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this old house

Chapter Text

"i came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form,
come in, she said
i'll give you shelter from the storm."

- bob dylan, shelter from the storm (1974)

 

+++

 

The homestead was surprisingly clean when they got back from the hospital with enough pill bottles to start their own pharmacy. Waverly was on crutches for the foreseeable future, which didn’t leave her in the most charitable mood. As Waverly had once said, she ran on vinegar and indomitable rage, and neither thing was particularly easy to run on when you were stuck on the couch. She passed the time with a bit of light learning-an-entire-new-language. Nicole just kept making bacon because she weren’t sure what else to do with herself.

But the homestead had been cleaned because Wynonna had done it quietly in preparation for their arrival. Despite what a lot of people seemed to think - Nicole included sometimes - Wynonna was a person of great depth. She might have drank her coffee from a Vegas mug that said ‘Nice Jugs’, but she’d also scrubbed the place clear of reminders of what had happened there a week ago and even taken a whack at fixing all of the damage done to the fence. She’d fed the chickens dutifully, scrubbed the blood from the floor until her hands were raw, and made everything so damn normal for their homecoming it was almost like nothing had ever happened there.

And then she’d disappeared.

Not for good, of course. Waverly had been in a panic every time she couldn’t see her sister for longer’n a few hours - worried, no doubt, that Wynonna was gonna leave the same way she’d arrived: suddenly and with poor timing.

But she didn’t. Wynonna was scarce and hard to find, but she was there. Waverly would panic and Nicole would dutifully search her out. She’d found her in the rafters of the barn, laying in a patch of long grass flattened by a family of deer one night, sitting on the roof outside her old bedroom window, shooting cans out off the fence, or pretending she didn’t like the chickens as much as she did. It was like she wanted to be close to Waverly, but didn’t quite no how - forever living in the sliver of space on the line between family and stranger. Nicole kinda knew the feeling.

“Waverly’s looking for you,” Nicole said - as she always did - when she found Wynonna sitting in the coop with Colonel Crockett on her lap. He gave Nicole a haughty look like she weren’t the one who’d raised the damn fool. But the Colonel settled pointedly in Wynonna’s lap and Nicole knew where that traitor’s loyalties had ended up.

Wynonna smiled ruefully. “Well, technically you’re looking for me.”

“Why won’t you spend more time with her?” Nicole sighed, rolling over a barrel of feed to sit on for the conversation she really weren’t paid enough for. “You know she wants you around. And I know you want to be around. What’s holding you back?”

“Hard to be an indoor cat when you ain’t been one for a long time,” Wynonna pointed out while the Colonel pulled at her shoelaces.

Nicole eyed the two of them. “He’s clever. He’ll destroy your laces if you don’t watch him.”

Wynonna waved her hand dismissively. “Let him.”

“Listen,” Nicole ventured carefully, “I know it ain’t really my business, but I at least kinda know what you’re going through. I’m not the most…”

“House-trained?” Wynonna offered.

Nicole shot her a flat look. “I’m not the most domestic person that ever lived with someone who puts doilies on tables and knits really terrible sweaters, but when you love someone, you become a little of what they are. And if they love you too, they’re gonna become a little of what you are.”

“She knits now?” It weren’t even teasing, despite what Wynonna might have intended. The way she asked after her sister was desperate and in that moment, Nicole knew she weren’t goin’ nowhere.

“Yeah. She’s really terrible,” Nicole laughed. “But I’m just sayin’ that Waverly ain’t looking for you to be somethin’ you’re not. She wants you - as you are - as long as what you are can just be here for her. You got a home here no matter how much you think you can’t have that.”

“I just…” Wynonna pursed her lips and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “I blew it so bad last time with her.”

“You were a kid, Wynonna,” Nicole shrugged. “We’ve all blown it bad. But if you want that terrible orange sweater she’s halfway through knitting, you just gotta let yourself - well, grow up . Because frankly, I already have a hideous blue sweater and I really can’t pull off orange.”

Wynonna shot her a sheepish look. “Is it embarrassing that I want that hideous sweater? I want the dry, overcooked family pork roasts and the board game nights and the bad eggnog on Christmas.”

Nicole shrugged. “All you have to do is stay.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

Nicole stood up and dusted herself off, making her way toward the doorway to head back. “It is easy, Wynonna. Happiness is easy. We all been fed some lies about that.”

 

+++

 

“Here, I made dinner,” Wynonna said abruptly, dropping a plate into Waverly’s lap. “It’s gruel, eat up inmates.”

Nicole got a plate shoved into her hands too and she had to drop the book she was reading. “Looks more like pasta.”

“And boy do I hope it tastes like that,” Wynonna muttered, disappearing into the kitchen. She came back with her own plate and sat stiffly in the other armchair facing the couch. “Uh, cheers.” Shoveling food into her mouth at the speed of light, she barely noticed that Nicole and Waverly were staring at her. “Oh god, I just got a bone. Everyone eat with caution I had no idea I had to debone pasta. Wait, nevermind. It’s a really crunchy noodle, proceed.”

Waverly shot Nicole a confused look and Nicole met it with a smile. She shrugged and carefully tucked into the plate she’d been handed. When it seemed nobody was going to explain the strange occurrence to her, Waverly sighed and began picking through her own plate.

“Y’all ever played yahtzee?” Wynonna asked in the silence through the quiet clattering of cutlery. “I know they say it’s a game of pure luck, but I swear I have a gift.”

Nicole smiled at her. “Can’t say I have.”

“Well I saw it in town earlier today and bought it. I don’t know, but uh, maybe we could play tonight? I swear I’ll go easy on you guys.”

Waverly beamed.

 

+++

 

Wynonna did indeed end up winning most of the games, much to Waverly’s chagrin. When Nicole went up the stairs to head to bed, she only got five minutes in before remembering her cellphone was still down on the table. She was just about to head down from the top of the steps when she heard quiet conversation downstairs.

“So, uh, you...like Nicole?” Waverly asked tentatively.

“Huh? Why?” Wynonna replied.

“I don’t know, I’m just asking if you like her.”

“Why do you care?”

“It’s just a question!”

“I don’t know, she’s a cop. And she didn’t tell me she’s a supernatural monster with horrifying violent tendencies and she’s banging my sister. So, like...probably I feel like anyone else would feel in that situation.”

“Oh, forget it,” Waverly grumbled. The sound of clattering plates reached them and Nicole knew Waverly was likely attempting to escape to the kitchen with their dishes even though she couldn’t even walk.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Wynonna interrupted and the clattering stopped. “Just wait. I’m sorry, Waves. I didn’t mean that. Obviously you like her so she’s probably alright.”

“Wynonna,” Waverly said seriously. “I don’t just like her. I love her.”

“Okay, tone it down DiCaprio you already have the Oscar. Nicole’s a good dude, Waves. I knew it back in high school and I know it now. Sometimes I can’t help but hear Daddy’s hate in my head even after all these years. I’ve seen what Bobo’s kind can do, but I’ve also seen what my kind can do. If you say Nicole loves you the way you deserve to be loved, then I’m proud of the both of you - Oof .”

“I’m so glad you’re back,” Waverly said, muffled.

“Me too, kiddo.”

“And thank you for not shooting my girlfriend.”

“One time offer.”

“Wynonna.”

“Fine.”

Nicole smiled, turned on her heel, and went back to bed.

 

+++

 

The full moon came upon them like all things you dread: swiftly and despite your most earnest wishes. Waverly had tried to send Wynonna away, but she’d flat-out refused. No matter what Waverly turned into, she weren’t goin’ nowhere. Not anymore.

It was a clear night, cold and crisp and fresh in a way that only the end of a damp summer in the desert could bring. Not a cloud obscured the deep sky above when they made their way to the porch and sat Waverly in a rocking chair. Her leg weren’t ready to support her full weight yet, but Nicole knew the shift would greatly accelerate and heal the damage Bobo had done. They drank tea in relative quiet while the sun sunk low and turned on the porch lights when it started getting too dark to see by. When the moon first breached the far horizon, Nicole felt that pull in her gut. But it weren’t the same as it had been. It was strong and menacing in the way it sang to her, but she weren’t the same thing no more. She weren’t a slave to it.

Instead, she eyed Waverly and tempered her breathing.

Waverly looked grim, fingers clenched tight around her mug and jaw set. Nicole had warned her it hurt.

So they sat there in tense silence as the moon crept higher and higher. The shadows got shorter as it rose, swinging inward. When the moon was full and haloed above them, Nicole finally shot a confused look to meet Waverly’s own. The pull was strong by that point and despite it all, Nicole knew she’d have to sink to four legs and let it happen to her. Even Bobo had never been able to fully resist it. But Waverly just looked as confused as Nicole.

“When’s this supposed to happen, exactly?” Wynonna asked, looking at her watch.

Nicole frowned and stepped off the porch to get a better look at the moon. It should’ve happened the first moment the moon breached the hills. She turned back to look at Waverly to find her as lost as the rest of them. “Do you feel any different?” Nicole asked slowly. Her nailbeds itched and her teeth ached like they were trying to burst through her gums. And they were, really.

Waverly shrugged, looking nonplussed. “Not really.”

“No sudden hankering for raw steak?” Wynonna checked.

Waverly just shrugged again. “I feel fine. Shouldn’t I have shifted by now?”

Nicole stood there watching them from the front yard, feet gettin’ cold without her boots on. “Yeah,” she finally said. “If it was gonna happen, it would’ve happened.”

Wynonna let out a relieved laugh. “Are you serious? Wait, does that mean the bite didn’t take? Holy shit, you’re in the clear!” She let out another laugh, pure relief and joy.

Waverly offered a small smile for Wynonna, but when she turned to stare at Nicole from across the porch, she was more reserved. Nicole was standin’ there alone with cold feet and numb realization. Waverly weren’t gonna turn.

A dark shiver of pain shot up Nicole’s spine and she grit her teeth against the last of her control. “Let’s wait - the rest of the night,” she managed, hunching in on herself. “Make...sure.”

After Waverly’s soft noise of acquiescence made it to her, Nicole let it all out in a groan, falling forward while her skin ripped and plated into something hideous and horrifying to behold. The pain was what it always had been, but when she’d changed and stared back up at Waverly’s concerned look and Wynonna’s unintentionally disgusted one, it weren’t any different than it’d ever been. It was just red eyes filtering a world out that she weren’t ever meant to be a part of.

Wynonna’s hand gripped Waverly’s shoulder so hard that Waverly looked pained. Nicole weren’t even inclined to blame Wynonna for the reaction. Had she ever seen what made her kind? Nicole made herself small as she could manage, folding in on her gangly limbs underneath her and resting her big, ugly head on cold paws and deadly claws as she laid on the ground. Waverly swatted Wynonna’s hand off her shoulder after a few moments, rubbing sorely at it.

“Go get her a blanket, would you,” Waverly snapped, shaking Wynonna out of her wide-eyed appraisal. It worked for the most part - as she took one last nervous look over her shoulder then went back in through the front door. When she’d gone, Waverly beckoned Nicole back onto the porch like she was baiting a wild animal.

Nicole supposed she was. But like she’d always done: she came.

By the time Wynonna had come back out to the front porch, Nicole was curled at their feet. It spooked Wynonna and she dropped the blanket in a heap on Nicole’s head. It was as satisfying as it was tragic.

And they waited.

 

+++

 

And then they didn’t.

 

Because the moon sank slow and final below the hills until its light disappeared and Nicole felt her soul fall back into itself and she was standing on two legs again with a blanket wrapped around her shivering shoulders. Wynonna vibrated with a barely tamed excitement and Waverly glanced up at Nicole nervously.

Nicole looked back.

And the good part of her heart was so, so relieved to see Waverly whole and sound. That good part of her heart was thanking every power that may or may not have been. That good part of her heart was never gonna ask for another miracle in her whole damn life.

But there was a very bad part of Nicole’s heart. There was a very bad part that snuck through the numbness and broke a little. Because for a moment, when she’d let herself understand the implications of Waverly’s attack, that awful little part of her wondered if it wouldn’t be less lonesome to have someone she loved be just like her. That awful little part of her wanted Waverly like she was.

We all got those awful little parts of ourselves, though. We all got them and they’re not born of the bad we done, but the bad that’s been done upon us. So Nicole forgave that too. She forgave that part of herself that weren’t hardly anything to forgive and she let it go in a long, slow breath that fogged and dissipated in the cold night air. When she turned back to Waverly’s concerned face, she smiled as happy as she could make it and came back up the porch steps.

“Well thank goodness for that,” she murmured, leaning down to press her lips to the top of Waverly’s cold hair. The three of them sat out until the sun breached the hills with numb noses and quiet hearts.

 

+++

 

“I was never able to trace Bobo’s heritage,” Waverly mused a few weeks later while Nicole helped her tidy her evil - well, den of dark secrets. “Guess now we know why.”

Nicole looked up from the pages of Mr. Earp’s journal she was careful rebinding before they fell apart. “Huh? What do we know?”

“Bobo didn’t have heritage,” Waverly mused, tipping back in her chair. Her bad leg was still in a cast, propped against a stack of books in front of her. “He was bit, like you.”

“Wait, what?” Nicole dropped the journal and turned to gape at her.

Waverly shrugged. “It’s the only way his bite didn’t turn me. It’s why you can’t turn anyone either. Mutts can’t turn people with a bite.”

She stared at the cover of Ward’s old journal and traced a finger absently along a deep groove in the old leather. “That can’t…” she shook her head. “Huh. He was a mutt too?”

“Guess so.” When Nicole didn’t seem to come out of her own thoughts, Waverly made an aborted attempt to stand without her crutches. Only her small, involuntary whimper broke Nicole from where she’d drifted. She stood and came to settle Waverly back in her chair. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you hadn’t figured that out,” Waverly sighed when she was off her bad foot again. “That was insensitive of me.”

“No,” Nicole said quickly. “No, it’s fine. I just - well-” she pursed her lips and settled in a crouch at Waverly’s level, staring out across the desk Waverly was working at. “That meant he knew you weren’t gonna turn.”

“Does that change anything? He was fixin’ to kill me, wasn’t he?” Waverly gave her a curious look.

“Well-” Nicole shook her head, coming back to herself. “No, it probably doesn’t matter. I guess I just never really got him. And I don’t suppose I ever will.”

 

+++

 

Returning to work was a strange feeling. Nedley weren’t ever gonna know what really happened on that Earp property after Nicole convinced him to walk away, but Nedley weren’t the old fool he pretended to be. He’d gotten barely a word of explanation when he’d shown up at the hospital with wilted wildflowers from his backyard and tears in the corner of his eyes. And with all the deep, dark secrets of Purgatory, he’d probably never get anything more than that.

The new bullet-shaped scars added to her collection smarted when she sat or bent over or hauled herself up into her truck and Nedley noticed. But he just cut her radio assignments down without comment and brought her coffee to her desk in the mornings like he’d been doing it the whole time.

When everyone was gone one midnight shift, out on calls or at Steve’s Place for bad coffee and gritty pancakes, Nedley came by with another coffee and set it next to Nicole’s hand. “How you feelin’ kid?”

“Better.” Nicole offered him a smile.

“You know,” he said slowly, leaning back against her desk and crossing his arms while he spoke to the wall next to Nicole’s head. “I know I ain’t ever gonna know everything in your life. I know there’s evil you’ve faced that I ain’t ever meant to understand. But I’m always gonna be here for you. I’m always gonna be your-” he swallowed hard, “-your biggest supporter. Whenever you need me to be. And sometimes when you don’t even want it.”

Nicole took a small sip of the terrible coffee he’d fixed her, made just the way she least hated it, and smiled. “Thanks, Dad,” she said quietly.

His eyes went wide and shot over from the negative wall space to train right on hers. When she only tipped her coffee to him and took another sip, his face relaxed and his ears went red just the same hers always did. “Yeah. You ain’t gotta thank me for that.”

Nicole hummed noncommittally. “Let’s do lunch tomorrow, yeah? Waverly hasn’t seen you in a while.”

“Okay,” Nedley smiled. “I gotta give her the shovel talk anyhow.”

“Oh boy.”

“Mm hm.” Nedley pushed off from Nicole’s desk and gently patted the back of Nicole’s head as he headed off to shut himself in his office again.

 

+++

 

Wynonna’s patch job of the fence was sweet and well-intentioned, but after waiting a respectful amount of time, Nicole was back at Chuck’s Hardware with a list of supplies and the intention to quietly redo the repairs while Wynonna was on a job with Dolls. Chuck greeted her at the register by lifting the little gate at the end of the counter and beckoning Nicole join him in the back of the store.

Warily, Nicole followed him out back to the dumpsters where Chuck had lit up some sweet-smelling cigar and turned to watch her. “Bobo’s gone,” he said without preamble.

Nicole nodded, but stayed quiet.

“I saw what happened. Everybody in the trailer park knows how it went down.”

“Okay?” Nicole was just beginning to think she should never have gone out the back of a store with him alone when he offered her a small smile.

“Tribe’s without a leader now, hm?”

Nicole nodded along. “I suppose.”

“Seems it was your doing.”

“Seems like.”

Chuck shrugged and pulled hard on his cigar until the end crumbled into ash on the toe of his boot. “We’ll look to you then, Deputy.”

“What?”

“Welcome to the pack,” he breathed through a cloud of heavy smoke. The cigar hit the ground and he crushed it into the dirty pavement. When he turned to head back in through the service door, Nicole was left back near the dumpsters with the distinct feeling that she’d been elected to a position she weren’t even running for. That’s why she ain’t ever put stock in write-in’s. Ain’t no person want to wake up one day and figure out they’re accidentally the governor.

 

+++

 

Nicole weren’t much of a drinker, but Wynonna was trying to bond with her in the best way she knew how and the only way to find it was at the bottom of a bottle. But her sister was a part-share owner of Shorty’s and they never really managed to find that bottom.

“And that’s why you never drink an entire bottle of six dollar vodka,” Wynonna nodded sagely.

Nicole raised a single eyebrow. “That’s the only reason?”

“What else is there?”

“I can’t imagine.”

Wynonna took the untouched shot in front of Nicole and partook. But Nicole was far too busy staring at the scruffy man in the oil-stained baseball cap sitting a ways off with a pint of beer. Her mouth hung open and she blinked a few times to make sure it weren’t her horrible imagination.

“That’s…” She blinked a few more times - just in case.

“Hm?” Wynonna took a break from frantically trying to wave over the part-time bartender who was very good at ignoring her and glanced at Nicole. “What?”

“Do you see him?” She asked, pointing over at a man who’d once told her that not dyin’ was a choice. A man who’d once been pretty correct.

Wynonna squinted her eyes at the other end of the bar. “Juan?”

Juan?” Nicole repeated, scandalized.

Wynonna gave her a weird look. “Yeah, Juan . Juan Carlos, from the old auto body shop down Green street. Why?”

Nicole shook her head slowly. “Well...nothing. I guess.”

Juan chose that moment to look up in her direction. He smiled a barely-there smile and tipped his beer to her.

Just another day in Purgatory, Nicole supposed.

Wynonna went off and occupied herself with hustling an unsuspecting visiting relative of a townie while Nicole sat at the bar staring at the wrong bartender and pacing herself. Somebody had to drive Wynonna home when she was done making bad choices.

The chair next to her creaked and a dusty hat landed near her elbow. She turned to take a look at the man sitting next to her and froze.

“Evening,” he said, running one hand through his mustache and signaling with one finger for a drink.

Nicole stared into her drink and tried not to think about how the guy next to her had shot her about six times. Doc didn’t look no different than he had all those years ago. But staying quiet only made him more determined to speak with her. He propped his elbow on the counter and stared hard at the side of her head.

“You look familiar,” he said curiously. “We ever met, Miss?”

“Maybe,” Nicole hedged.

He hummed and continued staring. “You’re one of the Sheriff’s deputies ain’t you? Don’t you live on the Earp homestead?” Nicole didn’t offer much more than a vague nod. “Me and the Earps got history. I can hardly believe I have not formally made your acquaintance. I think we would get along well.”

Nicole smiled wryly. “Oh, I’m sure we would.”

“Well, I’ll be in town awhile. I imagine I’ll see you around,” he said, tipping his hat after he’d put it back on and drained his glass in one go. “But be careful out there. Strange critters prowl these desert nights.”

Nicole tipped her hat back before turning to her own drink again. “That they do.”

 

+++

 

Doc started hangin’ out at the precinct after that, bumming around the bullpen and hunting things that go bump in the night with Dolls and Wynonna. Especially Wynonna. Nicole was goin’ to have to keep an eye on that. Every time Doc tipped his hat to her, Nicole couldn’t help but smile wryly and think:

Oh the fun we’ll have together.

 

+++

 

“Wynonna, you can’t sleep in the coop, you’ll catch cold,” Nicole sighed when she came in the next morning to find Chevy Camaro nestled comfortably on top of Wynonna’s head. Wynonna was asleep in the corner with her head in some hay. “You’re startin’ to look like a chicken.”

“Take it back,” she mumbled half-heartedly when she’d rolled over, much to Camaro’s loud displeasure. “Ugh, I’m hungover.”

“You have a bed, you know.”

Wynonna hauled herself up into a sitting position and began picking hay out of her hair. “Yeah, well. I couldn’t find it. And then I started thinking I might bring the chickens with to go look for it.”

“Yes, they do know things.”

“Exactly.” The chickens largely ignored Nicole as they went about picking through the fresh vegetables and feed already placed artfully around the coop. “Also thought I might take a trip to Rome? I don’t know, I think you should make sure your credit cards are all still accounted for.”

“Oh boy.”

“Yeah, I know.” Wynonna pushed to her feet with a loud groan and bent down to try and touch her toes. Before she could pop her back, she made some unfortunate noise of gastrointestinal distress. “Hnnng, fuck. I’m gonna ralph.”

“Ever wonder who ‘ralph’ is?”

Wynonna straightened after a dangerous moment of almost-heaving and shook her head. “Ralph Macchio?”

“Wax on, wax off.” Nicole went around checking the food bowls, quite certain she hadn’t been the one to fill them. “Did you feed the chickens last night?”

“Maybe. Why, did I do it wrong? If I did, then I don’t remember doing it.”

Nicole frowned. “What if I say you did a good job?”

“Then I totally remember it and you’re welcome.”

Nicole smiled down at the artistic little arrangements of carrots, color-coordinated with green beans and small piles of grains. “You’re gonna put me out of a job.”

“Huh,” Wynonna headed toward the exit, holding the door open so that Nicole could lead the way outside. “I’ve literally never been told that before.”

“Well, it’s nice having you around the homestead,” Nicole said earnestly as she passed her on the way out. Before Wynonna could head her own way to do - well, whatever it was Wynonna passed her time with - Nicole grabbed her by the elbow and tugged her along toward the barn. “C’mon, Earp. You’re gonna help me with the fence repairs today.”

Wynonna’s feet followed obediently, albeit a little unsteady. “Repairs?” She echoed dumbly. “I already fixed the fence.”

“Yeah, that was less good,” Nicole said with a smile even though she could feel Wynonna’s glare bouncing off the back of her head. “I’ll show you how to do it right. And then tomorrow we’re gonna cut some of the autumn hay harvest while Waverly makes inane suggestions from the porch. And then the next day maybe we’ll insulate the windows for winter. And after that, we’re gonna do somethin’ else.”

“Why, pray tell, would I do that?” Wynonna asked suspiciously.

Nicole kept on leading her into the barn, gesturing for her to enter first. They headed to the good pile of lumber Nicole had picked up during her strange encounter with Chuck on her last visit. She inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with the smell of fresh torn wood pulp and damp sawdust. “Smell that?”

“Smells like wood.”

“Yep,” Nicole agreed, reaching to balance out two hefty posts in her arms. “Smells like wood. Here, carry this.” She dumped the posts in Wynonna’s arms so that they bounced off her gut, eliciting another unfortunate almost-dry-heave. “C’mon, if we hurry we can watch the sun breach the hills.

Wynonna grumbled, but followed her back out toward the fenceline, swinging the lumber dangerously without regard for Nicole’s head. Nicole just ducked occassionally as she balanced the tools she’d brought along. “You never answered my question,” she wheezed, trying unsuccessfully to rebalance the lumber on one of her shoulders before giving up. “Why in god’s name am I helping you today, tomorrow, and the foreseeable future?”

When they reached the far portion of badly-repaired fence, Nicole gestured for Wynonna to gently set the wood down. She dumped it on the ground instead. Nicole sighed and turned to give Wynonna a fond smile. “Because you live here now and I’d really like your help maintaining the property. It’s satisfying work and I think you’ll like it a lot more than bumming around Shorty’s and failing to ask Dolls on a date.”

“You- what- I-” Wynonna spluttered.

Nicole nodded sympathetically. “You’ll get there someday.”

“Fuck you.”

Nicole smiled. “C’mon, let’s dig out the old posts over there so we can set in the new ones before lunch. Grab the pickaxe.”

“Oh hell yeah.”

“It’s for me. You get to pull the broken pieces out.”

Wynonna grumbled, but did as she was told, which Nicole considered a beautiful first step in taming the wayfaring outlaw she’d become. They cleared out the post holes and trenched the ground for laying new lines in relative peace. Wynonna asked questions occasionally about when Waverly would be back from classes and whether pork chops were hard to cook and why in dear sweet baby jesus’s name Waverly had become a vegetarian while she was gone. But mostly she asked questions about building and repairing fences and those were Nicole’s favorite questions to answer because Wynonna seemed genuinely interested.

They took a break when the sun cleared the rockies, Nicole pointing out her favorite parts about morning on the homestead while Wynonna chewed on some beef jerky. When Nicole ran out of things to say, she fell quiet listening to the whispering of overgrown hay.

“Can I ask you something?” She finally ventured.

Wynonna grunted, still staring out toward the sunrise.

“Why didn’t you shoot me when you saw me - as - as that thing?”

It took Wynonna a healthy pause and a dose of careful consideration, but she finally shrugged and asked, “Which time?” Nicole balked, her jaw hanging loose while Wynonna looked at her with genuine curiosity. “The time when I shot my Daddy or the time a few weeks back with Bobo?” She repeated.

Nicole swallowed the bit of jerky in her mouth too fast and it stuck uncomfortably on the way down. “Uh. Well, I didn’t know you remembered that.”

Wynonna laughed dryly. “You really think I could forget something like that? Trust me, I’ve tried.”

“Then both, I guess. You could’ve killed me twice over.”

“Eh,” Wynonna shrugged. “I’m a lousy shot.”

“You most certainly ain’t.”

“You’re right, I’m awesome.”

Nicole sighed and accepted the piece of jerky Wynonna put into her empty hand. She was dead certain she weren’t ever gonna get a serous answer from her when Wynonna let out her own sigh.

“I don’t know. Honestly? I know I ain’t always been, nor will I ever be, completely fair to...your kind. But both those nights, when I considered what was in front of me, it weren’t you that looked like the monster.”

Nicole offered her a sly smile that instantly had Wynonna’s eyes rolling toward the heavens. “Real ugly, though. Just...so ugly.”

“You’re alright too, Earp.”

“Like, really unfortunate. Deep sea undiscovered fish kinda ugly.”

“Alright, you’ve made your point.”

Wynonna grinned and shook the bag of jerky under Nicole’s nose until Nicole snatched it out of her hand and elbowed her so she tipped on her side. She shoved the rest of the contents in her mouth while Wynonna squawked angrily. By the time they got back to erecting the posts, they could hear Waverly’s tires crunching back up the gravel driveway. Nicole turned to ask Wynonna if she wanted to take off, but she was so engrossed in the measurement of one of the posts that she ain’t even heard the car. She was singin’ low under her breath, face all twisted in serious concentration.

“Frank’s Fruities, have a fruity time.”

 

+++

 

Nicole turned to the last page of that book Waverly’d been making her read and perused the last dwindling lines to the story’s close. It weren’t the first book she’d ever finished, but it was.... one of the first. She’d rather liked it.

But like the end of all good things, she just kinda sat there with a smug smile on her face, drumming her fingers on the worn cover and waiting for something to happen that kinda felt like closure. She weren’t so sure what to do with herself.

She sat there so long that Waverly got home from her class and limped her way into the living room with a bulging backpack dragging her down. It probably weren’t time yet for her to be without crutches, but Waverly insisted she walked better than ever. But if one thing was for certain, it was that Nicole weren’t gonna be the one to tell her that every day it seemed more and more like the doctor had been right and that Waverly weren’t ever gonna walk quite the same way she used to. But it didn’t seem to matter a lick to her.

“Oh, hey,” Waverly brightened, coming over to sit on the arm of Nicole’s chair. She leaned down and kissed Nicole’s temple before swinging her legs over into her lap. “I feel like I’ve forgotten what you look like sitting down,” she joked. “What’s the special occasion?”

“I finished your book about small, foolish men and their really long hike for capitalistic validation,” Nicole said triumphantly, presenting Waverly’s well-loved copy back to her for safe-keeping.

Waverly shook her head fondly. “It’s called The Hobbit , babe.”

“And I finished it,” Nicole agreed with her chest puffed out.

Waverly kissed her again and beamed. “Good job. Now you get to read the next three Lord of the Rings books.”

Nicole frowned. “Are they short?”

Waverly pursed her lips, considered her a moment, then nodded without making eye contact. “Uh, yeah. They’re pretty short.”

“Thank god you’re a terrible liar.” Nicole pressed her smile into Waverly’s, letting the book clatter off the arm of the chair and hit the floor. When they couldn’t kiss no more because they were smiling too bad, Waverly turned and flopped back against her shoulder.

“Did you like the ending?” She wondered, playing with Nicole’s fingers where they rested across Waverly’s stomach.

Nicole shrugged, jostling the back of Waverly’s head a bit. “I think so. Endings are tough. But the little man found his gold and got to go home to his fancy silverware.”

“That he did. But maybe the real treasure was the friendships he made, the independence he gained, and the bravery he found inside himself.”

Nicole frowned. “No. No, I’m pretty sure it was just a bunch of gold.”

Waverly laughed and refolded Nicole’s hands so her right one was on top. “Yeah, you’re right.”

The big old grandfather clock that Wynonna had somehow won off a traveling antique roadshow producer tolled out the late hour as obnoxiously as ever. Nicole weren’t really sure how to tell Wynonna she hated the damn thing. So on it went. It was only ten o’clock, but already her eyelids were dropping with the warm weight on her lap warding against the blustering winter wind whistling through through the fence outside. She was already dreaming of a boring, blissful ten-thirty bedtime.

“You know, some might say we just had an adventure,” Waverly said sleepily. Nicole knew she’d be coyly hinting at bedtime soon, as she always did after the ten chimes on late-night Wednesdays at class.

Nicole hummed her agreement. “I s’ppose so.”

“So where’s my gold?” Waverly teased, pulling on Nicole’s fingers.

Nicole shifted a bit, feeling the hard press of the plain gold ring in her pocket she’d purchased days ago with sweaty, shaking hands next to a couple that’d turned their noses up at the modest price tag. She swallowed down the question that nobody was quite ready for and smiled. Not yet.

“Well,” she said slowly, nervous that she was just as bad at lying as Waverly’d ever been. “Maybe the adventure just ain’t over yet.”

 

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THE END

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