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this old house

Chapter Text

 

 

If dreams were lightening, thunder were desire

This old house would have burnt down a long time ago

          -John Prine, Angel from Montgomery (1971)

 

 

 

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11

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The first time she met Waverly Earp, the Earp girl was eight years old and Nicole weren’t much better. She was wearin’ a dress so worn you could almost count the threads at her knees and Nicole was pretty much naked, which is a rough way to meet anybody.

And the only thing less flattering than bein’ disrobed and awful to look at was how quick the girl was to scream. It certainly weren't the reaction she wanted, but it was definitely the one she was expecting. She'd seen her face like that - the teeth, the thick matted fur, the gangly clawed limbs and the teeth.

She took one look at the tears beading in Waverly’s eyes as she tripped backwards and screamed for her Daddy and learned exactly what it meant to be what she was.

A monster.

That’s what she called her anyhow. It’s what they’d call her the rest of her damned life.

“Daddy! A monster!” Waverly wailed, scrambling backwards on bleeding knees and red rashed palms across the brambles at the edge of the Earp Homestead’s leaning fence while Nicole stood there, all four clawed feet cold and knees knockin’. Waverly shook her head violently while she cried, like if she denied Nicole’s existence hard enough maybe she’d just disappear with a pop and a fizzle into the thick humidity of a stubborn Purgatory summer in the fall.

Nicole wanted to tell her that it weren't that easy. Nicole wanted to tell her that she’d tried that – she’d tried that a lot, but there she still was. Eleven years old with eleven centimeter canines and sixteen thick claws on her hands and not a clue in the world why a full moon called to that thing in her heart the way it did. It just sang and sang until it ached so bad she weren't herself no more. She wanted to tell her that it was okay, that she only kinda wanted to taste her blood but she didn’t have to. She wanted to tell her that her name was Nicole and she was just lost. She wanted to tell her she was scared and she was sorry.

What came out instead was a panicked growl that pitched into a threatening whine. Waverly only sobbed louder, clutching at her knees and shutting her eyes tight in preparation for her demise.

It didn’t come, of course.

Nicole could taste her pulse and hunger grumbled low in her belly, but – hell, she wasn’t crazy. She weren’t like that. Not yet anyhow.

Nicole backed up, tripping over her paws and choking down anymore threatening sounds that she hadn’t meant. She ain’t ever meant any of it. Her ears flattened outward and she whined so quiet she thought maybe Waverly couldn’t hear it. But she had and she blinked up at the beast backing away with fearful confusion. Nicole retreated further until Waverly had lowered her hands from her face and ceased hollering for her Daddy.

When Nicole had backed up far enough that Waverly fell silent, she paused to see what would happen. Waverly seemed suspicious, but there was a curiosity sparkling in her eyes that gave her pause. Waverly tilted her head to the side and Nicole mirrored her. Intrigued, Waverly tilted her head to the other side and Nicole followed.

Just the barest hint of a smile pulled up the corner of Waverly’s mouth and she seemed about ready to open her mouth and say something when the crack of a shotgun split the muggy evening air.

Nicole jumped a foot in the air and Waverly screamed. A lanky girl had the gun aimed determinedly at Nicole’s face from the other side of the homestead fence. She hollered something scary in their general direction while Waverly whipped her head back and forth between the beast and her savior.

Nicole didn’t stick around for much more than that. She turned on her tail and fled, tripping over her four feet while the other Earp girl blasted a shot into the sand and dirt near enough to believe in god.

That was the first time Nicole saw Waverly Earp. That was also the first time someone tried to kill her for what she was – what she had been made.

But for neither thing was it the last.

 

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12

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Nicole was twelve and it’d been one year since some nightmare of a creature split her parents bellies’ open and snapped the bones in her leg in it’s gruesome jaws and left her for dead in the woods forty miles outside of a town she’d later come to know as Purgatory.

It was neither convenient nor enjoyable being – whatever she was. She’d thrash into existence, breaking and snapping bones and tendons when the full moon rose over the hills of her hometown like dyin’ a thousand times over. While the shadows crept long across the little farms and city streets, Nicole ran. She ran and ran and ran through massive farmlands and dry, gnarled desert while saliva frothed at her snout and her belly grumbled. Sometimes she’d howl long and sad at that stupid moon and-

-well.

Sometimes they’d howl back.

Now, Nicole wasn’t too sure who they were but if they were howlin’ too then maybe there were other wicked things out there with hungry, guilty bellies who were sad and lonely too. Nicole wasn’t so sure she wanted to meet somethin’ even half as ugly as she was, but the thought that maybe there were things like her made her feel just a little bit better. Maybe a little bit whole and less of a half.

She’d spent the last year in that scrubby, lonely wood eatin’ all manner of undesirable things when her belly clawed and scraped at her innards, moanin’ for something Nicole was too chickenshit to give it. Moaning for something warm. When the moon was bright and she was on all fours, she’d chew through the leathery, sun-beaten remains of flattened roadkill. It was sour and grisly, but it didn’t fill her up too bad. And wasn’t that something.

Twelve years old and admitting to yourself that roadkill wasn’t all that bad.

Of course, come that waning moon and Nicole would climb back on two feet at the end of dyin’ a thousand deaths. And while it’s probably nothin’ she had to point out, roadkill was a lot less pleasant when you were human. But Nicole’s Ma and Pa were rotting somewhere in the area of the woods she’d never step foot in again, so what was a twelve year old to do?

It was either let her sharp, starved ribs pop right through her skin and burst out her chest or drag to dinner a few inconspicuous carcasses from the lonely, dusty state routes that sped right past the one-horse towns out in that little piece of sand god wouldn’t so much as spit at.

Possum wasn’t so bad anyhow.

Well, it was. But so was dyin’.

Nicole would know, she did it just about all the time out there in that spitless land.

So that scary, lonely space between eleven and twelve was a long string of twelve moons, sour possum, nuts and berries that alternatively chewed through her stomach and lurched back up her throat until suddenly it’d been a year. Suddenly Ma and Pa were bleached bones and Nicole wasn’t sure she even changed back after the moon broke past full. She felt as much beast the other nights of the month.

The only word she’d spoken in those twelve months was on the eighth day after getting’ bit, when she stood in a clearing half-starved and decided to try a diplomatic word that her Pa used to use when things were…like that.

“Fuck,” she had said pointedly to the carrion crows eyeing her suspiciously.

The crows agreed. They looked at her like, you're next kiddo. Like Nicole was just thirty paces at dawn from becomin' bleached bones too.

Nicole didn’t speak again that year.

 

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One chill winter full moon, barren and even more starved than it usually was, Nicole loped far out from her godless refuge and passed at an easy sprint to the edge of a town she still didn’t yet know was called Purgatory. She padded quietly to a trot as she circled the back of a smoky building full of shouting men. Something smashed inside and men roared louder. Nicole flattened her ears and dodged away from the building, melting between a supermarket and folding herself back into the night.

Near the edge of town she found a dumpster, teaming and ripe. And maybe it was nothing to be proud of, but she was awful hungry.

She scrambled up the side, digging long claws right through the metal and hooking in the sides to try and get her snout over the lip and to the smells inside. It was all tore up, shredded steel that shoulda made her feel a little guilty, but they could just very well bill her. She’d almost gotten inside it too before someone shrieked and cursed.

The last time someone shrieked at her, Nicole had damn near been blasted full of shotgun shells. The last year hadn’t raised no fool.

Nicole pushed off from the dumpster and scuttled away down the one road leading out of town. That one road led to a smaller one and an even smaller one and a rickety little mailbox that said ‘EArP’.

Snuffling around the fence, Nicole picked out a scent that tickled something in her memory – something like threadbear sundresses and scraped knees. She sank to a crouch, prowling through long shrubby grass around the perimeter until she was able to wiggle under the fence and crawl to the big barn casting a monstrous shadow across the property like a big ol' grimreaper that smelled a little like horse shit. A small light swung on a chain over the front door of a house next to it. Nicole knew she wouldn’t be welcomed there – she weren’t welcomed anywhere and who could blame ‘em - but she figured a little sniff around the barn couldn’t hurt.

The door was ajar and Nicole squeezed inside, upsetting a squabbling group of hens. Nicole licked her chops and stared while the hens scolded her and pecked around her toes, all business. And she might’ve been awful hungry, but Nicole was no scoundrel.

She’d never disturb a group of ladies that way.

Exhausted with her own failure and the early winter’s scarcity, Nicole let out a little whine and folded into herself, resting her snout on cold claws and watching while the hens pecked around the dirt and eventually came to nestle in her mangy fur for the night. Damn her tasty new friends. Damn them.

She’d about dozed off too when the barn door creaked open and a little oil lamp cast a light over the warm hay. Nicole’s ears perked up and she froze, watching young Waverly Earp watching her back.

Waverly didn’t scream that time.

Nicole lay there, covered in chickens with teeth sharp and ribs trying to poke out her chest and waited for the shotgun and the screams and the end.

As one does.

But Waverly just clutched her lamp to her chest and stared right back. After an eternity and a half, she took one tentative step forward. The old iron handle clacked and jittered with the shaking of the little girl’s hands.

Nicole felt so tired. She closed her eyes and focused on the fluttering heartbeats of the chickens resting in the little folds of Nicole’s muscle that hadn’t been gobbled up by the winter’s starvation. She breathed deep and even and forgave whatever followed.

She only opened her eyes again when the light from the lamp got close to her eyelids. She squinted up at Waverly. Her knees were as shaky as Nicole’s had been the last time they met.

“My monster,” Waverly whispered.

Nicole chuffed, but stayed still.

Waverly crouched down, knees up at her chin and placed the lamp next to Nicole’s head. “Are you a good monster?” She asked, real quiet.

Yes, Nicole wanted to say. I’m a good monster. But she didn’t really know the truth of that sentiment - not after twelve long months - and she couldn’t say it anyhow so she just stared back.

With all the determination of a nine year old on a mission, Waverly reached out one little hand shakin’ like a leaf. Nicole let the hand come to rest on her forehead, right between her ears and breathed out real slow while that hand sunk deep in her auburn hair.

Waverly, at least, seemed delighted by her accomplishment. She proceeded to pet between Nicole’s ears and down her back like any domesticated hound. It all felt a little ridiculous to Nicole, but then – well, how long had it been since someone had touched her?

It weren’t easy bein’ a twelve year old thing who ain't had the heart to kill nothin. So Nicole only kinda rolled her bloodshot eyes and settled into the contact like it was some great chore and not the single greatest thing to happen to her in the last year.

Waverly’s hand trailed down the top of Nicole’s snout to her wet nose and around to trace the length of a wickedly long canine. She snatched her hand back when Nicole blinked at her and giggled guiltily, like she’d been caught. As Waverly got bolder and began scratching her little nails right at the back of Nicole’s ears, she rumbled and purred pleasantly, only half embarrassed and more than a little heartbroken. Kindness in a desert had a way of breakin' you more than it healed. Warmed the numbness until you felt the pain. Some little part of her hoped Waverly’s family would burst in with their shotguns and blow her heart out with buckshot. It ached so bad she felt like maybe if she could just relieve the pressure it’d all be better.

They didn’t come, though, and Waverly leaned down to press a kiss between Nicole’s eyes.

“Good monster,” she whispered.

Good monster.

As most nine year olds do, Waverly eventually got bored with being cautious and cuddled up, hoisting Nicole’s chin so she could hold her entire head in her lap. Nicole grunted, but allowed it, not entirely sure how to deny a precocious child and not entirely sure she wanted to in the first place.

“I’m sorry Wynonna shot at you,” she murmured into the top of Nicole’s head. “She doesn’t mean it. You’re just a little scary. She didn’t know you’re a good monster. Daddy didn’t tell us about good monsters.”

Well, neither did Nicole’s Pa, but you don’t see her shootin’ at random, good folks in a bit of a bind.

And aint’ that a thing. Callin’ what happened to her a bit of a bind.

“Wynnona woudn’t’a done it if she’d known.”

Nicole liked the idea of that. That if people just knew then they wouldn’t scream. That they might like her a little bit too.

As if suddenly remembering something important, Waverly made a little gasp and began digging around in the pockets of her dress. Eventually she pulled out a handful of crumbling cookies. “I forgot! Are you hungry?”

She offered one of the lint-covered cookies and Nicole wrinkled her nose at it. It wasn’t what her screaming stomach was calling for. Waverly withdrew the cookie and shoved it in her own mouth, studying Nicole seriously. “You don’t eat cookies?” She asked sadly.

Waverly chewed through two more cookies thoughtfully, before the light of an idea twinkled in her eye. “Oh! You eat meat, right? Is that what you need?”

Nicole’s head shot up out of Waverly’s lap and she tried to look desperate and worthy of mercy. It wasn’t a particularly easy task bein’ as horrifying as she was, but Waverly seemed wooed.

“Okay,” she shushed, tugging at Nicole’s ears. “I’mma have to sneak real careful inside. Daddy’s gonna be mad if he sees me.” Wavelry pushed Nicole’s head out of her lap and stood up, dusting herself off. She pointed authoritatively at her feet. “Stay here. Don’t go anywhere.”

Nicole made a show of settling back in with the hens and Waverly seemed satisfied enough to slip back outside and scurry off towards the house. Nicole’s heart fluttered excitedly and she breathed into the silence of the night in anticipation of her first taste of food in a fortnight.

Time stretched out before her until she grew nervous and twitched her ears around for sounds of trouble. Eventually, the barn door creaked open and Nicole couldn’t help the excited perk of her ears.

“Hellspawn!” A big boulder of a man hissed, raising the butt of his rifle against his shoulder and scoping Nicole straight down the barrel. A whole lot of nothing rushed through Nicole’s brain as she stared him in the pupil of his bloodshot eyes, right back through that scope and waited to be blown to bits. It almost sounded like a relief.

Waverly slammed into the man’s leg as he jerked the trigger, snapping a round right past Nicole’s head while the man cursed and the chickens exploded into a cloud of fright and flight. Nicole jumped to attention too, rushing for one of the boarded windows at the top of a stack of hay and wiggling through.

She fell in a pile of claws and limbs out the side of the barn and stood on shaky, starved legs for one last flight from the homestead. Waverly’s daddy was hot on her heels, roaring and crashing through brush. She blundered away, stumbling and tripping as she tried to reach the fence. She almost did, too, before a shot cracked through one of her hind legs, clipping bone and tearing flesh while Nicole howled in agony. She ain’t ever known pain like that.

Waverly was crying and begging somewhere farther back, but Nicole’s world focused to the pinprick singularity of survival, blood rushing through her pulsing ears while she limped and crawled her way towards the fence. She wiggled under it, whimpering and huffing and scared out of her mind before she bolted across the open field.

Eventually, her leg cramped up so bad, she had to collapse and wait for it to pass or for the Earp family to weed her out and string her up by her hide. Waverly’s daddy stomped around a while, close enough for Nicole to say her prayers. Even the sound of his breathing felt just over her shoulder, heat from his breath. But by some miracle, the man missed her and eventually roared his frustration to the skies.

“Wavery!” He roared. “Stupid girl, what’ve I told you? You got a death wish or are ya just plain stupid?”

Waverly only cried harder. “Daddy, you shot my monster!”

“Stupid girl,” he cursed again. “Good thing I did. Get back inside. Get!”

The sound of Mr. Earp’s cursing and Waverly’s heartbreak grew faint as they trundled back to the house and Nicole was left to ache and bleed in the scrubby grass. She licked at the wound tentatively, biting back her whimpers and crying quietly. The pain radiated and pulsed all the way up her leg into her spine until she drifted into a blank space and let the world fall out from under her heaving chest.

 

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Chapter Text

What the writers say,

it means shit to me now.

          - The General Specific, Band of Horses (2007)

 

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A cold sun greeted her in the morning and she groaned, pushing up on human hands and making a poor attempt to stand. She looked back at her leg to the sluggishly bleeding wound in her calf. Lookin’ made it worse.

This time, when she cried out it sounded like a twelve year old who’d been on the bad side of things just a little too long and not like a snarlin’ beast beat and backed up in a corner. She cried and cried, fisting handfuls of weeds and cursing the world and everything in it. Even the dirt tasted bitter. When she was all dried out, Nicole pushed to her knees and wobbled onto two unsteady feet. Because she'd done her cryin' and it ain't ever done nothing for her but make her thirsty and sore.

She was farther out from her woods than she’d been in a year and that was bad news for something like her. Limping hard, Nicole began the impossible journey back across the backfields of Purgatory to her parents’ sunbleached bones and the rocky forest she’d made home. It weren't much of a home, but at least there weren't nobody shootin' her in there. Sometimes that was good enough.

She’d only gotten maybe a half-mile off the Earp property before she heard the hiccup of a bad muffler and the crunching of truck tires. Nicole snapped her head around and stared wide-eyed at the truck rumbling towards her from the direction of the Earp property. As it got closer, Nicole broke into a hard run away from it, gritting her teeth until her jaw cracked to stifle the tears and the excruciating pain throbbing in her leg. But it was less like the locomotion of runnin’ and more like the haggard hurl of her corpse across the ground.

Predictably, the truck caught up with her and Nicole tripped and fell hard into the dust, dragging the skin from her elbows and crying out into the grass while the truck shifted down out of gear as it groaned to a halt. Large boots fell heavy on the ground from the driver’s seat while she cried bitterly, dust running in dirty tracks down her cheeks and leg hurtin' like the devil.

“Do it already,” she growled, more thing than person. “Do it!” She cried, squeezing her eyes shut and waiting for the snap of a trigger and a quick, bitter end. Her voice choked to a whisper and she sniffled pathetically into the dirt. “Do it.”

But he didn’t do it.

Obviously.

And maybe that was no kindness, but Nicole didn’t have any heart left to break anyhow. She slammed her fists into the dirt in a tantrum while the man tugged his pants up by the belt over his hips to crouch down and get a better look at her. Nicole blew the ratty hair out of her eyes and glared up at him, defiant to the end. He could shoot her where she lay like a sick animal, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of actin’ like one.

He was a big man, thick and stern with a bushy mustache and unruly eyebrows that were quirked all weird at her - like he ain't ever seen a half-dead kid with an attitude problem before. He had one hand reached out, hovering just over the top of Nicole’s head but unwilling to breach that distance. When Nicole glared at him harder, his hand flinched and he pulled back. His eyes softened and he pulled the Stetson from on top his head to set on the ground at his feet.

“Who hurt your leg, darlin’?”

Nicole growled at him, but he only softened further. “What’re you doin’ all the way out here? Ward said he had supernatural nonsense on his property again.”

Nicole was about the farthest thing from nonsense. She was twelve and had lots of teeth, thank you very much.

“You don’t talk much, do you?”

Nicole bristled and tried to push up on her bloody elbows, only to yelp and eat dirt at the stab of pain up her leg. The man only sighed before grabbing her under her armpits and scooping her up in his arms like she was nothin’. Nicole supposed she was nothin’ at the end of the day. Bitter nothing. Her struggles were more perfunctory than anything, weak and passionless while the man adjusted her to grab up his hat and drop it down over her eyes.

He set her in the seat of an old police truck that stank of pipe smoke and ancient fast food, chucking her fondly under the chin and driving off down the road while Nicole scrambled to hide under the seat. She glared at his boots and trembled through the pain in her leg.

“Comfy down there?”

Silence.

“Let me know if you find my sub card, I was like two punches from a free footlong.”

Nicole wondered just how long it would take to chew through a grown man's ankle with her very human teeth.

“You ain’t from ‘round here are you? I’d remember a little spitfuck like you. Where your folks at, kid?”

“Fuck,” Nicole offered determinedly.

The car lurched with the man’s surprise, swerving back into his lane with a jolt. He blinked down at where her eyes peeked out under the seat, still glaring for all she was worth. “What?” He asked dumbly.

Nicole narrowed her eyes. Her voice cracked with misuse. “Fuck.”

A bark of a laugh exploded from under his mustache, disbelief and joy written all over his stupid face. “Yeah?” He laughed.

“Yes.”

“That’s all you got?”

“Yes.”

He laughed harder. “Alright. I can work with that.”

He drove her straight to a white building with men in long white coats and women in colorful outfits who asked her to put things in her mouth and let them poke her ribs a lot. They clucked and shook their heads at her and called her man “Sheriff” and were not nearly so impressed when Nicole said fuck. Sheriff thought it was at least twice as funny each time she said it. Every time they left the room, she’d climb out of the crackling paper sheets and hide underneath the bed until Sherriff wrestled her back.

They gave her something that made her feel sloppy and tired to take the slug from her leg and she fell asleep holding Sheriff’s hand. When she woke up he was still holding her hand, but it was a little sweaty. Not sweaty enough to let go or anything.

When he took her from the hospital dressed in a Purgatory Sheriff’s Department t-shirt that swung low past her knees and a loose pair of sweatpants that smelled like disinfectant, she expected to be dropped right back at the edge of the Earp property to melt back into the woods and eat roadkill. Instead, he dropped his Stetson on her head and drove her out to a shabby little ranch house with a white picket fence, leaning kinda drunk, and a whole lotta bird feeders.

“That’s a whole lotta bird feeders,” Nicole pointed out.

Sheriff blinked down at her a moment, a real slow smile pulling at his cheeks. “And here I thought you only knew how to curse at me.”

“I can do that too,” Nicole promised seriously.

Sheriff laughed. “I know you can.” The truck got parked in a patch of gravel next to the overstuffed garage and he scooped her up to take her inside. “It is kinda excessive,” he agreed. “But I just like birds.”

“Me too.”

“Yeah? What kind do you like best.”

“Well the chicken hawks taste okay, but they ain’t get hit by cars very often.”

Sheriff froze on his front porch, face screwed up a moment before he shook his head and went ahead inside anyways. He made her a big plate of eggs and bacon that she tore through while he asked her to call him Nedley. Mouth full of hot food, Nicole would’a called him Jesus if he’d asked.

He didn’t.

Nedley piled a bunch of blankets on the couch and tucked her in real cozy, brushing an awkward hand through her hair and chucking her under the chin again. “And what do I call you?” He asked.

“Nothin’.”

He didn’t fight her on it that night – just sighed and pulled a quilt up under her chin. His footsteps faded away down the hallway and Nicole blinked in the darkness, unsure what to do with herself in the face of such indulgence. She pulled the quilt up to her nose and inhaled deeply, smelling' mothballs and someone else's home. The feather pillow engulfing her head had a nice give.

It couldn’t last.

No matter how bad she wanted it or how much it-

It just couldn’t.

If there was one thing the world had beat into her, it was that the more you wanted somethin', the harder the world was gonna try and take it away from you. You dig your nails into it and it'll bleed harder when its torn from you. The moon would swell in a few weeks time, her bones would snap and change and she’d drop to four monstrous feet and Nedley would put another slug in her terrible face if she didn’t run. And that was that.

But well-

It was just one night.

Just the one.

Nicole slept soundly and dreamed of bleached bones grown over with forgetmenot flowers under the prettiest tree in Alberta.

 

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It wasn’t really her fault.

In fact, it was Nedley’s fault. If he hadn’t kept tucking her in at night and brushing her hair out before bed and letting her trail on his heels ‘round the station and buying her huge milkshakes on Fridays and reading her books at night and-

Well, would you have left?

And sure as shit, sure as the tides themselves, the moon waned to nothing. But then it swelled and grew and Nicole watched it with a mounting dread.

She was dangling her skinny chicken legs over the edge of Nedley’s big comfy chair behind his desk at the station, thinking about climbing out the window and running off back into the great unknown to run on four legs and eat roadkill. It had never exactly been appealing, but it was growing less so by the day. It weren’t her fault milkshakes tasted like that.

But there wasn’t any changing the huge scar on her thigh in the shape of a monster’s jaws and there wasn’t any changing that big beautiful rock in the sky so Nicole plotted her escape. She picked up one of Nedley’s gold-brushed pens with his name and the department logo emblazoned on the side. The notepad on his desk had a few scribbled telephone numbers and an appointment for 3:30 on Tuesday that just said “Kid – School Appt”.

Uh oh. The kid was her.

And school - well, school was some kind of horseshit. From what she could remember anyhow. Nicole liked that word because it made Nedley laugh and the lady who cut her hair angry. Which only made Nedley laugh harder.

At least she’d be gone before the appointment. Before school.

She tapped the pen thoughtfully against his notepad, trying to think if there was anything worth writing to explain her disappearance. But she didn’t think it mattered all that much. Nedley hadn’t yet been able to find anyone who’d been looking for her the last year. Nicole had known where her story was going to end a long time since: a ghost of bleached bones and loneliness in the woods so nothin' they ain’t even made it on the gas station maps yet.

She’d melt back into that backdrop and Nedley would find a better little girl to save.

 

Goodbye Sheriff. Don’t look.

-Kid

 

Her handwriting had been awful bad before the attack and it’d only grown worse since, but Nedley’s weren’t much better so she figured maybe they spoke round ‘bout the same language. He’d get it.

For posterity, she was taking one last slow glance around the office, kicking her second-hand sneakers against the filing cabinet under the desk when the door creaked open and one Waverly Earp peeked through the crack.

Nicole stared and Waverly did just about the same until her small town manners kicked in and she offered a polite smile.

“Hi.”

Nicole didn’t even blink.

Waverly broke eye contact and looked down at her own second-hand shoes. “Sorry, I was looking for the bathroom.”

Nodding, Nicole pointed steadily in the direction of the little stall at the other end of the hall.

“Thank you.”

When Nicole only nodded again, Waverly’s mouth pursed and she pushed the door open a little bit further. “Don’t you talk?”

“No.”

Waverly pulled back, affronted. “Yes you do.”

“No I don’t.”

Waverly stomped her sneaker once and crossed her arms and Nicole was charmed. “Okay, I do,” she grinned. “Just not much.”

“Why?”

“What’s it to ya?”

Inarticulate and ten years old, Waverly just pouted and crossed her arms. Nicole smiled a little wider and leaned across Nedley’s desk like it was her own. “Didn’t you have to go to the bathroom?”

Apparently she didn’t, because Waverly crossed the office to sit in one of the creaky leather chairs across the desk. “I haven’t seen you before. Why are you in the sheriff’s station?”

“I’m under arrest.”

“No you’re not,” Waverly said with narrowed eyes. “You’re just a kid.”

“A bad kid.”

“You’re teasing me.”

Nicole shrugged and leaned back in her chair. “It don’t matter. I’m leaving anyhow.”

“You’re going home? Where do you live?”

“Nowhere. I’m just goin’.”

Waverly scoffed like it was the stupidest darn thing she’d ever heard. “You can’t go nowhere. And everyone lives somewhere.”

“Well, I am and I don’t.”

“Then how’re you gonna know when you get there?” Waverly asked triumphantly.

Nicole rolled her eyes. “I’m gonna head straight out in the direction of the most nothin’ and go until there’s so much nothin’ I won’t ever see another person again.”

Waverly sobered on that, giving Nicole just about the same look that Nedley’d given her when she asked him if she could sleep under his porch. “Why would you want that?” She asked, tearful. “That’s awful sad. Don’t you have a family?”

“I don’t,” Nicole said, feeling self-conscious and picking at the peeling seams of her chair’s armrests. “They got killed.”

“By monsters?” Waverly asked at a whisper.

Nicole startled and looked back at the girl being swallowed in the dusty old chair across the desk. “Yeah. By monsters.”

“Oh,” Waverly quieted, awkward and turning to pick at her own armrest while Nicole stared through her. “I met a monster once. But it was a good monster.”

Flashes from the barn split her memory, soft hands and the quiet clucking of chickens tucked into the sides of her monstrous body and the crack of a shotgun as it shattered her leg and the way her teeth dripped and her gums itched with the urge to turn around and swallow that man whole. “There ain’t no such thing,” Nicole grunted.

Waverly glared up at her. “Is too.”

“There’s not.”

“Is too! I met one!” She griped. “How would you know anyhow?”

Incensed, Nicole leaned across the desk and bared her canines at her. “’Cause I am one,” she sneered, feelings a harsh twist of painful satisfaction when Waverly shrank back in her seat to put more distance between them.

She trembled there a moment or two, big doe eyes swallowed up in the predator across the desk from her. Eventually, she gulped and clutched hard at the armrests, ten years old and braver than Nicole’d ever been. “You’re not so scary,” she said shakily. “You’re just rude and sad.”

The office fell quiet as Nicole recoiled like she’d been slapped and fell back into the wide-backed chair to nurse her wounds. She looked away, down somewhere on the floor and bit at the inside of her cheek. Honestly, if she couldn’t even scare a little thing like Waverly Earp, she had to have been the worst monster that side of the Rockies. As for the other side, she couldn’t necessarily account for the quality of the supernatural predators.

While Nicole pouted, the door opened again and a scrappy teenage girl poked into the room. “Waverly! C’mon, daddy’s been looking for you. He’s done with his business.”

Waverly shot a nervous look back at Nicole. “Coming.”

“Who’re you?” The girl asked bluntly, giving Nicole a suspicious look.

Nicole shrugged. “Nobody.”

“Alright, smartass. You new in town?” Wynonna wiggled a finger in her ear, glanced around the office and seemed almost entirely unconcerned with whatever answer she might've gotten.

“Just leavin’ actually.”

Waverly gave her a sad look, but went dutifully to stand at her sister’s side. “Goodbye,” she hesitated, hands trailing along the back of her vacated chair. “What’s your name?”

“Why?”

“In case you want to come back and be somebody some day.”

Nicole’s heart hiccupped a little and she turned to look out the window. “Nicole,” she murmured, barely legible.

“And I’m Waverly. Waverly Earp.”

“Okay, Waverly-Waverly Earp.”

“Goodbye, Nicole.”

 

+++

 

She slipped out the window that afternoon and ran as far as those second hand shoes would take her until her lungs burned and her mouth was sour and dusty. She heaved on the outskirts of her woods – her own little piece of nothing – hands on her knees and bent in half. The moon popped right over the horizon, big and bright and so beautiful Nicole was as helpless as a moth bangin’ into a big old electric lamp. She howled and screamed until her bones were done shifting and spent the night thinking about nothing much grander than how much worse three day old roadkill tasted than chocolate milkshakes.

The next morning, she tried to find the bleached bones and forgetmenot flowers, but was all turned around. She ended up wandering back over her own footsteps a dozen times over, circling through the outskirts of her woods, feeling more rude and more sad by the day.

She stopped eating about a week in and laid out under the stars in an open field that had almost as much nothing as the woods. She watched the world tilt and trip around itself, dragging a sheet of stars around until the waning moon slipped from her view and the sun started burning her cheeks. A distant engine hiccupped and revved, dragging Nicole on her feet to watch an old pickup bouncing toward her through the desert.

Part of Nicole was still rearing to run, but her stomach was folded in on itself and everything was all hazy in the heat. Instead, she just stood there while the truck lumbered closer. She wondered if it mightn’t just roll right over her, but it screeched to a halt ten paces from where she stood. An irate Nedley dropped out of the cab.

“Hi Nedley.”

Nedley stood there with his arms held wide from his body, like he didn’t know what to do with them.

“I told you not to come lookin’.”

Nedley ignored her, jogging forward to haul her up into a crushing, uncomfortable bear hug. Her shoes dangled above the dirt and her nose was all smushed into his chest.

“Jesus Christ, lord in heaven,” he breathed into her hair.

Nicole wiggled her fingers and decided to let Nedley get through whatever’d gotten into him on his own. She could wait it out.

And he did, eventually. But when he dropped her back on her feet and held her out at arms length, his face was wide open and vulnerable. “What in sam hill were you thinkin’, huh? Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been? Any clue? D’you know how likely it is that I could drop dead of a heart attack any day here? You wanna help? You want me to drop dead? Is that it?”

“No?”

Nedley’s eyes blurred and he blinked through the sheen that’d drawn across them. “That a question or an answer?” He laughed, pulling her back in for another hug that smelled like tobacco and sweat. “God damnit, I thought you were dead.”

“I ain’t.”

“No shit,” he laughed. “Why’d you run off, huh? Was I so horrible to you?” He pushed her back again to look her right in the eye. “What’d I do wrong, kid? Just tell me, I’ll fix it. It was the couch, wasn’t it? I’ll get you a bed, kid, I swear. What do you need?”

Nicole wobbled a little on her knees, hungry and faint. “A milkshake, I think,” she mumbled, reaching out to hold herself up on Nedley’s forearm.

Nedley laughed and scooped her up to take her back to the truck. “We’ll start there, then, huh?” She felt him lean down and press his cracked lips to the top of her head. “Christ in hell,” he swore again, trundling over to the truck and setting her gently inside. “Let’s get you back.”

When he climbed into the passenger seat and made her buckle her seatbelt and began the bumpy ride back across the barrens toward the state route, Nicole leaned her head on the window and stared at all the nothing fading in the distance. “It wasn’t you.”

Nedley’s head snapped toward her. “Huh?”

“I didn’t leave ‘cause of you.”

“Oh,” Nedley said dumbly. When it sank in, he nodded in relief. “Okay, well what was it then? I’ll fix it, I swear.”

Nicole smiled wryly. “You can’t fix it.”

 

+++

Chapter Text

I'm so alone and I feel just like somebody else

Man I ain't changed, but I know I ain't the same

-One Headlight, The Wallflowers (1996)

+++

 

It came out just about the way Nicole thought it might. Nedley got her that bed he’d promised and that milkshake he’d promised and hardly left her alone over the next twenty-two days. By that point, Nicole had rediscovered pizza and John Wayne movies and really, did she stand any chance? How exactly was a thirteen-year-old meant to run back to a bunch of roadkill and grubby trees when she had pizza and John Wayne movies?

Hell itself couldn’t make her do it.

So when that full moon exploded over a stormy horizon, lightning crackling overhead, Nicole locked herself in the basement of Nedley’s ranch and pushed a bunch of old boxes and a safe in front of the door. When she’d shifted, the beast inside her roared and spit at the cage she’d made for it and began throwing itself against the door, feral and everything Nicole thought she’d overcome.

Of course Nedley heard it.

He had ears for Christ’s sake.

Nedley shoved his shoulder against the basement door until it splintered and burst in, double-barrel raised against his shoulder and eye trained right on Nicole’s monstrous face while she growled from the corner, pressed up against the furnace. Nedley welded his cheek to the stock and pumped the shell into place.

“Where the fuck is the kid?” He said, low and dangerous. “I swear to god.”

Nicole perked up at that, but seeing the look of deadly intent in Nedley’s eyes, she wilted. And what exactly had she expected? Resigned, Nicole folded into herself, muzzle on her claws and whined. She blinked her big horrible eyes up at him and waited. Nedley remained taught, every muscle tensed and ready while his finger tickled the trigger. It felt like they remained that way an hour or more.

Something must’ve struck Nedley, because slowly, the shotgun sank away from his shoulder and he let it swing under his armpit while he stared and stared and stared. One of his feet slid forward and Nicole watched his ugly slippers kick up dust in motion. When he had taken a few steps toward her, Nicole tried to wiggle back further against the furnace.

It was too much to hope he’d just kill her and move on.

To Nicole’s horror, recognition and dismay stole across Nedley’s face and she knew it was over. All of it. Whatever that meant, it was over.

“Aw, shit,” he said breathlessly.

Nicole couldn’t help but agree.

 

+++

 

When the sun came up and Nicole was less…bad…they sat in the basement in silence. Sunlight stremed in through the storm windows and Nicole waited there buck naked with her knees pulled up to her chest, Nedley rubbing a bewildered hand up and down his graying temples. The silence got to her eventually, like she never actually expected it would as a thing raised by silence. She cleared her throat.

“I’ll go now,” she said hoarsely.

She picked up her sweatpants, pulled them up her hips and tossed her shirt on, all business while she prepared to leave again. Nedley didn’t move from his spot on the basement steps, blocking the only exit, and Nicole fidgeted, unsure of how to proceed.

“Pardon me,” she tried.

Nedley didn’t pardon her.

“So you’re one of them…things that Earp’s always goin’ on about, huh?”

“I dunno, what’s he always goin’ on about?”

Nedley looked up warily. “Monsters. Superhuman beasts. Nonsense.”

“Oh, er, yes. I am...that,” Nicole agreed lamely.

Nedley nodded, dazed. “You always been that way?”

“No. Got bit by one. It tried to kill me.”

Nedley nodded again, like that was all agreeable and not thirty different shades of demented. “You got parents?”

“I had ‘em, yeah. Got killed. We were camping a ways off.”

“Sucks,” Nedley sympathized, wincing at his own response. But honestly, what else was there to say on the matter? It sure did suck.

Nicole nodded gravely. “I never even liked camping neither.”

“And this,” Nedley gestured to Nicole vaguely, “stuff happens…how often, exactly? Can you control it?”

“When the moon’s biggest. And no, not far’s I can tell.” Nicole scuffed her bare heels against the cold cement floor, looking around for another escape. No matter where she looked, her eyes always slowly swung back to the shotgun still tucked under Nedley’s arm. She wouldn’t be fool enough to turn her back on one a second time.

Nedley never really stopped nodding along. “How long you been like this – been livin’ out there?”

“Dunno. Been about two summers I think. More’n a year.” Scratching at the back of her head, Nicole gestured up the stairs. “I’ll just go.”

“Oh, uh, yeah,” Nedley stood up and let her past. “You’re probably cold. Why don’t you run a shower and I’ll make some bacon. Er, do you prefer it, like…raw or something?”

“Huh?”

“Not trying to be rude, I don’t know what, er, your kind eats or anything. I’m new to this,” Nedley stammered.

Nicole ignored his rambling. “No, I mean, don’t you want me to…leave? You saw what I am. You saw. You wanted to shoot me dead for christ’s sake,” she accused. Nedley flinched, but Nicole plowed ahead. “I ain’t gonna hurt you,” she spat, “I ain’t hurt anyone, but I get it, alright? I’ve done just fine without you, so just forget about it. And for your information, I like cooked bacon like anyone else. Now get outta my way or I’ll show you why people scream when they see me.”

All the breath left Nicole as Nedley tackled her in another uncomfortable, tobacco hug. “Sorry. I’m sorry,” he said into the top of her head. Nicole froze, once again unsure of what exactly her hands were supposed to be doing. “Please stay. I might not be able to fix this, but we can – we can figure it out. It’s just a thing. It’s not a big deal, alright? I’m sorry.”

It took a few minutes and a few more apologies murmured into her hair before Nicole allowed her arms to come up and grab at the back of Nedley’s old sleep shirt. She breathed him in a moment – tobacco and sweat – and let it all out slow. The beats in her chest raged and she blinked through the burning in her eyes. “Can I stay?” She asked, so small and pathetic she wondered if the thing in her chest wasn’t just a mouse.

“Forever,” Nedley promised. “One condition.”

“Alright.”

“What’s your name, kid?”

Nicole swallowed and told him the truth.

 

+++

14

+++

 

Nicole was fourteen and Nedley bought her some nicer clothes and made her go to school that fall. It was bad.

She had to ask to use the bathroom and sometimes they said no like they’d rather her just have at it in her seat than use a damn toilet and she was bad at reading and math was hard. Nedley signed all of her papers and reports ‘cause they were all bad and she was bottom of the class. In gym, the games had rules and she was always in trouble for some reason. The girls all whispered about her and the boys all threw things at her and the teachers didn’t seem to know she could tear their throats out if she wanted to. She might’ve been stupid, but she wasn’t dumb.

In health class they talked about gross things and periods and all the girls tittered about boys, which was about the most boring thing Nicole had ever heard. Ain’t no boy in the world ever caught her attention and she doubted they ever would. Nedley tried to talk to her about woman things once, but Nicole climbed out a window and disappeared for two days until he found her living in a tree. Nedley hadn’t tried to talk about tampons again.

Besides that, Nicole didn’t have those issues.

Nicole saw Waverly in the hallway once, pinning a flier for a linguistics club that Nicole knew she’d never be caught dead in in a million years. She was still short – a tiny waif of a girl. Nicole came up behind her and said, “hi, Waverly.”

Waverly started and turned around, running smack into Nicole’s chest. She pushed back with hands on Nicole’s gut  and blinked up at her. “Uh, Nicole?”

“Hi.”

“I thought you’d left?”

“I did.”

“Obviously it didn’t go too well,” she teased.

Nicole shrugged. “No, it didn’t. Linguistics club, huh?”

“Yes!” She enthused, clenching her fists while a kind of passion shined in her eyes that Nicole reckoned she’d never seen before. “I got permission to start it this year. My first year in middle school and the president of a club! It’s exciting, isn’t it?”

“Yep,” Nicole agreed even though she didn’t. “You like this kinda stuff?”

“I love it!” Waverly gushed.

Nicole’s cheeks burned, but she nodded along.

“You want to join?”

Nicole looked around, like she thought maybe Waverly was talking to someone else. “Uh, me?”

“Yes, you.”

“Even…bein’ what I am?”

Waverly rolled her eyes, obviously over her fright and probably too old for fibs about monsters. “Just think about it, alright?” She pressed a flier into Nicole’s hands and stepped back. “I’m worried nobody’s gonna show up. I’m skipped up a grade and this is all pretty scary.”

“It is,” Nicole agreed wholeheartedly. “The teachers don’t believe me when I say I need to use the bathroom. Not really sure what they think I’m gonna get up to at the toilets.”

Waverly giggled, but before she could continue, Mrs. Peterson came up behind them and cleared her throat in Nicole’s general direction. “Ms. Nicole,” she harrumphed. “I don’t really think you can afford to be out here socializing when you’ve got about a snowball’s chance in hell of passing my class.”

Nicole flinched and her cheeks burned with shame. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I really am trying.”

“Detention, Ms. Nicole.”

Nicole bristled. “What’d I do?”

“Detention. Now return to class or you can take a trip to see the principal,” she sniffed, crucifying her right in front of the only girl who’d exchanged more than three words with Nicole in the last year.

Nicole slumped and shuffled away, casting one last look at Waverly’s own embarrassed face. “Bye, Waverly.”

“Bye Nicole.”

 

+++

 

She sat through that detention and many more that year, twiddling her thumbs like an idiot and still failing her classes. Now, she was apparently only good at bein’ an idiot, but she couldn’t for the life of her figure out how sitting in a quiet classroom and conking out in stuffy penitent silence every week was supposed to help her get better at algebra. All the teachers did was yell at her and tell her the way she was supposed to be, but they ain’t ever showed her how to actually be that way. It was all very frustrating.

Nedley didn’t yell about it. He just sighed, picked her up when he could, sent a squad car when he couldn’t and signed all of the notes home warning him that his weird adopted creature of a kid was going to grow up to shoplift burner phones and spit on public street corners for a living. Or whatever they expected her to do with all the nothin’ they taught her.

“You sure you’re tryin’ to fit in?” Nedley asked carefully as they chugged home in his old truck from her regularly scheduled detention.

“Yes,” Nicole snarked, crossing her arms and glaring out the window. “I got a detention ‘cause I forgot my pencil. It’s like they think I did it on purpose.”

Nedley chuckled. “What a bunch of assholes.” He snorted. “Don’t repeat that.”

“I’m gonna.”

“I know you are.”

 

+++

 

The full moons weren’t all that bad that year. Nedley wasn’t so sure that locking her in the basement was a responsible solution, but Nicole insisted and Nedley didn’t know enough to argue. He installed a deadbolt and a full door jamb that kept her from busting down when the thing inside her got scared and desperate for the rustle of clean night air against her nose. She didn’t know why it wanted out so bad, but it did.

“You sure you don’t want to explore something less…tortuous?” He’d sigh in the morning, collecting her from the cold basement.

Nicole was adamant, though. She wanted it locked up, alone, and secret and Nedley obliged haltingly. He’d cook her a king’s breakfast in the morning and let her skip school and they’d go fishing or he’d teach her to shoot at bottles on the fence. It was nice to have something to look forward to.

It all went to shit, though, when the thing got smart –

And wasn’t that a thing. Nicole’d never been smart a day in her life, but that asshole had the brains to climb up out the storm window and wiggle under the grate off into the night.

When she’d dashed off under the picket fence and gotten a mile out down the road, she howled long and free at that lonely light in the sky. She came back to herself real quick in the fresh air, settling into a more rational place after escaping her prison. She bounded away through the brush on the sides of the road, scenting the air and feeling it rush and shiver down her back.

It felt illicit, sneaking around the alleyways and dodging drunkards in the main stretch of town. If Nedley knew she’d gotten out, he’d have likely been upset. Come to think of it, Nicole would have likely been upset too if she weren’t so wrapped up in her that thing she turned into. As the bars let out and more people walked the streets, Nicole slipped away down the road on the tail of a familiar scent – lavender and parchment and clean laundry.

She wasn’t too surprised when it led her right back to the Earp homestead. That single light swung from a chain above the front porch, as hypnotizing as the one in the sky. Hesitating only a moment at the fence line, Nicole slipped around the posts and began snuffling around the chicken coops and wilted, overgrown tomato plants.

Someone cursed in the barn and Nicole’s ears perked up. Tentatively, she padded toward the barn, pushing her nose between the doors to peak inside. She didn’t see anything immediately and shoved her head further inside, peering around cautiously. A wimper caught her senses just at the back of the barn and she looked up.

Someone was clinging to a support beam, stuck twelve feet in the air on a thin cross beam, sniffling to themselves. Nicole trotted further inside and stared up at Waverly’s tearstained face.

Waverly choked back a small sob and dug her fingernails into the beam she was clinging to.

Nicole sat back on her haunches and chuffed out what she thought was a supportive breath.

Waverly started, glancing down between the beams and yelping at what must’ve been a truly alarming house guest. Her feet skittered on the boards and she slipped, flailing and grasping at nothing as she banged her elbows and tumbled toward the hard dirt floor. On pure instinct, Nicole darted underneath her and took the full brunt of the fall, getting a knee right in her guts for her trouble.

Waverly gasped and struggled out of their tangle, slamming her elbow into Nicole’s jaw and shoving her away none too kindly. Scrambling away on hands and knees, Waverly looked back at her with well-deserved horror. Nicole froze still, keeping low and hoping to make a nonthreatening image out of what had to have been a very threatening amount of teeth.

Like the first time, they just stared and stared and stared.

Nicole got bored and laid on her belly, chin resting on her claws real slow.

“You-“

Waverly swallowed hard and pushed up on her feet. She took one testing step back, waiting for Nicole to lunge. And of course she didn’t. She wasn’t that rude despite what Waverly Earp might’ve thought of her.

“I know you.”

And of course Nicole didn’t answer. On account of the general haplessness of her person-ish.

“You’re the good monster.”

Wasn’t that a thought? Licking her chops, Nicole swiveled her ears a bit, checking for the distant thud of approaching footsteps and less friendly Earps.

Waverly retraced that backward step, coming closer. “I thought maybe Daddy’d gotten you.” She stepped even closer, curious and just a little naïve. “I was worried,” she admitted, taking those last few steps to kneel down beside that gruesome creature. She ran her hands tentatively down her flank, tracing up toward Nicole’s ears and eventually daring soft strokes down the line of her nose. She stared harder at those long canines than she had at nine years old, which was a bit of a relief honestly. The girl would get herself hurt if she weren’t less trusting.

“I’m sorry I fell on you.”

Nicole was sorry too. She could feel deep bruises swelling and settling under the skin at her ribs and back.

“You know, you’re awful different than the way Daddy describes your kind,” she mused. “When he hunts them, they're all gnashing teeth and bloodlust. Wynnona says their eyes go red and they can split a deer in half in less than a minute,” she rambled. “Only way to kill ‘em is a silver bullet where it counts. By the time Daddy strings ‘em up, they-“

She quieted quickly and pulled her hand back.

“Sorry. You don’t want to hear that. I don’t even know if they’re your friends or, or…” she swallowed hard and fell quiet again.

Nicole shifted her head and pressed her wet nose into Waverly’s knee. It startled her, but her hand returned to absent strokes right down the bumps of Nicole’s spine. “Wynonna's kinda mean, though. I never know when she's lyin’ to me or bein’ honest. That’s why I was up there, you know? I'm supposed to be the smart one, but she convinced me there was a map to old Earp treasure etched into one of the-" Waverly swallowed hard and shook her head, chuckling to herself. "Just dumb Wynnona stuff. She's too wily for her own good."

Wynnona seemed like a shit.

“You know, you remind me of someone,” she chuckled. “You’re real quiet. And you got that same sad look.”

Irony: a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character's words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.

Take that Mrs. Peterson.

+++

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Don't try to bleed me

'Cause I've been here before and I deserve a little more

 

       -Rain King,Counting Crows (1993)

 

 

+++

 

It turned out that the Linguistics club met on Wednesdays. Nicole only knew that because she had her regularly scheduled Wednesday detention, which she’d penciled in for the rest of the year. They were an inevitable result of her failed Wednesday pop quiz for Mrs. White so what was the point fightin' it. She was never going to pass them, so her Wednesdays were booked.

One such Wednesday found her moping down the hallway, trying to find something to distract her and make her late to an hour of Mrs. White glaring at her for being stupid. She wasn’t trying to be stupid. And Nedley was trying to help her with homework and stuff, but he was stupid too.

She passed by one of the classrooms in the sixth grade wing and paused when she saw someone seemingly dead on top of a desk. Sixth grade was just kinda like that. Nicole stared at the back of Waverly’s head where it was dropped on a desktop, alone and quiet. There was a sad, altogether despondent slump to her shoulders.

“Y’alright, Waverly?”

Waverly shot up and spun to blink at her in the harsh florescent light. When she recognized her visitor, she relaxed and spun back to stare at the wall, back stiff. “Yeah.”

“What’re you doin’ alone in here?”

Waverly’s shoulders fell further. “Linguistics club,” she murmured.

Nicole scratched at the back of her head. “Aren’t clubs supposed to have like…more’n one person?”

“Yes,” Waverly whispered and lord but Nicole could hear her lower lip wobbling.

She sighed, glanced up at the clock that said 3:05 p.m. and wondered what shade of red Mrs. White’s face would turn when she blew her off. Probably somethin’ ugly.

“Well, good thing I’m on time then,” Nicole grimaced, resigning herself to an hour of linguistics. Honestly, she didn’t even understand what a club dedicated to linguistics even meant, but if nothing else, she knew how to say words. That was one skill yet to be taken from her.

Waverly sniffled, composed herself, then turned to watch Nicole take a seat at her side. “I just got one question,” Nicole said seriously, pulling out a notebook because that seemed attentive and helpful. Waverly lifted her eyebrows in invitation and Nicole began chewing on the end of her pencil. “What exactly is linguistics?”

Waverly burst into a laugh so sweet, it took the words right out of her mouth. Her cheeks burned and she sat there like a fool, unable to say a single word on her first day of linguistics club.

 

+++

 

Linguistics is the scientific study of language – how it’s made, where words come from, and why they are what they are.

(Mrs. White turned a ripe crabapple red and Nicole started getting in school suspensions on Thursdays and Fridays so she could be AWOL at Wednesday detention and make her Wednesday linguistics club.)

 

+++

 

Nicole didn’t learn a whole lot about languages that year – how they were made, where they came from, and why they were what they were. She did learn that Waverly loved the color pink as long as it wasn’t too bright, she was scared of birds, she had gotten a shotgun for her tenth birthday, she was allergic to carrots, and she could speak three dead languages.

When Nicole asked her why in the hell she’d want to know a language that was dead, Waverly just laughed and laughed like she’d heard the best joke. Nicole didn’t get it, but she laughed too.

Nicole wasn’t really sure how, but she graduated the eighth grade with just about the saddest grades Purgatory had ever seen. Mrs. White handed over her eighth grade diploma – which didn’t actually mean much, it just meant the parents got to take pictures and throw a party – with a glare. Nedley just wrapped her up in a big hug and took her out for burgers.

At the last linguistics club meeting, Waverly congratulated her by bringing cupcakes that she’d made herself. They were a little flat and the frosting was crunchy, but Nicole swallowed it down. She also informed Nicole that she was disbanding the linguistics club in the interest of losing half its members. When Nicole asked what she was going to do the next year, Waverly speculated that she might join the junior cheer squad.

Nicole thought that’d be real boring for a girl who learned dead languages for fun, but what did she know.

 

+++

15

+++

 

Nicole was fifteen and high school was just about as bad as middle school had been. She shot up over the summer and got even taller and lankier – a big awkward adolescent dog with huge paws and so much leg she didn’t know what to do with it all. The lunar cycle had her restless, so she’d spend the entirety of pre-calc on Mondays and English on Thursdays and science lab on Tuesdays just running round and round the outdoor track like she was chasing her own tail.

It wasn’t the star draped wastelands of Purgatory’s backyards, but it was better than sitting there tapping her shoe until someone snapped at her. They’d also snap when they caught her tardy, but - hell she didn’t imagine there was much she could do that wouldn’t make them snap. Never quite got the hang of that.

So she ran and ran and ran in tight quarter mile circles, her old sneakers slapping the rubbery top and her breath even no matter how long she went. That’s where Coach Simons found her, pounding pavement in little more than an exercise in futility. But Nicole took any exercise she could get – even if that were just flexin’ the general helplessness of fate and random cosmic coincidence.

“You can run.”

Nicole jogged to a stop and stared at the coach, popping bubble gum and appraising her with hands on her hips. She had a harsh tanning bed glow, split ends, and too much mascara. But the one thing Coach Simons had that just about nobody else in Purgatory had was a keen look of interest when she looked at Nicole’s awkward knobby stilts for legs.

“Yes ma’am,” Nicole agreed, heart rate still low and steady even fifty laps later. And wasn’t that funny, she ain’t ever called anyone ma’am before. But then, nobody had ever told Nicole, ‘you can’. Unless that statement was immediately proceeded by, ‘pick up your homework at suspension’.

“Did’ya steel some of those legs from someone else? You got enough for two,” the coach smacked her gum.

Nicole looked down at her own legs. “No, ma’am. Grew ‘em myself.”

Coach Simons cracked a smile and waved Nicole over. “You in any extra-curriculars?” She asked, staring right up at Nicole but somehow managing to look like she was staring down.

“No, ma’am.”

“How do you feel about track?”

“This one? It’s a little small.”

She barked out a hoarse laughter and tucked her clipboard further under her arm. “No, child. The sport. How do you feel about running track for the school?”

Nicole nodded cautiously. “Well alright,” she agreed.

“You’re awful tall,” Coach Simons continued, taking one appraising lap around, lifting one of Nicole’s arms like she was about to tailor a jacket for her. “How about basketball? You wanna play basketball for the school?”

“Well alright.”

Coach Simons grinned, her bleached teeth nearly blinding against her orange skin. “Well alright,” she echoed cheerfully. “How’re your grades?”

“Real bad, ma’am. Just about straight Ds.”

“Wow I didn’t have D’s until Junior year,” Coach Simons chortled and Nicole felt like she’d missed a joke. “Well, at least you’re consistent. Show up to tryouts tomorrow. We’ll worry about the grades later.”

So she did.

 

+++

 

Nedley went to her first track meet and every one in between. Nicole apparently ran a five minute, eighteen second mile and kept going before they had to stop her. Running only four laps seemed kind of dumb, but the clapping and the back slapping and big bear hug from Nedley made her reevaluate. Four laps didn’t seem like a big deal, but everyone else thought so and Nicole didn’t stop smiling until she woke up the next morning.

So Nicole quit her class skipping to run the track after school every day. Some of her teammates would highfive her or invite her for burgers on Fridays after meets and things were pretty alright. Coach Simons hired just about the most organized and most prim girl in the school to tutor her. And Nicole reckoned she was so afraid of disappointing her tutor that she got scared into passing tests.

After practice, she lingered, slowing to a light jog while Coach Simons shook her head and told her to lock the gate on her way out. The first time she stayed late, she kicked around the bleachers waiting for Nedley to pick her up and letting the howl of a Purgatory front rustle through her hair.

The smell of cheap cigarettes wafted up between the benches and Nicole peered down at the slats under her feet to watch a lone figure take a hearty draw from the ember in her hand and blow out real slow. Nicole pushed off her seat on the bleachers and climbed down around the back where kids go to be secretive about nothing in particular.

Waverly’s wild sister was propped against one of the support beams, looking just about as cool as she probably intended. She was alone and aloof like a John Wayne character, all dark clothing and cocked hips.

The girl cast a critical eye in Nicole’s direction and took another long drag of her cigarette while Nicole stood there feeling like her feet were too big for some reason.

“Howdy,” the girl said.

Damnit that was cool.

“You’re Waverly’s sister,” Nicole pointed out like maybe the girl wasn’t aware of that fact. She maybe could’ve been more suave if Waverly’s sister weren't sucking all of the cool out of the atmosphere.

“I am,” she drawled. “Wynonna. You’re the other dork in Waverly’s brief linguistics club affair.”

Nicole frowned on Waverly’s behalf. “I am.”

Wynnona sighed. “And what exactly is linguistics anyways?”

“I’m not too sure,” Nicole admitted, staring down at her too big feet.

To her surprise, Wynonna laughed, blinking afterward like she was surprised she’d done so. “Yeah,” she chuckled. “Me neither. That kid’s twenty miles ahead of everyone else in Purgatory, ain’t she?” Even around her cheap cigarette, Wynonna couldn’t smother the prideful tilt of her lips.

“At least.”

“That was real cool of you,” Wynnona said offhandedly, grinding the butt of the cigarette into the ground with the toe of her boot. “Waverly goes on about you. Of course, she also goes on about ancient Greek, so don’t let it get to your head.”

Nicole grinned and stuffed her hands in the pockets of her windbreaker, lost for something cool to say back.

Wynonna seemed to be too, but in a much cooler way. She pulled the carton of cigarettes from her breast pocket and lit up another with a few practiced clicks of her Daddy’s lighter, shielding the smolder from the breeze until it caught. She took one long drag before seeming to remember Nicole was there.

“Want a pull?” She asked, offering the cigarette in Nicole’s direction.

Nicole didn’t particularly, but it seemed like the right thing to do. She reached out, held it between her thumb and forefinger and took a tentative, deep breath in. It was fine until something struck a nerve and the burn had her hacking into her sleeve.

Revolting.

Wynonna laughed hard, clapping Nicole on the back. “Real smooth, cowboy.”

“Just like John Wayne,” Nicole spluttered.

Just like John Wayne.”

 

+++

 

Basketball started up, as it does. Nicole supposed.

It took her a while to get the ball in the hoop. That was a little hard, but it became habit, steadying the ball, the snap of her wrist, the smooth follow-through and swish. Satisfying.

It was girl’s basketball, so not a lot of people came to the games. But they let the junior cheer squad come cut their teeth on one of the home games and Nicole waved dumbly from the free throw line at Waverly’s cheeky grin. She gave her a thumbs up and Nicole blushed before promptly being tackled at a full run, bouncing her skull hard against the hardwood floor and trying to remember her own name and how many teeth she had. She needed to count to make sure she hadn’t swallowed any of them.

Just like John Wayne.

So instead of a cool two points from her breakaway sprint, Nicole had an impressive concussion and Waverly Earp hovering over her, stroking at her hair and babbling about the signs of brain death. If Nicole could speak, she would’ve told her that she didn’t need to know the signs. Her brain was already dead.

Waverly fretted and Nicole entered full cerebral expiration.

Her head was fine, really. But her pride was not. And also, she finally figured out why she didn’t have any interest in boys and it was only kinda their fault.

 

+++

 

Okay, maybe she didn’t quite figure it out then, but after their team lost in the semi-finals before championships, she got invited to go with the rest of the varsity juniors and seniors to some big to-do at Stacey Carmichaels’ house. They plied her with warm drugstore beers that Stacey’s older brother had cleaned out for them and they all giggled about the boys that had been invited.

Nicole didn’t think it was all that big of a deal.

The beer was gross so she kept an empty can in her hand all night to pretend she already had a drink whenever someone started going in on her about keeping up or whatever.

She was leaving the bathroom around midnight, mentally cataloguing her substantial rolodex of excuses to go home and snuggle into her own bed, when she nearly ran into someone standing so close to the other side of the door they might as well have been in there with her.

Nicole jerked back and blinked down at her intense tutor, who was just a tad less put together than she usually was. For a sophomore in high school, Madeline was awful put together on a concerningly consistent basis. Nicole was getting ready to stutter out an apology when Madeline pushed her lightly back into the bathroom and kicked the door closed behind her real smooth like.

“Uh, pardon me,” Nicole said, trying to scoot around her and give her the room. The girl was going about the whole bathroom thing all wrong.

Instead of pardoning her, Madeline gave her a pretty smile  and placed her hands low on Nicole’s stomach, fingers tangling in her jersey like a promise that made Nicole swallow hard.

“Er, do you-“

And then Madeline went and kissed her. Just like that.

Her peach lipbalm was a little sticky and she tasted like just about the worst beer money could buy, but it was still somehow great. She only had a few seconds to make some semblance of a response – try and be cool for once in her life – and then Madeline was all giggles against her lips and Nicole let the moment pass.

Madeline pecked her one last time before running off in a flurry of party spirit.

“Damn,” Nicole whispered.

 

+++

 

Nicole spent most evenings bumming around the sheriff’s department, filing things when Nedley was particularly ornery. It was gonna be a full moon night, so they had to hit the road before too long. Nicole pushed away a folder of spray-painted penises that had to be tucked in huge file folders based soley on the month they’d been discovered – never to be solved, Nedley assured her – and meandered out of records to find the old man.

He wasn’t in his office, so Nicole headed out to the front desk to see if the desk deputy had seen him. She paused only a half step in the door to the lobby when she realized the desk deputy weren’t there neither. It was right as she was about to turn back that she heard two women tittering and laughing at each other.

Nicole looked over her shoulder and saw Mrs. Andrews and another lady who Nicole didn’t recognize but recognized. She mightn’t have known her name, but her bejeweled crucifix pin on her wool ruffled blazer and swooshy perm was about the same as any other lady who shook their heads at Nicole’s secondhand shoes, scraped knees, and choppy haircut. It might as well have been a second Mrs. Andrews conversing with the first.

“Well, they won’t do anything about it – they never do,” Original Mrs. Andrews gossiped, “But I’ll be damned if I make it easy for them.”

Second Mrs. Andrews clucked like a big ruffly chicken. “What happened to the way it was when we were girls, hm? The deputies of the sherriff’s department used to be such gentlemen. Young boys were raised better back then.”

“And it looks like they’re only getting worse,” Original Mrs. Andrews agreed. “But I will file a million police reports if it’s what’s going to get Nedley to find the white-trash children defacing my property with…” she leaned in closer, “Such Images,” she finished ominously.

Nicole flashed back to the massive file of such images bursting at the seems in a room that was most definitely for cases born to go cold.

“Well that Nedley,” Second Mrs. Andrews assured her, like it was a complete sentence and not just a forbidding clause without direction.

Whatever that direction was, Original Mrs. Andrews agreed with a hum. “All he does is smoke and eat that ghastly food at Steve’s Place and ignore the concerns of his town. I tell you, he’s even worse now than when he was a deputy,” she sniffed. “I know he had a wife and child years ago, but even they couldn’t stand him. Ran off the first chance they got. If my husband had been the same sorry way, I’d have left him too.”

Nicole’s fists clenched and her nails dug hard right in the meaty part of her palm.

“Sue Ellen thinks it’s because of his tendencies. She thinks he’s just an old queer on the backhand of god waiting around to die. And now he’s got that queer girl he took off a crack whore passing through town. Heaven only knows what he puts in that child’s head. I’ve heard she’s-" and that's when she dropped to an obnoxious stage whisper audible from three miles out and hissed, "slow."

Nicole slammed the door behind the deputy’s desk, startling both Mrs. Andrews into silence, blinking like great big fish at her while Nicole tried to look so deep into their eyes they’d feel her there in their brains for the rest of their miserable lives.

“Sorry,” Nicole finally said, sweet and slow. “Didn’t mean to startle you. I was just in the back puttin’ your penis complaints in the shredder. Pardon,” she offered over her shoulder as she excused herself back the way she’d come, feelin’ just a little triumphant at the smacked expression on their faces.

 

+++

 

In the morning, after Nicole was less monstrous and they were sitting around with hard circles in their eyes, forks clanking while they tucked away a substantial amount of eggs and bacon, Nicole set her fork down and regarded the sheriff across the table.

“Did you see Mrs. Andrews in the station yesterday?” She asked.

Nedley looked up briefly and shrugged. “Yeah, same as usual.”

Nicole nodded and watched him pick bacon from his molars. “Heard her talkin’,” Nicole continued, trying to gauge Nedley’s reaction. “She said you were an old queer and so was I.”

Either Nedley had found the bacon in his teeth or it no longer seemed important. He lowered his hand and blinked at her. “That ain’t very nice,” he finally said.

Nicole shrugged. “It ain’t.”

Nedley laughed a bit and went back to eating. “Mrs. Andrews has a very strange relationship with god, don’t she?”

“I don’t know about that,” Nicole muttered. “So, are you?”

“What?”

“An old queer,” Nicole extrapolated, chewing through a piece of bacon that wasn’t quite cooked to her liking.

Nedley looked up in thought. “Mm, no. I am old, though.”

“Okay,” Nicole said, shoving a whole lot more undercooked bacon in her mouth.

“Are you?” Nedley returned, shoving even more bacon in his mouth.

Nicole took her time chewing and swallowing. “Yes.”

“Well, you ain’t old,” Nedley pointed out with a piece of bacon.

Nicole hummed. “I am queer, though.”

“You fancy girls?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hm,” Nedley responded, thoughtful but otherwise unphased. “Well, can’t say I blame you.”

They shared a wide, wolfish grin while sun streamed in through the kitchen window.

 

+++

 

 

Chapter Text

 Through the fire and through the flames, you won't even say your name

Only, 'I am that I am'.

       -Ya Hey, Vampire Weekend (2013)

 

+++

16

+++

 

Nicole was sixteen and there were other things like her out there. There were other unnatural things with long, dripping canines, dreadful red eyes, and huge clawed limbs with danger in every touch.

Nedley had put his foot down on locking her in the basement, insisting she should at least get to roam the property. They’d built up a big six-foot pine fence over the course of two months – just the two of them in sweaty overalls under the blistering Alberta sun, generally palling around and drinkin’ too much soda.

What Nedley didn’t know, of course, was that on the far northeast end of the property, Nicole had used her long claws to dig a rabbit hole under the fence, just big enough to squeeze through with a bit of desperation. So on full moons, Nicole took to wandering and howling and running and everything that she knew could get her into a world of trouble. But a cage was a cage and Nicole was what she was. And besides, she had come to realize that some things were best kept from Nedley.

While she’d heard those other aching howls in the past, wandering around the wilderness without a Nedley to call home, she’d not heard it so close until the harvest moon in the fall.

It was like looking in a warped mirror, when they first met. He was even more massive than Nicole – even longer razor-sharp teeth, massive heaving barrel chest and the kind of face that even Nicole took a step back from. His hackles raised and Nicole froze, taking little shuffling steps backwards on her four feet, thinking how good it was that she was a fast runner. She wouldn’t have stood a chance against the beast at the other end of the clearing in any kind of fight, fair or otherwise.

Nicole flattened closer to the ground in what she hoped was a nonthreatening manner and waited for one of them to blink.

But the beast did just about the last thing Nicole ever would’ve thought possible.

The beast changed back.

Just like that.

His bones snapped and shrank, he grunted and spit and pushed up on two legs again, cracking his neck and tilting hawkish eyes to watch Nicole carefully. Even one-third his original size, Nicole still cowered.

How in the hell had he managed that?

The man ran a hand down his patchy beard and back up his half-shaved head with a long groan of satisfaction. “Well, now,” he said, real smooth and dangerous. “I don’t believe we’ve met.” His hands went behind his back, business-like as he approached across the clearing. “And that can’t possibly be the case, when you’re on my land.

Oh shoot.

Nicole backed up a bit farther and wished she could say words at him.

“Shift back and we can resolve this…” the man grinned wickedly, “misunderstanding.”

Shift back? That couldn’t have been right. That wasn’t possible.

The man’s eyes flashed red and something dark passed over his face. “Shift back,” he commanded, closing the distance between them in long strides.

Nicole flattened against the ground in an effort to appear apologetic and whined. When he stood over her, she whined louder. He opened his mouth with a snarl, but seemed to choke it back at the last second and furrowed his brow.

“You-“ he paused and took her in a little longer. “You can’t,” he finally realized, eyes growing wide with genuine surprise. “Oh, you-“ he took a longer look. “Shit!” He cursed. “You’re a goddamn mutt!” His anger drifted away from Nicole, despite his rather insulting words, and he seethed at nobody in particular, looking around for someone else to blame.

“Which means,” he finally calmed, eyes narrowing, “That one of my pack has disobeyed a time honored code. It means, someone went ahead and bit you, doesn’t it?”

Nicole didn’t suppose he expected an answer. What with him seeming to know all those things and all. Whatever those things meant.

And that was now she met Bobo Del Rey – leader of Purgatory’s own personal pack of hellions.

 

+++

 

Nicole went to the trailer park sometimes, feelin’ a whole lot like a human in a zoo – what with all the stares that the other hollow-eyed things gave her as she trudged carefully through the camp all the way to the trailer at the back. Bobo was always happy to receive her. Or at least, not unhappy on the surface. Nicole reckoned he pitied her in a not so small way. She was like a lame animal that he’d come to appreciate as a part of the larger backdrop of his life.

He’d go on about the nobility and lineage and time honored code of things like them and other nonsense that Nicole didn’t necessarily understand. Bobo made it very clear that Nicole wasn’t part of that nobility and lineage – what with bein’ a mutt and all. An outsider. An abomination.

And wasn’t that something? Even among monsters Nicole was apparently dirt.

But she’d nod along and he’d have a grand old time hearin’ his own voice.

The stories eventually turned to the dangers things of their kind had faced – hunters and misunderstanding and general bad relations with non-monstrous folk. That story, at least in Purgatory, started and ended with the Earps. One of the noble ancestors had exposed his kind’s existence to a young Wyatt Earp, so beginning the Earp family tradition of slaughtering the beasts of the night. Wyatt passed it along as a sort of duty to all his children and so on and so forth to the current tension between Waverly and Wynonna’s daddy and Bobo’s own little clan.

It made sense, Nicole supposed. Ward had been all too ready to receive her at the end of a shotgun barrel, less surprised and more enraged than anything.

Bobo said they were in a kind of truce at the moment. Or rather, a standoff perhaps. Ward’s health was bad and his guns were old and his drinkin’ was prohibiting the acquisition of expensive silver. So he laid off and Bobo kept his clan clear of Earp property and they all kept one hand on their holsters, just in case.

Nicole was always left with a grave warning when she departed the park:

“If you attack someone on my land,” Bobo would say darkly, “we will tear your arms off and drown you in your own blood.”

Nicole would nod.

“And if you bite someone,” he would pause dramatically, “you won’t be able to find a god in the heavens or below that can save you from the wrath that will rain down upon you.”

“You are a guest on my land,” he’s say, just a bit more diplomatically, “and I respect that you did not choose this. But order will reign.”

Nicole agreed.

Better than the alternative.

So, Nicole had people. In a way. But she wasn’t their people.

Her visits were infrequent.

 

+++

 

Despite whatever survival instinct that Nicole imagined she should’ve had about it, Nicole still saw Wynonna often. They’d spoken many times under the bleachers after track, but Wynonna had graduated somehow and it stopped. But Wynonna became even rougher ‘round the edges and soon she was a regular in Nedley’s overnight lockup. Nicole would bring her pretzels and old coffee and listen to her talk from the other side of the bars since they were both stuck there.

“You ever thought about getting out of this town?” Wynonna mused one such night. “Just putting your shoes on and walking away until you were somewhere new?”

“Yes,” Nicole answered honestly, because she’d not only thought it, but tried it. At the time, she’d been running away from herself. She wondered what Wynonna was running from and some part of her also wondered if it weren’t the same thing.

Wynonna nodded and leaned her head back against the concrete wall. There was a bench on one side of the drunk tank, but she was ignoring it in favor of sitting on the floor with her back against the opposite wall, legs outstretched flat in front of her. “It seems that’s all I think about these days. Bein’ here just makes my skin crawl.”

“In lockup?”

“In Purgatory,” Wynonna corrected. “It’s like I’m allergic to this town and I’m pretty sure it’s allergic to me too.”

Nicole nodded, trying hard to understand. And she felt like she did, but only halfway. “I think I feel that way sometimes too.”

“Yeah?”

Nicole nodded again. “Sure. Sometimes I think I just don’t belong nowhere, though. So if I don’t belong nowhere, then I can’t imagine leavin’ Purgatory is gonna help me none. It’s not the town. I think it’s me.”

It kinda came out nonsense, but Wynonna nodded too, slow and thoughtful like she’d gotten it anyways.

“Well, maybe it’s just me too,” Wynonna said quietly. After a while, she looked down at where her nails were scratching at a scuff in the cement and continued just as quiet. “But then, ain’t it worth a shot?”

“What?”

“Ain’t it worth leaving just to make sure it’s me?” She asked, almost pleaded like Nicole had any answers. “I mean, if there’s even a small chance that leaving could make me happy, shouldn’t I go for it?” When Nicole didn’t answer, she plowed on ahead gaining steam. “My family’s been stuck on this land all my life and many lives before me. I feel like we’re trapped chasin’ nonsense. We’ve got this grand sense of duty that’s crucified us to this shitty five acres of nothing. We’re chasin’ ghosts so damn slow we don’t even know we’re becoming ones ourselves.”

Nicole bobbed her head, trying to seem more earnest than lost.

“My daddy says we gotta stay here and watch over this town. Says there’s monsters here. Monsters, Nicole! Real monsters with fangs and claws and a taste for human flesh and it’s an Earp’s duty to hunt them.”

Imagine that.

“Sounds…farfetched,” Nicole tried meekly.

Wynonna scoffed. “It does, doesn’t it? But,” she swallowed hard several times, then shot Nicole a dirty look like she already knew Nicole was gonna poke fun before Wynonna even got her words out. “But I’ve seen them. I’ve seen what they can do, I’ve seen what they are.”

Nicole nodded dumbly.

“You don’t have to believe me,” Wynonna continued, “but no matter how mean and how bullheaded my daddy can be, I know he’s not crazy. Least not ‘bout the monsters.” She folded her hands in her lap and sighed, letting the back of her head drop against the wall, closing her eyes. “But I can’t help but wonder, why’s it gotta be our job? Why are they my problem? Hasn’t my family suffered enough?”

After what felt like an age of heavy silence, Nicole cleared her throat. “Sounds awful lonely.”

“Hm?”

“Sounds awful lonely – keepin’ secrets and hunting monsters for a town that don’t know enough to be thankful,” Nicole offered, feeling like it wasn’t enough for what Wynonna had confided in her.

Wynonna shrugged wearily. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Well, what do I know.” Nicole re-crossed her legs since they’d started going to sleep. “Maybe leaving will make you feel better. Maybe it’s worth a shot.”

Wynonna laughed mirthlessly. “Maybe.”

They snacked on more pretzels, quiet and stewing.

 

+++

 

Ward Earp hired Nicole after basketball season to take care of the chickens and the small wheat field the Earps maintained out back. Wynonna wouldn’t do it and Waverly was still in school and Ward was too deep in monster huntin’ and whiskey drinkin’ for any farming. Nicole had responded to a scribbled wanted ad hanging outside the station, itching for some cash to save for a car of her own. She couldn’t drive. But it never hurt to plan for the future.

Mr. Earp didn’t talk much, didn’t interview her much, and didn’t question her much. She showed up clutching the flier and he asked her if she could lift hay bales. Nicole had no idea if she could, but when she said yes, he’d given her a big ring of keys and showed her briefly around the property, pointing out what he wanted done three days per week.

It was easy cash, though it weren’t very much. Nedley wasn’t too keen on it, seein’ as he didn’t much care for Mr. Earp. Nicole wasn’t too fond of him neither – he snapped at his girls, smelled of tobacco spit, and, oh yeah, had shot her several years back – but it wasn’t like she had to see him that much. He kept to him and Nicole kept to her and it all worked fine.

The chickens liked her and the work was physical. It felt good tossing the bales around, mending fences, rolling barrels, and generally stretching muscle. With her season over, she was restless again. But long evenings on the farm wore her down and let her sleep soundly.

“Hello ladies,” Nicole greeted the chickens as always, bending down to bop one of the girls on her soft head. She clucked a bit and strutted out of reach, only a little offended. “Chow time.”

She spread a bit of corn feed in the dirt, which was set upon immediately. Nicole shooed them away for a bit to set down the little aluminum pan with chopped vegetables that she’d brought for them. She’d read that diversity was important in their diets. Ward didn’t much care about that, but Nicole was rather fond of them.

“Evangeline, be nice. Genevieve ain’t got any apples yet,” she warned, like they could actually hear her. “That ain’t no way for a lady to behave.” Of course, morphing into a giant man-eating monster once a month was also no way for a lady to behave, but chickens didn’t have no sense of hypocrisy.

“Do they ever talk back?”

Nicole looked over her shoulder to where Waverly was leaning against the front porch railing, watching her earn her paycheck. She teased often when she was around. But bein’ a devoted student, head of her cheer squad, and general social butterfly kept her booked. She wasn’t around often.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Nicole returned, stepping carefully through the clucking hens swarmed at her feet.

Waverly laughed. “I would.”

“I know better than to tell a lady’s secret.”

“They’re chickens.”

“They’re ladies and they have names.”

Waverly laughed again, delighted. “They do not. Daddy said never to name ‘em. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

Nicole pointed authoritatively at the chickens, in order. “Henrietta, Evangeline, Constantine, Pamela, Genevieve, Mrs. Buttersworth, Ruthy, Joan of Arc, Honey Nut Cheerios, Alexandra the Great, and Chevy Camaro.”

“I have no words.”

Nicole nodded, satisfied. “’Cause I made you eat ‘em.”

“I have so many questions, though.” Waverly drifted down to stand at Nicole’s side, smiling sweetly at her, even though Nicole was a dirty mess from tilling. “The most important question, by far though, is what the rooster’s name is.”

“Colonel David Crockett.”

Waverly crouched down to run her hands down the chickens’ backs as they scurried around, largely ignoring their presence in the hunt for food. “Who’s that?”

“Well, he’s a chicken, Waverly.”

“No,” she giggled, “who’s he named after?”

“You ain’t ever seen The Alamo?” At Waverly’s blank look, Nicole scoffed. “It’s a John Wayne movie. You really ain’t seen it? You’re missing out.”

Waverly leaned against a nearby hitching post – which was funny because Nicole didn’t imagine the Earps had hitched anything in the last fifty years, ‘cept maybe their cursed children. “We could watch it some time. Assuming they have it at the Sunnyside Video. But then, I’m a little bit pretty sure they only carry stuff from the 70s. And most of the cases have had their discs replaced with porn from the senior prank four years ago,” she rambled, tugging at the end of her hair.

Nicole blinked at her and tossed another handful of feed that hit Mrs. Buttersworth right on her fuzzy head. “You…wanna watch it? With me?”

“I mean, only if you want to,” Waverly kicked at the dirt.

Nicole threw even more seed at Mrs. Buttersworth’s head, earning an indignant squawk. “Only if you want to,” Nicole countered.

“I don’t – if you don’t want to, I-“

“I mean, I do,” Nicole countered, throwing so much seed on the ground that the ladies had started to edge away nervously. “I do.”

“Oh!” Waverly twisted her fingers together. “I do too. I – yeah. I do.”

“Well alright then.”

 

+++

 

Mid-year, the track captain threw a big old party after a Wednesday track meet, which didn’t seem all that smart to Nicole. They all had class the next day. And Nicole enjoyed her solid seven hours of sleep. But when she tried to point this out to a few of her teammates, they all laughed real hard, slapped her on the back and promised to see her there.

So she supposed it wasn’t attendance optional.

The party itself was like one giant episode of déjà vu.  The beer was awful and just a little too warm for Nicole to even pretend it was enjoyable. The music was loud, her teammates were boisterous and kept on slappin’ her back, as they always did. At one point, someone handed her a little shot glass with something amber in it and demanded she throw it back in one go or she was a pussy. Nicole supposed she wasn’t a pussy. Although, her mind kept flashing back to her warm bed at Nedley’s house and she thought maybe she was a little pussy.

She threw the shot back, stone-faced and carefully blank even though it burned her throat all the way down and deep into her stomach. It tasted awful and sat like poison.

Everyone cheered hard and there was more back slapping.

They began chanting her name and someone brought her another little glass of amber and Nicole thought, oh boy. Should’ve been a pussy.

She shrugged and tossed it back, stoic in the middle of dancing, cheering, slappin’ classmates. And then Madeline was there again, somehow – she ain’t even in track – and she had her hands all twisted in Nicole’s jersey and was kissing her hard and inelegant. She’d switched lipgloss and this one was less peach and more watermelon. It was all for show, Nicole thought. Madeline moved against her like she’d seen one too many teenage party movies.

Not that Nicole was complaining. I mean – come on.

When Madeline pushed her back, Nicole realized everyone was cheering. That struck her as strange, because she ain’t ever heard of someone cheering for the small town queer. But then she took stock, licked the watermelon from her lips, and found that the guys were leering and the girls were tittering and-

Ah.

It was just a joke to them. A teenage novelty, something taboo and fun to punch-drunk whoop about. It weren’t a great feeling. But Nicole was nothing if not a survivor.

She grinned wide and cheered with them, deciding that it was better to fit in than be herself. That’s what bein’ in high school was about, right? Killing as many parts of yourself as you could live with until every group gathering was like standing in a fun house mirror room of sameness.

So she drank too much even though it was all awful, let herself be swept along by back slaps and sameness. When the night got real deep – exactly half a silver dollar of moon in the sky – Nicole let herself be cornered in Michael Tite’s kitchen pantry by an equally drunk Madeline and kissed hard until their hands got a little too bold. Madeline was sloppy, though, so Nicole pulled the girl’s hands off her and walked her home.

Madeline wouldn’t want her in the morning when there weren’t cheerin’ and alcohol, so Nicole decided she wouldn’t let herself want that. Nicole might’ve been gay, and Madeline might’ve been awful pretty, but Nicole was more than a rebellious teenage party favor.

 

+++

Chapter Text

And they hurt you bad, man they hurt me too

But i'm not about to sit here and watch

as they suck the blood from my wound

-Ezra Furman (2018)

 

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Work on the Earp homestead became a sanctuary for Nicole. It turned out that minding a tiny hay crop and a group of well-bred and well-behaved ladies weren’t actually all that time-consuming. So, uninvited, Nicole took to making her own jobs around the homestead. Seein’ as she’d already done it before, Nicole took to redoing the whole fence around the property. She liked the hard work, the making of something with her own hands.

Mr. Earp only made one appearance that she could recall. He had paused to take in the half of the fence that’d been replaced – taller, thicker posts and more sturdy than the homestead had probably seen in a long while. He’d narrowed his eyes, taken one disinterested look at Nicole, then grunted and went inside to disappear in his study.

Nicole hadn’t necessarily been expecting a thank you, but-

Okay, she had been expecting a thank you a little bit. But Mr. Earp was a hard man to impress. At least he hadn’t hollered at her for it. She hadn’t exactly asked permission.

But Mr. Earp ignored her mostly. Wynonna drifted in and out of the homestead, gone sometimes for days at a time. If she were in a good mood, she’d set up dusty glass bottles on the fence near where Nicole was working and shoot at them with a big gun, spooking Nicole half to death and amusing Wynonna to no end. They didn’t talk a whole lot, but then Nicole didn’t think neither of them were very good talkers.

Waverly was a busy bee – Nicole didn’t see her a whole lot. But she’d come by sometimes with cold water or homemade lemonade or little sandwiches and lean against the new parts of the fence asking’ all sorts of questions. She hyperfocused when Nicole sampled the food and drinks, watching it disappear in Nicole’s mouth like she was afraid something might go wrong on the way. Nicole would offer her compliments and eat it all, and that just seemed to delight the girl to no end.

“It can’t be all that interesting watchin’ me put up a fence,” Nicole had said one such day. She’d wiped the sweat from her forehead with the old loose tanktop she’d stolen from Nedley – “back when I was a trimmer, gym-er man,” he’d said – and hauled one of the massive posts over her back, against her shoulder. When she’d dropped it down in the post hole with a satisfying thunk, she looked back to find Waverly staring hard.

Waverly had come back to herself and looked down at her feet, embarrassed at being caught staring. “I don’t know. I think it’s interesting.”

So she watched sometimes. Waverly, who spoke four languages at that point, was top of her class, and about as popular as they came, found fence post diggin’ interesting. To each their own, Nicole supposed.

After the fence, Nicole started in on re-siding the barn and painting it. That was a bit harder, seein’ as she ain’t ever done such a thing before. Nedley offered advice and pointers and Nicole got in good with Chuck at Chuck’s hardware. He weren’t the Chuck it was named after – he was Chuck Shaw the fifth. Chuck Shaw senior had started the store way back before wood were invented, probably. But Chuck the fifth had good advice and always threw a discount her way. The barn was well underway by the start of spring.

Basketball had ended, track had started up again and life was good.

 

+++

 

Bobo was a distant blip on Nicole’s radar – she didn’t feel welcomed at the trailer park anyhow. So when he showed up at the end of the gravel road that led to Nedley’s house, hands stuffed in an unseasonable coat and face grim, Nicole was nothing less than surprised – grimly surprised. Bobo had always been too busy to come to her. If Nicole wanted quality time with others, she’d had to go to Bobo.

But there he was and there Nicole was and she supposed it had to have been important.

“Bobo,” she greeted carefully.

He dipped his head briefly in greeting. “Hey, mutt.”

“Were you waitin’ for me?” She hoisted her old backpack higher on her shoulder and scuffed her shoe against the gravel.

“Follow me,” he said in lieu of an answer.

Nicole figured she weren’t really worth fightin’ him on it and was curious besides, so she dropped her bag on the porch and trailed on his heels off into the long grass, into the wilds of Alberta.

They walked forever just about. Forever and then some. Miles and miles until the sun sank low and fat like a big sigh and an undone belt just above the Rockies. As they approached a stony outcrop, Nicole started hearing some low murmurs and smelled blood in the air. It made her own blood run cold and she had a few moments to consider that maybe she oughtn’t have trusted Bobo so far as to follow him to nowhere. He was dangerous.

But when they rounded a big boulder, she froze at the sight of two men gathered somberly around a big hulking thing, collapsed on the ground. The beast was still, frozen in death with flies buzzing around his teeth and blood already congealed thick around its hide and between his teeth.

The two men watched them approach wary, but silent in their presence. Nicole thought she recognized them from the trailer park, but she couldn’t say for certain.

“She’s dead,” Bobo confirmed, as though he thought maybe Nicole couldn’t tell. “Killed.” Bobo beckoned her closer, but Nicole stayed put. She didn’t want to see.

“What happened?” She asked quietly, like she was afraid if she spoke to loud the flies would scatter and the mountains would close in.

Bobo beckoned more insistently until Nicole felt compelled, and closed the distance. “Look,” he demanded, almost cold. “Look what they do to our kind.”

Big, gaping shogun blasts were torn in the creature’s chest, no longer leaking but swarmed with engorged horseflies. The beast’s throat had been sliced wide open with something jagged and sharp, all its life spilled out under its big head. Glassy eyes considered them, watched them. A turkey vulture called overhead.

“Who’s they?” Nicole asked.

“Hunters. Earps,” he mused. After a beat, “monsters.”

“Thought we were the monsters.”

Bobo laughed through his nose. “Maybe.”

Nicole felt faint in the sideways evening sun. “What happened?”

“Same thing that always happens,” Bobo shrugged. “Ward Earp got in his big truck, he shucked some silver buckshot in his gun, and he drove around looking for one of us alone. Mary wasn’t special. She was just alone.”

“Silver?”

“Makes us weak,” Bobo clarified. “Lets him get in real close for the kill.”

Nicole swallowed hard, feeling more ill by the second. It was strange seeing another thing like her, in the hard light of day, naked and exposed in a weird way. It was like seein’ a school teacher in the grocery store.

“Why do they kill you?”

Bobo actually smiled at that, sad and more genuine than Nicole could ever recall him looking. “I dunno. Why do we kill them?” He sighed and looked up at the turkey vulture circling. “And it’s us, mutt. Why do they kill us.”

Nicole wasn’t so sure why Bobo showed her the corpse, but he didn’t speak much more on it. They all trekked back late into the night. When it got dark, the two men shifted and ran off without them. Bobo stayed on two legs and walked Nicole back to Nedley’s house.

“Y’all are just gonna leave her out there?” Nicole wondered as they spotted Nedley’s porchlight in the distance.

Bobo nodded. “Our kind returns to the land when we can. We’ll tend the bones. But she’s part of that land. She’s part of the flies and the worms and the hawks and the tumbleweeds. It’s how we rest.”

+++

 

And Nicole knew it was a bad idea – knew it would put Nedley in an early grave if he found out – but when the moon was a big fat silver dollar in the sky, she still squeezed out under the rabbit hole in Nedley’s fence and hastened to the Earp property. It was dangerous and just plain stupid, especially since she’d seen and felt Mr. Earp’s deadly vendetta. She knew the nonnegotiable hostility he had for what she was. It was crawlin’ right into a tiger’s mouth.

But she also knew that the kind of quiet ache of her big, ugly heart when she got to curl up in the warm, dusty barn with the moon shining bright through the slats and the chickens clucking softly against her pelt weren’t the kind of addiction you kick with little logical bargains you strike in your head.

And what chance did she stand against those little visits that Waverly could bestow upon her? Sometimes it was just little gifts of pillows or well-loved quilts in the hay or even big raw steaks set on comically frilly china – little offerings that felt like the world itself. But other times, it was the girl herself, soft and sleepy that late. She’d sneak in all furtive, probably just as afraid of her daddy as Nicole was, and then she’d sit real close and talk and talk and talk. She’d talk about Helen of Troy, she’d talk about the Crusades, she’d talk about Pompeii and biomedical engineering and the constellations she just couldn’t pinpoint. There wasn’t a thing that Nicole didn’t enjoy hearing.

Waverly weren’t the cuddly little girl from years long passed. She was more careful, more reserved. She’d sit kinda close and once in a million dollar moon, she’d reach out and touch Nicole’s ears just to make sure the whole thing wasn’t in her beautiful mind. Those nights were rare – usually the product of some upset in Waverly’s little world. And Nicole felt a bit bad about that – the way Waverly’s emotions would dictate how careful she was with something that she had every reason to be careful about. But then, Nicole couldn’t help but feel she was providing a service: complete devoted attention to Waverly’s thoughts and feelings.

And so it went.

Nicole would sneak out, soothe her hungry soul and skulk back home before the sun climbed over the Rockies, Nedley none the wiser.

It was near the end of a wicked hot summer, the moon just a fat spetre behind big rolling clouds, heavy with the promise of rafter shaking thunder when Nicole squeezed from under her fence, ran the distance to the Earp homestead, and came upon madness.

The barn was on fire. That big, beautiful barn. The barn Nicole had dedicated the better part of five months makin’ handsome.

Five goddamn months.

The chickens were screaming somewhere in the distant, far side of the property. Nicole’s equally handsome new fence had a gaping forty foot breach, smashed to bits and singed like it was nothin’. Nicole’s heart thundered and she pawed cautiously through the breach, swiveling ears and sharp eyes searching for the source of the distress.

She was trotting quietly through the hay patch when she heard it.

One long, aching howl. Close.

Nicole froze, thinking things couldn’t have gotten much worse.

Until a chorus of howls joined its leader, rending the night with an eerie ringing. Nicole sank further into the grass, mostly terrified and frozen in her tracks. Every nerve in her body was urging her to turn tail and flee back to Nedley’s fence, wriggle under it, and wait out whatever strange curse had befallen the Earp property that night.

Instead, she forced her feet forward one at a time on a slow collision course with the barn. The glow from its smoldering beams and peeling lacquer bureds red and deep against the smoky clouds. Thunder began heaving and rolling slow and thick across the sky in a big grim swell. When she got close enough to the barn, she spotted at least twenty big, hulking creatures pawing the ground and huffing their impatience, clearly discomforted by the proximity of the blaze. It was easy to spot the biggest of them – all deep brown fur spotted haphazardly with white across his muzzle, chock full of wicked fangs. She’d seen that creature before. Once, across a clearing.

Bobo snapped at the heels of one of the other beasts and they started thundering off in the direction Nicole had come. She stayed low, afraid of any encounter. She probably weren’t supposed to be there.

Before Bobo and the last two of his kind could take their leave, the front door of the Earp house burst open, slamming aginst the side of the house hard enough to break it. Mr. Earp came out in naught but old jeans and big, untied boots. A wicked looking sawed off was trained right at Bobo and his men.

“Robert!” Mr. Earp roared, pumping the gun and holding it fast.

Bobo shifted smoothly onto two legs, cracking his neck and running a hand through his sparse hair. “Ward,” he called back, calm and deadly.

Mr. Earp blasted a shot that hit the side of the barn near Bobo’s head. “We were in a truce!” He spat. “You all took my daughter - killed her right here on Earp dirt before she was even of age!” Another blast rocked the ground and Nicole cowered, desperate to leave but unwilling to move. “I could’ve sent you all to hell! I could’ve rained hellfire down on that trash camp! I could’ve taken your children and watered my crops with their blood!”

Nicole was about to piss herself, but couldn’t help but think that was a little rich. Ward Earp ain’t ever watered any crops on Earp property. Nicole did all that.

“Is this what you want?” He screamed, spittle flying from his teeth and eyes rimmed red with drink. “Is this how it’s going to be?”

Bobo regarded him blankly. “You know why this is the way things are,” he said. “You know why I’m here and why this barn is on fire.” His two remaining watchmen thundered away while Bobo turned his back, preparing to do the same. Before shifting back, though, he turned to eye Mr. Earp one last time. “For Mary,” he said softly. And then his limbs were snapping and his teeth got long and wicked and he stood proud and monstrous against the backlight of the barn.

Mr. Earp was screaming like a slow-slaughtered bull, awful and ugly to hear. Bobo slipped away silently while Mr. Earp heaved and splintered apart.

Long moments passed with only the awful sounds Mr. Earp was makin’ and the splintering of Chuck’s best cherry wood, hissing and popping occasionally as it consumed itself. Thunder rumbled right over it all. Nicole thought she could also hear her own teeth chattering.

These moments passed as such until Waverly peeked out the front door in sleep pants and a loose tank top, hair ruffled and eyes wide with fear. “Daddy?” She questioned at a whisper. “What’s going on?”

The thunder got grumblier and white noise was rushing in Nicole’s ears and everything happened so fast and so removed, like watching old film in the back of the theatre. There was some argument: Mr. Earp was all riled and mean and Waverly was backing away slowly. Nicole couldn’t hear it all, but suddenly Waverly’d been slapped hard, falling in the dirt on her rear end right off the porch and scooting away fearfully while Mr. Earp advanced.

It was all so hazy.

But like a hairpin trigger, Nicole was there staring down into red, mean eyes and roaring spittle in his face from where he gaped up at her. She snapped her horrible teeth at him and stared at the manic thump of his pulse and wanted to taste it.

People were screaming behind her, calling names and crying. Nicole licked her teeth and growled, pressing thick claws hard into Mr. Earp’s shoulders and leaning close to imprint fear so hard in his soul he wouldn’t live a single day hence without a cold shiver up the back of his neck.

A man that raised a hand against his daughter was forfeit.

Something angry and hot seared in Nicole’s side and she recoiled, pushing off Mr. Earp’s chest and shrinking back with a whimper. Her flank was on fire and she limped backward with an odd mix of growl and whine.

Mr. Earp pushed up on his knees, bearing the knife he’d pulled from seemingly nowhere, now dripping with Nicole’s blood and wicked against the glow of the nearby fire. He was smiling somethin’ awful, crazed and more monstrous than Nicole thought she’d ever looked. He pushed to his feet while Nicole’s back leg gave out and advanced, slow and predatory.

“Daddy, stop!” Waverly cried somewhere close by.

It was a nice sentiment.

Nicole fell back and Mr. Earp came closer, gaining ground so quick Nicole was sure she wouldn’t have enough time for her life to flash before her eyes. It was going to have to be a bit abridged.

“Daddy, please don’t. It was just trying to protect me. Please don’t!”

Mr. Earp’s expression darkened and he pointed the knife in Waverly’s direction. “You’ll get yours too, girl,” he warned.

And then it was over.

A shotgun blast split the night – split that grumbling thunder right in half. Mr. Earp staggered back, patting at the blast in his chest like he couldn’t figure out what it was. He sank to his knees, blinking up at his middle child, backlit by the front porch light. Wynonna had tears streamin’ down her cheeks, but held that gun firm. She didn’t waver.

Mr. Earp fell back dead.

Waverly screamed.

Nicole pushed up on her feet, pushed past that unconquerable pain burning up her body. She tried to limp backwards and another shotgun blast struck the dirt at her feet. Wynnona’s face was heartbroken, but her grip was firm and the barrel was aimed pointedly between Nicole’s eyes.

And then Waverly’ was cryin’ and beggin’ and it just seemed to Nicole like everything was bein’ said in a different language. Everything was jumbled and it all sounded like the thunder around them. But through the wordless beggin’ and cryin’ and shoutin’, Nicole heard one thing.

Wynonna was standing in front of Nicole, shotgun lowered to her feet, Waverly clinging and pounding at Wynonna’s back. Tears were falling thick down Wynonna’s face and she looked hard right into Nicole’s eyes.

“Go,” she said, full of so much hate Nicole wondered if she’d ever come back from it. Wondered if anyone came back from that sort of thing.

But she went.

 

+++

Chapter Text

"I can't come to your party,

'cause I think that I'm dead."

-Maurine, Say Hi (2009)

 

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17

+++

 

 

Waverly weren’t in school for the first week of the new year, but then Nicole weren’t neither.

 

+++

 

Nedley was sure it wasn’t the flu around day ten, but Nicole was adamant. She even started goin’ out back to shoot baskets on the little slab of cement court Nedley had poured for her.

It was agony.

It was agony because Nedley was right. It weren’t no flu.

Mr. Earp’s knife must’ve been silver or something equally poisonous, because the cut festered and burned and made her blood sick. She’d spent the last ten days in a cold, shiverin’ mess of sweat and heaving nausea, tossing and turning in bed and attempting strong smiles when Nedley came to check on her. She was adamant about staying away from the hospital and she kept clothes over her wound. If Nedley found out about the cut, she’d have to come clean about the sneaking out and that horrid night at the Earp homestead.

So she hid it.

When Nedley went to work, she’d clean the wound with alcohol and fresh gauze and pray it got better before it killed her. It was deep and an angry blister red – probably needed stitches. But ain’t no way in hell she was gonna attempt that.

So she missed school when it started back up, sick as a dog from the infection and the secrets. It hurt to lie to Nedley, but she’d let him down so bad. He’d never trust her again if he knew.

And besides all that, her mind chased itself in circles, playing back that night in Technicolor detail. She kept flashing back to the terror in Mr. Earp’s eyes, the taste of his fear on her tongue, the feeling of his thready pulse thundering under her.

The look on Wynonna’s face.

The look on Waverly’s face.

Round and round it went, makin’ her sicker than ever.

 

+++

 

But then, about five days after school started up again, Nicole took a major turn for the better. The chills dissipated, the wound stopped oozing and began to scar over, and the fever and nausea faded to nothing.

By the second Monday of school, she was ready to go back. The scar was nasty – probably wouldn’t be half as ugly if she’d gotten stitches. But that was neither here nor there.

Some of her teammates welcomed her back in the hallways – lots of back slappin’ as always. One or two teachers hailed her to ask how she’d been. It didn’t take long, though, for her to start hearing the rumors and the whispers about Waverly. Whispers about how Wynonna had killed her daddy and ran off. Whispers about how her aunt and uncle were stayin’ at the homestead with her. Whispers about her crazy family.

Waverly weren’t in school.

 

+++

 

The next week came and went and Waverly might as well have never existed.

 

+++

 

It was a small school, so even though Waverly was two grades below her, it was inevitable that they’d see each other eventually. Nicole’s gym class was busy playin’ Frisbee, which was dumb, so Nicole had wandered off to run circles around the track. She was a bit slower than normal, unwilling to bust open her wound and smartin’ just a little bit. Coach Simons was her gym teacher, so she didn’t much care what Nicole did as long as she kept kickin’ ass – Coach Simons’ words, not hers.

Waverly’s class was out on the track too, playing soccer in the green on the middle of the track. Nicole watched her kick the ball around halfheartedly while one of her friends tried to make jokes and act normal. Waverly would smile back. Well, more like a grimace.

Nicole only got about ten laps in when her hip hurt too bad to continue and she slowed to a walk. Eventually, Waverly’s friend gave up and kicked the ball elsewhere, leaving Waverly to twiddle her thumbs and stare off into nothing. Nicole didn’t much know what to say to her, but she’d lost her daddy once too, so she made a slow beeline to the edge of the field.

“Hi, Waverly.”

Waverly seemed surprised to see her. “Hi, Nicole. What are you doing here?”

“Frisbee is stupid.”

Waverly smiled wryly. “And running in circles is much better?”

“Much.”

Waverly gave a tired laugh and went back to staring off into the distance.

Nicole gathered her courage. “I’m real sorry about your daddy.”

“Why?” Waverly snorted humorlessly with something bitter and new in her sneer. “He was a mean son of a bitch.”

Nicole nodded slowly, trying to find exactly what Waverly was staring at down across the football field and over the hill. “Well,” she said slowly, “he was still your daddy.”

Waverly sobered and nodded a bit. “Yeah,” she said lamely.

They stood together in silence a bit before Nicole cleared her throat again. “And I’m sorry about Wynnona. I hope she’s alright.”

“She killed him.”

“Still.”

“Yeah.” Waverly’s voice got real soft. “Still.”

 

+++

 

Nicole met Shae sometime during the track season. Shae was pretty, normal, and liked to listen to Nicole talk, however rare that was. She’d transferred that year – right before her senior year, she’d lamented – but had no shortage of friends. She was just likeable. For whatever reason, she thought Nicole was funny even though Nicole ain’t ever told a single joke in her life. Her legs were long, long, long, but her mile time was two minutes worse than Nicole’s.

Nicole, smooth as ever, pointed that out to her. Shae just laughed and told her that not everyone was half dog.

Nicole couldn’t help but agree.

Shae didn’t kiss her drunk in front of twenty people, didn’t cheer for the rebellion of it. She kissed her gently after track practice one day when Nicole pointed out a particular finch that was her favorite.

Nicole didn’t know what she deserved, but if it was something good, than she thought maybe Shae was it.

 

+++

 

No matter what Nicole deserved, she was sure that Waverly Earp deserved the best. Which was why it was so confounding when she started dating some blockhead junior varsity linebacker. Champ Hardy was about as popular as Waverly, good at what he did, and handsome enough. But watching Waverly in the halls with his arm draped over her shoulders was like watching him hold a trophy on his shoulders. It was like being kissed drunk in front of twenty cheering teenagers. It was a show.

And Waverly was a prop.

But, well-

It really weren’t Nicole’s business.

“You gotta show me how you run that fast sometime,” Champ would call out as the track and football team crossed paths on the practice fields. “If I could run as fast as you I’d be unstoppable.”

Nicole smiled wryly. “Just move your feet faster.”

“Right,” he guffawed. “I’ll catch you one day,” he joked. “Ain’t nothin’ Champ Hardy can’t do.”

Including refer to himself in the first person.

“’Cept maybe please a woman,” she muttered.

He might not have heard, already moving on to another social campaign, calling out to someone else and making jokes. But Shae heard and she laughed and laughed and laughed.

Okay, one joke.

 

+++

 

It didn’t take long for the school to notice that Nicole was kissin’ another girl. Often. Shae didn’t care for discretion – and why should she, really. Nicole had never cared very much one way or the other, considerin’ she was a freak either way. It was nice bein’ liked but it was nicer bein’ who she was.

People were a little weird about it, Nicole supposed. Girls looked scared when she was near them, like Nicole was gonna jump ‘em and plant lesbian brain viruses in their ears or something. Nicole weren’t too sure, but they sure acted like it was transmittable. Boys were largely indifferent except to make some jokes sometimes of the inappropriate variety.

But it was hard for anyone to hate her too much when they all liked Shae. Shae was just so damn normal and so damn likeable, that they all wrote her off as a necessary evil. It was kind of like the ugly dog that everyone in town feeds because it’s harmless and they all everyone enjoys feelin’ righteous.

Largely they were left alone, which worked just fine for Nicole.

She kept winning track heats and kept boostin’ the teams numbers, so things went on pretty alright.

And Nicole got Shae out of the deal. She was fun to be around. She knew when to be comfortable in quiet, she complimented Nicole’s hair and “rustic style” – which was really just thrift store patched clothing and Nedley’s old shirts. They’d get milkshakes on Thursdays and nothin’ in particular on Saturdays and she didn’t taste like lipbalm at all. It was just easy and sweet.

 

+++

 

After the last track practice for the fall season, Waverly found her standing under the bleachers smoking a nasty cigarette from one of the stashes Wynonna had left behind. It was awful, but it made her nostalgic for the weird friendship she’d had with her.

“I thought you were smarter than that,” Waverly greeted, grimacing at the smell of cheap menthols.

Nicole coughed and stamped the cigarette under her sneakers. “Yeah? Now why would you think a thing like that?”

“Maybe I hoped a thing like that.”

“Ain’t my fault,” Nicole smiled. “What’re you doing here?”

“Saw Shae in the locker room and she pointed me in this direction. Said you were brooding.”

“Brooding?” Nicole wrinkled her nose. “I’ll have to get her back for that one.”

Waverly blushed and looked down at her white sneakers. “Right. You two- you two are, uh…”

“What?”

“People said you two are…I don’t know what the right word is for, er, people like you,” Waverly said, face coloring further with mortification.

It kinda irked Nicole. “Yes you do,” she said firmly. “Same as you an’ Champ.” Nicole had no idea why she said his name like that, but she couldn’t help it. “You know the word.”

“Oh, uh, right. You two are dating right? Like, you’re…partners?”

“Partners are for cowboys, Waverly. Shae’s my girlfriend.” Nicole looked thoughtfully up through the slats of the bleachers, then grinned and pointed finger guns at Waverly’s blushing face. “And my partner.”

Waverly shook her head and laughed, staring down at her feet. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be so weird. That was rude.”

“Lil’ bit,” Nicole said kindly. “I ain’t any different than I was when we met.”

“Taller,” Waverly joked.

“Somehow.”

Waverly laughed again and the blush lifted from her cheeks. “Right. Well, Shae’s real nice. You’re lucky.”

“I am.”

Waverly looked her right in the eye. “She’s lucky too.”

Nicole shrugged.

“So, Gus wanted me to see if you’re still looking for work. My uncle Curtis is too old to take care of their house and my Daddy’s property. We were hoping you wouldn’t mind coming back to work on the homestead.” Waverly sighed hard. “We can’t pay you too lavishly, though. Daddy didn’t leave us much.”

It was an easy decision.

 

+++

 

Nicole nearly cried the first time she saw the Earp’s big handsome barn all charred out and in ruin. She hadn’t been back to the homestead since the night Wynnona shot her daddy dead – hadn’t ventured outside of the fence even when the full moon pulled somethin’ awful at her soul. The barn was just a charred skeleton, all peeled paint and dark beams too weak to trust.

Chuck was happy to see her. He ordered her lumber and walked her through the latest and greatest in barn repair. Nicole hadn’t ever considered that there might have been people out there passionate about barn repair. But Chuck was balls deep in barn repair passion and Nicole was unwittingly wading in.

The homestead was kinda eerie, though. Waverly only spent some nights there and Gus only dropped by occasionally, so it was mostly just Nicole under the hard beat of the afternoon sun, hauling lumber and digging posts and painting lacquer. Nedley came by occasionally to help, but his back was bad and he mostly just complained. He’d bring ginger beers and offer advice and it was nice.

The fence was fixed first, right through the shockingly mild Purgatory winter. But then basketball started and track started again and she really only had time to stop by to feed the chickens and tend the hay. Waverly was there sometimes. Often Champ was with her, flexing and talking over her while Nicole shook her head and threw feed at Mrs. Buttersworth’s head. Gus shook her head too if she was there. Then they’d make eye contact and head shakin’ became a team sport.

Shae came by a few times to help. Or rather, to distract her and spend time together. Which was fine, Nicole didn’t altogether mind those kinds of distraction. On one such occasion, Waverly was there alone. She’d seemed surprised that Nicole had company. But Shae was good at puttin’ people at ease and pretty soon the two of them were seated on the porch with cold lemonade, feet propped up on the railing like there weren’t a million things to be done.

Nicole rolled her eyes and went back to sawing beams.

“You missed a spot!” Shae called.

Nicole pouted and drew the back of her arm across her forehead. “That don’t even make sense.”

Shae pointed up at the fourth wall of the barn that still gaped open, yet to be erected. Nicole rolled her eyes while Shae laughed and elbowed Waverly for approval.

“So what makes you tick, Waverly Earp?” Shae chatted, digging into the parts of a person they never shared. She was good at that. “What gets you out of bed in the morning?”

“I like history,” Waverly offered. “I like learning things nobody else knows. It makes me feel…big,” she said decisively.

Shae nodded and sipped at her lemonade. “I think god has big plans for you, kid. I can feel it.”

Nicole smiled down at the level she was evening out.

“You’re too nice to me.”

Shae laughed. “I’m the right kinda nice. I should seem mean compared to what Champ oughtta be saying to you.”

“Champ’s not a verbal guy,” Waverly muttered. When Shae only raised an eyebrow gleefully at her, Waverly turned a wild shade of red. “I just meant, he’s not that smart!” Shae laughed harder and Waverly covered her face. “Not – I didn’t mean- ugh!”

“Well, he oughtta be praising the ground you walk,” she stated with all the authority in the land. “Don’t let him get away with anything less.”

Waverly scoffed. “What, like Nicole praises you? She hardly talks.”

Shae grinned. “Nicole!”

“What?”

“Say somethin’ nice about me!”

Nicole cocked her head to the side in thought. “You ain’t ever met a chore you weren’t smart enough to get out of.”

Shae cackled gleefully while Waverly rolled her eyes and laughed. “Besides,” Shae went on, “I don’t need her to compliment me all the time. Watch this: Nicole!”

Nicole smiled, exasperated but fond. “What, Shae?”

“Bring me that sack of corn feed round the back of the barn.”

“Why?”

“Please?”

Nicole shook her head and went to get it. The corn feed came in massive fifty pound sacks. A younger Nicole was hard pressed to drag it twenty yards with her chicken arms and knobby knees. But the sports and the work had brought her around. Now, she could throw the sack right over her shoulders and carry it just about anywhere on the property. It burned in her biceps and right down into the hard cords of muscle in the backs of her shoulders, but it weren’t nothin’ unmanageable.

She came around the side of the barn and right up to the edge of the porch. “Where do you want it?”

Shae was grinning and elbowing Waverly, whose cheeks were as red as the new Cherry wood leaning on the side of the barn. “Just about as good as compliments, no?”

“Aren’t those heavy?” Waverly squeaked.

“Yes.”

“Don’t be a baby,” Shae laughed.

“Shae.”

“Fine, fine! Right over there.”

 

+++

 

It was hard staying in Nedley’s fenced yard during the full moons. She’d howl when the loneliness and the wanderlust got bad enough. But she knew it spooked Nedley and it weren’t exactly keepin’ a low profile.

He came out one night, which was unusual. His fingers danced on the holster of his pistol until he caught Nicole staring pointedly at it. She didn’t blame him, really. She didn’t imagine you ever got used to seein’ something so horrible to look at. She was designed to be terrifying. She was a biologically engineered mechanism for killing.

But Nedley ignored that prey instinct and came down the back porch to sit on the ground next to where Nicole was laying with her big ugly head on two sets of massive claws. He didn’t touch her like Waverly did, but he sat close.

“I’m sorry,” he sighed, rubbing a hand through his thinning hair. “I’m sorry I can’t do much more for you but a cage. I feel like I’m doin’ this all wrong.”

Nicole tried to convey her understanding through naught but a look.

“I’m not actually that worried about you attacking people,” he continued, staring up at the moon like it even had half the pull for him that it had for her. “I’m more worried about people attacking you. Purgatory is full of strange things and it’s kind to none of ‘em. I just want you safe.”

Nicole shuffled over and rested her muzzle on Nedley’s thigh. He jumped a little, his pulse becoming thready and desperate. As much as Nicole wanted to flinch away, take it back, she stayed still. Hoping.

It took a few minutes, but Nedley settled and placed one big hand right between her ears. He was still nervous and a little sweaty, but Nicole couldn’t think of a single thing Nedley’d done for her that meant more than that moment.

 

+++

Chapter Text

If you've got to go somewhere,

then you better go somewhere far.

-EL VY, Return to the Moon (2015)

 

+++

 

Near the end of the year, Nedley sat her down and passed two files across the table. It was a missing persons report. She thumbed through it curiously, reading the short narrative about Brian and Beverly Haught. There were two pictures of each of them attached and Nicole stared hard.

“I think these are your parents,” he said quietly before passing across a third file. “And I think this is you.”

Nicole stared down at a toothless picture of herself, all wild red hair, skinned knees and carefree joy while she held up a bass she’d caught with her father.

“I’m sorry it took so long,” he muttered, rubbing at the back of his head. “Y’all were from the states, and they don’t work so kindly with us most days.” He stopped and straightened in his chair. “Anyways. I don’t know if this changes things for you,” he said with a heavy shrug. “You ain’t ever mentioned you knew your last name – I know you don’t wanna talk about it – but you probably knew all this already. I know you were old enough to remember, I just thought maybe you’d want…” he trailed off, gesturing with vague discomfort, “closure?”

She didn’t respond right away, just gently sifting through reports about where they’d last been seen, how tall her dad was and the tattoo on her mother’s back. It was like realizin’ you knew something but you ain’t know where you know it from. “I…didn’t remember,” she admitted, quietly. “I didn’t remember my last name. I didn’t remember them neither.”

“Oh,” Nedley breathed, knotting his fingers together so tight his knuckles blanched. Then he started talkin’ real quick and nervous. “I don’t know if you wanted to try and find any distant relatives or anything. I wasn’t able to find any within a reasonable sepearation, but I don’t know everything. And I know it’s probably not glamorous livin’ with me and wearing old clothes. And I know I don’t wash the dishes enough and I know I’m bad at cookin’ and I know-“

“Does this mean I have to leave?”

Nedley choked on his words like they were something tangible in his mouth. “What?”

“Do I gotta leave now?” Nicole whispered. “D’you want me to leave?”

“No!” Nedley stood so fast his chair clattered backwards behind him. “No! God, no. I don’t want you to leave. I just thought-“

“Please don’t make me leave.”

Nedley yanked her by the wrist into a hug that smelled like tobacco and sweat.

 

+++

 

Nicole didn’t leave.

 

+++

 

But Shae did.

Her parents weren’t thrilled with the area and they packed up their two big pickup trucks with everything except the furniture they’d bought and made Shae say goodbye to her “friend”. The summer had barely started.

“I’m real sorry, Nicole.”

Nicole smiled sadly. “Ain’t your fault.”

“Doesn’t mean I’m not sorry.”

“Me too,” Nicole said, and meant it. They’d been given a week’s notice and it weren’t enough. But then, what would’ve been enough?

They didn’t dwell on the end of it too much. They just got milkshakes and sat in comfortable silence and had lemonade on Waverly’s porch and on one hot, windy night, Shae asked Nicole to lay her down on her rented bed and make love to her. Nicole didn’t much know what that meant, but she knew that Shae had been a big wonderful part of that year and that she deserved it all.

So Nicole did.

And despite everything that’d told her otherwise, she’d never really felt more human. But then maybe it was a human fallacy thinkin’ that love and heartache were just their own. Maybe.

 

+++

 

It rained hard that summer in Purgatory. Never really seemed to stop. But Nicole was lonely and bored and felt like her hands were supposed to be doin’ something, so she worked right through the rain. She redid the Earp’s porch, sewed a vegetable garden, made a duck pond, and parented a new brood of eleven handsome baby chickens. Two of ‘em were roosters and she sold ‘em off in town when they’d grown. She’d only teared up a little. The others all received names (Butch Cassidy, Edna, the chicken formerly known as Prince, Captain Crunch, Mrs. Buttersworth Junior, Antoinette, Nickels, Miller Lite, and Princess Diana), roosts, and all the love Nicole had time to give them.

Waverly stopped by less and less, consumed with her new life with Gus and Curtis and the wealth of friends she’d inherited as Champ’s girlfriend. She’d only stopped by to pick up a few things when she found Nicole hammerin’ away at new roof shingles in the torrential afternoon showers common that season.

“Nicole!”

Nicole nearly slipped and died. “Jesus! You almost made me fall.”

“Well I certainly didn’t put you up on my roof in the middle of a hurricane.”

Nicole shook her head and laughed. “Alright, that’s fair. What’re you doin’ here?”

“This is my house.”

“You know what I mean.”

Waverly rolled her eyes. “I’m just getting a few things.”

Nicole blew water from her upper lip and grunted in acknowledgement. She reached behind her for the hammer she’d hooked on a shingle. Her hand groped a bit, not finding anything. Her heel pivoted to reach further, but slipped and suddenly she was the kinda girl who fell off roofs like an idiot.

Everything spun and she whacked her elbow on the gutter and then she was freefalling and landing hard on her back in the thick mud on the side of the house. Waverly was screaming while Nicole groaned and spat mud.

She was there real quick, fretting and smoothing muddy hair from Nicole’s forehead. She was talkin’ a lot but Nicole was too busy dying.

“Follow my finger!”

“Whu?”

Follow it, Nicole!”

“What the hell are you goin’ on about?” Nicole demanded, pushing up on her elbows to sit up.

Waverly put her finger down, apologetic but still a little frantic. “Sorry, I don’t know. I’m freaking out. Holy crap, are you okay?”

“Ugh.”

Waverly grabbed Nicole’s face, soothing hair back and cradling her gently. “Say something, would you? Should I drive you to the hospital?”

Two hazy Waverly’s swam in and out of focus and Nicole grimaced. “Er, probably.”

 

+++

 

It was a concussion. Waverly held her hand the whole time and Nicole wasn’t sure for whose benefit it was.

“Y’alright, Waverly?” Nicole asked on their way out of the hospital.

Waverly drummed her fingers nervously on the steering wheel of her jeep. “Me? You’re the one who fell off my roof.”

“I’m alright now. I’m askin’ about you.”

She smiled sardonically. “I’m alright.”

“That weren’t a very good ‘alright’ face.”

Waverly’s face soured even further. “You don’t know me, Nicole.”

Nicole shrugged. “I know you enough.”

“Well isn’t that great. I feel like I don’t know you hardly at all.”

“Ain’t much to know,” she said honestly. But Waverly looked skeptical, so she dug around for something. “I just found out my last name is Haught,” she offered.

“Hot?”

“Haught.”

“That is literally what I just said.”

“I dunno, I just had the strange feelin’ you were sayin’ it wrong.”

Waverly sighed and drummed harder at the steering wheel. “How did you not know your last name? What last name were you using all these years?”

Nicole could usually read Waverly’s mood based on how erratic her driving was. She weren’t too good at leavin’ the passion out of road safety. They swerved dangerously around a truck goin’ too slow, passing him in the lane for oncoming traffic. “I just didn’t have a last name,” Nicole shrugged. “Just Nicole.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Waverly grit out between clenched teeth as they hit a speed bump that felt suspiciously like an entire deer.

“Well, when I was young my parents and I went camping and, uh,” Nicole frowned, mentally redacting the horrifying supernatural entity that’d ripped her parents to shreds. “Uh, well, they died in an accident. I was lost for a while and then Nedley found me. I don’t know why, but I think I just forgot who I was. I can’t really explain it,” she mused. When she paused to look over at Waverly, she was watching Nicole with a slightly open mouth and the car was drifting dangerously. “Nedley found their missing person file, so now I’m Nicole and Haught.”

The car sank into dead quiet, but Nicole could’ve sworn Waverly’s brain was workin’ so hard she could hear it. “Oh,” Waverly eventually whispered.

“Now you know somethin’ about me,” Nicole said kindly, turning to face the window and watching the cactuses zip by. “So, now that you do: y’alright, Waverly?”

“A little lonely lately,” she admitted, face tense with shame.

“Yeah?” Nicole shot her a look full of honest confusion. “Thought you spent a lot of time with Champ and his friends.”

She made a noise of discomfort and shrugged one shoulder. “Yeah, well. They don’t spend a lot of time listening. It’s been a while since anyone listened to me. There used to be- well,” she paused and swallowed. “Things used to be a bit different.”

 

+++

 

The next full moon, Nicole wiggled out from under the fence and followed her stupid heart right to the homestead. Waverly was out on her porch, alone and small with a huge mug of something steaming. She padded softly through the grass and stopped right at the porch stairs, whining low to get her attention. Waverly spooked when she spotted her, sloshing hot chocolate over the side of her mug and hissing with pain.

Nicole stayed low, lying on her belly with her chin flat on the fresh lacquered pine. She couldn’t make herself that small, but she tried.

As always, Waverly recognized her and blew out a shaky breath. “You scared the hell out of me.” Nicole pouted until Waverly gestured for her to come closer. Nicole curled up at her feet and Waverly let out a long sigh.

“I thought maybe…” she chewed on her lip and rested her chin on the lip of her mug. “I thought maybe you’d died. I saw how bad you’d been hurt and,” she swallowed, “I was worried.”

Something warm spilled out in Nicole’s horrible chest. Wasn’t that somethin’? Someone who cared a lick about that  thing that she was.

Nicole pressed her cold nose against Waverly’s shoe.

She let Waverly talk and talk and talk, like she was slowly releasing the pressure from an aerosol can until she was warm and sleepy enough to get through the night. Nicole went home smelling like fresh lacquer and hot chocolate.

 

+++

18

+++

 

Nicole was eighteen and just about everyone wanted to know what everyone else was doin’ after high school – wanted to know the plan- like someone who couldn’t cook instant rice was supposed to know that.

Nicole didn’t know hardly nothin at all.

She told people that and they laughed and agreed, but then went on about college and where they were goin’ and what they were doin’ and just how far they could see the horizon of their dawning life. Nicole couldn’t see that far, though – couldn’t imagine how everyone else was seein’ it. School hurt her head and the idea of more school and leaving Nedley and unleashing herself on anything less damned than Purgatory all seemed like a real bad idea.

Nedley tried to offer to take out loans and gather the pennies under his couch cushions to send her away, but Nicole declined. Some things just weren’t in the cards. Instead, she tried to put herself out there more. She asked Chuck at Chuck’s Hardware if he knew of anybody lookin’ to get some work done on their properties. Mrs. Bernard called her the next day and asked her over to build her a new fence and redo her porch. Mrs. Heim called her the following day and soon Nicole was all splinters, sunburn and sawdust day in and day out.

Nedley was proud. He encouraged her to finish high school just for that fancy, embossed piece of paper and options should she change her mind. Nicole weren’t no quitter, neither.

So she saw it out, won the regional championship in the 1600 meter run, nabbed second place in the regional basketball championships and did it all over again in the spring. It was a good year.

Waverly broke up with Champ somewhere around Valentine’s day because he’d slept with Stacy Carmichael when Waverly wouldn’t put out. It was amazing what kinds of wild personal information reached even the least interested ears ‘round a high school locker section.

It was a very good year.

 

+++

 

At the end of the year, Nicole got asked to speak at graduation just because she’d won a bunch of mostly plastic trophies. The tri-county’s highschool hadn’t seen many of those mostly plastic things in the last few decades, so Nicole just shrugged her acceptance. It didn’t seem very nice to turn them down.

They set aside thirty minutes for her speech.

Nicole wore an old pair of boxers and one of Nedley’s ancient Purgatory PD t-shirts under her sweaty, silk robe and carried the weird square hat under her arm when she went up on stage. She had about twenty blank note cards in her hand.

They directed her to a podium with the school mascot taped on the front and pointed to the microphone like they actually thought maybe Nicole’s straight C’s were indicative of her basic ability to recognize common objects and their functions.

Some things never changed.

Nicole stood there for a good minute in deathly, stifled silence listening to people cover coughs and toddlers get hushed for complaining about the ceremony.

Finally, she cleared her throat and leaned close to the microphone, which she definitely knew how to use, thank you very much.

“Good job guys. See ya later,” she said clearly.

Then she grabbed her diploma from a stunned principal’s limp grip, threw her cap out into the crowd and walked right out through those squeaky double doors into the night while her class howled and hooted with laughter.

Some people will laugh at just about anything.

 

+++

 

Nedley found her out under the bleachers smoking a pack of shitty menthols and admiring Wynnona’s neat script carved meticulously into one of the support beams with something that was likely less sharp than a nail file.

EAT SHIT JABRONIES

God, some people just had a way with words.

“Hey kiddo,” Nedley greeted, running the top of his head right into one of the beams he had misjudged. “Fuckin’ Christ!” He grumbled, rubbing at his thinning hair.

Nicole smirked. “Duck.”

“Alright, smartass.”

“You said fuck,” Nicole pointed out helpfully.

Nedley shot her a glare. “Yeah, you say it all the time.”

“I’m a child.”

“Not anymore.”

Nicole shrugged and pointed upward. “Wynnona,” she supplied.

Nedley looked up, read the epithet, then laughed loudly. “Ah, I almost miss her sometimes.” Nicole took another long, gross drag of the menthol before Nedley snatched it from her fingers. He took one massive pull, draining it to the filter, then tossed it in the gravel. “C’mon kid, those things’ll kill you.”

“I turn into a monster on full moons. I crave raw meat.”

Nedley patted her cheek. “Yeah, then you ask for pancakes afterwards. You don’t scare me, kiddo.” Nicole pouted and he coughed a bit. “God, you could at least buy something less gross.”

“I didn’t buy ‘em, they were Wynnona’s brand,” Nicole shrugged.

“What’s with you and that girl, huh? You sweet on her or somethin’?”

Nicole rolled her eyes and attempted to get out a new cigarette from the carton before Nedley snatched them and pocketed them. “Nah. I just liked her. She felt a whole lot like me somehow. I just got her.”

 

+++

 

Waverly found her there on one of the sunniest – and only – hills on the Earp property.  It was shaded just so by a stout little tree, perfectly trimmed every summer and surrounded by goldenrod, daisies, and even a few Alberta roses. Nicole was knelt in the weeds, packing down fresh clay dirt and straightening a little cherry wood cross that was stuck in the ground.

She spooked Nicole when she suddenly said from behind her, “sleepin’ on the job?”

When Nicole had regained her heartbeat, she turned from her spot on her knees and gave her a glance. “No, Waverly.”

Waverly hadn’t been on the Earp property nearly all summer. Nicole weren’t too sure why, but life did go on. When she’d turned, she gave Waverly a full view of that little clay grave and Waverly’s  expression shifted so fast Nicole was sure she’d hurt herself.

“Oh, no!” She whispered, coming to stand behind Nicole and admire the tiny bouquet of roses Nicole had gathered and set on top. “What happened?”

“Mrs. Buttersworth,” Nicole offered tonelessly. “She got sick an’ I couldn’t do nothin’ about it.” She sniffed hard and shook her head, willing her ridiculousness away. “Sorry. I was supposed to take care of ‘em. I’m real sorry. I tried, Waverly.”

Waverly dropped to her knees at Nicole’s side, one hand still gripping at Nicole’s shoulder. “Oh no,” she repeated, shaking her head sadly. She glanced sideways at Nicole, blinking in surprise at the stupid salt leakin’ from her eyes. It was stupid. So stupid.

“Sorry,” Nicole grunted. “Sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Waverly offered.

Nicole shook her head adamantly. “Yes it was. It was my job. I ain’t good for nothin’. All I do is kill things.”

“That’s not true,” Waverly consoled, gripping even harder at her shoulder. “You’re just upset right now. You can’t save everything, Nicole. I’m sure Mrs. Buttersworth would understand.”

“She ain’t speak English,” Nicole choked, scrubbing furiously at her eyes.

Waverly rolled her eyes fondly and shifted to grip Nicole fully around both shoulders and lean her head against Nicole’s. “It’s a real nice grave.”

“Mrs. Buttersworth Junior is never gonna understand.”

Waverly hummed and ran her hand over the gathered flowers. “Yes she will.”

“No she won’t, she’s a chicken,” Nicole broke, crying those quiet kinda sobs that were all in your throat, barely whispered with shaking shoulders – too ashamed to cry the way you want, but too hurt not to do it at all. She pressed her face into her hands, unwilling to let Waverly see her like that.

The sun sank low, steady and true like trumpets on taps, casting that warm august day into something more cathedral than desert. Nicole cried over a chicken. And maybe it was stupid, but ain’t no person ever showed her love before those chickens did, no matter how ugly she was.

Waverly only held her tighter.

So stupid.

 

+++

Chapter Text

"I am young and I am good."

 

-Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod, The Mountain Goats (2005)

 

+++

 

Nicole scraped her shoes on the boot brush in front of the Earp’s front door and pushed her way inside. She was just looking for a glass of water after a long day of barn repair. Waverly weren't around much, but she insisted Nicole could go inside to get water or food whenever she needed. She let out a hard sigh, glad to be out of the sun at last, and swiped her baseball hat from the top of her head to wipe her sleeve across her sweaty forehead. Her eyes were closed as she walked into the kitchen, so when she opened them she was greeted with the delightful sight of Champ’s tongue down Waverly’s throat.

“Ah,” she said dumbly.

Waverly pushed Champ away with two hands on his barrel chest, but it didn’t quite get him to remove his hand from under her shirt. Nicole really ought to have paid attention to which cars were parked out front.

“Nicole!” Waverly shouted, awkward and way too loud for what was going on.

Champ just glared and grabbed at Waverly’s waist harder, pinning her against the sink. Nicole shrugged. “Sorry. Just lookin’ for water. I’ll leave.” She turned promptly, allowing a wry smile to curl her lips when her back was turned.

“No!” Waverly shouted. Again.

Nicole shot her a weird look over her shoulder and Waverly finally had the decency to blush, like Nicole was supposed to have enjoyed being in their company while Champ figured out what a human boob was.

“Er, get your water at least,” she stuttered, trying again to push Champ back and only managing to get him to slide one hand down to her ass. “Champ, please,” she scolded.

He latched onto her neck like a leach, made some kinda real unfortunate noise, and Nicole winced, nodding slowly at Waverly like, ah yes, I at last get what you see in him.

“No, you’re right. This ain’t weird at all.”

Waverly made one last effort to remove Champ from where he was presumably siphoning her life force, and managed to get him to detach. Somehow. “Baaaabe,” he whined. “She ain’t even live here. Do you mind? We were busy.”

“I see that. I was kinda afraid you were gonna pass out,” Nicole offered.

Champ sneered at her and grabbed Waverly’s ass harder. Watching them kiss was like watching a bear climb a hawthorn tree and start slobbering around for termites. And frankly Nicole was, as a friend, concerned for her ass.

“Real funny,” he said and Nicole was under no impression that Champ thought it was funny. “You gonna leave or what?”

“Champ, be nice. Nicole, you need water.”

“No, it’s fine, Waverly,” Nicole assured her, backing away slowly, “I’m pretty sure Champ’s sucked all the moisture outta the room anyhow.”

“God, would you get lost already?”

“Champ!”

“What? You pay her, right?” He turned plaintive, pouting at Waverly and kissing her cheek. “Make your queer gardener get back to work already, would you?”

Waverly went so quick from red to white, it was like a patriotic holiday. She didn’t say anything, just stared right into Nicole’s soul. And while it didn’t surprise Nicole all that much, it still hurt that she couldn’t bring herself to say nothin’. They were friends at least.

At least she’d thought.

“I’ll be goin’ then,” Nicole obliged, tipping the brim of her hat. “Lots of queer gardening to do.”

She went back outside, drank water right out of the unfiltered well pump, letting the cold mineral grit shake her out of it. She sat in the barn, scrubbing down some of her tools and thinkin’ about how weird it was that god had only made one of her then stopped. He didn’t make many things that ain’t come in pairs. Who knows why he did it with her.

 

+++

 

By the end of the summer, Nicole had saved twice the amount she needed for that shiny, off-white little lowridin’ pickup out at McCaffery’s auto the next town over. She’d had her eyes on it for near three years. And don’t let nobody tell you that fulfilling a cravin’ ain’t as satisfying as you think it is. It is absolutely as satisfying as you think it is.

Nedley offered to drive her to the dealer to buy it, but there were some journeys a young buccaneer just had to take on their own. Even if that journey was on a shitty bike through twenty miles of satan’s dusty rear end. It felt cool and grownup when she’d turned him down, but by mile 18 it felt much less cool.

The salesman tried to hassle her, as he was likely paid to do - tried to drive the price up the wall for some nonsense special features he’d made up. Nicole told him to take his “special features” off the truck and she’d wait in the little air conditioned office until he was done. The man had turned a little red, then told her to forget about it and they shook at eight thousand. Nicole handed him the massive wad of sweaty money.

Easy come, easy go.

He handed her the keys and she slid into the driver’s seat, burning her thighs on the sweltering leather that’d been sittin’ in the Alberta afternoon sun all day. The car smelled like drugstore air fresheners and the wheel was already cracked and worn from a lifetime of hands slidin’ across it.

It was perfect.

 

+++

19

+++

 

Nicole was nineteen and not havin’ to go to school was exactly as sweet as she always thought it might be. She got up earlier than ever, eager to get to her jobs in and around Purgatory before the sun got too high and mean. And there were plenty of jobs knockin’ on her door. She did all sorts of stuff for people: landscaping, woodwork, flooring, siding, roofing, sheds, farming, plowing, installation, window-washing, and just about anything that nobody wanted to do. She’d even chased out about twenty raccoons from under Mrs. Shipley’s porch. Of course, Mrs. Shipley ain't known that Nicole had done it the night of a full moon and had probably put the fear of a hundred gods in those critters.

Bein’ the general strangeness of the location and the people therein, Nicole got paid in all kinda strange things. A lot of it was cash, but some of it was freezers of weird meat, tools, premium lumber, a rehab motorcycle that Nicole had no idea what to do with, ten baby ducks, a lifetime supply of cherry tomatoes, a bunch of old records and a static-y record player, a stained glass window, and a beautiful white Stetson, fifty years old and never worn. Mrs. Harper said it brought out her hair and winked somethin’ unbefitting her age.

So-

Yeah. That’d happened.

But stuff was neat too. The ducks were left at the Earp homestead after Nicole’d gotten tired of corralling them in Nedley’s bathtub and built a nice little artificial pond out by the barn that was criminally expensive to keep filled in a dusty town like Purgatory. They followed her constantly.

She wore the Stetson sometimes because it was just plain old cool. Nedley helped her rehab the bike on her off days, drinkin’ cold beers and listening to static records on that shitty record player, makin’ their way through whatever weird meat was on top of the freezer. Coyote was terrible, but raccoon actually weren’t too bad.

Things were good.

 

+++

 

Except with Waverly. Things with Waverly were a little weird.

She got more distant than usual, came ‘round the homestead less. Nicole doubted Waverly even knew she was technically the proud owner of 10 handsom ducks. She’d only really seen her a handful of times approaching Christmas. One of those times was when Waverly was bummin’ around town sometime after midnight, everyone mostly drunk. Buster was pissing on an anthill and Champ was trying to stick his hands up Waverly’s skirt and two people Nicole ain’t even recognize were spray painting a big ol’ weiner on the side of the public library.

Nicole stopped, a plastic bag hanging from her hand. “That ain’t right,” she said firmly.

Waverly’s charming friends all turned towards her ‘cept Stephanie who was puking in a mail collection box. “I ain’t gotten to the balls yet,” Gerald Vanderbilt snorted.

“Nah, I mean you shouldn’t do that.”

“God, would you just leave us alone?” Buster groaned, shaking his dick a few times and tucking it back in his fly. “Piss off, weirdo.”

“You know who has to clean that up? Purgatory ain’t got no public works. Mrs. Tipp has to clean that up. She’s the only librarian and she’s more’n eighty years old.” Nicole swung her bag over her shoulder and cocked her head to the side. “It ain’t right.”

Waverly cowered into Champ’s side and Nicole had just about her first bad thought about her. “How is that any of your busness?” Champ demanded.

“Doin’ the right thing is everybody’s business.” Nicole took a few steps closer and stared right down her nose at them. “Now get lost, or I’ll start doin’.”

Gerald dropped his paint can sheepishly and nudged at his buddy. “C’mon, let’s leave before the deputies catch us. I ain’t supposed to be out right now anyways.”

But like the devil himself was summoned, blue and red lights lit up the backroad behind the library and an airhorn honked one time, scattering them all like flies. The sheriff’s deputies rolled up in two trucks, but everyone was already bolting. They all split up while Nicole stood there, watching it all happen. Champ dropped Waverly like she was nothin’, elbowing her to the ground and stumbling down an alleyway into the dark.

Nicole only hesitated maybe two shameful seconds before walking over to her and holding out a hand. “Y’alright, Waverly?”

Waverly took it and let Nicole pull her up. She turned Waverly’s hands over to look at her scraped palms and shook her head. “That don’t look good,” she muttered, pulling a hankerchief from her back pocket and pressing it gently against the worst of it. Waverly just stared up at her with big, blown pupils blinking like somethin’ south of sober. She probably was, anyhow. Nicole sighed.

“Hey!” Deputy Parker shined a flashlight right in Nicole’s face like he was doin’ her a favor or something. “What’s goin’ on here?”

Nicole held one of her hands up to shield her eyes and frowned. “I was out pickin’ something up and saw some kids defacing that wall,” Nicole gestured. “Seems you scared ‘em off.”

Deputy Parker glanced down at the bag on the ground next to Nicole’s boot and squinted suspiciously, like he might be able to tell if it were fake or something. It must have checked out, because he nodded once, then turned his squinting to Waverly. “What about her? Wasn’t she one of them?”

Waverly’s hands gripped at where Nicole was holding the hankerchief to them. Nicole hesitated just another two seconds, then shook her head. “No, sir. She was with me.”

He grunted and shined his flashlight on the spray painted weiner, brows furrowing. “Shit. Who’s gonna clean that up?”

“I’ll paint over it tomorrow morning. I got a job in town early anyhow. Shouldn’t take me more’n two hours,” Nicole sighed. “Can we go now?”

The Deputy blinked at her, either surprised at the offer or surprised at the bold request, but he gave in. “Yeah, you can go. Get home safe, ladies.”

So Nicole ushered Waverly’s unsteady feet to her truck down the lane, loaded her up and started off toward her aunt Gus’s place. She buckled her in, tied the hankerchief tight around that palm and headed out with nothing but the company of her headlights twenty yards out. The moon was just a thin slice and everything was awful dark.

“What’d you buy?” Waverly asked quietly.

“Hm?” Nicole glanced to her plastic bag. “Oh! Uh, some fairy lights for the homestead porch and a patch kit to fix the duck pond. It’s leakin’ real slow and I can hardly keep it filled these last two weeks. It’s gotten so bad, I was worried all the ducks would dry up by noon. Couldn’t sleep.”

Waverly let out a long sigh and rested her forehead against the passenger window, eyes fluttering closed. “Why d’you gotta fix everything, huh?”

“Well,” she said, slow and thoughtful, “probably ‘cause there’s a whole lot of things that can’t be fixed in my life. So why wouldn’t I fix as many of the things that can be fixed as I can manage?”

“Yeah?” Waverly slurred sleepily. “What can’t you fix?”

Nicole smiled sadly. She didn’t have to answer, though, because Waverly had already fallen asleep.

 

+++

 

 

A girl named Lola passed through town, all blonde hair and freckles and bright red lipstick and maybe she weren’t anything Nicole usually allowed herself to want – a little too loud, a little too public, and a little too flirty – but she’d had a long year so she let herself get dragged back to Lola’s motel off the state route fifteen miles out and learned that sometimes sex was just that and nothing else.

Lola might’ve tasted a bit like menthols, but she was full of cute giggles and more compliments than Nicole had gotten her whole life. She hung on the cut of her bicep and played with Nicole’s hair and maybe it ain't meant much, but just about everyone gets weak for a little half price lovin’ every now and then. She was the kinda girl who’d probably had a half a verse of at least a few country songs written about her.

But Lola had been nice anyhow.

 

+++

 

There were two more Lola’s that spring into early summer. Just good times, nice hair, and the bare quality of lookin’ favorably in Nicole’s direction. In a grand act of divine justice, Waverly’d seen one of them nice haired girls trying to climb Nicole like a tree in the back alley outside of Shorty’s one night.

They’d been so distant, Nicole didn’t even know Wavelry had picked up some part time hours there to buy Champ his big boy pullups or whatever Waverly spent her money on. Lola number three didn’t detach from her neck or remove her hands in any way and Nicole thought that was just another kind of justice to see the shock on Waverly’s face when she tried to take out the garbage ‘round back. Nicole slid her hands respectfully from Lola’s rear to her hips and let the corner of her lips hike up just a little bit. It weren’t a smirk, but it could’ve been if Nicole were a more gloating person.

Waverly blushed hard – as she was wont to do – and practically launched the garbage bag at the side of the dumpster from twenty feet away before sprinting back inside the bar. Then Nicole smirked a little- she was only human. Sorta.

Then she took that girl with nice hair home.

She had been nice anyhow.

 

+++

 

After a nice evening fixing the plumbing in the Earp’s kitchen, Nicole rubbed all the WD-40 from her hands right across the thighs of her worst overalls and headed out into the warm night air to check on the leaky duck pond. It was a temperamental son of a gun.

The moon was fat overhead, sluggish on a bed of fluffy gray clouds that seemed to carry it right across the night sky. It was near full at that point. Nicole sighed.

Rounding the back of the barn, Nicole froze with her little toolbox and well-used patch kit. Waverly was seated on one of the decorative boulders near the edge of the pond, cheek on her fist and eyes wistful. Nicole thought about sneakin’ away again, but she was just bein’ petty. Waverly was a kid and she ain’t actively done nothin’ to Nicole.

She took a deep breath and made her way over slow and steady, measuring the space between her steps as even as she could guess. Waverly didn’t look up at all until Nicole was only a few paces off and even then it was just a quick acknowledgement.

She came to the bank of the little pond, surprised to find it fully filled. All her patching must’ve finally paid off.

“Hello, Waverly.”

Waverly smiled like Nicole had told a joke. “Yeah.”

Nicole did a lap around the pond, happy with what she found. The ducks had long since been ushered inside the barn at dusk to keep ‘em from the coyotes, so the pond was still and glassy with one big silver dollar moon mirrored in the middle. “Looks like the leak has stopped,” Nicole said, just to have somethin’ to say.

“Looks like,” Waverly said quietly. It was a dismissal for sure, but something about that sad girl sat on a bounder in front of a duck pond with the world on her shoulders made Nicole want to stay. Made her want to take a little bit of the weight too if she could.

“Y’alright, Waverly?”

Waverly shook her head, smiling. “You always ask me that.”

“I suppose.”

“Why?” Waverly near demanded, firm and not joking in the least.

Nicole stood there feeling stupid and shrugged. “I dunno. Guess I wanna know how you’re doing? I thought that was obvious.”

“Yeah, but why do you want to know?”

“Well,” Nicole said slowly, rubbing at the back of her hair, “guess I just always hope that you’re happy. And maybe if you’re not, we can do somethin’ about it.”

“And why do you hope I’m happy?”

“Geez Waverly, it’s like ten o’clock at night. I’m tired.”

Waverly gripped her knees and glared as she leaned forward. “Why do you hope I’m happy?”

Nicole let out a long sigh and ran her hand over the top of her hair real slow. “Because we’re friends?”

Waverly scoffed and it hurt a lot more than Nicole ever thought it would. “Right. I’ve been such a great friend to you.” That hurt less.

Nicole smiled and came to sit on the little decorative boulder right next to Waverly’s. “Y’know, I think that when it comes to friends, you don’t always like ‘em.” Nicole paused and rooted around in the little pebbles at her feet for something flat and smooth. She found a good one and weighed it in her hand. “But you always love ‘em.”

Waverly didn’t say anything to that, just pulled her knees up to rest her chin on and looked for her answers out on the mirror of the pond. She might’ve found ‘em there too if Nicole hadn’t whipped the pebble hard across the surface of the pond, watching it drop with a thunk right into the middle of that silver dollar so it warped and split.

Waverly turned to look at her. “What was that for?”

“I was tryin’ to skip a rock.”

“It didn’t skip.”

“Yeah, I know. I can’t skip rocks. I was just tryin’ to impress you.”

Finally, Waverly smiled and it felt like the first time Nicole had seen it all year. It was like the dawn after a full moon. Always had been. Nicole grinned. “See? It worked anyhow, you’re smiling.”

Then she laughed and it was like milkshakes on Fridays and drive-in westerns and everything else good in Purgatory.

 

+++

 

It was like healing that night and Nicole went back to the Earp homestead on a feelin’ come two days later when she was monstrous and full of wanderlust with the rise of the full moon. She ran the six miles to the homestead, ducked the fence and headed straight for that dangling porch light, always on.

Waverly was sitting there reading a big book that looked like somethin’ out of a cartoon. It was bigger’n she was. Nicole would’ve grinned if it wouldn’t’a scared the paint right off the side of the barn.

It was a quick trip to the porch steps and she felt free and excited at the prospect of sitting there and listening to Waverly read, like she used to do on nights like that. Instead of a fond Waverly, though, she was met with utter dread.

Waverly stood bolt upright, book clattering to the porch and she gripped the railing with white knuckles. “You can’t be here!” She hissed, turning to look at the front door behind her. “Go! Get out of here!” Her motions were desperate, but Nicole just cocked her head to the side, confused and hurt. “Leave, please! They can’t see you here!” When Nicole just whined and sat back on her haunches, tears began to bead in Waverly’s desperate eyes. “Please leave!” She somehow whispered and shouted at the same time. “Get out of here, you big stupid animal! Go!”

It hurt like a knife to the gut, but Nicole got the message. She sulked a bit more, but was ready to slink away when the front door swung open and three big men in old dusters and heavy belts trundled out with cigarettes between their lips. Nicole and Waverly froze stock still, but the men didn’t notice her at first.

One of the men, a thin-faced man in pointed boots with a bushy mustache, finally turned out toward the dark of the homestead and the cigarette fell from his lips and burst on the ground in little embers. He hollered, almost involuntarily and his two compatriots shoved Waverly to the side in their haste to get at their belts.

Nicole growled. The man in front locked eyes with her.

And Nicole knew a quick-draw when she saw one. She’d watched just about every quick-draw movie she could get her hands on in Purgatory and all the towns nearby. And maybe those guys only played one on television, but this guy aint looked a whole lot different. He had one dead eye and quick fingers that had the barrel of a long, pretty lookin’ revolver trained on her heart in about a second and a half.

It happened so fast, it almost felt slow. Waverly made some lunge for the man’s forearm, but she were no match for a real outlaw. Neither was Nicole, it turned out. She had just barely turned her shoulder to run when the first shot ripped through her chest like lightening. She turned, hoping maybe she had the supernatural wherewithal to get away, but two more shots crashed into her shoulder, followed by the last three of the barrel somewhere down around her lower back. He’d emptied the chamber fully and stood there, probably blowing the smoke out of the barrel like John Wayne while Nicole got what every bad guy in the history of old westerns deserved.

She was dyin’ and that was just that.

Nineteen was a little young, was her first thought as she felt her muscles ripple and rebel, quivering and jerking and spilling her monstrous blood all over that land she’d already given herself to. Only fitting her blood water Earp grass. She’d given everything else to that place.

Her second thoughts were about Nedley and her bed and her favorite quilt and that movie that was comin’ out that she’d really wanted to see and Waverly Earp and hot chocolate and the smell of fresh pine from the lumber yard and the sound of a long rolling thunderstorm and rain hittin’ roof shingles-

And then she was makin’ awful noises, half crawling to nowhere and whining horrendously, spraying blood out between her teeth about as undignified as she could’ve managed. The bullets turned rancid inside her, burning and melting her flesh. It was like all the holes punched through her soft belly showed the cowering little thing in her heart. She ain't ever felt so scared. It occurred to Nicole somewhere in that black, black place where her heart was goin' to die that it was a real quiet night. She was flat on her belly, unable even to crawl anymore, but turned her head to the side to see the moon. And, well-

You ever seen someone die? Ain’t no such thing as a good death. Nicole heaved and bled and wondered if the people on the porch even felt a single thing for her – wondered if they should.

“Shit,” one of the men cursed. Boots shuffled a bit. Waverly was deadly quiet.

“They ever come on the property like this before? That’s fuckin’ bold.”

Waverly didn’t answer and maybe they ain't expected her to. “The rest must be close. C’mon, Doc let’s get to the trucks and head out in different directions. If they’re comin’ here, we should head ‘em off and surprise ‘em.”

“Surprised this one,” another one laughed.

Well…yeah. She had to give ‘em that one.

There was more shuffling and general noises of departure. Three trucks kicked to life around the back of the house before gravel crunched and beat up mufflers rumbled off into the night. The night turned real quiet again and Nicole wondered if god weren’t just a bunch of crickets in the grass. It’d make sense how he saw everything. Could he see her then? Was he watching? Was there even a cell in god’s almighty body that could’ve summoned pity for the thing she was? Was there room in god’s righteous forgiveness for Nicole Haught?

She ain’t ever suspected there was, but how did a girl full of bad luck and hard times deserve somethin’ like that?

Then one Waverly Earp was kneelin’ next to her big monstrous head and her hands were shakin’ just as bad as they had been when she was a little girl. She reached out just as slow and sunk her hand in the fur between her big ears.

Just like it’d always been with them, really.

“You-“

Waverly choked hard and her fist tightened in the fur. “I told you to run.”

Nicole chuffed and blinked at her. Yeah, she wanted to say, that’s the one thing I was supposed to be good at.

“Look what they’ve done to you,” she murmured, fingers loosening and stroking just a little bit. “Look what they’ve done.”

Nicole pushed her nose into Waverly’s knee and breathed in dusty paper and thread-bear hand-me-downs. There were no such thing as a good death, but maybe – just maybe there were ones that were almost bearable. Her breath was ragged and her teeth breathed blood and life back into the land.

Waverly’s other hand came up to rest on her forehead. “You’re not gonna leave me, are you?”

Probably, Nicole thought wryly. You seen me lately?

“Damn you,” she cried quietly. “Damn you.” And weren’t that somethin’? Ugly as she was – mean lookin’ and frightening as she was and sweet, misguided Waverly Earp cryin’ over her ugly mug like a dear friend. “Damn you to hell.” Her forehead dropped to the top of Nicole’s head and she was taken over by big, ugly, beautiful sobs.

Nicole whined and shuddered as the bullets throbbed and burned and her heart got real slow and sluggish. Her lungs were all sloshy and heavy and everything felt underwater. The moon was hazy and Waverly was a blur. It felt about as final as these things do, she supposed. She ain’t had nothin’ to compare it to, but she felt herself lifting up and away, swimming in her own body and full of cold death. As her lungs began heaving in final steps, marching steadily in four-four time to the last few bars, numbered and deliberate, Waverly shot up and away from her.

“Wait!” She gasped. “Wait, I’ve read- I’ve read-“

She was incomprehensible, but whatever the case, Nicole was sure that whatever it was, Waverly had indeed read it.

Leaning down, Waverly placed a big old kiss to Nicole’s nose and stood abruptly. “Stay here! Don’t die!” She demanded, dashing off toward the cellar entrance. Nicole watched her go lazily, unable to promise anything for a lot of reasons. Waverly was gone so long Nicole thought she’d imagined it all. It was a nice thing to have imagined anyways. The crickets were even louder, like they were calling her home. And the thought of leavin’ hurt so bad, but ain’t nothing louder call than the call home.

Nicole was no stranger to answerin’ calls and this was just another one she was helpless to.

“Found it!” Waverly shouted, breathless as she skidded to a halt at Nicole’s side. Nicole blinked slow at her and let her eyes fall shut with a long, hopefully pleasant rumble in her chest. Waverly started shouting from somewhere far off and she distantly felt hands grabbing at her mouth and pushing down her throat like Waverly was gonna reach right into her heart and beat it back to life.

She already had.

Before answering the call, Nicole felt herself heave and a rush of fire burst right out her throat.

 

+++

Chapter Text

Hate to be a chicken when the wolves come out,

hate to be the middle when the bottom falls out.

-Secret Bad Boy, Chicken (2017)

 

+++

 

She woke up in the barn sometime around dawn, body on fire and Waverly Earp’s hand down her throat again.

Well, the weirdest part of it was still waking up at all.

She gagged and heaved, bringing up a whole mess of black sludge and blood. Everything was still all weird and sloshy, but she could make out Waverly picking through her vomit and-

Okay, that was a little weirder than waking up at all.

But just barely.

“Ah hah!” Waverly said, triumphantly. And there you have it ladies and gents: Nicole Haught had vomit worth ‘ah hah-ing’ about. “Got it!” She brandished a little warped ball of silver coated in sludge and blood.

Waverly seemed happy, but the letdown was instant for Nicole. She shuddered and heaved again, before collapsing back. She was on her stomach on a bunch of hay, body on fire and mind reeling. She was shaking and feverish and everything hurt bad. She whimpered a bit and it had the desired effect, as Waverly was at her side instantly, stroking her ears and whispering encouragement.

To borrow a phrase from Nedley, how in sam hill was she still alive?

Waverly could apparently speak that language too. “Wolfsbane!” She said excitedly, tugging at Nicole’s ears and earning a grunt. “My daddy always said its name was a lie to keep your kind away from it. I remember reading about it. It’s got a violent effect on your digestive system, but it expels poisons and sickness like magic.” She grabbed Nicole’s face and stared excitedly into her big eyes. “Wolfsbane!” She shouted, giddy and hyped up on emotion and no sleep. “I’ve given it to you three times now and you’ve expelled all of the bullets and started to heal!” She shook Nicole’s head until she thought she might barf again.

“I’m…a genius,” she said, full of awe and fear at her new power. “I am unstoppable.”

Nicole groaned and tried to roll onto her side, but every muscle tensed put her in unbearable agony. She was just gonna kinda go for it anyway, but Waverly crooned at her and rushed to stop her, holding her still with her skinny little twig arms and petting between her ears. Maybe she was unstoppable.

“Ssshhh, you’re okay, you’re okay,” Waverly pandered despite how very not okay Nicole knew herself to be. Nicole grumbled and whined because she was entitled to. She’d been shot about a million times for the misdemeanor of bein’ ugly on private property. Excuse the hell out of her.

It earned her a little kiss on the forehead. She felt unbelievably smug for someone who’d been mostly murdered a few hours ago.

Which meant…

Nicole lolled her head to the side and peered up out of the barn window to where a pale, misty morning was revving up, the sun getting closer and closer to a horizon that spelled big trouble for Nicole.

It would’ve been nice if she’d gotten a bit more time to agonize about a situation she could do nothing about, but the first sliver of sun peered right over the back hills and it was all outta her hands. If a regular change was like dyin’ a thousand deaths, a change when she was shot full of holes was like dyin’ a million deaths. Her wounds screamed and she was pretty sure she did too. Each wrenching of her limbs, each snapping and twisting of bone and tendon was slow and harsh and grinding like gears all outta line.

When she was all hunched over and tremblin’ covered in naught but a thick, scratchy horse blanket Waverly had thrown over her during the night, she collapsed back on her chest, huffing and groaning into the dusty hay poking her cheek. The holes in her chest and all along her back ached twice as bad.

As she heaved breaths through her agonized lungs, she blinked her eyes open and looked directly into Waverly’s shocked and horrified expression.

Yeah.

That’d been about the reaction she’d been expecting.

Waverly clung to an empty bucket, holding it tight against her chest like it were the only thing anchoring her to reality. Maybe it was. For all Nicole knew, without the extra two pounds, she might’ve just floated off into the dawn sky. She was such a small thing.

“Y-you-“ Waverly choked out. “But you- you aren’t – I would’ve-“

“Ow.”

Waverly dropped her bucket and ran right outta the barn.

Nicole let out a long groan and tried to push up on her elbows. They were shaky and it all hurt about ten times worse then if she’d stayed put, but she couldn’t just do nothin’. All the effort only got her flopped over on her side, wheezing and coughing up more sludge and blood. “Urgh.”

It seemed more and more likely that Waverly had packed up and moved on. And for the first time, it really sunk in what Nicole had done to her. She’d let Waverly reveal things about herself, unwittingly, to what she assumed was a safe ear. Waverly probably hadn’t ever intended to tell Nicole some of the things she’d ended up telling her. It left her feeling gross.

And then she was back.

Waverly stomped back inside, glaring. “You were just never gonna tell me, huh? Do you realize how stupid I feel right now? Do you realize how much I hate feeling stupid? Like…more than the average socially acceptable amount?”

“I do,” Nicole said, lookin’ down at the ground.

Waverly threw her hands up in the air. “Then for the love of all that is holy, why? Why did you come ‘round here all the time and let me act the fool? Why, Nicole?” She stomped her foot and Nicole couldn’t even look her in the eyes.

“I dunno,” she said lamely. Everything hurt and, embarrassingly, she kinda wanted to start crying. That wouldn’t have been fair to Waverly, though.

Waverly hardened. “Yes you do,” she accused gravely.

Yeah, she did.

“I…” Nicole tried quietly, shifting uncomfortably and hissing with pain. “I just liked the way you treated me,” she admitted shamefully. “I ain’t ever been around someone who ain’t tried to kill me or scream when I’m-“ she swallowed hard, “-when I’m like that. When I’m awful to look at. When I’m monstrous.” A chicken hawk screeched overhead somewhere, muffled by the barn roof and Nicole grit her teeth. “You just made me feel a bit less terrible. I should’a told you. It was selfish and I’m sorry.”

Waverly’s face went through about a thousand different emotions that Nicole couldn’t keep up with and then she turned around and left again.

Nicole sighed and fell backwards when the shaking of her elbows got too bad. Well, at least she could cry if she needed to.

Then Waverly was back.

“And you could’ve died!” She went on, like she hadn’t just left moments ago. “Don’t you think I could’ve- If you’d just – and they hadn’t –“ she fumed. Nicole wobbled back up on her elbows, concerned that Waverly was about to blow a fuse. “And I didn’t even – but you were – and I – Ugh!”

Waverly left again.

Nicole fell back with a pained huff. She’d broken Waverly Earp.

The next time Waverly came back, it was a long half-hour later and Nicole was almost asleep. The sun was gettin’ higher in the overcast sky and Waverly was crying. She pushed into the barn, strode purposefully over to Nicole’s makeshift bed, and pulled her up with arms around her neck, holding her so tight it hurt.

Nicole choked a bit, but Waverly didn’t let up. She held her tighter, if anything. “Urgh,” Nicole gurgled.

“You could’ve died,” she cried softly into Nicole’s poor neck. “They shot you like a million times and it was you.”

“Hnng.” Nicole was starting to feel lightheaded.

Finally, blessedly, Waverly pulled back, holding Nicole’s head. She pressed a kiss to her cheek then held their foreheads together. “What would I have done if you’d died, huh?”

“Had a lot ‘a unruly chickens on your hands, I imagine,” Nicole thought aloud. Waverly was cry-laughin’, but seemed otherwise unwilling to unhand her. Must’ve been awful to see somethin’ like that happen, Nicole figured. “It’s alright,” she assured her, wishing she could lift an arm to pat her back or whatever.

Waverly didn’t seem to think it was “alright”. She planted her face in Nicole’s neck and bought real estate there. She seemed unlikely to move out any time. “C’mon, Waverly,” Nicole rolled her eyes fondly. “I swear I’m gonna be okay. You saved me.”

“You didn’t see it,” Waverly accused, muffled and still hidden. “You didn’t do nothing to them and they – they tried to execute you right there twenty feet from my porch. And you were there for me. I should’a known better than to let my daddy’s friends in the house. It was my fault,” she lamented, hiccupping and a little hysterical.

Nicole made the decision to attempt shifting all of her weight to one elbow and groaned as she reached around to gently hold the back of Waverly’s neck. “It’s alright,” she repeated lamely. “I can be pretty ugly. Ain’t really their fault.”

“I don’t care,” Waverly sniffled. “You aren’t that ugly.”

“Well…”

Waverly laughed, all snotty. “You’re cute-ugly. I like your ears.”

Nicole smiled and shook her head. “Alright, Waverly. Whatever you say.”

 

+++

 

It probably weren’t her best choice, but Nicole called Nedley the morning after seemingly risin’ from the dead and told him she was fine, busy with work, and wouldn’t be home that night. That bit about getting shot a whole bunch and kinda almost dying was conveniently left out. He had enough worries without admitting that she’d done something so dumb. Besides that, she was mostly alright.

When Nicole had tried to stay in the barn to recuperate, Waverly had made it very clear that she wasn’t going to stand for that. She’d half-dragged Nicole all the way to the house and deposited her in Wynonna’s old room with quilts and sheets that smelled like old cedar and mothballs from the closet she’d gotten them from. Everything hurt real bad, but Waverly made her a huge plate of thick, fatty bacon and about a dozen scrambled eggs with a handful of aspirin and a massive glass of orange juice. Nicole wolfed it down, probably took too many aspirin, and collapsed back into the feather pillows like she’d been given new life.

And, well-

She kinda had.

Waverly just sorta lurked, fluffing pillows and cooking and staring at Nicole like she were a pretty little glass dustable sittin’ too close to the end of the mantle. Like she was teetering.

“Thank you,” Nicole breathed out, wonderfully full and drowsy. She was almost able to ignore the hard throb it’d left her with. “I owe you.”

Waverly scoffed and picked up Nicole’s empty plate. “You know that isn’t true. Do you need anything else?”

Nicole laughed slow and sleepy and pulled the quilt up to her nose. “What else could I even want?”

“A doctor?” Waverly tried timidly.

“Better not.”

“Hm,” She worried, unconvinced. “The Sheriff?”

“Even worse.”

They fell silent while Nicole let the feathers condense and ease her back further into the mattress, a slow recline like being rocked to sleep. While Nicole was sure that Waverly was going to leave her, she came closer and sat at the foot of the bed. She still looked like she was just waiting for Nicole’s untimely demise.

Nicole’s eyes drooped shut and she sighed out long and restful. “M’alright, Waverly,” she murmured. “You ain’t need to babysit me.”

“Yes I do,” she replied.

“Well alright then.”

 

+++

 

Things got worse long before they got better. The fever and the illness took her over quick while she slept. It was like when she’d been knifed with silver as a kid only about a thousand times worse. She turned awful pale and shook so bad she couldn’t even hold a glass of water. The fever got scary enough that Waverly forced her into a cold shower and stood there as pale as Nicole with her phone crushed in her hand, seconds away from a 911 call that Nicole begged her not to place.

In the end, Waverly dosed her with more wolfsbane and held her down while Nicole purged unholy amounts of black sludge and blood through her burning throat for days. The only thing she really had energy to do was place a few very convincing telephone calls to Nedley about her impromptu extended stay on the Earp homestead for some vague maintenance. After that it was back to barfin’ and dyin’ and inconveniencing the master of the house.

It took a good week before Nicole was lucid enough to hold food down and sit up in bed. By then she was almost too exhausted to feel guilty. Almost.

“Sorry,” she said quietly for probably the hundredth time that week while Waverly sat beside her in Wynonna’s bed doing homework and watching her not die. Because that’s what she was doing: not dying.

Waverly stopped chewing on her eraser and looked up. “Hm?”

“I’m sorry. This ain’t your job. I shouldn’t-“

Waverly leveled a glare sharp enough to make Nicole shut her mouth. “Stop saying that, would you?”

“What?”

“Stop saying this isn’t my responsibility. That I shouldn’t care. That I shouldn’t be helping you. Because someone I greatly respect and care about once told me that doin’ the right thing is everybody’s business.”

“What a line.”

“Yeah, well, she’d kinda like that.” Waverly reached out and pulled the quilt higher in Nicole’s lap, likely just for something to do with her hands. “You do an awful lot of fixin’ for everyone else. Would you just shut up and let me do some for you for once?”

And Nicole would’ve dared anyone to say no to the face Waverly was makin’ at her right then.

 

+++

 

Waverly did a pretty good job fixin’.

 

+++

 

“Geez, you were gone a long time, kid,” Nedley greeted her, hovering and awkward with his hands as always. “Did the whole Earp house burn down or something?”

Nicole sighed and tried to walk less like she had six holes in her chest and back. “Nah, I just got lazy and didn’t feel like coming back. Waverly’s a way better cook than you, that’s all.”

Nedley rolled his eyes and kicked Nicole’s boots from the center of the floor back toward the doormat. “Oh, she cooks for you now, does she?” He smiled that stupid adult-who-thinks-they-figured-something-out-about-you smile that dadly men are wont to smile. “Hmmm.”

“Oh, knock it off,” Nicole grumbled, desperate to get to a chair or bed and rest her aching body. “She’s only sixteen. And she’s got a boyfriend.” It would’ve been more convincing if the word boyfriend hadn’t sounded like a rude word for a kind of smelly swamp creature.

Nedley shrugged, still smilin’ like he knew things. Which couldn’t possibly have been true because he didn’t know a single damn thing. He thought a date was a kind of unexciting fruit.

“You hungry?” He moved on.

Nicole winced and thought about gallons of black sludge heaving up through her sore throat. “Er, no. I already ate. I could just use some sleep I think.”

“Alright, kiddo. Let’s do dinner tomorrow, alright? You’ve been a ghost lately.”

Nicole agreed and slunk off to her room, feeling Nedley’s eyes on her scarred back all proud and warm and everything that made Nicole feel like a guilty piece of shit.

 

+++

20

+++

 

Nicole was twenty and Nedley was sliding a pamphlet across the kitchen counter while she flipped pancakes for the two of them. Both of them were in homely flannel pants and old t-shirts, hair sticking up in just about the same places. Nedley looked focused, though, even if his hair weren’t on the same page.

“What’s that?” Nicole asked, flipping a pancake expertly so half landed over the side of the pan and ruined everything. “Shit.”

Nedley hummed, completely free of judgment. “It’s, um, well – no pressure, just thought maybe I’d – well, I don’t know if you’d even be interested, but I know that you’d be great and – seriously, no pressure. I’m not trying to start a legacy or anything I just think…” he gestured vaguely and rubbed at the back of his head.

Nicole threw another pancake through the grate of the neighboring burner while she stared at him. After massacring a sufficient number of pancakes, she cleaned her hands off and pulled the flier toward her while Nedley tried to rub all the hair from the back of his head.

“Is this…” Nicole flipped the flier over, then opened the tri-fold to read through the testing and benefits information. “You want me to be a sheriff’s deputy?”

“I want you to do what you want to do,” he corrected, all blustery and nervous. “I just – well, I wondered if maybe this was something you could want.”

Nicole nodded, flipping the flier over and back again. “Huh.”

“You’d be great,” he assured her. “I see how you are, and I couldn’t be more proud of you. But I also want you to know that you won’t be disappointing me at all if this ain’t what you want.”

Nicole stuffed half of a pancake in her mouth to buy her some time. By the time she’d managed to swallow it, she was nodding thoughtfully. “I ain't ever really thought about it before.” She stuffed the other half of the pancake in her mouth and took another moment for herself. “Do you really think I’d be good at it?”

“Good? You’d be amazing,” he gushed, a kind of infectious excitement shining in his eyes. It made Nicole laugh, which drew it out of Nedley too until they were both chucklin’ about nothing. “So you’ll think about it?” He asked eagerly.

Nicole nodded. “I already am.”

+++

Chapter Text

"I forget everything that's ever made me

rise again."

-Passion Pit, Swimming in the Flood (2009)

 

+++

 

With the new year came a new routine. Since nearly dyin’ on Waverly’s front porch, she’d sorta taken up residence part-time in Wynonna’s room to tend the property. Waverly’d insisted she stay when she wanted, pointing out that she’d seen the amount Nicole got paid for her work and was properly mortified that they couldn’t give her more. Ain’t no big deal.

“Consider it rent,” she’d said and that was that.

So Nicole stayed there a few nights out of the week and Waverly did too and they got along just swell. The new year had also brought new goals and suddenly she was runnin’ as much as she’d done in high school, only with more pushups and situps and other arbitrary things she needed to pass the sheriff’s deputy tests. And then there was the sit and reach test and Nicole was about the least flexible woman on the planet. Waverly tried to teach her yoga on Tuesdays and it went about as well as you could imagine. Her ass ain’t ever felt quite like that.

Waverly also kept workin’ at Shorty’s on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and Nicole would pick her up after her shift in her truck and they’d go back to the homestead so Waverly could help her study for the exam.

Saturdays were always just a little wild at Shorty’s. Nicole dropped down out of her truck with a long sigh, back aching from a full day cleaning gutters and patching a roof for the Moselys since dawn. They’d paid her in eight liters of moonshine that Nicole was terrified to drink and a rusted out Thunderbird that Nedley was dying to restore with her.

She wiped her forehead with the ratty handkerchief from her back pocket and mopped at her neck as she trudged inside. She looked somethin’ awful, but she ain’t have the energy left to give a hoot.

It was only eleven – which was as late as Shorty would let Wavelry work on any given night – but Waverly was hard to see in the crowd of what seemed like every breathing soul over 18 in Purgatory. There weren’t a whole lot to do ‘round there. Nicole slipped past a few crowds of roaring men and laughing groups of friends before she was able to spot Waverly replacing the kegs under the counter. Or she was tryin’ to anyways. Those things were wicked heavy.

“Y’alright, Waverly?” Nicole asked, coming up to the counter. Waverly grunted, bracing the new keg between her hip and the counter. “Want some help?”

“Please,” she wheezed.

Once the keg was safely lifted from her hands and taken’ round back with the rest, Nicole’s back was seized up even worse. She stretched long and hard with a groan like she was pushin’ eighty. But that’s just what you get for tryin’ to look tough and cool.

“You look tired,” Waverly pointed out, eyes fixed firmly on the keg. She seemed to be fiddlin’ for no reason, considering it had been properly hooked up. It was like she wouldn’t look directly at her.

Nicole’s back popped and she sighed. “Long day. Ain’t nothin’ worse than cleaning gutters. But the good news is now I have enough moonshine to kill me fifty nights in a row or kill fifty of me one night in a row – which are both things I’ve always wanted.”

Waverly was nodding absently, staring at Nicole in a weird kinda way. It was probably the heinous coveralls tied at her waist and the gross t-shirt she’d torn the arms off of last summer.

“What’s up?” Nicole prodded, looking down at herself like maybe there was somethin’ weird on her shirt - besides eighty pounds of gutter filth. “You’re givin’ me a weird look.”

Shaking herself, Waverly got up from the keg and ushered Nicole out from the back room. “Nothing, I’m just spacey,” she said, giggling nervously before choking on her own spit. She picked up the conversation, chattering away about her regulars and the bar drama and all things that Nicole found sordidly fascinating as an outsider.

Everything fell away, though, when she saw him.

And he looked just the same as he did thatnight – and why wouldn’t he? It ain’t been that long since he’d emptied his chamber in all her vital organs on sight. He was wearin’ the same old duster, the same outdated mustache, and the same corny aura of a cowboy who was too mysterious for his own damn good.

Nicole hadn’t even realized she’d stopped walking until Waverly looked back at her from ten paces ahead. The fear must’ve shown on her face, because Waverly was back with her instantly, looking around like she was gonna beat up whatever the threat was when she found it.

“Oh shit,”she said - which was exactly what Nicole had thought too. “I didn’t know Doc was back in town,” she hissed. When she saw that Nicole was only getting paler, she grabbed her arm and steered her the long way out to the exit. The rapidly cooling air felt nice on her skin and she breathed deep while Waverly fretted.

“Are you okay? I’m sorry, I didn’t even notice him come in. I would’ve – I would’ve – I don’t know, done something.”

Nicole laughed meekly. “What would you have done? Shot him back?”

“Is that what you want?”

Of course it was.

“Of course not,” she scoffed. “Just caught me by surprise is all.” Her knees still felt all weird, like wobbly jello. When she tried to go around to the driver’s side of her truck, Waverly stepped in front of her and blocked her with hands on her stomach. She could feel Waverly’s hands on two big ugly scars shaped like Doc’s bullets.

“You’re not driving,” Waverly said, gentle but firm. “I’ll drive.” Nicole only got a moment to open her mouth in protest before Waverly cut her off. “There’s no way that you’re okay. A man shot you six times in a place you should’ve felt safe for no reason at all. You’re not okay with it, because if you are, you’ve got bigger problems than the way others treat you. Alright?”

“I –“ Nicole swallowed hard and considered, maybe for the first time, how not okay she was with it. “Yeah, yeah alright.”

"But let me know if you change your mind, I'll totally shoot him."

"Yeah, alright. I'll keep you posted."

Waverly took her back to the homestead and made hot chocolate. It was hard to drink it with the way she hugged Nicole’s bicep while they sat on the worn out couch, tryin’ to make things just a little more okay.

 

+++

 

Needless to say, but whatever her wilder side demanded of her, Nicole stayed put in Nedley’s yard during the next few full moons. And it weren’t just the logic of it, neither. She was scared. All the time, really. But never more than when she was on all fours, finely attuned to every change and scent in the breeze and every individual shifting blade of grass. It was like she could hear the plates shifting in the earth under her feet. She felt wired and twitchy and sick to her stomach with anxiety.

Alone in Nedley’s yard, hiding under his porch she would grit her long, terrible teeth and weather the night alone tremblin’ like she weren’t the scariest thing in Purgatory. And, well-

She supposed she weren’t no more.

All the while, the flashbacks and cold sweat of what it felt like when her life left her body played in Technicolor detail across her brain like it’d been tattooed there forever. Now she knew why beat dogs were never the same.

Things went like that, nobody the wiser really. Except-

The low groan of wood under stress perked her ears and Nicole trembled twice as bad. She was under the porch again, laying so flat against the ground she hoped maybe it’d swallow her up and spit her back out in the morning. Something scraped against the fence on the far side of the property a few times – boots scrambling for purchase and- thump.

Nicole choked on an involuntary whine and cowered.

Her brain conjured up images of massive, grisly men in leather and dust with revolvers on each hip and that evil judgment on their shoulders. Whoever it was groaned and sighed a bit and it was definitely nota man, grisly or otherwise.

“Oof. That’s a tall fence. Shit.”

Nicole narrowed her eyes and sniffed at the air, perking up just a bit at hot chocolate and homemade quilts.

“Nicole?” Waverly called in a whisper, drifting across the property. “Nicole, are you here?” She was a little shadow in the big yard, timid and slinking with a heavy bag hoisted over her shoulder. And as big a part of Nicole that wanted to go to her and enjoy her easy acceptance and the comfort it brought, a part just as big screamed danger. Because the last time she’d gone to Waverly for those easy creature comforts, someone had – they’d-

Nicole shuddered and pressed harder into the ground. It hurt to watch Waverly falter in the middle of the backyard, small and timid and alone. She glanced ‘round slowly, taking time to stare up at the lights on in Nicole’s kitchen but off in her room. As she scanned the house, she did a double take and was suddenly staring right in Nicole’s eyes.

Damned monster eyes.

The better to see you with, my dear.

“Nicole?” She called softly.

It was all rather embarrassing, but she was frozen where she cowered like…you know. A coward.

Waverly tiptoed closer, mindful that she was approaching a cornered animal for once in her life. When she got close to the porch, she set her bag on the ground and crouched down to get a better look at the whole mess.

“Hey,” she said softly and scooted forward a few steps. “Are you okay?” She asked, like Nicole could really answer her. Embarrassingly, what came out was a low wine.

Then Waverly was on her hands and knees, crawling under the porch and ruining her nice jeans, cobwebs all up in her nice hair. “Nicole?” When she reached her, Nicole shut her eyes tight and willed everything in the world to just go away for a bit. A hand settled softly on top of her head and applied just enough pressure to be present. “You’re shaking,” Waverly pointed out.

Her hand drifted down slowly over her spine, stilling over the aching, awful mess of scars on her lower back. “Oh,” Waverly said simply. “I’m an idiot. Of course you’re – of course.”

Nicole felt twelve years old again when Waverly hoisted her entire head up into her lap and held her close, tracing over her slimy nose and between her eyes with gentle, curious hands. “I’ve got you,” she assured her and weirdly enough, Nicole believed her. “I’m so sorry about what those hunters did to you,” she murmured, almost to herself. “I doubt there’s anyone out there who deserved it less.”

Nicole’s eyes fluttered, but stayed closed. A deep rumble came to life in her chest and really – how embarrassing.

“This is where you’ve been the last few moons, isn’t it?” She asked needlessly. “I should’ve come sooner, I just didn’t want to impose.”

It was rather funny to think of anyone concerning themselves with imposing on something like her, but leave it to Waverly Earp.

“I brought you some steaks. Hot chocolate too, but I don’t know what I was thinking. I just kinda panicked. I don’t imagine you want hot chocolate, but don’t worry yourself about it,” she rambled, stroking her ears and calming the sickening amounts of adrenaline that had been poisoning her all night. “We’ll get you fed, then we’ll figure this out together. Alright?”

And they did.

 

+++

 

“I think it’s time you tell Nedley,” Waverly said one night under the porch.

Nicole thought so too.

 

+++

 

Nicole ain’t ever saw Nedley cry before she told him that a man had almost killed her for sneakin’ off to listen to Waverly Earp read her bedtime stories. He held her so close, she thought maybe he was tryin’ to put her in his chest cavity and keep her there, safe, forever.

It felt a little like healing.

 

+++

 

Bobo visited her out of the blue – as he does – on a cold, cold night right when December crept quiet up Purgatory’s back. He looked more tired than Nicole remembered him, haggard and smaller in his clothes. He was just standin’ at the end of Nedley’s long driveway, hands stuffed in his huge coat.

Nicole let herself out the front door and walked slow to meet him while the sun was sinking fast over the dessert shrubs.

“Hey, mutt,” he greeted and Nicole wondered when it’d become an endearment between them.

Nicole came to stand in front of him and nodded back. “Bobo.”

“Been hearin’ strange things lately,” he said said, breaking eye contact to watch the sun. He always had a habit of talkin’ with folks like they weren’t even there.

Nicole shrugged. “Hear those a lot in Purgatory.”

“Strange things about you.”

“Hear those a lot too.”

Bobo laughed weakly through his nose. “Things are tense, these days. Well – I guess they always have been.” Then he was looking right into her eyes, alpha predator. “I need to know what happened with those hunters on the Earp’s property.”

Something cold and dreadful sank down her spine into the pit of her stomach, but Nicole showed nothing. “Yeah? And what’s that?”

“Don’t waste my time, mutt,” he dismissed. “There were hunters hanging around the Earp house a few months back and word is they killed one of us. Funny thing is, none of my people are gone and I’m not aware of any other mutts in the area.”

Nicole shrugged. “Must not’ve been true.”

“Must not,” Bobo agreed, slow and dangerous. “But I know one of these hunters and he may be walking death for our kind, but I ain’t ever known him to lie about these things. Doc don’t try to fool around with me. Kill me, yes. Lie to me, no.”

Nicole blinked slowly at him, lips sealed firmly shut.

Bobo let out a long, heavy sigh and pulled a hand down over his tired face. “He said the monster was red.”

Stupid fuckin’ hair.

“Well I ain’t dead,” Nicole pointed out and that only made him eye her harder.

“You ain’t,” he agreed. “I gotta know why, I gotta know where, and I gotta know how.” At Nicole’s paleness, he let his head hang to the side and sighed another heavy sigh. “Please,” he begrudged.

Nicole unclenched her jaw and took a deep breath. Her hands were fisted in her pockets, clammy and trembling. “Seems like you know what happened,” she said quietly. “Wrong place wrong time. I happened to survive it.”

“And the Earp girl?” He asked seriously.

Nicole didn’t know what to make of that, but she didn’t think she liked it. “What do you mean?”

“What did she have to do with it?” Bobo was all hard lines and top dog presence again, looming even at about the same height. “I need to know what the status of my peoples’ truce is with Ward’s heirs. I knew Ward, bastard though he might’ve been. I don’t know his daughters.”

“I ain’t your people,” Nicole pointed out with a harsh laugh. “Why does it matter?”

Bobo took a step closer and bared his teeth.“It matters because the hunters don’t know that,” he spat. “It matters because if they’re shooting our kind, they don’t carewho belongs to what tribe. It’s like tryin’ to convince ‘em not to scrape a certain kind of shit off the bottom of their shoe. We’re all the same to them.”

Nicole scoffed and shook her head. “Well, it an’t have nothin’ to do with Waverly. She’s got nothin’ to do with nothin’, you hear?” When she received only a narrowed look, she bared her teeth right back at him. “I mean it, Bobo.”

Bobo’s gaze turned curious. “Does she know about you? Does she know what you are?”

It felt like a trap, but Nicole weren’t very good at avoiding those either way. “Yes,” she offered cautiously. “It don’t matter to her.”

“Right,” he said skeptically. “Ward Earp’s daughter doesn’t care that you turn into a maneater every full moon. Pardon my doubt.”

“She ain’t like that,” Nicole insisted. “And besides, it don’t matter. She’s not – she’s not a hunter. She didn’t-“ Nicole pulled her shirt over her head, still damp from her run leaving her bare to the fading light. “She didn’t do this to me.”

And there it was, clear even in the failing light. Six red and awful scars, poorly healed from home medicine and ugly to look at. They looked even angrier in the red glow from sunset, but she stood there crucifying herself in Bobo’s gaze, unafraid for just about the first time in a dozen moons.

Bobo stared hard, eyes tracking each wound like he was memorizing it all. After what felt like a lifetime, he softened and nodded like he understood – like he could ever understand a damn thing. “Okay,” he said.

He rubbed at the scruff on the top of his head a moment, before letting his coat fall open, revealing his bare chest. Two close, ugly scars lay under his heart, badly healed but neat like target practice. They were shaped just like hers. “Nothin’s the same afterward, is it?” He asked, eyes tracing something distant over Nicole’s shoulder. “Evil done unto us is evil we will do unto others. It’s like an infection you can never cut out.”

“I ain’t gonna go around biting a bunch of folks if that’s what you’re worried about. I wouldn’t turn nobody into this thing I am,” Nicole said wryly.

With a dry laugh, Bobo shook his head. “I ain’t worried about that. Only those born into the bloodline can turn humans. Those who are turned through a bite can’t pass it on.”

“Then what about me worries you? What are you gettin’ at?”

Bobo let his coat fall back over his chest. “What worries me is that there’s gonna come a time when you’re gonna feel an itch to do wrong because so much wrong was done to you. And I don’t want that wrong to be what makes me have to put you down.” He leveled her with a piercing stare. “I know what it’s like to live with that itch – that need for vengeance. But you either live with it, mutt-“ he produced a hand-rolled cigarette from his pocket and tucked it between his teeth – “or you die for it.”

When Nicole didn’t response in the time it took him to light the tip and take one long drag to start the end smoldering, he raised his eyebrows. “Understand?”

“I think so.”

“Good.” His coat spun at his knees when he turned to leave.

Nicole watched him take the first few steps away from the driveway before calling out after him. “What about Waverly?” He stopped and his coat swung forward with the halt in momentum, brushing his knees again. “Will the truce stand?”

“As long as no Earp raises their hand against me or my kin,” he shrugged. “Can’t speak for the other hunters in the area.” His head drifted to the side in thought. “Don’t let me hear anything about her hangin’ around those hunters.”

“You wouldn’t hurt her, would you?”

Bobo gave her a dark look, full of promises Nicole knew Bobo didn’t break. “You’ve seen mine,” he warned. “I got that itch too.”

 

+++

Chapter Text

 

"Cynicism isn't wisdom, it's a lazy way to say that you've been burned.

It seems, if anything, you'd be less certain after everything you ever learned."

-Nana Grizol, Cynicism (2010)

 

+++

 

Nicole ain’t the worryin’ type normally, but one regularly scheduled Saturday failed to live up to its regularly scheduled aspect. She went ‘round to Shortys at about eleven, but Shorty told her that Waverly was off that Saturday. Nicole checked her phone, checked her brain, and checked anything she could think to check but Waverly hadn’t advised her of such. Which really begged the question where she was.

Waverly had friends, though, and school and a life and all things that Nicole ain’t really had. So what did she know. But Waverly was nothin’ if not three steps ahead of everything, so it was uncharacteristic of her not to have provided Nicole with anything short of a notorized document two weeks in advance with her alternative plans for the evening.

So Nicole worried.

And she worried all over town at a slow, stalking pace in her truck trying to see if Waverly was out and about. She was beginning to think that maybe Waverly was off at Gus’s house and was prepared to point her truck in that direction, but then she saw her sittin’ all broody on a bench underneath the flickering street light closest to the Stop ‘N Go gas station.

Nicole pulled a U-turn misaligned with her future plans of enforcing the law and parked right up next to Waverly’s slumped shoulders.

“Y’alright Waverly?” Nicole called as she dropped out of her truck and circled the front bumper. “It’s a little cold out for brooding. And look at the jacket you’re wearing.” Nicole shrugged her insulated denim workcoat off her shoulders and dropped it on Waverly’s, swallowing her in the thing.

Waverly offered her a wan smile. “Thanks.”

“Ain’t no big thing. I got another in the truck.” And when Waverly didn’t seem ready to get up and go, Nicole took a seat beside her, shooting little worried looks at her – ‘cause apparently she was a worrier now. “You never did say if you were alright or not,” she pointed out.

“Hm,” Waverly said helpfully.

Nicole frowned. “I was worried ‘bout you.” Her fingers drummed nervously on her knees, unaccustomed to whatever mood Waverly had gotten in.

Waverly laughed a little in the back of her throat. “Of course you were.”

“Of course I was,” Nicole echoed, giving her an encouraging smile. “You’re a planner and I didn’t know there’d been a change in plans.”

Waverly blinked a bit and then gasped. “Oh, shoot! I’m sorry, I forgot completely. Shorty sent me home ‘cause I wasn’t feelin’ well. But I didn’t really feel like going home either.”

“It’s alright.” She leaned forward, propping her elbows on her knees and watching garbage drift down the street in the sharp gusts. “What’s on your mind? If you’re not feeling well I can stop and get somethin’ at the pharmacy.”

Waverly laughed again, sweetly, like she was in on some kinda joke that Nicole definitely wasn’t. “I’m okay.” Her smile soured, and her mouth twisted in a grimace. “Just…feeling weird.”

“Yeah? What about? Can I help?”

Waverly shook her head. “Afraid not.” She twisted her fingers together and sighed. “I just…I don’t know. I – well, Champ and I-“ she puffed out her cheeks and went a little red as she stared at some point on the ground. “You’ve lost your virginity, right?” She blurted out, eyes wide and mortified.

Nicole turned a bit red too and she scratched at the back of her head. “Uh, yeah. I guess.”

“What was it like for you?”

“Er, uh,” Nicole shook her head, bewildered, and grimaced. “I’m not sure how myexperiences will help you. I ain’t…like you. And I’d like to give you advice on…that, but, er, you know I can’t?” She stumbled, tripping into the end zone somehow. Touchdown. Or whatever.

Waverly covered her eyes like maybe she could make Nicole disappear. Or maybe she thought she could disappear, like Nicole was so dumb she ain’t quite gotten around to the mastery of object permanence. Either way.

“Ugh, that’s not what I-“ She sighed so hard Nicole wondered if she’d hurt herself. “I just meant in general, not the mechanics of it,” she grumbled. “It’s just, I let Champ talk me into sex and now I feel gross about it. Is that normal?”

Nicole reeled back, failing royally to not look at Waverly like she had three eyes. “He what?” She asked dumbly. “He talked you into – he – he. He did what?”

Waverly shrugged uncomfortably. “I dunno, he kept saying I was blue balling him and that all the other girls he was with while we were on break had no problem with it and then I began to feel like I wasn’t normal so I just kinda figured what’s the harm? It’s not that big of a deal to anyone else, so why should it be to me? And we were already alone in his room and he was nice about it, and, and – god, I dunno.” She gestured helplessly. “It was whatever. It was over so quick and he was real happy afterwards, but I didn’t particularly feel anything. Which is whatever. But now I feel weird about it.”

Nicole continued to stare unhelpfully and Waverly cringed. “I just feel like I made myself grow up too fast.” She waved her hand in front of her face dismissively. “I’ll get over it, though. It’s not a big deal, I’m just being weird.”

“You’re not being weird,” Nicole defended, scooting closer. She tried hard to catch Waverly’s eye to no avail. “I mean it. Things are allowed to be a big deal to you if you want them to be. Everyone’s gonna try and tell you that sex ain’t a big deal and that you ain’t bein’ socialized right if you’re not along for the ride, but they ain’t you and they ain’t lookin’ out for you. Growing up is hard and you’re allowed to feel things about it. If you weren’t ready, you weren’t ready. Champ should’a known better, but just because it happened don’t mean it changed you any.”

Waverly was looking at her by then, eyes wide and mouth open just a little, nodding ever so slightly.

“You’re gonna be okay,” she assured her, reaching for one of her hands and holding it gently. “It was okay not to be ready. It ain’t your fault and it ain’t weirdof you. But this ain’t changed you and you ain’t have to grow up because of it. Alright, Waverly?”

“Yeah, alright,” Waverly sniffled with a little smile.

Nicole grinned. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

 

+++

 

Waverly broke things off with Champ a week later and when Nicole brought her a milkshake and asked if she was alright, she smiled the same as always and shrugged like duh.

 

+++

 

 Weeks before Waverly’s graduation, Nicole came in to the homestead to find Waverly’s paperbag lunch forgotten on the counter. She ain’t thought much of it, abandoning her plans for the day to grab the bag, hop in her truck and make her way to the next town over to drop it off.

She hadn’t missed Waverly by much that morning and managed to roll up to her old high school before everyone had filed inside for the start of the day. Waverly was hanging around where she always had, seated on the steps to the left of the front entrance with a bunch of her friends. Nicole pulled right up to the curb and leaned out the window with the bag dangling from her hand. “Waverly!” She called.

Waverly’s head shot up and boy did that girl go on a face journey. It was some seven stages of grief that comprised instead of about thirty shades of happy and horrified in a blinding strobe pattern. One of her friends asked her who the hell Nicole was and another started making fun of her.

If it hadn’t been too late to take it back, Nicole would’ve tried. She ain’t know what she did wrong, but she was sorry.

Waverly snapped something at her friends and came over while Nicole sat there sweating. “Uh, hi,” Nicole tried tentatively when she got close enough. “You forgot your lunch.” She offered it like a bargaining chip with a sheepish smile.

A glimpse of something aching and tender stole across Waverly’s face and Nicole’s heart swooped with hope. The moment crashed down a beat later when one of her friends shouted, “Who’s that, Waverly? That your girlfriend?”

Waverly’s expression closed and she sighed irritably, snatching the lunch out of Nicole’s hands. “What are you doing here?” She ground her teeth together while her friends taunted at her back.

“Uh, you forgot your lunch?”

“So?” Waverly demanded. “You’re not my girlfriend.”

The word held so much distain that Nicole wilted, sinking backwards into the driver’s seat and nodding mournfully. “I – I know that. I weren’t tryin’ to…” She swallowed hard a few times as an embarrassing stone sank in her throat. “I just thought you’d want your lunch. I ain’t tryin’ to make you uncomfortable or nothin’.”

Waverly took a quick look over her shoulder to her friends who were laughing and ribbing at each other. “She’s not –“ Waverly huffed and stomped her foot, “She’s not my girlfriend!” She called back. “She works for me!”

“Well, tell the help you gotta get to class!” One of them warned her.

Nothin’ hurts quite like the truth.

“I…yeah.” Nicole nodded and rubbed her fingers along the worn out leather of the steering wheel. “Right.”

Waverly’s eyes went wide and she twisted up the top fold of the bag in her fingers. “Nicole,” she said like it was a complete sentence.

Nicole decided to minimize the damage and put her truck in drive. “I’m sorry, Waverly. Didn’t mean to –“ Well, she wasn’t really sure what. “I’ll see you around,” she said quietly, pulling away and only allowing herself one look in the rearview mirror to where Waverly was still stood stiff with a lunch bag clutched in her hands.

 

+++

 

On the way home, Nicole wondered if Waverly would enjoy the cherry turnover she’d slipped inside from Anne’s Bakery. She’d picked it up special for her. It was her favorite.

The radio played something slow and waltzy and Nicole’s heart beat half-time.

 

+++

 

Nedley made burgers on the little charcoal grill out back that night, which was usually just about the best thing in the world. But Nicole was all mopey and a little sick in her stomach.

“You sure you’re good?” Nedley had asked, holding the back of his hand briefly to her forehead. “You usually eat like a king. Three kings.”

She ain’t felt like three kings. She felt more like ground chuck.

Waverly showed up on her doorstep after dinner, but Nicole stayed hidden in her room while Nedley apologized on her behalf.

 

+++

 

Nicole fed the chickens while Waverly was at school then spent the rest of the day back in her room at Nedley’s house reading an old transmission manual and bein’ sad. It weren’t like she thought her and Waverly…

But she was more than the help.

She just thought they’d been closer. She ain’t mean to embarrass or overstep. She knew what she was and what she ain’t. And Waverly was like-

Gosh.

But whatever. It was her fault for getting too close.

Waverly showed up again around dinner with a huge basket of lumpy homemade cupcakes and Nicole made Nedley turn her away again. Nicole weren’t feelin’ well anyhow.

Nedley brought the cupcakes up and set them on the bed, pulling the book from Nicole’s hands. “You tryin’ to bore yourself to death? You already know all this stuff. C’mon, have a cupcake.”

Nicole picked at one of them, licking the slightly crunching frosting from her fingers with a small smile. “They’re alright.”

“Yeah, the Earp girl ain’t much of a baker,” he grinned. “Someone so pretty can’t be good at everything.”

Nicole laughed dully. “Must be why I’m so good at everything.”

“No, you’re pretty too. Pretty and good at everything.” He shrugged. “But then, you ain’t human so it don’t count.”

Nicole rolled her eyes with a smile. “Oh, shut it.”

“So why do you keep sending that sweet girl away, huh?” He gave Nicole one of those softly stern looks from under his bushy eyebrows. “She was almost cryin’ both times.”

“Ugh,” Nicole groaned. “Don’t worry about it.”

Nedley scoffed and ruffled her hair aggressively until Nicole shoved his arm away with a scowl. “Too late,” he laughed, “I’m worried.”

Her hair was a lost cause, but Nicole still tried to straighten it out. “It ain’t a big deal. I think I just embarrassed her in front of her friends. Overstepped, maybe.”

“How’d you manage that? I’ve been trying to embarrass you for years.”

“Well,” Nicole said sardonically, “I’ve got good news for you.”

Nedley grinned, big and stupid. “So what’d you do?”

“She forgot her lunch so I brought it to her. I called her over in front of her friends and they were teasing her about bein’ my girlfriend and it freaked her out. I get it – I mean, of course it freaked her out. I weren’t tryin’ to be gay at her, but I remember how the girls treated me in high school so I can’t even really be mad.” She sighed and flopped back in her feather pillows and sank into them. “I was just bein’ friendly is all. I thought we was good friends.”

“Kiddo,” Nedley said seriously, pulling the pillow off of Nicole’s face. “I forbid you from feeling bad about people treating you wrong for the good in your heart, you hear?” When Nicole tried to shrug him off, he pinned her down with a hard look. “I mean it, Nicole. They treat you bad ‘cause of what’s in their hearts – notwhat’s in yours. They hurt you and you’re tryin’ to figure out why. Sometimes there ain’t a why and you just gotta be hurt. But whatever you do, don’t put that hurt on yourself.”

Nicole sniffed loudly and Nedley did her the kindness of putting the pillow back over her face. He patted it gently and Nicole laughed a little through her tears. “Thanks,” she mumbled, heavily muffled by the pillow. “For the pillow.”

“You’d do the same for me.”

“Smother you? I sure would.”

 

+++

 

She threw herself into her exam prep workouts and restoring that Thunderbird and picking up as much work in the surrounding towns as possible and only missed Waverly by absence rather than by avoidance. She weren’t in the habit of forcing her company on people, but Waverly persisted. She was there about every day, leaving things and cryin’ all over her front porch – according to Nedley anyhow.

The weird part was that Nicole weren’t even really that mad after a few days. Well. She weren’t ever really mad, just embarrassed and hurt and everything she’d thought she was safe from with Waverly. But she got it, really. Waverly was just about the kindest person Nicole knew, but she was human and to err is human, but to err hard is high school. If nothing else, she remembered the terror of that. After a tough ten days of it, Nicole weren’t even that hurt anymore, she just didn’t know how to bridge the space between ‘em. 

She ain’t really had much practice with that.

It was only when Waverly’s graduation rolled around that Nicole took off for the evening in oil-stained jeans and a ratty baseball hat fresh off a job and barely in time at the high school. She sidled up the back row of bleachers in the gym, picking a spot high up and out of the way. One of the teachers gave a nice little speech, followed by Waverly who was, of course, the valedictorian and nominated class speaker.

Waverly’s speech was cute and short, filled with a few genuine laughs and fun references to what Nicole assumed were inside class jokes. She got a big round of applause that Nicole helped with, then they began the arduous process of marching all the students in alphabetical lines across the stage while they called out names.

When Waverly was on deck, waiting for Ashley Eams to shake the principal’s hand, she turned and looked right up past a hundred other people into Nicole’s eyes. Her mouth opened in surprise a moment and Nicole worried about what would follow after the surprise wore off. But then Waverly’s mouth pulled into a huge grin. She even got a little jittery wave from her.

After Ricky Zurkas took his turn across the stage, there was general hoopla and hat throwin’ and congratulatin’ and all that good stuff. Nicole was in the process of squeezing past a bunch of teary families, trying to escape the maze of evacuating bleachers, when she heard someone call.

“Nicole!”

Nicole turned to look over her shoulder, but Waverly was already smashing into her back, wrapping her arms tight around Nicole from behind and smushing her face into Nicole’s back. “You came,” she muffled into Nicole’s ratty shirt.

Laughing, Nicole tried to look over her shoulder but couldn’t manage it with Waverly clinging like that. “Yeah, just thought I’d drop by. Congrats, by the way.”

“I love you.”

“Uh, what?”

Waverly’s fingers clenched briefly in Nicole’s shirt, before she pushed back. “Er, I meant that I love that you’re here! I didn’t think anyone was coming! Gus had to go out of town for her aunt’s funeral and Curtis is out of town for a ranch deal and, and and-“ She sniffed real loud.

“It’s alright, Waverly,” she said, chucking Waverly under the chin. “Don’t cry, your makeup will run.”

All it really did was succeed in making Waverly blubber harder. Nicole’s hands hovered near Waverly’s head, a little panicked when the crying didn’t stop. One of Waverly’s friends came up and grabbed the girl’s hands excitedly.

“C’mon, Waverly. Ew, stop crying. We’re going out and getting wasted, let’s go! Mark and Buster are already in the parking lot,” she gushed, tugging her toward the exit.

Waverly looked between Nicole and her friend for a moment and Nicole gave her a casual shrug. “Go ahead. I’ll see you later,” Nicole offered.

She’d barely gotten the offer out of her mouth before Waverly shook her head and removed her hands from her friend’s grip. “No. Sorry, Dana. I’m going out with Nicole.”

“Your handyman?” Dana shot Nicole a weird look.

“No, she’s my friend,” Waverly said so aggressively Nicole and Dana shared a concerned look. “You guys have fun, though,” she said dismissively, taking Nicole’s hand and leading her from the gymnasium.

Ain’t no arguin’ about that.

 

+++

 

“You sure you didn’t want to go out with your friends?” Nicole asked while they sat in Steve’s Place drinking milkshakes the size of their forearms.

Waverly licked the full length of her Sunday spoon and Nicole followed it helplessly. “I am out with my friends,” she shrugged. “Wanna get wine drunk and watch old westerns?”

 

+++

 

“I’m so sorry,” Waverly hiccupped, three glasses into a remarkably cheap red. In their defense, Purgatory only really had cheap wine. Nedley had almost wept over a $30 bottle of chardonnay once that’d been a gift from his weird, ancient uncle in California. It tasted just like the $8 wine from the Stop n’ Go, but whatever.

Waverly had been playing absently with Nicole’s ring finger for the last two hours, like she was afraid Nicole was gonna disappear if weren't touching her at every opportunity. “I was so doggone mean to you. You don't have to forgive me - just being here with you means the world to me. The second you drove away I wanted to barf. I’ve felt sick for weeks.”

Nicole offered her an apologetic smile. “Maybe it was the turnover.”

“No,” Waverly sniffed, “it was me.”

Nicole took the glass from Waverly’s hands and sighed. “Don’t cry again.”

“I can’t help it. I feel like I stomped all over your heart and I don’t know how to fix it.” She made a grab for the wine glass, but Nicole shifted it higher out of reach.

“You’re already fixing it,” Nicole smiled. “Just bein’ here with me.”

“No," Waverly said with drunken finality. "I gotta walk the plank.”

“You are such a damn lightweight.”

 

+++

Chapter Text

"Because you've had your chances, yeah you've had enough

I'm gonna burn your house down to spread peace and love."

-Declan McKenna, Brazil (2017)

 

+++

21

+++

 

It was a slow healing, but there came a moon in the late spring when Nicole’s knees didn’t shake and her big, awful teeth didn’t chatter and she breathed in all the scents of Purgatory in Spring and suddenly it weren’t all so terrifying no more.

She left Nedley’s yard at a slow trot and made her way cautiously to the Earp homestead, padding past the soft bickering of the chickens settling down for the night and the whispering grass that needed cut again. Felt like all she did ‘round the Earp house was cut grass. How a desert like Purgatory managed to have such affluent grass was an exhausting mystery.

Waverly weren’t on her porch and she weren’t in the kitchen when Nicole pressed up on hindlegs and smeared her nose against the front window to try and catch a glimpse of her. She huffed irritably and circled the property, resigned to Waverly being out that night. It weren’t one of her regular nights anyhow and Waverly was a busy gal.

Not pouting at all, because that ain’t what monsters do – Nicole not-pouted over to the barn and pushed inside. She greeted the ladies, let them peck at her nose a bit and argue about nothin’ in particular, then drifted back outside when they settled in for the night. As she pushed out of the barn, she was greeted with two big old yellow eyes, haunting and grim levitating in the dark across the property by the fence.

Nicole’s pulse tripped and doubled in about two beats and her claws dug hard into the ground. For a moment, she prayed it was Bobo just bein’ cryptic and nosey. The eyes narrowed and big, wicked canines were bared, shiny and evil in the full light of the moon.

Even that many years later - even bein’ the same awful lookin’ creature herself - the sight still almost drove her stomach right out her throat. The creature reared up, no longer crouched in that damned grass and it towered, bristling and ready to kill.

Well, it’d been real.

Nicole got ready to bolt.

And she really would’ve too, but for once in her life Waverly Earp showed up and Nicole was not happy to see her. She was wheelin’ her bike up the driveway, calling for Nicole because of course she’d gone looking for her at Nedleys and of course she’d come back at the worst possible time. Waverly smiled when she saw her, eyes lighting up on the light of that big moon and she opened her mouth like she was gonna call something across the yard.

The beast across the yard swiveled its great, monstrous head and scented the air in Waverly’s direction with a low, rumbling growl like the promise of lightning. Nicole bristled. And there was a moment, where that beast across the yard looked back and made eye contact with Nicole one last time. One last look that Nicole returned like, don’t you dare.

The beast returned it like, why don’t you stop me.

And then he was runnin’ and so was she.

The ground shook with their pounding claws and heaving chests and soon Waverly was startled and watching with wide eyes while two horrifyin’ creatures ran right for her, on a deadly path of interception.

Her target was bigger, meaner, mouth full of teeth even longer than her own, and faster, but it weren’t nothin’ compared to how much smaller Waverly was. Nicole pushed her limbs hard, acid burning up through her quads and chest on fire and crack-

The noise when she ran headlong into the beast’s charge only yards from Waverly’s horrified face was ghastly. It was a sickening crunch of bones as they tumbled away, scratching and biting and roaring so loud she couldn’t even hear Waverly screamin’ no more. She felt claws tear through her shoulder, shredding the one that ain’t even have big ol’ bullet holes in it. Like, c’mon.

Teeth snapped around her ankle and it was all she could do to keep frantically clawing at what she hoped was the monster’s head. A paw the size of a serving platter clobbered her in the temple, sending her brain spinning. By the time she’d blinked it away, she was being held down hard against the ground with one of those massive paws against her throat while the creature roared right in her face.

Things could’ve been goin’ better was the point.

Before it could eviscerate her, a big thwak sent it reeling off into the grass.

And like some divine, highly unorthodox angel, there stood Waverly Earp wielding Excalibur. Nicole ain’t ever known Excalibur was a wooden baseball bat with a bunch of rusty nails hammered through the barrel. But it kinda made sense in a place like Purgatory.

Waverly’s knees were shaking and her chest heaved, but her face was determined. And goddamn.

Nicole rode that high and leapt to her feet, pouncing hard on her adversary’s back and tearing at the back of its neck. They grappled a while longer, clawing and tumbling around until Nicole was able to get a firm grip with her long, long teeth around it’s soft neck and crunch. She ain't even really thought about it - didn't even have time to consider what it all meant, what she'd have to live with. What Waverly would have to live with.

It’s jugular gave with a gruesome sound and a waterfall of warmth fell over Nicole’s eyes.

 

+++

 

The monster died there, slow and gurgling while Nicole tasted the end of its life and she was certain there were some things that you live with and there were some things you don’t, but there were definitely things that changed the chemistry of your soul.

 

+++

 

When Nicole tried to limp over to Waverly, she flinched and it was like gettin’ shot six times all over again.

“Nicole?” She asked like she ain’t even know her.

And considering the drops of blood tumbling from her teeth into the dust at her bloody feet, Nicole thought, maybe she doesn’t.

Worse, Nicole thought maybe she didn’t know herself.

She stumbled back and whined, sending flecks of blood flying from her teeth. It made her retreat further back and she thought about bolting again. Regret was too strong a word – Waverly was safe– but it felt like she was walking backward on thin ice about to fall through into a cold current.

Before she could retreat too far, Waverly shook her head hard and steeled herself. She dropped the bat at her feet and raised her hands, coming closer with a gentled grimace. “Hey, no, I’m sorry,” she fretted. “I’m just freaked out. It’s not you, I swear. Well, not really. I’ve never seen you – well, I’ve never seen anything-“ She shuddered and shivered even in the warm air. “C’mere.”

Nicole stayed put.

“Please?” She whispered. “Are you hurt?”

And she was a little. On her shoulder and her ankle and just a little in her heart, if she were prone to dramatics. Which she weren’t.

Nicole took a step closer and the visible relief it brought Waverly was hard to deny. She padded the last few steps and Waverly grabbed her head, searching for injury. “Lets…” she glanced over Nicole’s back to the corpse in the grass and paled, “let’s go inside, yeah?”

 

+++

 

The sun was bloody red and ominous. A heavy fog had risen from the fields and tumbled in across the farm, drenching everything in red mist. Nicole had shifted an hour ago and was still brushing her teeth, trying to get the taste of gristle and death out from between her teeth. Waverly hovered in the background fidgeting with a first aid kit and looking desperate.

“Please let me look at your shoulder?”

Nicole sighed around her tenth mouthful of toothpaste and conceded. “Frng,”she grumbled, spitting and wiping her mouth.

Waverly was gentle when she cleaned the bite at her shoulder and at her ankle and Nicole wondered where she got all that strength and where she hid it in such a small person. Things got too quiet and she fidgeted.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” she whispered. “I ain’t ever done – I ain’t ever looked like that. I understand if you-“

“Stop,” Waverly commanded, squeezing Nicole’s forearm where she’d been holding it still. “Don’t finish that.”

“Huh?”

“Don’t try and make this your fault. We both know you saved my life, so let’s skip the melodrama, alright?” Waverly asked wearily.

Nicole only thought on it a minute, then nodded. “Well, ya know what this means?” She asked gravely.

Waverly ceased wrapping her shoulder and leaned back to meet her eyes. “What’s that?”

“It means that now I’m a double monster.”

Waverly soured. “What?”

“Means I’m an ultra-beast. Cuz I got bit again.”

Rolling her eyes, Waverly tugged her wrappings tighter than necessary. “You’re an idiot.”

“Well, now I’m an ultra idiot.”

Waverly wiped her hands off and left the room mumbling, “you sure are.”

 

+++

 

They trucked the body up into the rockies – some grove of strong-shouldered trees that looked like they’d been there for the last century and would be there for the next – and Waverly offered to start digging a grave.

Nicole stopped her with a hand on her shoulder and shook her head. “They don’t-“ She swallowed hard, “We don’t have graves.”

“What?”

“I was told that my kind doesn’t bury their dead. We leave them under the sun and moon and let them go back to the earth.”

Waverly screwed up her face and stared at where they’d left the monster under a tree thick with bright red paintbrush and dandelions. “Just…leave it here?”

“Yeah,” Nicole said quietly, gathering a handful of paintbrush and setting it on the beast’s head. “Right here.” She dusted her knees off when she stood and looked back at where Waverly was shuffling her feet. “I’d return them to Bobo, but I can’t risk it.”

“Risk what? What’s Bobo got to do with it?”

Nicole shook her head and stuffed her hands in her pockets as she looked out over the outcropping they’d parked on. “Yeah, they got rules and killin’ one of them ain’t exactly me abidin’ by those rules. They’re…what I am.”

“Woah, woah, woah, like – like the trailer park? Like, everyone in the trailer park? Is what you are? Right now? In the trailer park?”

“Yes, Waverly,” Nicole rolled her eyes. “But not quite like me. I got bit – they call me ‘Mutt’. I guess it’s against their rules to bite a human and turn ‘em. They’re all born this way. I ain’t really like them,” she sighed almost wistfully.

Waverly came up at her shoulder suddenly and grabbed Nicole’s sleeve at her forearm. Nicole looked down at her. “I’m sorry.”

“What for?” Nicole laughed. “Sorry I ain’t get to live in the trailer park? Sorry I ain’t gotta answer to Bobo? Sorry I ain’t got folks who know what I am and what I go through and ain’t horrified by-“ she snapped her teeth shut and huffed, trying to cram her fists even deeper in her pockets. “Nothin’ to be sorry about.”

Waverly ignored her. “What I’m sorry about is that there’s people like you with their doors closed to you. It sounds lonely.”

“It’s…” Nicole tried hard to find a better word, but couldn’t seem to accomplish that. “Yeah,” she finished lamely. “Maybe a little.”

“Well, you aren’t a mutt to me,” Waverly brightened, pulling on Nicole’s sleeve until she freed her hand from her pocket, swinging it a little bit with a grin.

Nicole smiled back. “Yes I am. You won’t even let me in the living room on a full moon.”

“Okay,” Waverly giggled, “but you track mud like a mutt. That ain’t my fault.”

They fell quiet, Waverly’s hand drifting slowly down to play with the bones in Nicole’s wrist and Nicole was shocked by the sudden thought, would you just take my hand already.

Woah there, cowboy.

“So what are the risks of Bobo knowing what happened?” She finally asked. “What is he worried about?”

Nicole chuckled humorlessly. “I don’t know what he’s worried about necessarily, but he’s made it pretty clear to me that if I put a toe out of line he’s gonna put me down like a rabid dog.” She smiled wryly. “I live only by his good grace. I ain’t even a legitimate creature in his tribes’ eyes.”

“But they tried to kill me!” Waverly scoffed. “Tried to kill you too! How does that fit into Bobo’s mysterious rules?”

“I don’t know,” Nicole admitted. “But the cost of finding out might be more than I’m willing to pay.”

 

+++

 

It only took a few nights, tossing and turning and tasting blood in her teeth, warm and viscous before she started bein’ able to sleep. She’d been a monster so long already, what was one more thing, really?

One Saturday, sleepin’ in Wynonna’s bed after a long day of cleaning windows on the Earp property, she woke up to the soft padding of bare feet outside her door.

She was on her stomach, face buried in a pillow and peeked out over her arm to where the figure stood in the doorway. “Huh?” She asked intelligibly.

“Sorry, I can’t sleep,” Waverly said in a voice reminiscent of when she was nine years old with skinned knees and threadbare dresses.

Nicole was exhausted from her own sleepless nights and fought hard against her eyelids. She grunted and raised one end of the light sheets over her hips in an invitation. Waverly hardly hesitated before coming over and slipping under the sheet. And she thought that was the end of it, but Waverly reached one hand slowly across the distance between them and touched the bones in Nicole’s wrist so soft she might as well not have been.

“Y’alright, Waverly?” Nicole slurred into her pillow.

Waverly wrapped her thin fingers around Nicole’s wrist. “Better.”

Nicole made some nonsense noise before drifting off.

 

+++

 

Nicole ain’t even really realized that she’d woken up with Waverly clingin’ like a bur until Waverly was already scrambling away, tumbling off the side of the bed. Her cheeks were cherry red and she was pulling her long sleep shirt down modestly, stammerin’ about something Nicole had neither the wakefulness nor the energy to comprehend.

“Whu?” Nicole stretched languidly and groaned while Waverly babbled in her doorway. “Y’lright, Wav’ly?” She mumbled.

Waverly fled.

 

+++

 

Nicole ain’t thought too hard on it – people were generally weird in their own ways and that was just that. She was building a coop separate from the barn, as long overdue as it were, suffering through the first hints of the coming summer. She was whackin’ away at the thick nails she was driving into the support beams she was erecting for the roof. Waverly came back from school, distracted and barely glancing up as she walked by.

When she seemed to process the sounds of hammer on nail, she did spare a glance, making eye contact while Nicole sweated and strained. Nicole paused, mopped at her forehead with a handkerchief and waved with a small smile. Waverly ducked her head and ran inside.

That was a little weirder. Nicole’s hand fell slowly down to her side and she shook her head, bewildered but still on the clock.

That night was a quiet affair, but Nicole was surprised to find that Waverly had cooked a full, delicious smelling meal and was waiting for her at the table. Nicole had come down from the shower with a towel around her neck, hair flat on her skull and wet.

“Oh,” she said, freezing in the entry to the kitchen. “I was just going to…” she gestured awkwardly toward the front door.

Waverly gripped a spatula nervously between her hands. “Oh! Uh, did you have to-“ she gulped, “I should’ve asked. I just assumed you were staying.”

Nicole shook her head too fast. “No! Uh, I just didn’t want to overstay my welcome or nothin’. I ain’t given you much peace these past weeks and-“

“It’s fine!” Waverly burst. “Uh, sorry. It’s fine. I like you! Er,” she blushed hard and spun back around to face the stove. “I mean, uh, I like you here! That is, I like having you! Er, not like - I like having you here!” She was stirring a pot so hard Nicole worried she was gonna get an injury and be out for the season.

“Well,” Nicole said slowly, taking hesitant steps into the kitchen while Waverly flailed, “I do like bein’ here.” When she came up behind Waverly, she smiled at the absurd amount of food on the stove. “And how could I leave this?”

Waverly startled at her proximity and spun around, running smack into Nicole’s chest and making a good effort to spill an entire pot of boiling sauce all over the both of them. Nicole caught it and swooped it up above their heads in a move that was honestly a lot more suave than she ever thought herself capable of.

They stood there a second, too close and a little sweaty in the stuffy kitchen with all the burners on. Waverly looked up at her with wide eyes and mouth slightly open and managed to choke out a, “nice catch.”

Nicole stared down at her. “My hands are burning.”

“Shit!” Waverly cursed and scrambled out of the way so Nicole could drop the pan back on the stove. She’d grabbed it awkwardly to stop it falling, the price of which was rapidly swelling welts on both palms of her hands and around the ridges of her fingers. “Oh my god, are you okay?”

“I’m…dying,” Nicole conceded, holding her red palms out for Wavelry to see. “Yeah, I’m gonna die.”

“Oh my god, let me see!” She reached out for Nicole’s hands and grabbed her at the wrists. Nicole let her drag her around the kitchen and stick her hands in the cold tap. By the time they ate, the food was a little cold and Nicole had to eat like an animal with her hands all wrapped up.

“Don’t laugh at me,” Nicole groused when she threw her fork on the ground and sent her mouthful flying.

Waverly made her take a bunch of expired aspirin when the aching agony of the burns got too bad, then they played checkers with Waverly moving both of their pieces and cheating heinously. She’d pretended to misunderstand Nicole’s directions, probably just to get a laugh out of her. Whatever she’d given her was strong and questionable and soon Nicole was slurring and giggling and havin’ to be dragged off to Wynonna’s room.

Waverly pulled her boots off and tucked her in and wandered off to her own room while Nicole slipped soundly into comatose sleep.

 

+++

 

“Wav’ly?” Nicole slurred, staring blurrily through the doorway. She was standing there in a sleep shirt again, fists bunched at her sides. “Y’alright?”

“Can’t sleep,” she said all small again.

It was like déjà vu, raising the sheet again and letting her crawl in next to her. “You’ll be alright,” she murmured. “Scary stuff out there, right?”

“Yeah,” she whispered back.

Nicole hummed a sleepy laugh, honestly still pretty high off her ass. “I’ll protect you.”

“I know.”

 

+++

 

There were a whole lot’a nights like that afterward and it weren’t anything Nicole knew how to figure.

 

+++

Chapter Text

"See, I made it out.

Out from under the sun."

- fun. , take your time coming home (2009)

 

+++

 

And then she got a letter in the mail in a big white official lookin’ envelope telling her that she had qualified for academy and it was starting basically immediately. Acaemy was sixty miles outside Purgatory in a big community college campus with nice facilities and people a whole lot smarter than she were. Or so she guessed – she ain’t ever been to a college before. Like most small towns, Purgatory outsourced its testing and academy so she’d be in a big class with all the other small town recruits. It’d just be her and thirty people she ain’t met before living in cramped dormatories and bein’ put through the ringer for six long months. Six months outside of Purgatory was the longest she been away since bein’ a literal animal in the woods.

Nedley was proud as could be – he’d said so about twice a day since the letter to just about anyone who stood still long enough to listen. Unfortunatley, that included Nicole herself, who’d learned much better how to make herself scarce than she’d learned how to take a compliment. They’d be havin’ a nice time, mindin’ their business while Nedley cooked short ribs on the grill when he’d suddenly remember something stupid like the first time she had gotten a detention and then he’d be near-cryin’ all over again. It ain’t made her heart clench too. It hadn’t, she’d swear it.

Waverly celebrated like the twelve days of Christmas, getting’ more and more grand by the day, but with maybe less birds. Nicole always wondered why the twelve days of Christmas was mostly large birds. Waverly had bought her a slick lookin’ utility knife to fill up the belt she’d been required to buy from the surplus store by the academy, a number of highlighters and color-coded pens she’d neveruse for academy, a day planner, tactical shoelaces – which Nicole ain’t even knew was a thing – and a million other thoughtful things until she’d had to basically notorize a cease and desist order to stop Waverly from goin’ broke. She weren’t sure if the knife was regulation, but Waverly had gushed and celebrated so hard on her behalf that it’d be a cold day in hell before Nicole told her no. Besides, it was pretty awesome.

She weren’t afraid of much, but Nicole weren’t no liar. She was…nervous. The kinda nervous that kept her up at night, pacin’ around and waking Waverly. Waverly would just throw a hoodie on and pace with her in sleepy solidarity. And then she’d ply her with herbal teas spiked with somethin’ and soft blankets and smother her in kindness until she had no choice but to put away those nerves until the dawn.

When she purchased her 19 millimeter Smith and Wesson, per academy instructions, she came home and offered it to Nedley to store in his gunsafe until she left for academy. He sat her down at the kitchen table, taking the chair across from her and set her new weapon right in the middle between them.

“I’ll save the long lecture,” he began, eyeing her gravely, “because I know that you already get what its like to have the power to kill.” They sat in silence a minute, staring at the thing between them. “So instead of the usual spiel I give deputies, I’m just gonna leave you with this: A gun is one thing and one thing only. A gun is a last resort. It’s more power than man deserves. But at the end of the day, it’s not power. It is responsibility of the highest order. You understand, kid?”

“I think I do,” Nicole said quietly.

Nedley stared hard into her eyes for as long as it took to sink in, then nodded. “Yeah, I think you do.”

 

+++

 

They were down to the wire when Nicole came home to…well, Nicole didn’t really know what to make of it. “Y’alright, Waverly?” She asked, cautiously approaching.

“Yeah. ‘M fine. Great, even,” she said glumly, chin leaning heavily on the rim of a glass that’d probably seen the bottom through several glasses of whiskey. “How ‘bout you?”

“Well I’m alright,” she murmured, coming up behind Waverly’s seat at the kitchen table and leaning down next to her. “Had a bit to drink, huh?”

“A bit.”

“A bit and then some?”

“Just some.”

“A then a little more?”

“Maybe a little.”

Nicole smiled and gently eased the glass from under Waverly’s chin. “Well, let’s not have any more, hm? I’ll get you some water.” She filled a glass with water from the tap. “When’s the last time you ate anything?”

Waverly shrugged comically, heavily exaggerating the movement. “Dunno.” She put her head down in her hands and sighed. “Sometime, I imagine.”

“Yes, I’d imagine,” Nicole chuckled. The fridge was unusually empty, but Nicole grabbed some eggs and went about scrambling them. Only the sound of spitting butter and the tap of the spatula split the quiet. When the toast popped out of the toaster on schedule, Nicole buttered it and dumped it all on a plate. Nothin’ cured the blues like breakfast for dinner. “There ya are,” she murmured, pushing it in front of Waverly’s sleepy face.

For her part, Waverly didn’t argue, just closed her hand around the fork Nicole had stuck in her loose fist and began eating mindlessly. “Thank you,” she said about halfway through.

Nicole smiled from across the table and took a small sip of the drink she’d confiscated from her. It weren’t great. “Eesh,” she shivered. “That’s-“ She coughed hard. “-Strong.”

“That’s Earp whiskey,” Waverly yawned. “My granddaddy made it when he was a boy.”

Nicole regarded the glass warily. “I ain’t gonna go blind am I?”

Waverly shrugged. “Probably.”

“Oh good.” Nicole pushed the glass away and watched as Waverly slowed. She’d eaten most of it, but by that point she was just pushin’ it around the plate and blinking sleep from her eyes. “Bedtime, maybe?”

“I’m not really fine,” Waverly said abruptly.

It was a curveball, but Nicole adapted and swung. “You ain’t fine? What’s wrong, Waves?”

“I dunno, lots of things probably. Everything, maybe.”

Nicole smiled sympathetically “Everything? That sounds serious.”

Waverly hummed and pushed her plate away, sagging in her chair and lookin’ awful small. It made somethin’ heavy drop down in the pit of Nicole’s stomach and ache. “I dunno. I just feel like everything’s changing. Or maybe it’s not changing enough? I’ve taken all the online courses I can, so I either figure out how to go to college or just not– just work at Shorty’s the rest of my damn life. And you’re going off to academy and I’m so proud of you but I don’t know – I just – and everything’s scary and – and I don’t know who I am anymore.” She sighed out so hard, Nicole wondered if a light breeze would blow her away. “Ugh.”

“Wow,” Nicole said dumbly. The miserable look she got in return sent her into a panic. “Uh, I mean, that is a lot. But Waverly, not everything is gonna change. And not all change is bad, you know? I’m gonna come back. And I’ll help you work out whatever you want to do. You’re gonna get to keep the best parts of Purgatory, but you’re gonna get a whole lot of new things in your life.”

Waverly let out a shaky breath and blinked tears out of her eyes. “It’s just so scary, you know?”

“I do – believe me, I do. But I know Waverly Earp, and she ain’t gonna let that stop her,” Nicole grinned.

The tears welled in Waverly’s eyes. “You scare me the most, I think.”

“Huh?” Nicole sat back in her chair, startled. “I – what?”

“Not the way you’re thinking,” She laughed fondly, quick to intercept her runaway brain and swiping delicately under each eye. “In a good kinda way, I think.”

“You ain’t makin’ any sense,” Nicole laughed.

Waverly rolled her eyes. “I’m drunk.”

So Nicole took her to bed with another glass of water and bid her goodnight. Before she left Waverly’s room, she turned on the little tea lights on the windowsill. “You ever gonna tell me how I scare you in a good kinda way?”

“I dunno,” Waverly mumbled into her pillow. “We’ll see how brave I am.”

 

+++

 

The summer steamrolled to an end way too quick for Nicole to catch it, slipping through her fingers like sand. Waverly got in last minute at a school forty miles out of Purgatory on scholarships Nicole had “helped” her apply for. Really, she’d just sat with her and kept refilling her wine glass. But Waverly’d said that it helped. She was gonna commute three days a week, which was an awful lot of drivin’, but was cheaper in the long run.

She’d have seen it through to Waverly’s first day, but Academy started the week before Waverly’s first day and Nicole was packing.

Well, she’d packed already. But she was pretending she had more to pack to loiter and mope around the homestead as she shook off the last of her nerves. Waverly caught her, though, hiding out in Wynonna’s – her room.

“You’re going to be late if you don’t go to Nedley’s now,” she scolded while Nicole pretended to be really interested in one of Wynonna’s old magazines. “And why are you reading Playboy?”

Nicole jolted and held the magazine out to actually take in the bombshell blonde smoldering on the front cover. It…kinda looked like Lola. “Er, uh, well-“

Waverly rolled her eyes. “Stop stalling, drop the porn, and help me take your bags out to your truck,” she called over her shoulder as she left for the front room.

So Nicole dropped the porn and slouched out to grab the rest of her bags. It weren’t much – she weren’t even gonna be gone that long. Six months was like nothin’. But it ain’t felt that way.

“C’mon, shouldn’t you be excited?” Waverly offered, slinging Nicole’s backpack carelessly into the bed of her faithful pickup. “I know how hard you worked for this.”

“Yeah,” Nicole said, utterly unconvincing. “Yes. I am.”

“Could’ve fooled me.”

“Well, I’m just nervous,” Nicole said, crossing her arms after she’d thrown two more duffle bags in the back. “I ain’t been away from here in a while. This is all I know. And I know I’m gonna be back in six months, but that’s an awful long time. Ain’t gonna be picnics and craft tables, neither.”

“Thank god, you’re terrible at crafts,” Waverly laughed.

Nicole frowned. “I’ve practically rebuilt your whole dang house!”

“Yeah, that ain’t crafts. Remember when I tried to teach you to knit? Remember scrapbooking? Oh, c’mon, nobody’s good at everything,” she chastised at Nicole’s answering pout. “Did you remember all your notebooks and pens? Did you bring all the books they asked you to buy? Did you-“

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got everything. You made me about a million lists.”

“I made you three and you’d be lost without me.”

Nicole rolled her eyes, but didn’t fight it. It was true, but she ain’t gotta say it. “You remember everything I told you ‘bout the chickens? Don’t forget to make sure Mrs. Buttersworth Junior eats somethin’ besides the feed and keep Henrietta from bullying the young ones and if it’s dusty out change the water as often as you can manage and Miller Lite needs a bedtime story and don’t let the sun get below the tallest tree line back there before you get ‘em in the coop and also don’t-“

“Nicole, Jesus, I get it! I can take care of the chickens, alright?”

Nicole gasped, affronted. “They ain’t just chickens, Waverly, they’re-“

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, they’re ladies I know.”

“No,” Nicole said gravely, “they’re family.”

That made Waverly smile, sweet and sincere, and she sighed fondly. They were both kinda sweaty in the lingering end of summer heat and Nicole stared while Waverly brushed the humid curl of her hair behind her ears. “I know. I’ll read ‘em a hundred bedtime stories if it’ll put your mind at ease,” she assured her.

And then they were just standin’ there because the truck was loaded, Nicole was already forty minutes late, and there weren’t no reason to still be there ‘cept the look Waverly was givin’ her.

It was like she was waiting for something or like she was deciding something or maybe standing right on the edge of a cliff with a hand pressed firmly against her back. It was raw potential energy and it made Nicole’s hands sweaty. Then again, pretty much everything made her hands sweaty.

“I changed the oil in your jeep and rotated your tires for your first day of school,” she said, just for somethin’ to cut the tension. “Call me if it ain’t runnin’ right.”

Waverly didn’t say anything, just stared.

“Or if you need anything, really,” she pushed on. “You just call me, alright?”

Still staring, Waverly nodded. Nicole gave her a few more moments of it, but eventually had to sigh and hook her thumb over her shoulder. “Well, I really ought to get goin’ now.”

“Wait!” Waverly blurted, grabbing for Nicole’s hands. Which was just awesome, because her palms were sweaty as hell. “Just – wait. I’m-“

Her nose scrunched cutely and Nicole smiled. “Y’alright, Waverly?”

“No!”

Nicole raised her eyebrows, alarmed. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” she groaned. “I’m trying to – I just – ugh! Why is this so hard?” Her hands tightened and she stared at them angrily. “I – you know, I just-“ Her eyes shot up to Nicole’s and they were watery and full of so much somethin’, Nicole weren’t sure what to do with it all. “You’re…”

Nicole grinned. “I’m what?”

They stood there suspended, Nicole feelin’ like Waverlyw as lookin’ right into her soul. Then Waverly deflated with a rueful smile. “You’re gonna be late,” she said tiredly. Then she eased her hands from Nicole’s and leaned up on her toes to press a quick kiss to Nicole’s cheek. It made her blush like an idiot.

“What was that for?”

“Makin’ you late,” Waverly muttered. She stepped away and the moment was over – whatever that moment had been. It made Nicole feel awful ruffled. “Alright, get out of here.”

Waverly stood in the kicked up dust at the top of the Earp gravel driveway until Nicole disappeared ‘round the corner.

 

+++

 

“What’s wrong? Nicole? What’s going on? Do you need me to-“

“Huh? No, hang on. Nothin’s wrong.”

“Why are you calling? You never call!”

“I ain’t ever had to call ‘cause I aint’ ever been away for longer than a day.”

“I –Oh. I guess that’s true. Sorry.”

“How was your first day at college? I couldn’t stop thinkin’ about it.”

“It was fine. Kinda boring, honestly. It was mostly just intro stuff. I sat in the wrong class for like ten minutes before I realized, though. So that was embarrassing.”

“Well, as someone once reminded me, you can’t be good at everything.”

“Unless it’s me. I thought that was implied. If you’re me, you can be good at everything. C’mon, keep up Nicole.”

“Right, beggin’ your pardon.”

“Well, I’ll certainly consider it.”

“How’re the chickens?”

“Joan of Arc found a silver dollar the other day. So finally they’ve paid off.”

“I told you they would.”

“Enough about all that - how is academy going? I was getting worried that you hadn’t said anything or called.”

“Sorry, I’ve just been so dang tired. They’ve run us ragged the last week. I ain’t ever been yelled at so much in my dang life and you know what I was like in school so I feel like that’s saying something. But they say the first week is the hardest anyhow.”

“Sounds rough. You miss me?”

“Well of course I do. I miss you more’n I’ve ever missed anything in my life.”

“Oh, uh, really? More than anything?”

“That so hard to believe?”

 

+++

 

“Nicole, you’re never gonna guess what happened yesterday.”

“No, I probably won’t.”

“Try.”

“I will not.”

“Okay, so I found a typo in my Intro to European History textbook. Ninth edition!”

“Oh man, that’s so many editions!”

“No, Nicole that means they’ve edited this textbook for release nine times and still missed something! They misspelled lieutenant in the eighth chapter, would you believe that?”

“They misspelled lueitenant?”

“No, they misspelled lieutenant!”

“That’s what I said. They misspelled lieueueiiuetenant.”

“Okay, smartass. Why aren’t you more excited about this?”

“Waverly, I ain’t never been, nor will I ever be, more excited about something than in this moment.”

“Anyways, want to hear about the freckle I found on my finger the other day? Who just grows new freckles overnight? We’ve gotta investigate this. And then you’re gonna tell literally every second of your day.”

 

+++

 

It wasn’t until two hours later, lying in her tiny cot in the dorm rooms they’d shacked them up in after an exhausting full moon of hiding in the unfamiliar woods nearby until dawn, that Nicole looked up at the ceiling and had two very distinct, non sequitur thoughts. The second thought just about changed her whole life. The first did not.

The first was that the water stain on her ceiling tile looked an awful lot like a flamingo.

The second was that she was a little, mostly overwhelmingly in love with Waverly Earp.

So yeah.

There was that.

 

+++

 

There was certainly that.

 

+++

 

“Haught! Get your ass in there! Where’s your damn mind at!” Her academy officer screamed at her while one of the beanbag guns exploded and sent a bag whizzing past her ear.

In the chaos of the exploding training guns and chaotic jumble of screaming rookies, everything felt a little under water. Nicole shook her head and gripped her riot shield tightly in front of her. “Sir, nowhere I’d ever figured it would be, sir,” she answered honestly, if a little loud to clamber over the chaos.

“What in St. Patrick’s plaid knickers is that supposed to mean!?” He roared. A rookie from her class came flying over the hood of the car they’d been barricaded behind at about a million miles an hour, screaming. They just watched him with vague interest.

Nicole let her riot shield drop to her side and shrugged. “Sir, honestly, I think I just realized I’m…uh, well, I’m in love, sir.”

“You what?!” Small flecks of spit flew into Nicole’s face at the velocity of his outrage.

Nicole wiped them off. “Love sir.”

The instructor whipped his protective goggles off and stared wildly at her while beanbags sailed over their head at terminal velocity, the evil vein in his neck quivering horrendously. “You’re in love with me, Haught!? That’s awful fucked up!”

Nicole frowned. “What? No – no, sir. Not with you, sir. With a girl – well, not just any girl. She’s my best friend. She’s the best everything. I ain’t ever met anyone like that and I’m dead positive I won’t ever meet anyone like that again. She knows all the worst of me and she – man, I don’t know. She’s everything.”

Nicole received the single strangest look she ever received in her whole strange life. “Haught,” he said, “you’ve got two seconds to get your head out of your ass. Then you’ve got three seconds to get your ass in the training scenario or I’m gonna hang you by your tighty whities from the flag pole out front and drink cold lemonade in the shadow of your hoisted corpse. That’s five seconds. You got me?”

“Graphically, sir.” But then one of the little beanbags from the training guns launched at ninety miles an hour right into her gut and she spent the next two hours dry heaving and being made fun of.

So there was that too.

 

+++

 

Nicole aint’ ever know you could break your nose four times in four weeks, but there she was bleedin’ on one of the mats after a rough session of physical training. “Ugh.”

Like a horrifying vision of what might greet her in Satan’s unholy garden when she died, her academy instructor leaned over her while she stared up at the ceiling. “Haught, why in the name of Winston Churchill’s beautifully bald head can’t you catch that left hook? Did you find your defense in the dumpster?!” He roared in her face while Nicole held her sleeve to her poor nose. “Answer me, Haught! Was your defense found in the dumpster?!”

“Sir, no sir. I did not find my defense in the dumpster, sir.”

“You defend yourself like a dumpster, Haught! A dumpster!”

Nicole nodded, still dazed from the blow and slower than ever. “Sir, yes sir.”

“C’mon, Dumpster, on your feet!” When Nicole didn’t move, eyes slding off into middle distance while her brain trickled out her nose, her academy sergeant grabbed her by the front of her shirt and pulled her up. “That’s you, Dumpster! You’re Dumpster, you got me?”

“I’m Dumpster, sir, yes sir.”

Satisfied, the instructor grabbed her chin and turned it to the side while Nicole blinked at him like she was brain dead. She might’ve been. “C’mon, Dumpster, let’s get that looked at,” he muttered. “But know that I’m gonna be raining lefthooks down on you every second of the next few weeks, you got that? I’ll be in your shower, under your bed, and up your ass.”

“Sounds great, sir.”

“You bet your ass it does, Dumpster.”

 

+++

 

It wasn’t until two blackeyes later when her Sergeant jumped out of a bush next to the dorm buildings, swinging wildly, that Nicole dropped her foot back, faked back, and snapped her fist around right into his face with a gross crunch.

“Sir!” She yelled, horrified when he went down.

His nose was broken and shoot.

“Dumpster!” He said all nasally, scrambling back to his feet. The vein above his eyebrow throbbed wildly when he got up in her face. “That was outstanding!” He shouted angrily. “You’re a promising candidate and I’m deeply proud of you!” He raged. “Dismissed, Dumpster!”

 

+++

 

Academy weren’t all that bad.

 

Her nose was just a little crooked, but ain’t nothin’ to be done ‘bout that. Though some new, horrifying processor in her brain was busy wonderin’ if it was gonna bother Waverly too much. So that was great.

 

+++

 

Chapter Text

 

"What good is love

that no one shares?

-dinah washington, this bitter earth (1960)

 

 

+++

 

Graduation steamrolled right over her like she’d blinked and missed the middle part somehow. It was there and then it weren’t.

Nedley and Waverly came down for the crappy little ceremony where Nicole and the rest of the graduates were sworn in before the short reception in the park. She aint’ even had the chance to walk three feet past the row of chairs designated for graduates at the conclusion of the ceremony before Waverly slammed into her chest, arms wrapped tight around her middle.

“Oof!”

“I’m so proud of you,” Waverly mumbled into her starchy shirt, face smushed and barely legible.

Nicole turned red, which was new and not entirely welcomed. She ain’t realized she was in love with Waverly all that recent, so she had to figure out how to navigate…that- and she had to do it quick. Nedley gave her a stupid grin over Waverly’s head, raising his eyebrows and flashing an idiotic thumbs up. He was less than useless.

“Thanks, Waverly,” Nicole mumbled, hands flailing weirdly. Which was awesome, because she was tryin’ awful hard to avoid doing anything weirdly. Things were going great.

 

+++

 

And things continued to go just peachy when they got home and god, but Nicole ain’t ever realized how touchy Waverly were until her big stupid idiot brain honed in on each brushing glance with moronic intensity. Honest, it was like Nicole ain’t ever been touched before. Useless.

Shorty’s threw some Valentine’s Day shindig that was mostly sad middle aged divorcees makin’ eyes at eachother desperately across the bar while outdated Ben E. King played in the background. The tables were filled with single teenagers who just wanted to get drunk and pretend it weren’t the day it were – act like it was all stupid.

It was just a day, though. You ain’t more single on February 14ththan February 13th. But Nicole was a huge, stupid idiot and Waverly was Waverly and just-

Fuck.

Just fuck.

“I can’t wait to start at the station,” Nicole mumbled into her third beer. She weren’t drunk, but she weren’t sober neither. “Gettin’ bored.”

Waverly poured another beer from the tap for one of the ladies weeping openly into the shoulder of her uncomfortable looking friend. “What, this isn’t exciting to you?”

Nicole grunted rather than answer and kept drinking. Waverly smiled sweetly and hummed like she knew things, which she definitely did. Waverly knew pretty much every thing there was to know. Things were Waverly’s specialty. Things and bein’ pretty.

Oh, boy.

Nicole took the shot from in front of the man next to her and downed it while he spluttered.

“Hey!”

“I needed it more than you, buddy,” she assured him. “Tell the bartender it was my fault, she’ll get you a new one.”

The man shot a look to Waverly and raised an eyebrow. “The pretty one? What is she your girlfriend?”

“No!” Nicole snapped. “She’s not my – she’s not my girlfriend! I’m not – she’s just – she’s Waverly. She’s not my girlfriend, she’s my Waverly.” Nicole frowned. “She’s not my– ugh, she’s just Waverly. Not, not my Waverly. Not to say she’s just Waverly, like it’s a bad thing, she’s great!” Nicole covered her burning ears, mortified, and stared wildly at the man next to her.

He was nodding uncomfortably, wide-eyed and full of so much judgment that Nicole absolutely deserved. “You did need that more than me.”

Waverly stopped by then, sweet and the fucking worst ever. No. She was great. Nicole was the worst ever.

“Can I get you any- woah! We’re doing shots now?” She teased.

Nicole made some sound of distress.

“Did you steal his shot?” Waverly gestured to Nicole’s neighbor and rolled her eyes. “Let me get you a new one, Jack. Watch out for her,” Waverly pointed at Nicole while she topped off a new tumbler generously. “She gets cute when she’s drunk.”

Nevermind, Waverly was a little bit the worst. Nicole was already dead and buried and that’s just the way it goes sometimes.

The night spiraled and Nicole was just about drunker than she’d ever been, which weren’t anything to be proud of. The patrons thinned out mostly in singles, occasionally in lonely, desperate pairs and the music got cheesier. The bar was nearly empty. Nicole ain’t ever been the kinda girl to burst into drunk tears but there was some weird part of her that thought maybe it weren’t such a bad idea. A very small part, mind.

Waverly was wipin’ down empty tables in the back corner, humming along. Nicole watched her with a sad, dopey smile until Waverly turned around and caught her starin’.

“What?” She asked, “you like this song?”

Nicole aint’ ever heard it before.

“Yeah.”

“Wanna dance?”

Like Nicole wanted to be shot six more times.

Her face must’ve showed just that, because Waverly snickered and tossed her rag over her shoulder. “What’s that look for? You don’t wanna dance with me?”

Shit.

“You don’t wanna be my valentine?”

Shit.

“I didn’t say that,” Nicole’s mouth said for whatever reason. “I’ll dance.”

And then Waverly was there, with her stupid face and her stupid hair and her stupid laugh and Nicole was bein’ dragged out of a barstool. Nicole was a useless sack of garbage, so Waverly directed Nicole’s arms to her waist. After slinging her arms around Nicole’s neck they were off – Waverly on her dance, and Nicole off her goddamn gourd.

“Y’alright, Nicole?” Waverly smiled. “You seem tense.”

Nicole blinked tensely, shrugged tensely, and tightened her tense hands tensely around Waverly’s waist. Tensely. “Am not.”

“Yeah, alright weirdo.” Waverly swayed them real slow, fingers doin’ this absent kinda dance along the back of Nicole’s neck like it were nothin’. Like it weren’t everything. “You havin’ a good time? I know Shorty’s isn’t a thrilling night out, but I’m glad you stayed.”

“Mm hmm. Me too,” Nicole said softly.

“Lame stuff is always better with you.”

Nicole smiled and let Waverly lead them clumsily around one of the four-tops. “What about when I’m the lame stuff?”

“Even better,” Waverly grinned.

And somewhere between that grin and the eighth drink, Nicole got real drunk and it weren’t even passable no more. She had to go home and it weren’t gonna happen on her own. Waverly closed up while Nicole sat on the curb outside with her spinning head in her hands hoping that real vomit came up before word vomit did. She was sure of one thing:

There would be vomit.

“You alright, baby?” Waverly came up beside Nicole, wrapped in a huge jacket, but Nicole didn’t have much more in her then to let her temple fall against Waverly’s knee. “Oh, geez, I overserved you didn’t I?”

“Ugh.”

“Up you get, c’mon. Let me take you home,” Waverly grunted as she dragged Nicole to her feet by her elbow.

Everything was all sloshy and the telephone poles tracked back and forth across her vision like a stuck record as they passed by. One of Waverly’s arms was wrapped tight around Nicole’s waist and was likely the only thing keeping her upright. They left Nicole’s truck there in the parking lot and Nicole got tucked up into the passenger seat of Waverly’s jeep. The ride was mostly a blur until she was bein’ dragged inside the Earp house and dropped unceremoniously in Waverly’s bed.

Waverly’s bed.

Which – didn’t compute somehow. Because whenever they ended up sleepin’ in the same bed, it was in Wynonna’s old bed with Waverly tryin’ to escape her own. “Why here?” Nicole managed to kind of ask coherently.

Waverly didn’t answer right away, just pulled Nicole’s boots off gently and wrestled the sheet out from under her. “Er, do you want me to take off your pants?”

“I don’t know how,” Nicole informed her intelligently.

Waverly giggled. “I don’t either. They’re your pants.”

“How do they come off?”

“You know what, we’ll leave ‘em for now,” Waverly said, drifting off to putter around the bathroom with the tiny noises of domestic ritual. When she returned, she slipped quietly in beside Nicole and reached over to make sure the blanket was at her chin. “Did you see Mrs. Turnbolt and Mr. Tuck? They left together. Scandalous,” she whispered.

Nicole watched the tealights swim around Waverly’s head and opened her mouth to agree. “I’m so in love with you.”

“What?”

“Um!” Nicole flopped gracelessly over to face the wall and shut her eyes tight. “G’night, Waverly.”

 

+++

 

So guess I gotta skip town, was Nicole’s first thought the next morning. ‘Cause that certainly had…happened. Waverly was asleep beside her and Nicole knew Waverly deserved to have a friend grow that close to her, but shoot.

I love you.

She’d said that.

You know, like an idiot.

Nicole would do just about anything for her, but it weren’t the same anymore. She couldn’t lay there and pretend it weren’t hurtin’. She loved bein’ Wavelry’s friend – her best friend, she’d said – but there were gonna have to be lines drawn ‘cause Nicole weren’t aiming to hurt herself. If she let them go on that way, she’d only resent Waverly and that weren’t fair to nobody.

Boundaries.

That’s what they needed.

Nicole rolled out of bed real quiet and tiptoed down out of the room to get some breakfast. Only protein, water, and painkillers would set her right for the day. It weren’t an unconquerable hangover, but it needed to be dealt with.

And once that was done – four scrambled eggs and two aspirin later – Nicole pulled on her boots and set about doin’ something. Anything, really.

Chuck at Chuck’s Hardware was happy to see her, or at least her wallet anyhow. A bad hail storm while Nicole was away at academy had sent debris sailin’ over the roof of the homestead, scrapin’ shingles all along the way and causing mayhem. What better time to reshingle the damaged portion of a roof than waist-deep in homoerotic existential dread? No time, that’s what.

It was goin’ great too until Waverly came out in her stupid bunny slippers and her robe, clutching the old bitter, overheated coffee from the pot Nicole had made before leaving. Her hair was rumpled and her eyes were squinted against the dawn light when she found Nicole hammering furiously at the new shingles.

“Geez, when did you wake up? Aren’t you hungover?” She called up from her bunny slippers.

Nicole didn’t stop hammering. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I am. Gotta…reshingle the roof. And stuff.”

“Now?” Waverly glanced behind her like she might find some impending doom Nicole was preparin’ for. Joke was on her, though, it weren’t behind her. It was standing in her bunny slippers with an old cup of coffee. “Before dawn on a Saturday?”

“Why not?”

Waverly was givin’ her a weird look when Nicole chanced a glance down. “I mean, I know why not. I’m asking why.”

Nicole panicked just a little bit – not in an uncool way, just in a minor, totally chill way. “Vigillance!” She shouted so loud a distant congregation of buzzards spooked into the air. “Gotta be vigilant!”

Waverly sipped her terrible coffe, sleepy and confused. “Vigilant? About what?”

“Meteors!”

Meteors? Fuckin’ hell.

Waverly nodded dumbly. “Meteors, huh? Okay, weirdo. You sure you won’t come back to bed?”

“No!”

Waverly just rolled her eyes and tossed a careless gesture over her shoulder as she walked back up the porch steps. “Whatever. Be careful up there.”

It weren’t up there that was the problem.

 

+++

 

Day three of frantically re-shingling the roof despite it having been replaced recent enough, found Nicole with bloodshot eyes smashin’ her fingers way more often than the head of the nail. She was losin’ it.

“Nicole,” Waverly chastised, coming back from class with a scowl. “You’ve been at that for days! Would you come down? You’re gonna hurt yourself!”

“No! I gotta do this!” Nicole shouted back, slamming the head of the hammer right into the knuckle of her index finger. “Shit!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Waverly slammed the door of her truck and dropped her backpack in the dirt to properly put her hands on her hips in disappointment. “Why are you avoiding me?”

That’d worked well.

“I ain’t!” Nicole lied through her goddamn teeth. “Just fixin’ the roof.”

“What’d I do?” Waverly demanded and shit, but that’d been exactly what Nicole had been trying to avoid with her goddamn boundaries. She weren’t tryin’ to hurt nobody, but-

Nicole sucked her smashed knuckle into her mouth and glared down at Waverly. “Nothin’! Can’t a girl just fix a roof around here without the third degree?”

“You’re actin’ crazy!” Waverly snapped. “Come down here and tell me what’s wrong with you!”

“I ain’t comin’ off this roof!”

“Is this because you told me you love me?”

There was no god and that was a goddamn fact. “No!”

“Get down here!”

Nicole stood up on the roof, clutching her hammer manically and glaring down at Waverly. “I ain’t comin’ off this roof unless I get struck dead, you hear me? I’d sooner-“ her foot slipped on a loose shinge.

And then she fell off the roof.

 

+++

 

-and died, presumably.

 

+++

 

 

“Nicole!”

“Ugh.”

“Oh my god, are you dead? Say my name if you’re dead! Wait…that doesn’t make sense.”

“What?”

“Holy shit, Nicole!”

Waverly’s face swam into view, pale and wide-eyed as she’d ever been. It all felt pretty familiar. Because some people fall off roofs – it happens, alright? But who falls off the same goddamn roof twice?

“I think I’m dead,” Nicole said breathlessly, lungs tight, tight, tight. “Am I dead?”

Waverly grabbed her cheeks and leaned closer. She was cryin’. “I don’t know!” She hiccupped. “Are you?”

“Did you push me?” Nicole said dumbly. She’d have plenty of time to regret that later. It was like there was some demented thing possessing her mouth lately and she couldn’t stop it.

Waverly nearly dropped her head. “Of course I didn’t push you. What the hell, Nicole?”

“Ugh, sorry. I just got my brains scrambled. Can’t breathe, neither,” she groaned. “I think I’m dyin’. And I think I deserved it.”

Waverly frantically smoothed the hair from Nicole’s forehead and pulled out her cellphone. “I’m calling an ambulence. Don’t die.”

“What year is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“It was never specified!”

Nicole tried to turn on her side to no avail. “I’m gonna throw up.”

“Really?” Waverly hovered anxiously over Nicole’s body for a few seconds before Nicoel relaxed back into her lap. “You’re not gonna barf. You’re not thinkin’ straight.”

True.

“Don’t tell me what I know,” Nicole wheezed.

Waverly sighed hard. “Fine, you’re gonna barf.”

“No, I changed my mind.”

“Oh, good news everyone: Nicole found a hill she’s not willing to die on and it’s vomiting.”

Nicole frowned. “Are these really the last words you want to have said to me?”

Waverly made some wounded, panicked sound and – maybe that was a little unfair.

Nicole laid there, mostly dying, while Waverly called for an ambulence. Her voice was all high-pitched and frantic, but it turned to a dull whine in the back of Nicole’s throbbing head. When Waverly hung up, she resumed carding her fingers through Nicole’s hair gently. It kinda hurt, but it also felt kinda nice.

When the silence became too much, Nicole let out one long, defeated breath and closed her eyes. “You were right,” she conceded – like it was ever a question. Waverly was just about always right. “I was avoiding you and I’m sorry.”

The confession was taken largely in silence. When Waverly had sufficiently chewed it over, she leaned closer, her voice low and soft. “Was it because of what happened on Valentine’s Day? I didn’t mean to make you feel weird.”

“It weren’t you,” Nicole sighed, trailing off into a groan as something sick settled in her stomach. It weren’t the nerves, neither. Maybe she was dying. Her words were slurry and her brain was just about the same. “It was me. I went and messed everything up. I broke it.”

“Broke it? You didn’t mess anything up,” Waverly assured her. “What’s wrong?”

“You know what’s wrong,” Nicole choked out, staring pleadingly up at her. “Don’t make me say it again. I can’t.”

And it weren’t even because she was embarrassed – which she was. It was that if she said it again and threw her heart against a brick wall, she weren’t gonna be able to put it back again. But we don’t always get to choose these things. Sometimes, they’re chosen for us.

Waverly smiled down at her, stroking one finger right down the bridge of Nicole’s probably crooked nose. “Do you actually love me, Nicole Haught?”

Miserably, honestly, Nicole said, “How could I not?”

“Are you in love with me?” She asked kindly.

And why the hell not? Nicole nodded, even though it hurt her head. “I am.”

“And why’s that a problem?”

“I ain’t mean to put you in that position,” she said through the drowsiness that crept up on her. She weren’t sure if it was the head injury or the bone-tired defeat of having all your precious secrets pulled right out of your soul. Both, probably. Neither, maybe. Waverly was bein’ so gentle it could’a just been that.

Waverly grinned at her and leaned closer. “You haven’t even stopped to wonder if I like this position,” she teased.

“But I’m gay,” Nicole said dumbly like it were any explanation at all. In her defense, her brain felt like a sack of broken glass.

Waverly giggled. “I know, dummy.”

Blessedly, the slow wail of sirens breaching the block stopped Nicole from saying any more words. After that it was all flashlights in her eyes and questions about how she was feelin’ which was stupid because the answer was obviously bad. Or: exactly how you’d imagine someone felt after falling off a roof. But it weren’t all terrible, because the whole time they were proding and askin’ dumb questions, Waverly was in the little jump seat in the back of the ambulance offering a smile whenever Nicole’s unfocused eyes drifted back to her.

In the end it was a nice mix of broken and bruised ribs and yet another wicked concussion. All in a day’s work for people who make a habit of falling off roofs.

The nurses made Waverly keep her up well into the night until they could be sure she weren’t actually going to die. Waverly was kind about it – didn’t bring up none of the weirdness Nicole had brought upon them the last few days. But Nicole’s brain swarmed and obsessed around what Waverly had said to her.

“You haven’t ever stopped to wonder if I like this position.”

What did that mean?

There weren’t nothin’ for it. Nicole was too tired and too bruised to figure it out. When the nurses told her she could sleep, Nicole fell backwards into it with relief.

 

+++

 

 

Chapter Text

You steal the air out of my lungs,

you make me feel it.

-bleachers, don't take the money (2017)

 

+++

 

After being discharged, Waverly took her back to the homestead all quiet smiles and genuine gestures of affection that left Nicole adrift. It didn’t make no sense.

Waverly tucked her into her own bed – not Wynonna’s – and left to make dinner like nothin’ was weird. She kept it up through a shared dinner of quick grilled cheese eaten in Waverly’s bed and right through the ice cream Waverly brought to follow it. Every bite Nicole took came with a cautious look shot at the girl next to her who Nicole knew hated the idea of eating in bed for the possibility of crumbs. But every cautious look was met only with a sweet smile and expectation, like Waverly loved nothing more than those little moments of nothing. Nicole spent most of the night staring – waiting, wondering, lost and lost and lost.

By the time her chin tipped forward halfway through an old western playing dimly on Waverly’s small laptop, she was so lost she wondered if she’d ever be found.

 

+++

 

The morning rose with a heavy fog rolling in low waves across the scrubby grass of the homestead while the dawn made it glow orange and smooth. A fat slate of condensed storm front pressed in from the south, slanting the orange glow low to the ground. Beautiful, but forboding. The dawn was warm light, but anyone could tell it would be a dark afternoon.

Waverly was out cold beside her, so Nicole gingerly rolled to sit up on the mattress. Everything was real tender, but it weren’t unmanageable. She rocked carefully to her feet and breathed slow to feel the extent to which her ribs would protest.

Weren’t too bad.

Nicole shuffled barefoot to the kitchen and poured a tall glass of orange juice, leaving the carton on the counter next to her glass and standing at the tiny island she’d built for the space after months of Waverly’s complaints. As the sun warmed the dirt and crawled higher over the hills, Nicole watched the fog rise like steam in a slow exorcism of the property, dissipating upwards like ghosts. Everything was a warm glow.

Waverly padded in shortly and came to slump over the island on the opposite side of the counter, regarding Nicole with a sleepy smile. “G’mornin’.”

“Mornin’.”

“You’re walking.”

“I ain’t broke my legs.”

Waverly hummed noncommittally. “Can I have some?”

Nodding, Nicole turned to retrieve a twin glass from the cabinets and set it in front of Waverly. She poured another tall glass from the carton while Waverly blinked slow and tired. When her ribs started throbbing harder, Nicole leaned her weight over the island, resting on her elbows only inches from Waverly’s mirrored position. Her eyes flicked lazily over Waverly’s face, easy like Sunday morning.

Everything felt still like library dustmotes and ancient silence. “I gotta go feed the chickens,” Nicole finally whispered.

Somehow, Waverly managed to nod and shake her head at the same time. “Can’t you take it easy for one day?”

“I will,” Nicole chuckled. “Ain’t hard feeding chickens. I’ll be right back,” she promised, grabbing her heavy denim jacket and shrugging it up to her ears as she shuffled gingerly into the foggy morning. It was a weird kinda light, warm to the eyes and cold to the skin. Her ribs were alright, but halfway across the yard to the coop, she could feel it smartin’ worse and worse. Maybe one day Waverly Earp wouldn’t be right about everything.

It took so damn long hobbling haltingly over the lumpy yard to the coop, that the big slate of clouds was inching closer and rain smell began rolling in a heavy, pressurized breeze from the south. It was just about the best smell on the planet, Nicole thought. It smelled like the soul of the earth.

The thin little door of the coop creaked open in the dewy morning and Nicole smiled at the sleepy clucking and little morning gentleness of her flock. “G’mornin’, ladies,” Nicole murmured. “And Colonel Crockett,” she added.

Colonel Crockett gave a haughty ruffle of feathers and Nicole laughed through her nose. “Sorry, sir.”

She was squatting hard on her aching knees after spreading a nice array of feed, fruits and veggies in the dishes, dreading the push back to her heels and the strain in her ribs, when Waverly crept in quietly. Nicole only knew because her bunny slippers made a soft whisper on the wood and she’d heard it a million times before.

Without asking, Waverly grabbed Nicole’s elbow and helped ease her back up to standing. Nicole groaned just a litte under her breath, ribs tense and pointedly grumpy with her. She deserved it a little.

“Thought maybe you’d fallen and you couldn’t get up,” Waverly teased.

Nicole rolled her eyes and smiled. “Little bit,” she admitted. “Colonel Crockett is getting old,” she mused, watching him strut around about as slow as Nicole was.

Waverly hummed. “He’s not old, he’s dignified.”

A slow rumble rolled in from the south, smooth as dark chocolate as it tumbled over the fence of the homestead and crashed softly against the property like a wave. Nicole turned slowly and made her way with deliberate, sore steps to the little coop door to watch the clouds roll in. Waverly followed, her fingers still on Nicole’s elbow, almost absent if it weren’t for the way Nicole knew Waverly worried for her. Honestly, she weren’t made of glass. But she quieted that opinion, because it didn’t cost her nothin’ to let Waverly care the way she knew how.

When she took some of the weight off of her ribs by leaning a shoulder against the doorframe, Waverly let go of her elbow and leaned against the other side of the frame. It weren’t quite a big enough doorway for the two of them, but Waverly wedged herself in there, just a little in front of Nicole and just a lot pressed up against her.

As the clouds rolled in faster and faster, tumbling over eachother, the rain started up in a gentle, but heavy sheet across the homestead.

“I love the rain,” Nicole said.

Waverly nodded, letting her head tip against Nicole’s shoulder. “Yeah, I know.”

“I love the sound it makes., the smell, the way it looks. All of it.”

“I know.”

Waverly turned her nose into Nicole’s shoulder and inhaled softly. Nicole smiled and wondered what she smelled like. You ain’t ever really know what yousmell like. “What do you love about the rain?”

Waverly studied it intently – as she did everything – then shrugged. “I love that you love it.”

“That ain’t count,” Nicole snorted.

“It does.” When Nicole just hummed doubtfully like a jackass, Waverly dug her elbow into Nicole’s side. “It does! When I was a little girl, I used to hatethe rain. Storms scared me so bad. I’d watch the ten day forcast religiously, thinkin’ if I wished hard enough and was good enough, the rain wouldn’t come.” She shook her head. “I wished that about a lot of things. Never really worked.”

Swallowing her laughter, Nicole turned out from Waverly’s side, leaning her back against the frame to face her. “When did you stop hating rain?”

The sky rumbled above them, deep and mournful, in a language maybe only a person’s bones understood. The rain was a wash of white noise around them. Or maybe it was just the noise in Nicole’s brain when Waverly turned to face her in the doorway and ran her palms slowly down the front of Nicole’s jacket. Nicole just stood there, eyes wide and throat stuck on nothin’ while Waverly’s hands traveled up to the back of Nicole’s neck.

She weren’t sure she would ever finds words again when Waverly pulled her down so they were forehead to forehead, nose to nose. She ain’t ever been smart – she ain’t ever got geometry functions or the symbolism in Jane Eyre– but no matter how little sense it made, Nicole knew how this ended.

It was funny, but Waverly kissed like she knew things – just like she did everything else. She kissed like there was some kinda bible carved on her bones and there might’ve been some small passage – some small part of Revelations maybe that spoke kindly of Nicole Haught. Like the thing she was weren’t so damnable.

Waverly pulled back only a breath, barely enough time for Nicole to stutter the first syllable of something stupid and in love, before pulling Nicole down against her own aching ribs and kissing her twice as hard. It weren’t nothin’ Nicole was in control of and it weren’t nothin’ of Nicole’s own design. It was just the blissful feeling of being caged, like a small docile thing – capable of great destruction were it not for the gentle hands holding her face.

Everything smelled like wet dirt and the end of winter.

An aggressive snap of thunder pulled them apart, Waverly’s fingers knotting in the back of Nicole’s hair briefly, before relaxing and letting her pull back to look at each other. It weren’t like she was goin’ nowhere anyhow. That ship had sailed a long time ago.

Waverly was blinking slow and had a sleepy sort of smile on her face. Nicole’s hands were sweaty and her heart was poundin’ somethin’ awful, but she couldn’t help smiling back. “Now why would you go and do a thing like that to a thing like me?” She whispered, almost the same tenor as the whisper of rain on dust. Waverly heard her anyhow.

“You know why,” Waverly said. “Don’t make me say it.”

Nicole smiled harder even though her ribs were screaming. “Are you in love with me, Waverly Earp?”

Waverly didn’t answer, just kissed her in the doorway of the chicken coop again – which was a pretty good answer in itself. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. Amused, Nicole grinned through an attempt at a third.

 

+++

 

And a fourth and a fifth and a sixth and a seventh and a-

 

+++

 

Anyhow.

 

Nicole weren’t sure what she should’ve expected – mostly because she couldn’t have ever considered that she might’ve had to considerit – but things weren’t all that different in the aftermath.  In the aftermath of becoming a them. An us. Everything was just a little clearer in her life, like she’d wiped off the lense and taken a deep breath.

It was just little things that changed.

Instead of reading stupid magazines - dropped off in hoards by a disgruntled, ninety-seven year old mailman who seemed to give them all  the magazines in his entire route - next to each other on the couch, they’d read stupid magazines with Waverly climbing mindlessly into her lap. Instead of watching the chickens poke about the feed kicked into the dirt from the porch of the homestead side by side, they’d watch the chickens with Waverly tucked up under her chin, where she seemed to like to be. Instead of Waverly slipping sheepishly into bed with Nicole when her nightmares got bad, there weren’t so many nightmares anymore. There weren’t no empty beds and cold feet and scary shadows on the windows because it all seems a little ridiculous when there’s someone next to you. And instead of driving them to the Gas n Go with her right hand empty on the center consol for ice cream so off brand it weren’t even probably ice cream, she’d drive ‘em there with Waverly’s fingers in her own. Just because they could.

Just little things.

Just everything.

They were shuckin’ corn together one night they’d bought off a little passing man who drove up from the states to sell out of the back of his rusted red pickup in the podunk towns he passed as he drove to visit his daughter up north, when Nicole turned to look at her…girlfriend?

Her Waverly, anyhow.

“What changed your mind about me?” Nicole asked over the old Nat King Cole album scratched along the shitty needle that Waverly sworewas ruining their records, but Nicole knew better. She knew that the harder a needle carved a record, the better it sounded. Waverly was always right, but sometimes she was so right she was actually wrong. Didn’t make no sense to Waverly, but it made Nicole laugh when she pouted about it.

Waverly rubbed some of the corn silk off that had somehow been stuck to her nose for the last ten minutes. “What? Change my mind about what?”

“Me. Bein’ with me, I guess.”

Waverly split another stalk down the middle and gave her a confused smile. “I didn’t change my mind about you. I just made up my mind.”

“You ain’t always wanted to kiss me,” she pointed out. Nicole weren’t trying to start nothing, she was just genuinely curious.

Luckily, Waverly didn’t seem to take it too bad. “You know, I don’t think I knew what to think and what to want for a long time,” she said thoughtfully. “I’m still learning. It ain’t easy bein’ a kid and growing up.”

“But you were…straight, before?” She shrugged. “I dunno.”

Waverly clucked at her and set her ear of corn aside. “I have, and always will be, exactly who I am. I don’t have to be anything just to fall in love with a particular person. I just got a little wiser along the way.”

Nicole smiled. “How’s that possible?”

“I am,” Waverly gestured mysteriously, “infinite.”

Nicole laughed and tossed another corn in her direction. “Yeah. You’re right. I’m bein’ dumb.”

“No, you’re not dumb,” Waverly said with a little more conviction than the offhanded comment probably warranted. “But maybe I’m just not sure what I want to be called right now. My world still feels so small. I just know I want you.”

“I ain’t complaining.”

Waverly twisted the corn in her hand a little, suddenly unsure and shot Nicole a nervous look. “That’s alright, yeah? That’s enough?”

“Enough?” Nicole grinned and set her corn aside too. She held her hand out to Waverly, pulling her off her stool when Waverly took it. Before Waverly could protest, Nicole pulled her onto her lap, wrapping her arms around her stomach and resting her chin on her shoulder. She breathed in behind Waverly’s ear. “Waverly Earp, you’re almost too much.”

“I’m not sure that’s as sweet as you think it is.”

Nicole pressed a kiss under Waverly’s ear. “You just got so much potential – you’re a giant, Waverly. I ain’t sure how I’m gonna keep all of you in my heart – it’s only so big, you know? But you can be whatever you want Waverly – or nothing at all. I like growing with you.”

“Oh, damnit,” Waverly sighed. She seemed almost angry when she turned abruptly, threw one leg over so she was straddling Nicole in a whole different way, and kissed her hard. Things had been sweet and tender and blissful the last few weeks, but this was sometin’ else entirely. This was open mouths and greedy hands and ache. Waverly pulled back, panting against Nicole’s mouth. “You’re just…”

Nicole swallowed hard, waiting to find out what she was, but instead Waverly kissed her again – just a little dirty – and it weren’t like Nicole hadn’tthought about them bein’ that way before, but she ain’t ever really thought it could be quite like that.

“You’re…” Nicole managed to say, but then she figured out that it weren’t all that easy. Maybe the problem was that they kept tryin’ to say things. She rolled her eyes at themselves and pressed their noses together. “Y’already know.”

Waverly emphatically agreed, pushing closer and rocking forward in Nicole’s lap. And Nicole weren’t no blushing virgin, but there was a big difference from a cute girl when you were lonely and knew you’d never see her again and a woman you were in love with. She swallowed hard, running her fingers nervously over Waverly’s thighs while Waverly occupied herself at her neck. She knew she was stiff – it was nerves of all things. Goddamn nerves.

Waverly noticed. She pulled back with a small smile. “Slow down?”

“Maybe a little,” Nicole shrugged sheepishly. “Sorry.”

Waverly just smiled sweeter and leaned backwith a chaste kiss to the corner of her mouth. “Don’t be sorry. Is there something I can do?”

“No, I’m just nervous,” she chuckled, covering the hand Waverly had left lingering above her heart with her own.

Waverly’s smile turned confused. “Nervous?”

“Yeah. You’re real pretty and I’m like…real sweaty.”

Waverly laughed and climbed off of her lap, dulling the anxiety that it had brought her. It weren’t that she didn’t want to touch Waverly, because who the hell wouldn’t? But there was a lot to be said about the pressure of touchin’ a woman you were damn sure you were gonna marry one day. “I’m probably way sweatier. Have you ever, like, seen yourself?”

“Couple of times.”

“Okay, buddy. You’re like, a sexy camping catalogue model.”

Nicole choked. “A what?

“Like – I don’t know!” Waverly laughed. “Like a model in a magazine trying to sell me sexy, luxury camping equipment!”

“I don’t think that’s as sexy as you think it sounds,” Nicole laughed along, standing to help Wavelry reach her favorite mug from that damned cabinet that Waverly sworeweren’t too high. “It sounds like you’re calling me a sexy squatter.”

“Ugh! Forget it!” Waverly groaned, accepting the mug that Nicole lowered a few inches for her to grab. “You’re just like, freakishly beautiful and it’s making me stupid.”

Nicole watched Waverly angrily make tea, fond and baffled. They were two pretty common emotions around someone like Waverly Earp. “A sexy camping catalogue model, huh?”

“I hate you,” she said like there weren’t a molecule in her body that actually did. Nicole handed her things while she made tea in an embarrassed whirlwind, shoving a thoughtful cup into Nicole’s hands when it was mostly done. “I’ll prove it,” she finally declared. “Come on, mailman Bart left us a fancy camping magazine and I swear to godyou look like this lady selling solar powered outdoor foot spas. Come on! You’ll see.”

Nicole shook her head and let herself be led away from their moment in the kitchen to their heinously growing stack of pilfered magazines. As they sat there pointing out stupid products they secretly wanted real bad, Nicole thought that next time she wouldn’t let sometin’ stupid get in the way. She’d grown up learning painfully young that you ain’t ever know what your tomorrow was gonna look like, so you had to make your todays count.

 

+++

 

So she made it count.

“That is not what I wanted our first time story to be,” Waverly gasped, scandalized, as she pushed Nicole’s head away. Nicole looked up through dazed eyes at her – all undone with a mostly-open shirt, skirt hiked up like a bad college party bathroom hookup, and a deep flush on her cheeks and neck. She was seated on the washing machine of all things and it was like the least sexy time of the day.

Probably ‘bout 3:00 p.m.

“Nicole!” Waverly let out a strange, horrified laugh. “Say something!”

But it was too late. She couldn’t take back the wayWaverly was still shaking from the aftermath and - it’d all happened so fast. “I’m…Sorry?”

“No, say something else,” Waverly pouted.

Nicole wiped her chin on the back of her hand and stood straight again, reaching out to gently tug Waverly’s skirt back down. “What am I supposed to say? You’re beautiful when you-“

“No, stop!” Waverly reached forward, nearly falling out of her own shirt in her haste to cover Nicole’s slightly damp mouth. “Shush. You’re incredible, baby, but this is not going to be what I have to tell people when they ask.” Nicole wanted to ask somethin’ like, dear god who would ask about a thing like that, but she had two small hands pressed against her lips so she just nodded. “We’re gonna do this again, but sexier.”

“Oh boy.”

“Yeah, I know. Hard to imagine.”

 

+++

 

So she made it count in a more sexy way.

 

“Okay, that is our first time,” Waverly declared, laying on her back in the bed of Nicole’s truck with just about every blanket from the homestead piled under and around them. They were parked way out in the desert where the stars were so bright you’d swear they were fixtures in the ceiling and the air was chilly enough that they couldn’t feel the tips of their noses. An empty bottle of wine was rolling around near their feet. Nicole was on her stomach, twirling a lock of Waverly’s hair between two of her fingers absently while they caught their breath.

Maybe it weren’t silk sheets in a city highrise or four star restaurants and the Eiffel tower but it was all she had. Waverly was glowing, though, so maybe she ain’t done so bad. “Yeah?”

Waverly turned her head, beaming. “Perfect.”

“Yeah?”

“Why do you always sound so surprised?” Waverly teased, rolling until she was as close as she could get to Nicole like the little warmth thief she was.

Nicole lifted one arm so Waverly could get closer - try and climb right into her rib cage maybe. Little did she know, she already kinda lived there. “I dunno, I just feel lucky bein’ with you.”

“Me too,” Waverly murmured. One of her hands came up between them to pull a piece of hair from in front of Nicole’s face and brush it away. “I think I’ll keep you.”

Nicole grinned at her tone. “You think so?”

“Well, I’m gonna try my best. You’re such a wild thing, you know?”

“Hm,” Nicole hummed, not convinced. “Ain’t no thing so wild it forgets how to come home.”

 

+++

Chapter Text

"So let me in or let me down,

let me lay here so slow."

-nathaniel rateliff & the night sweats, howling at nothing (2015)

 

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22

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Nicole was twenty-two years old the first time she walked into the Purgatory Sheriff’s station in her new uniform. Her collar was stiff and chaffed badly against the back of her neck and her pants still had a stupid crease from where they’d been folded in the surplus store she’d bought them at. Also she’d somehow pulled a muscle in her ass trying to do the stupid stretches her doctor gave her for all the stuff she’d busted from her roof tumble. Those were just some of the fun thoughts on her mind when she walked in, rubbing her sweaty palms on her disastrous pants and looking around for what she was supposed to be doing.

Benny Clemments was seated at one of the desks wiping a line of mustard carefully from where it’d smeared down the front of his uniform. He looked up when Nicole came in and flashed her a wicked smile. Nicole weren’t sure what it meant, ‘cept that whatever state she was in, she weren’t the one with half a sandwich spilled down her shirt. She frowned at him and moved toward Nedley’s office.

When she pushed into the office, Nedley was staring down a salad like it was about to confess. “Oh, just eat it,” Nicole grumbled. “It’s good for you.”

“It’s not good for my soul ,” he said seriously.

Nicole smiled and let it go, because she knew he’d eat it eventually. They’d been on a health kick the last few months after some questionable bloodwork and a stiff warning from the doctor. As much as he griped, Nicole knew he’d eat the damn lettuce as long as Nicole waxed poetic about bein’ left fatherless for the second time in her life.

He was such a sucker.

“Do you two need a moment?” Nicole asked. “Because I can come back later.”

“No,” Nedley sighed, scooting the salad aside gingerly like it was gonna bite him or something. “It ain’t goin’ anywhere…unfortunately.” He shot Nicole a desperate look, but there weren’t gonna be no mercy from her. She intended to force Nedley to live a long, healthy life it it killed him. “What’s this lettuce sauce you bought me?”

“Light Italian. And I’m pretty sure they call it ‘salad dressing’.”

Nedley shot her a look. “Light - what?! That’s nonsense! You ever met an Italian who made anything light?” Nicole ignored him and took one of the seats across from him. “Ain’t no Italian made this.”

“Yeah, ‘cause I totally bought it with the understanding that I was buying salad dressing bottled from whole, organic Italians. Just eat the salad,” Nicole sighed. “Waverly’s worried about you.”

“Of course she is,” he said wryly. “She’s like that .”

“Yeah, how dare she,” Nicole agreed. Nedley reached out and speared a single piece of romain, pushing it into his mouth pointedly while Nicole watched it nearly kill him. “Purgatory’s finest,” she applauded him.

He shivered. “Bleh.” He shoved another two bites into his mouth in rapid succession and appeared to swallow them whole. So dramatic.

Nedley wiped his mouth on a napkin and pushed it aside, leaning forward to address her. “Alright, so-“

Nicole watched while his eyes went wide and he swallowed down whatever he’d been about to say. His gaze took a short trip from Nicole’s polished shoes up her stupidly creased pants, past her starchy shirt and itchy collar. She gave him a weird look while he took her in like he ain’t ever seen her before. To her absolute horror, his eyes began to well with tears.

“Um.”

“I forgot it was your first day,” he said quietly. His fingers twisted together on top of his desk while he stared at the little gold name pin on her shirt, eyes about a million miles away. “You’re so… tall ,” he sniffled.

Nicole balked and scooted her chair back an inch, searching wildly for an escape from whatever had come over him. “I’ve been this height for years?” That seemed to make it worse. “What’s wrong with you, old man?”

“No, just – just yesterday you weren’t more’n here,” he said, indicating something about four feet off the ground with one hand while his eyes glazed over. “You were just this skinny little thing hiding under my front seat, sayin’ curse words and denying god. You were such a terrible child,” he said with so much affection she only kinda took offense.

“I was not,” she grumbled.

Nedley let out a wet laugh. “No, you were. I wouldn’t let you sleep under the porch and you told me to go fuck myself.”

“That did not happen!” Nicole covered her face.

“You were such a weird little monster of a child and I couldn’t do nothin’ but love you.”

“Oh dear god.”

Finally, Nedley made some move to pull his damn self together. He rubbed a hand briefly across his eyes, then under his nose. He harrumphed a bit and fiddled with some messy pile of paperwork. “Sorry,” he laughed. “I shouldn’t be doin’ this on your first day. I just…” he sighed heavily and leaned back in his chair until it squeaked loudly as he swiveled to half-stare out the window behind him. “You’re so grown now.” He hummed under his breath and smiled real gentle to himself. “And so good .”

Nicole scoffed. “I’m alright.”

Nedley shot her a fond look. “Yeah, you’re alright, kid.” With one last wistful sigh, Nedley slapped his palm down on the desk all business-like. “Okay, Deputy. First day. You nervous?”

Nodding a bit, Nicole smiled. “Maybe a bit.”

“I’ll be your field training officer, which means you’re glued to me for the next six months.” He stood to rifle through a tall filing cabinet in the corner, pulling out a million things Nicole was bleakly sure she’d have to sign before he sat back down. “For now, don’t drink anything anyone hands you in this office, don’t leave your personal belongings out, and always look over your shoulder. I’m warning you now that they’re gonna try and haze the shit out of you in the bullpen. Seriously, Clemments replaced the sugar by the coffee with salt and he hasn’t done a thing except wait for you to go for it all day. Lonny’s already ruined four cups of coffee for himself and I don’t have the heart to tell Clemments you don’t take sugar in yours.”

Nicole nodded slowly. “Right.”

“Also they took white out to all of the L’s on the Motor Pool signout sheets in your desk. And I think there’s a toad in your top left drawer.” Nedley stroked at his stubble a moment. “And they loosened all the screws on the legs of your chair.”

Nicole nodded even slower. “Right.”

“That’s it, I think. Although, check for plastic wrap over the toilet seats in the ladies’ bathroom. They always do it to the male rookies and I just get a sinking feeling they’ve forgotten what a woman is.” He gazed distantly out his window. “It’s been so long since one has even spoken to them, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure.”

“Hm.” Nedley nodded to himself and let his head tilt to eye Nicole over his desk. “So you think you’re ready for this?”

For a moment, Nicole looked down at her creased pants and smoothed her hands back and forth over them to try and straighten them out. It was a dumb question after all she’d gone through to get there, but there was some wild thing in her heart that wondered if a thing like her could be ready – if a thing like her could button itself up in a starched shirt, pin a badge on its chest and be good. But if that thing could be soft for Waverly, then just maybe that thing could be good for Purgatory.

Nicole offered Nedley a nervous smile and opened her mouth to answer before he cut her off.

“Wait! What am I thinking?” He hoisted himself out of his groaning chair and reached for his radio turned low on the corner of his desk. One hand tucked the radio back into its holster on his duty belt while the other ruffled messily through papers for the keys to his truck. When he found them, he motioned for them to leave. “You ain’t ready yet,” he scoffed. “Ain’t no cop ready for the day without donuts .”

Nicole grinned.

+++

The moon was a fat hole in the sky, bleeding light so hard on the homestead you ain’t even needed a light to see by in the dead of night. The shadows were long because of it. They stretched tall and erie like crawling ghosts from the sides of the barn, the house, the old hitching post, the mailbox - even Nicole had a wraith crawling out on the ground in front of her when she came back from running fast through the trees for hours.

She weren’t all that surprised to a candle lit in the little window above the kitchen sink. Waverly must’ve been waiting on her. Moments after she padded up the front porch Waverly was coming out with a big blanket draped over her shoulders and a relieved smile.

“Hi,” she murmured, blinking slow over a mug of tea. “Do you want to come in? It’s so cold out and you know how I worry.”

Nicole definitely knew that. But if she thought she’d gotten off that easy, she was sorely mistaken, as Waverly halted her in the front door and took the time to fuss over wiping down every one of Nicole’s horrible, monstrous feet. Then she draped a ghastly flowery quilt over her back like a damn show pony. If Nicole had the biological imperative to roll her eyes, she would’ve.

But even the ever-charitable Waverly Earp wouldn’t let her on the couch. That’d always been a bit of a pipedream anyhow. She settled on the floor at Waverly’s feet blinking slow at the grainy cooking program playing on the lowest volume on the television. Waverly tucked a fluffy pillow under Nicole’s head and then sat herself on the couch. She nestled into the indent she’d left there and folded back into a nest of blankets. Her hands popped out and gathered a ball of some truly wretched colored yarn back into her lap. Two long needles emerged next and Waverly began knitting.

Nicole pressed her nose into Waverly’s ankle, earning a little shriek. She knew it was cold and unpleasant but the annoyed look Waverly shot her made her happy like the jackass she was.

“Don’t you mess with me,” she warned. “I ain’t afraid of you.”

Nicole believed it.

“And you’re gonna mess up my knitting.” Nicole must’ve somehow managed to look skeptical because Waverly jumped to her own defense. “I’m making you a sweater,” she said haughtily. “And I might have no idea what I’m doing, but so far I’ve managed to make this magnificent…rectangle.” Waverly held it up in front of her own face, mouth pursed as she stared at the rectangle she’d certainly accomplished.

“Huh. “ Waverly turned it to inspect it from several different angles. “Well, it’s gonna be a sweater, I swear it. What is a sweater if not several quality rectangles and blind faith?”

And even if Nicole could’ve said something, she weren’t really sure she would’ve. Where does one even start with that?

“So there,” Waverly added for good measure. And then she set about making the rectangle even longer while Nicole basked in the warmth from the radiator and listened to the clicking of needles and the murmur of the nice man making pork roast on the television. She weren’t sure if Waverly was gonna be able to blind faith her way into a sweater, but if she managed it, Nicole had no doubt that she would be the fool trippin’ to wear it.

+++

 

When Nicole woke up on the living room floor the next morning, both of her legs were asleep and there were twigs in her hair. She got up to put somethin’ over her naked self, but stopped when she saw Waverly asleep on a neatly knitted rectangle with big dreams of bein’ a sweater someday. She smiled, unearthed Waverly’s needles from her loose hands so she didn’t lose an eye, and piled a few blankets on top of her. One of Waverly’s hands closed around a blanket but she otherwise didn’t move.

After Nicole got out of the shower and put some clothes on, Waverly was still asleep on the couch, but had snuck Nicole’s shirt from off the back of it where it’d been abandoned and buried her face in it. Nicole just grinned and brushed her hand gently along the back of Waverly’s head as she went into the kitchen to make somethin’ warm.

They weren’t goin’ out that day.

 

+++

“It’s going to rain today,” Nicole murmured as she dried the dish Waverly handed her.

Waverly shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

“Can’t you smell it?”

Waverly pulled a face. “No? The forecast said it wouldn’t rain.”

“Take your raincoat at least.”

“I hate carrying things.”

Nicole rolled her eyes.

 

+++

 

It was funny, but it turned out that bein’ an adult was actually just finding new inventive places to grope the people you care about.

Wish they’d taught you that in public school.

“Baby, I’m supposed to be working,” Waverly groaned, pushing Nicole away.

Nicole tried to stand taller in the backroom of Shorty’s, but banged her head against a shelf with a thwack . “Goddamnit,” she cursed lowly, rubbing her head. She shot Waverly a scowl. “You’re the one who pulled me in here,” she grumbled. “I was trying to drop off your raincoat when you accosted me .”

“Yeah, no, it was your fault,” Waverly assured her.

Nicole frowned harder. “I literally just brought you a raincoat.”

“Yeah, no, it’s just…” Waverly cocked her head to the side and shook it fondly. “It’s just your face.”

Nicole scoffed even with her ears burnin’ like she was still a kid and escorted Waverly out of the backroom with an exasperated smile. “I’ll see you after work, Waverly,” she chuckled.

Waverly sighed dramatically and resumed her post behind the bar. Ain’t nobody knew how to pout like her, though. Like they ain’t made out already in some of the least sexy places in Purgatory already, including, but not limited to, the public restrooms of Steve’s Place, Nedley’s living room, and the lumbar section of Chuck’s Hardware.

Point bein’, Waverly would be fine.

Nicole’s ribs still smarted – more so now that she was kissin’ a short kinda someone who required quite a bit of hunching – so she took a slow shuffle from the bar out to two blocks away where she’d been forced to park. The rain was rolling in heavier and heavier and Nicole pulled the hood of her jacket up over her head. She’d tried to warn Waverly it was gonna rain, tried to warn her that she could smell it , but Waverly had waved her off and there they were.

It’d been dark awhile since the days hadn’t been getting longer for very long. Her truck was illuminated by a passing Buick clunking out of the neighboring parking lot and she startled at the figure cut through the light against the black night.

“Bobo,” Nicole said cautiously.

He pivoted in the dark, eyes flashing against gaunt cheeks and he did that thing where he looked right into the marrow of Nicole’s bones. “Mutt.” When Nicole just stood there in the light rain, twenty paces off and stock still he accepted her silence. “Something has happened,” he said darkly. “Something that must be answered for.”

Nicole raised her eyebrows, finding power in her silence.

Bobo just looked right through her.

“I found a body last night, hidden in the hills – one of mine,” he said lowly, eyes flickering and sparking as he searched Nicole’s eyes for any sign of malallegence. “There weren’t much left of him – just bones really. But we’ve only had one of ours go missing in the last year so I know it’s him. An old break in his back leg convinced me.”

Nicole grit her teeth hard until her jaw cracked, but said nothing.

“Imagine my surprise when I found teeth marks cracked into his spine ,” he hissed. “He wasn’t hunted, Mutt. He was murdered . By one of us.”

Thunder grumbled overhead and Nicole took the length of it to collect herself. She nodded coolly. “I fail to see what this has to do with me.”

Bobo’s eyes narrowed. “He was from a powerful family line.” He regarded Nicole for a long, uncomfortable minute, head ticked to the side like he was considering something - like it was resting just on the tip of his tongue. “A line that spawned you ,” he said lowly.

Nicole jerked back. “Spawned – what ?”

Again, Bobo’s eyes sparked and he raised one eyebrow. “I just…find it funny,” he continued, without the humor he said he had for it. “You get bit, you claim that Earp girl, and then the brother of the one who attacked you turns up with his throat pulled out.” He drew a hand down his beard and shook his head. “Just…funny. No?”

“You knew ?” Nicole snarled. “You knew who – who did this to me the whole time?” She stalked closer until they were eye to eye.

Bobo met her like a true alpha, stone and fire and bared teeth. “I thought I’d made it clear to you: there’s nothing that happens in this territory that I don’t know. And these are not things you have rights to, Mutt .”

“Well, what is it then, Bobo?” Nicole taunted. “You want me in the dark, lickin’ the dirt from your royal boots – a stain on your noble bloodline – but you‘d hold me accountable for your secrets?” She shook her head darkly. “It don’t work like that, Bobo. You can’t tell me nothin’ and expect to hold me liable for everything .”

“They’ll kill you for this,” he scoffed. “The tribe will skin you alive when they figure it out.”

“What’s wrong, alph a?” Nicole growled. “I thought you were their god. You can’t control them?”

“I can guide them, but I can’t control them!” Bobo snapped, eyes wild. “I can steer a ship, but I can no more save you than I could flip a ship’s direction from north to south ten feet before they run aground! The ships already on the rocks, Nicole. It don’t matter who’s behidn the wheel!”

“I’ve done nothing wrong! I did nothing wrong when I was a child and I’ve done nothing wrong now.”

Thunder cracked so far in the distance, the thunder was only a low roll across the sky by the time it reached them. But as far out as the lightning were, the air still snapped with static. “He attacked that Earp girl didn’t he?” Bobo said slowly. “You’re a fool for loving her. You know that, don’t you? I won’t argue he got what he deserved, but you’ll die for it, Mutt.”

“Then I die for it!” Nicole growled.

“They’ll kill her too if she was involved.”

Nicole’s lips pulled back, showing her teeth in the dull reflection of passing headlights. “They won’t make it that far.”

Bobo blinked slow and removed his hands from his coat pockets to hold at his sides – ready. It was about the highest regard he’d ever paid her. “There’s a line that’s been crossed, Mutt. It’s happened . You’ve set a fire I can’t put out.” A look of feral despereation flashed across his face. “Damnit!” He spat. “I warned you . I – I left you alone. You want to know what happened to the last hapless mutt who was bit on this territory? They got put down. We consider it a mercy. But I gave you a chance . I gave you life!”

“Bobo,” Nicole said, shaking her head and marveling at the height she had gained over him the last few years. “You don’t own me. You don’t play god in my life and wonder why I won’t kneel.”

“I’m not your god ,” Bobo spat, “but you’d better find one fast.”

And then he was gone.

+++



Chapter Text

"Sometimes I hate the line I walk."

-the killers, this river is wild (2006)

 

+++

Nicole waited for hours in the rain for Waverly’s shift to end – circling in endless protective circles around the bar and staring hard into the thick, stormy night. She had just finished her hundredth check of the back door and was prowling back toward the front when Waverly came out with her raincoat and a long, end-of-the-day sigh. Nicole stalked around the corner and came up behind her with a hand gentle on her back, determined to see them safely back to the homestead despite Bobo’s revelations.

Waverly screamed.

“Jesus, Nicole!” She cursed, whacking her with her purse. “You gave me a goddamn heart attack!”

Nicole winced. “Sorry. I, uh, just thought I could give you a ride home.”

Waverly gave her a weird look while she dug around in her purse for her keys. “I drove, though. And why are you all wet? Have you been standing out here? Babe, that’s creepy. What’s going on with you?”

Well, it’d always been a long shot hopin’ that maybe there was somethin’ Waverly couldn’t figure out. Nicole sighed. “We gotta talk somewhere safe.”

+++

Maybe it weren’t the safest place in Purgatory, but there was something secure about the place where everything smelled like home. They trundled in the front door of the homestead, feet wet from the mud and rain, shaking damp hair from their eyes. Waverly hardly noticed when Nicole took the rain coat from her shoulders as she brushed by, already talkin’ a thousand miles an hour – words Nicole couldn’t really grab hold of before they flew by.

Who knew. Somethin’ ‘bout organic farming.

Nicole smiled and went to hang up their coats while Waverly clattered around the kitchen – somethin’ ‘bout grass-fed beef? Which Nicole ain’t really known there was any other kind of beef, but go figure. She thought distantly about what kind of things a cow might eat instead while she lined their muddy shoes up at the door and Waverly blew right on through to vegetable hybrids.

Bastardized carrots and such. Nicole shook her head fondly as she came into the kitchen where Waverly was going on, a whirlwind as she vigorously threw things in a wok. Nicole weren’t really sure how, but Waverly was always more energetic after a long day of work than before it. Nicole came up behind her, sliding her arms carefully around Waverly’s waist and resting her forehead on the back of her head.

Waverly let her tangent go, deflating slightly. “Sorry,” she murmured. “I get very passionate about vegetables.”

“I know,” Nicole assured her. “If you can’t get angry ‘bout vegetables, what can you get angry about, I guess.”

Waverly huffed out a laugh and went back to stirring the wok. There were things they needed to talk about - things Nicole needed to warn her about, but it was so damn hard throwin’ stones in what was an otherwise serene and perfect lake. Things were goin’ so well, but-

Well, weren’t nothin’ for it, really.

“Smells good,” Nicole murmured.

Waverly scoffed. “I smell like old beer.”

“I meant the food,” Nicole snickered. “Oof!” she wheezed when Waverly’s elbow dug into her stomach. “Only teasing.”

Bobo’s warnings sat heavy in her stomach while they ate. And Nicole knew that Waverly was acting like nothing was wrong for her benefit, talkin’ about nothing and everything while Nicole worked herself up to it.

Near the bottom of Waverly’s plate, Nicole cleared her throat. “So, uh, I don’t mean to worry you too bad, but…well, I saw Bobo today.”

“Yeah?” Waverly hedged. “Is everything okay?”

Nicole winced and she supposed that was answer enough. Waverly’s face fell and she wished she could’ve stopped it. “I’m not really sure. They found the one that attacked us – found his bones in the hills.”

“Oh,” she whispered, stirring around the dregs of her bowl absently. “Oh.”

“Yeah. He’s pretty sure I did it.”

“Oh .”

“Yeah.”

The sound of cricket choirs and whispering grass grew loud as they grew quiet, letting the moment sink in around them. Or maybe it was them that was sinkin’.

“What’s-“ Waverly cleared the thickness from her throat, “what’s gonna happen?”

That was probably the worst of it. “I really don’t know,” she said quietly. “He’s said in the past that I’m only safe bein’ what I am if I follow his rules.”

Waverly leaned forward. “What do you mean, ‘safe’?”

“I- Well, I guess he usually kills things like me – things that were bit. I ain’t like them and I-“ Nicole looked up apologetically. “I don’t know, I think maybe they’ll come after me.”

One of Waverly’s hands came up to lightly cover her mouth. “ Come after you? ” She repeated, properly horrified. “You mean they’re gonna try and kill you, don’t you?” She demanded. “Bobo’s gonna have you killed!”

“No, no, Waverly, it’s not-“ Nicole stood from her chair and came around the side of the table, “it’s not gonna – I ain’t-“ she winced. “They ain’t gonna kill me, they’re just gonna…make me not alive anymore.”

“Nicole!”

“Fuck.”

“Nicole,” Waverly scolded, reaching out to grab the front of her shirt. “Stop trying to protect me from this,” she said firmly. Nicole shut her mouth and swallowed her platitudes. “If Bobo’s coming after you, then that’s the way it is. It’s done. But I can tell you right now, there’s no Earp that’s ever lived on this land that’s sat down and waited for some asshole to come take what’s theirs.”

It’s funny, but even after 22 years you can still find new things that you ain’t ever realized just do it for you. Nicole grinned and gosh but she could feel her ears goin’ red.

Waverly laughed, scandalized. “Oh my god, stop! Don’t get… randy on me. This is serious.”

“Randy?” Nicole laughed too. “What are you, eighty?”

Waverly rolled her watery eyes and slapped halfheartedly at Nicole’s stomach. When they’d settled a bit, she played with the buttons there, staring at them while Nicole stared at her. “Ah, I like you,” she mused.

“I like you a whole lot too,” Nicole assured her, trapping Waverly’s hand against her shirt. “I think there’s a word for that.”

“Challenging.”

Nicole pecked her on the lips and stood to clear the dishes. “Yeah, that’s the one.” She hummed her way through the clean-up, leaving Waverly to stew in her thoughts. Waverly stewin’ was a good sign – there was some kinda godly architect in there buildin’ a city of genius. And really, Nicole believed her: Waverly weren’t the kinda girl to let bad things happen.

When she’d dried the last pan and tucked it away in the corner cabinet, Nicole turned with the handtowel thrown over her shoulder, leaning back against the sink and watching Waverly think. “Y’alright, Waverly?”

Waverly’s head snapped to the side and she fixed Nicole with a piercing glare before standing up abruptly. “Come with me,” she ordered, pushing away from the table and heading for the front door. Nicole only blinked after her for a moment, before tossing the towel aside and following her out the front door.

“Waves?” She called, watching as Waverly’s heels disappeared ‘round the back of the house. Nicole frowned and jogged to catch up. She rounded the corner as Waverly was hauling up the cellar doors. Waverly gestured impatiently and headed down the creaking steps. And it weren’t in Nicole’s survival instincts to go down creaky stairs into old cellars in the middle of the night, but it also weren’t in her survival instincts to deny a pretty girl. She sighed and headed down into the dark.

A flickering bulb on a chain clicked on halfway down and Nicole’s eyes went real wide. “Well goddamn,” she breathed, taking the last few steps down into the cellar. “You gonna serial murder me?” She asked, moving to stand at the desk.

Waverly shot her a look. “It’s research .”

And it sure was. The whole dark room was plastered head to toe in charts and news clippings and diagrams, all strung together with different colored yarn on push pins. Some of the news clippings were so yellowed and delicate, they had to have been pushin’ a hundred years old. Big books hung off the desk and crowded the handmade shelves and ledges in the den, interspersed with strange things in jars that Nicole weren’t too sure she wanted to know the contents of. The back wall was just a big floor-to-ceiling mounting of alarming weaponry. There were guns of all ages, homemade sawed-offs and illegal automatics and some wicked lookin’ knives that ain’t nobody had a use for unless they were up to somethin’ dastardly.

“Wow,” Nicole said stupidly. “Uh.”

Waverly wrung her hands awkwardly. “Well…I was hoping this was something that could wait until like, uh, maybe the eight hundredth date. When it was too late for you to change your mind?” She laughed nervously. “Er, yeah. But anyways, uh, ta-da!”

Nicole nodded, impressed and wholly confused, but she was nothin’ if not supportive of Waverly, even if she might’ve been plotting an act of mass domestic terrorism. “Neat,” she said simply, shrugging with her hands tucked in her pockets. She turned to Waverly and offered her a high-five. “Way to go.”

Waverly beamed, slapping Nicole’s palm in a perfect, crisp high-five.

“So what government are we overthrowing?”

Waverly shot her a dirty look. “We’re not – ugh! Come here,” she chastised, pulling Nicole by the forearm over to one of the bigger boards on the far wall, just above a piled-up desk. “I didn’t mean to hide this from you, but when I started learning about you and your kind and the group in the trailer park, I began looking into Daddy’s old stuff and then I kinda fell down the rabbit hole and it all happened so fast and now I think I’d probably go to jail if anyone ever found this place and I know it’s strange and I know I’ve probably crossed a million lines by not telling you and I just didn’t-“

“Waverly, darlin’, breathe,” Nicole instructed her. “I grow a tail on full moons and crave raw meat. This is apple pie compared,” she chuckled. When Waverly just kept twisting her fingers, Nicole reached out and loosened them before turning to study the board.

The board she was at was full of spidering little trees of thought, green yard stringing old sketches and clippings together and it didn’t make no sense, really, until –

“These are family trees,” Nicole breathed. She reached out to touch the worn sepia face of a stern man with a massive beard, a much smaller woman crowded into his side. Her finger drifted outward along the soft line of green yard down to to a news clipping about the birth of two healthy twin boys, right next to a heavily worn clipping about the death of Abe Townsend, survived by twin brother Jedidiah Townsend, and further, further, further down. She ain’t even realized she’d been marveling so long until she turned excitedly to point out an article about Vladmir Sokolov’s attack – how he’d been mangled by a dog of monstrous proportions before allegedly tearing the monster’s throat out with his own teeth – to find Waverly curled in the armchair, cheek resting sleepily on her knee.

“Oh! Uh, sorry. It’s getting late, huh?” Nicole asked sheepishly.

Waverly smiled at her and sat up straighter. “It’s okay. I know it’s a lot to take in.”

“It’s incredible,” Nicole gushed, turning back to take the board in as a whole. “Are they…”

“They’re the descendents of the trailer park families. All people like you from as far back as I can reach,” Waverly explained, putting her chin back on her knees. “Some of the people alive I can trace back three hundred years,” she said through a yawn. “Obviously not all of them, but I’ll get over it someday.”

“This is – I ain’t ever seen anything like it. How long did this take?” She wondered, leaving the family tree to admire another wall, covered in anatomy charts and complicated jargon and scientific sketches of plants. On top of the pile was a big sketch of - her? Nicole traced her finger over it slowly, moving to peruse a field guide stapled to the sketch about those who’d been bitten - those who hadn’t genetically inherited the curse. Little factoids like, “can’t transmit through bite” and “infertile” were bulleted in Waverly’s neat little handwriting.

Waverly hummed a bit in thought. “Well, I guess I did a little here and there in the years after Daddy died. I’d never been allowed down here growing up. I’d tried to sneak down here once when I was a girl, but he –“ she swallowed hard, “well, I learned my lesson.”

Nicole left the chart she was pouring over of skeletal transformations and came to stand at Waverly’s side, running one hand softly over the back of Waverly’s head.

“And then about a year after he’d passed I finally realized he wasn’t gonna be here anymore. It took that long. Do you believe that?” She laughed sadly. “So I came down here and all it really was was some journals, a bunch of poorly cared for guns, and half-drunk whiskey.” A fly buzzed against the hanging bulb and Waverly watched it. “I always wondered what was down here that he loved more than his own family,” she said quietly. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to realize it weren’t nothin’ special – to realize he didn’t have somethin’ down here he loved more. He was just a bastard. He couldn’t love nothing.”

“So this isn’t his?” Nicole asked, crouching down next to the chair and hanging over the armrest, hoping for Waverly’s attention again. “He didn’t make all this?”

It must’ve worked, because Waverly broke from her reverie and turned to twirl a lock of Nicole’s hair between her fingers with a smile. “No, it’s mine. I only really got into it after I – well, after I met you.”

“Yeah?” Nicole grinned. “That charming was I?”

“It was the ears,” Waverly laughed. “So soft.”

Nicole pulled back, affronted. “Wait, it weren’t me at all! You just liked that thing ,” she griped. “You like it more than me, just admit it.”

“I do,” Waverly grinned, grabbing Nicole’s face and kissing her soundly. “But you’re not so bad either.” An attempt was made to lean back, but Nicole just pulled her in harder because-

Because how did she get so lucky.

“Let’s go inside,” Waverly smiled against her lips. And Nicole weren’t exactly one to argue with that , so she scooped Waverly up out of the chair while she protested through nervous laughter and trucked up the cellar stairs. They ran into some problems when Waverly pointed out that she needed to lock the cellar full of at least fifty illegal guns. As a new sheriff’s deputy, Nicole couldn’t argue with that neither, but she set Waverly down on her feet with a healthy dose of reluctance.

After locking up, Waverly grabbed Nicole’s hand in hers and dragged her at a light jog up the stairs of the porch through sheets of rain. Nicole was half blind in love and ran hard into Waverly’s back when she froze in the front doorway. Nicole dropped Waverly’s hand subtly and stared over her shoulder to a woman she was sure she’d invented in her mind years ago.

“Wynonna!” Waverly choked out.

Wynonna sat on the couch, boots kicked up on the coffee table and face serious as she took Waverly in hungrily. It hadn't been so long, but she looked older - grown into her skin and dangerous. She barely spared a glanced to Nicole, just studied her estranged sister and took a long pull from the half-empty cabernet bottle Waverly had been saving for later.

“Who the hell put doilies on my coffee table?” Wynonna asked darkly. “We’re a coaster family.”

+++



Chapter Text

"I hope you know that this will go down

on your permanent record."

- violent femmes, kiss off (1983)

 

+++

 

Wynonna’s old boots were kicked up on the coffee table where she lounged on the couch like she owned the place.

And well – she kinda did.

Nicole’s hands felt sweatier than usual and that was sayin’ a lot.

“When did you- why – how are you-?” Waverly stuttered and they were all valuable interrogatives even if they were danglin’ rather sadly.

Wynonna just began picking her teeth like nothing was out of the ordinary. “About twenty minutes ago - because I missed you - and bitchin’,” she answered dutifully. “But we gotta talk about these doilies because I think my shoes just aged fifty years by touching them. These were cool shoes and I’ll be sad to attend their funeral next year.”

Waverly bristled. “I wasn’t asking how you are ,” she snapped. “I’m asking how you’re here .”

“Honestly, I’m just here on work,” Wynonna said dismissively. “Ask my new boss if you don’t believe me.” She let her boots drop to the floor and wandered off toward the kitchen. “I assume the fridge is still where I left it? Or have you ruined that too?” Her voice echoed after her.

The top just about popped off Waverly’s head and she made a noise of disgust before stomping after her sister. Nicole ain’t ever had siblings, but she kinda figured that was normal sister stuff. Only a fool stands in front of a natural disaster, though.

Nicole sat quietly in one of the armchairs and listened to them bicker in the kitchen.

“-but you never call back! And now you think you can come in here and eat my leftover gazpacho in my home with my nice-occasion-pink-spoons when you’ve been less than a hundred miles away for almost an entire year without calling once ! Did you know that I check the news every day - I scoure obituaries from about fifty different newspapers trying to see if you got yourself killed yet!”

Wynonna fell silent a moment. “Is eating gazpacho a euphemism for something?”

“No! It’s the thing you’re shoveling in your mouth!” Waverly practically screamed.

“I just thought it was chunky soup.”

“You’re gonna be chunky soup when I’m done with you.”

Nicole frowned and tapped her fingertips lightly on her knees. Maybe she should’ve left, but it felt much too late for that.

When the sound of Wynonna’s boots echoed in the hallway, Nicole straightened again and tried to look like someone who wasn’t sleeping with Wynonna’s sister. Whatever that looked like.

Wynonna halted in the entry to the living room with Waverly’s nice-occasion-pink-spoon hovering near her mouth. “Who are you?” She asked bluntly.

“Nicole,” she said, because...she was.

Wynonna stared hard at her a moment before her eyes went wide. “Oh! I know you. Nedley’s little twerp! All grown up! Look at you,” she nodded approvingly and took another mouthful of Waverly’s gazpacho. “Tall drink of trespasser.”

“She’s not-“ Waverly shoved into Wynonna’s kidney from behind – “trespassing! You are!”

Wynonna scoffed and gestured toward where Waverly was angrily fluffing couch pillows like Nicole was gonna sympathize with her. Whatever the case, Nicole weren’t gonna come in between anything. Wynonna took her silence as support and came to sit next to her. “Do you believe that? I own this house.”

Waverly spun around so fast she almost disrupted the space-time continuum. “Well,” she laughed darkly, adding about twelve syllables to the word somehow.  “You abandoned this house. You abandoned this house and now it’s mine and now I’d like you to leave.” She picked up the jacket Wynonna had thrown over one of the armchairs and launched it into Wynonna’s face.

“Leave?!” Wynonna protested, scrambling to get the jacket out of her face. She emerged from behind it looking scandalized. “I basically raised you!”

Waverly’s voice dropped dangerously and Nicole swallowed. “And you abandoned that too.” Wynonna looked like she’d been struck across the face, but Waverly had already turned her back and was staring out one of the windows. Just leave,” she asked quietly. “It probably won’t even hurt this time.”

Nicole tensed, ready for a blowup and desperate to pull Waverly into her arms. She wanted to protect her, but it weren’t her battle and Waverly didn’t need to be saved. Wynonna just deflated slowly, letting the spoon drop back in the Tupperware she had been eating out of. Wordlessly, she set the food aside on the table and reached out to grab Waverly’s arm. Before Waverly could do more than squawk indignantly, Wynonna had spun and reeled her in. The fight Waverly put up was lethargic. She was quickly tucked under Wynonna’s chin and folded into a hug.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled into the top of Waverly’s head. “I’m sorry Waves. Your sister’s a big, useless idiot. And she missed you.”

It was only a breath before Waverly’s arms came up around Wynonna’s middle and she gripped at the back of her jacket hard. “Damn you,” she muttered. “Do you have any idea how much I’ve missed you?”

Wynonna smiled. “Maybe some.”

 

+++

 

Nicole mostly made herself busy cleaning stuff that ain’t even really needed cleaning and walking aimlessly around the hallways while Waverly caught up with her sister. It felt like they’d waited too long to explain why Nicole was there and it was too late for a ‘ by the way, this is my gay lover ’ conversation. It was like forgettin’ someone’s name, then going a few weeks without asking so you just got to accept that you ain’t gonna know their name forever. Except Nicole had seen Waverly naked so it was nothin’ like that.

Her metaphors were shit.

She’d run out of weird things to displace and shirts that she ain’t ever ironed in her life to iron, so she headed for the front door while Waverly socked Wynonna hard in the shoulder as they argued over ice cream in the kitchen. She grabbed a dusty copy of some book about dragons and little hairy men who sang a lot that Waverly was makin’ her read – it’s a classic, Nicole – and headed for the porch. It was real late and what she wanted was to curl up in a bed and sleep. But there were two beds in the house and there was no way to curl up in either of them without some serious questions bein’ asked. She sighed and pushed open the screen door.

The screen door thunked into a boot and Nicole glanced up.

“Earp residence?”

Nicole looked the man up and down – black fatigues, eerily pressed black polo shirt, service weapon with tactical thigh holster. General aura of dark government secrets. Definitely assassinated a prospective terrorist in his time.

“Nope,” Nicole said, popping the ‘p’.

The man’s brow furrowed in stern, federal disapproval. “Yes it is.”

“Why you askin’ then?”

“She’s here isn’t she?” He continued.

Nicole widened her stance and crossed her arms, blocking the door more fully. “Why don’t you tell me exactly what you need and I’ll see if I can help you.”

“You’re in over your head,” he said darkly. “Move aside or I’ll move you myself.”

Nicole bristled. “Try it.”

Once upon a time, a man more dastardly than Federal Polo Shirt had jumped out of the bushes in front of Nicole’s dormitories to break her nose for the eighth time in two months and ain’t nothin’ prepare you more for a tactical take-down than an academy sergeant with stress-induced hypertension.

It was a neat maneuver when he tried to jab her solar plexus and snap his elbow into her jaw to stun, twist and take her down, but it was very cop . They’re efficient buggers, but they’re predictable as hell. Nicole deflected his jab, snapped their elbows together and delivered an almighty right hook right into his federally funded nose.

The man stumbled back, relatively unharmed, but wholly surprised. He swiped under his nose, studied the blood there, then stared back at Nicole’s unamused face. He barely blinked while Nicole glowered at him from the porch steps.

“Oh my god !” Wynonna laughed from behind Nicole’s shoulder. “Dolls, she punched your face so hard!” She leaned close, sounding genuinely interested. “Dude, are you single?”

Waverly made some vague noise of distress in the background.

The man – Dolls - swiped under his nose one last time and glared past Nicole’s shoulder. “Earp, I vividly remember ordering you to stay at the motel until we convene in the morning at the Sheriff’s station.”

“Yeah, and you believed that, so I feel like we still haven’t gotten to the part where I’m the one who did something wrong.” Nicole tried to move aside so Wynonna could handle her own problems, but Wynonna subtly grabbed the back of Nicole’s shirt to hold her in place like a shield. “How’d you find me anyways, you creep?”

“You’re on electronic monitoring,” Dolls said flatly.

“Ouch!” Wynonna jumped and Nicole looked over her shoulder to see Waverly jabbing Wynonna in her kidney again.

“Electronic monitoring? Jesus, Wynonna, what did you do?” She scolded.

Wynonna scoffed. “Yeah, Dolls? What could I possibly have done that gives you the right to infringe on my civil liberties?”

“You held an innocent man at gunpoint for ten hours,” he recited, monotone.

“Really? That doesn’t sound like me. Ouch! Stop hitting me!” Nicole felt them scuffle behind her and she pondered how much better her life would’ve been if she’d gone to bed four hours ago. “Okay, okay, but in my defense, I really thought he was one of those… things we’re hunting. It’s not my fault I wasn’t working with your super secret government task force yet and I was technically carrying an illegal gun and I was-”

Dolls raised a single, mighty eyebrow.

“Yeah alright, that one was kind of on me.”

Nicole rolled her eyes and shook out of Wynonna’s grip, nudging her forward. “Sorry I, uh, hit your face,” she said to Dolls, backing up into Waverly who gripped the back of her sleeve. “I would’ve hit hers instead if I’d known.”

“Forgotten,” Dolls assured her. “That was...a superior right hook,” he admitted.

“Thank you, sir. I paid dearly to learn it.”

Wynonna sighed mournfully and held both her wrists out. “Well, G-Man. Cuff me. Take me away from my estranged family and the home I barely knew. Let’s go, boss.”

Dolls and Nicole rolled their eyes at each other, but Waverly started letting her heart bleed all over their front porch. “Does she have to go? Can’t she stay here instead?” She asked with a rather artful pout. When it looked like Dolls was about to say no, Waverly pulled out all the stops and came forward to actually grip Dolls’ hands like it was her life on the line and not just her crass sister staying the night in a decent motel. “Please can she stay here? You can stay too if you need to keep an eye on her. I just haven’t seen her in so long.”

Dolls heaved a heavy sigh and shook his hands loose from Waverly’s supplication. Nicole wondered how he did it. “Fine, fine. What’s another night without sleep, hm?” He gestured toward the door while Wynonna whooped and slapped Nicole on the arm, which kinda hurt a little. Nicole stepped aside to let everyone in, but Waverly lingered, slipping her fingers into Nicole’s palm and smiling up at her. Which-

Goddamnit.

“That was kinda hot,” she murmured, raising a mischievous and seriously ill-timed eyebrow at her.

Nicole looked over Waverly’s head to the estranged family member and government agent in Waverly’s living room and that was more than enough to kill any kind of vibes, no matter how sexy violence apparently was.

“Thanks, it really hurt.”

Waverly frowned. “Oh, geez. Let me see,” she softened, grabbing for Nicole’s smarting knuckles. It weren’t probably medically sound, but when she kissed her knuckles it maybe, kinda, sorta felt a little better.

“Good as new,” Nicole smiled wide.

Waverly smiled back, but quickly let her eyes fall back to their hands, fading out into some other headspace that Nicole weren’t privy to. “Y’alright, Waves? This ain’t too much for you, is it?” Nail on the head – Waverly glanced up with a bone-weary expression on her face. “You want me to get rid of ‘em? I’ll kick ‘em all out, just say the word. I’ll punch someone again, I know you like that.”

Rolling her eyes, Waverly gripped tighter to Nicole’s fingers. “Only a little. But no. I want her here and I don’t mind him, but – god, I just want to go to bed with you for like eighty hours.”

“Ninety, maybe.”

“You get me,” Waverly said wistfully.

“Um, what’s happening out here?”

Nicole couldn’t even really blame Waverly no more, because that time she dropped Waverly’s hands, turning guiltily to face Wynonna’s narrowed eyes. “Nothin’.” Certainly nothin’ homosexual . “Just hurt my hand.”

“Ah, and you were so cool,” Wynonna lamented. “You ruined it. C’mon sprouts, get inside.”

Waverly shrugged and trailed inside on Wynonna’s heels while Nicole tried to figure out how she was a sprout. Things only became twice as awkward inside, when they all realized they were four very strangely acquainted people with two beds and a whole lot of questions between ‘em.

Waverly stood there, perplexed and horrified while she stared at the couch. Nicole could only imagine the kind of terror going through the perfect host’s head while her sister, a complete stranger with a license to kill, and her secret girlfriend were all stood around looking lustfully at the couch.

“Um.”

Wynonna, as always, was incapable of such compunctions – as Nicole suspected Wynonna had never had a compunction in her whole life. She probably ain’t even knew what a compunction was. “Alright, well my beloved, benevolent sister who I love dearly has kept my room in tact, so I’ll be going to bed now. Dolls, enjoy the couch, asshole – sorry, Agent Asshole. And Nicole, I have no idea why you’re here or where you belong, but maybe you ought to go home. You lived in like, a bus shelter or a foster home for like, aspiring clown children, right?”

“Yes.”

“Great! Enjoy…that.” Wynonna yawned and headed to a closet that Nicole knew weren’t a linen closet no more. Made her really wonder just whose home it really was. Waverly shot Nicole a desperate look – the ‘ please don’t leave me ’ kinda look that Nicole was powerless to resist anyhow.

“I’m staying,” Nicole blurted out, incapable of the whys and hows, but very certain of the whats. Then, more firm, “I’m staying here.”At Wynonna’s strange look, Nicole said the first thing that came to mind, which were an abomination to everything she gay-held dear. “We’re roommates. Er, I live here and, uh, yeah we’re roommates.”

“Roommates?” Wynonna stood there with the no-longer-a-linen-closet door open, receiving signals from the gay beyond for a few moments, but they ultimately went right on over her head. “Wait – did you give my room to Nicole? Et tu Waver-lay?”

“Yes?” Waverly shot Nicole a look and Nicole shrugged helplessly. It felt like if they could just get through the night everything would be fine and they could sort out their lies in the morning. “But…uh, you’re back now! So, um, Nicole can just share my room tonight and we’ll figure it out later?”

“Haha, suck it Nicole!” Wynonna crowed, pumping her fist in victory. “Evicted!”

Nicole and Waverly shared a flat look. “Right.”

By the time they managed to corral Wynonna into her room and contain her there, provide Dolls with a blanket they knew he’d be too cool to use, and brush their teeth in exhausted silence, there really weren’t much they had the energy to talk about. Nicole felt a hundred years older than she usually did when she pulled her socks off, dropped her pants, fell back into Waverly’s feather pillows and slowly sank back until she was sure she shared some heritage with the mattress itself. By the time Waverly crawled into bed and under Nicole’s chin, she was half delirious from the day.

“My life is a flaming pile of garbage,” Waverly mumbled into Nicole’s shirt.

“No, darlin’” Nicole mumbled, “ our life is a flaming pile of garbage.”

One frigid, bony knee worked its way between Nicole’s legs like the little heat thief she was. “You’re my favorite garbage.”

Even though she was cold as all hell, Nicole threw an arm over Waverly and let her creep her cold little fingers under her shirt. Now if that ain’t true love, Nicole couldn’t imagine what was. “That’s awful sweet of you.”

“We got a lot of shit to fix tomorrow,” Waverly sighed.

Outside, the crickets sang and sang and sang, like there weren’t a thousand things about to converge on the farm in a thousand different shades of shit. Dumbass crickets. “Yeah.” And that was that, really. Before Nicole could be dragged under the undertow of sleep, she asked, “Why did you show me your evil lair today, hm?”

“It’s not – it’s not an evil lair ,” Waverly grumbled, rubbing her nose against Nicole’s shirt. “It’s my den of dark secrets.”

Duh.

“Okay, why’d you show me your den of dark secrets?”

“Because if Bobo’s comin’ for us, then we’re gonna be ready,” she said with quiet conviction. “We built somethin’ here and they’re gonna have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”

“Yeah,” Nicole agreed fondly, pressing her lips against the top of Waverly’s head. “Your fingers are awful cold.”

“You’re damn right.” As if to prove her point, Waverly’s hands crept higher after she’d leached the warmth from that particular patch of skin. “I don’t care how big and bad Bobo thinks he is, I’m gonna protect you. I’m five foot four and full of vinegar and indomitable rage.”

“Yeah, I know darlin’. That’s why I love you.”

“Good thing too. I could kill you – just like that.”

“Shakin’ in my boots.”

 

+++



Chapter Text

"Well you didn't wake up this morning, 'cause you didn't go to bed

You were watching the whites of your eyes turn red.

 - the the, this is the day (1983)

 

+++

 

The first omen must’ve come some time in the night like a plague unto Egypt. It was a little disruptive to their awkward morning coffee when they found the coyote head nailed to the post outside the front door. Nicole weren’t really sure what that was supposed to mean, but she supposed it worked because she at least knew it weren’t good.

“Jesus, Waves, who’ve you been pissing off lately?” Wynonna muttered into her mug – which Nicole had discovered many years ago and asked why Waverly had a mug from Las Vegas that said ‘nice jugs’ on it. Mystery solved, she supposed.

Nicole yawned and eyed the glassy eyes and lolling tongue of the coyote’s head, flies buzzing lazily around it. “Got some ornery neighbors,” she understated, quite a bit.

“Poor coyote,” Waverly mourned.

Dolls was less amused. “I’ve seen this before,” he said cryptically. Wynonna just slurped her coffee loudly. “This house has been marked.”

“Yeah, with a dead coyote,” Nicole groused. “Those stains ain’t comin’ out easy.”

Dolls ignored her. “I spoke with a hunter out in Pennsylvania who had to go into hiding. The leader of a pack – er, a…gang of…bad people, did the same thing to his cabin. They killed most of his family before he escaped. He still has to cover his scent – uh, tracks , and keep moving.”

Wynonna shot Dolls a flat look. “Nice save.”

“Who are these ornery neighbors?” Dolls asked gravely.

Nicole opened her mouth to offer some kind of vague excuse, but Waverly stilled her with the back of her hand against her stomach. “Wait a second.” She narrowed her eyes and glanced between Dolls and her sister for a few beats, the finely tuned cogs of her mind whirring at incalculable speeds. A beat after realization stole across her face, it was shuttered with anger. “Oh, no. He’s – who do you work for, Dolls?”

“Black Badge Division, covert operations,” he hedged, stiff and formal.

Waverly’s eyes narrowed even further and Nicole wondered if she could even see anything. “Covert?” Her next words were low and dangerous, “what is your mission here, agent?”

“Classified.”

Nicole knew one thing for certain: she ain’t ever wanted to be on the receiving end of the look Waverly was givin’ Dolls. “Classified? Or supernatural ?”

“Told you so,” Wynonna muttered into her coffee.

Dolls looked briefly like he wanted to say somethin’ childish back, but he overcame the instinct and stayed silent. In the meantime, Nicole’s slightly more deliberate brain caught up. “Oh,” she breathed. “Y’all are here for – oh .”

“Wynonna!” Waverly scolded.

Wynonna emerged from her irreverent coffee mug indignantly. “What’d I do!?”

“I can’t believe you brought a government agent here!” She snapped. “You remember how Daddy felt about that.”

“Yeah, and I remember how Daddy thought scented candles could turn you gay so excuse the hell out of me,” Wynonna scoffed. Nicole nodded thoughtfully. “Besides, I’m basically a prisoner here. I ain’t callin’ the shots this time.” When Waverly only glared harder, Wynonna threw her unoccupied hand up. “And would it be so bad? Daddy wanted all those things dead anyhow. They’re monsters, Waves. If the feds want to nuke ‘em free of charge, why the hell not?”

“I want to be clear that there are no nukes,” Dolls interjected like he was a lawyer or somethin’.

Waverly ignored him. “This isn’t the way to handle this,” she growled. “They’re not – they’re not monsters .”

Nicole weren’t so sure of that, but it was in her best interest to nod along when Waverly sent her a fearful look. She supposed she didn’t want to be...nuked. She ain’t really thought about it all that hard.

“Oh, grow up,” Wynonna soured. “You remember what it was like as a kid – always terrified, couldn’t leave the homestead without a weapon tucked in your pink flowery backpack. You were a kid , Waves. Those monsters had our entire family hostage and they still do .”

“You know what, Wynonna? You’re wrong,” she smiled sardonically. “It wasn’t any monsters that had our family hostage. We were hostages, but it wasn’t any monsters . ‘Least not the kind at the trailer park.”

Wynonna crossed her arms and straightened her spine to loom over her sister’s head. “What are you saying?”

“You know what I’m saying,” Waverly stood her ground. “I’m sayin’ that no matter what Bobo and his tribe turn into on the full moon, they’re not what haunted this house! They weren’t the ones with the secrets and the temper and the coldness !”

“They killed Willa!” Wynonna roared. “You saw it! You couldn’t sleep for weeks!”

“I’m not defending them,” Waverly said coldly. “I’m just sayin’ that our family curse isn’t a bunch of monsters in the dark. It’s us . It’s our violence – it’s our vendettas and our own sickness.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t I?” Waverly laughed sadly. “Why did you shoot him, then, Wynonna?” It weren’t the coldest day by any stretch, but it was like all of the warmth sucked right outta the air and time stood still. “You can’t run from that any more. You had the gun and you shot him . There was one them ten feet from you and you shot him .”

Nicole swallowed hard and it was so loud it felt like a gunshot in the sound vacuum they’d created. It had been so long since that night – she ain’t really ever had time to think too hard on it. From where she’d stood, hip throbbing from Ward Earp’s knife and eyes like death lookin’ so hard into her she wondered how it was possible he weren’t able to see a soul in there. She’d seen red when Ward had raised a hand against Waverly, then the rest was like watching through an old film reel. Seein’ Wynonna stand there on the trigger end of a gun still smoking, pointed straight at her own daddy’s heart – it was nothin’ she could figure. Even to that day, she still didn’t know what to think.

Wynonna bristled, puffing up and grinding her teeth, staring down her sister who showed no sign of giving ground. Tension crackled between them and Nicole got nervous that they were both gonna blow up on each other. It was almost an eternity before-

Wynonna deflated slow, like a punctured tire. When her shoulders were fully relaxed, she looked much smaller than Nicole ever remembered her bein’ – just a girl, really. “I don’t know,” she said softly. “I don’t know why I shot him.”

With one slow hand, Waverly reached out and took Wynonna’s fingers in her own. “Yes you do.”

A brief flash of defiance stole across Wynonna’s face before it completely extinguished and she nodded. “I – yeah. I just-” she looked up into Waverly’s eyes, face open and pleading. “I know what he was, Waves – more than maybe you will ever know. Thank god, I guess. But, well, you don’t get to choose your family, you know? I know what he – what he did to us - and what he didn’t, I guess. He wasn’t anything special, but –“ Wynonna took a slow careful breath, scrubbing an angry hand across her eyes like the mere idea of feelings was horribly offensive to her. “But you are,” she finished firmly. “I made a choice that night and I can’t be sorry about that.”

“I’m not asking you to be,” Waverly assured her. “I just want you to remember that you made a choice . You made a choice and it wasn’t the one that looked like a monster that you raised your gun to.”

Nicole took one long breath and watched the chicken hawks circle overhead, throat thick with somethin’ she’d never be able to swallow.

 

+++

 

Nicole bent down carefully – still mindful of those ribs even then – and scratched softly at the top of Joan of Arc’s fluffy head. Joan of Ark clucked peacefully, pushing her head up into the contact and Nicole smiled. But as always, some of the other ladies got jealous and started pushing forward for their turn. Rude little gifts from god, they were.

“Patience is a virtue,” she murmured.

Chevy Camaro pecked Mrs. Buttersworth Junior right in the eye.

Nicole frowned.

“Oh! Sorry, I didn’t realize you were in here. I kinda thought I was hallucinating a chicken coop because I’m really certain there wasn’t one here when I left.”

Nicole froze only a moment, then bopped Chevy Camaro right on top of her rude head. She didn’t turn to face Wynonna, just kept arranging the apple slices in a pleasing sort of way in the chickens’ dish. “It weren’t,” she agreed.

“And when did we get so many chickens?”

“Here and there.” Henrietta stuck her head right up under Nicole’s arm, demanding attention and Nicole smiled. “Mostly my fault.”

“I find that hard to believe. Waverly was always the animal lover,” Wynonna chuckled. “Do you know how hard it is to have to turn away stray puppies twice a week? You’ve seen her pout.”

“I have. But I’m afraid I built the coop,” Nicole admitted. “If you build it, they will come, right? Somethin’ like that.”

Wynonna reached down to try and touch Alexandra the Great, but she was much too Great to be touched by commoners. She scurried away and Wynonna huffed, affronted. “What do you mean you built it?”

“I mean…I built it? Like, with wood and nails and stuff?” Nicole shot her a confused look before going back to the food dish. “I build a lot of stuff.”

“Huh,” Wynonna cocked her head to the side, still squatting down with her elbows on her knees, like if she studied Nicole closer to the ground she might figure it all out – whatever it was. Hopefully, it wasn’t the fact that she’d seen her sister naked. “You know,” she said slowly, “I’ve been trying to figure out why exactly you’re here. I know you and Waverly were kinda friends in school. But I see the way she is with you.”

Hopefully not all the ways she was with her.

“I stayed on after your Daddy-“ Nicole swallowed and kept her eyes down. “Well, I stayed. I care about this place like the foundations are my own bones now.”

“Okay Charles Dickens, tone it down.”

Nicole winced, but decided to stay quiet. It was a bad habit she’d picked up sometime in school, that sometimes it was better to say nothin’ than to find your way through a wrong answer. Wynonna must’ve misinterpreted her silence. “What? I read,” she muttered. Nicole just nodded.

In the ensuing silence, Nicole heard Wynonna shuffle closer and squat beside her over the feed bin. “That looks better than what I eat,” she said, impressed. “Don’t chickens just eat, like, seed?”

“Unhealthy chickens,” Nicole murmured. “Chickens need variety and nutrients and love and affection just like anyone else. It don’t take much to make things beautiful, Wynonna. The only difference between somethin’ ordinary and somethin’ a little extra is just a little care.”

Wynonna’s cheek dropped to rest in her hand where it was propped up with an elbow on her knee. “Even chickens?”

“Especially chickens,” Nicole laughed quietly, reaching out to still Henrietta’s frantic foraging with a scratch under the feathers on her forehead. Henrietta froze and clucked with bliss. “Touch this chicken and tell me it ain’t more than ordinary.”

Wynonna shot her a weird look, but reached out to run clumsy fingers over the top of Henrietta’s head. Henrietta pushed into the contact for a moment, pecking lightly at Wynonna’s fingers when she didn’t do it quite right, before pushing her greedy head almost all the way into Wynonna’s palm. Like she was surprised by it, Wynonna smothered her delighted laugh before it began. “What a slut!”

Nicole shot her a glare. “Don’t be rude.”

“Sorry.”

As Wynonna rubbed along the underside of Henrietta’s soft chin, she let out a long, tired sigh. “I know this might all seem weird to you – all this talk of monsters and stuff. I don’t know how much Waverly’s told you, but it’s not her fault. She’s not – like me,” Wynonna finished lamely. “She’s normal and mostly sane. And I know this is all hard to believe-“

“I get it,” Nicole stopped her. “I”ve…seen things,” she decided to leave it at. “You ain’t any crazier than the rest of us.”

‘Least not too much anyhow.

Wynonna’s mouth hung open a moment, like she wanted to spell it out or maybe argue some, but there must’ve been something in Nicole’s brief look that stopped her. She just shrugged and kept scratching at Henrietta’s head.

Like blood in the water, the other ladies were soon clamoring for Wynonna’s attention until Nicole shooed them off before they could swamp her entirely. She’d probably never admit it, but Wynonna looked nothing less than charmed.

“Well?” Nicole asked, pushing up to stand and shake out the tension in her knees while she dusted off her pants.

Wynonna looked up at her, seemed to come to herself, and stood to join her. “Eh.”

“Don’t you lie to me. You’ve touched the chickens,” Nicole said gravely.

That time, Wynonna made no effort to smother her laugh. She shook her head and looked at Nicole like she was an alien – albeit a harmless, weirdly entertaining one. It was a look Nicole had gotten used to over the years. “Yeah,” she said fondly, “I see it now.”

“I told you. Them chickens are special.”

“Yeah, but that’s not what I meant,” Wynonna said, dusting off her own pants and making for the exit. “I get it now – you and Waverly.”

Nicole swallowed. “Uh, really?”

“Oh, yeah. I get why you’re friends – I see why she likes you,” Wynonna said slyly and Nicole couldn’t help but wonder how one girl could wear so much leather and be gifted such an assbackwards gaydar at birth.

 

+++

 

If Nicole was impressed by Waverly’s den of dark secrets, it was rivaled maybe only by Dolls’ reaction. They’d barely made it past the last step into the cellar before Dolls was firing a million questions at Waverly, the two of them volleying back and forth like them recordings of the world champ ping pong players Nicole used to watch with Nedley when they aired the Olympic recaps at the end of the day. It was art. And Nicole caught basically none of it.

Wynonna was drooling over the gun rack and Nicole kept tracing those family trees over and under and around the yarn and blood that tied them there. It was an exhaustive display, but Nicole knew it weren’t complete – there were unsubstantiated rumors and little red question marks where family members might or might not have been. Some of the lineages were bold, straight and true, right back to their roots before time itself almost. But there were loners too – floating off to the side of the tree, joined to no one and listless on the outskirts of the sprawling trees. Nicole ran her fingers over some of them – they sure didn’t live long, many of them. She wondered if they were all mutts or if Waverly just hadn’t quite figured out where they all went yet.

She traced her hand down to more current populations – living relatives and the populations of the trailer park. Hovering somewhere off near the bottom of the board, no yarn or ties, was an old cutout of Nicole’s senior yearbook photograph. Something empty yawned inside of her a moment – that little unsmiling picture of herself drifting in the corner of a big board full of families – but then she spotted the tiny red heart sticker from the dollar store valentine cards Waverly used to hand out at Shorty’s tacked lopsided to the edge of the picture.

Aw.

Nicole smiled and moved on, her fingers and eyes tracing back to the trailer park. As secretive as the folks at the trailers were, Nicole was surprised to find she knew a great deal of them. She knew Chuck from Chuck’s Hardware and Mrs. Tuck and the Archers and those Cross twins and a whole lot of other folks Nicole had done some kinda work for. Frankly, she aint’ ever really thought about how they could all turn into terrible beasts at their whim. They were a proud, sometimes violent and strange people, but-

People, really.

Nicole’s eyes rested on a blurry shot taken from too far a distance on an old cellphone – a grainy, but unmistakable likeness to Bobo. And maybe it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, but that shaky little picture of Bobo weren’t connected  by no yarn neither. It was alone, a handwritten piece of notepaper with neat little bullet point facts about him, but no family tree to speak of. A little red question mark was penned into the top of his photograph. Not for the first time, Nicole considered that she really didn’t know him at all.

She wondered if she ever would.

A hand snuck its way across Nicole’s side to rest on her lower back and she smiled involuntarily. “Sorry, I should’ve been listening,” she murmured. “This is just neat.”

“It’s okay, Dolls is boring,” she whispered conspiratorially.

Nicole grinned, but was too polite to agree. She looked down to catch Waverly’s eye, then pointed to the little heart sticker in the corner of her own photograph, grinning stupidly. “Look.”

Waverly rolled her eyes, but couldn’t help but return the grin. “I know.”

“That’s real cute.”

“It happens sometimes.”

Nicole leaned close. “You got a crush on me, Waverly?”

“You’re twelve,” she scoffed, turning back to follow Wynonna around and make sure she didn’t’ steal anything, but far too late to hide the blush Nicole had already caught. When Nicole got her dumb grin under control, she turned back to find Waverly taking a wicked looking machete from Wynonna’s hands while she sulked. The machete was returned to the rack and Nicole felt safer for it.

“Did you know about this evil lair?” Wynonna asked suspiciously.

“Den of dark secrets,” Nicole corrected, ”and not until quite recently, no.”

Wynonna’s eyes narrowed as she surveyed another board of dark secrets with her hands on her hips. “None of this is daddy’s stuff,” she muttered. “You are a hurricane of awesome, kiddo.”

Waverly nodded thoughtfully. “I am, aren’t I?”

“This is…” Dolls trailed off, face breaking into something that looked almost like awe. But like, government sanctioned awe. “Even with the backing of – well, I never…”

Nicole ain’t ever neither.

“Just kind of…a hobby,” Waverly shrugged.

One of Dolls’ fingers traced over a collage of photographs. “You’ve been surveilling them,” he concluded, an unmistakable impressed note in his voice. “Learning their movements, finding their patterns. I’m afraid I might be out of a job soon.”

“Oh, no,” Waverly dismissed, waving her hand in front of her face, “I wasn’t surveilling them. I was just researching. It used to be just a few guys that I knew of because Daddy had let it slip, but then Nicole told me that they all lived in the trailer park and it was all downhill from there. Surveilling sounds a lot more menacing.”

“Well, that’s what it certainly looks like you were doing,” Dolls returned absently as he perused the candid shots, occasionally pausing to study one in further detail. “Why surveill them at all?”

“Research,” Waverly corrected, wringing her hands nervously. “I just…I don’t know, that’s how I show I care.”

“Care about what?” Wynonna scoffed as her fingers crept closer to what Nicole was almost certain was a military grade bazooka.

“Uh,” Waverly shot Nicole a desperate look. “Um, uh…the Earp legacy? Of course.”

Wynonna’s fingers halted and she turned to send Waverly a strange look. “The Earp legacy? You just begged me not to kill them. Hate to say it, Waves, but that’s the Earp legacy. We’re hunters not researchers.”

“Uh, right.” Waverly’s fingers were wringing so tensely, Nicole thought she might lose some skin. “I guess I just care about her – uh, them .”

Wynonna sighed hard and shook her head. “Ah, Waves. Nobody’s heart bleeds quite like yours does. What you see in those monsters, I’ll never know.”

The tension dropped from Waverly’s shoulders and her hands fell at her sides like the wind had been taken right out of her sails. Maybe it weren’t the best idea, but Nicole came closer and took Waverly’s fingers gently. When she looked up, Nicole offered her an encouraging smile, pulling one from Waverly too. “I know,” Nicole said simply with another squeeze before letting go.

“It’s kind of amazing you were never caught,” Dolls mused as he studied a grainy picture of a man in a long, wool duster, face just barely visible as he turned his head to the side. “You have no surveillance training.” When Dolls moved to the neighboring photograph of the same man turned fully toward the camera, eyes grim and focused dead into the lense, Dolls frowned. “You weren’t caught, were you?”

“Um, I don’t think so?” Waverly grimaced. “Not really.”

“Not really?” Dolls echoed.

“I probably had some close calls, but nobody ever came after me.”

Nicole’s heart gave a little skip and she froze, her mind flashing back to two haunting yellow eyes across the Earp homestead, hidden in the grass. She thought about Waverly, a small dot on the other end of the property, walking her bike home and calling for Nicole in the darkness. She thought about long, evil fangs bared in the moonlight and the single-minded focus of the creature as it charged-

Nicole swallowed hard.

Slowly, Dolls turned back to level Waverly with a serious look. Which, really, there weren’t any other kind of look he seemed to know. “And this in no way has anything to do with the decapitated coyote nailed to your porch?”

“No,” Waverly said quickly. “That’s…something else,” she muttered, shooting Nicole a weighty look. “We, uh, might’ve broken one of Bobo’s rules.”

“What rule would that be?” Dolls fished patiently.

But Waverly shook her head and turned away to busy herself shifting papers around her desk. “Nothing major. It doesn’t matter. It’s done.”

Dolls continued to stare a hole in Waverly’s back but Wynonna glanced between the two of them, then cleared her throat. “Anyways, I’m starving. Let’s leave this for now and feed me,” she said, heading for the stairs out of the cellar. “C’mon Waves, let’s go clear your head by filling my stomach,” she chortled. It was brash, but when Waverly sighed and made to follow her up the steps, Wynonna pushed her forward gently and squeezed one of her shoulders with a warm smile.

 

+++

 

Feed her they did. Waverly kept putting food in front of Wynonna – whole racks of bacon and too many eggs to count, but Wynonna would ham it up, stuff herself sick and demand more. It exasperated Waverly, but ten minutes in and she was laughing hard, tutting over Wynonna and teasing her. Nicole thought maybe she got Wynonna just a little bit more then.

But duty waited for no one, apparently, and Nicole was due at the Sheriff’s station. She was in Waverly’s room, buttoning herself up and puttin’ herself in order when Waverly came up behind her and stretched up to place a quick kiss on her cheek.

Nicole shot a look over her shoulder. “How dare you.”

“Do you have to go?” She mourned.

Nicole hummed and headed for the little gun safe on the bookshelf, twisting the dial carefully. “That’s how it works. Ain’t you ever had a job in your life?”

Waverly scoffed. “Nevermind, get out of here. I don’t like you anymore.”

The safe clicked and swung open for Nicole to grab her Smith & Wesson and buckle it safely into her holster. She hoisted her belt a bit and turned to place her own kiss on Waverly’s cheek. “Yeah, alright,” she grinned. “I’ll just say goodbye to our guests then I’ll be goin’.”

“Oh, uh, no, no. Don’t do that,” Waverly panicked. “Just…jump out the window.”

“Seems reasonable.”

“Oh god, I’m still tryin’ to work up to the Gay Conversation,” Wavelry groaned. “That one’s gonna be a cakewalk compared to the ‘Also She’s a Cop’ Talk. Wynonna hates cops more than they hate her. Which is already a lot.”

Nicole chuckled. “Alright, I’ll be discreet.”

Waverly growled in frustration and Nicole just kept laughing. “I’m sure I’ll be retired by the time you get around to it,” she hummed, making to leave the room. Before she could get hardly a few steps, Waverly spun her back around, grabbing the lapels of her department issued jacket and kissin’ her something fierce. Nicole had to hold her hat on with one hand. Ain’t nothin’ in academy prepared her for that kind of attack. She thought of her academy instructor and frowned. Probably for the best.

Waverly grinned at her when she pulled back. “What are you thinkin’ about?”

“My academy instructor,” Nicole blurted.

They stared at each other for a moment before they were both laughing. “I don’t want to know,” Wavelry said, shaking her head and smoothing out the wrinkles she’d made in Nicole’s shirt.

“What the fuck?”

Nicole saw Waverly’s eyes widen, gaping at where she knew Wynonna was standing over her shoulder. Nicole turned to offer Wynonna a pleasant smile. “Wynonna. Just heading to work.”

“Oh my god, your roommate is a cop ,” Wynonna groaned, betrayed and scandalized. “I thought I raised you better than this. Both of you, actually.”

Waverly was mostly speechless, so Nicole just tipped her hat to the both of them and sidled around them both to make her exit. “Enjoy your day, civilians,” she teased, leaving them to sort it out.

Well, that was one problem taken care of. Sort of.

Nicole hummed somethin’ she couldn’t ever remember hearing just about the whole way to the station and ain’t even really minded when Nedley set a massive backlog of graffiti complaints in front of her for processing.

 

+++


Chapter Text

 

"There's a spirit in the air, and there ain't no way around it,

I was not prepared to lose it all the moment that I found it.

- dr. dog, that old black hole (2012)

 

+++

 

“Somethin’ weird happened yesterday,” Nedley said out of the blue while they were sitting together in the quiet of his truck guarding the interstate. Pulling traffic was hard in a place that turnpikes had long since made pointless unless you were lost or runnin’ from something. Nedley called it “God’s Bypass” because he reckoned even God wouldn’t take the detour through town - reckoned maybe even God willed it. But the few cars that did pass by were usually pushing 160, so they got enough action. As it were, Nedley had certain field training boxes he had to check off, so there they were.

But really, Nicole couldn’t much imagine a day where somethin’ weird happening in Purgatory was actually all that weird. “Just one thing?” She asked lightly. “That is weird.”

“No, smartass,” he muttered, watching a sleek luxury sedan whizz by without even bothering to clock it.  “I swear on the grave you’ll eventually drive me to: I saw Wynonna Earp the other day.”

Nicole pursed her lips and stared out through the windshield and the blank stretch of highway in front of them. “Must’ve been your imagination.”

“I don’t think so,” Nedley said, rubbing at the scruff on his face.

Another car sped by in front of them but Nicole weren’t even looking no more. “No, I’m pretty sure you’re senile.”

Nedley glared at her. “Don’t make me demote you.”

Nicole just laughed and reached for one of the heinously unhealthy Mega Gulp sodas Nedley had gotten them at the Gas n Go. It had been a unanimous ‘ don’t tell Waverly’ moment of agreement that she was sure they’d pay dearly for later. They were both gonna die long before retirement age if they didn’t close that Gas n Go. “I’m literally the lowest rank you can possibly be.”

“Actually, I got tired of Lonnie bein’ AWOL and started just demoting him without notice. I don’t even know what he is now. I think last time we filed our employee rosters with the state he was classified as a part-time civilian custodian. And an intern maybe? I don’t really remember.”

“Oh my god,” Nicole choked on her soda. “You’re lyin’.”

“I’m really not.” Nedley grinned. “God I hope nobody ever checks his credentials, I’m pretty sure he ain’t even legally allowed to carry anymore.”

They tapped their sodas together, laughing to themselves. Nedely took a moment to listen in on a service call that Clemmens was being assigned to. When he heard itw as just Mrs. Faulk worried about someone trampling her roses, he turned it back down to a murmur. The clouds were rolling in thicker - not rain clouds, just a dull blanket over their previously bright day. As if to himself, Nedley rubbed his fingers along the worn steering wheel and murmured,“But I swear I saw Wynonna Earp in the flesh, no matter what you say.”

Unsure of what to do with that, Nicole just shrugged vaguely. “That so?”

But Nicole was a shit liar – ain’t had much practice really. Nedley snapped his head to the side and gave her a stern look from under his eyebrows. “Now wait a minute, what do you know? She’s been to see your girl hasn’t she? I swear sometimes I forget Waverly’s an Earp. Maybe it’s ‘cause I ain’t ever had to sight her for public urination or inciting riots.”

“Waverly ain’t nobody’s girl,” Nicole dismissed, digging around in her pocket to check her phone for any updates from her.

Nedley rolled his eyes. “Fine. You’re Waverly’s girl, then.”

“That’s probably more accurate.” No new messages. Nicole sighed.

Nedley let out a long sigh, deflating into the back of his seat and sending Nicole a tired look. “Wynonna is in town, ain’t she? She’s really back?”

Nicole sighed even longer, giving it up in that one long breath. She weren’t sure if Wynonna really wanted people to know she was back after fleeing all those years ago, but there weren’t nothin’ she could do against that look Nedley had perfected. It didn’t feel no different than it had when she was a kid. “Yeah,” she gave in. “She came by the homestead last night. I think she’s workin’ for some kinda government agency.”

“You’re shitting me,” Nedley laughed. “Don’t play games. Wynonna ain’t working with no government agency . C’mon, kid.”

“That’s Deputy Kid to you, old man,” Nicole muttered. “And she is. I think she got caught up in something and sort of got recruited against her will.”

Nedley barked out another laugh. “I didn’t know there was any force powerful enough to go against her will. I certainly never could.” He fiddled a bit with the radio dial even though it was turned down so low they couldn’t hear much more than muffled guitar twangs. “But – well, I guess I’m kinda glad she’s back. I always wondered if she was doin’ okay. Royal pain in my ass though she might’ve been, there’s somethin’ special about that girl. She’s like raw kinetic energy. And maybe I didn’t know if she was gonna change the world for the better or for the worst, but I was damn sure she was gonna change it.”

Nicole smiled and nodded. “She thinks I’m Waverly’s roommate.”

“Ha! Good luck with that. Let me know if you need armed backup.”

+++

 

They’d only just made it back to the station, Nicole plopping down in a squeaky office chair and pulling into her ancient computer, when she heard the grainy call of their lone duty dispatcher over the old motorolla radios. Nicole barely paid it mind, until she heard ‘Earp’ and rewound the transmission in her head.

“Any available units, we’ve got a 911 hangup at the Earp residence .”

Nicole looked up frantically just as Nedley came out of his office, holding his own radio and making grave eye contact with her. He lifted his radio to his lips and keyed in slowly. “Any partial contact?”

“Barely. It actually sounded like we were being asked not to show up.”

Nedley’s brow furrowed. “Did you attempt return calls?”

“No, Sherriff. I figured I’d just leave them to their fate.”

“Doris,” Nedley warned.

“Several attempts, no connection. I’ve been told the phone lines are down by their provider.”

“10-4 Doris, me and Charlie-2 are en route,” he said, turning to find Nicole already pulling her jacket on and grabbing her hat.

They were quiet as they strode out of the station with purpose, Nicole checking her extra clips and Nedley buckling in and tightening the straps of his Kevlar that he’d let loose in the station. When they’d climbed in the Sheriff’s truck, Nicole said, “It’s probably nothing.” Even to her it didn’t sound all too convincing.

Nedley did her the favor of nodding. “Probably nothing,” he agreed.

The ride there was agonizingly slow, no matter how bad Nedley broke his own traffic laws. The asphalt under the tires was louder than Nicole ever remembered it being in the silence they’d created when they clicked the car radio off. Even their handhelds were silent. The headlights shining on the road led them right up to the gravel path that wound around to the homestead. It was awful dark at night in a town that hadn’t really ever got the memo about streetlights.

As they neared the fenceline for the homestead proper, they both jerked forward in their seats when Nedley slammed on the brakes. Nicole braced herself on the dashboard and squinted into the little patch of clarity granted only by the thirty feet of headlight in front of them. A dark silhouette stood right at the entry to the property, coat billowing at his ankles, shoulders squared.

Nicole swallowed.

“What in sam hell?” Nedley breathed.

“Bobo.”

In the light from the truck he looked like somethin’ evil. He looked like an omen or a reckoning. She ain’t ever seen him look quite like that. It shouldn’t have been possible for one man to be so still. His face was shadowed strangely and it made something turn in the pit of Nicole’s stomach.

“C’mon,” Nedley grunted, pushing his door open and moving to haul himself out. One thing was true about Randy Nedley: he weren’t afraid of no reckoning . Nicole did the same and they approached Bobo at a safe distance, hands hovering near their service weapons. Bobo’s hands were loose at his side, but Nicole knew he was dangerous no matter what was or wasn’t in his hands.

“What are you doing here?” Nicole started before Nedley could get a word in. “You ain’t supposed to be on this property.”

Bobo smiled sardonically. “Technically, I’m not on it yet.”

Nedley harrumphed. “We received a 911 hangup at the Earp house,” he cut in. “Wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with you, would it?”

Bobo smiled like it had everything to do with him, but ultimately shrugged. “Can’t imagine how it would.” When his eyes fixed hard on Nicole’s own, she froze. “But now that you’re here, I’m afraid me and… Nicole need to have a chat,” he said, tasting her name oddly since he likely ain’t had the chance to taste it before.

Nedley snorted. “Yeah, I’m afraid we’re gonna have to go check on the Earps first, Bobo. Then we can see about a chat .”

It was barely there, but Bobo shook his head minutely and Nicole swallowed. His eyes flicked around the outskirts of the property. Not a single bird call or chatter could be heard and it struck Nicole that they might not be alone no more. When his gaze returned to Nicole, they both knew what had to happen. She loved him with all her heart, but there weren’t nothin’ Nedley could do there except get himself killed.

“It’s fine,” she sighed, offering Nedley what she hoped was a smile. “I’m sure it’s nothing. You know how Wynonna hates cops, I’m sure it was a drunk call.” She shrugged with an exasperated smile. “Why don’t you head back to the station and I’ll stay and set Wynonna straight. My shift was over an hour ago anyhow.”

Checking his watch, Nedley nodded slowly. His eyes flickered suspiciously between Bobo and the homestead. “You sure? Maybe we should go together to check just in case-“

“No, no, seriously. It’s better if it’s just me, you and Wynonna don’t mix too well.” She stepped forward, motioning for Nedley to leave. “I’ll see you Friday, alright?”

Nedley’s eyes narrowed just once, looking between Bobo and Nicole like he was on the verge of something, but couldn’t quite connect the dots. “Yeah,” he finally said. “Yeah alright. Make sure you get the phone lines back up. Call a technician if you can’t, okay?”

“You got it,” Nicole said with so much fake cheer, she had to reign it in. Nedley weren’t no fool. When he turned to leave, trying and failing to hitch his belt up over his gut, Nicole felt something jump in her heart. “And, uh, let’s get lunch Friday, yeah? I…miss you.”

“Miss me? Please,” he chuffed, swinging his truck door open. “You see me all the time.” He gave her a cheeky grin. “And I ain’t no Waverly Earp ,” he chortled. “But yeah, let’s do lunch, kid.”

And then his engine was turning over with a graceless flop and hiccup of exhaust and he was gone from view faster than Nicole was really ready for. She stared off down the road longer than she could even see him anymore, blinking the kicked up dust from her eyes and trying to quiet the knots in her stomach.

“You did the right thing,” Bobo murmured and it just pissed her off more.

“You’ve brought friends, haven’t you?” Nicole asked lowly, turning to stare him down. “They’re here.”

Wind whistled eerily through the tall brush of hay in the backyard, whipping through the fence post and whining. Without the light from Nedley’s truck, the only thing they had to see from was a waning moon and the tiny, distant light from the Earp porch. They looked less light phantoms in the dark somehow - made her feel they were bare to each other. And she didn’t like what she saw. Bobo did her the credit of just nodding, no games. “More than even I thought would come for her.”

The word sunk like a stone in the pit of her churning stomach. “Her?” She echoed numbly.

Again, Bobo just nodded.

Her.

“It weren’t her , though,” Nicole growled. “It was me.”

Bobo shrugged, almost defeated. “Weren’t your house our brother’s scent disappeared at. Weren’t teeth marks on his skull.” Bobo indicated the back of his head with a vague wave of his hand. “Looked like nails. It was a hunter’s weapon. The rest is history.”

Nicole felt her heart trip up three speeds higher and advanced on Bobo with her fists clenched tight. “You fix this!” She snapped. “You tell them it was me!” When Bobo only gave her a flat look, Nicole felt cold dread shoot up her spine. “I’ll do it, then! I’ll tell them all it was me. Bobo, you gotta make them see that. Please .”

Bobo’s head ticked to the side, like he was trying to tip something out of his ear, teeth set in a hard grind. Nicole was just shy of begging at his feet when he shook his head and turned to allow Nicole access to the property. “C’mon,” he said quietly. “We’re gonna go up to the house,” he explained, “And you’re gonna talk to the Earps.”

“Talk?” Nicole asked breathlessly.

Bobo nodded, patient and grim. “You’re gonna make a decision betwixt yourselves.”

“Decision?” Nicole echoed numbly. Bobo gestured for her to march and she did so without much control of her feet. She weren’t actually that surprised to feel the hard muzzle of a pistol dig into the center of her back as Bobo fell into step behind her.

“And you can stay in there long as you’re able,” he said gently, “But whoever walks out of that house first is going to answer for the crimes against my people. That’s all I can do for you.”

+++

The walk across the Earp yard was long and cold, even though it weren’t a terribly chill autumn day. For whatever reason, Nicole’s feet were numb in her boots. She ain’t ever had so much dread approaching that house. She could feel, more than ever, the dozens of predator eyes following every footprint she made in the dirt. When they reached the porch, Nicole stopped at the steps, but Bobo jabbed the pistol harder into her back and she took the message and the last few steps to the door.

“Knock,” Bobo commanded.

Nicole smiled wryly. “I ain’t really the knockin’ sort.”

“Knock .”

Nicole sighed and raised her hand to rap her knuckles agains the door. It was only a few moments before a massive shotgun blast exploded out the front of the house, just left of the front door and just left of their faces.

“Next one goes in your head, Bobo!” Waverly hollered.

“Jesus Christ, Waves,” came Wynonna’s muffled curse.

Nicole’s smile softened and she looked at Bobo over her shoulder. “I ain’t the knockin’ sort,” she said smugly.

Bobo stabbed the muzzle of the gun harder into her spine and Nicole rolled her eyes. “Waves, it’s me.”

“And who is it if it’s Wynonna? Ouch! Don’t hit me.”

The front door swung open, but Waverly didn’t look none too happy to see her. It weren’t a sight Nicole was all that used to. “Shit!” She hissed, shotgun still raised at the ready. “I told you not to come .” When she looked about ready to start layin’ down ground fire right into Bobo’s face, he raised his pistol to the back of Nicole’s head, establishing just where they all stood. It was enough for Waverly to lower her shotgun so it was pointed tensely at the ground.

“You know I had to,” Nicole returned with a rueful smile.

Bobo’s gun pressed firmly into the base of Nicole’s skull for a moment while Waverly glared at him, but then it eased back and the stairs creaked as Bobo retreated from the porch. “Remember what I said,” Bobo murmured, almost regretful if Nicole weren’t so blinded by the hatred filling her bones from the ground up. “You don’t come out that door unless you mean it .”

Nicole stood there, looking into Waverly’s confused eyes for long minutes. When she couldn’t hear his footfalls no longer, she turned her head to see him disappearing across the property. “Bobo!” She called. When he froze just a moment, pistol loose at his side, Nicole called, “Don’t you hurt my chickens, you hear?”

With that, she headed inside.

+++

The second she was through the door, Waverly had her around the middle, hugging her so tight it almost hurt. Nicole rolled her eyes, not the least bit exasperated really, and wrapped one arm around her in return, looking over her head to see Dolls in a tactical post at one of the front windows while Wynonna stood back a few paces looking uncharacteristically worried. That probably weren’t a good sign – it might have been the best indicator that they were up shit creek without a shit paddle.

“Evenin’ folks,” Nicole said for lack of anything better to say.

Dolls let the curtain rest back against the window and turned to look at her. “I wasn’t aware you were a sheriff’s deputy.”

“In training.”

“Better than nothing,” he hummed. “We’ll need all the force we can here. Their perimeter is tight, but it’s not clear to me the extent of their numbers.” His eyes straiend around the window frame, tracking rapidly across the property without settling on any one thing.

“I’m afraid I might need a little catching up here,” Nicole sighed. “Though I get the general idea.”

“Yeah? Is the general idea that we’re under siege? Because that’s the general idea I need you to have,” Wynonna said, distracted, while she stalked around the house, peering around curtains and fingering the hammer of her revolver in agitation. “God, these bastards are practically invisible. They’re like ghosts,” she muttered.

Waverly finally released Nicole and stood back, shaking herself back into the situation they’d landed in. Nicole loosened her pistol and rested her hand on it. “They’re not ghosts,” she murmured, “they’re hunters .”

“Uh, no. I’m the hunter,” Wynonna scoffed. “They’re a bunch of fools.”

Nicole just shook her head, striding to peer through the window next to the one Dolls was guarding, eyes still flickering rapidly across the long brush turned golden in the fall chill. In the moonlight it looked more silver, though. The grass stirred softly like an ocean as rippling breezes brushed over the property, crashing like waves against –

They were in the grass, alright. She couldn’t see them, but sometimes it ain’t what you can see, but what the world around you can see. Some phenomena are about near-blind trust that they’re there, like black holes or dark matter or love.

“There’s so many of ‘em,” Nicole breathed.

Dolls turned to stare at her and Wynonna stopped her frantic pacing. “You can see them?” He breathed.

Nicole shook her head slowly, tracking the ripples of the grass and the way it coursed like a river around boulders – around them . “No,” she said. “But I see where they are.”

“Okay, jedi master. You point, I’ll shoot.”

“No,” Nicole said absently, still counting and tracking. “There’s way too many of ‘em. And you’re wrong.”

Wynonna came to look over her shoulder, eyes trying so hard to see that she missed just about everything. “Yeah? About what?”

“You’re not the hunter. Not this time.”

 

+++



Chapter Text

"Who cares if hell awaits,

we're having drinks at heaven's gates."

- portugal. the man, modern jesus (2013)

 

+++

 

The night only got deeper, driving all of them closer and closer until they were practically temple to temple, gathered around a sidetable on a hodgepodge of chairs transplanted from other rooms. Waverly had drawn up a scrappy map of the homestead, available roads, and the far boundaries of the property. It weren’t doin’ them much good, but it felt productive to stare at it. And it weren’t really what they had to talk about - they were avoiding that pretty doggedly - but it was something to do. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for. Nicole thought it only fair to give them time to exhaust their more stubborn proposals before they reached the real end of the story. The inevitable.

“Okay, Dolls. Have it your way, we’ll go to plan Z. I’ll get the plastic spoons from the kitchen and we’ll dig out from under the kitchen floorboards all the way to China and make our great escape,” Wynonna spat after being shut down four probably the millionth time that night.

Waverly shook her head glumly. “I don’t buy plastic spoons anymore, they’re bad for the environment.”

Wynonna threw her hands up. “Great! We’re gonna die.”

“Why wouldn’t you just use metal spoons?” Dolls asked tiredly, dragging a hand slow down the length of his weary face.

“Fuck you.”

Waverly’s head tipped against Nicole’s shoulder and they released a single, unified sigh as the two fell into their bickering again. The deeper the night got, the more their nerves fried, and the harder Wynonna and Dolls snapped at each other.  They both looked about ready to go for their guns when Nicole cleared her throat pointedly.

“I think…” she chewed her words around a bit, took a glance at the top of Waverly’s head, then fixed her eyes to Wynonna’s. “I think I need to tell you a few things.”

Waverly sat up straight at that. “Nicole,” She cautioned.

Nicole shot her a smile. “It’s okay, Waves.” When she received only attention and silence, Nicole twisted her fingers together and moved forward. “A few months back, we were attacked by one of Bobo’s guys,” she settled on. She weren’t brave enough to share the full truth, but that didn’t mean she was gonna let them operate in the blind. “We fought back and I ended up killing the attacker. Bobo made if fairly clear to me that his people require - uh, well, retribution I guess? Blood for blood.”

“The coyote head,” Dolls clarified. “That was his warning.”

Nicole shrugged. “Not just that - we had a pretty direct conversation about it too,” she admitted. “When I came back here with Bobo’s gun at my back, he told me that-“ Nicole chose her next words carefully. “He told me that whoever left this house first would be the payment. They’ll take the first person to step foot outside and that’ll be the end of it.”

While Wynonna and Dolls exchanged a serious look, Nicole turned to meet Waverly’s own. She weren’t all that surprised to find her flushed with anger. Her eyes met Nicole’s with a distinct, nonverbal, we’re gonna talk about this alone later . And Nicole was certain it weren’t gonna be a good conversation.

“Well,” Wynonna finally broke the silence, “I guess it doesn’t really matter. We’re not gonna send one of us out there to be dog food, so we’re still back where we were before.”

“Back at…spoons,” Dolls said – well, if Nicole ain’t know any better she’d almost have said sarcastically.

Waverly sighed again and let her head fall back to Nicole’s shoulder.

Wynonna groaned and stood up from the kitchen chair she’d brought in. “Okay, we all need sleep. We can take turns on watch, yeah?”

“I’ll take first watch,” Dolls offered to the surprise of nobody.

But it weren’t like they were gonna fight him on it, neither. Dawn couldn’t have been too far off and Nicole’s bones ached for some kind of rest. She yawned on cue, then jostled her shoulder lightly so Waverly would sit up. “C’mon Waves,” she murmured.

Waverly did with her own yawn, grabbing onto the back of Nicole’s sleeve while they made their way to her bedroom. Wynonna watched them go, head cocked to the side and something on the tip of her tongue that she couldn’t seem to place. When they got to Waverly’s room, they detoured to the little bathroom next door, brushed their teeth elbow to elbow in silence, then retreated to the bedroom while Wynonna wandered in the opposite direction toward her own. Nicole turned to close the door behind them and Wynonna was still watchin’ them with that same politely confused look, leaning against the doorframe of her own bedroom. She only spared a halfhearted wave before pulling the door shut.

Nicole started unbuttoning her sheriff’s uniform, but gave up three buttons down and lifted the whole thing over her head. She unholstered her service weapon, dropped her pants, then stood there with a gun and no pants in front of the safe, just thinking. As you do.

“C’mon,” Waverly grumbled into her pillow.

Nicole looked to the lump in the mattress then back at her gun a moment. It weren’t normally her modus operandi to leave a loaded weapon out where anyone could grab it, but after the night they’d had, she set it carefully on the side table within reach. Desperate times and all that.

She scooted under the covers, nose to nose with just about her favorite person. Even in the increasing chill, the crickets were still loud outside the window. Did crickets hibernate? Or did they all die slowly in the cold every year until there weren’t nothin but small scattered songs without chorus across the plains, each solitary cricket wondering why everyone else got raptured without them.

“I don’t know what to do,” she confessed at a whisper.

Waverly’s eyes blinked open. “About what?”

“Everything.” Nicole closed her eyes because she weren’t so sure she could say everything she needed to while lookin’ into Waverly’s big, earnest eyes. “I’m scared I ain’t gonna do the right thing. I’m scared I am gonna do the right thing. I’m scared of how much I love you.”

“Well that shouldn’t scare you,” Waverly said sweetly. Nicole was powerless to do anything but smile at that. She thought better of burdening Waverly with the forked road in front of her - the many options, of which everyone was worse than the other. If you invite those thoughts into your bed and your sanctuary, they can’t die there without leavin’ ghosts. You’ll never rest easy there again.

Waverly let out a quiet breath of laughter. “But my sister is something of an escape artist for bad situations. Admittedly, she’s the one that usually creates the bad situation. But she gets out of it okay. Most of the time….kind of.”

It was almost too dark to see by, but Nicole raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure this counts.”

“Even after all this time, I really do believe in her,” Waverly hummed. “It’s funny how much, really.” She reached out and folded her hand inside of Nicole’s. It was cold – like it always was when the weather started turning. Nicole had only opened up small parts of the walls in the house a few times, but she knew the insulation was essentially nonexistent in the old house. She chaffed Waverly’s hand gently between her own in the hopes of warming it up. Maybe, if everything worked out, she’d get a chance to fix it someday.

Nicole knew she’d been quiet too long when Waverly used her other hand to reach forward and wrap her fingers in the worn cotton of her undershirt. “Nicole,” she said seriously, making sure Nicole caught her eyes before speaking slowly. “ I need you to promise me something. I need you to promise me that you’re not going to try and walk out that front door unless we’re all walking out together. I need you to promise .”

There was nothin’ Nicole had ever thought she couldn’t promise Waverly Earp, but her voice stuck in her throat. Her eyes slipped shut, unable to face Waverly in the moment. She weren’t too sure what was worse: telling Waverly she couldn’t give her what she needed or breaking a promise like that. When she opened her eyes, Waverly seemed to read her damn mind.

“You think I can’t read you after all these years?” She smiled sadly. “I know just what your stupid, noble brain is thinkin’ and I wish it wouldn’t.”

Nicole smiled back ruefully, trapping the warming hand against her heart. “Yeah, can you blame me? I’d do anything for you,” she whispered. “And you know this is my fault. I killed that thing. It was me.”

“But it was after me ,” Waverly pointed out. “It wasn’t either of our faults, though. We never asked for any of it. And we’re gonna stand by that... together .” Her hand clenched against Nicole’s chest, imploring her to see reason. When Nicole nodded, her hand slackened.

“So let’s stop with the notion that we’re gonna lay down and give up. Let’s get some sleep and tomorrow Wynonna’s probably gonna think of something insane that will somehow work and we’ll all be mostly fine. Alright?” She offered a hopeful smile.

Nicole laughed quietly and squeezed Waverly’s hand. “Sounds pretty good.”

“Oh, no. It’ll be a nightmare. But we’ll be fine.” Waverly pulled her warmed hand out of Nicole’s and reached up to run her fingers along the corner of her jaw absently. She repeated the motion a few times until Nicole was so boneless she thought she’d melt. “I won’t ask you to promise anything you can’t,” she murmured, “but maybe you can promise me something else.”

Nicole nodded dumbly, mesmerized by the way Waverly’s eyes held her own. “I’d like to.”

“Maybe you can just promise me that no matter what happens, you’re gonna remember that I don’t love you because of what you fix. I just love you ,” Waverly said tenderly, leaning forward for a soft kiss. Without fully pulling away, Waverly murmured against her mouth, “please remember that before this is over.”

+++

Before dawn hit, Nicole found herself restless. She’d have lived there with Waverly’s thin fingers wrapped around her wrist forever, but she was awake and Dolls likely needed to sleep. That was assumin’ he weren’t a robot and Nicole had yet to be fully convinced of that. So regretfully, she slipped her hand out of Waverly’s, kissed the top of her head gentle enough not to wake her, and pulled some clothes on to head downstairs.

To her surprise, Wynonna was at Dolls’ post by the window and Dolls was fast sleep on the couch with his boots still on. Nicole yawned and grabbed one of the chairs from their little circle, bringing it up to the window next to Wynonna. She sat down heavily and dropped her chin into her hand. The sun hadn’t quite breached the hills, but it was bright enough to see well by.

“Mornin’, Dick.”

Nicole offered only a yawn in return, not even bothering to take her eyes from the window. After a few moments, Wynonna tried to duck into her line of sight. “A Dick is a detective. I’m not calling you a rude name, you see? Well I am, but for the joke.”

“I see,” Nicole murmured, letting her eyes slip shut.

Wynonna sighed heartily. “You’re right, it’s less funny when I explain it. But it sounded way ruder coming out of my mouth than I thought it would and I felt kinda bad.”

“Hm,” Nicole offered, mind already a million miles away.

“Sorry.”

Nicole shrugged, not even really sure what Wynonna was talking about. “Any movement out there?”

“Not really. About an hour ago, Bobo appeared from nowhere, paced a bit, then disappeared again.” Rolling her neck, Wynonna groaned. “I thought being alone for a few hours would help me come up with something, but my brain is, like, stuck on an infinity loop with that annoying gum commercial jingle.”

Nicole nodded thoughtfully. “Oh, the Frank’s commercial. Uh, what’s it – Frank’s Fruities .”

Wynonna laughed. “Yeah! That’s the one.”

“What’s the line again? Have a Fruity Time ?”

“God, we are not having a Fruity Time,” Wynonna chuckled, elbowing Nicole conspiratorially in the arm.

Nicole grinned back, but couldn’t help but think that she was always kinda havin’ a Fruity Time. But that was probably a conversation for when they were less in mortal danger.

“Ugh,” Wynonna moaned, “I just can’t concentrate. I’m sure I’ve been in worse situations than this and I’m still alive so that’s got to mean something.”

“Worse than being surrounded by dozens of bloodthirsty supernatural predators hellbent on murdering a member of your household?” Nicole asked skeptically.

Wynonna winced and shrugged. “Well, I mean – you went to my high school.”

“That’s fair.” Nicole let her temple fall against the window glass and tracked the current of the long hay with tired eyes as it swished and whipped around hidden figures in the shadows. It was like they hadn’t move at all, really. If Nicole were a betting woman, she’d bet that they could sit out there all year waiting for what they thought they were owed. It was probably too much to hope that they could wait them out. And it weren’t like they had anywhere to go if they made a run for it. No matter how far they ran, Nicole knew what it was like to have someone’s scent in your brain – knew how far you could follow it and how deep those instincts ran.

“So why did you come back?” Wynonna asked.

When Nicole flicked her eyes over in her direction, Wynonna was looking at her the same way she had last night like Nicole was a puzzle she hadn’t quite figured out yet. And Nicole supposed she was, for the most part. “This is my home,” she said simply, because it was the truth. Everything on that property was her home, including the owner.

“Yeah?” Wynona seemed amused. “You’d come back just for this shithole? Nothing grows here except drafty houses, stubborn weeds, and sad people,” she said wistfully. “They day that the Earps are cursed to live here. Cursed . Not blessed.” At Nicole’s blank look, Wynonna shook her head. “You’d come back for that?”

“It’s my home,” Nicole repeated, unsure of what exactly Wynonna wanted from her.

Wynonna hardened and she stared out the window. “Your home sucks.”

For a moment, Nicole felt indignation rise like the holy spirit up through her throat, pushing past her teeth – just a moment, though. Because Wynonna Earp had spent her whole damn life trying to be a mystery, but Nicole had always been of the opinion that she was actually the easiest person she ever figured out. She weren’t a mystery,because she was exactly what Nicole spent years tryin’ not to be:

Kinda rude and kinda sad.

Nicole let her brief flash of anger out in a breath of smoke and gave her a kind look. “Well it’s your home too,” she said petulantly.

“No it’s not,” Wynonna bristled. “It’s never been that to me.” The noise her teeth made when they ground together was something awful. There was a deep, uncharted, and bottomless well of pain in that girl and Nicole took a moment to step back and appreciate all that she didn’t know. And all that she shouldn’t presume to know neither.

“Places change,” Nicole reasoned. “And so do people.” Wynonna’s eyes stayed hard, jaw clenched, as she stared aggressively at nothin’ whatsoever out the fogged windows. Carefully, Nicole chose her next words while Wynonna tracked ghosts only visible to her across the land she’d run from all those years ago. “I know it ain’t your home now ,” Nicole said gently. “And there’s a lot that I don’t know. But I think maybe it could be someday. Maybe someday soon if you want that.”

Finally, the tension melted from Wynonna’s jaw and she closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them again, she was still starin’ at nothing but it weren’t so aggressive. “Maybe.” She shook her head, like she was trying to toss the thoughts from her head and shrugged. “I guess it’s like that famous philosopher said: don’t go chasin’ waterfalls.”

“Who said that?”

“Ain’t important,” Wynonna said airily.

Nicole smiled and reached inside the pocket of the jacket she’d thrown on before heading down the stairs. She dug around, fingers searching through the strange assortment of things she collected and never removed, before landing on a little square package. Wynonna started when Nicole offered her the pack of gum, open and displaying the few pieces left. She furrowed her brow as it registered.

Then she barked out a laugh.

“Maybe you’re just not trying hard enough to have a fruity time,” Nicole grinned.

+++

Despite her irrational fear, the sun did come up over the distant Rockies – as it always did – and tracked its way in a wide arc above cloudless skies, shifting the shadows like a clock hand over the property. Nicole watched it happen so attentively she could almost picture the way it would’ve looked to the hawks circling overhead. Her mind was blank, filled only with strange hints of sensation as time crawled by.

The feel of the fibers in the upholstered arm of her chair by the window.

The smell of Waverly’s hair when she leaned down to press a kiss to her temple because Wynonna was in the kitchen.

The blue on the back of her eyelids from staring into the sun too long.

The absent taste of the drinks people pressed into her hands occasionally.

She felt removed. It weren’t too hard to let herself shut down and think of nothin’ but raw sensation in the quiet of the house forgotten by god. Forgotten by everyone and everything, maybe.

Nobody talked all that much as the sun got too deep in the sky for shadows and Waverly started turning on lamps to see by.

Another day gone, Nicole supposed.

The new waning of the moon above made regret curdle in her stomach, because weren’t that just convenient: the one time she wanted to be somethin’ capable of horrible,  violent things was the time when it was furthest off. She supposed Bobo had planned it that way – taken advantage of her weakness to lay siege to her land. There weren’t a bone in her body that wanted to taste blood again, but she’d have done it in a heartbeat. She’d have done it for Waverly and she’d have done it for herself.

She supposed it didn’t mattered all that much. They couldn’t wait weeks like that - they’d barely gone two days and were sick with anxiety. So the monster inside her couldn’t help them now.

Besides that, her chickens only had enough food for probably four days.

Nicole forced herself to sit back from the window, tear her sore eyes from the yard and turn her stiff neck to check on the rest of her cellmates. Dolls was methodically dismantling and cleaning his Glock while Wynonna watched him with a tick her eyebrow, like he was doin’ something that was pissing her off, but she weren’t willing to pick that fight. Waverly was nowhere to be seen.

Nicole let out a quiet groan as she peeled herself out of the chair, her knees goin’ off like fireworks in the quiet of the house. When she’d cleared that hurtle, she stretched her shoulders and her neck and headed for the kitchen. Only Wynonna watched her go, but she did it quietly.

Waverly was leaning against the sink in the kitchen, holding a cup of tea between her hands and staring blankly at the opposite wall. When Nicole came in, she offered her a tired smile.

“Hey, stranger,” she murmured.

Nicole returned the smile and came to lean against the same stretch of counter, hip to hip. “Smells good,” Nicole said, breathing in the steam from Waverly’s cup.

Wordlessly,  Waverly handed it over for her to sample. It was something chamomile, something not. Nicole weren’t too sure but it was pleasant. When she’d passed it back, Waverly let her head fall to Nicole’s shoulder. “What are we gonna do about this,” she groused. “I don’t think we can take much more of this. And frankly, waiting around isn’t doing anything. They’re not gonna leave.”

“I think that’s true,” Nicole agreed, craning her neck around to nose at the top of Waverly’s head. “Gonna have to do somethin’, sometime.”

“Ugh.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Waverly made some noise of exasperation. “Well, what options do we really have? Fight, escape, or make a deal, I guess.”

“Or die.”

“C’mon, Nicole, be serious,” Waverly grumbled.

Nicole shrugged her free shoulder. “Sorry.”

“I think escape is kinda off the table,” Waverly pushed on, drumming her fingers lightly against the ceramic of her mug. “Assuming we make it, Bobo will probably just hound us for the rest of our lives. That would almost be worse than this.” She took a slow, thoughtful sip of her tea and Nicole swore she could feel Waverly’s brain churning underneath her chin. “I think it’s unlikely Bobo would make a deal as things are now. We don’t have anything to offer him except what he wants, really - and we can’t offer him that. However, I think if we did fight, we might end up in a position to bargain if we beat their asses bad enough.”

“We’re a little low on forces here,” Nicole pointed out. “Our odds ain’t great and I can’t turn for a few weeks. The full moon was days ago.”

Waverly took it in, still thoughtful and deliberate in her movements. “I think it won’t come down to fighting hard. I think we just have to fight smart.”

Nicole nodded along. “I think one thing’s for sure,” she said lowly. “We’re gonna have to get to the cellar. We need your evil lair.”

“Den of dark secrets.”

“Sorry, we need your den of dark secrets.”

 

+++



Chapter Text

“there’s a beast and I let it run.

now it’s running my way.”

- black lab, this night (2007)

 

+++

 

 

 

Finally, that map of the homestead in the center of a table they’d all gathered around seemed like it was actually serving a purpose besides lookin’ proactive. Waverly pointed at the tiny red X she’d drawn on the south side of the house, just a little off center, where they knew the cellar doors to be.

 

“Here’s our target,” she said, all businesslike. “I’m not proud of the amount of illegal and highly questionable weaponry in there, but I can’t really afford to take a moral high ground here. What I can afford? To get my hands on the literal bazooka in my cellar and take the literal highground from my upstairs bedroom window and rain hellfire upon this property.” Waverly was practically aglow in the art of war.

 

Nicole pulled at her collar a bit. She was gettin’ all sweaty again.

 

“I fucking knew that was a bazooka.” Wynonna smiled, rubbing her greedy little hands together. “I like this plan already.”

 

“Yeah, you won’t in about two minutes.” Waverly’s finger traced slowly back around the front of the house to indicate the driveway. “The only way we’re making it that far is if we create a believable distraction. We’ve gotta misdirect or they’ll tear us apart long before we get there.” Waverly tapped her finger from the front door, in a slow path out toward the parked cars.

 

Realization dawned on Wynonna’s face when Waverly repeated the motion with her finger. “Oh-” Wynonna sat back in her chair. “Oh no. You’re right, I like this a lot less now.”

 

“We need bait.”

 

“Oh dear god.”

 

Waverly ignored her, already busy plotting out the best path to the cellar. Nicole offered Wynonna a sympathetic look. “If it’s any consolation, I’ll have to go with you. Bobo probably wouldn’t give chase without either me or Waverly. It just wouldn’t be believable, I’m afraid.”

 

Waverly hesitated, her studious finger lifting off the map a moment. It weren’t more than a moment, really, but Nicole saw and she understood. She shook her head a little, pointedly avoiding shooting Nicole the worried look she probably wanted to. “Right. No, you’re right. You should all make a run for the trucks like we’re trying to escape. All you have to do is make it to the trucks, lock yourselves inside, and outlast them until I can make it to the cellar and back.”

 

“Yeah? That’s all? And then we’re stuck in a truck,” Wynonna muttered, drumming her fingers against the map.

 

Dolls ignored her and gave Waverly a grave look. “Do you know how to use that RPG in the cellar?”

 

Waverly offered him a condescending smile. “Please.”

 

Nicole unbuttoned two of her top buttons and wondered why the room was so damn hot in November.

 

“Good,” Dolls said shortly. “You get back to the house and cover us from above. We’ll make it back one way or another.”

 

“Yeah, alright, fine. We’ll make it back,” Wynonna agreed, leaning back in her chair and kicking her boots up onto the table. “Probably on fire, but we’ll be back.”

 

Nicole looked between the three of them, all agreein’ and such. She weren’t so sure, though. “Waves, I’d feel a lot better if you took Dolls with you,” she said lowly, shooting a nervous look to their audience. “Ain’t that too risky to go off on your own like that? I got a bad feeling about splitting up.”

 

They think she did this. They’re here for her.

 

Waverly gave her a reassuring smile, though it did little to help. “Hey, it’s okay,” she soothed. “I’ll be real quick and real quiet. Taking Dolls with me would only make me more noticeable. This is safer.”

 

“It don’t feel that way,” Nicole murmured. She wanted to let Waverly lead the charge – be fearless and strong in the face of it all, but it weren’t easy when they were all so fragile. Waverly was a giant, but a giant in a small body and Nicole knew what it was like to die. She’d been that damn close to it. It didn’t discriminate as far as she could tell.

 

To Waverlys’ credit, she at least looked like she understood. It didn’t do too much to change her answer, though. Not that Nicole thought it might. There weren’t no time to argue and there weren’t no time to go back to before everything had been set in motion.

 

“All we can do is roll the dice, Nicole. We know what happens if we fold and we can’t lose this one.” She swallowed hard. “I can’t lose this one.”

+++

They talked themselves in circles for hours more, but Nicole barely heard a word. All she knew was they were sayin’ a whole lotta words for what amounted to them all running and shooting and praying while Waverly wandered off alone. Her heart was like a weight on a fishing line, hanging heavy in her gut while something tugged . Nothin’ felt right. Dread sat sickly in the pit of her stomach and she kissed Waverly hard in the bathroom before Dolls gathered them for their departure.

 

“I’m gonna have to ask you to take that one back,” Waverly had said against her lips and Nicole just stared down at her, throat bobbing, confused. “That one felt like goodbye,” Waverly had clarified, quiet and scared.

 

Nicole had told her she took it back, but she couldn’t. She could never take back a single thing between ‘em.

 

And then they were all standing pressed uncomfortably close to the front door, weapons drawn. Nicole couldn’t remember her Smith and Wesson ever feeling that heavy in her hand during academy. They’d always said a real firefight weren’t nothing they could prepare you for and damn if they weren’t right. She weren’t even in it but she already felt like she was looking down on herself from thirty feet above, detached from all but the feeling of dread and adrenaline pumping through her veins. She ain’t ever had to shoot anyone before. Frankly, she wondered if she could.

 

Waverly was crouched under the ledge of one of the windows on the east side of the house, ready to slip through and make her great escape. Nicole couldn’t see her no more, but she wondered what she looked like sat there, pulled taught like a trap and waiting to go alone. Next to Nicole, Wynonna squeezed her eyes tight and mouthed something to herself under her breath while her Colt made the faintest clicking noise as the chamber clicked against the frame with the slight tremble of her hand. Dolls’ hand wandered absently down to his duty belt, lightly fingering his extra clips as he counted them again and again.

 

That weight still pulled her heart down toward her feet, relentless and bad . Nicole weren’t too sure where those subtle little signs and feelings came from in the vast, mysterious, altogether confounding blueprints of their universe. But Waverly said there was matter in the universe that weren’t even really there, so maybe they were just receiving signals from all the things that weren’t even there. Was that possible? But all the little thrills of preternatural warning in the world couldn’t change what they were about to do, Nicole supposed. What’s a girl to do, really. Waverly weren’t hers to hold back and they were all in the mire together.

 

Dolls mouthed a silent two count, then gave the signal to move out. The three of them slipped through the front door fast, sprinting off down the side of the porch and vaulting off the west railing. Blood was rushing so loud in Nicole’s ears, she couldn’t even hear if the beasts were roaring or snapping at them - couldn’t hear if they were honing in on them on a path of deadly collision. She couldn’t hear nothing.

 

Dolls and Wynonna snapped a few warning shots off into the grass and it didn’t help the ringing in Nicole’s ears none. She got off a few rounds in the opposite direction, because she knew any moment Waverly would be out there with them. Alone. Too far to reach and-

 

Nicole buried it and ran with the others. It felt like they were running through sand, too afraid to look back. But her heart was strung out on a thin fishing line out the back of the house and it pulled for her to look back. She didn’t. Her vision tunneled to the doors of Dolls’ big black SUV – the safe zone. They kept a tight formation, but at any moment Nicole expected the scorching rake of claws and monstrous teeth closed around her limbs, tearing flesh. Death.

 

They reached the car.

 

Dolls had given Wynonna the keys to cover their back and pivoted on his heel, both hands raised against his Glock to fire into the long grass while Wynonna fumbled. After several unsuccessful attempts to stick the master key into the driver’s side door, she cursed and dropped them into the grass. “Fuck!” She snapped, breathless, as she tried to crouch and maintain a defensive stance while searching for the lost keys.

 

“Wait!” Dolls’ order cut through their tension almost visibly, one of his hands held up in command. “Wait,” he repeated, lower. “Listen.”

 

They all froze.

 

It weren’t until that moment that the ringing and rushing fell quiet in Nicole’s ears and all screeched to an eerie halt. Without it, all she could hear was their heavy breathing and the faint whisper of the long grass rippling against itself. Not even a bird could be heard. It was like all the air had been sucked out of the air. Dolls straightened his stance and took a careful scan of their surroundings. “They’re not…”

 

“Why aren’t they after us?” Wynonna asked, breathless. She took a few sidled steps toward the back of the SUV and peered around the side. When she turned back, she was shaking her head. “You said they weren’t gonna be particular about who they took. You said they’d kill the first thing out that door.”

 

Nicole let her pistol fall to a waiting position, brows pinching together in her confusion. Her eyes scanned the grass, looking for the way grass bent around hidden shapes, but could hardly see anything. The vantage wasn’t as good, but she should’ve been able to see something . “That’s what he said to me. He said he’d convince ‘em not to take…”

 

Waverly .

 

Dolls turned sharply toward her. “Not to take what ?”

 

The fishing line holding Nicole’s heavy heart strained, sinking low against that weight – low, low, low – then-

 

It snapped.

 

“He lied,” Nicole breathed.

 

A spooked gathering of crows lifted from the top of the barn when Waverly screamed.

+++

In highschool, Nicole had won the Tri-County Championship trophy in eight hundred meter girl’s sprint. But it weren’t just that: incidentally, she’d also set a third place record in the entirety of Alberta in the event at two minutes, two seconds, and change. At the time, it ain’t really felt like a big deal. But Nicole broke that record by seven seconds when she took off toward Waverly’s screams, not even bothering to look back to where she’d left Wynonna and Dolls in the dust.

 

Sometimes, there’s really only one thing that matters. For Nicole, that was all the time.

 

As she rounded the east side of the house, she could see the ajar window that Waverly had climbed out of, curtain billowing inward. Nicole’s eyes zeroed in on the crushed grass – the subtle tracker’s signs that she probably wouldn’t ever have recognized if it weren’t for the beast in her bones driving her pursuit. She tore off through the long grass, unable to stop her own panicked shouts.

 

The hay was tall at the end of autumn and it was hard to see through – it had been easy to see the beasts hiding there from a distance – but in the grass, Nicole was blind to anything but the trail in front of her. As she waded in, the blood got thicker, swiped and dragged along the ground and smeared on crushed and bent grasses. Nicole ain’t ever felt such dread. Such helplessness.

 

The panic made her feet stumble and her hands so cold she couldn’t even feel ‘em. She felt blinded and weak, like her knees weren’t capable of holding her weight as she kept shouting for Waverly and running. It was every bad dream she ever had, come true. And while she hated to hear Waverly screaming, each one just meant that she was still alive. And each one corrected her course and brought her closer.

 

She was damn near the far end of the property before she got close enough to see them moving through the brush.  When she pushed past the hay toward the fence, Waverly was being yanked through the busted gap torn through the fence like paper while she clung desperately to one of the crumpled posts. That massive, red-eyed monster that had hovered like a spectre over most of Nicole’s life had her by the leg - big, long, horrible teeth sunk so deep in Waverly’s flesh it looked like he must’ve had her by the bones.

 

The noise Nicole let out when she cleared the last hurdle and flung herself bodily at Bobo’s blood-soaked head was somethin’ she weren’t sure she’d ever made before. And maybe it weren’t no great plan, but the sheer audacity of it caught Bobo by surprise and his teeth tore loose from Waverly’s flesh with a horrifying squelch right as Nicole dug her nails hard into both of Bobo’s red, red eyes.

 

Nicole was sure there was a lot of noise bein’ made, but she couldn’t hear none of it. Everything pounded like water on rock in her ears while she battered at Bobo’s head and was tossed around like notebook paper in the wind. At one point, she was pretty sure she was beatin’ his head with the butt of her pistol and it weren’t particularly elegant, but there was no accounting for finesse when brawling with something five times your size.

 

But like every fight, it was over in probably less than thirty seconds, when her adrenaline had begun to slip and her arms got weak and she was tossed away into the grass.

 

The landing was hard, flat on her back with ribs still tender and healing from her spill off the roof. She gasped and choked a moment, limbs like lead, but grit her teeth and made to push herself up. She would’a gone another round – would’a gone a hundred rounds if that’s what it took to make him bleed for what he’d done - but it was over. One of Bobo’s big paws pushed her back firmly into the ground, pinned there like a little insect on a board while he bared his big teeth in her face. Bits of Waverly’s flesh clung in between his canines and Nicole made a desperate attempt to reach out and claw his nose off.

 

Bobo weren’t no fool, though. He jerked his head back just far enough to keep her pinned out of reach of anything useful and she flailed pathetically. She’d never particularly hoped for a full moon, but in that moment, she would’ve given just about anything to be as big and terrible as he was, to taste his fear between her teeth and scrap it out the way god probably intended it all along: until blood and instinct won. Because that’s what it had always come down to, right? It didn’t matter how good someone was, the things they’d done, or the people they loved. There was only the biggest evil and what it could take from you. How much violence it could enforce its sovereignty with. That’s all it ever were. That’s all it would ever be.

 

“You lied to me!” Nicole spluttered, clawing at the crushing weight of Bobo’s paw even though it weren’t doing nothing to him. “You were always gonna take her!”

 

Bobo didn’t do nothin’, just stared.

 

“You’ve taken everything from me!” Nicole snarled. She could practically feel the little fault lines in each of her ribs where the stress was creaking ominously. “You’re a sick fuck! You should’a killed me when I was a kid - when it was easy - because I swear to god I’m not gonna let a minute go by where I’m not trying to rip your heart out and burn everything you built here to the fucking ground! Do you hear me Bobo? I’m gonna make you bleed!”

 

Nothin’ but red, red eyes.

 

Nicole weren’t sure what made Bobo or what made her, but there was some kinda sick satisfaction in the knowledge that if they were made of the same stuff, then she could play the game just like him . Whatever they were both made of, it had birthed the violence and pain inside her just like him . And someday he was gonna have to stand still and watch while she showed him hers too.

 

“You’re gonna pay for what you did here today,” she choked through the pressure.

 

Right as her ribs bent past the load they could take, the loud roar of an engine startled the both of them. But no matter how fast Bobo was, there weren’t nothing he could do when Dolls’ big, black SUV came crashing through the grass and ran headlong into his flank like a battering ram. It weren’t no silver, but the effect was…undeniable.

 

Bobo crashed back, howling and trying to get his feet back under him while Wynonna and Dolls poured out of the front seats. Wynonna appeared over Nicole’s head, face grim as she hauled her to her feet and shoved her in a rush toward the car. Dolls had Waverly fully in his arms, hustling back to lay her down in the back seat and jump behind the wheel.

 

Nicole hurried to climb in beside Waverly, lifting her head into her lap and smoothing the sweaty hair from Waverly’s clammy forehead. She was barely lucid, trying hard to swallow down horrid little whimpers that tore Nicole in half. Nicole weren’t even brave enough to look at her leg. She’d seen enough to know how bad it was – knew what teeth like that could do because she’d done it .

 

“Fuck!” Wynonna kicked at the dashboard and slapped at Dolls’ arm. “Make a break for it, just – fuck , gun it. Right through that hole in the fence! Go!”

 

“There’s too many, we barely even scratched that one!” Dolls snapped back. “We can’t get through!”

 

Nicole looked up past their headrests to where dozens of them had gathered , looming ominously between them and the escape through the fence. Nicole knew it wouldn’t work neither. They might get a little ways off, but even the car wouldn’t protect them from the long hunt they’d endure. She seriously doubted a car could protect them farther than a few miles.

 

Wynonna shot a frantic look back at her sister and cursed some more. “Then go back to the main exit, we’ve got to get her to a hospital!”

 

“They had that blocked too! You saw!” Dolls said desperately, shifting the car into reverse and throwing them all forward with the force of his acceleration. They careened backwards, flying through the wheat field blindly, their teeth clacking together and Waverly crying out awfully while they thundered backwards toward the house.

 

“What are you doing!?” Wynonna made a reach for the wheel, but Dolls blocked her.

 

“We need to put a tourniquet on that leg and we’re not making it off of this property at this very moment. We need to get back to the house and regroup or your sister is going to die . Do you understand?”

 

Wynonna didn’t have anything else to say to him after that. She turned fully in her seat and leveled her anger in a different direction. “Nicole! Snap out of it and put something on her leg, would you?”

 

Nicole nodded dumbly and tore her shirt over her head so she was down to just a tank top. When she forced herself to look down at Waverly’s leg it was everything she thought it would be – just, horrible. Canines were meant to tear flesh and crush bone. Parts of Waverly’s skin was torn savagely and the blood was pooling at an alarming rate against the gleam of white bone. Nicole grit her teeth and pressed her balled up shirt down hard into as much of the wound a she could manage.

 

Waverly’s eyes snapped open wide and she tried to claw Nicole’s arm away, but she was too weak to do it. When Nicole tried to hush her and beg her forgiveness, she eventually collapsed into a shivering mess, crying quietly into Nicole’s neck while Nicole apologized over and over and over.

 

When they nearly crashed into the porch, Dolls parked so close they were almost inside the house. Before anyone else could take her, Nicole hoisted Waverly up and carried her inside. She didn’t trust nobody else to do it and she didn’t trust herself to handle the separation. Her steps were awkward and long as she tried her very damn best not to jostle Waverly. It didn’t seem to matter all that much - she couldn’t help her none. Waverly’s breath still hiccuped with spasms of horrid pain no matter how careful she was. Each one was a knife between her ribs.

 

“Put her on the couch,” Dolls ordered, jogging purposefully toward the kitchen and crashing around a bit. A minute later, he was flying by at a dead sprint up the stairs. The unmistakable sounds of someone violently raiding their medicine cabinet drifted downward while Wynonna took over applying pressure and Nicole just held Waverly’s head to her neck. It was irrational, but Nicole wouldn’t dare let Waverly see what her leg looked like in that moment - like if she saw it it would’ve hurt even worse somehow.

 

Nicole wondered if she was as green as Wynonna looked.

 

Dolls thundered downstairs with armfuls of paper packages, bottles, medication and towels. With one swift, hard movement, he ripped his belt out of his own beltloops and stuck it between his teeth while he scrabbled with all of his other packages. When Wynonna couldn’t bring herself to move away, Dolls gracelessly pushed her to the side. Nicole couldn’t even watch what he was doing, just let herself retreat to Waverly’s frantic pulse beating against her neck and the pain in her own ribs.

 

“I’m sorry,” Waverly managed to gasp out while Dolls triaged the mess that her leg had become. “S-so sorry.”

 

+++




Chapter Text

+++

 

“You and I both know that the house is haunted.

And you and I both know that the ghost is me.”

- shakey graves, dearly departed (2013)

 

 

+++

 

It was almost a relief when Waverly passed out.

 

Things got quiet again and they didn’t have to hear the stifled sounds of agony that she couldn’t quite muffle before they escaped. Rather, Dolls finished all he could do for her in stoic silence while Wynonna held Waverly’s limp, bloody hand and Nicole cradled her head.

 

Nicole felt like she was dead. She had to have been, right? Her heart was rattling around somewhere at her feet where it had landed after it snapped off.

 

Everything was numb and she couldn’t shake the haunting feeling that she’d done this. She’d brought this upon that house and that girl she loved and that girl’s sister and that town. And herself. She’d brought it upon herself.

 

It was like looking at a map with every infinite outcome from every infinite choice and being able to see exactly which ones led there . Led right to that living room with Waverly bleeding out on the couch, shaking in her sleep while the bite coursed through her system. Led right there while the beasts circled closer. Led right there to that house Nicole had damn near rebuilt from the ground up. Led right to that land passed through the blood and sweat of a long line of people who should’ve known better . People who knew about those monsters in the dark and had let themselves make an exception for one lost kid and there they were. Nicole had let them let it all happen. She had let Waverly love her and there they were.

 

And maybe she weren’t strong enough to regret any of it – maybe she was a bad monster and a bad person and too soft to take any of it back. But she weren’t fool enough not to look back on it all and think:

 

Yeah. I guess that’s about how it was always gonna turn out.

 

But it was done. If all their infinite outcomes had funneled down to that one moment and that one front door then there was no way back from it except through it.

 

Nicole met Wynonna’s eyes and found that they held about the same raw expression like all their bits and pieces were leaking out too fast to stuff it back in. “He bit her, didn’t he?” She asked softly, gaze wandering toward the heavy field dressings on Waverly’s leg that Dolls had abandoned to go secure the windows.

 

“He did.”

 

“Waverly’s gonna…” Wynonna ground her teeth together.

 

She certainly will .

 

But Nicole couldn’t say none of that out loud - couldn’t make real that evil brought upon that house. There was only so much pain she could pull apart in one day. Only so much meaning she could assign to any of it. “One day at a time,” she said instead. “You’ve got to get her to a hospital first.”

 

Wynonna nodded, desperate while she squeezed Waverly’s hand. “I know that, I just – I don’t know how to get out of here. Our last plan was a categorical disaster. I feel so damn useless right now. I just - I need to think . But I can’t think of anything except...” Her eyes flicked nervously down to Waverly’s leg, but couldn’t stomach more than a brief glimpse.

 

Nicole knew the feeling, but it faded as she looked down at Waverly’s face – it faded as she thought she might’ve figured out how this all ended. And it weren’t that she was ignorant to what Waverly had asked of her. Because she knew. She knew from every awful, ugly full moon and every little gesture, and every careful moment between them that Waverly loved her. Loved her. Wouldn’t want it. But she weren’t strong enough to sit there and let the world happen around them. She weren’t not gonna try to fix it the only way she knew how.

 

Waverly was never gonna forgive her. There’s just a big difference between knowin’ something and being able to do anything about it.

 

“You’re gonna get her out of here,” Nicole promised, shifting to stand. She carefully lifted Waverly’s head and moved a pillow underneath her gentle as could be while Wynonna looked on, wholly baffled. “I think I know what I gotta do.”

 

“You-what?” Wynonna watched Nicole stand and move to pick up the Colt .45 Wynonna had tossed on the coffee table in their haste to enter. Nicole’s own pistol was lost somewhere in the grass and she weren’t probably gonna need it no more. But she needed something just for this and Wynonna weren’t goin’ with her anyhow. “Hey! That’s mine!”

 

“I know,” Nicole murmured, checking the chamber to find it still full. She spun it once – because that’s what John Wayne would’ve done – and snapped the chamber back in place with finality. “I won’t need it long.”

 

“Won’t need it – what ?” Wynonna dropped Waverly’s hand and moved to stand between Nicole and the front door like part of her already knew what was about to happen. She was Waverly’s blood, after all – and Waverly knew just about everything. “What are you doing?” She demanded.

 

Nicole held the Colt at her side and squared her shoulders toward the door. “Giving you a chance – a chance you’ll never get if I don’t do this.”

 

“Oh no, you’re not doing…whatever you’re doing,” Wynonna said, crossing her arms across her chest like she was about to throw Nicole from a bar or somethin’. “What the hell are you doing, anyways?”

 

“Playin’ politics. Now move aside.”

 

“What the hell are you talking about?”

 

Nicole sighed and shook her head. “I don’t got time to explain it to you in full, but here’s why you’re gonna let me walk through that door: before I came up to this house three days ago with Bobo’s gun at the back of my head, he told me that his pack was here because they’d decided that Waverly was responsible. They’d decided that she was responsible for that man that we killed. We’d killed him because he attacked us. Weren’t our fault – we didn’t start nothing – but Bobo’s people decided it was Waverly’s burden,” Nicole stressed. She let her words sink in, reflected in Wynonna’s own dark eyes. After shooting a small look toward her sister, she nodded.

 

Nicole went on. “I thought I convinced him to at least get us to talk it out and take whatever person came forward, but that obviously weren’t true. He’d already made up his mind. He was never gonna go after us.” Almost to herself, she shook her head. “I should’ve known better than to take his word.”

 

“So what, then?” Wynonna asked impatiently. “They’ll only be satisfied when Waverly’s dead?”

 

“I don’t know,” Nicole said slowly. “I may only know some of Bobo’s people, but I do know this: if Bobo had actually explained the whole thing to them, I don’t see how they wouldn’t have gone after me the second I walked out those doors today. I can’t imagine a scenario where they know what I did and don’t tear me apart for it.” At Wynonna’s skeptical look, Nicole shook her head. “I can’t tell you why that is, but all you gotta know is that Bobo’s people have every reason to kill me if I toe the line.”

 

Wynonna shrank back a step, brows furrowed with deep confusion.

 

Nicole took that step forward, closer to the front door. “Bobo may be in charge, but he only lives so long as that pack of animals is willing to give him power. Now I don’t know what difference it will make here and now if they know I killed that man back then and if they know I did it because we’d been attacked without provocation, but Bobo has made one thing very clear to me. He can’t control a pack that wants something bad enough.”

 

It must’ve near killed her to nod along in hesitant agreement. “Yeah, so what?”

 

Nicole’s gaze wandered out to the window, tracing shapes in the grass. “So I’m done with Bobo. I know how this ends with him and we can’t have it. I’m gonna appeal to the pack now without him.”

 

Realization dawned slow and dark across Wynonna’s face and she took another unconscious step back that Nicole filled in promptly. Nicole sighed and dragged one hand down her face. “I don’t need to change Bobo’s mind about Waverly. I just need to change the pack’s mind about Bobo.”

 

“You’re just gonna tell them the truth,” Wynonna said in disbelief. “Just...tell the truth and hope that means a damn to them. Bobo will kill you either way. You know that, right?” At Nicole’s answering look, tired and so much older than she’d ever felt, Wynonna nodded. “But you know that.”

 

“I don’t know that,” Nicole returned, if not just a little dishonest. You don’t gotta know something to believe something. “I know Bobo’s heart, but I don’t know the pack’s heart. And if they don’t kill me, I’ll deal with Bobo.”

 

Wynonna scoffed. “Yeah? And if this goes bad? Then you’re dead and we – what? We trust that they’re gonna be rational about this? We trust they’ll just leave ? C’mon, Haught, this is all risk, no reward.”

 

Nicole laughed mirthlessly. “It ain’t risk and reward, Wynonna. It’s our best chance. Bobo’s shown his hand and it ends one way. The pack is our wild card and we’re gonna have better luck throwing ourselves at their mercy than Bobo’s. Bobo don’t control them like he wants people to believe he does. You can’t control a wild beast, Wynonna. You can grapple for alpha, but you’re only one wound or one misstep from losing it all.”

 

“Yeah? And you think Bobo’s just gonna walk away after you go over his head? After you whip out your substantially larger dick in front of him like that?” Wynonna was in Nicole’s face by that point, but it weren’t because she was coming forward. It was because Nicole was. “I know his ruthlessness, Haught. It cost me a sister. It cost me family. Don’t you think he won’t make you pay up too.”

 

Nicole offered Wynonna a sad smile. “I know what he is, Wynonna. I - trust me, I do. But if it all goes to hell, the pack takes me, and it’s just him and you? I like those odds a whole lot more. I’d be betting on Wynonna Earp.”

 

“You don’t know me,” Wynonna said without heart.

 

But really, it weren’t too hard to know someone like yourself. “We’ll see,” she said, instead. Because it didn’t’ matter no more. She couldn’t see nothin’ from there in the Earp’s living room, but she could feel the beasts circling. It was that sixth, pack sense and she knew they weren’t gonna have a better time to show their cards.

 

Wynonna’s face was a constellation of emotion, a full face journey that Nicole might’ve laughed at if it weren’t for the fact that she knew the destination already. She weren’t a betting woman, but some things in life you just feel, like you can see the future playing out like film in a projector and you ain’t really have any doubts how it all ends. She knew that Wynonna was gonna let her walk through those doors and she knew that Wynonna was gonna think about it nearly every day for the rest of her life. Sometimes you win, but it don’t feel that way.

 

“Don’t...you dare.”

 

And weren’t that just another peachy stroke of luck? Waverly, in all her pale, death’s-door glory was propped up on shaky elbows, glaring like she hadn’t lost three pints of blood. Nicole closed her eyes briefly, gathering herself for the hardest thing she’d ever done, then turned to face her. Waverly looked ready to try and stand on a mangled leg – ready to leap across the living room and put Nicole in a headlock and stop her. It kinda made Nicole smile.

 

“Don’t get up, Waves,” she said fondly. “I think you know me better than to think I’m not gonna see this through.”

 

“You promised ,” she choked, squeezing her eyes shut with the pain of trying to move her poor leg. “You promised you wouldn’t do this!”

 

“That was before you done got your leg near torn off, darling,” she sighed. The endearment slipped out, but Nicole didn’t suppose it mattered what kinda confused, calculating looks Wynonna was shooting between the two of them no more. “Bobo’s always been my problem, Waves. I’m gonna go out there and finish what’s between us and that ain’t your fault.”

 

“It’s not about fault,” she spat. “This is about you running off to die and leaving me here with my broken heart like you’re so damn easy to get over. Well you’re not, okay? Don’t you put this on me, Nicole Haught.”

 

Nicole nodded, still fond even after all those years. “Yeah, you’re not so bad yourself, Waverly Earp.”

 

“Um,” Wynonna added.

 

Nicole weren’t a coward – not at the very end of the day – so she made her way over to Waverly and knelt down, letting Waverly fist her hands in the front of Nicole’s shirt.

 

“Please don’t do this,” she whispered fiercely. “I don’t want this.”

 

“I know you don’t,” Nicole assured her as she leaned down to press their foreheads together. “Some graves you start digging so young that by the time you can’t see the sky no more,  you can’t fill it back up no matter how bad you want it.” She took one of Waverly’s hands from her shirt just to hold it again. “No matter who you love.”

 

Waverly ground her teeth together, then confessed in a whisper, “I knew my plan wasn’t gonna work. I tried to reason with Bobo.”

 

It didn’t surprise Nicole like she thought it would. She nodded against Waverly’s forehead. What did it matter anyhow?

 

“I didn’t trust you weren’t gonna die for me out there,” she pressed on bravely. “Look what I’ve done.”

 

Nicole hushed her. “Well, then I owe you this one I think,” she chuckled. “Now we’ll be even, wouldn’t you say?”

 

“I love you so bad, Nicole,” she hiccupped through the tears Nicole knew Waverly hated cryin’. But sometimes it weren’t so bad. Sometimes you gotta let it out that way and it’s just god’s way of letting you know how damn hard you’re being human. “Why do you gotta be this way?”

 

“I don’t know no other way,” she chuckled, touching their noses together lightly. “I grew in your love, Waverly. I’m proud of who I am, and that includes you. This ain’t goodbye.”

 

Waverly wrinkled her nose, all frustrated and everything Nicole loved about her, then she pulled her down and kissed her with everything she had. And really, Nicole could’ve lived in that moment forever, but if she didn’t pull away she was sure Waverly would’ve kept her there for good. So she pulled away gently, removed Waverly’s hand from the front of her shirt and stood to face what made her.

 

It weren’t over by a long shot and Nicole weren’t goin’ out there to lay down and die.

 

Wynonna was still stood in front of the door, processing the secrets of the universe, but Nicole moved her aside with a gentle hand on her shoulder. Wynonna resisted a moment later, mouth twisted into the corner of her cheek. “I can’t – I can’t let you do this.”

 

“Yes you can,” Nicole assured her. “You can because you love your sister. And maybe you know this will hurt her, but you’re gonna give her the best chance she has to survive this. You’re gonna step aside because it’s not a hard choice between me and her right now.”

 

“Wynonna.” Waverly begged quietly, because even she could probably see the tides shifting in Wynonna’s eyes and the way she’d started to drift away from the door. “Please don’t let her do this.”

 

Nicole ain’t ever seen Wynonna look so lost, looking between the two of them, a slight well of tears in her eyes. But it weren’t her decision – not really – and Nicole nudged her aside so she could get to the door. Wynonna didn’t put up much resistance, just opened and closed her mouth a few times like she weren’t sure what to say but she knew she had to say something .

 

“I know,” Nicole spared her with a small smile. “Just like John Wayne, right?”

 

Wynonna’s mouth snapped shut and Nicole pulled the door open and stepped out quick before she could think about it anymore than she already had. Sometimes it just ain’t worth thinkin’ about things. Not then, anyhow.

+++

Nicole walked out onto the porch, took a few steps down into the grass and raised the Colt above her head to pop a few shots off into the sky. It was flashy and stupid, but Nicole needed a little flashy and stupid in that moment. She needed their attention and she needed enough stupid to go through with it all.

 

As the chamber cooled and Nicole let the gun fall at her side, she could feel dozens of red eyes tunneling through the grass, sizing her up and licking at hungry chops. She swallowed hard, but stood her ground.

 

“I know you know me,” she started loudly. “I’m the mutt what lives outside your pack – the mutt y’all pretend doesn’t exist. But I do. And I’m here. And I got somethin’ to say.”

 

Instead of just feelin’ their eyes, she could see them. At least a half dozen beasts grew up like reapers out of the grass, but Nicole weren’t some chicken-legged kid mutt no more and they weren’t so scary as she remembered.

 

“This is my house right here and my family. We were attacked on our dirt with no warning and no quarter and you know what? We protected what’s ours. We fought the threat and I killed it. Out of respect, we left him up in the hills and I tend those bones even now.” Nicole shot a warning look to one of the beasts creeping too close and it paused. “I can’t be sorry ‘bout that. Not today, not tomorrow. There ain’t no debt here. We weren’t borrowing when we killed him, we were cashing . He crossed that line first.”

 

Others had begun sprouting from the grass, ears twitching and eyes focused. She ain’t ever had so much attention from the tribe on her at once and it made her feel powerful. Some of them had sat back on their haunches, almost thoughtful with ears no longer laid flat in aggression.

 

“I don’t know what Bobo’s told you, but that’s what happened and that’s where I stand. I ain’t got no reason to lie to you because I’m really very certain I can’t kill more’n maybe five of you.”

 

Well. A little bravado never hurt nobody.

 

“So that’s it,” Nicole finished a little awkwardly. “Now I’d like to ask y’all to kindly leave my property.” She crossed her arms for good measure.

 

Heavy silence fell across the homestead as Nicole stood there, clenching her jaw to stop her teeth from chattering. A million other things she could’ve said raced through her brain, but she swallowed it down and waited. Some of the creatures shuffled a bit – seemed to shoot each other looks. And maybe even sink back a few steps. Something lifted in the pit of Nicole’s stomach, but came crashing down with the cold press of a gun barrel at the back of her head.

 

Nicole closed her eyes, took a deep breath in, and opened them again. She let her arms fall to her side and when the gun pressed harder, she let her borrowed Colt fall into the dirt. “Bobo.”

 

Bobo growled low in the back of his throat. “What do you think you’re doing?”

 

Nicole smiled wryly. “Settin’ things straight. Everybody deserves the truth here before someone does something they can’t take back.”

 

Bobo made some noise of disgust, digging the barrel even harder into her skull. “You can’t just leave well enough alone, can you?”

 

Well enough ?” Nicole scoffed. “You’re tryin’ to kill her for somethin’ that ain’t even her fault. You’re lyin’ Bobo. If they kill me, I’m want to make sure it’s gonna be for what I’ve done. Not what you’ve told them we did.” Their audience just watched on with apparent interest.

 

“But she’s an Earp ,” he spat. “You know what that family has done to us? Do you know how many they killed like we weren’t nothing but game in their freezers? He saw Waverly spying on us – surveilling us like her daddy did. I might not have condoned his attack on this property, but I can’t condemn it neither.”

 

“Waverly was just tryin’ to learn about you,” Nicole said through clenched teeth. “She was tryin’ to understand us. But it don’t matter what we were doing. He came onto our property and that was his choice. I protected my family and my house.” Nicole stared hard into the eyes of the creature looming closest. “What would you have done?”

 

“Earp land don’t mean nothing to us.”

 

Nicole shook her head slightly against the press of the pistol. “It was a truce, you said so yourself. You want another generation of dead brothers and sisters? You want another generation of war? Well you kill Waverly Earp for the crime of her bloodline and you got it, buddy. She ain’t ever done anything to you and you’re makin’ enemies for your children.”

 

“Waverly sits with me every full moon,” Nicole pushed on. “She knows what I am and it’s no big thing. So you walk off this land now and leave well enough alone and it’s done. No more feuds, no more loss,” she finished, making deliberate eye contact amongst those gathering closer. “Bobo’s wrong here. He’s gonna get y’all killed.”

 

And maybe that was dramatic, because the Earp army was a girl with a half torn off leg, her drunk sister, a monster who even monsters didn’t want, and a government agent condemned to the worst town in Alberta. But there was somethin’ to be said about bein’ the bottom of a barrel with nothin’ to lose.

 

The beast closest to them huffed out a breath through their nose and turned slowly on their tail, disappearing through the grass in the opposite direction. Gone.

 

Nicole’s breath hitched in the ensuing silence. It seemed maybe that was gonna be the only one to take her words at face value as everyone else stood frozen. But then another turned, sank into the grass and disappeared like fog up into a warming summer morning. Then another.

 

And…

 

All of them.

 

They all left like dissipating smoke – silent and so quick you’d have thought you imagined it all. Nicole breathed out slow, feeling her adrenaline trip and patter out into overwhelming exhaustion. She smiled to herself a little, overwhelmed that things had worked out so well.

 

Then the hammer cocked behind her head and she came plummeting back.

 

“Clever, mutt.”

 

“Surprised me too,” Nicole murmured.

 

“You’ve done something we ain’t coming back from,” Bobo warned, sounding as tired as Nicole felt. “I…” Bobo fell silent and Nicole swore she could feel the barrel tremble against her. “You gotta understand,” he said haltingly. “I can’t leave what happened alone, Nicole. Animals need rules .”

 

“He attacked us,” Nicole growled.

 

“She was surveilling him!”

 

“So she deserves to die!?”

 

“He was protecting himself the best way he knew how!”

 

We were too .”

 

Bobo went quiet again, steady in the late dusk. It was like the sun was racing them back behind the hills. And they were so deadly still, the sun was winning. It felt like there was nothin’ left to say, really.

 

“I didn’t want you to die for this,” Bobo said quietly. “She’s an Earp , mutt. You really want to die for her?”

 

Nicole laughed humorlessly and gave a helpless shrug. “I love her. What else can I do?”

 

Even though she couldn’t see him, Nicole could feel Bobo’s resolve harden and she steeled herself for what was to come. “It’s too late, anyways,” Bobo said, distant and cold. “It’s too late. My people have seen you won’t listen to me. A pack can’t have two alphas, Nicole. Where does that leave me?”

 

“I’m not going to stand here and absolve you before you kill me.” Nicole stared straight ahead. The sun was a fat red giant in the sky, dusted with little wisps of western sky clouds. Something was coming in from the north – a front maybe. You could smell the pressure change and Nicole breathed in deep. She’d keep that there in her chest. For herself. For whatever happened next.

 

Bobo pulled the muzzle just a breath from the back of her head and shifted his feet in the dirt – taking a new stance.

 

“Start running,” he commanded, quiet and just for her. “You run toward that fence line – right at the sun – and don’t look back.”

 

Nicole narrowed her eyes. “And why would I do that?”

 

“Because I can’t shoot you this close.”

 

Nicole felt something well in her throat – a big stopper choking her while the sun sank below the horizon line. “Why not?”

 

“It ain’t in me, mutt. Not when it comes to you.” When Nicole seemed uninclined to grant his request, Bobo gave her a little nudge in the back of the head. “Don’t make her see this ten feet from her window.”

 

And that was enough.

 

Nicole’s knees felt like jelly when she took the first few steps forward, tripping into a slow trot with shaky legs and her heart beating in her throat so fast she thought it might explode. She couldn’t get much faster than a light jog with the nerves thrilling up and down her stomach so bad she thought she’d throw up before she reached the fence. When she hit the property line, the primal fear in her heart drove her in a small leap over the low beams that’d been scattered about from the wrecked fence. There was some tiny, prey-instinct in her gut that thought maybe – just maybe she could’ve escaped what was coming for her.

 

But it was a feeling, not really a thought. Not really a hope.

 

As the sun was a little sliver of light under the falling curtain of night – just one blink of daylight – the first shot snapped through her left shoulder. She grunted as she stumbled a bit, but kept on. The second shot tore through just above her left hip – deep tissue damage that left her reeling.

 

But still moving forward.

 

She couldn’t help but think in the ensuing moments how getting shot should get easier the third time it happens to you in life. But it weren’t the case. It was the kind of pain that made you forget who you were and why you’d done anything. Made you forget your love and your softness and your reason. Another shot cracked right through her lowest rib. A heavy weight swelled in her chest and she could feel the rattle there in her lungs. The sun was gone by the time the final shot ripped right through the center of her lower back.

 

It was on tottering legs, still pumping on instinct, that Nicole managed a few dozen more feet before collapsing into dirt. It stung her eyes but they were washed out by the pain leaking out salt down across the bridge of her nose and cheeks.

 

Ain’t nobody watching them from above. Nicole knew that by then. It was just empty sky and cold space and things dyin’ under the light of distant rocks.

 

+++



Chapter Text

+++

 

“I’m the last cowboy in this town,

Empty veins and my plastic broken crown.

- foals, late night (2013)

 

+++

 

The first thing Nicole heard on the edge of something she could only classify as the end was the flop of an old engine followed by boots in the dirt. Her lungs were wet and growling as they filled and she wheezed into the dirt. She’d been there before and by that point it was a lonely, would you just die already .

 

The boots got closer and Nicole couldn’t find it in herself to even spare a tired glance in their direction. Sometimes dyin’ just turned into a massive fuck you and the horse you rode in on .

 

Someone crouched down near her head a moment before blowing cigarette smoke in her face. Nicole cracked an eye in annoyance.

 

“You just gonna lie there and die in the dirt?” Some random asshole asked as he puffed into her face. He was unkempt, scruffy and covered in motor oil stains and absolutely the last thing on Nicole’s list of things she wanted to have to stare at while she died.

 

Nicole sneered around a mouthful of blood. “Seems that way.”

 

He shrugged, nonplussed and took another draw of his cigarette, blowing it upwards into the young night sky. “Suit yourself.”

 

Nicole glared at him. Couldn’t he tell she was on her way out? Was he really gonna ruin those last few moments for her?

 

“Yes I am,” he confirmed.

 

So that was how it was goin’ to be.

 

“Who…” Nicole took a slow breath in like she was suckin’ air underwater through a straw. “…are you?”

 

He ignored her. “You don’t have much time left,” he sung under his breath. “Does it hurt bad?”

 

“Feels great.”

 

He chuckled a bit, taking a hard drag while the ember set a glow under his features. Nicole still had no idea who he was even with the extra light. He looked like nothin’ special, but then so did a lot of the almost-special residents of that one horse town. “Is this how you thought it would end?” He asked curiously.

 

Nicole groaned, huffing and trying to fill lungs that were slowly drowning. “I ain’t – really - thought ‘bout it.”

 

“Really?” He looked up into the night sky, which was apparently much more interesting than a half dead kid in the middle of nowhere. “Even after everything? That’s kind of surprising.”

 

It didn’t really warrant a response. Nicole dug her blunt fingernails into the ground, squeezing hard like it might pull from the well of pain drowning her slow in shallow waters. But Purgatory ain’t ever had nothin’ for her and you can’t squeeze water from a stone. “Can’t-“ She choked as a wave of panic overtook her. Her chest squeezed hard and she couldn’t-

 

She couldn’t-

 

Nicole was lifted a little, the man hoisting her under her armpits and pulling her limp body to rest sitting up against the tire of a rusted out truck. The pain was crippling and cruel, but she was surprised to find she could catch what was left of her breath when she was propped against something upright. The heavy curtains closing over her stopped for a moment and she breathed another breath. At least one more.

 

“Thanks,” she gasped while the man took a seat in the dirt beside her, seemingly unconcerned with the whole thing. When he didn’t appear inclined to say anything more, Nicole let her head lull to the side to give him a suspicious look. “What – do you – want.”

 

He shook his head. “Nothin’.”

 

“Everyone wants- somethin’.”

 

He just shrugged again, nonplussed. Almost nonchalant. Even in the midst of death, something angry caught fire in Nicole’s belly. “This – funny to you?” He shot her a little look that told her absolutely nothing and she bared her teeth. “ Fuck you .” She ain’t ever cursed someone out that bad, but dyin’ has a funny way of making you want a little taste of that kind of western justice.

 

He let out a surprised little laugh. “I don’t think this is funny.” His eyes tracked over her face like it something he knew well - a book he’d read cover to cover many times. “You’re going to die, Nicole.”

 

“You think I don’t know that?”

 

“I think you’ve accepted it.”

 

She snarled, but it sputtered out into a pathetic coughing fit that ended with a wad of blood down the front of her shirt. The man made a move to hand her an old stained handkerchief, but she just glared at it. He retracted it with a sigh and looked back at the sky. “What else – can I do?” She said through raw lungs.

 

“Uh, not accept it,” he countered like she was stupid or something.

 

“Fuck you.”

 

“You need to turn , Nicole. You won’t survive this human.”

 

It weren’t even in her to wonder who this grizzly, omnipresent stranger was. It didn’t matter no more, did it? She laughed, blood thick like wine in the cracks of her teeth. “Can’t. I’m twenty days off. Just – can’t.”

 

“That so?”

 

Nicole groaned as some fresh and horrible sensation crept around the center of her back where one of the shots festered inside her. “I’m a mutt ,” she spat. “Can’t – change.”

 

“No, you won’t change.”

 

“Fuck you.”

 

“You know,” he laughed, “you keep sayin’ that.”

 

“I keep – feelin’ that.”

 

He gave  her a fond smile and pulled another fresh smoke from a crumpled carton in the breast pocket of his faded shirt. He lit it in the other corner of his mouth before reaching over and sticking it between Nicole’s bloody lips. When Nicole took a shaky, painful drag from it, it was just as bad as she remembered them bein’. But hey, she was dyin’ right? A big whatever to all that.

 

“You know, they really ought to write down their recipes when they make people like you.”

 

“Thanks,” Nicole said flatly.

 

He smiled at her, like he was lookin’ at some piece of art and not an abomination dyin’ in the dirt at the end of a long day bookended by a long life. “Why won’t you change?” He asked, almost gentle despite the rasp of a lifelong bad habit.

 

“I can’t, dumbass.”

 

“Do you know…” he led, bunching his wild eyebrows together and chewing over his words. “Do you know why wolves howl at a full moon?”

 

“Do I- what ?”

 

“Do you know why wolves howl at the full moon?” He enunciated slowly like Nicole were stupid or something.

 

“Stop askin’ me – I heard you!” She hissed. “You’re pissin’ me off. I don’t know and I don’t care. It’s nonsense.”

 

Every insult seemed to delight him further. “Do you know where your kind came from?”

 

A bit of ash crumbled from the end of Nicole’s cigarette and she watched it tumble into the bloody mess of her shirt. “Hell, maybe?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Fantastic.”

 

“The story goes that they’re bastards of god’s vision. Demon children of monsters and wicked humans – a genetic nightmare so potent it can be passed through violence alone,” he said, offhanded. “But that was a long time ago and you know how well old people remember things.” He clicked his lighter absently in his fist resting on his knee like a century-old habit. “But god did not smite them.”

 

Nicole watched smoke twirl lazily upward, dissipating like ghosts above her. “How nice of him.”

 

“Do you believe in god, Nicole?”

 

She smiled wryly. “I don’t reckon it matters. What’s he ever done for me?” The hole in her gut seized again and she choked for a few moments. The man watched her without sympathy, just like him . Just like that man they say lives in the church on the east end of 7th street and answers sad folks’ prayers. That’s what they always told her anyways.

 

“If he’s up there he can suck my-“ she spluttered through another coughing fit and maybe that was divine intervention.

 

“You want him to save you?”

 

Nicole laughed bitterly. “I don’t care what he does. I never needed him before and I don’t need him now. But if he’s up there and he put me in these bones and he gave me this curse when I ain’t even old enough to know who I was yet then fuck him . ”

 

“Hm,” he said almost carelessly. “God’s will, huh?” Nicole’s head thunked back against the wheel well, having to measure and ration whatever breath was left in her. “My granddad used to say god was ‘The Watcher’ – he called him that, you know? He used to say god didn’t have a will. People want the mighty hand of god to reach down and act upon them.” Hot tears slipped down Nicole’s cheeks as she gasped and splintered. “But you know the one thing on this earth and above that ain’t ever been the one to change our vectors, Nicole – ain’t ever changed what we’re made of and where we’re goin’?”

 

Nicole tipped over on one weak elbow as her lungs filled. “I can’t breath-“

 

“It’s god, Nicole. He’s the one thing that ain’t ever changed nobody’s life. He ain’t ever split an atom or stirred a hurricane or loved a woman. Then he shrugged while Nicole bled into the earth past what she knew a person came back from. “God don’t have a will. He’s a watcher .”

 

Desperately, Nicole tried pulling on the buttons of her shirt, tearing them loose like it might’ve stopped the flood in her chest.

 

“So, Nicole.” He lazily flicked the butt of his cigarette out into the grass, watching it sail like a comet and burn out in the dirt. “Do you know why a wolf howls at the full moon?”

 

A monstrous, terrible growl ripped out of her throat while she writhed through the tremors of her body giving out. “They – don’t!”

 

“Hm?”

 

“It’s – nonsense!”

 

That’s right,” he said kindly. “It’s a myth. Wolves don’t howl at no moon. They ain’t howl any more at a full moon than any other moon. It’s just in people’s heads – just talk, ya see?”

 

Nicole was on her back, drowning in the middle of the desert when the man leaned over her, hands on his knees and a fresh cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

 

“You want this life bad enough -why are you willing to die for somethin’ you been told you can’t do? Why are you livin’ on someone else’s will?” He murmured quietly. “What is Nicole’s will?”

 

Something watched them – maybe it was crickets or cold space rocks or the dust blowin’ in their eyes from the north. Maybe it was none of those things. Maybe it was all of those things. Something watched them and didn’t do a damn thing. Something watched a girl with dirt and blood under her fingernails, push up out of her grave and howl in agony while her nails grew long and horrible – watched while she changed.

 

Watched while she was risen.

+++

When Nicole barreled back through the torn hole in the fence her sore chest was heaving strong, awful teeth bared and ready. She stopped there in the entryway, though, as the sound of gunshots cracked into the dirt around the property. Nicole looked up through the red haze in her vision to where someone was hunkered in the upstairs bedroom of the house laying down wildly irresponsible gunfire.

 

“I can’t see you, but I’m feelin’ lucky!” Wynonna shouted. “Come out and fight me like a man, Bobo! You and me, man to man. I’ll be skins you be shirts.”

 

If Nicole had the capacity she would’ve rolled her eyes. Besides that, she could smell Bobo upwind on the other side of the house. She was about to approach when she remembered somethin’ horribly inconvenient.

 

Wynonna didn’t know .

 

Wynonna would just as soon have shot her dead too. There were a whole lot of people tryin’ to shoot her dead all the time. Nicole was a modest person, but she was reasonably sure she weren’t so deserving of it all. But ain’t that just the way.

 

“I can do this all day!” Wynonna snarled.

 

False.

 

Dolls only had six magazines on him, so at Wynonna’s rate, she probably could’ve done it for about twelve more minutes. But Nicole appreciated the dedication.

 

Even at her distance, Nicole could hear the empty clicking of Dolls’ chamber and Wynonna’s cursing. “Alright, I’m gonna – shit. I’m gonna reload and gonna – fuck. Okay, Dolls left with the rest of his magazines, but I’m gonna go downstairs, ask nicely, then we’re gonna fuckin’ continue right the fuck where we left off!” She warned before ducking back below the upstairs window.

 

Nicole figured there was no better time and took off at a dead run following the near-visible line of Bobo’s scent right through the brush toward the driveway. At his size, Bobo weren’t hard to find, hulking behind the ruins of Dolls’ truck near the front of the house. He had maybe a minute to perk his ears and turn toward the earthquake of her pounding feet before Nicole was on him.

+++

As they smashed through the grass in a tangle of limbs and snapping teeth, Nicole had a brief violent thrill when she realized -

 

He weren’t bigger than her no more.

 

And maybe it weren’t nothin’ more than the element of surprise, but Bobo couldn’t hardly get his feet under him. Nicole was single minded in her attack, as vicious as he’d made her, plus interest. She snapped right through one of his flailing forelegs, feeling bone splinter and crack between her jaws while he cried out awfully. It weren’t enjoyable, but it was justice .

 

Bobo managed to batter her away, but not before she’d ripped some slip of muscle almost clean from his other shoulder so it was dangling horribly. It was a grim sort of satisfaction that thrummed through her veins as she watched him bleed – watched him suffer. The idea that she might kill him there on that property – make him choke for what he’d done to them – well, she entertained it idly as he tried to get his feet back under him.

 

Like most fights, though, it was pretty much over. He made one last half-hearted lunge that she threw off and flipped around on him, raking wicked claws down deep into his back and hooking all the way around into his belly as he rolled off her desperately. It couldn’t have lasted much more than two minutes.

 

Nicole bared her teeth and advanced while he limped backwards. Everything in her was urging her forward, urging her to the kill , but she stopped abruptly when he started shifting right in front of her.

 

The shift took care of some of the worst of any injuries, but he still looked ghastly with the long claw marks dug into his back and belly. His arm hung, mangled, while he staggered to stay upright. He fell back a few steps holding his arm, then turned and retrieved his long coat that had been abandoned in the grass. Moments after pulling it on with little involuntary noises of agony, the fur began bleeding through.

 

Nicole regarded him warily, licking at the iron on her teeth and trying to figure out his game. But he just stood there, huffing and staring right into her evil eyes. There was somethin’ like confusion in the look he gave her, shaking his head minutely while blood dripped off his limp fingertips and the shaggy ends of his coat. Somethin’ in his eyes, though, said the same thing Nicole must’ve looked like with his gun at the back of her head.

 

Somethin’ in his eyes was like he should’ve known it was gonna end like that. He gave a little shake of his head again, mouth ticking up minutely in corner. “You shifted,” he wheezed.

 

Nicole let out a low growl and he laughed under his breath. “Of course you did,” he concluded like that was supposed to make any kind of sense to her.

 

She weren’t sure what it meant, but she bristled, incapable of not expecting the worst from every breath he took no more. One of her feet shifted forward a threatening step, but then the door to the homestead swung open with a loud crack as it smacked against the side of the house.

 

Nicole froze.

 

Someone shucked a round into the chamber of a gun behind them and growled, “this one’s got silver, asshole. Melted my dad’s watch in a cast iron pan.”

 

Bobo regarded the whole scene calmly, but Nicole turned slowly to eye Wynonna over her shoulder. Dolls’ gun was trained right on her, center mass. That at least, seemed to interest Bobo when he realized the gun wasn’t pointed at his own face, but he still stayed silent.

 

“Who the fuck are you?” Wynonna asked, low and deadly.

 

The adrenaline had all but drained from Nicole’s body, leaving her limbs like lead and her heart a thready thing in her chest. She turned to face Wynonna and took a step forward, forgetting herself a moment. Wynonna trained the sight right on her and took a step to the edge of the porch. “I swear to god,” she warned. “One more step.”

 

Point taken, Nicole halted abruptly. She stopped so suddenly, she rocked back until she was sat on her haunches.

 

Sit. Good dog , Nicole thought wryly.

 

Wynonna took the rest of the steps down off the porch and widened her stance. Nicole cocked her head to the side and watched. If she changed back she might not get shot, but then Wynonna would know. Then she’d know what slept next to her baby sister at night. Nicole wondered, really, if it weren’t worth getting shot again just to guard that awful truth. Besides that, maybe she would’ve got shot even worse at that revelation.

 

Nicole let out a low wine. Life was shit, always.

 

“Gonna shoot your savior?” Bobo asked wryly.

 

And who asked him, really.

 

Wynonna switched her sights back to him. “You’re next, jackwagon.”

 

Bobo shrugged carelessly, but fell quiet. Wynonna turned her gun back on Nicole and took another few steps forward, brows knotted while she searched the awful thing in front of her for some kinda answers. But Nicole weren’t really the kind of person with answers.

 

“Who are you?” Wynonna asked again at a low growl, stalking closer while Nicole tried to shrink into herself in an effort to appear less monstrous. When she was only ten paces off, Dolls called to her from the front door.

 

“Wynonna,” he warned her.

 

She waved him off impatiently, taking another few deliberate steps forward while her gun fell slightly, trained somewhere near Nicole’s feet. Her eyes were narrowed less in anger and more like she was chasin’ the tail end of some thought that she couldn’t quite grab. She studied Nicole critically in the dark, leaning alarmingly close to her face.

 

“You’re the thing in the sketches in Waverly’s basement. And I...do I know you?” She said, almost to herself. Nicole flashed back to a dark night many years past when Wynonna had pointed a gun at her head with Waverly’s daddy dead at her feet and told her to run. She felt ten years younger. “You’re…”

 

Nicole restrained herself from reacting too bad when Wynonna raised a hand like she was gonna touch one of her long, awful canines or maybe her nose or something. But Wynonna’s hand dropped a moment later and her head ticked to the side. “Change back,” she requested, almost gentle.

 

Nicole took a slow step back, but Wynonna followed. She made a show of tucking Dolls’ glock into the back waistband of her jeans and tempered her aggressive stance.

 

“Please,” she added haltingly.

 

And what option did she have, really? It was either that or get shot and Wynonna didn’t seem too inclined to the latter anymore. Although, Dolls was stationed at the door looking a little ridiculous with his tactical flashlight brandished with deadly force.

 

So Nicole took another few paces back and hunched as her bones began crunching together and the violence and terror fell from her shoulders like a shed skin. When she was left shivering in the grass, raw wounds still bleeding sluggishly and givin’ her hell, she looked upwards through her messy hair.

 

Ain’t nowhere to hide , she thought bitterly, kneeling naked in the dirt while Wynonna took in all that she was.

 

+++



Chapter Text

 

"so honey i am now some broken thing,

i do not lay in the dark waiting for day here."

- song for zula, phosphorescent (2013)

 

+++

 

Wynonna only blinked a moment, mouth opening in surprise, but-

A wry smile stole across Wynonna’s face and she nodded to herself. “Yeah, I thought so,” she said to herself. “I’ll be damned.”

When it didn’t look like she was gonna be imminently shot in her bare ass, Nicole glared. “Could I get a robe or something?” She grumbled.

Wynonna’s smile turned smug. “No. You’ve got so much explaining to do. And I’m not sure I even want to start with the mutant freak thing. I want to start with the weird, sexy energy between you and my sister thing-”

“Wynonna!” Dolls snapped as he approached. He had one of the throw blankets from the back of the couch balled up in his arms and tossed it the remaining distance to land in the dirt in front of Nicole’s shivering knees. She shot him a grateful look and snatched it up, wrapping it around her shoulders with as much dignity as she could manage. Which – weren’t much.

Dolls was making a good effort to look interested in some point off to the left, but Wynonna was staring like it was goin’ out of style. “You’ve ruined a golden shovel talk opportunity, Dolls.”

“Save it,” he cut her off. “We’ll address this later,” he added with all the foreboding of a pending full-scale bureaucratic investigation. “I’m going to get Waverly. We need to get to the hospital,” he said briskly, heading back into the house with purpose.

Wynonna snapped back to the gravity of the situation at the mention of Waverly and nodded. “Right. I’ll come with.”

“No,” Dolls called back as he disappeared inside. “You meet me after you deal with… this. You’re not finished here.” He said darkly.

Nicole was as tired as she’d ever been, but the mention of Waverly had her staggering forward to help before Wynonna blocked her way with one hand upheld. Nicole snarled weakly at her. “Let me help.”

“Dolls is a big boy, he’s got it.” She leveled Nicole with a piercing look. “He’s right. This isn’t over.” Her eyes flicked over Nicole’s shoulder to where Bobo stood quietly bleeding into the dirt. His face was like stone, unreadable and unflinching.

But Nicole couldn’t find it in herself to spare a thought about him as she watched Dolls carry Waverly out of the house. She was small in his arms, one hand hanging limply down while Dolls maneuvered them toward Waverly’s Jeep. The roiling cauldron of hate in her belly had long since fizzled out. Nicole had shed her violence when she’d shed her monstrous skin – she didn’t care what happened to Bobo anymore. She just wanted Waverly.

But Wynonna blocked her. “We’re not done here,” she said with authority. All Nicole could do was watch helplessly as Dolls carefully situated Waverly in the back seat and hoisted himself up into the driver’s side. The engine turned over seamlessly and he was gone before Nicole could think of a way to get around the roadblock in front of her.

“I should’ve gone with her,” Nicole said quietly. “What if she needs me?”

“She needs a doctor,” Wynonna said firmly, though Nicole could tell it was killin’ her too. “And we need to finish this.”

When Nicole finally looked away from the road leading off the property, she couldn’t see much left in Bobo that needed finishing. He looked pretty patient as he waited for whatever bloody resolution was waiting for him. Wynonna let out a long, tired sigh and freed the gun from her waistband, holding it at her side.

Nicole eyed it warily, concerned for a moment that she was part of those loose ends that Wynonna had to tie up. Even Wynonna seemed to think it a moment, staring down between Nicole’s guarded expression and the Glock in her hand. The moment passed, though, and she flipped the gun to offer the grip to Nicole.

“I think this one’s yours,” she concluded before stepping back.

 

+++

 

She didn’t want it anymore, really. Nicole stood in front of Bobo, gun loose at her side and so tired she thought she might never wake up again if she got the chance to let her head hit a pillow. But Wynonna was right-

It was unfinished business.

“Here at the end, Mutt. Not how I imagined it,” he mused. His eyes turned thoughtful as he stared out at the dark hills around them. The birds and little clicking rodents and insects hadn’t returned to their activity yet. It was still eerily quiet from the tension and violence of the past several hours. Only a handful of crickets had started up again, cautiously chirping against the back hills so it was barely a whisper by the time it got back to them. “Maybe I should have.”

Nicole closed her eyes briefly while she took in a long breath, held it, and released it. The air smelled like rain miles off. Might be there by morning. The gun came up and Nicole trained it on Bobo’s forehead. “Turn around,” she said quietly.

Bobo did so wordlessly, stuffing his hands in the pocket of his coat and waiting.

Just, waiting.

Nicole swallowed hard. “It didn’t have to be this way.”

“No, maybe not,” he agreed. “But then, we are what we are, aren’t we?”

“I didn’t want this.”

Bobo nodded. “How did you shift?” He asked curiously.

“I got things, Bobo.” Nicole’s sweaty palm slipped uncomfortably against the textured paneling of the grip and she willed her body to be stronger. Willed herself to be what she needed to be in that moment, even if she ain’t ever been that before. She thought about the mangled hay crop, the torn up fence, and Waverly in a hospital bed. “Things I can’t let get taken from me.”

“Ah,” he nodded. One of his hands slipped out of his jacket pocket and ran along the top of his head. “I guess I always did underestimate you.” He let out a barely there breath of laughter and tucked his good hand back into his pocket. “You were such a little thing, you know?”

When he fell quiet again, Nicole felt torn between wanting to see what his face was doing and dreading what she might find there. The day had been a natural disaster of things Nicole ain’t understood - probably never would. But the one thing she was certain she weren’t ever meant to understand was Bobo Del Rey. “On my head be it,” he chuckled after an uncomfortable stretch of silence. “Go ahead, then. Don’t keep me in suspense.”

The magazine rattled against itself in the clip and Nicole realized her hand was shakin’ something awful. She swallowed and let out a frustrated noise. “ You’ve led us here!” She growled. “Why is this up to me? You’ve ruined everything! You did this!”

“I did.”

“You lied to me and you - and Waverly ,” she choked out through angry tears. “You ain’t had to bite her. Look what you’ve done !”

Bobo said nothing.

“You ain’t even sorry!”

He shot her a look over his shoulder right into the barrel of the gun. “No,” he agreed. “I’m not sorry.” His mouth formed the words, but there was something regretful in his tone and it only pissed her off more.

Nicole pressed the gun hard into the back of his head looking for some kinda reaction from him – anything to show he hurt as bad as she did. She wanted him to fall to his knees and beg her forgiveness. She wanted to see him fight for his shitty life or spit in her face or do anything to prove that the big well of nothing in the pit of Nicole’s heart meant anything to him. But she was a fool for thinkin’ she’d ever get that. She was a fool for ever thinkin’ they were gonna mean something to each other one day. “Why do you gotta be this way ?”

Bobo seemed to think about that for a long few moments. He thought so long that Nicole figured he weren’t gonna answer her. But then, “I let my life make me this way. Things like us? We’re born in evil and we die in it. Well…” he snorted like there was somethin’ funny in any of it. “-most of us do, anyhow.”

Nicole was embarrassed and furious when she couldn’t stop the hot tears brimming over in the corners of her eyes. Deep shame welled in her gut and she cursed under her breath. He couldn’t have been worth that to her. He couldn’t.

“Enough talk,” Bobo said firmly. Any trace of softness was gone when he squared his shoulders and loosed his hands to hang at his sides. “Finish it.”

Even through the blur of whatever lonely, sad thing in her chest made her feel a lick of remorse for the man at the end of her gun, Nicole steeled herself and spat out through clenched teeth, “Start running.”

Bobo tensed minutely and moved to turn his head and look at her, but she shoved the muzzle hard against his head again. “ Start running ,” she growled. “Run past that fence line and don’t look back. You keep goin’ until you can’t go no more and you don’t come back.” She echoed the words he’d used to try and put her in the ground with, but with less satisfaction than she thought she might’ve got from it. “You start runnin’, Bobo, because I can’t shoot a man this close.”

He only stood frozen a minute more and it felt like everything in the world fell quiet. Even the grass didn’t whisper against itself in the time it took for Bobo to take the first step forward. Three slow steps turned into a dozen at a trot and then a limping run toward the fence line. When he’d nearly reached the fence, Nicole took a more firm stance, training on the center of his back with both hands steady on the strange weight of Dolls’ weapon.

When Bobo reached the property line, his head swiveled like he meant to look back. Nicole cracked a shot off far to the right of him and he turned back toward the great wide nothing in front of him. As he passed the fence line, Nicole’s finger tickled the trigger – a perfect shot. Center mass.

Justice.

Nicole growled and tried to squeeze it, but-

Her hands wanted to shake so bad.

She couldn’t-

“Damnit!” She cursed, letting the pistol fall to her side as she watched Bobo get swallowed up by darkness. “Fuckin’ – shit,” she said quietly, scrubbing angrily at her eyes and turning away from where he’d been lost from view.

Wynonna offered only a long, long sigh and a small disbelieving shake of her head. But she said nothin’ else on it.

 

+++

 

Nicole was lucky that Wynonna even gave her time to put pants on before damn near shoving her out the door and into Nicole’s truck. As much as Nicole was eager to get to the hospital, she weren’t eager to show up wrapped in nothin’ but a blanket. It could very well have been frowned upon. But in her defense, she was still bleedin’ bad and could feel the stitch in her lung where it’d barely been staunched by her shift. She needed a doctor too.

So Nicole didn’t fight it when Wynonna escorted her firmly to the passenger seat and took violent control of her truck. Wynonna drove like the world was a demolition derby and she was tryin’ to win. Nicole gripped the handle above her door and suffered in silence as each jostle sent agony through her. At the very least, they were probably ‘bout to get to the hospital faster than the speed of sound.

“You let him go,” Wynonna muttered, distracted as she flew past one of only four traffic lights about ten seconds after it had turned red. Nicole thought maybe she’d lost her heart out her ass somewhere back in the intersection.

“Huh?”

“You let him go.”

Nicole swallowed. “Guess so.”

“Hm.”

Nicole shot her an irritated look. “Well if you got somethin’ to say, than say it.”

“I said it was your call and I meant it,” Wynonna said, shaking her head. “I was just surprised.”

Nicole couldn’t stand the way Wynonna was staring at her, dissecting her. She also couldn’t stand how her driving became exponentially more terrifying when her eyes weren’t on the road. Nicole turned to look out the window. “I didn’t do it for him, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“No?” Wynonna sounded interested more than judgemental but the questions still grated on her frayed nerves.

Nicole tried hard not to growl when she responded. “I can only give so much of myself up to what I am before I can’t come back from it. I only get half the chances everyone else gets,” she said quietly. “Because half of me is already too far gone.”

“Well, all I’m sayin’ is I would’ve gotten it if you’d shot him dead. He would’ve deserved it.”

“Yeah.” Nicole watched fence posts fly past so fast they looked like one steady line. “But I didn’t. I’m carryin’ enough.”

And Wynonna didn’t seem to have anything more to say on that. But as they pulled into the hospital, parking pointedly right in the entrance pull-around like they owned the goddamn place, Wynonna turned to her.

“I swear this is the last awful thing today, but you gotta know something before you go in there.” Wynonna killed the engine and shot her an apologetic look. “The last thing Waverly was awake for was us seein’ you get shot dead in the fields behind the house. So, uh, she thinks you’re dead, probably. Uh, well, definitely. She’ll definitely think you’re pretty dead.”

Nicole smiled wryly. “Great.”

 

+++

 

Things didn’t quite go her way when they go to the hospital. Wynonna got away fine, but nurses swarmed Nicole with the rage of a thousand burning suns, demanding she get treatment. It weren’t even that bad - Nicole had only been shot like, four times. Or whatever. And she weren’t dyin’ no more, but they wouldn’t hear it. She was basically kidnapped while Wynonna tried to call reassurances after her.

“Don’t fight it, Nicole. I’ll bust you out, I swear it!” She heard right before a woman who looked shockingly like Julia Childs stuck a sedative in her arm. When she fought through it, trying to tear a little monitor off her chest, another one was shot into her ass. Nicole was pretty sure nurses weren’t supposed to do that no more, but she could’ve forgiven it if they hadn’t looked so damn smug about it.

Nicole felt her world shrinking to a pinprick of darkness, losing herself to an underwater current of nothingness when she growled weakly. “Don’t make me eat you. I’m…”

Then nothing.

 

+++



Chapter Text

 

+++

 

“But you will recognize my face when god’s awful grace

Strips me of my jacket and my vest

And reveals all the treasure in my chest.”

- Joe Pug, Hymn #101 (2008)

 

 

+++

 

When she woke up, it was like crawling her way out from under a car that’d run her over. And then maybe backed up a few times to make sure she was dead.

Jokes on that asshole.

Nicole groaned and tried to flop over but hissed at the burn in her arm. Her eyelids wouldn’t work properly, but she managed to throw one of her arms at the other and root around for the irritant. When her fingers found tubes in the crook of her elbow, she yanked until the IV popped out.

“Uh oh,” she murmured. Weren’t supposed to do that, probably.

Nicole tried her eyelids again, but every time she opened her eyes, they’d roll back too quick to see much. She tried taking stock of her body, starting down at her toes, up to her knees and her hips and out into her fingers. Each nerve woke up slowly and Nicole felt like she was falling back into her body. Finally, she could focus her eyes on the stark hospital room without sinking back into darkness.

“Ugh,” she said intelligibly. It took what felt like a century to come back to herself and when she did, she spotted Dolls asleep in a chair in the corner. Even in sleep, his posture was good and he looked ready to jump to action. Was it too much to ask to see the man drooling or maybe even just hunched a little? Nicole sighed.

“Oi!” Wynonna came into the room and threw a paper bag in Dolls’ face. “I told you to watch her!”

Nicole sighed harder.

Dolls didn’t catch the bag very neatly, but he did manage to block it from smacking him in the face, which was a little disappointing. He didn’t offer a response to Wynonna’s chastisement, dedicating his attention to the muffin in the bag with a single-minded focus.

“She woke up and you missed it,” Wynonna grumbled. “What’s up, fido. How’s your horribly mangled body doing?”

“Fantastic,” Nicole said not fantasticaly. She stared longingly at Dolls while he ravaged his food. “Do I get a muffin?”

“No,” Wynonna said as she blew on her paper cup of hospital coffee. “You can’t eat anymore. You have to eat through a tube the rest of your life. Didn’t they tell you?”

“What?”

“Also your legs are gone. And you’re gonna taste colors the rest of your life.”

Dolls rolled his eyes and Nicole blew out a small sigh of relief. She weren’t no sucker, but she surreptitiously reached down and patted at her not-amputated legs. Her stomach started growling again something awful, and she tried not to leer too lustfully at Dolls’ breakfast. “I’m starving.”

“Here,” Wynonna said, holding out a plastic bag with a cheap green bow taped on the front. “Got you some stuff.”

Nicole grabbed the bag, hoping for food, but was let down by the weird assortment of garbage in it. “What’s this?” She asked, rummaging around inside. Her hands passed over a box set of ‘The L Word’ season 2, a handful of cheap caribines the tags still attached, a screwdriver, a box of drywall nails, a shitty baseball hat embroidered with ‘ #1 grandpa’ , and a plaid kitchen towel.

Wynonna pulled a chair over that made a horrible noise against the linoleum and dropped down into it. “I don’t know: lesbian stuff. I was feeling thoughtful.”

Nicole gave her a wry smile. “Gee thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” she said cheerfully, taking a long sip of her coffee. “You were so out of it, dude. You threatened to eat the nurses like four times. Which is a hilarious double entendre and I plan to use it in the future. Don’t bother asking, the copyright is already in the mail. You snooze you lose.”

“Awesome.”

Nicole watched warily while Wynonna reached out and stole the control connected to her bed. When she started pushing random buttons and Nicole’s feet began to ascend uncomfortably, she couldn’t even gather the energy to complain.“The nurses also think I shot you with a souped-up BB-gun a bunch of times,” Wynonna explained, distracted while she pressed a button that pushed an alarming amount of lumbar support into Nicole’s spine. “Your gunshot wounds were like, partially healed, which was a really difficult thing to explain, I’ll have you know. I covered for you big time. I had to sit through a lecture about-”

“Wynonna,” Nicole interrupted, leaning forward when her feet finally got lowered back to their original position. “Where’s Waverly?”

Wynonna took another long, uncomfortable sip of her coffee and stared out the window above Nicole’s head. “Uh, she’s...fine. I’ve been sitting with her the whole time.”

“Is she close by?” Nicole asked. She tried staring a hole in the door, but alas, the results were inconclusive.

Wynonna narrowed her eyes at her. “You tell me. Don’t girls get weird lesbian superpowers when they fall in love?”

“They do,” Nicole confirmed, moving to get up. Everything was a little sore and she could feel the uncomfortable stretch of new stitches, but it didn’t matter. “Take me to her.”

Wynonna stood up, hands reached out like she was gonna hold her down. “Woah there, cowboy. Are you sure you should be getting up? I’m no doctor, but I did bang a med school student and I’ve been told these things transmit sexually.”

“I’m fine, take me to her,” Nicole said through her teeth while she pulled electrodes off her body and moved to pull her pants on from where they’d been folded on the side table. Wynonna watched her get out of bed nervously, but didn’t try to stop her. “Wynonna, c’mon. Take me to her.”

“Uh, yeah. Alright,” she said, shooting a worried look at Dolls. “But, uh - she hasn’t been awake very much and she’s on heavy pain meds. I haven’t really gotten the opportunity to...tell her.” Wynonna winced at herself and peeled away at the rim of her cup. “She still doesn’t really know you’re...not dead.”

When Nicole shot her a dark look, Wynonna threw her hands up in defense. “Okay, but listen, I have a really good reason I didn’t tell her.” She took a deep breath and spread her hands plaintively. “I didn’t want to.”

“Dude!”

“She’s barely been coherent, Nicole! And besides, this one’s on you. I’m not the one who wanted to be a big badass and went outside to get shot to death. You dug this hole for yourself. I’m not climbing in so you can use me as a ladder.”

That was...fair. Nicole’s anger bled out of her in one long sigh until her shoulders slumped wearily. “You’re right,” she said, putting one hand on the doorframe to support her weak knees. “I’m sorry. Please just take me to her. I need to see her.”

Wynonna took her in over the lip of her coffee, appraising her a few moments and then nodded. “Alright, come with me.”



+++

 

The walk wasn’t so long down the stuffy hallways to Waverly’s room. It wasn’t so long that Nicole needed to lean on Wynonna or pause to brace a hand on her shoulder. It weren’t. She might’ve done it a few times, but she was just bein’ safe was all.

She was fine.

“No you’re not,” Wynonna soured when Nicole pushed off from her shoulder for the third time to take the last few steps toward room 1214.

Well, she could’ve been more fine. But Wynonna was just being difficult.

She hit the doorframe and sagged into it, catching her breath and still dizzy from what they’d been giving her. Wynonna stood back, one arm casually hovering near Nicole’s lower back like she thought maybe Nicole couldn’t feel her back there - caring .

Oh, she’d never hear the end of it.

“I’m okay,” she said, stumbling toward Waverly’s bedside while Wynonna made some strangled noise of distress in the back of her throat. There was already a chair pulled up beside the bed, surrounded by empty coffee cups and cafeteria wrappers as evidence of Wynonna’s vigil. Several of the cups scattered as Nicole’s feet hurried to plant her there and take up the watch. It wasn’t until she was collapsed in the chair, winded from only a hundred or so steps that her brain was able to focus on Waverly at all.

“Waverly,” she said breathlessly, grabbing for Waverly’s limp hand on the bedside. She didn’t actually look too terrible. Her face was less pale than Nicole remembered it looking as she closed that front door to face Bobo alone. She’d looked like death then - colorless like new snow and just as cold. But her hand held warmth and her cheeks had some color and there weren’t nothing in the world compared to that kind of relief. The only sign of her injury was the thick bandages around the leg suspended a few inches off the bed. But her mouth was twisted up in the corner of her mouth and she looked less than peaceful. Despite the IV in her arm, Nicole could tell Waverly was sleeping through some awful pain.

She brought Waverly’s hand carefully to her lips and pressed against her knuckles. She couldn’t even find no words to say to her.

So they sat there quietly listening to the thrum of the heating vents and the quiet pulse reading on the monitor. Wynonna didn’t come into the room any further than the entryway, like she was unable to figure out where she was supposed to cast anchor. Nicole weren’t too sure either, because she ain’t ever felt so unmoored.

When Waverly’s hand twitched and her fingers tightened in Nicole’s, she felt her bleeding heart give a little hiccup.

“Waverly?” She said again, because apparently that was the only damn thing she could say.

Waverly stirred and fixed her with a groggy look. “Hm,” she said as her eyes perused Nicole’s face...drunkenly. “ Howdy .”

Nicole gave her a confused smile. “Hey darlin’.”

“Who,” Waverly pointed her free hand vaguely at Nicole’s face, “are you?”

Nicole frowned, leaning in closer. “It’s me, Waves. It’s Nicole.”

“Ah,” Waverly’s smile turned wry. “That can’t be right. My, hmm, Nicole. My Nicole is…” her smile was almost sweet when she patted her hand against Nicole’s cheek.  “Dead.”

“No I’m not!” Nicole protested, making a failed attempt to trap Waverly’s hand against her cheek. “I’m right here! I survived Bobo’s shots by shifting even though it weren’t a full moon and then I came back and kicked his ass.”

“I see,” Waverly nodded thoughtfully. “So I’m dead too, am I?”

“No, Waves! You’re not - you’re not dead .”

“You’re doing great,” Wynonna contributed helpfully.

“I love you,” Waverly slurred. To Nicole’s great horror, tears started rolling down Waverly’s cheeks. She leaned across to hush her and wipe them away while Waverly just watched her. “ Loved you,” she amended. “Did I tell you that enough?”

“All the damn time,” Nicole rushed out as she frantically tried to quell Waverly’s distress. “There weren’t ever a minute I didn’t know that.”

Waverly nodded and scrubbed a hand across her eyes. “Good. Because now you’re really, really dead. Like - very dead . And you know what the stupid part is?” Nicole was too afraid to ask, but Waverly pushed on. “You’ve already been mostly shot to death before. Who exactly does this happen to twice ? I tried so hard, but you get shot so much.”

“Well, to be fair, I fell off the same roof twice too.”

“You did do that,” Waverly sniffled, patting at her face again. “You were as beautiful as you were tragic. And - I’m sorry, you were a big idiot sometimes.”

“I’m a big idiot,” Nicole agreed.

“No,” Waverly said, choking up. “You were great.”

“Oh boy,” Wynonna sighed.

Nicole couldn’t help but agree. “Darlin’ it’s me. I’m here and I’m alive and you’re in the hospital. And no offense, but you’re pretty high right now.”

Waverly’s eyes narrowed, studying Nicole through the warped glass of some dreadful cocktail of opioids. Her head fell to the side like she was trying to shake the right answer out of her ear. She hummed quietly and reached out again for Nicole’s hand, fumbling as she turned it over in her own and studied her palm. The audible ticking of the clock on the wall closed in on them while Waverly took her time. Nicole had started thinking Waverly had forgotten entirely what was going on when she looked up and nodded.

“Oh,” she finally said, nodding sagely. She turned to look at where Wynonna was lurking. “You were right, this is my tragic girlfriend. She’s not dead.”

“Is she going to be?” Wynonna asked hopefully.

Nicole shot a glare in her direction but was pulled back to the matter at hand when Waverly yawned loudly. As Waverly settled again, Nicole pulled the blanket higher up her body and smiled at her. Waverly gave her a sleepy smile. “I’m going to kill you when I wake up,” she said dreamily.

Wynonna spit her coffee across the room and it hit the back of Nicole’s head.

 

+++

 

The next few times Waverly woke up were slowly, progressively less absurd. By about the fourth time, Nicole really felt as though Waverly was in the same plane of existence as her. And there was the added benefit of Wynonna being away on a trip to the homestead to get clothes and other necessities to last them until Waverly was released from the hospital. And feed the chickens and ducks, of course.

Nicole startled from the magazine she was reading about open-concept kitchens when she heard Waverly groan quietly and shift in her bed. The nurses had warned that they were weaning her off of heavier medication so she’d be less...high.

“Ugh,” Waverly said, rolling over to blink at Nicole’s hopeful face. “It feels like someone tried to tear my leg off,” she grumbled.

Nicole smiled sadly. “Well…”

“Right.” Despite Nicole’s fretting, Waverly waved her off and hauled herself back to sit upright against her pillow. The only concession she’d make was letting Nicole put a few extra pillows behind her and arrange them carefully. “My brain feels like death.”

“I’m sorry,” Nicole said sincerely.

Waverly shrugged. “Yeah. Well, I guess it gets worse from here, huh?” She adjusted her leg as best as she could, gritting her teeth the whole time.

“What do you mean?” Nicole handed Waverly the water glass she was straining for and earned a grateful smile.

She took her time with it, drinking slowly like there was anything worth savoring about tap water. When she spoke it was careful, as though she thought maybe it was gonna upset Nicole terribly. “He...bit me. You know? Doesn’t that mean that I’m gonna-” She swallowed again and winced like it had hurt. “I’m gonna be…”

Nicole’s heart flopped into her stomach, but she nodded through the feeling. “I’m so sorry,” she choked out in a failed attempt to sound positive. “I’m so, so sorry.” Her head fell forward onto their joined hands and she stayed there because she couldn’t figure out what else to do. “This was my fault.”

Waverly’s other hand came up rest on top of Nicole’s head. “What? Baby, this isn’t your fault,” she said kindly. “None of this was anyone’s fault.”

“It was Bobo’s fault,” Nicole grumbled.

“Okay, it was mostly his fault.”

Nicole groaned. “I let him go , Waves. I had him right there and I - I should’ve shot him in the head.”

“That’s so sweet.” Waverly twirled her fingers into a lock of Nicole’s hair and tugged gently on it. Her voice was careful when she pressed on. “Why did you let him go? Wynonna said you looked like you were gonna kill him. I wouldn’t have blamed you if you did.”

Nicole rubbed her forehead against their joined hands, chewing over her answer. It weren’t something that she’d had ample opportunity to digest. Even if she had, she weren’t so sure she wanted to. “I just -” she swallowed hard. “I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know why.”

Waverly hummed and stroked along her temple. She wasn’t pushing or nothin’ but Nicole knew it weren’t a good enough answer.

“I think somewhere inside me there’s still some part of that little kid who looked up to him. He weren’t nothin to me like Nedley is - not by a long shot. He was only ever aloof - spent a lot of time telling me he could’ve had me killed a thousand times over. And it ain’t like he ever trusted me or helped me feel like I could belong somewhere but-”

Nicole swallowed hard, flashing back to a night when she was barely fourteen, sitting at the little fold-out table in Bobo’s RV with a bunch of hokey old scrolls rolled out in front of the two of them. He’d been cross with her for falling asleep during one of his blustering accounts of somethin’ grand in their ancestry. When he’d demanded to know why she wasn’t paying closer attention, she’d told him none of it mattered to her because she weren’t ever gonna be one of them. Nobody in that trailer park would even spit in her direction. She ain’t ever really thought about it, but he’d said back:

“You may not be their concern, but you are mine.”

And then he’d walked her home four miles because her bike tire was blown out.

Nicole shook her head slowly. “I don’t know what Bobo deserves,” she admitted. “But I couldn’t pretend that he weren’t nothin’ to me.”

Waverly hummed again and Nicole could feel the small tugs of a few strands of hair at the back of her head being braided looseley. “Then I’m glad you didn’t have to do that,” Waverly said quietly. “Who can really say what a person deserves.”

“I know you ain’t deserved this ,” Nicole said bitterly. “I’d give just about anything to change what happened to you. Change what’s going to happen to you.”

Waverly let out a small laugh while she loosened the braid in the back of Nicole’s hair that she’d just finished. “Always you think the worst of what you are, Nicole Haught. And always I will defend it.”

“You don’t know what it’s like,” Nicole said through the stopper in her throat that’d bobbed up so quick it nearly choked her. “I’m at peace with what I’ve had to live with, but you’re in for more than you can ever imagine. When you shift in a few weeks, your life is gonna get so much harder.”

“Then it gets harder,” Waverly dismissed. “I may not fully know what you’ve gone through, but I know you. And I know that whatever happens, I have a shot of getting through it with the same heart I have now. No turning back. It’s done. So we move forward.”

Nicole sniffed hard and took slow, even breaths until the burning behind her eyes and the rock in her throat shrank away. She got ahold of herself and slowed her mind to the pace of the quiet monitors and the barely-there sound of Waverly’s fingers twisting in the locks of her hair. “You’re right.” She smiled sadly and sat up to look at her. “As usual.”

Waverly smiled back and turned to look out the nearby window. “But you were right about that rain coming. That’s got to count for something.”

Nicole took a look out the window, where heavy spouts of gutter water were running off a chink in the piping and pooling down in a waterfall past their view. Past that, the hospital courtyard was rapidly flooding in little duckponds of rainwater in the areas that nobody ever storm-drained properly. The clouds relaxed their stubborn hold on the floods they’d kept at bay all across the front blowing in hundreds of miles from the east coast, across the entirety of their neighboring states just to reach that little patch of nothing in the place god was only ever kinda watching. The rain came harder and Nicole learned how to forgive. They moved forward.

 

+++



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.”

 

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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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