she huffs, clapping slowly, looking at Christine's final score flash up as 157. Christine smiles at her. "Wynonna, you don't have to pretend to be happy. I know Waverly will always be your favorite person." Christine can see Waverly straighten minutely at her periphery, the line of her body called to attention.

Wynonna grins at Christine. She finds Waverly's ball, running her hands all over it before passing it over, then stilling her hands on top of Waverly's and leaning in to kiss her forehead. "You need twenty-two. Kick it, baby girl."

Waverly's body unfolds in a smooth motion, and she sends the ball in a quiet roar down the lane to a strike. Wynonna whoops, pulling back one arm into a fist pump, and skips over to retrieve Waverly's ball. She places it in Waverly's outstretched hands, closes her eyes, and lays her hands on the top of it. She makes a little hum and mumbles something. Toto's 'Hold the Line' comes on the speakers, and her eyes snap open. She looks at Dolls. "Dolls, who is responsible for this?" Dolls smiles and nods. Wynonna grins at him, leaning in to Waverly. "It's a sign, baby girl."

Waverly rolls her eyes, and steps out to bowl, holding the ball close to her body and ignoring Wynonna's low singing behind her. She releases the ball into the pins, and they jump slightly, nine falling into the back and one teetering, rocking on its edges. Wynonna hisses. "Just fall over and die, dammit."

The final pin falls, and Wynonna lets out a yell. Christine laughs, watching Wynonna jump around a little then grow suddenly still as she puts her hands on Waverly's shoulders, looking at her, face serious. "Waverly. This is your destiny. Go get that turkey." Waverly grins at her, face twitching in amusement, and waits for Wynonna to pluck the ball from the rack and pass it over to her.

Gus puts a hand on Waverly's right arm, gentle, as she walks by, and Waverly passes her left hand on top of it, meeting Gus's smile and then arranging her body into a preparatory stance. The music goes quiet in between songs, and the sudden silence swells around Waverly, threatening to pull her back to Nicole, bowling badly, looking confused at her own terrible score and delighted by Waverly's good one in the same look. Nicole standing with her hands tucked into her jeans pockets, waiting every time with a big, happy smile when Waverly turned around from another spare or strike. Nicole's eyes on her back, carefully watching the motion of her body. Lifting her up and into a spin, her arms around Waverly's waist, bringing her to a gentle stop and then kissing her softly, mumbling loving things against her lips.

The ground tips and Waverly squeezes the ball. Her fingers clench, an involuntary spasm, and then the air rushes away from her and she's sitting on a small mound of dirt. She's not alone. It's hot, uncomfortable. She can't see her surroundings, her sight a narrowed spot with a blurred circle tracing the periphery, but there's mountains in the distance, rock and bare scrub, nothing like Purgatory. The warmth is a smothering blanket. Waverly tries to remember the feeling of the ball under her hands, and then she can feel her legs moving and her hand stretching out.

She's standing still, but Wynonna's hand is on her shoulder. "You okay, baby girl?" And then the alley comes back into focus, some other place dissolving into an arrangement of pin pricks. Waverly grabs on to Wynonna's hand, feeling the cool skin, and she shakes her head, trying to smile.

"Fine—I'm fine." She squeezes Wynonna's hand, and then lets it go, feeling Wynonna step back and away, aware of the wave of concern that comes from behind her. She stares at the pins, letting her body make its unconscious pattern, and thinks of Nicole as she lets the ball go, not seeing the pins at all. Then there's the clatter of all of them falling over, and Wynonna is picking her up from behind and the ground moves away as she's being lifted into the air, yells and clapping surrounding her. She tries to blink away disorientation and wriggles for Wynonna to let her down, breathing heavily. She turns into Wynonna's body, grounding herself on the feeling of arms around her waist and Wynonna's hands on her back, holding her close against her chest.

Wynonna can't stand still for long, her feet a drum beat on the ground, shaking her body up and down lightly and juddering into Waverly. "Baby girl, baby girl!" She starts chanting, spinning their bodies in a circle. Waverly looks over her shoulder to find Christine's face, and smiles at her.

 

 

At the go-kart after-party, Wynonna receives a lifetime ban for dangerous driving, and sulks away at the railings, watching everyone else racing around the track until Christine and Dolls take pity on her and peel off at the pit stop to join her at the sidelines. Dolls goes to the refreshments bar and gets them all a beer, putting an arm around Wynonna's shoulders when he's passed them both their drinks. Wynonna is still grumbling, but she quietens at the squeeze of Dolls's hand on her upper arm. She turns her head to look up at him, eyes narrowing. "I'm still mad at you for not betting on Waverly, pal."

Dolls laughs, a deep resonant sound. Wynonna looks quickly over to Christine. "Sorry, Christine. You know I love you, but."

Christine shrugs. "Family's family, I get it."

Wynonna nods at her, then looks back at Dolls. "Seriously, traitor. Why would you do that to Waverly?"

Dolls's face becomes serious at the look in Wynonna's eyes, and he glances out to the track where Waverly is speeding after Gus's car, yelling out to her, both of them laughing wildly. He looks back to Wynonna, his voice lowering. "I knew she'd step up to the plate." He meets Christine's gaze, unspoken words flashing between them, and Christine smiles at him. "I knew Waverly would win if she felt she had to prove something."

Wynonna frowns. "Risky. Possibly sociopathic?" She squints up at Dolls. "But I think I love it?" She grins at him. "Huh."

Out on the track, Chrissy and Waverly have slowed to a standstill in the pit, quietly laughing at Nedley, who has pulled over and is gently chastising a teenager for reckless behavior at the other end of the track. The kid is nodding, serious.

Waverly puts a hand on Chrissy's arm, still laughing. "We should stop him. That kid is having a good time ruined."

"I know, I know." Chrissy gets her kart moving, and starts driving down the track. Waverly pulls out, depressing the accelerator with her right foot and following behind Chrissy's kart. She watches the vehicle pull away from her, suddenly unable to feel her foot, vision blurring. She takes the turn in the track too wide, and nearly clips the guard bumper, trying to slow herself as she comes out of the bend, but her left leg cramps suddenly, a shooting ripple of pain spreading out from her foot to her hip, and she's elsewhere, lost, the track gone. She comes to with the guard rails yawning up before her, and wills her left foot to move, slamming on the brake. A kart comes up close behind her, weaving round, barely missing her, and, as he passes, a kid yells out, "This isn't fucking bumper cars!"

Waverly grips the wheel to stop her hands shaking, looking over to see Wynonna staring at her from further down the guard rail. She slowly drives down to the pit stop and climbs out, taking her helmet off and walking unsteadily over to Wynonna.

"Are you okay, Waves?"

Waverly nods, swallowing hard. "Yeah, just need some food, I think."

Wynonna pulls herself out from under Dolls's arm and walks over to the refreshments, returning with a tray of nachos, which she puts in Waverly's hand, pulling out a nacho from the pile and winking at her. "We were just telling Christine about the big mystery of those files Nedley gave you back in May."

Waverly's eyes narrow, her face immediately forming a frustrated frown. She sighs. "Those bastard files. I'm starting to hate them."

"Whoa, girl." Wynonna's mouth twitches in an almost-smile. "That's no way to talk about your beloved research."

"I know, I know." Waverly sighs again. "I don't hate them, I hate myself for not being able to figure out the connection to anything else. There's nothing in them." She turns to Christine. "They're just three apparently unconnected murders from the 90s. There's clearly an MO in common, but we can't figure out who the perp was, and we can't see how they relate to anything we're dealing with right now. I wish—"

She breaks off, and Wynonna whispers in a strange rasp, "Nicole was here."

Waverly looks at her sharply, frowning. Wynonna looks startled. "I'm sorry—I don't know why I said that."

"No—it's true. It's what I was going to say." Waverly feels suddenly like she's in a dream, a fog of sleep falling over her vision. She shakes her head to clear it.

Dolls softly clears his throat. "Well, Earps, I think it's time for the main event."

Wynonna snaps to attention. "There's more?"

Dolls grins. "There's gifts."

 

 

Nedley won't let Wynonna drive back to the homestead, telling her she's had too many beers and she's too excited to get to her presents, and he makes her ride in the back of his car, with Chrissy next to her. She huffs throughout the journey, mumbling about injustice, Chrissy making weird noises like she's trying to supress her laughter. Eventually Waverly turns on the stereo, the CD deck clicking on, and Carrie Underwood's 'Before He Cheats' bursts out of the speakers at high volume. Nedley's hand reflexively punches out to the off switch, sending the car back into quiet. He keeps his eyes on the road, a muscle in his jaw pulsing. Chrissy coughs. Wynonna grabs onto the back of Waverly's seat, pulling herself forward so her head is between Waverly's and Nedley's. She stares at Nedley, mouth open. "Randy." Her voice is a hush. "You—"

Nedley coughs once. "Wynonna, sit back down in your seat." He glances over at her. "Put your seatbelt on, for God's sake."

Wynonna pulls back, looking helplessly at Chrissy. "I can't..." Her voice trails off, and Chrissy's mouth is a clenched line against her laughter. She shakes her head once at Wynonna, then looks away to prevent the giggle breaking the silence. Waverly fidgets in her seat, pointedly looking out of the front window.

They ride in near-hysterical silence until Nedley pulls down the track of the homestead, and then Wynonna is bouncing in her seat, face pressed to the window. "Dolls is here already, Nedley, come on. You can go faster down the drive, there's no other cars between us and the house."

Nedley sighs, accelerating minutely, refusing to look at Wynonna, who hums impatiently from the back seat. She's opening the rear door before Nedley's put the car in park, closing it onto the sound of his grumbling; half-walking, half-running up to the homestead front door. Nedley and Chrissy and Waverly follow at a normal pace, closing the front door behind Wynonna, who's left it wide open for them, letting in the cold night air. She's standing in the main room, looking impatiently at Nedley, the last into the room, holding a small box and a larger flat package. "Come on, Nedley, come on." She gestures to the chairs, making sure everyone has a seat, then going over to sit on the arm of the couch beside Waverly, reaching out to her hand. Dolls is standing by the fireplace, hands in his pockets, and Wynonna looks at him expectantly. He looks over at Gus.

"Gus, want to go first?" She nods and stands up, leaving the room to go into the hallway, coming back in holding two small packages, wrapped in brown paper and tied with thin pieces of midnight blue ribbon, handing one to Waverly and one to Wynonna, then accepting the space beside Waverly on the couch that Chrissy has vacated for her.

Wynonna smiles at Gus, and immediately begins tearing into the brown paper. Waverly unknots the ribbon around hers, placing it on her lap, and turns the package over, finding the edges of the pieces of tape and carefully peeling them back. Wynonna has grown still beside her, and Waverly looks up, seeing Wynonna's eyes on her lap, then finding her eyes. She looks back down at the package, and carefully pulls the paper back to reveal a rectangular piece of plaster of Paris, two tiny hand prints indented in the middle. She looks up at Wynonna quickly, sees her quiet, awful smile, and puts a hand out to gently lift the paper that's covering the object on Wynonna's lap. She sees another block of white plaster, and Wynonna tilts it slightly so Waverly can see two tiny footprints in the middle of the rectangle.

Waverly blinks against the tears, and Gus's hand is on hers, squeezing hard. She can feel more than hear Wynonna gulping, and she's suddenly dizzy, the couch shifting under her. Wynonna's clearing her throat, and then she can feel the air in the room swelling, and she tries to make out the words Wynonna is saying to Gus.

"They're beautiful."

Waverly rubs at her eyes, trying to focus on Gus's hand, finding Wynonna's with her other one, and she looks up at Wynonna, meeting her smile. Dolls is hovering by the fireplace, and Wynonna glances over at him, then stands up to invite him to look at the plaster. He takes the block delicately, resting the rectangle over one outspread palm so he can trace the outline of feet with his fingers. He smiles at Wynonna, a careful quiet smile, and then looks over to Waverly, smiling at her, too. He hands the block back to Wynonna, and tucks his hands back into his pockets, watching her take the plaster over to Chrissy and Nedley and Christine so that they can admire it.

Dolls ducks into the kitchen, gathering drinks and snacks, piling them onto a tray, and comes back to find Nedley passing Waverly the small box and Wynonna holding the flat package. Nedley clears his throat. "Those are from Chrissy and me." He sits back down, unable to look at either Waverly or Wynonna. Dolls hands drinks around, going back to lean against the fireplace. He watches Wynonna ripping open the paper with glee, pulling out a leather jacket, and holding it up. She lets the jacket drop slightly so she can grin at Nedley and Chrissy over the neck of it.

"This is the bomb." She makes eye contact with Chrissy. "I'm guessing you picked, and Nedley was the bank?" Waverly stops undoing the wrapping around her gift long enough to slap Wynonna's arm and hiss her name. Wynonna rubs her forearm. "No, I mean." She clears her throat. "I just meant, thank you. Chrissy, you have great taste."

Chrissy smiles at her, lifting her glass. Nedley's smile is distracted, and he watches Waverly break into the small box. She lifts out solid band of turquoise with gold edges and small gold sections around the ring. Waverly looks up, into Nedley's eyes. "It's the same—" She stops at Nedley's nod, and whispers, "Thank you," swallowing past the pain in her throat. She gently pushes the metal band onto her ring finger, rubbing the metal and stone with her fingers. She looks back at Nedley. "It's perfect." Wynonna's hand is on her shoulder, then Dolls's, too, briefly, as he passes behind the sofa to leave the room. Waverly stares at the ring until she hears the front door open, and she looks at Wynonna, confused.

Wynonna stands up, head tilted to one side. Nedley taps the fingers of one hand against his thigh, looking at Wynonna. "Easy, girl. It's just a big gift, that's all." Wynonna frowns, and sits back down.

They hear the front door re-opening and then shutting with a click, Dolls walking into the room with a large box, his arms straining around it. It's heavy-looking, covered with red paper. There's a small bow and gift tag on the top, tiny and ridiculous, engulfed by the size of the box. Wynonna is on her feet, immediately, looking at Dolls with wide eyes. He steps back. "It's for both of you, okay?" He looks at Wynonna. "I think you'll want Waverly to have first dibs, though."

Waverly is lightly frowning, looking from Wynonna to Dolls. Wynonna puts her hand out to pull Waverly to her feet. "You open it, Waves."

Waverly gently tears the red paper off, trying to be fast without ruining all of it, leaving careful strips running to the floor. The box underneath is black; a thick sturdy material that's heavier than cardboard but not plastic. Waverly glances at Dolls before edging her fingers under the slits at the top, and prising open the lid. She peers inside, her head immediately snapping back up to stare at Dolls.

"It isn't." Her voice settles at the end into a statement. She looks at Wynonna. "It's not. He—" She looks back at Dolls. "You didn't."

Dolls grins. "I did."

Wynonna looks between them, impatient. "What, what? What is it?"

Waverly stares at her. Wynonna frowns, shaking her head minutely. "It's a flamethrower?"

Waverly frowns, lifts the lid again, stepping aside so Wynonna can peer into the box.

Wynonna gives a long, low whistle. "Dude. You bought us a flamethrower?" Her face is a rictus of joy. Dolls grins, nodding. Wynonna squeals, batting Waverly's arm. Nedley shakes his head, and watches Wynonna start to draw out the equipment.

Waverly stares at Wynonna and leans over to her ear, whispering. "How did you know?" Wynonna meets her eyes, silent.

 

 

Waverly takes to the flamethrower like she's been practicing for years and, by October, she and Wynonna have cut the remaining revenants down to seven. Waverly starts dreaming wild, twisting dreams every night, the older woman there, Wynonna unseen but her presence in the air, tangible somehow. Waverly wakes in the mornings and comes downstairs and Wynonna is always there, staring at her as she comes into the kitchen, and Waverly can feel the unspoken words in Wynonna's throat; knows what she wants to say. Waverly has a near-constant headache, her throat a roaring flame that won't abate. She starts staying up late to avoid going to bed, and after a week she realizes that Wynonna is doing the same thing; making excuses to stay awake and asking Waverly to play card games late into the night.

One night deep into October, Waverly wakes up at three in the morning to the sound of a gasping cry and she stumbles into Wynonna's room, seeing her body twisting under the sheets, rushing over to nudge at her shoulder and try to wake her. She climbs into the bed and pulls Wynonna's body into a tight hold, forcing her body into stillness. Wynonna wakes with a rasping cry and a suffocated noise, and her hands grasp back at Waverly, holding tight. They say nothing. The air in the room is heavy, like it's underwater.

At Halloween, Dolls and Nedley run point while Wynonna and Waverly smoke out two revenants who are holed up together in a barn at the outskirts of Purgatory, as close to the Ghost River line as they can get without burning. Dolls declines Wynonna's invitation to take down the revenants as a team, and she frowns at him, wondering. He smiles lightly, and makes an excuse about enjoying Nedley's company. He stays with Nedley in the back of the unmarked black van they bought at the end of August, and they both watch through binoculars as Waverly and Wynonna enter the barn and then two figures emerge at the rear of the structure, followed closely by a sputter of flame, and then Waverly using the flamethrower to draw their attention while Wynonna comes back out of the front of the barn and circles around the back. One revenant whips an ancient throwing star at Waverly's face, catching her by her cheekbone, and Waverly's face turns away for a second, then twists back, the flamethrower roaring, fire licking onto the revenant's body.

Wynonna shoots the other revenant, and Dolls tracks all their movements carefully through the binoculars, panning the glasses quickly between them, seeing no movement around their mouths. They're both facing towards him, Wynonna behind Waverly so they can't see each other's faces, and Dolls can't see them talking, but then Wynonna suddenly propels her arm out and Waverly's hand flicks into the air as if it's connected to Wynonna's, snatching Peacemaker from the night and her body turning in a smooth motion to shoot the other revenant.

Back at the homestead, Dolls watches Wynonna reverently dress Waverly's wound, leaving her palm resting on her sister's cheek after she's finished, mumbling, "There, baby girl, good as new." Waverly smiles, putting a hand to cover Wynonna's, and Dolls clears his throat, his body feeling miles away.

 

 

In November, Waverly's dreams become more insistent, and the older woman appears every night, sometimes grasping a bag, sometimes a pen. One night she holds an open palm out to Waverly, porcelain tiles in her hand, letters painted on them in delicate strokes. The next morning, Wynonna comes down the stairs to find Waverly rummaging through a chest in the main room, pulling out a chess board and stacks of cards, making an untidy pile in the middle of the room.

"Waves, what are you doing?"

Waverly looks over her shoulder, frowning. "Hey. Do we have Scrabble, still?"

Wynonna crouches down next to Waverly. "Yeah, it's—wait, no. It's in my room. Dolls wanted to play a while ago and I never brought it back down here."

Waverly raises an eyebrow. "Dolls wanted to play. In your room."

Wynonna shakes her head, grinning. "Don't even ask."

Waverly rolls her eyes, standing up to go upstairs, Wynonna following. Waverly locates the Scrabble set on a messy dresser, pulling off the lid and pulling out the bag of tiles. She shakes them on to Wynonna's bed, then sits down, sifting through them. Wynonna sits down on the bed, the tiles between them.

"Waves, what is this?"

Waverly looks up, making eye contact with Wynonna. "I don't know."

Wynonna falls silent, looking back down to watch Waverly turning tiles over and putting different letters in different orders. Waverly sighs. "I think I had a dream. I don't know what it meant."

Wynonna puts a hand out and starts playing with the tiles, picking up random ones and moving them around. Waverly's hand grows still, and she watches Wynonna's fingers playing over the coverlet. When Wynonna has picked out ten tiles, she stops, suddenly, putting out her hand to Waverly. She frowns. "I don't know why I picked these ones."

Waverly uncurls Wynonna's fingers from around the tiles, plucking them up one by one. She places them on her lap, staring at them. She rearranges them, then looks at Wynonna, her voice a hoarse whisper as she reads out the words. "Thomas Bell."

Wynonna frowns. "Was that your dream?"

"I'm not sure." Waverly stares back down at the letters, fidgeting them into different orders. She stops, the letters making two different words.

Wynonna leans over to look. "Sam Bolleth?"

"I—I know that—wait," Waverly stands up suddenly, the tiles falling to the floor with small clatters. She disappears, and Wynonna listens to the sound of her bare feet walking down the hall to the old war room, where a desk still sits, and then back down the hall again. She appears at the door, clutching a file.

Waverly sits back down on the bed next to Wynonna, opening the file on a sheet of paper, her finger running down the page and finding a specific passage. "Here." She moves the page closer to Wynonna. "Look."

Wynonna stares at Primary witness: Sam Bolleth, her head snapping back up to look at Waverly. She scans the rest of the page, recognizes the file as the last of the three Purgatory murders, the one from 1998. "What does this mean, Waves?"

"I don't know." Waverly pauses. "Did Thomas Bell commit those murders? Or—" Waverly bites her lip. "Or maybe someone who knew who he was? Someone who could tell us where he is now?"

Wynonna stands up. "I'll call Dolls. When he gets back tonight, maybe he'll have some ideas."

 

 

Dolls pulls into the lot at the warehouse, parking next to Waverly's Jeep and stepping out into the cold air, his breath a white cloud. There's no light coming from the warehouse, and it's silent. His fingers twitch near his gun as he pushes open the door quietly, eyes adjusting to the change in light from the sharp security lights outside the door to the gloom inside the warehouse. He stares across the room, seeing Waverly and Wynonna sitting at opposite sides of the desk in the soft glow of a single lamp. They're looking across the table into one another's eyes, not speaking. He starts to walk over, rubbing at the goose bumps raising on his forearms. Waverly and Wynonna look over at the sound of his footsteps, their eyes hazy, unfocused.

"What's up? Why are you both sitting in the dark?"

Wynonna shakes her head slightly. "Oh, hey. We were—we were just discussing—" She breaks off, looking to Waverly.

Dolls frowns. "You were silent."

Waverly meets Dolls's frown with a frown of her own. "No, we weren't."

Dolls rubs at the back of his neck, looking to Wynonna. He waits a beat for an explanation, then shakes his head when no one speaks. "What did you find out?"

Waverly opens the file on the desk, pushing it over to Dolls. He takes a seat at the end of the table, reading the paragraph she's placed a highlighter tab beside. He looks up at Waverly. "Sam Bolleth?"

"It's an anagram. Of Thomas Bell."

Dolls gives a slow whistle. He flicks through the rest of the file. "So what do we know? Take us through it, Earp."

Waverly stands up, and walks to one of the clear boards. She uncaps a pen and starts writing.

"Okay, Thomas Bell. Born 1841, Hiawassee, Georgia. Joined the Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. Wanted in connection to five assaults and three murders that took place in Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Texas, and Alabama. Fled to California, started a family—" Waverly stops, pen frozen against the board. She turns back to Dolls and Wynonna. "His family."

Wynonna frowns. "What, Waves? What're you thinking?"

"What if Sam Bolleth is Thomas Bell's descendant? What if there's two Thomas Bells, and they're both murderers, just a hundred and twenty years apart?"

Dolls taps the fingers of one hand on the desk. "If that's true, there's no signs of Thomas Bell's descendants." He looks up at Waverly. "We have nothing to go on."

"What about what Christine said?" Waverly starts pacing, her arms crossed over her body, holding the capped pen to her mouth. "What about if there's two of them, and they're hiding in plain sight?" She comes to a stop. "Ada."

Wynonna pulls the open file closer to her side of the desk. "Ada? The woman Bell was obsessed with?"

"Yes—where did she live?" Waverly walks over to the bookcase, fingers running across the spines of files until she finds what she's looking for and pulls it out. "She lived in the north district, 674 Pine. Those houses are still standing, right?" She looks to Dolls, who nods. "What about there?"

 

 

December brings the heaviest snowfall in Purgatory since records began a hundred years before. The snow slows everyone down, choking off all traffic through the middle of Purgatory, threatening to imprison people in their homes. It takes Waverly and Wynonna three weeks to negotiate the snow enough to cut the final revenants down to one man: Thomas Bell. Dolls stakes out 674 Pine with Nedley on alternate shifts for those three weeks, Chrissy riding along with her father whenever she can, using up all her vacation days to sit with him in a cold, dark car every night, chatting about her work to keep him awake, bringing along sandwiches and thermoses of dark, sweet coffee that she won't let him touch until the shift is half over, holding it out of reach until the car clock ticks over to the precise time.

Wynonna and Waverly both accompany Dolls when they're not tracking the other revenants, Waverly in the back of the van, adding notes to a growing file or just sitting in the dark, quiet, thinking. Sometimes both Waverly and Wynonna grow silent, and a thick, deep air swells inside the van, Dolls fighting the anxiety that blooms in his chest, biting his lip to stay quiet, trying not to look at Wynonna but leave her to a private reverie. He takes to wearing a beaded bracelet on one wrist all the time so that he can silently count the beads whenever it happens; preventing him from feeling like he'll pass out from uncertainty; stopping him from asking Wynonna questions he somehow knows he's not supposed to ask.

When Thomas Bell is the only revenant left standing, and their reconnaissance has shown up tiny inflections of life at 674 Pine—no departures and entries, but small flickers of a candle at a backroom; little changes in the way the light falls—Dolls asks them if they're ready to go in. He catches the look that passes between Wynonna and Waverly, trying to read their faces. Wynonna nods, and he expects there to be relief tangible in the air, but it's only gravity, some unrecognizable grief, and he can't help himself from taking both Waverly and Wynonna into his arms, the panic bubbling below his ribs.

They set the date for a final raid, and Nedley signs off on their tactics. They invite Christine and Nedley and Chrissy over the night before they're due to fight Bell. Christine brings them a two-hundred-dollar bottle of whiskey to share, and the shock doesn't dissolve from Wynonna's face for a full half an hour after she's taken her first sip.

Waverly is quiet, looking into everyone's faces carefully, studying them. She keeps staring at Nedley too long after he finishes speaking, and he frowns gently at her, coming to stand next to her while the others take turns trying to describe the whiskey in the ornate language Doc would have used. Nedley puts his arms out to Waverly, unasked, and she gratefully falls into them. He mumbles into her ear, his arms squeezing around her back in a bearish hold. Waverly nods, trying not to cry, and she feels Wynonna detaching from the conversation to slip over to her side, receiving Waverly from Nedley's arms, taking her sister into her warm embrace.

Waverly whispers to Wynonna, and Wynonna's eyes flit over to some other place, her body stilling. Dolls watches at the corner of his eyes, holding Christine and Chrissy in conversation. Wynonna takes Waverly onto the back porch to breathe in the frozen air, and they come back ten minutes later, eyes red, Waverly shivering. Wynonna is smiling like she's lost something, but she pours out new measures of whiskey for them all, and calls a toast to Nicole and Doc and Rosita, and then Alice, her throat moving as she gulps the whiskey down.

After everyone leaves except Dolls, Waverly offers him a glass of something else to balance out all the alcohol, and he asks for soda. Waverly disappears into the kitchen, leaving Wynonna sitting next to him on the couch, her fingers entwined in his, a glassy look on her face. Waverly returns with a glass three quarters full, the bubbles furious. She passes it to Dolls, looking at him with some ghostly smile that gives him a shiver, and he takes it gratefully, patting the place on the couch beside him. Waverly sits down, leaning her head onto his shoulder as he drains the soda.

As he sinks into unconsciousness, his head lolls onto the back of the sofa, and Waverly whispers, "I'm sorry," holding his hand, squeezing tight. Dolls croaks out a syllable, and it might be why and it might be the start of Wynonna, his eyes desperately flitting to find her eyes.

Wynonna gently puts a hand on each of his cheeks, guiding his face to look at hers, and she mumbles, "Trust us." Dolls gives a tiny nod before his eyes shut, his head a heavy weight that Wynonna carefully rests onto the back of the sofa.

Wynonna brings pieces of the cage in from the barn, shaking her head occasionally and muttering, and Waverly uses the electric screwdriver to put all the pieces together. When it's complete, Waverly puts a hand over Wynonna's. "We have to."

Wynonna nods, tears in her eyes, and she arranges herself in a high squat in front of the sofa while Waverly pulls Dolls's body over and onto Wynonna's back, wrapping his arms over Wynonna's shoulders, and taking his thighs like a bundle of heavy wood to help navigate him toward the cage. It's only a few feet away, but it's an awkward, stuttering journey, Wynonna muttering about how heavy he is, Waverly grunting out directions until they can rest him down with a small bump onto his ass, Wynonna protecting his head by keeping a grip of his arms and then gently letting his upper body fall to the ground.

They both step into the cage with him, and Waverly rearranges his limbs into the recovery position while Wynonna carefully places his head into a comfortable tilt. She kisses his cheek, and Waverly negotiates her way out of the cage to leave them alone, going upstairs to fetch the scrap of paper that has two series of numbers scratched onto it, folding and placing the note under a paperweight in front of the cage.

Wynonna steps out of the cage, a pleading look in her eyes, and Waverly touches her hand over Wynonna's. Wynonna coughs, a wretched sound, and her voice is small. "You have to do it. Please." Waverly nods, and watches Wynonna walk out to the porch, where she hears her pacing. She takes the key from beside the power tools, closing the gate of the cage and locking its three locks, staring down at Dolls. She goes back upstairs to get their bags and grabs their coats and walks out onto the porch, leaving the door unlocked.

Wynonna is hugging herself, shivering, and Waverly passes her a coat, waiting for her to pull it on before walking towards the Jeep. The wheels are already covered in snow chains, and Waverly waits for the inside to warm up before she shifts into first, slowly pulling into a three-point turn and starting a steady rumble down the track. The music she's been listening to is a low hum, and she turns it up a bit so that Wynonna can cry quietly, safely covered by the voices coming out of the speakers. As soon as the Jeep is moving easily on the deserted main road, Waverly fumbles her spare hand out to find Wynonna's, holding it for the whole ride whenever she doesn't need to change gear. She doesn't rush, driving carefully, and when they reach 674 Pine, they sit outside for a while before getting out of the Jeep as if they're one, not speaking at all.

Waverly pulls her shotgun from the backseat and they walk to the house, breaking in from the front and the back in a coordinated sweep, coming into the lower level from either side, meeting in the main room and finding a middle-aged man asleep on the couch. Wynonna pulls out handcuffs, raising her eyes to Waverly, and Waverly steps forward, grabbing the man's shirt lapels and dropping down beside the sofa to drag him smoothly over her and onto the floor with a gentle bump. He breaks from sleep with a startled grunt and then he's on his back, pinned by Waverly, and Wynonna snaps the handcuffs on him. Waverly pulls a length of material from her back pocket and wraps it around his mouth. She steps back, quietly standing up, and Wynonna whispers down at him. "Thomas Bell, Junior times three, we presume?"

The man stares at them with panicked eyes, and Waverly puts a booted foot into the middle of his chest, her voice a low rumble. "Nod if we're right." She applies pressure to his chest, and the man nods furiously. Wynonna draws Peacemaker, levelling it at his head, and it stays cold and dark. She looks at the man's eyes. "You're a murderer, though, aren't you?" The man looks desperately between their eyes and the gun, and nods his head, eyes wet. Wynonna re-holsters the gun. "The Sheriff will be along for you in good time, Bell."

There's a tiny noise on the upper floor, and Waverly puts a hand on Wynonna's arm. They step silently to the staircase, and Wynonna starts up it first, leading with Peacemaker. At the top of the stairs, she waits for Waverly to come next to her, her shotgun ready, and without a word she nudges open the door that's pulled nearly closed so that Wynonna can sweep Peacemaker into the room. She doesn't see anything, but she can feel the gun discharge in her hands like she is the one pulling the trigger, and then there's a huge deafening roar as Thomas Bell falls into hell, and the roar won't stop; it's a painful awful noise that takes forever to clear, and Waverly and Wynonna have to put their hands over their ears, frozen in place, faces a grimace. When it starts to dissipate, the silence that's left is like the quiet after snowfall, and Waverly can feel some part of her lifting away, and she looks at Wynonna, seeing the same look on her sister's face that she can feel on her own. Some painful thing excised from their chests and let loose into the night.

They're silent on the road, and Waverly can feel the tears and desperate sadness and grinding relief in Wynonna, and she takes her sister's hand back under hers and drives carefully, slowly, one hand on the wheel all the way. It takes them five hours to reach Gus, and it's six in the morning, the sun a memory, the air cold and dark and gravid. Waverly pulls up outside Gus's house quietly, and lets them sit in the Jeep for a while, silent, preparing. They don't say a word, both staring at the outline of the house until the light finally starts to push over the mountains and the air gets softer, the black retreating to the shadows at the tree-line and beside the house; under the porch. Wynonna's breaths are even and slow and Waverly knows when she's ready to get out of the car before Wynonna knows it herself, startling a little as Waverly pushes the front door open a crack and then following with her own door. They shut the doors with small pushes, then walk together to the front porch, ringing the bell.

Gus appears, eyes sleepy, taking a minute to understand what she's seeing, eyes widening, and then Wynonna nods at her and she smiles, pulling them both to her. She chatters happily while pulling them inside, quieting when she realizes they're silent, looking their faces over with searching eyes, then leaving them on her sofa while she disappears, returning minutes later with a squirming, delighted Alice, who's pulling at Gus's necklace and smiling, searching the space before her with bright eyes. Gus puts the baby on Wynonna's lap, and Wynonna makes a strangled noise, tears flicking down, Alice laughing into the wet small splashes as they touch her face, reaching up and touching Wynonna's cheeks with clumsy pats. Wynonna draws Alice to her chest, saying her name, and Waverly can feel her mind inhabiting the room, seeing them all there in one space, trying to fix the sight into some inviolable place inside her.

 

 

They leave Gus, giving her a key and telling her to call Nedley in an hour. She's confused, but falls into their embraces and watches them go from the porch until they twist out of sight, Waverly trying to push down sobs and focus on the road. They go up into the woods to their chosen place, and sit for the better part of the hour, telling each other everything they need to say in silence, hands tightly grasped together. Eventually Waverly pulls out the small folded bag and takes Wynonna's outstretched arm, finding the vein and gently depressing the syringe, touching the place the needle went in, taking the second vial and doing the same to herself, then hitching over to beside Wynonna, wrapping her arms tight around her sister. Waiting in the quiet.

 

 

Chapter Text

Waverly's skin under Nicole's fingers is a familiar, long-ago feeling, and her fingertips find the new scar at Waverly's cheekbone, stilling over it. She stares into Waverly's eyes, the pain in her leg sputtering out, and moves her hands down to Waverly's shoulders and around to her back, pulling her in close, feeling the new knots of muscles down either side of Waverly's spine through her shirt. Nicole pulls back, confused by time, unsure when it is and how long they've been apart. Waverly looks up at her, smile unwavering, her forehead marked with the beginning of a small frown. There's a heaving roil in the air like thunder coming.

Nicole can hear Wynonna coming close, and someone else, too, and she's starting to ask Waverly the question when she feels a cold rush come out of her mouth instead, and she has to fight the desire to start running, to grab Waverly in her arms and lift her away, an adrenaline surge in her legs to get them away from the sound she's expecting, the sound which makes her stomach plummet and which she recognizes only as it ends: a small click of fingers that's the prelude to nothing advancing. And then it's dark. Everything gone.

 

 

Nicole sits down in the chair between Waverly and Wynonna, looking at Michael, her body a host for relief and bone-deep exhaustion, her hand instinctively reaching for Waverly's, her smile coming before she's even recognized that Waverly is smiling back at her. She lets out the air she's been holding in her lungs in a gentle rush.

Michael is grinning at her, playing with the deep blue silk bow tie at his neck. "The final reunion." His voice is deep, a resonant bell, eyes bright and alive. Nicole can feel Waverly and Wynonna tensing on either side of her, and her body copies the tension without consent, the muscles in her legs clenching automatically. She opens her mouth, but Wynonna is there first. She sees Waverly's other hand become a fist as Wynonna speaks.

"What in hell, dude? 'Final'?" Nicole watches Wynonna swallow, and her mind immediately takes her to the sight of Doc Holliday playing poker. "What does that mean?"

Michael smiles at Wynonna, a flicker of his teeth showing as his mouth stretches into a grin. "Oh, but I have been looking forward to meeting you, Wynonna." He puts up a hand as she starts to speak. "No, no, don't worry, I'll explain everything, just steady on there."

Nicole looks down, surprised to find Wynonna's hand covering the hand Waverly's not holding. She stares at Wynonna, only breaking her gaze when Michael starts to speak.

"'Final', because Nicole here has been living a half-life for nearly a year, waiting for you both to arrive." Michael pauses, playing idly with the lapel of his suit jacket, running fingers down its edge, smoothing out non-existent creases. He looks at each of them in turn before continuing. "This is the good place. Welcome! We usually have a policy of introducing people to the neighborhood when the person they love most has arrived, too, but some kinks in the system meant we had to wake Nicole up early." Michael's smile is a mischievous curl as he looks to Waverly. "For Waverly, here, 'the person' meant the both of you." He looks at Nicole and Wynonna. "Quite a situation. A tie. That must feel good, yes? She loves you both the same amount."

Wynonna's hand gently squeezes Nicole's. Michael's eyes flicker between them. Nicole can't read his smile. It's a falling curtain, the air in the room swollen with tension. Michael's grin shifts, pleasure obvious, and he stares into Nicole's eyes. "Of course, Waverly is your most loved person, and,"—he looks at Wynonna—"she's yours, too." He pauses. "I know what you'll say. Alice." His fingers trill at the fabric of his shirt. "We felt it would be too long for you all to wait, Wynonna. And, besides, you know she's safe now."

Nicole watches Wynonna's face, squeezing her hand back, the unspoken question in the air. Wynonna looks at her and nods, and Nicole feels the break of relief in her body, a string being cut and something terrible floating away. The curse a disappearing mist in the sky.

Waverly clears her throat, dragging Michael's eyes over to her. "What about Doc? And Rosita? Where are they?"

Michael's eyes cloud over, and he looks out of the window, fingers back at his bow tie, plucking the silk gently. He turns back to them, catching Wynonna's gaze and holding it. "We're in negotiations."

Nicole feels as though she's falling, a little at a time, caught in a slow long freefall, and there's some memory she can't hold on to, something that never was, pulling her away from the room. She looks down at Waverly's hand, feels something all around her that she can't name, understands that Waverly and Wynonna have come from somewhere she doesn't know, some place she hasn't been, and knows that she too has come from somewhere they haven't existed. She doesn't understand a thing beyond Waverly's existence beside her. She tries to think about Doc and Rosita and feels like she'll pass out. Waverly's hand under hers is cool and she twists her own hand around it, concentrating hard on the feeling of Waverly to be able to hear what Michael is saying. "We very much want to have Doc and Rosita here, but there are—eventualities," Michael glances to Nicole, "beyond our control."

"Who's this 'we'?" Nicole recognises the sharpness in Wynonna's voice and doesn't need to see her face to know the look on it.

Michael sighs, a gentle expulsion of air that makes the hair at Nicole's neck prickle. "We, the good place, all of us. The good place is run by a—" Michael's face is the air before a cyclone; a flash in his eyes, "—wonderful woman called Deidre." Waverly's hand is suddenly hot under Nicole's, and she tries to read Waverly's face at the edge of her vision without turning her head.

Michael is still speaking. "Doc, sadly, was unable to outweigh some of the worst things he did with some of his truly honorable actions, and Deidre is trying very hard to figure out how to get him transferred. Rosita, I'm afraid, is even more of a tricky case, because once a revenant goes to hell, only—" Nicole tenses in her chair, startled, and Waverly's hand is soothing over hers; Michael's eyes turn to Wynonna, a steady gaze, "Only an heir can bring them back. And there are, as of now, no more heirs. Which leaves us in a bit of a bind."

Michael stands up from his chair, walking into the middle of the room. "Anyway, the greatest minds are putting their powers together to figure it all out, don't you worry. In the meantime, we have something of a welcome presentation for you three, which will help you understand what the good place is all about. If you'd all like to follow me." The pitch of Michael's voice falls at the end of his sentence into a definitive command. Nicole feels her body standing in response to Waverly and Wynonna standing, and then she's walking behind Michael, unsure of everything.

 

 

Waverly gestures for Nicole to take the seat between herself and Wynonna again, and Nicole can't help looking to Wynonna's face first, waiting for her permitting smile before sitting down. A hand from either side is immediately on each of hers, and she feels the immeasurable shift of the earth again, some weird tilt. Her left leg is in spasm, small throbs blooming from her hip and travelling to her calf. She stretches the leg out and turns her head to the left, following the trace of Waverly's jawline with her eyes, watching the profile of her mouth, meeting her eyes as she turns her head. Waverly's eyes grow still as they meet Nicole's. Her gaze is a soft question and an answer threaded together into one place.

Nicole can feel a deep, insistent pulse that chases off the pain in her leg. She fidgets a little under Waverly's gaze, desperate to lean over and kiss her; afraid she's not supposed to. Waverly's smile is gentle, knowing; Wynonna clears her throat. Nicole looks away abruptly, blushing. Wynonna's voice is a quiet laugh for Nicole. "Keep your panties on, Officer Haught." Waverly's head snaps over to look at Wynonna, but Nicole knows she hasn't heard, and that makes her blush even more, fixing her eyes away, on the enormous screen in the middle of the grassy space in front of the rows of chairs.

Nicole looks around, taking in all the people around them, and she watches as the screen turns to light and Michael appears on it, huge in a green velvet suit, the words The Good Place behind him, followed by Orientation: Day One. Michael dances into the middle of the screen, his voice at an excitable, musical pitch.

"Welcome! Welcome to your first day in the new part of your life." Michael delivers a pause, his eyes sparkling. "Everyone here has been specially chosen. You've all made a real difference in your human lives. Every last one of you—" He extends a finger, pointing around the audience, "—is a very good person. And we know it­—we have a fool-proof system, designed to accommodate all the nuances of your life; every action, every decision you made, all reflected in the final sum." On the screen, Michael gestures to his side, and a green plus sign appears. "Every good action brings a calculated figure to add to your total, and—" a red minus sign appears to his other side, "—every bad action, a number to remove from it." He smiles. "Only the very highest scores—the very finest people—are chosen to come here, to the good place."

Nicole is aware of the incremental shifts in Wynonna's body, and she feels Waverly tensing in response on the other side of her. She looks to the right and sees that Wynonna's hand is by her waist, where Peacemaker used to be, uselessly grasping at the air, and then Wynonna is shoving her hand under her ass, sitting on it, her body in an uncontrollable fidget. Nicole turns to see Waverly staring at Wynonna, her mouth a fierce line, her head moving in a tiny shake. Nicole looks back to see Wynonna meeting Waverly's eyes, and her head flicks slightly; almost a nod, but the smallest, almost invisible, motion.

Nicole is suddenly aware of a strum running between Waverly and Wynonna; a deep tie that she can feel in the air. She thinks about Doc, trying to picture his face, and it dissolves in her mind. She tries to remember the last thing she knows from before this place, and it makes her forearm hurt in a throbbing synchrony with her leg. She looks at Michael's face on the screen, trying to read his expression. She returns to Main Street, sees again all the things Michael pointed out on the walk over; vacates her mind, tries to let the answers come without forcing them to reveal themselves.

She sits back in her chair, relaxing a little when Waverly's fingers start to stroke hers, and she lets her hand be taken onto Waverly's lap, the pulse that never stopped humming becoming an urgent thrum in the pit of her stomach. She tries to focus on Michael's words, her eyes looking elsewhere, to the past and the future, to being alone in a room with Waverly again, shutting the door and being free of all burdens, finally.

 

 

Wynonna and Waverly drag her all the way to their cabin as soon as the presentation is finished, taking directions from Michael and reassuring him that they can find it without help. Nicole starts demanding answers as soon as the door is shut.

"Ok, what in all that is holy is happening, Earps? What do you know that I don't know?"

"Sit down, baby."

"Really, Waverly? You think that, whatever this is, I will need to sit my ass down?" Waverly glances at Wynonna, then turns to Nicole with a level stare that makes up her mind for her. She sits her ass down. 

"Ok, Nicole—" Nicole takes her eyes from Waverly, startled to hear Wynonna use her first name, "—here's the deal. This is not the good place. This is the bad place."

"Yes. Obviously."

Wynonna's mouth gapes, then snaps shut as she looks from Nicole to Waverly and back to Nicole. "Wait. You knew? No way. You've only seen this place for, what? Three hours?"

"Chowder fountains? Plural?" Nicole raises her eyebrows, crossing her arms over her chest. "It's really hot? The human to puppy ratio is completely off? Doc Holliday isn't here, and neither is your child?"

Wynonna stares at her; Waverly looks proud and knowing. Wynonna takes a deep breath in. "Okay, well, I clearly underestimated your detective skills."

Nicole scoffs lightly. "Clearly. But that's not the point. How did you know?"

Waverly touches Nicole's arm, sitting down on the couch, pulling Nicole down with her. Her voice is soft. "Hold on to your hat, Officer." Waverly hides a laugh with a gentle smile and a light touch to the side of Nicole's face. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring up your hat."

Nicole smiles at the look in Waverly's eyes, her voice low. "What's going on, Waves?"

Waverly bites a lip, and waits for Wynonna to sit down in an easy chair opposite the couch. "Okay, so. It's a long story, but I'll start with the most important things, okay? First of all, because I know this is your main worry, Alice is definitely safe." Nicole breathes out. "We killed them all; the curse lifted; we felt it before we—" Waverly looks quickly to Wynonna, her voice lowering, "died."

Nicole looks between them; died; the air in the cabin electric. She looks at Wynonna, knowing what her face will look like, the crumble of grief threatening to rearrange her features into a sob, and she looks away, not wanting Wynonna to feel watched. She looks down at her lap, trying to keep her voice calm. "How did—I died from the Widow, didn't I?" She looks back up, seeing Waverly and Wynonna gives small nods, their eyes full. "And—what happened to Doc and Rosita?" Wynonna looks away, and Nicole sees the gulp in her throat, a lingering curve.

Waverly makes a small noise, half-cough, half-sigh, and her voice is strangled, haltering. "Doc—Doc and I took Alice out of Purgatory. When—after Alice was born. We took her to the perimeter of the Ghost River triangle, to make sure she was Doc's. To make sure I wasn't—" Waverly breaks off, meeting Nicole's eyes, lifting Nicole's hand to rest under her own, pulled flush against her chest, "to make sure I wasn't revenant." Nicole's fingers twitch under Waverly's, and she rushes on. "I wasn't—I'm not. We took Alice out of the triangle, and Perry took her away. In a helicopter. To Gus. To safety." Waverly glances at Wynonna. "But we had to come back into the triangle to get back out of it, after we'd checked Alice was Doc's child. And they were—" Waverly swallows heavily. "There were six of them, waiting for us. And Doc—he wouldn't let me stay. He told me I had to keep going, to keep Alice safe." Waverly's voice is a bare whisper; Nicole can't look away from her face. "To keep myself safe. He died for us. By the time I'd seen Alice safely away, it was too late."

Nicole puts a hand on Waverly's leg, resting it there until Waverly covers it with her own hand and continues speaking. "And Rosita. Rosita was—she was scared, and she made a bad choice. She was going to do something stupid, but then she came back, and she—she died saving Wynonna's life."

Wynonna is looking fixedly away, out of the window, and Nicole watches her face becoming steel. She waits for Wynonna to turn back, Wynonna's voice rasping, hurried. "But Doc and Rosita—they're both in the real good place now. And Dolls, Gus, Nedley, Chrissy—they are all safe and well."

Nicole eyes flicker over to Waverly, who's smiling gently at her. "How? How did you do it?"

"We made a deal. I knew you were in the wrong place." Waverly squeezes Nicole's hand before she can speak. "I'll get to it, I promise. I knew you were here, and I also knew Doc and Rosita were here with you."

"They were—here? With me?" When the words have left her mouth, Nicole feels the flood of a remembered dream filling her body; sees Doc's face before hers; knows it's true.

"Doc was never destined for the bad place. But Rosita was always headed for revenant hell. Michael wasn't lying about that part. There never used to be any way around it. But Michael's been angling to get you, me, and Wynonna to the bad place for a while now."

"Why?"

Wynonna gives a harsh laugh. "Dude is obsessed. I mean, why wouldn't he be? We're awesome."

Waverly rolls her eyes, smiling, turning back to Nicole. "He thinks we're perfect torture subjects. He got you to agree to come here."

Nicole feels a jolt in her stomach, a wash of panic rising in her throat. Her voice is a choke. "Agree?"

Waverly's hand is cool against hers. "He told you that he'd spare a lot of people a lot of suffering if you came here, instead of going to the good place." Waverly's smile is a proud line that pulls Nicole back to the room. "And you did. And Michael—he was good on his word, too."

"What about Doc? And Rosita?"

"Michael did the same thing to Doc. He told Doc that he could save Rosita from revenant hell if he agreed to go to the bad place with her, instead of going straight to the good place. So they both came here. But we—we offered a trade. That math Michael was talking about? That is sound. That's really how they do it. But there's some complexities Michael didn't mention. For example, Rosita is a revenant, which has a negative effect—she had minus points built in to her number. So no matter how much good she did, the revenant part of her would have always tipped the balance. It's like a negative figure multiplied by a positive figure. Always negative. And Doc—Doc spent so long alive, he racked up points just from years of inaction at the bottom of the well. His overall score was always going to come up positive, but the years alone brought it way down." Waverly glances at Wynonna. "To make a trade, we knew that we had to make an equilibrium, or a deficit that wasn't in our favor."

Nicole frowns, and Waverly looks into her eyes. "We had to offer a combined total of positive points that would more than cancel out the negative total of Rosita's and Doc's figures. My number was nearly there by itself, but not quite enough." Waverly pauses, looking at Wynonna again. "Michael also didn't say, but the Earp heir has some additional points built in, on account of the sacrifices they've already made. By their existence. By being the heir." Nicole looks over to Wynonna's stony face. She tries to meet her eyes, but Wynonna won't look at her. Nicole turns back to Waverly, who continues talking, her voice catching a little. "Wynonna had a really big figure. Together, we were more than enough."

Nicole looks at Wynonna. It takes her several seconds to be able to speak, her voice thick. "You came here for me?" She looks back at Waverly.

Waverly is staring at her, the green in her eyes catching the sun coming in through the windows, making Nicole feel like her body is suddenly too hot. Waverly's hand is on hers again. "Where you are, that's where I'm going to be." Waverly's jaw clenches, and Nicole watches her throat move. "It wouldn't have been a good place if I'd ended up somewhere away from you."

Wynonna clears her throat. "Yeah, and Waves needed my numbers, so. It's a two-for-one Earp deal for you, Nicole."

Nicole looks up sharply, meeting Wynonna's eyes this time. She can't read them. They reflect the light back to her, and she feels a desperate gnawing at her insides.

Waverly huffs, abruptly standing up. "Wynonna Earp, we are dead. Dead. You can be honest for this one time. If ever there was a moment, it is now."

Wynonna's body straightens at the sound of Waverly's restrained anger, and Nicole watches Waverly, surprised, her heartbeat losing its rhythm for several seconds, a flush rising in her cheeks. She bites her lower lip, trying not to make eye contact with either of them. She crosses her legs, willing away the thrum that's warm and insistent between them.

Wynonna coughs behind a hand, and there's silence for a minute.

"Fine." Her voice softens. "Fine. I did math for you, okay? I was all in, from the very start. As soon as Waverly told me what was happening, I was in. Waverly loves you." Wynonna pauses, looking away. "I love you, too." She looks back at Nicole. "But what Michael said was true. I love Waverly and Alice more than I love anyone in this world. And if Waverly needs you to be happy, then I'll do anything to make sure she gets to be with you." Wynonna sighs. "It wasn't up for debate."

The room swims. Nicole tries to hold on to Wynonna's gaze. Tries to thank her with her eyes. Her leg is on fire. The air is hot. She can feel the couch under her, and Waverly beside her, and she can't stop thinking about the desperate need to touch Waverly. She can't comprehend anything that's happened. She feels as though she's lost years of time, taken away from her while she's been asleep. She finds Waverly's eyes again.

"What's next?"

Wynonna moves to the threshold of the main room, going towards the kitchen of the cabin. Nicole watches one of Wynonna's hands reaching up to her face once her body is past where Nicole sits with Waverly on the couch. Waverly's voice is a whisper. "Just give her a minute, okay?"

Nicole tries a smile, but her mouth feels like it isn't obeying, and she leans in to Waverly instead, her arms threading around Waverly's arms, finding her back. Waverly's body moves in close as soon as Nicole's hands have touched her shoulder blades. Nicole rests her cheek on Waverly's shoulder, the smell of Waverly's hair an intimacy that makes her reel. Waverly's hands are firm on her own back; her arms a tight embrace; she mumbles something and Nicole lifts her head and twists her face towards Waverly to hear her better. "What, baby?"

Waverly turns her own head so that their faces are centimeters apart, and Nicole senses the rushing power of a year that she can't remember threatening to pull her under. She can feel Waverly's breath lightly touch her own skin, and her heart hammers in her chest, a thundering off-beat staccato rhythm, nerves in her stomach like she's never kissed Waverly before in her entire life. She can't stop staring at Waverly's lips, feeling her heartbeat everywhere, a hymn in her ears and between her legs. Waverly is whispering again, but all the sound has been taken out of the room, and her eyes can't make out the movement of Waverly's mouth; nothing means anything except that she needs to close all the remaining gaps between their bodies.

A bang, and then a clatter shortly after it, bursts from the kitchen, cutting through the deafening sound of her own heart, and Nicole startles, looking over to the door. She can hear Wynonna muttering angrily under her breath, and she lets her hands fall from Waverly's back, pulling her chest up straight, letting their bodies come further apart. Wynonna appears at the doorway, holding a spoon in each hand, brandishing them like tiny blunt swords.

Wynonna's eyes narrow at the sight of interruption evident in their bodies; she looks at Waverly's hands returning to her own lap, trailing away from Nicole's back, and she rolls her eyes.

"Guys. I promise I will leave you alone when we've figured things out. But." Wynonna wiggles the spoons around, making small jabs in the air, one spoon directed at each of them. "We have some serious problems, here. There are absolutely no knives or forks in this place. And? When I try to say the queen of swears, it also comes out as fork. Like Michael is obsessed with forks. Which, actually, might make sense. Maybe he has a collection of tridents. Anyway, listen." Wynonna clears her throat. "Fork. Forking fork. Mother-forking pile of shirt. Count. Count." Wynonna's eyes are wide, and she whispers a horrified interlude. "The best ones are taken." She raises her voice again to full volume, projecting into the room. "Duck-wad. Biggering twit-hound. That's not even a word. 'Biggering'?" Her face is frozen in shock.

Nicole feels Waverly twitching, and sees the profile of her face, recognizing suppressed laughter. "Wynonna. It's not the worst thing in the world. It's annoying, sure, but I think we can manage."

Wynonna throws her hands up in the air in disgust, still holding the spoons. "Waverly. Half my power is in my swears. You don't understand—" Wynonna glances at Nicole, her eyes softening, and she looks back at Waverly, a smile starting on her lips, "I think you're underestimating the horror I'm facing because you're distracted by being reunited with Nicole's boobs." Wynonna gasps dramatically, her eyebrows up, and her voice raises. "Boobs! I can say boobs!" She gives a manic laugh, and Waverly rolls her eyes. Nicole bites her lip to stop from laughing, and tries to look stern. Wynonna ignores them both, throwing the spoons down onto a side table, and stepping lightly over to flop down into the easy chair. "I feel better."

Waverly sighs, turning to Nicole. "When Michael was telling us about Jeremy, did that sound familiar to you, at all? I'm guessing if you've been here a year, you've spent a lot of time with him."

Nicole frowns. "No. I don't have any memories of Jeremy." She pauses, voice quieting, looking at Waverly. "The only time I think I remember things is when I get close to you, and then I can feel—how long I've been here."

Wynonna makes a small retching sound, and Nicole looks over to her. "Ew." Wynonna rolls her eyes, a smile ghosting her lips. "I should have known you two would be absolutely intolerable."

Waverly sighs again. "Yeah, well, get used to it, Wynonna." Her voice is light, but Nicole can hear the scratch deep in it; a tenor she recognizes. A sound that mirrors the urgent tension low in her own body. The voice Nicole knows is prelude to Waverly's hands coming out and pulling her in, by her sweater, or her back, or whatever she can find, bringing Nicole close to her own body, eyes a song of longing.

Nicole can't take her eyes from her; Waverly looks away, out of the window, her body stilling. "Did it sound weird to either of you, what Michael was saying about Jeremy being 'out of action'?"

Nicole raises an eyebrow. "Yeah, actually. The stuff about Jeremy being made like Michael sounded right to me. Wouldn't he be incapable of being out of action, or something?"

Wynonna huffs. "That line about us 'respecting his boundaries and needs and not calling on him' was complete bull." She looks up. "Hey! 'Bull' makes it past the censor!" Her grin is satisfied. "I'm getting the hang of this."

Waverly looks at Wynonna. "I agree that the line was bull, but why? Why use a line like that? Why mention Jeremy at all? Why not just pretend he doesn't exist?"

"Because of what you said." Wynonna and Waverly both look up at Nicole, brows creased. She looks from one to the other of them. "You said he'd been angling to get us all here, right? You said he thought we were perfect torture subjects. This place—" Nicole sweeps her hand out, gesturing to nothing and everything at once, "—this place isn't a conventional torture chamber, right? That means he's talking about psychological torture." She stares down at her hands. "Alice and Doc and Rosita aren't here. They would have been our buffers." She looks at Wynonna. "All that stuff Michael said about who loves whom the most?"

Wynonna stares at Nicole, eyes fixed, frown on her face. Nicole meets her stare. "Can you think of a better way to try to get us to fight, Wynonna? Tell us that Waverly loves us the exact same amount? Making it impossible for us to object without either—" she glances at Waverly, "—interrogating Waverly about whether that's true, which is frankly disgusting, but perhaps would be the expected human response, or just burying our feelings. And potentially becoming very resentful about the assumptions we were making." Wynonna is still frowning, and Nicole sighs. "Look. Wynonna. Michael wants us here because he knows that the three of us, together, especially Waverly, could cause each other as much suffering as happiness, if the things happened that he wants to happen."

Nicole clears her throat, meeting Waverly's eyes, seeing both confusion and understanding fighting in them. She softens her voice. "It's okay, Waves. My point is that it doesn't matter how much, or in what way, you love either of us." She looks back at Wynonna, raising her voice a little. "Right, Wynonna? All that matters is that she loves us both, and we know that it's a whole lot."

Wynonna nods, a firm fast motion. "Yeah, totally."

"I've no intention of fighting with Wynonna over you, Waverly."

Waverly's smile is gentle, relieved. She looks over to Wynonna, giving her the same smile. "What are you saying about Jeremy, though? Why did Michael tell us about him?"

Nicole gives a forced, frustrated smile. "Michael was taking advantage of you, Waverly. He knew that if he said Jeremy needed space and time to heal, you would stop us both from searching him out, even more surely than if he tried to hide Jeremy by not telling us about him. It's why Michael wants you here. Your you-ness must be really appealing to him." Her smile becomes real, and she meets Waverly's eyes. "Which I don't blame him for."

Wynonna's voice is quiet, slow. "So I guess we need to find Jeremy."

Some shift in the air makes the hair on Nicole's forearms prickle to attention, and she watches Wynonna and Waverly stare at each other. After several yawning seconds of silence, Wynonna mumbles, "Yeah, good plan."

Nicole looks at Waverly. "What just happened? What was that?"

Waverly brushes loose strands of hair behind her ear, meeting Nicole's eyes. "We'll explain everything, I promise. But, for now, we should get dressed."

Nicole's eyebrows raise, and she watches Wynonna leaving the room. She feels Waverly tug her hand, and then she's being led up the stairs, watching Wynonna push one of the doors mostly closed, and following Waverly into the room immediately to the right. Waverly pulls the door gently shut, and Nicole hears Wynonna pulling open wooden drawers, rummaging through things in the room next door.

There's a sudden Hey and Nicole looks up to the wall between the two rooms. She hears floorboards creak as Wynonna steps close, and then there's a rap of her knuckles on the wall. Her voice filters through, muffled. "No funny business. There's no time for any of that, okay? Nicole." Wynonna's voice rises. "Nicole, I expect you to keep everything in order over there. I will know if you're getting busy with my little sister."

Nicole laughs at Waverly's horrified expression, and turns her head to address the wall. "Sure, Wynonna. No funny business."

Waverly smiles at her, turning to open a closet door and stepping inside, hands flicking clothes aside on the rail, pulling things down. She hands several pieces of clothing to Nicole. Nicole looks down at them, confused. "What are we doing, Waverly?"

Waverly smiles at her, a mysterious hook; her eyes glinting in pleasure at Nicole's confusion. "You'll see. Consider what's about to happen as a gift from Wynonna and me to you."

Nicole frowns, but can't help smiling at the same time, dropping the clothes onto the bed to watch Waverly go to a dresser and start to pull out more clothes; socks; a headband. She can't make herself look away, eyes locked on Waverly as her fingers unlatch the button on her pants. Then Waverly's hands move to the bottom of her t-shirt, and she lifts the material over her head. When she's pulled the shirt over her head, she catches Nicole's gaze, her eyes soft, a smile playing on her face. Waverly lets the shirt fall to the bed, and stands on the other side of it to Nicole, staring at her, cheeks flushing, the skin of her stomach bare, the edge of her black bra tracing a curve at the top of her breasts, her collarbones a line Nicole can't stop following with her eyes.

Nicole tries to meet Waverly's gaze and tries to stop her feet from taking her around the bed to Waverly at the same time, wanting with a wild carelessness that makes her forget where they are. She feels her legs starting to move, and then Wynonna is banging on the wall again.

"Nicole! It's too quiet in there! It doesn't take that long to take clothes off and put new ones on! Stop staring at my half-naked sister."

Nicole's eyes widen in shock, and she looks at Waverly, whose blush has deepened. Nicole keeps her voice at a whisper so Wynonna won't hear her. "How did she know?" Waverly shakes her head, smiling, and pushes her pants down her legs, stepping out of them and reaching for the dark blue pants on the bed, pulling them on, trying not to look at Nicole.

Nicole hastily starts to unbutton her shirt, her fingers fumbling, and she clears her throat to yell back through the wall.

"Taking my shirt off, Wynonna! Putting a new one on! Nothing to see here." She hears Wynonna laugh. She starts to tug her jeans down, blushing herself at the feeling of Waverly's eyes on her body, trying not to look up, but recognizing a quiet snap and being unable to stop herself from glancing over, seeing Waverly staring at her while she shrugs the straps of her bra off her shoulders. Nicole feels the air leaving her chest in a rush, a tight knot in her stomach, and her heart won't stop going double-time as she watches the way Waverly bites her lip, standing still, letting Nicole see her. She recognizes every gesture. Waverly's eyes are darkening and Nicole can see her chest rising and falling too fast, and then she lets the bra fall off, looking right into Nicole's eyes. Nicole thinks the floor is moving, and she feels like she's already touching Waverly's skin, her body remembering and anticipating something in the same second. The knot in her stomach expands, warm and fluid, and Waverly's eyes suddenly shift.

Nicole remembers Wynonna, and clears her throat, her voice coming out too shrill. "Putting pants on now!" She reaches out to the bed, eyes still fixed on Waverly, stumbling into the pants and drawing them up, watching Waverly's shy smile as she puts her arms into a sports bra and pulls it over her head.

Wynonna's voice comes through, light and playful. "I'm going to wait outside, okay? Hurry it up. I'll come back up if you take more than two minutes."

Nicole considers the risk, wondering whether to walk over and touch Waverly, rest her hands on the warm skin of her lower back, pull her close, kiss her deeply; but Waverly is pulling her hair into a ponytail and she remembers where they are, trying to stop her heart from bumping into her rib cage, pulling her own bra off and looking away from Waverly.

She can feel Waverly coming closer and she tries not to look up, afraid that if she does she won't ever be able to look away again, and then Waverly's hand rests gently, briefly, on the skin above her hipbone, a promise, hand fitting perfectly at the slope of Nicole's side, and then her touch is gone and Nicole rushes to finish getting dressed, shoving her feet into the shoes Waverly has left on the floor by the bed for her. She feels Waverly's hand circling around hers, then twisting around so that her fingers are interspersed with Nicole's, a gentle, soft grip. Nicole tries to push away the desire to draw Waverly's hand towards her and tug them both to the bed, and lets Waverly lead her to the door instead.

Nicole can hear Wynonna outside before she can see her, some light grunts, and running steps, and she can't understand what to make of the noise until she steps onto the porch behind Waverly and sees Wynonna completing a dynamic warm-up in front of the cabin, taking tiny fast strides in one direction, then turning around and covering the same stretch of ground in enormous gaping leaps. Nicole stares, unable to look away as Wynonna, lost in concentration, turns away and begins taking jogging steps with her knees coming up high to her chest. Nicole can feel Waverly's eyes on her, but she's captivated by the sight of Wynonna in serious running apparel, focused on her routine.

Wynonna reaches the end of her knees-up sequence, turning back towards the cabin, and Waverly and Nicole come into her line of sight. She makes deliberate eye contact with Nicole, fixing her stare on her, and comes the distance back to them, this time kicking her feet back and up with each step to lightly hit her ass with the soles of her feet at their highest point. Nicole feels like her eyes and her brain have been severed, and she can't tell if she's supposed to laugh. She stares at Wynonna as she gets closer, and can feel that her mouth is hanging slightly open. Wynonna's hair is up in a neat ponytail. She's wearing gray tights and a white t-shirt, and there's a running watch at her wrist. She comes to a stop in front of Nicole, raising an eyebrow. "Yes, Officer? Is there a problem?"

"You—" Nicole looks quickly to Waverly. "You got her to—" She pauses, unable to continue.

Waverly grins. "Nope." She glances over to Wynonna. "This was all her."

Wynonna crosses her arms. "Yeah, Nicole. I'm a runner. And I'm going to beat you. Just FYI."

Nicole tries to close her mouth, then stutters out, "I—you," She sighs; tries again. "I wasn't expecting this."

"No kidding." Wynonna's impassive gaze breaks, and she grins. "Your face is excellent right now."

 

 

They go out into the woods they can see from the cabin's back yard, and Nicole tries to keep up, running beside Waverly, ignoring the pain in her left leg and making it move as if it's not hurting, eyes on Wynonna a few paces ahead, watching the light practiced strides that mean she's been running regularly for a long time, unable to keep the amazement from her face, despite needing to focus hard on making her breathing even. Wynonna looks over her shoulder now and again to laugh at the look on Nicole's face.

"We going too hard for you, Nicole?"

Nicole tries to quiet her breathing, taking a gulp of air to sound less out of breath than she is, and keeps her eyes on Wynonna while she answers. "Nope. This is just fine."

Waverly laughs quietly beside her, and Nicole frowns at her, pretending to be mad. Waverly reaches over and rests a hand on her arm briefly, smiling, and Nicole's frown dissolves into a mirroring smile. She looks ahead of them to a clearing in the trees, and has a weird precognition that they won't be able to go further. She slows her pace, coming to a walk, and Waverly slows beside her, calling up ahead to Wynonna. "Wait, Wynonna."

Wynonna stops, turning around, jogging back. "What is it?"

Nicole looks around, breathing hard through the words, trying to calm her heartbeat. "I don't know. I just think we can't go any further than that clearing."

Wynonna looks into the trees, her brow furrowed, and she starts walking slowly towards the clearing. Nicole watches Wynonna's hand flicker at the empty space where Peacemaker used to be. She takes deep breaths, opening her mouth enough to quiet the sound, looking to Waverly, watching her breathe evenly, like she hasn't been running at all. Like the work is nothing, her body stronger than any effort. Waverly meets her eyes, and gives a small smile like she knows what Nicole is thinking. Nicole blushes hard, looking back to the trees, pretending to find something of interest at the base of one of them.

Wynonna calls over from fifteen feet away, at the other edge of the clearing. "Hey."

Waverly and Nicole look up, and walk over to where Wynonna's standing. Her foot is hovering above the ground, about to be planted down where the undergrowth starts again. "Watch this." She puts her foot down, and the air in front of them becomes hazy; twisting. Waverly's hand goes out to Nicole's arm. Wynonna lifts her foot up again, and the air clears.

"Weird, right?"

"I guess that's the limit." Nicole looks backwards. "Michael doesn't want us going any further, I suppose. Or maybe there is no further?"

Wynonna puts her foot back down inside the clearing, crossing her arms. "Yeah. In any case, here's as good as anywhere, I guess."

Nicole looks from Wynonna to Waverly. "Why are we here?"

Wynonna smiles at her. "We just wanted to make sure Michael didn't walk in on us, Nicole." Her eyes are teasing. "You'd know all about that, right? It's kind of awkward when someone walks in on you."

Waverly hits Wynonna's arm, a loud smack. Wynonna mutters a small hey, and Waverly hisses out a breath through her teeth. She looks at Nicole. "Michael can't hear us. It doesn't work like that here. Not like when we were alive. When he could hear everything we said. We—" She glances over at Wynonna. "We had to be really careful about what we said. He knew we were coming, anyway. But he doesn't know a lot of stuff, and we want to keep it that way. This just means he's much less likely to accidentally overhear us talk to Jeremy."

Nicole nods, frowning. "Okay."

Wynonna rubs her arm, eyes apologetic. "Yeah, and I'm sorry about the remark. I've just—" She looks away, her voice a mutter. "I've missed teasing you. That's all."

Nicole smiles. "Yeah, well. I never thought I'd say it, but I think I've kinda missed that, too."

Wynonna grins, nudging Waverly with an elbow. "See?"

Waverly rolls her eyes. "Whatever, let's do this. Jeremy?"

Jeremy appears out of nothing, his shirt crumpled and unbuttoned; vulnerable, soft-looking skin showing where the shirt hangs apart, an untied bow tie at his neck, no jacket. There's a black mark across the right thigh of his pants like the fabric has been burnt. His eyes are dark, tired. He blinks against the sun cutting through the trees.

Nicole steps into Jeremy's line of sight, and he squints at her. "Nicole?"

"Yeah, you remember me, Jeremy?"

Jeremy's smile is small, hurting. "Of course. We're friends."

Nicole glances quickly over to Waverly and then back to Jeremy. "I'm sorry that I don't remember you." She pauses. "I believe that we're really good friends, though." She puts a hand out, resting it on Jeremy's arm. "Are you okay? You look a little rumpled."

Jeremy gives a small laugh. "I am, aren't I?" He looks around. "Is this Waverly?" He looks at Waverly carefully, his smile growing. "It is, isn't it?"

Jeremy steps closer to Waverly, Nicole's hand falling from his arm, and he puts out a hand to her. "Hi, Waverly. I've heard so much about you. You're—" He pauses, frowning, then shakes his head slightly, carrying on. "John Henry loves you a lot."

Waverly looks over at Wynonna, quickly, and then puts a hand out to catch his, smiling gently at Jeremy. "You know Doc?"

Jeremy turns to Nicole, face clouded with confusion, and then his eyes settle on Wynonna, his body tensing. His open shirt flutters a bit as a breeze starts up. His hand falls from Waverly's grip, and he turns his whole body to Wynonna, voice quiet under the sound of the leaves moving in the light wind. "Wynonna?"

Nicole watches as Wynonna's body echoes the tension in Jeremy's, her hands moving at her sides, fingers playing in the air. She takes a step towards him. "You know me, too?"

Jeremy doesn't move closer to Wynonna, and his eyes are dark and scared-looking. "I know you." He looks between the three of them, frowning. "John Henry loves you. All of you. But Wynonna is—you're—"

Jeremy's voice peters out. Wynonna stares at him, her voice soft. "You love him, too."

Jeremy's eyes flicker over to her. "Yes." His voice is barely audible.

Wynonna takes another step towards him, her voice lowering to match his. "I'm sorry, Jeremy."

"It's okay. You're nice people." Jeremy's smile comes back, trying to erase his frown. "What's going on, though? Everything is really blurry." He squints again, like the sun is too bright.

Nicole rubs at the back of her neck. "We were hoping you could help us with figuring that out, actually."

Jeremy's shirt flaps further open as the breeze gets stronger, and Nicole takes a step close to him. "Hey, do you want me to help you button your shirt?"

Jeremy looks down at his chest, frowning, and then back at Nicole, his face grateful. "Yes, please."

Nicole steps close, reaching for either side of his shirt with her hands. She starts to pull them together, then freezes, staring at the skin of his chest. She can feel Waverly behind her, stepping closer. "Nicole, what's wrong?"

Nicole looks over her shoulder at Waverly, and then over Jeremy's at Wynonna. "Uh. Jeremy, do you mind if we pull your shirt back a little? It looks like you have something, here."

Jeremy stares down at his own chest, tucking his chin in and squinting to try to focus on what Nicole is looking at. He looks back up at Nicole, frowning. "Uh, yeah, sure."

Nicole steps back a little as Wynonna and Waverly come to her elbows, gently pushing aside the edges of Jeremy's shirt. She hears Wynonna breathe in noisily. "Dude, what is that?"

Jeremy is looking back at his chest again, and his frown clears a little. He looks up, face brightening. "I believe that would be a third nipple." He looks at their faces, pleasure in his eyes. "Did you know that, in some cultures, a third nipple is considered good luck?" He meets Waverly's eyes as she nods at him, smiling at her recognition. He looks back to Wynonna. "I think I'm evolving. All these new things keep happening." He pauses, eyes flicking around to rest on their faces. "I used to arrive here every time my name got mentioned. Now it's got to be an explicit request. You have to make my name a question. And other stuff, too. I never used to have messy clothes." He looks down at his suit, dismay on his face. "It's probably all the reboots."

Nicole is still staring at his chest. "Jeremy, I actually meant what's above your nipple." She puts out a hand, finger hovering in the air over his skin. "This."

Waverly and Wynonna lean in a little, and then Wynonna leans back out to look at Nicole. "A w, another w, an n, and a d? What does that mean?"

Jeremy is looking at Nicole. "It's yours, Nicole."

"What?"

"You gave it to me. With John Henry. And Rosita." He's frowning, eyes looking at nothing in the distance, unfocused. "It was your note. You wrote a note."

"When, Jeremy? How?"

"I don't know when it was. I'm sorry. Time is weird. It was a while ago. You asked me to keep it safe for you, in my mouth. And then you kept getting reset, and I kept getting rebooted, and everything is really blurry, still. But John Henry and Rosita were there, too, and we were all friends." He pauses, voice catching. "You were my friends." He looks up at Nicole. "And then you suggested I get the note tattooed on me, so we wouldn't lose it."

Nicole looks back at the letters. "Is that what the note said? 'WWND'? Just that?"

"Yes. Just that."

Waverly clears her throat. "What would Nedley do. It's: 'what would Nedley do?'"

Nicole's head whips to Waverly's, and she catches Waverly's eyes. Her voice is an expelled breath. "Of course."

Wynonna puts a hand out, stopping before she touches the tattoo. "It's cool, Jeremy. Very hard-core. I love how you've even got it in Nicole's handwriting." Jeremy smiles at her, and she grins back, turning to Nicole. "So you figured it all out pretty forking fast, I guess, Nicole? If you were writing a note to yourself a while ago. But was this note just so that you could quickly understand what this place was, or something else?" She looks back at the small dark letters on Jeremy's chest. "Did you have a bigger plan?"

Nicole frowns. "I don't know. I guess if Doc and Rosita were here, probably."

Jeremy is also frowning, looking into the distance again. "You were always planning stuff. Of the hours I spent with you three, 67.3 percent of the time was spent talking about Waverly and Wynonna and Alice; 30.2 percent of the time was talking about how to figure out a way back to them. And the last 2.5 percent was about the chowder." He looks between them. "I'm rounding up to one decimal place."

Nicole smiles. "That sounds accurate."

Waverly takes Nicole's hand. "So the tattoo is maybe a clue, as well as a note from past-Nicole to present-Nicole."

They stand in silence for a minute, all thinking, and then Wynonna starts pacing. The breeze settles and the woods grow still. Nicole looks at the edge of the clearing where Wynonna had put her foot into a hazy, wobbling space. Waverly's hand is gentle in her own, and she lets herself think of nothing for a minute, everything in her focused on the feeling of Waverly's skin, a balm against the fissure of a year that's lodged in her bones.

Jeremy mutters something, and Nicole looks up, drawn back into the right time. "What, Jeremy?"

Jeremy's frowning a little as he speaks. The voice that comes out of his mouth is not his own. "No, Trevor, it's going fine. They're being the usual pains in my ass that you would expect, but it's all on track. They're getting very frazzled. Doc especially."

Wynonna steps closer to Jeremy, staring at him. "Why does your voice sound like Michael, Jeremy?"

Jeremy's frown clears. "It was Nicole's idea. She wanted to bug Michael's office." He looks at Nicole. "You told me I couldn't tell Michael, but I can't lie. You told me it wasn't a lie, because we would be telling him eventually. And you asked for a radio and a mike and access to his office. I gave them to you, but then I got reset. And when I came back, I was the bug." He looks between them, smiling. "I have a record of everything Michael's said from the point at which he brought me back the next time. I must have activated the recording, and it didn't matter whether I was summoned into Michael's presence, or not, because the reality he's created is contingent on my existence." Jeremy's face clears into understanding. "I'm always there, even when I'm not. I'm there now."

Wynonna is grinning. "Damn, Jeremy. You tiny genius."

 

 

Back at the cabin's porch, Wynonna pushes open the front door, then blocks it with her body. "Okay, both of you, listen." She narrows her eyes, looking at them both. "I hate to be the one to say this, but I think you might have to shower one after the other, okay?" She grimaces. "It's gross to be a cop, but I'm putting my foot down for this. If you go into that bathroom together, I know I won't be seeing you again for hours, and we have some serious talking to get through, okay? Michael will only tolerate us being out of his sight for so long." She stares at Waverly, voice low. "Okay, baby girl?"

Waverly nods, her jaw clenching and lips tight. She looks at Nicole. "Yeah."

Nicole swallows, looking at Wynonna. "I don't like you being the cop, either. Just for the record."

Wynonna's face breaks, and she smiles. "Well, I guess there's no harm in you sharing that room to get dressed. As long as you don't hang around doing it at a snail's pace, this time." She pauses. "And by 'doing it', I obviously do not mean doing it."

Waverly laughs. "For the first time in your life."

 

 

In the main room, Nicole can't help her body coming as close as possible to Waverly, wanting at least to have the side of her leg pressed against hers and her arm twisting around Waverly's, ending in their hands caught together. She can feel the hum of Waverly's body louder than the noisy bangs coming from the kitchen. She tries to keep her eyes on Waverly's hand to keep from looking at her face and seeing the smile she knows is there. The look that she knows will pull her back into the room upstairs, seeing Waverly stepping through the door, a towel wrapped around her, hair damp, a grin on her face.

Wynonna comes clattering into the main room, holding three plates, one in each hand, a third resting on her forearm, a precarious balance she seems unconcerned by, a towel over her other forearm, and a tiny frown on her face. She comes close to the sofa and falls into a slight squat, keeping her upper body upright and tensed so that the plates stay level. "Here." Her voice comes through clenched teeth, and she breathes out as they both take a plate, Nicole receiving the one in her left hand and Waverly reaching out to pick the plate up from Wynonna's forearm. Nicole stares down at three slices of peanut butter toast with banana slices, strewn on top haphazardly, like Wynonna has just tossed the pieces in the vague direction of the bread.

She looks up at Wynonna. "This is what was causing all the banging?"

Wynonna stares at her. "Look. I offered to make lunch so you two could be alone for ten minutes, okay? It's not my fault if you didn't take the opportunity and make out with my sister, like I know you're dying to do. That's all on you, dude."

Nicole blushes, looking away. She can feel Waverly beside her trying not to laugh, and then Waverly's hand is back under her own.

Wynonna goes to sit down in the easy chair, tearing into the toast. "So, okay. Team Wayhaughtwyn. Yeah? Maybe a bit of a mouthful." She looks away, then back, grinning. "Then again, I guess we are kind of a mouthful." She wiggles her eyebrows. "Also accurate because we are way hot, and also going to win."

Nicole laughs. She glances at Waverly. "Does this mean you're going to fill me in on everything, now?"

"Yeah, totally." Waverly puts her plate down on the low coffee table, untouched. She sits forwards a little, keeping hold of Nicole's hand. "Did you have specific questions, or do you want us to just go through it in order?"

Nicole looks at Wynonna, cheeks full of toast. "I'd really like to know how you guys now seem to be telepathic." 

Wynonna chokes, coughing a little and swallowing, putting down her plate on the table and grimacing. She looks at Nicole. "Dude, I swear. Don't worry. As soon as you guys are ready to do the do, I'm outta there." She looks at Waverly, frowning. "We can do that, right, Waves? You can turn it off?" She looks suddenly panicked, her voice falling to a horrified whisper. "I don't have to be there, right, when you're, you know?"

Waverly laughs, loud, wheezing out a single word. "No." She takes a breath, trying to stop her laughter. "No, Wynonna. I can—I can shut you out. It's like—like closing a door."

Wynonna breathes out. "Okay, good. Good."

Waverly smiles at Nicole. "It started after Wynonna gave birth. I was holding Peacemaker, and I could feel Wynonna was afraid, and I—willed it to shoot for me. And it did. I got this feeling like I was Wynonna, for a second. I could feel what her body felt like. And then it was gone." She pauses. "And so were you. And I couldn't do it again for a long while. And I was dreaming about you, and Doc, and Rosita, all the time, and I couldn't figure anything out. I knew you were here, but I knew I couldn't tell Wynonna about it out loud; like it was too dangerous. And then, in August, I saw Deidre."

Waverly glances at Wynonna and then finds Nicole's eyes again. "You know, the creator of the real good place, like Michael said. She'd been there in the dreams with you, too, but I didn't recognize her. And then something all fitted together, and I knew the answers. When Wynonna and I went out to fight the next revenants, I knew that we had to both be scared again, and then I could—make it work. Join us together. Deidre didn't tell me in words; I just knew. Wynonna gave me the gun, and I could shoot it, and then—from then on, I could feel her thoughts, in me. I started trying to explain things, and eventually we were able to talk that way, instead." She looks at Wynonna, giving her a quiet smile. "It really freaked Dolls out. We tried to be subtle, but he totally knew something was up."

Nicole leans forward, staring at Waverly's face. "How, Waves?"

Waverly meets her eyes. "I'm not human. I'm Wynonna's sister, but not by blood. I'm descended from Deidre."

Nicole looks over to Wynonna; sees her wide smile. "And she was able to do this magic telepathy thing with me, because she picked me. As her sister."

Nicole smiles in return, then looks back at Waverly. "And Michael couldn't hear you."

Waverly laughs gently. "Nope. And he can't reset our memories, either. He's going to try, any time now. But it won't matter."

Nicole looks into Waverly's eyes, her voice soft. "But I'll forget all of this?"

Waverly squeezes her hand, her eyes apologetic. "Trust us, okay?"

Nicole nods. "What are we going to do?"

Wynonna's smile is electric. "We're going to make a new Peacemaker. And then we're going to kill Michael."

In the silence, the front door pushes open, and then Michael is there, his eyes narrowed. "You figured it out, didn't you?" His hand raising.

 

 

Chapter Text

Waverly pushes them both over the threshold of the room with a small controlled shift of her body; Nicole takes a step back, right hand instinctively reaching behind her to check there's no furniture in the way, left hand unable to let go of where Waverly has firmly pulled it to rest on the slope of her hip. Waverly's eyes are nearly unreadable in the low light. The sun has almost completely gone out of the room, and Nicole tries to take her eyes from Waverly's face long enough to look at what's in the space around her, twisting her head to see the bed. She looks back into Waverly's eyes, halting her backward steps to bring Waverly close, and making a gentle jolt of their bodies. Waverly is looking up into her eyes, shadows of what she wants in the dilation of her pupils; silent, speaking with her hands moving, one on Nicole's back and one unfurling around her neck, a firm question at her hairline.

Nicole tries to steady her feet, fighting to break through the fog that's fallen over her mind, wanting to bring her mouth to Waverly's, but unsure whether she's supposed to; unsure where they are; unsure if she's risking something by falling back onto the bed the way Waverly obviously wants her to. When she speaks, her voice seems too loud in the room, and she's afraid it will break some spell; bring Waverly back to clear thought; make them pause.

"Waves."

Waverly breaks her gaze from Nicole's mouth to look into her eyes, a small frown blooming at the question standing behind her name. "What's wrong?"   

"Are you sure this is okay?" Nicole watches the frown sweep across Waverly's face, and rushes to clarify. "Not this, I mean—this, I know you want this, and I want it, too, so much—but," Nicole looks at the door behind Waverly, starting to frown herself, trying to make her voice quiet; trying not to make it an interruption to the feeling of Waverly under her hands. "Is it okay for us to be doing this right now? Are you sure we don't need to be helping Wynonna?"

She gently brushes sections of Waverly's hair off her face, trying to slow down time, to enjoy the silk of the strands under her fingers, delicately nudging it behind Waverly's ear, letting her fingers continue their motion and teasing through the hair that's loose and falling down Waverly's back. She stops her hand from moving back to Waverly's scalp to gently grasp at her hair near the roots, and lets her hand fall instead to Waverly's upper arm, wrapping around it briefly and then finding a thrill in wandering her fingers up and down her arm. Part of her mind returns to Michael's words, the look on his face as he revealed the answers to her. She wonders at the fact of being non-existent for a year, her body caught in stasis. Her skin feels itchy; her bones tired. Some part of her, deep inside, restless; every part of her wanting to kiss Waverly; the conflict pulling apart her reason.  

Waverly is still frowning, but Nicole can see a new glint of something in her eyes. "It's okay. Wynonna is fine, she wants us to have this, I swear. Everything else can wait, okay? We'll explain everything to you later." Her voice is quiet, firm, like something's hidden in it. But her eyes are familiar, a promise, and Nicole doesn't really hear the words, just sees the look that she knows to trust, and nods. The loud voice in her head that's trying to ask questions gets quieter and is finally silent.

Nicole surrenders to the urge to bring her hand back up into Waverly's hair, her fingers a soft grasp near the roots, and she watches as Waverly's eyes cloud over with a familiar faraway look. Waverly's mouth parts a little and Nicole gets caught on the sight, the memory of the last time she saw Waverly's clear wanting laid out before her feeling like it was long ago, and then she feels Waverly's hands returning to touch her body, fingers on her back as Waverly steps in close, voiding all the space between them. The press of Waverly's hands is firm, definite. There's a joyful deep warm between Nicole's legs that spreads up into her stomach like ink through water, slow and inexorable. She can feel the heave in her chest at the feeling of Waverly's body so close, and she lets her hand drop to Waverly's cheek, brushing it lightly with her fingers.

Waverly's hands become a grasp on her back, an urgency matching her own breath, and she can feel the motion Waverly's making with her body, her own legs obeying some unspoken command, and then Waverly's looking right into her eyes, such pleasure in her eyes as she moves closer, reaching up in the movement Nicole's been waiting for. Kissing her, immediate, deep, like the prelude to the kiss has been a chasm of time. Nicole's body a hum against what should have been hours; all of her desperate like it's not been a day apart from Waverly but an eternity of wanting to reach out and pull her close.

One of Waverly's hands moves up Nicole's back, bunching into her shirt as it goes and stopping at the back of her neck, so one hand can keep their mouths together and the other can keep their hips in line, pulling Nicole in at the base of her spine, some low noise in her throat as though she can feel the reflexive roll of Nicole's hips as their bodies touch together. And then Waverly is turning them in some direction, but the room is a spin, and she relaxes into letting Waverly move them, every part of her alive in her lips, thinking only about the softness of Waverly's mouth and the sound of her taking short breaths in between kisses, the push of Waverly's body against her own, the way she's moving them, both soft and rough at once. Waverly's hand tugs at the back of her shirt and Nicole breaks off the kiss to look into Waverly's eyes. As she pulls away she can still feel the remnant of Waverly's breath, a soft tickle against her own lips, the taste of her seeming like it will stay forever in her mouth.

Waverly's voice is a low rasp, almost hoarse. "Can I please take this off?" Her voice rises a little at the end, but it's still only half a question, like she already knows the answer, and Nicole has barely nodded when Waverly is pulling her back close with a hand at the back of her neck, kissing her wildly and leaving space between their bodies to slip a hand down the line of buttons, fingers taking each smoothly out of its catch, hand returning immediately to the left lapel of the shirt so that she can slip warm fingers against the skin of Nicole's collarbone, a light brushing touch that is gone almost as soon as it's there, her hand finding Nicole's side and then her back instead, her hand cooler there against the warmth that's pooled down Nicole's spine, and her other hand comes away from Nicole's neck to pull at the shirt, trying to get it all off, a quick rushed motion.

Nicole pulls back to help her, trying still to hold on to her, trying not to lose the feeling of Waverly under her hands. The shirt falls to the floor and Waverly immediately reaches to the hem of her own t-shirt, pulling it off in a swift movement, her hair fanning out as she lets the shirt drop away and moves back in close to Nicole, pushing back against her body, finding her lips again. The feeling of her hands sending Nicole's skin crazy, enough by itself.

Nicole can feel Waverly moving her again and she puts a hand at Waverly's waist and a hand on her upper arm to let Waverly move her wherever she's going and then she's surprised to feel the wall behind her and Waverly keeps moving a beat longer so that they're pushed flush against one another, Waverly's hands moving over her, and her mind turning around and around at the vertiginous rush of being kissed by Waverly, wanting more. She can hear her heartbeat in her ears and the feeling of Waverly's fingers on her bare skin opens a door she can't shut, the flood of need breaking into her, and she starts reaching for Waverly's pants, her fingers a fumble at the seam, trying to find the button. But Waverly's at her pants, too, and whispering at her to wait, her hand stilling Nicole's at her waist, and so she lets Waverly undo her own jeans, trying not to groan as Waverly kisses her deeper, the hardness of the wall at her back as her spine arches instinctively and her hips try to get closer to Waverly's hands. Waverly's hands, which tug down the zipper of her jeans and play at the skin of her stomach, a gentle tease, and then come to either side of her hips as she moves Nicole's body in close, one leg either side of hers, one thigh between her legs, her kiss full and warm, and Nicole can feel the memory of a hundred times like this that seem too long ago, and she's thinking about that in a fractured, hazy way when Waverly's hand finally glides under the fabric that's between them and then Waverly's fingers are a perfect pressure against the slip of her and her hips won't stop moving, a rhythm of their own, a blanking out entirely of her brain as she gasps against Waverly's mouth.

The feeling of Waverly touching her sends the sound out of the room and Nicole can only hear a swelling pressure in her ears, everything silenced except the rising warmth between her legs, and she recognizes almost a beat too late that it's happening too fast, the warmth becoming a thunder and her hips moving at a quicker pace, against her will. She breaks away from Waverly's mouth to look into her eyes, wanting to see her before it happens, and then there's a bang of the front door slamming shut and Waverly's hand stills, Nicole's hips still moving, her mind slowing to a confused lurch as she tries to understand why Waverly has stopped; tries to hear what Waverly hears. And then Wynonna's voice is filtering up from below, and Waverly gently pulls her hand out from her underwear, bringing her finger to her mouth to motion Nicole to stay quiet, a soft look in her eyes and her other hand still resting on Nicole's side.

Wynonna's words are a muffle and then there are loud strides across the wooden floor in the silence, and then Michael's voice comes up from under where they are braced against the wall.

"You're all as bad as each other."

His steps move around a little, and Nicole tries to track the sound, struggling to remember the layout of the room below, trying to remember if he's moving toward the kitchen or the base of the stairs. She thinks it has to be the stairs as a different sound starts up, a deeper creak, with a different kind of tempo like it's rising toward them. Then Wynonna's voice, much louder, comes up through the floor.

"Dude, no. Don't go up there. Do you know what's going down? My baby sister. Repeatedly." There's a pause as Wynonna laughs, a loud amused noise that is also gravelly, broken. "Leave them alone."

Nicole finds Waverly's eyes, feeling her own eyes widening, and both of her hands tighten on Waverly's body. A bulwark; deep defense against the unknown understanding that she's waiting for some sound. And then there's steps outside the door, a soft sound, a little click, and her body remains in tension, everything fighting against it, a black spreading in between her eyes and where she's trying to hold on to the sight in front of her. Waverly Earp, eyes dark and loving and grieving.

 

 

Waverly uses one hand flat against Nicole's stomach to gently push her backwards into the room, using a flick of her foot to shut the door behind them, and keeps going until Nicole can feel the press of a bed at the back of her knees. Waverly pauses, hand resting on Nicole's belly, and she stares at Nicole, something unspoken in her eyes, and Nicole can't quite get a hold on the meaning; she feels like the ground is at an angle and like the only thing keeping her upright is the touch of Waverly against her, like Waverly's hand is holding her up rather than promising to push her down.

Waverly smiles gently, and her hand moves into a stroke, no longer pressing lightly against Nicole's stomach, but dragging in a line down it, and that's all it takes for a sweet constriction to start up low in her, eyes caught on Waverly's smile, her body screaming to get closer. Waverly's voice is soft in the room, deep. "Hey." Nicole tries to smile in reply, but she isn't sure if she manages, feeling like all the air has suddenly gone out of the space around her, and she fights away the discord between the tension in her body and between her legs and the knowledge that they've just entered the room; that there was a place before now but it was elsewhere; that she's been apart from Waverly for a year, but her body hasn't known it, and she puts both hands out to rest on Waverly, trying to make the room stop spinning.

"Waves."

Waverly looks up into her eyes, a worried light in them. "What is it, baby?"

Nicole feels the room steady at the sound of Waverly's voice, and she focuses on the darkness of her pupils, the sight of her face, and she reaches a hand up to trace the new scar at the edge of her cheekbone with her fingers; frowning; willing away the urgency in her body for a minute. "How did you get this?"

Waverly brings a hand up to cover Nicole's hand with her own. "One of the last ones. He had some old throwing star and it nicked my face." Waverly takes her hand from Nicole's and brings it up to her forehead instead, smoothing out the frown there with her fingers, smiling. "I thought chicks dug scars."

Nicole laughs quietly, her frown clearing, and she feels Waverly shift closer to her. "I dig you, period. But I don't like to think of you hurt."

Waverly grins at her. "I'm not." She pauses. "Now."

Nicole can feel the change in the air between them that means Waverly is about to kiss her, and she pulls her head back slightly, keeping her eyes locked on Waverly's. "Are you sure this is okay?"

There's a look of recognition in Waverly's eyes that Nicole doesn't understand, but she hears the words when she's finished saying them, and quickly continues. "I mean, not this, but this now. Do we need—do we need to be doing something else?"

Waverly's hand is at her back, and her whole body comes up against Nicole's, threatening to push them both over and onto the bed. Her voice is hushed, almost a whisper, and her smile is almost amused. "Just relax, baby," and then her mouth is meeting Nicole's, the rush of it immediate in Nicole's belly and her hands going up instinctively behind Waverly and finding her hair, grasping gently at the back of her head to keep their mouths close. Waverly's kiss is slow and deep, as though it's not been a year and she has all the time in the world, and Nicole tries to slow herself, the tide inside her like Waverly's hands are already over her skin.

Waverly breaks away and Nicole's mouth follows her for a beat, immediately missing the touch, but Waverly takes a whole step away, and Nicole opens her eyes, confused. Waverly's standing there, looking into her eyes, barely any light in the room, the sun almost gone, and then she turns away. Nicole watches her walk over to a lamp in the semi-darkness, like she already knows where it is, and Nicole feels briefly seasick, a weird sudden wave, and then, with the flick of soft light flooding the room, it's gone, and she can see Waverly clearly again, her face cast in a familiar determined look. Nicole is suddenly tired, the ache between her legs nearly unbearable, and she lets her legs give out, lets her body flop down onto the bed, sitting on the edge, watching Waverly.

Waverly's not smiling but there's a light in her eyes like she is, and her voice is the same low tone, a sound that sends a thrill through Nicole's spine and a deep quickening beat between her legs, her thighs jumping a little, and she clenches them together, trying uselessly to quell the warning warmth in her belly that's threatening to spill over.

"I missed you." Waverly keeps looking at her, eyes on Nicole's mouth then back up, and Nicole can't make words come, and Waverly starts to pull her t-shirt off, a progress too slow for Nicole's body, the material lifting up over Waverly's head and dropping to the floor. Waverly meets her eyes again, bringing a hand up to sweep back through her hair, pushing it all off and away from her face, and then her hands go to the button at her waist, and she pushes down her jeans, stepping out of them like there's no rush at all, Nicole sitting on her hands to stop herself from standing back up and touching Waverly.

Waverly pushes the jeans away, unbending her waist to stand up and running her hand through her loose hair again to move it away from her face, stepping close to Nicole, black lace, the skin of her stomach and legs and the top of her breasts too much, too bright, and Nicole has to blink a little. Waverly reaches a hand down to ease Nicole's legs apart so she can step in between them, and Nicole instinctively resists for a moment, afraid that the feeling of Waverly's body between her legs will send the warmth into an irreversible too-hot swell inside her. But her legs move anyway and then Waverly is close, pulling Nicole's hands onto her hips, leaning down to kiss her. Her body is warm. Nicole's hands won't stop moving over the skin of Waverly's hips and the strong new feeling of the muscles of her back. She pauses to mumble a question against Waverly's lips, but she either doesn't hear, or she thinks Nicole's just humming meaningless words, and Nicole forgets to ask again, Waverly's hands at the back of her neck sending electricity down her spine.

She pulls back from Waverly's mouth to reach both hands to the back of Waverly's bra, trying to stop the shake of them, watching Waverly standing her body up straight to let her, and she unclasps the catch, feeling the fullness of the release, dragging the sides of the fabric forward so that the whole bra will fall off. She tries to catch the breath in her throat, to make her breathing even, and her hands go to Waverly's hips, taking a firm hold to pull her body back in close between her legs, letting her mouth fall to Waverly's breasts and kiss her there instead. She can feel the push of Waverly's body between her legs, the unconscious push forwards of Waverly's hips that matches the way that her breathing is speeding up, and Nicole lets her mind be quiet and her mouth take over, finding Waverly's nipple and closing her mouth over it, running her tongue over, gripping Waverly's hips to steady the judder of them. Waverly's hands are a quickening in her hair and she tries to control the friction of Waverly's legs in between her own.

Waverly's hands leave her hair and are a push on her shoulders, and she takes a heavy breath at the feeling, watching Waverly's dark eyes and parted mouth, watching her focus turn to the buttons of her shirt and wanting Waverly's touch on her skin even before her shirt is off, nudging Waverly back a small step to stand up from the bed and pull her shirt from her arms and unbutton her jeans, undoing them while Waverly's hands circle her chest and unsnap her bra, letting it fall off while she pushes her jeans down, and then Waverly pulls the bra from her arms and puts a hand to her shoulder to push her back down to a sitting position, leaning down to gently pull her jeans off, her hands a soft unbearable graze down the skin of her legs. Waverly's hands immediately come back to Nicole's legs when the jeans are off, running along the outside of her thighs and then falling between them, easing them open again, and then she steps close, taking Nicole's hands and putting them at the edge of her underwear, nudging Nicole's fingers over the seam; an invitation. Nicole tries to breathe evenly, looking up at Waverly's face, the light of the lamp catching her hair, a smile on her lips. She feels the softness of Waverly and pulls the lace fabric down as slowly as she can, letting her fingers graze the skin of Waverly's legs all the way down.

She drags her hands back up the length of them to let Waverly step out of her underwear, and her eyes can't stop moving over the sight of her, fully in front of her, all there, her hair reflecting the lamp light and falling forward over her shoulders from leaning down to where Nicole sits, and then Waverly is kissing her again and pulling her up to stand beside the bed so that the touch of her breasts and stomach is pressing against Nicole, the skin of her stomach warm and the pressure of her body insistent and the graze of her breasts drawing goosebumps along Nicole's skin despite the trapped heat of the sun in the room.

Standing by the bed, the edge of the mattress hard at the back of her knees, Nicole tries to ignore the flutter of pain down one of her legs, thinking instead about the flush of color on Waverly's cheeks as she stares at her, chin tilted up to meet Nicole's gaze, questions in her eyes. Nicole's left knee buckles a little and she shifts her weight, and Waverly's hands on her hips make small, quiet motions to keep her still, a frown immediately on her forehead, words low, Are you okay? Nicole nods, smiles at the frown, and Waverly's face clears, her hands at Nicole's underwear, and she raises an eyebrow in silent question. Nicole nods again, her breath a hitch at the feeling of Waverly's fingers tucking under the fabric at her hips and pulling it down, the light scratch of the material as it comes away from between her legs and grazes down the skin of her inner thighs almost unbearable, the sense of waiting enough to drive her mad, her heart an acute thud that won't still.

When Waverly has pushed her underwear to the floor she takes her time staring down at Nicole's body. The sight of Waverly biting her lip and the color deepening over her cheeks makes Nicole laugh, a quiet gentle sound, and Waverly looks up at her face, instantly shy, smiling, but the pink of her cheeks worsening anyway, and Nicole kisses her, laughing against her lips, focusing on the delicate press of Waverly's mouth to stop the swelling inside her from spilling over, and then Waverly is pushing her gently back on to the bed, falling down lightly with her, her body finding the meeting lines with Nicole's body; left thigh falling between Nicole's legs; right arm up and under Nicole's left shoulder; left hand immediately reaching for Nicole's breast. No gap between them and the feeling of the skin of Waverly's thigh between her legs. Waverly's mouth against hers and then falling to her neck, the kisses underneath her ear and right at the edge of her hairline sending the black of the inside of her closed eyes into starlight, pin pricks of light everywhere.

Her hips are a constant reach for Waverly's thigh; she's only vaguely conscious of her legs falling apart to meet as much of Waverly's skin as possible, and then Waverly's hand is gone from her breast and it's between her legs instead, her fingers almost clumsy and out of rhythm as Waverly breathes hard, trying to whisper something that mumbles into a kiss, and Nicole wants to know what she's said, but can't breathe well enough to ask, a gasp interrupting her question, and then Waverly's mouth is back over her own and she forgets. The gentle slide of Waverly's fingers finding the right rhythm and her left leg caught snug between Waverly's legs, bracing their hips with the arm by Nicole's head, kissing her deeply, the feel of her mouth a long-ago warmth, the touch of Waverly's tongue in Nicole's mouth making the heat between her legs become too much, and sending it out into her belly, a deep contracting pulse; a return. Waverly keeps her hand in place, a pressure against the ride of Nicole's hips, not breaking from the kiss, softening it to let Nicole's breath come in gasping exhalations, murmuring again. And the starlight behind her closed eyes slowly recedes back to black, the warmth through her body a spread everywhere.

Nicole's breaths take a minute to slow, but when her eyes open they're immediately on Waverly, a frown spreading over her face; eyes a worry. Waverly brushes Nicole's hair to behind her ear. "What is it? Was—are you okay?"

Nicole blinks once, swallowing hard, and she focuses on the sight of Waverly's pupils, her voice coming out as a hoarse scratch. "I—" She breaks off, a gulping silence, and Waverly reaches out to re-tuck the hair behind her ear that's not come away, waiting. Nicole swallows again. "It was so fast—I'm sorry," and Waverly waits for the rest of the sentence, uncertain if it's complete. But there's nothing more, and she bites at her lip, trying not to laugh.

Nicole blushes, smiling, unsure. "Was it okay? I don't know what happened. I'm not usually that fast."

Waverly lets her smile expand and leans in to kiss Nicole, not breaking the kiss to mumble. "It was more than okay." She pulls back to look at Nicole. "I know why."

Nicole's frown returns almost immediately, and she tries to control the surprise in her voice. "Why?"

Waverly looks away, the smile on her lips somewhere close to amused; tender. She looks back to Nicole, her hand coming out to touch Nicole's hair again, a gentle practiced sweep of her fingers through it. "Because you've been waiting for this for a year. Like I have."

Nicole pushes herself up on to her forearms and Waverly leans back to let her, falling to her side and keeping her head propped up with her right arm. "I thought Michael said that I'd been asleep, though? Or whatever."

Waverly bites her lip, and her left hand goes out to cover where Nicole's left one is resting on the sheets between their bodies. "I know, but—that's not really true."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Waverly looks away again. "I didn't want us to be interrupted again. I wanted us to have this. I still want us to have this. I thought it was better to wait. We'd already been through it once." Waverly watches the rise and fall of Nicole's breathing and waits for the question.

"This isn't—when did you get here? And what have I been doing for a year? And how do you know?"

"I got here at the beginning of today. Michael has reset your memory three times already. Once immediately after we arrived. Once after Michael called Jeremy and found that he looked like he'd been tidied up, and he realized we'd figured it out. And once again, what must be an hour and a half ago, after he got paranoid and came over here, thinking we'd figured it out, and reset your memory in a panic." Nicole tries to steady the motion of the bed, waiting for Waverly to continue. She focuses on the feeling of Waverly's hand covering her own. "We don't really know what you've been doing for a year. Figuring it out on a loop, I think. I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. And I know because—" Waverly breaks off, looking away, "Because I'm not exactly fully human, and Michael's resets don't work on me. Or Wynonna."

At Wynonna's name, Nicole sits up a little in the bed, her eyes narrowing, thinking. "You have a plan, don't you? Is that what Wynonna is working on downstairs? Is that why she basically pushed us up the stairs herself?"

Waverly laughs. "No, that's because she knows we haven't been together for a year, and she's a good sister."

Nicole smiles, a slow growing grin. "She is."

There's a shuffle downstairs, and Waverly's hand stills on Nicole's. They listen for the sound again and then there's a dull thudding on the floor of the room, like the end of a broomstick is being banged on the ceiling of the main room. Then the front door is banging open, and Nicole knows it's Michael before he even speaks. She looks over to Waverly, panicked, and sees that she's not panicked at all; there's just sadness reflected in her eyes. They hear Wynonna's voice, loud enough to come up through the floor. "Dude, no. Don't go up there. Do you know what's going down? My baby sister. Repeatedly." Wynonna's laugh is rough; sharp and angry. "With the woman she loves. Leave them alone."

Nicole stares at Waverly's face, seeing some weird look flicker over it like she's seen a familiar shape lurking in the dark, and then Michael's voice is swelling through the floor of the room. "Wynonna. How predictable you are. How predictable you all are. And you giving me that line means you've figured it out, I assume? What a shame." Waverly's hand becomes tight around Nicole's, and Nicole looks down at it, suddenly knowing what's next.

 

 

There's no light left in the room, the sun only visible through the window where it's lingering at the horizon, and Nicole can't make out what the furniture is in the dark without any lights on, some primitive part of her mind telling her insistently that there's a bed, but most of her not listening to it carefully anyway, because Waverly's hands are on her hips, guiding her over the threshold and reaching back to shut the door behind them. In the dark she can feel Waverly coming close to kiss her, and the touch of Waverly's lips against her own is warm and then the kiss is already fast and deep, like Waverly's cutting through the minutes that make up a year, and she knows she's missed being kissed by Waverly for the longest time, her body an instinctive turning towards Waverly, wanting everything. Waverly's mouth is exactly how she remembers it to be, in that time that feels like yesterday and also so much further back, and she tries to forget that she's confused and just leans into the kiss, feeling the deepening moan that starts in her throat at the touch of Waverly's tongue against her own, Waverly's hands playing up her back. A stammer of her fingers that Nicole would recognize in any place, any time.

Waverly is moving her into the room and she lets her, surprised and unsurprised in the same beat as the backs of her legs hit the hard, yielding edge of a mattress, and she almost topples back, but Waverly's hands are sturdy on her hips, her fingers a sudden tangle in the loops of Nicole's jeans, holding her up with the grip. She can feel her chest rising hard against the airless kisses and she breaks for a second, trying to get enough oxygen, trying to find Waverly's eyes in the dark, seeing the refraction in them of the last light outside, staring hard at Waverly, her breaths fast, but much more even than her own. She can feel more than see Waverly's expression; a recognizing look, as though she knows what Nicole is going to say before she says it. And then the question comes onto Nicole's lips, and she tries to keep her voice quiet, but Waverly speaks before she can move the air past her throat.

"It's fine to be doing this." She startles a little at the answer to her unspoken question, but Waverly's hands are still warm and firm on her hips, and she waits in the quiet for Waverly to continue. "You're worried we shouldn't be doing this, now. That we should be helping Wynonna." Waverly pauses, her voice soft. "Did you not see the way she waved us up the stairs? It's absolutely fine, okay? We get this. At least a couple more times."

Nicole tries to fight where she can't quite feel her feet against the floor; the darkness of the room an interruption to comprehension; her hands warm on Waverly's hips in an unconscious mirror of her position. When Nicole speaks, her voice sounds as if she hasn't spoken in years. "More times?"

She can hear the ready laugh bubbling in Waverly's voice. "Yeah, baby. We've already done this a few times today."

Nicole frowns. "I don't remember." Feeling the hum low between her legs, like her body remembers in spite of her. Frowning harder in the dark, the floor a shift under her feet.

Waverly's voice is a bare whisper. "It's okay. I'll tell you everything. Just try to relax. I don't know how long we'll have this time."

Nicole's heart starts a hammering beat in her chest at Waverly's final words, and her body tenses, Waverly's hands feeling the tension at her hips and immediately squeezing them. "It's okay; nothing bad is going to happen. Michael doesn't know anything important. He keeps resetting your memory, but that's it. We'll be okay. We'll figure it all out, but for now, just think about this." And she leans in to find Nicole's lips again, her touch a warm balm against the worry. Her hands a steady hold.

Nicole lets her body be pushed back on the bed and she tries to watch the movements of Waverly's body beside the bed through the darkness of the room, seeing Waverly's hands moving at the hem of the white t-shirt that's reflecting back the final strained light coming from the window. Waverly's hands grasp the bottom of the shirt, and her voice hums over the space between them. "Do you want to be doing this for me?" Her hands still. Nicole sits up, pushing herself to the edge of the bed, and she tries to stop the catch in her voice by speaking quietly.

"Please." She stands up, hands reaching out to the hem of Waverly's shirt, and she pulls it gently over Waverly's head, watching the remnants of light playing in her hair as the shirt falls away and her hair spreads out after it. Remembering the first time she did the same thing, long ago, wanting to kiss Waverly then, her hands shaking and trying to hide it with a confident smile. Hands shaking even now.

The skin of Waverly's stomach and chest and arms is made a deeper tan by the darkness of the room, and Nicole puts her hands out to graze at Waverly's sides, one hand falling down to play along her stomach, unable to stop staring at the motion of her fingers over Waverly's skin, barely able to make out the path she's tracing, but seeing it clearly in her mind anyway. Waverly's fingers touch under her chin, lifting Nicole's face up from where it's focusing on her stomach, and Nicole finds Waverly's eyes in the dark again, waiting for the kiss, feeling Waverly's hands catch her own and tug them down to the button of her jeans, silently asking Nicole to undo them.

She tries to pull the button free, fumbling against the breathless rush of Waverly's kiss, finding the catch finally and pulling down the zipper, enjoying the feeling of tucking her thumbs into the top of Waverly's jeans and tugging the denim down over Waverly's hips, her thumbs trilling down Waverly's thighs, and she breaks away from the kiss to drop slowly down to her knees, pulling the jeans all the way to the floor and waiting for Waverly to step out of them, keeping hold of one of her hands to keep her steady. Once the jeans are off she can't pull herself back up, getting caught by the closeness of Waverly's stomach to her mouth, and she brings her hands up to Waverly's lower back, a gentle pull to bring her closer, and finds the skin too warm to bear, hot under her mouth. She kisses Waverly's lower stomach, the pulse between her own legs quickening at the sound of Waverly's breathing getting fast and the feeling of Waverly's hips nudging forwards at the touch of her lips.

Nicole stops to look up, seeing Waverly's faced angled down to her, and Waverly's hands once more cover her own, coming around behind her back to pull Nicole's from where they're resting, dragging them to the sides of her hips, firmly tucking Nicole's fingers under the seam of her underwear, and Nicole answers the question with a gentle drag of the soft fabric down, trying to breathe evenly at the sight, letting Waverly's underwear drop and waiting again for her to step out of it, the wooden floor hard against her knees and ignoring the pain of it against the feeling of Waverly's hips under her hands and the deep warm smell of her, the darker place where her stomach slopes down and her skin hot under Nicole's palms. Nicole leans over to kiss one hip and down to Waverly's thigh, trying to keep her hands from gripping too hard at her hips, and Waverly's hands in her hair are a tightening grasp.

She hears Waverly's breath catching and then her hands are tugging at Nicole's hair gently, trying to pull her up, and Nicole brings a knee back up so she can push against the floor and come back up to standing, Waverly's hands immediately on her shirt, her voice low, You're wearing too many clothes, a soft laugh, her fingers rushing through the buttons, pulling the shirt off, coming back to find the clasp of Nicole's bra, undoing the catch and pulling the straps forward, throwing it gently aside and hands already coming back, fingers dragging up Nicole's sides and then her palms grazing over her breasts, a soft touch that makes Nicole gasp.

Then Waverly is pulling off her own bra and moving her hands back down to tug at Nicole's jeans, getting them off, and stepping in close so that her breasts touch against Nicole's body and her hands come up to the back of Nicole's neck to pull her lips closer, kissing her wildly, her hips moving slowly against Nicole's, and Nicole breaks her hands away from Waverly to start pulling her own underwear down, but they've only moved an inch when Waverly's hands still her own and then Waverly puts a hand on her shoulder and gives her a light push back, getting her to sit on the bed, and then she keeps on pushing gently, making Nicole lie all the way back, her question soft and quiet, and Nicole says yes just as quiet, and Waverly pulls back to tug her underwear down and off, her body stilling in the same way that Nicole's had done, stopping when the fabric isn't fully down her legs to kiss Nicole's stomach, finally dragging the underwear off and then finding Nicole's hand, tugging her back up to a sitting position.

Waverly waits until Nicole is sitting up, her legs dangling over the edge of the bed, and then she brings a knee up, legs parting, Nicole's heart thundering at the feel of Waverly coming close, her knee settling beside Nicole's left hip, and then her other knee coming to the other side, legs straddling Nicole, thighs tight at her hips, the feeling of Waverly sitting slowly down on her lap with nothing between them sending all the nerves on Nicole's skin mad, her hands finding the slope of Waverly's lower back, moving down the swell of it, pulling Waverly closer with her palms starred on the soft skin, and Waverly sits back on her heels, her hips a slow motion touching against Nicole's stomach, her breasts grazing Nicole's, a gasping soft touch. Nicole deepens the kiss, trying to breathe through the falling sensation everywhere in the room, Waverly's hands in her hair a nearly too-much feeling, the pulse between her legs gone wild at the feeling of Waverly's legs apart and the nearness of her body, the openness of her.

The touch of Waverly's tongue at her lips and then against her own tongue sends some of the warmth against the ache in her left leg, and Waverly's hands tighten in her hair and she knows what's about to happen before it does, Waverly making a small familiar noise low in her throat and breaking the kiss off to breathe heavily, her lips parted, the dampness of them catching the last light. Nicole swallows to be able to hear properly, following the movement of Waverly's lips as best she can in the near-dark; I want you, and inside, and please; words that make her feel as though she's swimming under the noisy laboring beat of her heart, Waverly barely pausing to finish mumbling the words and then leaning back in to kiss her again.

She can feel the clench of Waverly's legs around her own hips as Waverly rises up a little, making a space between their bodies, waiting for Nicole's hand to fall from her hip, and then lowering her body again to find her touch, breathing out as Nicole's fingers make a few firm lines between her legs and then breathing back in, hard, as Nicole's fingers push inside her. A soft yielding feeling against Nicole's fingers and then the deep back and forth of Waverly's breath coming in and out faster and the warmth of Waverly around Nicole's fingers making her own hips want to roll.

She squeezes the muscles in her thighs to stop them moving, holding her body as still as she can so that Waverly can move against her, her only movements her lips against Waverly's and the sure motion of her hand in between them. Waverly moving against her in a heavy beat that leads in one direction. Her hips quickening in their pulse forward and back, and then she starts pausing at the top of the motion, a movement Nicole can feel in the embrace of Waverly around her fingers, a meaningful pause in the roll of her hips, Nicole's fingers lost to her and the repeated halting of Waverly's body something she knows in the dark; would know deaf; would recognize even if she could no longer feel in her hands and arms and where they were touching Waverly.

She knows to let Waverly keep moving; knows Waverly will want to stop before it's ending; knows she will hold very still with Nicole inside her and then want to move to something else; want to make it last. Nicole waits until Waverly's hips slow a little and then she gently pulls back her fingers, pushing herself up through her feet to standing, keeping hold of Waverly with her hands moving to the backs of her thighs, lifting her up with her legs around her waist, still kissing her, turning around and finding the edge of the bed frame with her knee, bringing it up, kneeling on the mattress, keeping hold of Waverly, moving them into the middle of the bed. Putting Waverly down carefully, easing her body down between Waverly's legs, her arms either side of her, hands beside her head, trying not to break the kiss at all. The roll of Waverly's hips causing her to moan into Nicole's mouth, and Nicole pulls her right hand away, starting to reach down, shifting her weight onto her left arm, and then Waverly's legs are hooking around hers and she's being moved, a smooth quick motion, and she doesn't understand what's happened, a sudden fluid jolt in her stomach telling her she's been turned onto her back and Waverly's face over hers, her eyes a dark glint with the last of the light.

She can't think of the words she means, and all that comes out is "Waves," a small question there even though her voice doesn't rise at the end.

Waverly's laugh is a low, deep thing that sends the heat between her legs into a wave. "I've been doing some things this year. Judo."

Nicole tries to keep the surprise out of her voice. "You flipped me."

Waverly laughs again, bringing a hand up to tuck Nicole's hair behind one ear. "Yeah. I'm sorry."

Nicole smiles in the dark. "Don't be sorry. I liked it."

Waverly kisses her, Oh? against her lips, and Nicole nods, still smiling. She takes Waverly's hand from her hair, a gentle tug down her body, taking her in one direction, letting go of Waverly's hand beside her waist, and then she mumbles against Waverly's mouth, See for yourself, waiting for what she knows will happen, Waverly's hand immediately falling to her stomach and dragging down it, down between her legs, her fingers finding Nicole, a stroke with no resistance at all, and Waverly laughs a little into her mouth, a deep warm recognition in the sound, her fingers a slow rhythm starting a fire.

Nicole surrenders into the heat of it, the slow liquid pleasure of Waverly's touch enough to make her almost laugh, and she threads her right hand in between their bodies, a momentary clumsy reach before Waverly shifts to let Nicole's hand reach her, and then she can find where she was, her fingers an echoing rhythm between Waverly's legs. The feel of Waverly like a misplaced sound that suddenly returns at full volume, and doubles the force of everything. She can feel Waverly's hips become an uncontrolled shudder against her and Waverly's breath at a tempo that won't abate. Waverly's kiss growing almost distracted and the feel of her entire body a clenching sweep in time with the tightening under Nicole's hand. Words pressed into Nicole's mouth that make no sense and make the only sense possible. She tries to keep the movement of her fingers at whatever pace Waverly is asking for, trying to hold herself together long enough, and then she can feel the noise in Waverly's throat she's been waiting a year to hear again, a surprised beautiful sound, prelude to Waverly coming, her body finishing what the sound starts. And then she comes, too, in a predictable deep wave, glad to have held on, clutching at Waverly's body and finding her lips to kiss her, slowly, the taste of Waverly's mouth sending a remnant shock of warmth between her legs. 

The room is quiet and they lie there for a while in the silence, Waverly's breath returning to normal first, her arm across Nicole's waist and a leg still hooked between them. Nicole brings her hand up to run her fingers through Waverly's hair, enjoying the length of it, letting it fall forward over Waverly's shoulder to tickle her chest. Waverly turns her face toward her, and Nicole can see the outline of her jaw in the final light of the room. Waverly's hand comes to her face and she can feel Waverly's fingers running over her lips to check she's smiling.

They've been lying there in the dark for ten minutes when they hear Wynonna's voice float up, uncertain, from the room below them. "Hey? Are you guys in between rounds?" She waits a beat for an answer for Waverly to call back a laughing yes, then carries on, her voice louder. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I think Michael's on his way." Nicole looks at Waverly, unable to make out her face in the dark, feeling Waverly's hand immediately closing over hers, and then Waverly's lips are against her own in a soft kiss and she's mumbling words against them. "Don't worry, okay? I'll be here when you wake back up."

The front door is a sharp bang into the quiet cabin, and they hear Michael's footsteps, but no words from him, and then Wynonna is speaking. "Dude, no. Don't go up there. Do you know what's going down? My baby sister. Repeatedly." Wynonna's laugh is a harsh bark, making Nicole shiver. "Leave them alone."

Michael's voice comes from somewhere in the room below, a higher register than it was before, sitting in his office. "Don't you ever get new material?"

And then black.

 

 

The loud music from the porch is a shudder that comes through the floor of the room and through the windows. There's a slight reverberation in the dark air from it. Nicole stands by the door and squints against the light that floods into the room as Waverly flicks the switch of the lamp by the bed, watching as her face come into focus. She frowns. "Is that music okay?" She pauses, waiting for Waverly to come back to her. "Don't we have neighbours, or anything?"

Waverly smiles at her. "It's fine. Don't worry about it."

"Did Wynonna have a sudden uncontrollable desire to listen to the entire back catalogue of The Cure?"

Waverly laughs, shutting the door carefully behind them, coming close again, tangling her hands up with Nicole's. "No, baby. She's being nice, that's all."

Nicole frowns again, confused at nearly everything, her body alight with the closeness of Waverly and relieved at the nearness and unsure where the relief has come from. She tries to stop her voice from shaking. "What do you mean?"

Waverly squeezes both her hands, tugging them gently so that their bodies are touching, and then letting go of Nicole's hands to reach up to her neck, circling her arms around her shoulders to angle Nicole's face down to her own. Her voice is low. "We were getting kind of loud last time. She's playing music so that we don't have to worry about it."

Nicole feels the ground turning underneath her, and tries to make the movement stop by staring into Waverly's eyes, her mind feeling like it's being slowly pulled through a thick mist. "Because we've—because you've been here since the morning." She frowns, trying out the words.

Waverly nods. "Right."

"And I've been here without you for a year."

"Yes."

Nicole stops the dizzying list of things she's learned from tumbling off her lips, clenching her jaw and saying something else instead. "And I should relax."

Waverly grins. "That's right."

Waverly leaves her arms around Nicole's neck and reaches up to her lips, kissing her slowly, her mouth familiar and new in one beat, time a weird collapse in Nicole's heart. The part of her mind that's still turning over wonders briefly how many times Waverly has kissed her. A question with no answer and she deepens the kiss, feeling like all of her rises into it, the press of Waverly's body against her stifling the confusion and making all the muscles in her legs relax a little, hushing the pain in the left one and replacing it with the warm low in her stomach, a warmth that seems to gently beat in time with the reach of Waverly's tongue against her own. She can hear a quiet moan and she's confused about where it's come from until she realizes it's her own noise. She can feel the nudge of Waverly's hips against her own and Waverly's hands quickly becoming firmer, running down her back and squeezing at her hips, her mouth insistent.

There's a sudden silence in the room, the song from the porch fading out into nothing, and a pause between tracks. Then the next song starts up, a loud thudding drumbeat, and it matches the push of Waverly's body against her own, a determined press, and Nicole takes steps backwards, holding Waverly's hips and thinking only about how Waverly is kissing her hard, like she's trying to say everything with it, and she lets Waverly move her to beside the bed, feeling like the music outside is inside the room, in her bones.

Waverly's hands brush under her shirt, and the feeling of Waverly's fingers on her stomach is a rush, like it's the first time she's ever felt Waverly touch her, and she can feel how her breath comes harder at it, her chest a light heaving that she tries to slow, Waverly's kisses just as hard, her tongue warm. Waverly's hands circle her waist and stroke up her back, and it's something being shoved open, their bodies reading the same words at the same time, their hands clutching hard at each other's clothes. Everything coming off, fast, Nicole's shirt first, the sound only of the music and their deep breathing, pants quickly tugged off, until they are both in underwear, and then Waverly reaches for her again, hands in her hair, and the kiss is faster, Waverly pulling at her underwear, her breaths a gasp, and she lets Waverly finish taking everything off so that their skin is touching.

She tries to move them around so Waverly's back is facing the bed, feeling some new strength in Waverly's stance, resistance in her body that makes it harder to move her. A beat of that and then Waverly seems to understand what she's asking for, and lets Nicole move her to the bed, taking steps backwards, falling onto the mattress with her hands still on Nicole, pulling her on top of her body with a controlled movement, and there's an unconscious, answering pulse between Nicole's legs at the motion, some instinctive response at Waverly pulling her down to lie on top of her, and she can feel Waverly's hips lifting under her body. A hard, insistent rock to them, her legs falling wide apart and then wrapping around Nicole's waist, and she keeps her body close, lets Waverly find the friction she's looking for, kisses her deeply.

She lets her body move in time with Waverly's for a while, then breaks the kiss to press her lips to Waverly's neck; hard, damp kisses; enjoying the lift of Waverly's hips and the feeling of Waverly's parted legs against her stomach, listening to the music like it's from some faraway place and the sound of Waverly's gasping breaths in her ears, a catch every time she kisses by Waverly's hairline and a buck in her hips. She moves from Waverly's neck to the skin of her collarbone, grazing with her teeth, making sure she doesn't take away the press of her stomach from between Waverly's legs. Her hands press into the mattress on either side of Waverly's body in a descending path as she brings her mouth to Waverly's breasts, Waverly's skin warm everywhere, but her nipples a little cooler, and Nicole covers them in turn with her lips, making a stronger motion with her mouth at the feeling of Waverly's hips rocking and her hands tensing in Nicole's hair, keeping her close.

She moves her mouth in a path down Waverly's body, hands grazing her sides and her hips, lips pressing against her stomach and shifting her whole body down so she can rest between Waverly's legs, her own body wanting to move in the same waving rhythm; the heavy pulse between her own legs an insistent loud inflection that answers the lift of Waverly's hips. She kisses the skin of Waverly's lower stomach, running her hands under and around Waverly's legs and over her hips, dragging them up open palmed to rest over Waverly's breasts, and she looks up, wanting to see Waverly's face before she kisses her, seeing Waverly looking down at her, lips parted, her breaths coming fast, a look in her eyes that seems to cut across time and pull Nicole back to the bar, seeing Waverly close for the first time; helping her out of her shirt; her mouth near enough to kiss.

She dips her mouth back down and the warmth from between Waverly's legs is an overwhelming press, her tongue instinctively moving into Waverly and her hands gently tightening over Waverly's breasts, feeling close herself at the taste, a strong familiar percussion through her mouth. She tries to steady her tongue's movements into a firm stroke and can feel the answering rock of Waverly's hips, hearing the faint rasp of Waverly's heavy breaths despite the clench of Waverly's thighs around her ears, and then the louder sounds of Waverly's moans, the sound causing a drunkenness in Nicole's body like it always does. Waverly under her mouth an unbearably sweet feeling, the slick warmth of her and the sound of her crying out seeming louder than the thuds of the music outside. Waverly's legs tighten around her and Nicole keeps her mouth pressed against her, wanting to stay there, her tongue a thrill against Waverly coming, the noise Waverly makes feeling like a sound that works backwards over the year apart, sustaining Nicole after the fact, easing the absence away and replacing it with the warm closeness of her body.

She waits until Waverly's body calms and then pulls away, kissing each thigh before wiping her mouth with the back of a hand, nudging her body up to rest beside Waverly. She tucks herself to the side of Waverly, head turned towards her, watching the smile spreading over her face. Her eyes open and she turns her face to Nicole, the smile breaking into a shy grin, lips still parted as her breathing slows. Nicole smiles back, drifting a hand up to brush the hair off Waverly's face, her fingers teasing through it, coming back to her face to stroke along Waverly's jawline. Waverly's voice is a quiet gentle rasp into the swell of the music still coming from outside. "Was I too loud?"

Nicole laughs, leaning over to kiss her, her words almost lost against Waverly's mouth. "No, you were perfect." She can feel Waverly smile against her. She pulls away to find Waverly's eyes, watches her shut them, calmness spreading across her face. She reaches out to run her fingers through Waverly's hair again. The music outside changes tracks once more, and there's silence for a beat. She waits for it to start up again but instead there's more silence, and she looks at Waverly's face, seeing her start to fall asleep, and she lets her head drop to beside Waverly, wraps an arm around her body, tucking herself in close, enjoying the slow rise and fall of Waverly's belly under her forearm as her breathing grows shallow. She's ready for the sound of the front door opening and shutting, and her arm tightens around Waverly, wanting instinctively to protect her from what's happening. She feels Waverly shift away from sleep, and wants to pull her back to it. She can hear Wynonna's voice and it makes Waverly's body wake up. Nicole tries to push away the panic in her throat. Staring at Waverly's face, trying to hold on.

 

 

Chapter Text

The dawn is a push of red at the horizon when Wynonna bundles Waverly and Nicole through the door of Brewed Awakening. She softly pushes them both down onto a double-seated couch with her hands at their upper arms, and pats Nicole's shoulder once before standing over them; nodding, satisfied. She turns away and joins the end of the short line at the counter, feet tapping against the floor as she stands behind a burly man, her right hand making a small dance at her thigh in the empty space. Nicole watches her from beside Waverly, her mind blurring; exhausted. Wynonna's body is a cipher in the near-empty room; everything shifting. She turns to Waverly, finding her eyes, and stares at them for a minute, pulled back into a quiet room where they're alone and there's only the sound of Waverly's breaths, getting faster and warmer, everything dark except for the feeling of their skin pressing together. She shakes her head, trying to remember how long she's been here, and finding instead the physical memory of touching Waverly's body.

Wynonna slams down two mugs of coffee in front of them on the low table, one black, one a creamy light brown, turns on her heel to fetch a third, and returns to where they're sitting, putting her mug down with some paper napkins. Wynonna's drink slops onto the table a little as she sits down, and Waverly immediately reaches over to mop up the coffee with a napkin, watching Wynonna with narrowed eyes.

"It's like you're already on your fifth coffee." She looks down to where Wynonna's crossed leg is jiggling over her other one. "Did you drink some at the cabin, while we were—" Waverly breaks off, blushing. "While we weren't there?"

Wynonna leans forward to pick up her coffee with one hand and then settles back into the chair. She starts tapping the edge of her chair with her fingers, her words a long drawl. "Maybe." She fidgets. "I had a lot of time to think, okay? And you might not have noticed, baby girl, but it's been all night." She waves a hand towards the window of the coffee shop, gesturing in a wild flourish. "It's dawn. You have been at it—" her voice lowering, "all night." She glances at Nicole, grinning, her voice still low. "Not that I am not super happy for you both. This place is just creepy." She pauses, frowning. "And I don't like you both being out of my sight."

Nicole shifts in her seat, trying to quell the uneasy tilt of the room, hearing Wynonna's voice as though it's coming to her underwater. She feels Waverly's hand covering her own hand.

Wynonna gestures towards the two cups still on the coffee table. "Come on. Drink some coffee. You both need it."

Nicole leans over to pick up both mugs, feeling the burning warmth under her palm as she wraps a hand around one and passes it to Waverly with the handle extended, and considers the memory of a dark room playing on a loop in her mind, her eyes unfocused on the coffee. She takes a sip of the strong drink, the scalding coffee bringing her back into the softly lit interior. She gulps back the first burning sip and then blows on the surface of the remaining coffee, letting the steam hit her face. The thin line of sweat down the middle of her back itches where it's caught the fabric of her shirt. She tries to clear her mind of the floating memories of the night that all interrupt one another, and stares at Wynonna's face. She tries to lower her voice to a tone that can't be overheard, but that isn't a conspicuous whisper.

"Can you—" She pauses, looking over to Waverly's face, then starts again. "Can you tell me more now? Or is it too risky?"

She feels Waverly and Wynonna sharing a look, and a surge of déjà vu floods into her stomach like a wave of panic. She looks between their faces, trying to hold on to the firmness of the couch underneath her and the steadiness of the floor under her feet.

Wynonna looks back at her, and Nicole focuses on the darkness of her eyes. "Not right now, Nicole." Wynonna glances at the window. "Wait until we've done it. Waverly will tell you everything." Wynonna takes a gulp of coffee, her leg banging out a fidget against the seat of the chair.

Waverly's hand grazes along the side of her forearm and then Nicole can feel it tangling up in her own hand. She squeezes it gently and tries to stop her vision from flickering back to pieces of the night that threaten to turn the inside of the coffee shop into a softly lit room. The time she fully remembers is a pulsing, deep chime in her head; the tinges of dawn outside the window; her hands floating desperate and quick over as much of Waverly's skin as possible; less than half an hour together before the sound of Wynonna knocking softly on the door and then a hasty rush to dress and leave.

Wynonna's eyes are narrowed when Nicole manages to push away the swell of half-memories and see what's in front of her. Wynonna's voice is tired and scratchy, and Nicole remembers something she's never seen; Wynonna lying in Shorty's, broken-voiced. She shakes her head a little to hear what Wynonna is saying.

"Are you both—are you okay?" Wynonna's face is both serious and teasing at once, and Nicole looks away and back again to try to understand what the question means. She feels Waverly shift beside her and then the movement as she sits forward to pick up her mug. She looks at Waverly instead of Wynonna, watching her roll her eyes as she drinks some of the milky coffee. Nicole can taste the drink like it's in her own mouth, and she swallows reflexively, her head spinning.

Waverly's voice is as tired as Wynonna's, but with an undertow of something else. "We all know what you're asking, Wynonna."

Wynonna smirks, and Nicole recognizes the look on her face suddenly, the seriousness evaporating. She tries to smile, her mouth feeling like she's been out in the snow, her lips almost numb. Wynonna's smirk turns into a softer smile when she sees Nicole's face, and she puts a hand out over her bouncing legs to grab Nicole's hand.

"I did mean it, though, really. Are you okay, Nicole?"

Nicole nods, swallowing against the disorientation. Wynonna is frowning. "It'll get easier. I think if your memory's not reset for a while it will be better."

Nicole nods again, some part of her hearing turning towards the door of the coffee shop. She drags her eyes away, and can feel Waverly and Wynonna both following her gaze to the window, where Michael is staring in, standing in the early morning light. When their eyes turn towards him, his face turns overcast and he quickly looks away, then back again, eyes darting. He slowly backs away, out of the frame of the window.

Wynonna makes a small noise in the back of her throat which turns into a low bark of laughter as Michael disappears from view. "Okay, well. I think we've baited him." She meets Nicole's eyes. "Are you ready for this, dude? Don't forget, we can do all the heavy lifting, okay? Waverly was in drama club, and I can fake anything with the best of them."

Nicole feels like her throat is glued shut, and she lets her head nod once more in place of words. Wynonna glances back to the empty window, and hunches her shoulders over minutely. Nicole watches Wynonna's whole body tensing and tries to mimic the movement in her own body. She looks at Wynonna's face and works hard to reflect the same frown. Wynonna speaks in a terse, low voice, but her words don't match the tone, and it makes Nicole feel like she's seasick, the room a wobble.

"So, just imagine you're pissed, okay? Think about what annoys you most in the world. Like—" Wynonna's smile becomes devilish, and she turns her face entirely away from the window so only Nicole and Waverly can see it. "Okay. Think about that one time Lonnie logged the Millers' tractor as a stolen item on LEADS."

The sound of Wynonna's words are nails on a chalkboard, and Nicole feels a short intake of breath fill her lungs and then her body tenses on its own. She frowns. Wynonna's smile is triumphant. Waverly clears her throat, her own frown angry, but her voice unsure. "When was this? What happened?"

Nicole tries to breathe evenly, and her voice comes out sharp between her clenched teeth. "We don't have to discuss this."

Nicole can see the smile on Wynonna's face before she ducks her head briefly and then looks back up, frown back in place. Her voice is low, but all the fake anger has drained from it. "No, no, we should, Nicole. This will help you stay in character. So, Waves, there's this fancy system called LEADS, don't ask me what it stands for—"

"Law Enforcement Agencies Data System." Nicole's voice is a pained rasp.

Waverly's voice follows behind, indignant. "I know about LEADS, Wynonna. It's the other bit I don't know about."

"Yeah, sorry, okay. So, the Millers' tractor gets stolen, and no other damage to their property, just the tractor goes poof. They come into the station to report it, and Lonnie takes the details. Except he logs the tractor as a stolen item, not a stolen motor vehicle, and puts the VIN in the serial number field. So, anyway, Nicole locates the vehicle a week later, right, Nicole?" Wynonna pauses, her mouth twitching against the frown that's still on her face. "But when she comes to run the VIN through the system, she gets no hit, because it's not there; it's under the serial number category. It's only because she's real smart and knows the Millers and takes the time to ask around and find out that they'd had a tractor stolen that she puts two and two together." Wynonna pauses again. "To make four."

Nicole can feel Waverly trying not to laugh, and she tries to ignore it so that she can focus on the frustration of the memory. She tries to fix the feeling in place and can feel her muscles tighten, thinking the same thought over and over. The effort to keep her body tensed draws a light sweat again down her back, and she can feel the dampness of her shirt spreading out from the line of her spine. She speaks through clenched teeth. "When do we have to start arguing properly?"

Wynonna glances quickly to the window, then back to Nicole and Waverly. Her voice is a growl and Nicole stares at the way her knuckles are whitening on the arms of the chair from her grip. "Not yet. Just speak low so that no one can hear, okay?"

Nicole glances at Waverly and tries to think of something to say. Waverly's face is almost unrecognizable; the sharp cut of her clenched jaw tugging something in Nicole's belly like a warning bell. The scar at her cheekbone seems more obvious; a small shine on her cheek. Nicole tries to catch her eyes, but Waverly won't look at her, instead staring at the window. Nicole looks away and tries to focus on the feeling of anger that keeps slipping away into tired fear. She can feel waves in the air as though it's thick and moving; some weird breeze, and she knows that it's Wynonna and Waverly talking. She tries to hold on to the feeling of the seat beneath her and looks away to Main Street.

Michael is back on the other side of the window, his face a furrowed pall and eyes unreadable behind the flashing glint of his glasses. His body is leaning towards the glass in a slant and Nicole can feel that Waverly has seen him. Wynonna's back is to the window, but her body tenses and she clears her throat, voice a mutter. "Okay, now." Michael leans back to full height, straightening out his body, and walks to the door of the coffee shop. Nicole frowns, half-memories trying to push back into the room; the sight of Michael standing up from behind a desk; Michael striding towards her with a hand up. She shakes her head and focuses on Wynonna's voice.

"I don't care what you think the priority is, it's not that, okay, Haught?"

Nicole's neck prickles at the sound of Wynonna's voice, and she tries to focus on what she's supposed to be saying, clenching her jaw hard before she speaks and trying to push the words out in the same angry voice Wynonna has used. "You're just blindsided by the fact that Waverly wants to spend the day with me, Wynonna."

Wynonna huffs and sits back in her chair, eyes narrowed. Waverly sits forwards, her voice uneasy. "Guys—" she breaks off, looking between the two of them, and, as Michael steps close enough to hear them properly, she finishes the sentence. "Please don't fight."

Wynonna stands up in one abrupt movement, mumbling whatever, downing the rest of her coffee and putting the mug down hard with a loud smack, and then she turns on her heel and pushes past Michael, walking out of the door and slamming it shut behind her, leaving the bell jangling in the quiet of the coffee shop. Michael watches her go, then turns to look at Nicole and Waverly. Behind his back, Nicole sees the flash of Wynonna's quiet grin to her as she strides past the window.

Michael twists his red silk bow tie with the fingers of one hand, slipping the other into his pocket, his face cast with surprise and some distant delight underneath a layer of concern. He frowns. "Is everything okay, ladies?"

Nicole frowns, the prickle returning to her neck. She rubs at it. Waverly sighs loudly beside her. "Fine, Michael. Just having a disagreement with my sister, is all."

Michael bounces slowly on his heels, mimicking Nicole's frown. "I'm so sorry to hear that. Can I help you with anything?"

"Thanks, Michael, but I think maybe we'll just go for a quiet walk. I think Wynonna wants to be left alone."

Michael hums, his fingers trilling down from his bow tie to straighten the lapels of his suit jacket. "If you're sure, Waverly. I don't know—maybe she'd prefer to talk it out?" Michael's glasses catch the flash of the lights as someone turns on a lamp in the corner furthest from the window. Nicole can't see his eyes. She's suddenly aware that there are more people in the coffee shop. The prickle at her neck echoes over her forearms, and she rubs at them, words rushing into her mouth.

"Maybe later, Michael. I think we need to clear our heads, right, Waverly? Maybe take in the sights of Main Street."

Michael nods. "Sure." He pauses, staring at the two mugs of half-drunk coffee on the table in front of Waverly and Nicole. "Hey, did they—" He looks over to the bar, trying to catch someone's eye. Nicole looks over, trying to follow his gaze, eyes falling on the enormous silver espresso machine. She turns back to look at his face, watching his frown spread.

"Well, I guess they fixed it." He smiles, an uneven grin, his voice sounding full of strained lightness. "That's good!" He looks between the two of them, smile flashing, and gestures with one hand in a sweep towards Main Street. "Well, enjoy! I think you'll have a lot of fun."

 

 

Nicole tries to hear everything Waverly's saying, but her voice is pitched at such a strange, low register that Nicole has to interrupt, putting a hand out to rest on Waverly's arm, but not breaking their stride past the store fronts. There are barely any people around, the sun making long shadows of the buildings and their bodies, walking with almost no space between them.

"Waves. I can't understand everything you're saying. What are you doing with your voice?"

Waverly glances at her, fast, then back to ahead of them. There's a recognizable twitch to her eyes that betrays how she's scouting the position of all the other bodies on the street.

"Sorry. I'm trying to make it so only you can hear me. I didn't realize it wasn't working." Waverly's voice becomes clearer and louder, and Nicole can fasten on all the words like there are no other sounds on the street. She pulls to a stop, pretending to look over the display in a shop window, and Waverly steps in close next to her. The shop is closed and dark and no one's inside. Nicole can see the street behind them in the reflection of the glass, and she watches the track of people, holding Waverly's hand. Waverly laughs quietly. "Good idea, smarty-pants."

Nicole laughs back, a rush of pleasure that she tries to keep muted. She smiles at Waverly's reflection in the window. The awning of the storefront has them both in shadow. There's an even greater darkness inside the shop, and they can just make out the shapes of the display. The street behind is caught sunlight in the glass, and Waverly's eyes are too dark to read. "Can you start again, please? I want to make sure I hear all of it."

Waverly squeezes her hand and starts again. "Okay, so. We killed the last one. It was wild." Waverly glances over, a quick push through the air of her eyes touching Nicole's face. "We had to stake him out for weeks. The snow was so bad. It was the worst Purgatory has seen since records started. Almost everyone was snowed in, but Nedley hooked us up with those snow clearers you guys use, and we were able to stay mobile. He also took shifts watching Bell with us." Waverly glances over again, and Nicole tries to keep her expression steady. She squeezes Waverly's hand lightly to get her to continue. "When all the others were gone, Wynonna and I knew it was almost over. We were glad for the snow. It gave us longer to come to terms with it. It was worse for her. She had to leave Dolls and Alice behind. She had to trust me." Waverly's voice cuts off, and Nicole tries not to speak, the throb of tears in her throat. She swallows hard, and waits for Waverly to carry on. "We set a date with Dolls and had everyone over the evening before, knowing that the real date was that night. It was awful. I couldn't bear it. We couldn't tell anyone."

Waverly pauses again, and the silence is full of things that Nicole knows she wants to say and can't. Nicole mumbles as quietly as she can. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Waverly's face turns to hers, fast, then back to stare at her in the window's reflection. "No. None of this is your fault. We're going to fix everything."

Nicole's body reflexively shivers at the tone of Waverly's voice, and she concentrates on the warmth of Waverly's hand against hers. "Okay. Can you tell me more?"

Waverly clears her throat before continuing. "After everyone left, we gave Dolls a tranquilizer. We didn't want it to be bad, so we gave him a soluble oral one, but he still knew what was happening and his face was terrible, like he didn't understand anything. He looked so scared." Waverly stops, and Nicole can hear her swallowing. "We had to put him in a cage." Nicole feels as though the ground is dropping and she shifts her feet wider apart to keep a hold on the sensation of firm pavement. "We knew that everything we did, the bad place would know about. We had to find a way to tell him that wouldn't risk everything we were doing. We left him a note that was just a date and a set of coordinates, no spaces, just six figures in a row and underneath it two long figures. We knew that would be enough and Dolls would figure it out. The date was three months in the future and the coordinates are where a second letter will be, on that date."

Nicole's reflection frowns, and she watches her own face in the glass. She starts to ask a question, but Waverly keeps going. "I'm not sure how, really. I just know that if we do what we're planning to do, the second letter will be there, and Dolls will know everything."

Nicole tries to quell the rise of panic in her stomach. "And if we don't do it?"

Waverly glances at her again, a quick and nervy gesture that makes the panic flood up into Nicole's chest, a tightening vice around her ribs. "Then nothing. He'll never know. He'll spend the rest of his life thinking we left him alone. With only Alice."

There's a look on Waverly's face like the unsteady cusp of crying, and Nicole fights the urge to pull her into her arms, instead fixing her gaze to Waverly's reflection. She takes a shallow breath to keep her voice steady. "Then we're going to do it. Okay? We'll do it."

Waverly gives a small nod. "We saw Alice."

Nicole watches Waverly's eyes, trying to keep her voice at the same certain tone. "Before—before it was over?"

"Yeah. It was the last thing we did. We killed the last one and we could feel it, you know? The curse. It was the strangest feeling. Like good and awful at once, like something heavy being lifted away. But also as though the heavy thing was part of what was keeping us alive. I think I could feel what Wynonna was feeling. I mean, I could feel what she was thinking, and it was all a mess. She didn't know what to do with it. And then we went to see Alice one last time, and I don't think she was ready for that, either. I think she was almost relieved when we were going, like she couldn't handle being near Alice any more or she wouldn't have been able to go through with it. But then, when we went to the woods, I could hear everything she was saying, and she was glad we were doing this." Waverly pauses to find Nicole's eyes, watching her as she finishes. "She was glad we were coming for you. And she couldn't have done anything else, in the end." Waverly stops, blinking hard.

Nicole tries to disguise a brush at her eyes with the motion of tucking her hair behind one ear. She can't focus on Waverly's eyes, and thinks instead about the touch of her hand. She waits, her body swaying with a vertiginous pull. Waverly's voice is quiet.

"She had no responsibilities any more. The revenants were all gone; Alice was safe. But she knew we couldn't let this continue. She was still the heir, even after the curse lifted. Still saving people. Still choosing to risk her life, hoping to make things better." Nicole clenches her jaw, unable to speak. Waverly's voice carries on, stronger. "She was right, you know. This was about you, Nicole, but it's also about what you believe in, too. We have to fix it."

Nicole nods. She clears her throat and speaks in a near-whisper. "Do you remember after that, too? I mean, before you saw me again?"

"Yeah. Michael woke us up to ask us things, like we thought he would. We knew he'd want to know why we'd put Dolls in a cage. We said we did it because we knew Dolls would have found us and stopped us otherwise. We said the date and coordinates were just for Dolls to go to the woods and find a quiet place we all loved and grieve for us once the worst pain had passed. I think Michael believed us. He finds it hard to understand human emotion properly, and the whole thing threw him. And we told him we couldn't go on living after everything that had happened, after losing so many people. And that's why we did it." Waverly pauses, and Nicole can feel the shift in her body. "But then while we were talking something happened, and that's when we appeared on Main Street. I don't think he was expecting that." Waverly gives a low laugh. "I still don't know why it happened."

Nicole laughs, too, and she smiles at Waverly's reflection. She sees people passing on the other side of the street and watches them walking. There's a sudden swell in the air and a taste at the back of her throat like lightning is coming, and she blinks away the last of her tears. She has an irruptive impulse to start running, and then she realizes what that means, some muscle memory coming alive, and she knows Michael is there before she sees him, emerging from a group of four people on the other side of the street and breaking away to cross over and come up behind them.

Nicole pulls Waverly's hand closer to her body without thinking, and then consciously relaxes as Michael comes close, focusing on making her face impassive. She turns and meets his eyes, a flood of remembering, a deep push against her chest that makes her want to reach for her absent gun.

Michael's voice is deep and warm and Nicole tries to hear the words, out of place and shifting, like weird light seen through water. "I want to formally invite you both, and Wynonna, to a special chowder event, this evening. I think it will be a ball. We can get you settled in properly! There will be music, and dancing, and, of course, more chowder than you could wish for."

 

 

Wynonna's pacing hits out a repetitive smack of her boots on the wood floor that makes Nicole's heart start up an anxious rhythm, and she tries to ignore the swell of nerves and instead listen to Wynonna's voice. Waverly is sitting opposite her at the rough table, and Nicole reaches a foot closer towards her, relaxing a little when she finds Waverly's foot and feels the reassuring push of it against her own.

Waverly's voice is steady; calm. "Start again, Wynonna. And deep breaths. Try to breathe past the caffeine, yeah?"

Wynonna takes a loud breath in, then starts speaking at the same rapid-fire pace. "Yeah, so. Jeremy is the same, except also not. In that—he's almost the same as when we saw him yesterday, but Michael has reset him. Again. Again!" Wynonna's arms fly up. "This dude is drunk on the resetting. So, I fill Jeremy in. It's very covert ops." Wynonna grins madly. "Totally nobody around. I thought there would be no dumpsters in this place, but apparently that was my mistake. Also, I really need a shower now." Wynonna's eyes flicker to Nicole's face. "Okay, so, sorry. Nicole, like we said, we met Jeremy yesterday. All of us. And you and he—you're good friends at this point. He's a solid dude. Still completely in love with Doc, but I think maybe he's dealing. Possibly. Anyway. So. Jeremy was pretty quick off the beat when I filled him in about everything. He basically remembered it all, but he had to fight off some brain fog first. Then it came back. It helped when I tucked his shirt in for him."

Nicole looks at Waverly, trying to push back anxiety caused by Wynonna's fast speech. Waverly rolls her eyes, and looks back at Wynonna, voice cutting through the sound of her pacing. "Wynonna. Try to stand still. Just make yourself slow down."

"Okay." Wynonna stops, but keeps talking at the same pace. "So. Jeremy was able to tell us everything Michael had said since we saw him yesterday. As we expected. And check this. We know Michael has wiped Nicole's memory twelve times since we got here, yeah? And most of that last night, over the course of your miniature lost weekend. And you also know that I used him being distracted by you two and your highly evolved needs to be alone and plot stuff. What you don't know is that Michael was freaking out more than we thought. He was totally panicked by the fact that you just kept having the sex. The first time, right, he was just suspicious that he hadn't seen us in a while, and—I don't know, his spider-sense tingled or something. And he came and bust in on us. But then he got paranoid. Rightly so, but about the wrong thing, since he still has no idea that the memory wiping ain't working at all on Waves and me. But he was seriously freaked by the fact that you two were re-enacting your own heaven-on-earth lifetime movie on a loop."

Wynonna laughs, a manic, accelerated sound. "He couldn't handle it!" She puts up both hands, and stops pacing in a lurch to look at them both. "Get this: he couldn't handle it, because you were making a good place. You were just ignoring everything bad, and making a good place together."

Wynonna laughs again, and Nicole glances at Waverly; glad to see her smiling, relieved to see the happy flush of her cheeks. Wynonna steps closer to Nicole and gives her a gentle shove to her shoulder, then keeps talking. "So, Michael keeps resetting Nicole's memory, right, because he's trying to stop this from happening. He starts talking to Trevor, trying to work out what to do. And he actually thinks you'll wear yourselves out. He resets and resets, thinking Maybe this time they won't immediately have sex, but no, and he gets more and more desperate. And then, at around one this morning, he suddenly starts talking to Trevor differently, like, Maybe I need to learn from this, and he decides to make it an experiment. As in: how many times can he reset you before you stop doing this thing? That goes on for a bit, but then he starts to think maybe he should just lean into it, and not reset you both. Like maybe that way you will wear yourselves out. Risky, because you proved your stamina by about half past nine the previous night."

Wynonna smirks, a delighted bounce in her body as she rocks on her heels. "But he thinks maybe if he doesn't reset you and you remember the repeated times, then maybe you'll feel as if you've had enough of each other for a while." She laughs again. "Okay, so, we didn't know this while it was happening. And, obviously, I stopped you guys the last time, because I'd had time to think and I thought Michael would just keep resetting Nicole's memory, and that seemed bad." Wynonna pauses, staring at Waverly, then continues talking, a foot tapping against the floor. "But all that info from Jeremy is relevant, right? Because it tells us that Michael has no idea what we know. And that he's severely freaked out by the concept of sex. In general. But especially when his favorite test subjects keep having at it." Wynonna pauses, looking between Waverly and Nicole with wide eyes. "Can we use that? Is that crazy? Is there something there? We torture Michael through your insatiable desire?"

Waverly laughs, her voice still low and calm. "Wynonna, get a grip. Listen to yourself."

Wynonna nods, her face clearing. "Yeah, yeah, sorry. That was the caffeine talking. So, anyway. The conclusions I've come to. Number one, most important: we need to kill Michael, as agreed."

Nicole coughs gently. "Is that the ultimate goal, here?"

There's a pulse through the air and Nicole has an impulse to lift up a hand and run her fingers through the space between Waverly and Wynonna. She frowns and looks between them. "Michael can't hear you, right? Can't you speak out loud?"

Waverly turns to her, eyes immediately apologetic. "I'm sorry. Habit. That's not the goal, no." Waverly glances at Wynonna.

Nicole can hear the strain in Wynonna's voice as she starts speaking again, slower, her words pushing to increase their rhythm. "We have to kill Michael, Nicole, because we don't know how to get to Trevor and, if we try to get to Trevor, Michael is that much more likely to figure out why we're trying to get to Trevor. We have to keep this clean. Right now, our only real advantage is that Michael doesn't know what we know. And he doesn't know that we can know. He thinks that we're babies; he thinks that I don't remember anything; that Waverly doesn't remember anything." She pauses, her breathing shallow and fluttering. "We have to use that. We have to kill Michael. And we have to trust that killing Michael will work."

Nicole raises her eyebrows, and takes a breath against the swirl of panic in her stomach. "What do you want to happen when we kill Michael?"

Waverly reaches across the table to take Nicole's hand, waiting for her to look over. "We want this place to disappear. Entirely."

"What?"

Wynonna steps closer to the table, standing still, her body a restrained fidget. Her voice is almost hoarse, and makes Nicole think of snow. "If we kill Michael, and we kill him in the right way, we think that, because he created this place, this place will disappear and it disappearing will set off a chain reaction, taking all the other bad places, and revenant hell, with it."

Nicole stares at Wynonna's face. "What about us? What happens to us?"

Wynonna's eyes flicker over to Waverly's, then back to Nicole's face. "In the absence of any bad places, Deidre will take over it all. That's the hope, anyway." Wynonna frowns slightly, then shakes her head, face clearing. "Deidre can do it, right, Waves?" She doesn't wait for an answer out loud, looking back to Nicole. "There's not going to be any bad places anymore. Everyone will be judged the same, whether they're revenant or human. Everyone good goes to the good place. Everyone middling goes somewhere like the good place, but there's taxes and stuff, so it's not quite as good. And anyone who's done heinous things will just cease to be." Wynonna's eyes are dark as she stares at Nicole. "Anyone who shouldn't exist, won't. They'll all be at peace. For real, this time."

Nicole nods, unable to speak. Waverly's hand is cool on her own, and she can feel the prickle of sweat at her own palms and the base of her back. She tries to focus on the pain in her leg to stop the room from spinning. Wynonna carries on speaking, her voice back to its accelerated rhythm.

"This is where I'm at. Number one: we have to kill Michael. Number two: to get rid of the bad place and revenant hell, we have to kill Michael using the same principles we used to kill revenants. Michael is a demon, right? In essence. Who else was a demon? The dude who cursed Wyatt Earp and his descendants. Wyatt killed a load of people with his gun. They rose from the dead as demons. It was only that same gun that killed them first time around that could kill them the next time around." Wynonna looks between them, her eyes darting. "Do you see what I'm saying?"

Nicole shifts her left leg against the rush of pain, and tries to speak evenly. "I get the principle, but how do we make another Peacemaker that will work?" She pauses, looking between Wynonna and Waverly. "I mean, Michael was never human, right? The gun we make will need to have the power to kill something that wasn't ever alive in the first place. How can it ever be a gun that killed him when he was alive?"

Wynonna's face flashes. She smiles crookedly, her face blooming into a grin. "That's number three, Nicole. Who has the power to kill Michael?"

Nicole glances to Waverly, who's already staring at her, a small smile on her face. She raises her eyebrows, and turns back to Wynonna. "Who?"

"Jeremy said it himself yesterday. Everything in this bad place is contingent on him. Without Jeremy, none of this would exist. That also means Jeremy has the power to eliminate Michael from existence. If Michael is here, he only exists here. If he dies here, he dies everywhere. So if Michael exists here only, he can be removed completely, and Jeremy is the key."

Nicole frowns, the flood of understanding wrestling with unease. "That's—that's incredible thinking, Wynonna." She pauses, trying to smile. "But—it still leaves the question of a gun, and how we actually kill Michael with it, right?"

Wynonna starts pacing again. "Right, right. I know. But I told all this to Jeremy, and I thought it would be too much rebellion stuff for him, but he was totally on board. I think he's mad that Doc got messed around by this whole thing. I told him the plan, and I said that we need a new Peacemaker, and he said—I quote—he said, Yeah, sure, I can do that, no worries. That was it, end of story. So all we have to figure out is: what's the bullet?"

 

 

Nicole feels Wynonna pause in her striding and she stops, turning back to watch Wynonna lean in to peer through the window of The Suggestion of Yogurt, then rear back almost immediately, her head turning in a whip to find Nicole's face. Her eyes are wide. She grabs Nicole's arm and strides away from the shop, near-dragging Nicole after her, finding the alley she's looking for and taking a darting glance around the street before pulling them both down it, into the dimness.

"10-11." Wynonna's voice is a low hiss, rising at the end. "10-11!"

Nicole checks the alley is empty before meeting Wynonna's eyes, frowning. "What? Animal complaint?"

"Yes." Wynonna's eyes are narrowed, and Nicole can feel the strength in Wynonna's fist where it's bunching the fabric of her jacket, making a tight pull against her forearm. "I'm an animal, and I want to make a complaint."

"That's not what that means, Wynonna. And you know it." Nicole tries to stop the clench of her teeth, rubbing at her jaw to forestall the ache.

"Whatever, you know my way is more fun." Wynonna glances to the throat of the alley, her eyes still narrowed. "Why would Michael go that far, though? Who hurt him? Frozen yogurt is bad enough, but melted frozen yogurt soup? That's just, like, yogurt, but even worse."

Nicole can feel the bubble of a laugh rising despite her clenched teeth. She puts a hand over Wynonna's on her arm to gently tug it away from where it's fastened over her jacket. "Wynonna, focus."

"Okay, yeah, sorry." Wynonna glances down the length of the alley, and starts to walk further away from the street without waiting to see if Nicole is following. Nicole tries to adjust to the darker air, the buildings either side high and barely any light cutting through, a mass further along the passage looming across most of the width of the alley. When they're half way down, Wynonna pulls to an abrupt stop and flings out an arm, gesturing to the dumpster pressed against one wall. "Here, see? It's the only dumpster I could find, but it exists."

Nicole glances at the dumpster and then turns her head incrementally to keep the ends of the alley within her peripheral vision. "You go first, I'll watch."

"Okay, Supercop." Wynonna flashes a grin, deep dimples showing, her eyes almost manic. "10-31." She grabs the lip of the dumpster, heaving herself up and pausing at the edge to keep watching Nicole before she drops down inside.

"Wynonna." Nicole evens out the sound of her voice, lowering it and flattening it, trying to quash the rush of annoyance in her lungs. "That's crime in progress. Stop it."

Wynonna's face above the edge of the dumpster is bright. Her grin gets wider, and she shrugs. "Make me."

Nicole rolls her eyes, and takes a final look to either end of the alley before pulling herself over and into the dumpster. She leans over to brush off her pants and straightens up to meet Wynonna's eyes. Wynonna raises an eyebrow, her voice a quiet, teasing tone. "This is a crime. We've made a criminal of you."

"Stop it."

Wynonna laughs quietly. "This is the ultimate rule-breaking, Nicole. You've joined the rebellion."

Nicole huffs, crossing her arms. "This is not rule-breaking, or a crime." She pauses, glaring at Wynonna. "There's no law here. There's no rules we have to obey. This isn't life." She lets her frown break into a grin. "Actually, this is the opposite of crime, Wynonna. You're back to doing what you do so well. Following rules of ethics rather than rules of law." She laughs at Wynonna's widening eyes. "That's right. You're the good guy. You're not a criminal at all."

Wynonna frowns. "Fine. Whatever. This is still totally a scene from The Wire, though. We're in a freaking dumpster, hooking up with our gun supplier, Nicole."

Nicole laughs again, glancing around the dumpster. "Well, let's do this, then. Jeremy?"

Jeremy appears, close in the confines of the dumpster, stumbling a little among the trash. He frowns, looking down at the empty cardboard boxes around his feet. His face lightens as he sees Nicole's face, but his frown stays in place. "Why is there trash?"

Nicole glances at Wynonna. "Should there not be?"

"Yeah." He looks at Wynonna. "I was foggy when I saw you. I didn't think of it. This shouldn't be here. There shouldn't be trash in this place, at all."

Wynonna grimaces. "Not even if Michael put it here, to add to the generally terrible ambience? Fits with the frozen yogurt theme, if you ask me."

Nicole stares at Jeremy. "Okay, well, noted. Jeremy, we can't spend that long here." She looks at Wynonna. "We've already wasted too much time arguing about semantics. We need the gun. Please."

Jeremy beams, immediately reaching around to the back of his pants, pulling a pistol from the waist of them, and presenting it to Wynonna on open palms. The gun catches some residual light in the air; a flashing mirror of Peacemaker. Wynonna freezes, staring at the metal. Nicole takes her eyes from the gun to watch Wynonna's face, a shadow of some other place falling over it. She reaches out with a hand and lifts the gun, testing its weight. She looks at Nicole, her eyes wide.

"It's the same weight."

Jeremy's voice is bright, proud. "Yep. Exactly the same as Peacemaker, just like you wanted." He grins.

Nicole keeps her voice low. "May I?"

Wynonna meets her eyes, and passes the gun over to her. Nicole feels the heft of it, the heavy coldness, and she frowns at Jeremy. "It won't fire, though, will it?"

Jeremy echoes her frown, his face cast with confusion. "No, I—I don't know—" He breaks off.

Wynonna looks between the gun and Nicole's face. "How did you know that?"

"I don't know." Nicole pauses, staring at the barrel of the gun, trying to clear out the haziness from the air between her and the pistol. "We need a bullet, too."

The air rushes out of Wynonna's mouth in a heavy sigh. "Yeah."

Jeremy fidgets, nudging his feet in the layer of cardboard to steady his stance. He is still frowning when he meets Nicole's eyes. "But—you just have to ask me, right?"

Nicole stares at his eyes, trying to remember everything that keeps falling off an edge in her memory. "I have to ask you?" She repeats, trying to fasten his words into a meaning. "I have to ask you for a bullet?"

"Yeah, that's how I work. You ask me for stuff. I give it to you. Wynonna asked me for a gun, but she never asked me for a bullet."

Wynonna's breath whistles as she exhales. "Fork, Jeremy. That's all I had to do? I just had to ask for that, too? I didn't know." She looks at Nicole. "I didn't know."

Nicole smiles at her. "And I didn't remember." She looks at Jeremy. "Okay, Jeremy, can we have a bullet that will work, please?"

Jeremy grins, some glimpse of happiness meeting something else, and Nicole tries to read his eyes, the deep glint in them familiar; a passing train. His voice is full. "Yes."

Nicole waits for more, feeling time slow, watching his face changing in the silence. She has an impulse to reach out and touch him. Eventually she hears Wynonna speaking softly next to her. "Can you tell us how, Jeremy?"

Jeremy blinks twice, meeting Wynonna's eyes. "I have a reset button. It—it will make everything go blank for me. When everything goes blank for me, everything goes blank in this place, for a second. Including Michael. If you destroy the button, it will destroy everything here. Use the button as a bullet. If it stops existing, the place can't exist, either."

Nicole frowns, her eyes shifting unconsciously over to meet Wynonna's. She can't see anything reflected in them. The alley is dark and the inside of the dumpster is even darker; barely any light from the narrow seam of sky over their heads reaching all the way down to them. "Jeremy, won't that—isn't what you're saying—" Nicole pauses, taking a breath to make her voice level, "if we use your reset button as a bullet, and destroy it to destroy this place, won't that mean—won't you go, too?" Her voice peters out at the end, as though the words are trying to escape the limits of the confined space and drift off into the sky.

Jeremy's smile is warm, and he fidgets, glancing down at the boxes against his feet. He looks up at Nicole. "You're making them disappear."

Nicole looks quickly at Wynonna, seeing her confused frown, then back at Jeremy, staring down to where his eyes have fallen to look at the ground again. He's lifting and lowering his feet gently on top of the layer of boxes, taking small steps. He continues watching his feet as he talks, the soft sound of his shoes hitting the cardboard forming gentle punctuation to his words. "I figured it all out. All that stuff Wynonna told me, yesterday, made me start thinking. I remembered that Nicole has been fixing stuff the whole time she's been here."

Jeremy's eyes flicker up to meet Nicole's, something in them that she can't read; a look that reminds her of Waverly; a look that sets a deep pulse down her left leg and a clench into her ribcage around her lungs. Jeremy looks back at his feet. "Look. The level of these boxes was, on average, twenty-seven point three centimeters when you stepped into here. It's now twenty-three point six centimeters. The boxes are falling out of the bottom of the dumpster. If Nicole stays here long enough, they'll all disappear, and then the dumpster will, too." He looks up, meeting Nicole's eyes, his gaze catching hers.

Wynonna's voice is still almost impossibly low, and Nicole feels as though it's coming from a greater distance than is possible. "Why, though, Jeremy?"

Jeremy's eyes leave Nicole to find Wynonna's face, and his smile stays in place. There's a flash of something desolate and lost in them that keeps flickering away. "Because of what she did. It's going to happen to you and Waverly, too, you just haven't been here quite long enough yet." Jeremy pauses to look back at Nicole. "You all chose to come here. You got the choice to go to some other place where nothing would have been like this. But you picked to come here. You upset everything when you did that. People aren't supposed to pick the bad place over the good place. Michael is making all these things to try to make you unhappy, and, because you're not meant to be here, small stuff keeps getting broken or going bad. Like the sinkhole. Or the endless spaghetti. And this dumpster. But then your presence keeps fixing the stuff that's broken." Jeremy looks down at his feet again, and back up, his eyes sad and his smile pleased at the same time. "You're not meant to be here, and the fabric of the place keeps going wrong because of it, but—when you gave up your life for other people, you fixed something that wasn't broken, so you can fix stuff here, too."

Jeremy's smile grows, and he looks between them. "Don't worry about me. Use my reset button. I won't exist here anymore, but I'll exist somewhere else. It's the only way to do this."

Nicole can feel Wynonna about to speak, but Jeremy puts up a hand, slow and quiet, and his voice is faster than before. "No, you have to do this. And you have to go. Michael will only be distracted by Waverly for so long. I can make it for you and have it when you call me, yeah?" He puts a hand on Nicole's arm, finding her eyes. "Go."

Jeremy pushes Nicole gently towards the edge of the dumpster, and she reaches up for the edge, feeling Wynonna come up behind her. She pulls herself over, and then puts an arm out to help Wynonna lever herself down to the ground. They face Jeremy, the thick metal wall between them, and Wynonna's voice is a near-whisper. "Thanks, Jeremy. See you soon. You can go, now." And then he's gone, the space where he was a full absence, some emptiness in the air that's liquid and thick.

Nicole turns to Wynonna, seeing the frown on her face. She watches Wynonna swallow, and waits for her to speak. When she does, her voice is low. "If we do this, he'll be 10-7, won't he?"

Nicole blinks, and she translates what Wynonna means out loud, instinctively. "Out of service?" She stares at the space where Jeremy was. "I think so, yeah."

 

 

The inside of the hall is covered with streamers, and there's a vast piece of artwork on one wall, huge painted lobsters and fish and mussels, all drowning in a sea of gray liquid. There's a long, low table covered in glasses of chowder; crabs painted on balloons. Nicole pauses at the entrance, staring down the short-stepped descent into the cavernous space, and feels Wynonna's hand on her forearm, a sudden clench. She looks over to see her staring at the wall, caught by the oil painting's outsized sea life, dwarfing the people standing near it.

Wynonna looks at her, desperation in her eyes. "Did someone—they've made an oil painting of chowder. For this specific party."

Waverly laughs from the other side of Nicole, a low sound that sends a warm pulse against Nicole's terrified expectancy, slowing her heart down from its uncomfortable gallop. She turns to look at Waverly, her hair loose over her bare shoulders, the line of her dark blue dress a sweep across her chest and down her body. Waverly reaches over and takes Nicole's hand. Nicole's body turns away before she knows why, and she watches Michael appear from across the hall, gritting her teeth against the pain in her leg, the deep fire unravelling from her toes all the way up to the base of her spine. Michael is immaculate in a tuxedo; his body seems larger somehow in the cavernous space. He meets Nicole's eyes and immediately smiles, his glasses catching the light from the spinning party lights, and he raises a glass of champagne to her from across the room. Nicole tries to smile, her face feeling cold and numb like there's snow in the air. She lifts her free hand to wave, Wynonna's hand falling away from her forearm as she raises it.

Wynonna's voice is gravel cutting through the noise of the party. "10-44, Nicole."

Waverly shifts beside Nicole, and her voice is terse despite the casual lean of her body into Nicole's. "What?"

Nicole glances to Wynonna and then finds Waverly's face. She smiles, rolling her eyes. "She's asking permission to leave the zone."

Waverly laughs, and Nicole looks back to watch Michael while she answers Wynonna. "Yeah, go. We've got this." She steps forward, Waverly's hand still in hers, and they walk down the short stairway into the hall, Wynonna following and then immediately getting lost among the people.

Nicole weaves past bodies, trying to get to Michael. There's electricity in the air like a painful storm, and Nicole shivers against hundreds of small memories trying to break into her thoughts. She tries to focus on Waverly's hand in hers; a feeling so familiar; a touch that makes her believe she's still alive. She twists her head to see Waverly, the look on her face the like she's never seen, and she tries to think only about the sight of Waverly even as she turns away and finds Michael there, standing in a small clearing of people. His grin is a terrible flash and Nicole's eyes fall to his hand, the pre-emptive flick of it that she recognizes without knowing how, and she looks into his eyes, trying to find something to hang onto. She feels Waverly push gently past her to stand in front of Nicole's body, and at the corner of her vision there's a flash of red, and she knows Wynonna is slipping out of the side exit to meet Jeremy.

She keeps her eyes fixed on Michael's face, and she listens to Waverly's voice, deep and hard, a sound in it she's not heard before, something taut almost to breaking, refusing to snap. "Don't bother, Michael."

Michael stares at Waverly, the beginning of a frown threatening his grin. "But it's so much fun. We get to do this all over again."

Nicole tries to watch the side exit out of the corner of her eye, willing Michael's hand to stay still. She hears a low rumbling somewhere outside and tries to align her sight and hearing into a coherent whole, feeling like she's starting to slowly and inevitably slip down a long decline. She looks at what she can see of Waverly's profile, the sharp clean cut of her jaw tightening, and she listens to Waverly's low voice. "Don't you want to know how we figured it out?"

Nicole watches curiosity pass over Michael's face, and then he huffs loudly, a deep sound with the rise and fall of his chest. "Maybe I would have, two hundred days ago, but who cares, now? I got tired of hearing about how smart Nicole is somewhere around the attempt that lasted three minutes and twelve seconds."

At the end of Michael's words, a deep silence passes over the hall, and then all the noise comes rushing back in, and Nicole catches the flash of red she's waiting for, knowing Wynonna is there without having to turn to look.

She can see Waverly knowing, too, the shape of her body an endless, irrevocable turning toward Wynonna, and Nicole tries to think of something to say to stop Michael raising his hand to send everything spinning.

"Hey, dummy." Wynonna's voice cuts through her panic. The sound of it is so familiar that Nicole has to swallow against the catch in her throat. She watches Wynonna finish striding up to the side of Michael, tall in her heels, nearly as tall as him, her arm outstretched, the gun pointing in a straight line towards Michael's head.

Michael laughs, a delighted, echoing sound, and the people around him grow still. A hush ripples over the hall, and Michael grins at Wynonna, his voice a laughing boom. "Well, well, Wynonna Earp. Full of surprises, as ever. And what is this? Where did you get a Peacemaker?" He looks over at Nicole. "Do you really think that will work on me?"

Wynonna's eyes are level and sharp, and Nicole knows the bullet is in the gun, and she tries not to think about Jeremy, existing somewhere in that moment. About to not exist at all, his body bound for an unfathomable nowhere.

Wynonna's voice is like a wire cutting through the shudder of the air. "I don't think you counted on Jeremy." She pauses, watching Michael's face cloud over. "That's right. The bullet is made of his reset button. When I fire it into you, everything—all this, gone."

Michael's voice has the remnants of pleasure in it, slowly being swallowed by confusion. "You do realize that Jeremy will be gone, too? If you destroy that button, he can't exist anymore."

Wynonna's hand doesn't shake, but Nicole can feel a swell of something through the air before she speaks. "I know. He knows. He wants us to do this. He says—" Wynonna stops, swallowing hard, staring into Michael's eyes. Nicole can feel the ground shift, and her body gets cold, a sudden desperate rush pulsing through her body. She tries to hold onto Wynonna's voice, echoing out into the silent hall, loud now, steady.

"He says: he's learned from the best. Sometimes you have to give everything up. Sometimes you have to let everything go. Sometimes—sometimes it's worth it, to lose everything for the people you love."

Nicole sees Jeremy in her mind. A small figure she knows is standing outside the hall, waiting. She feels the swell of time building to a crescendo in her body and realizes that he's become more human than Michael knew possible. She bites back the rush of bile in her throat at the thought that Jeremy might be scared. She focuses on watching the barrel of the gun, a dark flashing metal.

Wynonna's finger squeezes the trigger, the click echoing, and then there's no sound at all, just a deep, cold absence of everything; a gaping void that embraces the hall for a long, resounding second. Michael starts to laugh. Wynonna looks at Nicole, and Nicole can feel the rush of silent words making the air between Wynonna and Waverly heavy. Then Wynonna steps over to Nicole, passing her the gun, pushing it into her hands, and she whispers, low and urgent, You have to fix it, and the gun is a cold mass slowly turning warm under Nicole's touch.

Nicole looks at it, wondering. Remembering Waverly's hand in her own. She thinks of her own last moments alive and prepares for the thought of a true death that will end everything. She stares at the metal and wills it to work.

She sees Waverly's smile in her head and remembers the first time she saw her; the lift of her shy smile; the way that her body was impossibly warm near hers as she pulled the wet shirt from over Waverly's head. She thinks of Wynonna holding a gun, the image seared into her mind; Wynonna's silhouette raising Peacemaker. She remembers Nedley. Thinks of shooting defensively; saving Waverly's life.

She feels all the pieces of the gun come together, feels the part of Jeremy inside it, feels Wynonna's thoughts, feels thunder in the air outside catch the beginning of snowfall, and then she raises the gun.

She looks into Michael's eyes and thinks of the life she knew. She clenches her teeth against the rushing pain in her leg, and feels the gun come alive at her touch of the trigger.

She squeezes against the resistance, heart stammering. Turns the space around her into a whirl of black, nothing there.

Waverly the last to leave her vision. As ever, as always.

 

 

Chapter Text

The girl's hair is a darkness unravelled. She's slight. There's a look in her eyes like she's haunted and leaving everything behind. She fights at school for unknown reasons and she's quiet at home. She won't listen to her father and she skips class to walk in the woods and sit alone in some unfound place. Where she will stare at a photograph showing her likeness. A dark-haired woman with sad eyes and a brave smile. A man with his face in shadow, hat pulled forward in a mysterious slant. A pistol at his hip. Face long gone and grave.

 

 

At age sixteen, Gus and Dolls tell her the truth about her parents' deaths. Their faces are hollowed with regret. She stares into their faces, begging them with her eyes. Demands of them to explain why they didn't tell her earlier. Their words are reasoned; protective; but her anger is the bleakness of the howling mid-winter snow. She won't come home for a week. When she does, she's meek; worn out from the grief. She forgives them instantly, asks the same in return. Tries to restart her life knowing who she is, and becomes a young woman in that instant. 

She no longer picks fights with every young man in town. Instead, she asks for Waverly's old books, and starts from the beginning. She reads everything she's given; finishes them in a year. Applies for college. She leaves behind the anger that pulls up her fists and makes her unloosen them into the faces of the men who try to follow her around. She asks Christine to teach her to fight without hurting anyone. She takes a job waitressing and saves to buy a motorcycle, the feel of the engine under her a memory she doesn't know why she has.

 

 

She graduates early, and at the top of her class. The old, worn-out photograph of her parents is tucked carefully into the right pocket of her jeans underneath her gown. A photograph of her aunts is folded into the left pocket. As she takes her diploma into her hand, Dolls and Gus and Randy and Chrissy and Christine are whooping, impossibly loud, from the audience. Her grin shy; proud. After the ceremony, she stands in the warm circle made by their bodies and she looks into Nedley's face; nods at him. He stares back, smiling, his face pure pleasure, satisfied.

She leaves Purgatory for her training and throws every part of herself into the academy. She takes each optional class offered to her. She offers to lead a judo class and teaches two times a week in the training hall, the musical smack of bodies onto mats calming her. She learns to understand the breathing of the city, accumulating its patterns and rhythms into her body, while knowing at the same time that she'll never live in one again. She thinks about Purgatory all the time; the bleakness of the hills; the jut of the mountains against a cavernous sky. She misses Gus's food and Nedley's gentle smile. She gets homesick in a true, visceral wave. She calls Dolls every evening from a park bench, away from the eyes of her classmates. She waits, alone on the bench until her eyes are no longer red, and returns to her dorm.

Her sleep is fretful. She either remembers nothing at all, the night a blank void, or she has dreams that endure into the late afternoon. She sees her parents, alive. Sometimes they're fighting revenants; sometimes they're smiling at one another. She sees everyone she's never met and knows in the dreams that she misses them anyway. She sees Waverly, her body turning away, and feels the edges of a life that never was. Nicole is always there, even when she can't see her. Sometimes she sees a man in a bow tie. Snow falling and the awful itch of summer.

 

 

On her twenty-seventh birthday, she rests her hat on the table and calls up the stairs. She walks to the fridge and pulls out two bottles of beer, gripping both in the fingers of one hand while she finds the bottle opener. She flicks the lids off and walks through the main room, waiting for Dolls to appear in the doorway, handing him one of the beers. She meets his smile with her own grin, and takes a gulp of the beer, settling into her favorite chair. She feels behind her for her mother's cushion, pulling it onto her lap.

She looks at his familiar face; takes in the broad expanse of his shoulders; the loving lines at the corners of his eyes. She tells him about the cases that have made up her week, every person she's spoken to, every small thing Nedley has taught her. She can hear her father saying her name, Alice Michelle, even though he's quiet, sitting still in front of her. She can feel her parents, never quiet, doing the same thing. She can feel the world getting smaller and warmer, and she can feel the place she knows she will one day find.

 

 

Nicole stands in front of a door. She knows before she looks down that there's snow under her feet. A deep, clean cold all around her. The breath in her lungs is a sharp pleasure of frozen air, and she breathes out, hard, watching the plume of warmth flood over her vision until it gets lost in the coldness. The summer no more. She looks up, reading the word above the door, Perkatory, and smiles. She knows what's on the other side. The ground aligning under her feet. Everything in its place. Her memory fully alive and fully intact, returned.

Her body, free of pain, recognizing every small part of the world without ever having seen it before. She can feel Waverly on the other side of the door. She can close her eyes and see a young, dark-haired woman sitting on the porch of the homestead. Alive and free.