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find a home, lonely heart

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The sun is high and her thighs are weakened by the long ride when Nicole finally drops boots on Purgatory dirt.

 

It’s small, is the first thing she thinks, and it’s hot.

 

It’s damn hot.

 

She takes her wide-brimmed hat from her head, wiping the sweat from her brow on her tanned forearm, before she replaces it and takes a look across the street surrounding her.

 

It’s quaint, Nicole thinks. Small, but not so small that they don’t need another lawman, hence Nicole’s uplift from the last town.

 

She bites her lip as she squints from one side of the Main Street to the other, a few curious eyes following her as she leads her horse over to a stall to tether her while she takes a look around.

 

“You must be new in town,” a young woman says as she walks to greet Nicole. She’s pretty; dark hair and a confident walk. “I’m the Sheriff's daughter. Well, the new Sheriff.”

 

There’s something slightly regretful in the way she says new Sheriff that settles uneasily against Nicole’s skin, but she doesn’t push and ask.

 

There’ll be time for that later.

 

“Nicole Haught, ma’am,” Nicole says as she removes her hat and inclines her head. “I’ll be the new Deputy Sheriff, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”

 

“You’re the new Deputy?” the young woman asks, surprised. “Well, I’ll be.”

 

“I know some folks might have a problem with it, but I promise you I’m just as capable of having your Daddy’s back as any man,” Nicole says seriously, bracing herself to deliver her defence, but to her surprise, she doesn’t need it.

 

“I don’t doubt it,” the girl says with a kind smile on her face. “You strike me as very capable, Miss Haught, but even if you weren’t, you’ll still be a damn improvement on the law in this town that isn’t my father.”

 

“Why, thank you, Miss….” Nicole trails off, waiting for her new acquaintance to fill the space with her name.

 

“Nedley,” the young woman finishes as she reaches out her hand for Nicole to shake. “Chrissy Nedley.”

 

“So, your father must be….”

 

“Randy Nedley,” Chrissy replies as she nods. “That’s him. I can take you to meet him now, if you’d like?”

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to bother him just now,” Nicole says as she looks up to the sun. “It must be about noon. I’m sure he’s off stealin’ a bit of quiet in the shade somewhere.”

 

“Asleep, more like,” Chrissy replies with an eye-roll. “He won’t mind, though. Truth be told, I think he’s been a bit excited since he got the post with your acceptance in it.”

 

“I confess the same myself,” Nicole says with a smile as she ducks her head, and Chrissy smiles at the genuineness in her gesture. “I mean, I’ve heard good things about your father. I’m lookin’ forward to working with someone like him. A decent man.”

 

“He seems like a stubborn asshole at first, but he’ll soften up,” Chrissy offers with a wink. “I promise. Now, you want me to show you around, or….”

 

“I’ll introduce myself to your old man soon, and I need to find a place to stay, but I’m wonderin’ if you might be able to point me in the direction of your watering hole?” Nicole asks as her thirst takes prime place in her head. “I’m so damn parched.”

 

“Oh, of course you are,” Chrissy answers, admonishing herself. “Good Lord, what was I thinkin’. Now, the Saloon Bar is where the locals go, but if you’re wanting something a little more….refined….the young lady who runs the local apothecary serves drinks for those wanting an atmosphere with a little less swearin’ and fighting, if you need a break from that during your day.”

 

“How’d a young lady find herself running a little business here?” Nicole inquires politely as they begin to walk across the street. “Is it a family business, or….”

 

“Not exactly,” Chrissy says with a frown. “The store was in the family, but….listen, Miss Haught, there are a few things you’ll fast learn around this town, and truth is, I’d rather you hear them from someone who’s not taken by drink or hate.”

 

“Such as?” Nicole asks curiously as she falls into an easy step with young Miss Nedley.

 

“Well, there are families that run towns like this, right?” Chrissy says carefully. “Your old town like that?”

 

“Yeah,” Nicole replies cynically. “Just like that.”

 

“Well, this one's no different, although there’s been a bit of a shift over who’s in charge here in the last few years,” Chrissy says, and Nicole can tell how delicately she’s choosing her words. “Our old Sheriff, he was a drunk and a bastard, but people respected him for the most part. His family’s been here for decades, by the name of Earp.”

 

“Earp?” Nicole asks, tasting the flavour of the word on her tongue.

 

“Earp,” Chrissy confirms before she continues. “Now, Ward was a piece of work, but he and his wife had three little girls. Their mother left shortly after the youngest - she’s my age - was born, leaving him to raise the three of them. He didn’t do much raisin’, left that up to the oldest sister, and they did okay until a few years ago.”

 

“When he….” Nicole asks delicately.

 

“Yeah,” Chrissy says a little solemnly. “When he died. Now, I don’t know if Daddy wrote to you and told you what happened when you offered to take the job, and I can guarantee you’ll hear thirty different histories of the Earps before the day is done, but Daddy’s version is what really happened.”

 

“He told me that there was an accident,” Nicole says carefully as they near a store with a window lined with sparkling glass bottles. “That the local gang came for him in the middle of the night, and their sister was killed, along with the Sheriff.”

 

“Did he tell you about the middle sister?” Chrissy asks with a sad frown on her brow.

 

“That she picked up the Sheriff’s gun to protect the smallest one, and….” Nicole answers slowly, hoping Chrissy will finish the line so she doesn’t have to.

 

“Shot her father by accident,” Chrissy says gently. “Yeah, that’s it. Her oldest sister was killed in the skirmish, too, poor thing. Thank god Daddy arrived with back up, he was the Deputy then you see, before anything else happened or anyone else got hurt, but the damage was done by then.”

 

“What happened to them?” Nicole asks, her voice keen. “The two girls?”

 

“Wynonna,” Chrissy says with a regret-heavy sigh. “She’s the oldest now. She hasn’t had it easy since. A few people wanted to have her locked up for what happened with her daddy, but I think that’s manure, if you’ll excuse the expression. She was a child when it happened, and the way Daddy tells it, they would have made away with the youngest if Wynonna hadn’t stepped in.”

 

“They didn’t, though?” Nicole questions, taking her hat off to survey the rows of bottles as she listens to Chrissy beginning to round her story off.

 

“They didn’t,” Chrissy says with a smile. “They backed the hell off when they saw kid Wynonna staring them down the barrel of Ward’s gun.”

 

“What happened to her?” Nicole asks, interested. “If they didn’t throw her in jail?”

 

“She had to grow up with the stigma of killin’ her own father, trying to help raise her kid sister when she was barely older than a kid herself. They went to live with a friend of the family’s for a while, until Wynonna grew up enough to shift them back home.”

 

“Jeez,” Nicole appraises as she processes the story in her head. “What do you make of her... Wynonna, did you say it was?”

 

“The town hates her,” Chrissy answers with a frown before her face changes and she looks to Nicole with a smile. “But I think she’s a hero. She’s got more than a few demons herself, but her sister’s a gem, the whole town loves her, surname or no, and that ain’t due to no one but Wynonna herself.”

 

“What’s she like?” Nicole asks as she looks over the top of the bottles and catches a flash; a passing glance of a gaze that stops her heart for a second.

 

Of the most beautiful girl she’s ever seen in her whole damn life.

 

“The younger sister?” Chrissy replies with a grin, not missing the way Nicole watches the young woman on the other side of the glass window with a slightly starry expression. “You’re about to meet her. Go find that out for yourself.”



-



“Waverly Earp, I have the pleasure of introducin’ Daddy’s new deputy,” Chrissy says by way of a greeting as she drags a slightly shellshocked Nicole into the shop behind her.

 

It’s beautiful, the small narrow shop. Immaculately clean with rows and rows of bottles containing liquids and herbs Nicole only recognises the names for half of.

 

It’s white, but not clinically so; it’s warm, welcoming, and it smells like a scent Nicole will eventually come to associate with home.

 

One end of the long room has what looks like Waverly’s medicinal offerings, with herbs of various assortments hanging from the ceiling, while the other appears home to a small bar, one or two people currently sitting, nursing something that looks liquid and delicious and cold .  

 

“Hi,” Waverly says kindly, wiping her hands on her apron before she turns to Nicole with a smile that puts the sun to shame. “Waverly Earp. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Deputy….”

 

She’s wearing a soft white dress with a laced corset over the top, sensible but not demure looking, and to Nicole’s eyes, an absolute vision. Her arms are bare, and her skin is deeply tanned, and her hair is pulled into a loose tie on the top of her head, several runaway strands falling around her eyes.

 

She holds her hand out for Nicole to take, just like Chrissy had only a few moments ago, but there’s something so significantly different about this gesture to the one before, even if Nicole can’t put her thumb on it now.

 

Or later this afternoon.

 

Or this evening.

 

Or the several that follow.

 

Nicole does a double take, pausing with her hand halfway to Waverly’s, a blank look passing over her face, but it’s not out of place, because Waverly does, too.

 

And it’s not in a way where she’s pausing, watching Nicole, too. When she looks at Nicole, properly looks at her, she’s just as lost in the sight of Nicole as Nicole is of her.

 

“Haught,” Nicole breathes as Waverly’s hand closes the distance and slides into her own, warm and perfect. “Nicole Haught.”

 

“Nicole,” Waverly answers a little vaguely, like she’s trying to recall a memory to go with Nicole’s name, and the feeling of her hand in Waverly’s own.

 

A memory or a dream or a premonition, even.

 

“That’s a beautiful name,” Waverly says a little distractedly, like she’s trying desperately to reconcile whatever she’s currently feeling with some type of reason. “I feel as though I’ve heard it before. Have you ever come to town previously?”

 

“No ma’am,” Nicole says with a blush as Waverly’s hand holds against her own.

 

“Are you sure?” Waverly asks again, her face lined in a frown as she concentrates. “I feel like….no, that’s ridiculous. You’d remember if you’d been to Purgatory before, of course you would. I must be going mad.”

 

“You feel like what?” Nicole questions curiously as her thumb strokes over Waverly’s palm softly. So subtly Waverly could forgive it as a twitch if she wanted to.

 

“No, it’s silly,” Waverly says as she shakes her head, dismissing the idea.

 

“I don’t think anythin’ you say is going to be silly,” Nicole replies, smooth without meaning to be, but the compliment is enough to get Waverly to look at Nicole again clearly.

 

“It’s only….” Waverly says shyly, pausing as she tries to align her words. “I feel like we’ve met before. I feel like I know you.”

 

Nicole’s heart skips, and then swoops, and then rises as Waverly looks at her, because they haven’t met before, she knows they haven’t, because she would remember someone like Waverly Earp, but that doesn’t stop the feeling that while they haven’t met before, she still feels like she knows Waverly, too.

 

She feels familiar.

 

And she smells like home .

 

“Maybe you dreamed of her,” Chrissy offers with a smirk as she looks between the two of them. “I’ve heard of things like that happening before. I mean, you’ve got a hell of an inventory here, Waverly. It must affect you, bein’ around this stuff all day?”

 

“I must have,” Waverly says a little airily still, her eyes moving over Nicole’s face like she’s trying to jog a memory.

 

Finally, her eyes fall back to Nicole’s, and at the sight of Nicole’s slightly smitten smile, Waverly beams .

 

Which, of course, is the perfect time for a cocky, entitlement-driven distraction to walk through the door in front of them.

 

“Afternoon, darlin’,” a young man with a too-white smile and a too-shiny gun on his hip says to Waverly as he completely ignores both Nicole and Chrissy to lean against the high countertop.

 

Waverly gives Nicole’s hand one last brief squeeze before she drops it gently to address their Johnny-come-lately.

 

She’s not sure what pisses her off more: his arrogant swagger, the way he says darlin’, the fact that he made Waverly drop her hand, or the idea that sun-perfect Waverly Earp might be otherwise spoken for.

 

By this asshole.

 

Her heart climbs up into the base of her throat and her hands tighten around the leather of her belt as she waits for Waverly to return the endearment, or not.

 

“Hi, Champ,” Waverly answers politely, but neutrally, as she looks down to busy herself with something behind the counter, an action she hadn’t bothered with for Nicole and Chrissy.

 

“Oh, that’s cold,” Champ replies as he smirks heavily. “You don’t got anything warmer for your future husband?”

 

Nicole’s heart drops, through the floor and into a shallow grave, before Waverly scowls heavily and turns to look at Champ.

 

“Champ,” Waverly says, sighing like she’s more than fed up, which makes Nicole’s heart ease a little, before Chrissy snorts and talks over them both.

 

“I didn’t know you’d resorted to kidnapping in order to get a girl to marry you, Champ,” Chrissy offers sarcastically, and he throws her a dark look as Waverly laughs softly.

 

“I’ll wear you down for second date one of these days,” he says, winking at Waverly before he leans back like he thinks the job is done.

 

“Yeah, ‘cause wearin’ a girl down is such a nice way to start a relationship,” Nicole sighs with an eye-roll, catching Waverly’s smile at her defense.

 

“Who the hell are you?” Champ asks roughly as he turns to Nicole, taking stock of her for the first time. He gives her the once-over, frowning slightly when he absorbs the gun at her hip and her decidedly non-feminine clothing.

 

“That’s your new Deputy Sheriff, Champ Hardy,” Waverly says sternly at his tone of disrespect. “Mind your damn manners.”

 

“Nedley hired a lady deputy?” Champ asks incredulously. “God, he must be desperate. I guess that’s what happens when the old one was-”

 

“I bet she could kick your ass with her hands tied behind her back,” Chrissy cuts over him firmly, closing off whatever insult he was about to send the way of Waverly’s father. “You’d do better to offer her more respect, Champ Hardy.”

 

“Whatever,” Champ says dismissively. “When she’s got a badge, I’ll listen. Until then…”

 

“What do you want, Champ?” Waverly questions, her growing impatience becoming clearer and clearer.

 

“I want a second date,” he repeats, completely oblivious to Waverly’s clear discomfort. “I managed to get you on a first, even if you didn’t…”

 

“Hey,” Nicole says crossly. “If you’re about to say what I think you are, keep your damn thoughts to yourself.”

 

He narrows his eyes at Nicole then, turning to properly appraise her. His gaze moves slowly up and down the length of Nicole’s body, taking in her clothes - well made, but not representative of what women wear in this time at all - her height, the bend and confidence of her own frame, before something flashes across his eyes.

 

Understanding, she thinks with a cold jolt. He can tell I’m interested.

 

“I don’t think it’s your place to comment on what Miss Earp and I did or didn’t do,” Champ says with a cocky smirk as he straightens up to his full height, taking a step towards Nicole.

 

“It is when the only thing that happened on a date that I only agreed on in order to get you to leave me alone was that you forced a kiss on me when you walked me home,” Waverly replies in a smooth, forced calm, her jaw clenched with her frustration.

 

And Nicole wants to hit him right here, in Waverly’s beautiful little store, this instant, for his disgustingly disrespectful tone, but she doesn’t, because she knows it isn’t what Waverly would want. It would only reduce her to as much of a thug as he is an asshole, and that is not the first impression she wants to leave Waverly with.

 

“There you have it,” Chrissy says finally as she glares at Champ. “Now move on, would you? We were having a lovely time without you.”

 

“Guess I’ll just come back tomorrow, then,” Champ replies with a cold smile. “You’ll say yes one of these days.”

 

“Don’t hold your breath,” Waverly answers with a heavy sigh.

 

He pushes away from the countertop before he stands back to look at the three women.

 

“Ma’am,” he says as he tips his hat to Waverly and Chrissy. He doesn’t extend the farewell to Nicole, opting to throw her a sickly demeaning smile instead before he turns with a flourish and leaves.

 

“God makes ‘em all, doesn’t he?” Chrissy offers with a heavy sigh once he’s finally gone. “That boy is exhausting .”

 

“Absolutely exhausting,” Waverly says as she breathes deeply, almost appearing to savour the air, fresher for his absence.

 

“Does he do that every day?” Nicole asks, a little disbelieving as she watches the weight lift off Waverly’s shoulders.

 

“Every day,” Waverly replies, sounding beyond tired at Champ’s perseverance.

 

“And you’re not…” Nicole tries to ask politely, wanting to confirm what she thinks she knows based on that little peacock display: that Waverly’s not involved with him. That there isn’t an interest there that might otherwise make her unavailable for…

 

For what, Nicole isn’t sure, because she knows who she is, she knows what she likes, but she knows that is so far from being openly accepted, especially in a small town like Purgatory.

 

And even if Waverly is available, so to speak, there’s absolutely no guarantee that she would even entertain being courted by a woman, although there’s something in the softness of her gaze, and the way that she almost looks at Nicole like maybe this is what she’s been waiting for her whole life, she just didn’t know it, that gives Nicole hope .

 

“Interested?” Waverly asks cynically as she raises an eyebrow to Nicole. “Not at all. Never have been. I really only said yes because he said he’d leave me alone if I did. Which he hasn’t.”

 

“I can probably do something about that, if you like,” Nicole offers, and there’s kind of a double depth or interpretation as to how she can do that.

 

Because she can tell him to back off, rough him up a bit and tell him to stay the hell away because Waverly isn’t interested, or she can give him a different reason to back the hell off.

 

She can tell him to stand down because Waverly is spoken for.

 

By her.

 

“Really?” Waverly asks hopefully as her eyes light up. “I mean, I’d love that. He drives half of my afternoon customers away every day, and he drives me sideways, but…you don’t have to. I mean, you’re new to town. Aren’t you supposed to figure out if I’m worth the trouble?”

 

“Even if he wasn’t a general menace, I already know you’d be worth the trouble,” Nicole says smoothly, sending Waverly her brightest grin so Waverly isn’t left with a scrap of doubt as to what Nicole means.

 

She can vaguely see Chrissy out of the corner of her eye, smiling kindly at their interaction with a slightly knowing expression on her face, and Nicole almost can’t believe her luck at having a potential ally and friend so easily in a town as small as this.

 

“You’re very sweet, Officer Haught,” Waverly replies around a soft blush. “If you managed to give me even a few days’ reprieve, I’d be mighty thankful. More cold drink than you could stomach, any time of the day. Speaking of which, god, you must be thirsty as anything.”

 

Nicole can see her shaking her head at her own thoughtlessness, not that Nicole thinks that it is for a second, before she floats down to the bar end, reappearing a few seconds later with two chilled bottles that make Nicole salivate at the sight.

 

“On the house,” Waverly says, grinning broadly as she slides the glass bottle in front of Nicole.

 

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Nicole replies as she shakes her head and reaches into her pocket for something to pay Waverly with, trying not to glare too hungrily at the cool drink.

 

“I insist. It’s the least I can do,” Waverly says quietly as Chrissy moves away a few steps to give them a moment to themselves. “I know you don’t know yet, or maybe you do, but we don’t have a hell of a lot of people jumping the gun to stand up for us, my sister and I. It’s…”

 

She trails off softly before she bites her lip, adorably, worrying a few strands of her hair with both hands before she stops fussing. She lays both hands palm down on the bar before she looks up to Nicole with an expression that makes Nicole’s chest ache .

 

“Truth be told, I don’t know what it is,” Waverly says with a sense of melancholy that Nicole senses - almost knows for a certainty, such is the weight of its grip around Waverly’s neck - has been there her whole life.

 

She looks to Nicole again, clearly, easily, before she smiles at her and Nicole feels the weight shift .

 

“It’s been so long since it happened, I can’t remember what it’s like.”



-



“So that’s Waverly Earp, huh?” Nicole asks with a heavily distracted note to her voice as she and Chrissy leave Waverly’s shop.

 

“That’s Waverly Earp.” Chrissy nods in confirmation.

 

“She’s…” Nicole tries to start, but she has absolutely no idea how she’s going to finish.

 

Because she’s only known Waverly Earp for a little over an hour now, but she feels like her life has changed swiftly on its axis, creating a line in the dirt.

 

Years before meeting Waverly Earp, and years after.

 

She doesn’t know Waverly, not yet, not beyond the fact that her smile looks like it could bring someone back from the dead, and her hands smell like herbs and rain, and her eyes are kind, when she thinks you deserve them to be so.

 

“She’s a special girl,” Chrissy says with a slightly knowing smile, completely lost on Nicole, who's still wrapped up in the thought of Waverly and her delicate, but purposeful hands.

 

“She certainly seems so,” Nicole replies as she turns to take one last look at Waverly with her hands flat on the countertop.

 

She’s not expecting Waverly to be watching her still, but she is, seemingly as intrigued by Nicole as Nicole is by her.

 

Nicole raises her hand, giving Waverly a small, shy gesture of goodbye, which Waverly returns with an equally shy movement and a brilliantly controlled smile, like she was trying to keep the fact that she was happy contained, or a secret from others watching.

 

“Not very many people give her a chance once they hear about her sister and her father,” Chrissy says sadly. “It says a lot about your character that you’re willing to, Miss Haught.”

 

“Lord, it’s not even her sister’s fault, let alone hers,” Nicole says as she shakes her head and attempts to comprehend how anyone in the whole entire world could not want to give Waverly Earp everything they could, let alone the decency of not blaming her for her sister’s, or father’s, sins.

 

“You and I know that, but a lot of these small-minded folk don’t think the same as you and me,” Chrissy replies, sighing heavily. “It means a great deal, to think Waverly might have someone else in her corner. Lord knows she needs it.”

 

“It’s the least I can do,” Nicole says with a frown as she looks from Waverly’s shop around the Main Street. “People are really that simple thinking?”

 

“I’m afraid so, Deputy,” Chrissy answers regretfully. “Welcome to Purgatory, where the sins of your parents are your own.”

 

“Terrific,” Nicole says balefully. “Well, at least I can keep that Champ character from harassing the poor girl every day.”

 

“That might be a harder task than you’re anticipating,” Chrissy returns wryly. “He’s had his eye on that girl for years now.”

 

“Yeah, well, I’m not terribly fond of the way he looks at her,” Nicole says with a narrowed eye as she watches Champ disappear into what she assumes to be the main watering hole. “It’s….”

 

“Predatory?” Chrissy offers, finishing Nicole’s sentence. “Yeah, I know. Daddy does, too. I think that’s why he sends me on errands that take me past the shop most days.”

 

“I’m glad she’s got someone else lookin’ after her,” Nicole says as she turns and looks at Chrissy. “You’re a pleasant surprise, Miss Nedley. I’ll count my lucky stars later that I had the good fortune to bump into you first.”

 

“As are you, Deputy,” Chrissy returns, blushing a little. “I knew a woman prepared to take on a job like yours was bound to be different, but you’re alright by me, too.”

 

They walk a little way back to check on Nicole’s horse, a beautiful, deeply brown mare, nickering it’s pleasure in seeing Nicole come towards it.

 

“Daddy should be about at the jail now, if you want me to take you to see him,” Chrissy says as she holds her hand out for the horse to sniff before she runs her hands down its neck. “And then I can take you to where he’s organised a room for you, and you can unpack and get yourself settled.”

 

“Only if you haven’t got somewhere else to be?” Nicole answers gratefully. “But I’m sure I’ll find my way if you do. This town ain’t so big that I won’t find it eventually, but I’d be thankful for the company.”

 

“I’ve got an engagement shortly, but I’ve got more than enough time to show you to him first,” Chrissy says with a smile, giving the horse one last stroke before she steps away. “And then perhaps I could show you to your accommodation on my way there?”

 

“Sounds sublime,” Nicole replies, returning Chrissy’s smile. “Now, before we meet him, tell me everything I need to know about your father.”



-



The walk to the jail doesn’t take them very long, it’s only at the opposite end of the Main Street, but Nicole is thankful for the opportunity to step out of the sun by the time they get there.

 

Nedley is stern, but Nicole can sense a kind side to him, even as he leads her gruffly around the jail. It’s reasonably sized, which Nicole was expecting given the relative size of the town, and it’s well-kempt, which, if Nicole’s honest, she wasn’t expecting.

 

Nedley obviously takes pride in the place, and pride in his ranks, and Nicole’s heart lifts a little at the prospect of working for someone like this.

 

He waves them both off, telling Nicole to familiarise herself with the town today, not to worry about coming back in, and that he’ll see her in the morning.

 

She hears his voice travel quietly to one of the other men in the jail as they leave, and she’s pleasantly surprised not to hear a joke or jape, but genuine relief in his voice.

 

“It true she managed to run that gang out of town in her last posting?” one of the men asks Nedley, his voice laced with disbelief.

 

“Sure as I’m standing here in front of you,” Nedley says with a hint of pride, as though he was impressed with his own recruitment of her. “Old Sheriff couldn’t praise her highly enough. Damn near begged me not to take her so she’d stay with him, actually.”

 

“But, she’s a woman,” one of the others says, still unsure.

 

“And what?” the first man replies. “I bet you a drink she’d knock your ass in the dirt before you could do as much as land a blow.”

 

“She’ll do,” is the last thing she hears from Nedley before they’re too far to hear him clearly. “Yep, she'll do.”



-



“Tell me more about Waverly’s sister,” Nicole says as they walk back from the jail. “Wynonna, you said her name was? What’s she like?”

 

“She’s a harder nut to crack than Waverly, that’s for sure,” Chrissy says a little cynically. “I don’t blame the girl, though, not after what she’s been through.”

 

“Is she…” Nicole trails off, not quite sure how to verbalise what she wants to ask.

 

Is she a danger, is she a risk, is she a wet stick of dynamite ready to blow?

 

“She’s a product of her history, Deputy,” Chrissy answers carefully. “She’s certainly no rosebud like Waverly is, but there’s good in her, I know there is. I’ve seen it in the way she acts around her sister. The lengths she goes to in order to make sure Waverly never wants for nothin’, that she hears as little of the poison this town spits about her family as possible.”

 

“Does she come into the town often?” Nicole asks, trying to gauge whether or not she’ll have the opportunity to meet her soon.

 

“Often enough,” Chrissy says back. “You’re bound to meet her in a few days. She calls in to see Waverly most days.”

 

“They don’t live together?” Nicole questions, trying to put as much behind the portrait she’s building of Waverly in her mind. “She and her sister?”

 

“Sometimes,” Chrissy offers with a frown. “Wynonna lives on the homestead, where everything…happened. I don’t think Waverly is awful fond of the place, even with her sister there. The shop has a small room above it, but it’s more than enough for her. I think she prefers to stay there when she can? She spent a good part of her childhood with Gus and Curtis, when Wynonna was…away for a little while, too. Although, she does spend a great deal of time out there with Wynonna now. I think she just prefers not to stay…”

 

“I don’t blame her,” Nicole says with a sympathetic sigh as they round the entrance to the place Nicole appears to be lodging.

 

“Trouble is,” Chrissy replies sadly, placing her hand on the rail of the stairs. “Most of this town does.”




-




“I know it’s nothin’ flashy, but hopefully it’ll be enough for you to make yourself comfortable in,” Chrissy says as she shows Nicole around her accommodation.

 

“It’s more than enough,” Nicole says thankfully, dropping the haversack containing her few belongings onto the decently sized bed. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a bed that wasn’t a cot. This is like heaven.”

 

Her room, larger than some of the small shack-excuses for houses she’s lived in, is one of half a dozen that make up a modest Inn, which sits nestled among the Main Street shops. The Inn belongs to Gus and Curtis McCready, who, Nicole has come to learn, are the family friends that took Waverly and Wynonna in and cared for them both. Waverly, especially, when Wynonna left town after the accident with her family.

 

The Inn opens from the street to a front desk, normally manned by Gus or Curtis themselves, that leads around to their private office, as well as the dining room, and, behind that, the kitchen. A stairwell on the bottom floor leads up to the second level, which is comprised entirely of private rooms, the entrance to Nicole’s at the end of a long hallway. It won’t be as easy to hide her comings and goings if she needs to leave during unusual hours, but it’s a damn sight better than sleeping under the stars in the cold.

 

“Daddy didn’t mention it, but he’s organised the charge of the lodging. You can talk to him about that tomorrow if you want to. He’s also arranged with Gus to make sure the room comes with a few meals a day. You’ll have to go down and fetch them, but the food’ll be hot, waiting there for you. You’re the only one with a key, too, other than Gus, for your own piece of mind,” Chrissy says as she walks around the room, making sure everything’s in order.

 

“That’s very kind of him,” Nicole answers with a smile as she walks over to the window, looking out and down onto the Main Street.

 

“I think he’s doing everything he can to keep you here, now that he’s got you,” Chrissy replies with a smile of her own. “Not an idiot, that man, no matter what some think of him.”

 

“Well, I appreciate the effort he’s gone through in order to organise this,” Nicole offers as she walks over to Chrissy to say farewell. “It’s a heck of a lot more than I was expectin’, if I’m honest. I was prepared to sleep rough for a few nights until I found somewhere with a roof over it. This is incredible.”

 

“I’m happy it’s to your liking,” Chrissy says fondly. “I’ll be sure to let Daddy know it wasn’t enough to scare you out of town. Nor your introduction to a few fellow citizens.”

 

“More than,” Nicole says. “And they’ll have to do better than Champ Hardy to send me packin’.”

 

“Pleased to hear it. I have to take my leave, unfortunately,” Chrissy says as she opens the small silver pocket watch at her waist. “But you’re okay here?”

 

“More than,” Nicole replies again with a thankful nod of her head. “I’m sorry to have kept you.”

 

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” Chrissy insists, swatting the insinuation away. “Truly, it’s a pleasure, Deputy. You’ve got the directions to our house if you need anything? You can probably convince one of the young boys to run out there if somethin’ comes up, but don’t want to come all that way.”

 

“I’m sure I’ll be just fine,” Nicole says easily, walking Chrissy to the door. “Thank you again for your kindness and the history lesson, Miss Nedley. It means more than I can say.”

 

“Any time,” Chrissy answers with a wink. “Oh, and Miss Haught? If you find yourself needin’ company at all, you know Waverly Earp lives across the way, above her shop.”

 

“She does?” Nicole asks, suddenly even more appreciative of the location of the Inn. “I must have lost my bearings. I thought it was further down the way.”

 

“Nope,” Chrissy says with a smile. “I’m sure she’d be more than happy to admit you if you find yourself adrift at all. If you can see a candlelight across the way, that means she’s there. The door to the room goes through the shop, although there’s another entrance on the backside of the building. Just knock and give her a holler, and she’ll come down.”

 

“I think I’ll wait and ask her permission before I appear on her doorstep after dark,” Nicole laughs softly. “Although, I appreciate your trust in lettin’ me know.”

 

Chrissy lingers overlong for a moment, and Nicole can tell she wants to ask something, and she’s pretty certain she knows what it is, although she’s not going to put her boot in it, just in case, so she starts with an indirect question.

 

“There something else you wanted to ask, Miss Nedley?” Nicole inquires gently. “By all means, do. I’d hate to keep you any longer if you have someplace to be…”

 

“I do…” Chrissy says slowly. “But…”

 

“You don’t want to offend me?” Nicole asks with a slightly amused voice. “I promise you won’t, I’ve got pretty tough skin. Go ahead.”

 

“Are you…” Chrissy starts before she trails off again. “I mean, before I ask, I want you to know it’s perfectly okay if you are - more than okay, actually - I think we could use a bit of diversity in this town, and….”

 

“Miss Nedley,” Nicole says softly, cutting off her rambling.

 

“Sorry,” Chrissy replies as her cheeks break out in a blush. “You don’t even need to answer if you don’t feel comfortable, or it’s not something you like to discuss, and I won’t tell a soul, if you do…..”

 

She twists her hands, and Nicole has to do her level best not to laugh, because she doesn’t want to offend her, not at all, but it’s hard not to when she’s caught in this much turmoil trying to ask one simple question.

 

“Are you….” Chrissy attempts again, and the determined look on her brow tells Nicole she’s going to get this out, come hell or high water this time. “Do you prefer the company of woman? As opposed to men, I mean. Are you….?”

 

“I am,” Nicole says a little nervously. Because she’s long since made peace with who she is, but others struggle to make that leap sometimes, and more often than not, her preferences, when revealed, lead to open hostility at worst, and avoidance at best. “I mean, I do. Is that….”

 

“It’s okay,” Chrissy says eagerly. “More than, in fact. I mean I’m not, but it’s fine. More than fine, I mean. Boy, I’m doing a terrible job of trying to ease your mind, huh?”

 

“It’s okay,” Nicole replies as her face flushes red. “You’re doing just fine. It’s not something I yell from the rooftops, but I don’t hide it. I don’t believe I should, come to that. I’m not embarrassed of who I am. Even if there are those that think I should be.”

 

“Well, I certainly don’t think you should be embarrassed. In fact, some days I can see the appeal. Especially when the alternative is Champ Hardy,” Chrissy says, smiling, and Nicole has the distinct impression that there’s something else she wants to say, because her smile keeps getting wider.

 

“Miss Haught?” Chrissy asks finally, and Nicole can’t help the curious turn of her brow when she responds.

 

“Miss Nedley?” Nicole returns a little formally, because she really doesn’t know what’s about to come out of Chrissy’s mouth.

 

“I wasn’t the one that told you this, alright?” Chrissy says as her gaze drops to her hands and she plays with the ring around one of her fingers. “Because I don’t even know if I’m right, but I think I am, I really do….”

 

“Chrissy,” Nicole says softly, at which she looks up to meet Nicole’s gaze. “The anticipation is boiling me alive.”

 

She doesn’t hurry over the final part of her sentence, though, and Nicole wonders what on earth it could be that it’s making her squirm like this, but that she’s not hurrying to clarify.

 

“Waverly Earp,” Chrissy offers finally as she looks to Nicole, and her expression is that of someone who’s just given her a key to the biggest treasure trove this side of heaven.

 

“I think that, maybe, she’s the same.”



-



She knows it doesn’t do to get her hopes up, really, she does know this, but it’s the hardest thing in the world not to.

 

Because Waverly Earp, who Nicole fell for the second she saw her, might be…like her.

 

She’s had her share of hopeless crushes, and a couple that turned out to be not so hopeless, and she’s felt deeply for girls before, but not like this.

 

Never so fast, either.

 

Because she’s barely known Waverly for a full day, and already she knows she’d stand in front of a cannon for her.

 

And maybe, just maybe, there’s the hope that, given time, Waverly might feel the same.



-



It’s late afternoon when Chrissy leaves Nicole to her own thoughts, far too early to settle in for the evening, so Nicole spends a little time rearranging the few small belongings she has in her new accommodation before she sets out back into the relative bustle of the Main Street.

 

She has a few things she wants to do before she does retire back to her room, and checking up on her horse is top of that list.

 

She’s served Nicole exceptionally well the last few years, as a companion and a partner, and Nicole’s not bothered to admit she’s more than a little fond of the animal.

 

Chrissy had led her and her horse to the livery stable down on one of the ends of the Main Street, almost on the edge of the town line, earlier in the day during their walk to the station, so it’s with ease that she follows their footsteps back to her friend.

 

The horse is more than a little pleased to see her, snorting and tail whipping as Nicole makes her way to the large stall that holds her.

 

“Hi, girl,” Nicole says soothingly as she runs her palm from the animal’s forehead down to its muzzle. “You missed me, huh? I missed you, too.”

 

“Fine animal you got there,” the woman who runs the stable says -- Mattie, Nicole remembers; Mattie -- as she walks towards them both.

 

“I won’t argue with you there,” Nicole replies, turning to greet Mattie. “She’s lovely, alright.”

 

“Well behaved,” Mattie says, walking into the stall with the horse, running her hand down the length of the animal before she encourages each of its hooves up off the ground so she can check on its shoes. “And well cared for, too. Shame there aren’t more like you, Deputy. What’s her name?”

 

“Lady Jane,” Nicole says with a light blush as she catches Mattie’s eye. “But I call her Lady, mostly. That’s what she seems to like the best.”

 

“You look like a Lady Jane, don’t you?” Mattie asks the horse, walking around the animal's body with plenty of room to spare, given the larger stall size.

 

“Thank you for having her here while Miss Nedley walked me around town,” Nicole says gratefully. “I wonder whether you might have a place for her on a more permanent basis? I’m not sure how long I’ll be here, but I’ve certainly got plans to stay for a while.”

 

“We’re pretty occupied,” Mattie says, gesturing around to the other stalls, which are all completely full. “But I’ll always make a place for a beautiful beast like this.”

 

They organise a modest weekly rate, and Mattie assures Nicole that she can come for Lady, day or night, so Nicole leaves a time later, both relieved and pleased to have found such a suitable lodging for her horse.

 

The street is quieter when Nicole makes her way back through town. Almost every person she walks past stops and stares at the newcomer, and she does her best to shoot a smile every which way, stopping to introduce herself to a few people she guesses are of significance in the small town.

 

She ducks her head into the saloon for a drink, shaking the hand of Robert Simons, Shorty to the locals, talking a while about the general atmosphere of the town before Nicole takes her leave of them, too.

 

It’s almost dusk by the time she makes her way back past Waverly’s shop, the sun dangerously low in the sky. Most of the other storefronts have already shut for the evening, Waverly’s one of the last with an open door.

 

The pink and purple light from the setting sun catches and holds in the numerous bottles in the front window, and Nicole moves towards the door with the intention of stealing one last glance of Waverly Earp before she turns in.

 

Waverly’s not by herself, though, she’s accompanied by a thin, stern looking woman whose face softens when she looks at Waverly’s, but hardens when she sees Nicole coming.

 

“Deputy,” Waverly says with a wide smile as Nicole walks in the door, removing her hat. “I was hopin’ you’d call by on your way past at some stage. I want to introduce you to someone.”

 

“I hope it’s not an inconvenience to call on you,” Nicole says apologetically. “I just wanted to make sure our friend hadn’t caused you any grief this afternoon.”

 

“Not a sign of him,” Waverly beams at her. “I was just tellin’ Gus here. Forgive me, Deputy Haught, this is my Aunt Gus.”

 

“Aunt is a loose term,” Gus says with a wry smile. “I’m a friend of Waverly’s family.”

 

“Nicole Haught,” Nicole replies genially, her mind spinning as she places Gus within all the small pockets of Waverly’s life that Chrissy had explained. Caregiver, pseudo-parent, Inn owner.

 

Nicole holds her hand out for Gus to shake. “It’s a pleasure, ma’am.”

 

“Friend of the family makes you sound like a casual acquaintance,” Waverly grumbles a little, her face turning in a frown that Nicole almost falters over because it’s that lovely. “You’re my family, too.”

 

“Of course I am, Waverly,” Gus replies as she pats Waverly’s hand on the countertop. “And no need to ma’am me, I’m certainly not a lady. It’s good to meet you, Deputy. Waverly here was just telling me all about you.”

 

“She was?” Nicole asks, a little surprised, looking to Waverly with a smile as she shakes Gus’s hand before dropping it.

 

“All good things, I promise,” Waverly says with a wink that makes Nicole’s stomach drop. “I was tellin’ Gus about your offer to throw Champ outside on his ass.”

 

“Oh, gladly ,” Nicole says as she moves in the shop a little more so she can lean against the counter next to Gus.

 

“That makes two of us, darlin’,” Gus growls under her breath. “We’ve been trying to bat that boy away from Waverly for years. He just don’t seem to understand what no means.”

 

“He might have a better idea once I’m done with him,” Nicole says back in a similar tone.

 

She looks up, conscious of how much she’s giving away regarding how keen she is to keep Waverly from him - safe from him, she corrects herself - and she’s prepared for a frown on Gus’s forehead if she puts two and two together.

 

Which, judging by the look of keen interest on her face, she might have, but there’s no accompanying frown, only a look of careful consideration.

 

“Thank you for preparing the lodging for me,” Nicole says in an attempt to steer the subject into slightly easier territory. “The room was a very welcome surprise, and a pleasant reprieve from sleepin’ rough.”

 

“No problem,” Gus replies, continuing to watch Nicole carefully, and Nicole thinks she knows what Gus is doing. She’s trying to get the measure of her. She’s trying to establish Nicole’s character. “Everything to your satisfaction? Young Miss Nedley told you about the meals, you’ll have to come and collect them, but they’ll be there for you if you want ‘em.”

 

“She did,” Nicole says gratefully. “I understand Nedley’s covered the cost from my wages, but just let me know if there’s anything else you’re needing, alright?”

 

“That’s very kind of you, but there’s nothin’ else for you to worry about, Deputy,” Gus replies with a hint of respect in her tone. “Besides, if you can keep that hound away from our Waverly, I’ll have to start payin’ you.”

 

“It’s no job,” Nicole offers as she looks to Waverly, and the shorter girl blushes a little beneath the attention. “None at all. My pleasure, in fact.”

 

“I’m sure it is,” Gus says carefully, looking between the two of them, and Nicole herself blushes lightly beneath the scrutiny.

 

“Anyway, where are my damn manners,” Nicole says as she scoops her hat off the counter. “I’m terribly sorry to have interrupted you both. Thank you again, ma’am.”

 

She hazards as long a look at Waverly as she thinks she can get away with given Gus’ careful eye on them both, and doesn’t miss the way Waverly’s face seems to fall, just a fraction, when she announces her departure.

 

“You’re not a bother,” Waverly says quickly. “Not at all, right Gus?”

 

“‘Course not, Deputy,” Gus replies, and Nicole looks for a hint of sarcasm, but to Nicole’s surprise, there’s nothing there. “Although, Miss Haught probably has a few other things to see to before she retires for the evening.”

 

“Of course,” Waverly says, shaking her head. “Of course you do, first day in town and all. I’m sorry, Nicole. Haught , Deputy Haught, I mean.”

 

“Nicole is just fine, Waverly,” Nicole says, laughing softly as she tries to suppress the grin at Waverly’s flustered ramble. “And I should be turnin’ in, I’m afraid. I’d hate to miss my first meal.”

 

Nicole is holding back as much as she can, expression-wise, eager not to give too much away too soon, but Waverly has no compunction to do the same, no effort whatsoever going into schooling the slightly disappointed expression on her face.

 

“Tomorrow, though,” Nicole offers in an attempt to make her smile again. Curious to see whether it will work. “I’ll call on you on my way to the jail in the morning. If that’s okay?”

 

“Of course,” Waverly replies excitedly. “Of course, that would be wonderful.”

 

“Only if I’m not…” Nicole offers, giving Waverly an out if she doesn’t want Nicole to swing by, if she’s reading the flutter she can almost see move across Waverly’s skin incorrectly.

 

“You’re not,” Waverly says with an eager smile. “I mean, I’d love for you to call on me. To call by, I mean. Darn, I….”

 

“I know what you mean, Waverly,” Nicole returns softly and without thinking she reaches across the counter for Waverly’s hand.

 

She’s closer than Nicole thought she was, having inched without conscious thought towards Nicole and away slightly from Gus, so she makes contact with Waverly’s skin sooner than she’s expecting.

 

It’s a touch, it’s one small tiny touch, but it stops Nicole’s heart all the same.

 

It’s a touch, but it’s more than a touch, too, because their skin meets, and suddenly, Nicole feels like she’s found something very, very old. Something buried in her blood her entire life.

 

And it’s risen at Waverly Earp’s call.

 

Waverly looks down at their hands, and Nicole’s not sure what’s happening in Waverly’s head, but it’s something akin to what’s happening in her own, if the glassy look in her eyes is anything to go by.

 

Waverly looks down at their hands, and then up to Nicole, her expression shifting, and for an instant, Nicole’s worried that she’s read this all wrong, so she goes to shift her hand away, but Waverly’s on top of her own stops her.

 

“Till the morning?” Waverly asks Nicole with a quiet intensity that makes Nicole feel like there’s no one in the world but the two of them, no Gus next to them, or a single other soul in this whole town.

 

Just them.

 

There’s something behind her eyes that Nicole hasn’t seen in a very long time, too, and it makes her heart skip heavily as she tries to remind herself how to breathe.

 

Hope, she thinks. It’s hope.

 

Gus clears her throat loudly somewhere a million miles away to her left, and it snaps them both out of their trance and back to set their heels on the earth.

 

“‘Til the morning,” Nicole says by way of confirmation, and she hopes the weight in her gaze says something else to Waverly, too.

 

She gives Waverly’s hand a gentle squeeze that Waverly returns with a shy smile before Nicole finally takes her hand back.

 

She doesn’t want to, though. She wants to leave it in the warmth of Waverly’s own. And never, ever take it away.

 

“The morning,” Waverly echoes as she drops her head and nods softly. She looks up, meeting Nicole’s eyes one last time, and the hope blooms louder and brighter in Nicole’s chest.  

 

“Now, young lady,” Gus says, breaking the connection still strung out between the two of them. “Do you need an escort out to the homestead, or…”

 

“I think I’ll stay here tonight,” Waverly replies quickly, looking at Nicole as she does so, and Nicole has the distinct impression that it has something to do with that fact that she might be just across the street. “I mean, there are a few things I want to sort. I had a box of a few pickings come in today that need to be steeped straight away or they’ll ruin, so I’ll just shut the door and work away.”

 

“You’ll be alright?” Gus asks as she eyes Waverly with a maternal look of doubt.

 

“Of course,” Waverly answers easily. “You’re just down the way, like always. And Deputy….Nicole, won’t be far away, either.”

 

“This’ll keep,” Gus says, gesturing to the small parcel of food in a basket she has obviously brought Waverly for her evening meal. “If you want to come and have dinner at the Inn.”

 

“Gus, I’ve been here for how many years now?” Waverly says with a sigh. “Three? Four? I think I’ll be okay for one night.”

 

“I know you’re a damn adult now,” Gus replies with a similar tone in return. “But somethin’ in the air feels off tonight. I’d just feel better if I knew you were safe.”

 

“With that door bolted, I’m safer than in the damn jail,” Waverly says with a wry smile at the door. “Curtis made sure of that when I started sleeping upstairs.”

 

“I know,” Gus returns with a resigned tone in her voice as she gathers herself to leave. “I know you are, kid. Doesn’t stop an old woman from worryin’, though.”

 

“I’ll keep an eye on her, ma’am,” Nicole interjects gently, in the hope that it might ease some of Waverly’s aunt’s concerns. “I mean, I’m only just across the way. I’m sure if Waverly yells loud enough, I’ll hear it from there.”

 

“You’ve got a hell of a set of lungs on you, girl,” Gus says with a laugh as she looks to Waverly fondly. “Alright. But if you feel anything off, you holler at the deputy, okay? And you’ve still got your….”

 

“Under the cot upstairs,” Waverly nods in reply, and Nicole assumes they’re referring to some sort of weapon. “Clean and prime it every night before bed.”

 

“You’re Wynonna’s sister, alright,” Gus sighs finally before she pushes away from the counter. “Alright, ladies. I’ll take my leave of you. Deputy, I know I’ve known you all of a hot minute, but I’m dependin’ on you, alright? Maybe it’s just old age and a cautious mind, but the ground feels heavy tonight. I don’t like it.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole replies seriously, because she knows this isn’t a responsibility given lightly, and it means Gus, in the short meeting they’ve just had, has seen something in Nicole that she’s willing to trust.

 

Or, at the very least, take a chance on.

 

“You can count on me,” Nicole says solemnly as Gus pulls Waverly into a rough hug over the counter before she pushes the door open.

 

“I hope so, Deputy,” Gus returns finally. “I really do.”

 

She’s gone with the gentle chime of the bell on the top of the door, and then, suddenly, Nicole realises the situation they’ve found themselves in.

 

Because she’s alone, with Waverly, for the first time.  And she has no idea what to do now.

 

It’s not that she hasn’t done this before, the being alone with a girl thing, because she has. Not often, and not without a great deal of background work, but she has.

 

Waverly isn’t the first girl to have caught her eye, but she’s the only one that’s managed to reduce Nicole to a soft mess of romantic ideas and dreams in the space of just a few hours.

 

Nicole is pretty sure she could love her, if she doesn’t already.

 

“So,” Waverly says a little coyly as she reaches forward across the counter, not for Nicole’s hands necessarily, more to demonstrate where she’d like them to be. “You really have to go?”

 

“I really kinda do,” Nicole replies regretfully, and she’s already trying to fire through several situations where she can spend the evening here with Waverly, but she knows she needs a good rest.

 

She knows how important her first official day on the job is.

 

“Good Lord, I wish I could stay,” Nicole says, and she hopes that Waverly understands just how much she does want that. “But I’d better be getting back if I want to eat tonight. And I’m worried enough about tomorrow. At least if I’m asleep, I can’t be worryin’ myself sick, can I?”

 

“You know...” Waverly says with a smile before she trails off, distracted.

 

She ducks behind the counter, clearly looking for something, although what, Nicole has no idea. She moves up and down, muttering to herself before she exclaims brightly, and Nicole understands that to mean she has found whatever it was that she was looking for.

 

She holds a tiny glass phial up to Nicole with a blinding smile on her face before she reaches across the counter and presses it into Nicole’s hands.

 

“It’s peppermint oil with a tiny dash of chamomile,” Waverly says with a shy grin as Nicole turns the small object to and fro, watching the way the liquid moves inside. “Nothing untoward, I promise. If you take the top off you’ll be able to smell it.”

 

Nicole’s struck with the thoughtfulness of Waverly’s gesture, and for a moment it’s all she can do just to stare back a little blankly.

 

“It’ll help settle your stomach and ease your nerves,” Waverly offers by way of an explanation. “You don’t have to take it if you don’t want to. Or don’t trust it. I just thought….”

 

“It’s perfect,” Nicole says with a slightly thick throat, because it’s been a long, long time since anyone gave much of a damn about her. “Thank you. You’ll have to let me….”

 

“I’m not taking anything for it,” Waverly says sternly, and Nicole smiles at the steel in her voice, intrigued by it. “Consider your presence tonight, and in the morning if you still feel inclined, payment enough.”

 

“You’re sure?” Nicole offers, even though she knows the answer will be yes.

 

“Absolutely,” Waverly confirms as she nods. “Your money’s no good here, Deputy. Your company is, though.”

 

“Well, I’ve got that in spades,” Nicole says with a quick wink before she casts her eye to the now-setting sun outside. “Waverly, as much as I’d far rather…”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly replies, and she’s calmer now, the disappointment in her voice is quieter. Like she knows Nicole will be back soon, so there’s no need to fret. “Go. I understand.”

 

“Tomorrow morning,” Nicole says with a wide smile, and it’s half a question and half a dream.

 

“Tomorrow morning,” Waverly sighs, blushing as she watches Nicole push off the counter top.

 

“Hey,” Nicole says as she stops with her hand on the door frame. “I’d love to learn more about the shop. And about you, too. Maybe one night I could come sit with you after closin’, and you can tell me a bit more about you.”

 

“Only if I can learn about you, too,” Waverly offers in return. “I’d like that, Miss Haught. I’d really, really like that.”

 

“Only if you’re not sick of the sight of me by then,” Nicole says with a laugh, giving Waverly an out. Because she’s smitten as heck, but it doesn’t matter a lick if Waverly doesn’t want her there.

 

“I don’t think that’ll be possible,” Waverly replies, and for a second Nicole’s heart drops, but then she carries on. “Getting sick of the sight of you. I don’t think that’ll ever be possible.”

 

God, she’s so charming and she doesn’t even know it , Nicole thinks to herself as she watches the completely innocent look on Waverly’s face. How on earth did I get lucky enough to find myself on the same damn patch of dirt as her?

 

“Go, Deputy,” Waverly urges lightly, looking to Nicole with a pleased smile, and Nicole realises that she’s been caught staring. “I won’t have you unpresentable on my account for your first day.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole says as she inclines her head and bows slightly, and Waverly laughs. “Tomorrow?”

 

“Tomorrow,” Waverly replies, and the light in her eyes is brighter than the stars outside.

 

-



Nicole diverts her walk back across the road via the bathhouse to get as clean and presentable as she can possibly manage.

 

She pays the tariff gladly with a little of the money she had been able to save and bring with her from her previous station, and the feeling of the steaming water over her road-tired muscles and dirt-dusty body is worth every coin.

 

It’s hard not to think of Waverly, with her touch still hot on Nicole’s skin, and there’s no harm in daydreaming, Nicole thinks to herself. So she does.

 

She realises that she knows next to nothing about who Waverly actually is. She has a rough idea of her history from a reasonably reliable source, but she doesn’t know who Waverly is just yet. But she’ll learn; she’ll learn everything if Waverly will let her.

 

And actually, she does know a few things, once she thinks about it. She knows that Waverly’s smile lights a room, even with the weight of her family history on her shoulders. She knows that she’s kind to strangers, and to others that don’t necessarily deserve it, like Champ.

 

She knows she’s fought an uphill battle since she was a small girl, and that her strength probably trumps Nicole’s own, tenfold.

 

And she knows she’s the most beautiful girl Nicole has ever laid eyes on.

 

She stays in the cast iron tub until the water is tepid and her skin is wrinkled and every inch of her smells like the salts and softer soaps left beside the bath for her, before finally she drags herself out and dresses to head back to the Inn.

 

The downstairs half of Waverly’s shop is unlit, and the door closed and bolted shut, but there’s a faint glow coming from the upstairs room that makes Nicole’s hands warm.

 

Tomorrow , Nicole thinks to herself. Tomorrow .



-



“You just about missed your evening meal, Deputy,” Gus says with a frown. “Don’t think we’re gonna keep cookin’ at night until you grace us with your presence.”

 

“Oh, no, ma’am, it’s not that at all,” Nicole replies, a little caught off guard. “I didn’t expect you to. I stopped by the baths, and I guess my saddle-sore body needed more soakin’ than I thought. I have a few scraps to eat upstairs. I hadn’t expected dinner to still be served.”

 

“That’s alright, then,” Gus says with a sharp smile, and Nicole knows from her expression it was a test. Just as much as her interaction with Waverly at her shop was.

 

“You won’t ever find me expectin’ special treatment, Gus,” Nicole offers by way of a reassurance and an olive branch, both. “I appreciate it to high heaven, but I’ve been looking after myself for a long time now. Truth of it is, I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone cook me anything proper since I was a child.”

 

She watches as Gus nods, seemingly pleased with her answer, and she’s about to take her leave and make her way into the dining room to see if there’s anything left when Gus’ voice stops her.

 

“You got a favourite?” Gus asks gruffly, but Nicole’s taken aback by the question regardless. “Thing to eat, I mean.”

 

“Uh,” Nicole says a little blankly, and it takes her a moment to actually think , before she blushes shyly. “Anything sweet, to tell you the truth. I’m not fussy, as long as it’ll make your teeth ache.”

 

“Sweet, okay, good,” Gus murmurs to herself as she looks back down at the ledger in front of her, and Nicole considers herself dismissed.

 

She’s a foot away from the next room when Gus speaks again.

 

“Waverly’s a good girl,” Gus says sternly, and Nicole’s beginning to see a pattern with this woman and her tone of voice. “She’s the best of us, in actual fact. You bear that in mind, whatever your intentions are, won’t you?”

 

“Ma’am, I….” Nicole tries to say before Gus cuts her off.

 

“I’m not interested in specifics, Deputy, they’re your business and yours alone,” Gus says seriously, and Nicole straightens her back automatically under Gus’s heavy gaze. “Just whatever you’ve a mind to do, make sure you see it through. And know I’m just as quick with a pistol as half the men in this town if I need to be.”

 

“I know you don’t want specifics, but you need to know that my intentions,” Nicole replies, holding her ground, “aAll of them are honourable, and they’ll be nothin’ short of what Waverly herself wants.”

 

“I’m glad to hear it, Miss Haught,” Gus says, using Nicole’s surname, and not her station, in a slightly softer lilt, and Nicole knows that’s what she was hoping to hear.

 

“I know she’s special,” Nicole admits quietly, and normally she’d be a lot more careful about being so explicit in regards to herself,  but something tells her Gus values truth, so she opens her heart. “I’ve known her a few hours, and I know she’s special. If she’s so generous as to share more of herself with me, I’ll take every single drop, but if not, then the least I can do is keep assholes like Champ at bay to give her the opportunity to pursue what it is she really wants.”

 

“That’s right and proper of you,” Gus says in appreciation, and she doesn’t look up, but Nicole thinks it’s not for a lack or respect for her, but a precaution in Gus not giving herself away.

 

She doesn’t say much, but her words have weight, and they carry Nicole up the stairs and into a different world, that’s how meaningful they are.

 

“You might not know the girl yet, but I do. And I think she already is.”



-



Nicole’s more than a little exhausted by the time she finally lays her head down that night.

 

She had managed to scrape together a small, but filling, dinner from the dining room before retiring upstairs and readying herself for sleep.

 

Her clothes are neatly lined up for the morning. She doesn’t have a uniform, per se, but it’s a uniform in so far as it’s what she normally wears, day in and day out. Draped over the back of the chair at the small writing desk in her room are a pair of woolen trousers, an undershirt, a cotton button-up long sleeved shirt for over that, and a wool vest to top off the upper half of her body. Hanging off the side of the chair is her hat and her holster containing her pistol, with her boots on the floor beneath them.

 

Honestly, Nicole’s expecting sleep to evade her, as busy as her mind and unfamiliar as the territory is, but it doesn’t.

 

The soft smell of the soap and the general lightheadedness from spending so long in the warm water, and a few drops of Waverly’s little mixture in a cup of hot water from the kitchen, carry her swiftly off to sleep.

 

She’s never been a dreamer, her sleep light and broken, or too deep to remember, but the first night in Purgatory, she dreams .

 

Nicole dreams of the late, late afternoon sun, and light flares off of delicate glass bottles, and the prettiest girl she’s ever seen with a gold ring of Nicole’s own on a chain around her neck, nestled against her heart.

 

She dreams of warm hands in her own, and warmer flesh beneath her hands, and when she wakes, hours before dawn, the simple notion of those things, they fill her so heavy with hope that she doesn’t sleep again.



-

Chapter Text

-



Nicole fastens the top button on her waist coat, smoothing the fabric down her stomach and checking her appearance over in the small mirror provided in the room, before she fixes the holster with her pistol and leaves to face the world.

 

She doesn’t get far, though, because she opens her door to the hallway and almost trips over a small bundle just outside her door.

 

She crouches down a little cautiously, unsure what the bundle contains, and is pleasantly surprised to find a handful of what look like molasses cakes.

 

Gus , she thinks warmly as she scoops the bundle up and tucks it into the small satchel at her other hip. Guess she doesn’t think I’m the devil in leather boots then, huh?

 

She doesn’t bother to stop for breakfast, even though she can smell it coming hot and delicious from the kitchen on her way out the door. She’s so damn nervous that she doesn’t think she’ll be able to keep anything down, and she’s still got a little jerky, and now Gus’s cookies, to keep her going for a while.

 

She doesn’t see Gus on the way out, but she nods her head to Curtis on her way past, by way of a greeting before she steps outside.

 

It’s still early, the sun's only just begun to rise, and the air has that crisp pre-dawn smell about it that Nicole fills her lungs with. It’s quiet still, very quiet, in fact there are only one or two people milling around, and before she hazards a glance across the road, she’s concerned for a second that she will have beaten Waverly to rising, but she needn’t have worried.

 

The door to the shop isn’t open, but Nicole can see Waverly through the window anyway, playing with something in her hands that Nicole can’t make out from this distance.

 

She walks across the road with a spring in her step, not paying mind to anything but the brunette who positively beams upon seeing Nicole walk towards her.

 

She ducks under one edge of the counter before moving quickly to the door, unbolting it so she can beckon Nicole inside.

 

“Good morning,” Waverly says to her brightly as she closes the door behind Nicole before scooting back under to take her place on the other side. “I wasn’t sure if you’d remember, or be too busy.”

 

She’s wearing a long brown skirt today, with a crisp white shirt pushed up above her elbows already, and Nicole thinks she looks resplendent.

 

“Good morning to you, too,” Nicole breathes back, soaking in the light pouring off Waverly, that, Nicole can only surmise, has come as a result of her proximity. “Of course I’d remember, how could I forget? I was worried I’d be too early for you.”

 

“I’ve been up for hours,” Waverly admits a little sheepishly, moving to pull a couple of small cups with something delightfully aromatic towards them. It smells different to the brew she’d had last night, a little lighter maybe, with a hint of citrus, but equally soothing. “I didn’t want to miss you.”

 

“Waverly Earp,” Nicole says in a soft playful tone as she watches the blush creep up Waverly’s neck. “Don’t you go wasting sleep on me, okay? If I miss you in the morning, I’ll catch you later on in the day, don’t you worry.”

 

“You mean you’ll call in again?” Waverly asks hopefully. “Tomorrow morning, on your way past?”

 

“I’ll call on you every morning, if you want,” Nicole replies with a hopeful smile of her own. “If I’m not out of line, or a hassle?”

 

“Nicole Haught, you couldn’t be a hassle to me if you tried,” Waverly says softly, and Nicole can tell she means it from the gentle curve of her shoulders as she moves ever so slightly closer to Nicole. “I’d love it, if you would. If it doesn’t put you out?”

 

“Waverly Earp,” Nicole returns in an echo of Waverly, her smile widening. “You couldn’t put me out if you tried. I’d really like that, if that’s okay. You know, make sure your not being bothered or hassled….”

 

Waverly drops her head to hide her blush, but Nicole catches it as it pinkens the tips of her ears, just visible through the way she’s styled her hair today, half up in a bun and half down, long around her shoulders.

 

“Here,” Waverly says as she slides one of the cups towards Nicole in an attempt to direct the subject away from herself. “I made something for us - well, for you - but it’s easier to make enough for two.”

 

Whatever the liquid is, it grows more and more aromatic the closer the cup moves to Nicole, and she’s struck for the first, but definitely not the last time, that it almost has a touch of witchcraft about it, that’s how good it smells, and tastes, Nicole confirms after she has a sip.

 

Which is ridiculous, of course, because she’s sure Waverly Earp is many things, but a witch is not one of them.

 

“What is it?” Nicole asks curiously as she takes the cup carefully between her hands. “Also, you know you don’t have to bribe me through the door with a drink, right? I’ll willingly come without them.”

 

“I know,” Waverly says, her blush deepening. “But I wanted you to have something to start your day well. If you like it, that is. And please don’t feel like you have to drink a drop if you think it’s awful, by the way.”

 

Nicole gives Waverly a look over the top of the cup as she raises it to her mouth that says don’t be ridiculous, before she takes a sip, groaning at the taste when it hits her tongue.

 

“Good lord,” Nicole says, suppressing the urge to drink it all at once. “This is incredible, Waverly. Did you make this off a recipe? What on earth is it?”

 

“No, I just make everything myself,” Waverly shrugs modestly. “This is just something I brew when I get up. There’s a mess of other things, but there’s citrus mainly. I find that gives me a bit of a lift when sleep holds itself outta’ reach. And one of the plants I use for most of the tea has a hint of something that helps, too. Or that’s what I’ve found, anyway.”

 

“You’ve got a heck of a lot of knowledge about this stuff, huh?” Nicole says to Waverly, heartily impressed.

 

“I guess so,” Waverly replies quietly, obviously unused to compliments. “I’ve never really thought about it, I’ve just always played with it, ever since I was young. I used to like watching Gus cook with different herbs when I was small, and it just started from there. They used to order in extra of their cooking supplies to begin with, bought a few books off traveling salesmen, until I started collecting and growing my own cuttings.”

 

“I’d love to hear more about it sometime,” Nicole says genuinely, and the way Waverly lights up at her interest makes her heart skip a beat. “All of it, the plants and you. If you’d…damn it.”

 

“What’s wrong?” Waverly asks, her voice quick and concerned. “Is it too hot? Did it burn…”

 

“No, no, not at all,” Nicole hurries to explain with a frown, looking down at her chest. “I left my damn bandana at the Inn. I probably have time to go and fetch it before I head down-”

 

“Actually,” Waverly says with a slightly pleased, but nervous tone to her voice as she temporarily abandons her cup on the counter to pull something from the pocket of her dress. “I kind of have somethin’ for you.”

 

“You do?” Nicole asks, her blood moving through her wrists with a heavy throb. “What do you…”

 

She’s thankful that Waverly steps forward then, because she’s not actually sure how she would have finished her sentence without her. She’s speechless, because Waverly has something for her.

 

A small token, perhaps?

 

Or her heart?

 

Nicole’s eyes have been on Waverly’s own, but they drop, finally, to the item in her hands, and her heart skips and leaps.

 

“It’s only small,” Waverly says shyly as she hands Nicole the soft scrap of material. “And please don’t feel as though you have to wear it if it’s not…if you don’t…”

 

Nicole’s attention shifts to the token in her hand, a new bandana , she thinks as her pulse races, as if she had known I’d forget my own this morning . She took the time to…

 

“I stitched somethin’ small, it’s only your initials, but I know things like this often get misplaced, and I wanted you to be able to find it if…” Waverly explains as she twists her hands nervously. “But please, don’t feel as though you…”

 

She knows she needs to say something, because she hasn’t yet, but her breath seems to be stuck in her throat or beneath her feet or anywhere but free in her lungs.

 

So she looks to Waverly with an expression that she hopes will convey a small part of what this means to her, how she feels, because Waverly made this for her, for her , and no one in her life has done anything half as kind.  

 

“Did you really make this for me?” Nicole asks, her voice a little bewildered as her thumb moves over the small NH stitched into one corner.

 

“A welcome to Purgatory, gift,” Waverly offers, her smile burning in the light of Nicole’s reaction. “And a small thing to say thank you, for your kindness yesterday. It’s not an insignificant thing, showing your comfort with me even after you know what my last name is. It’s…it means a lot. And I don’t think anybody beyond my sister or Gus or Curtis has stood up for me for as long as I can remember, and you didn’t even know me and you did.”

 

“I knew enough,” Nicole says quietly, running the fabric through her fingers.

 

“How?” Waverly asks curiously as she smiles quietly. “How did you know?”

 

“I just knew,” Nicole says with a shrug, and it’s not a ploy, she’s not being intentionally coy, she doesn’t know why or how, but she just knew .

 

Because Chrissy’s history lesson, that had been important, that told her a lot about the kind of person Waverly Earp was, but seeing her, watching the way her eyes spoke, had told Nicole what she really needed to know.

 

She’s expecting Waverly to ask more, to prompt her for a better explanation, but then their eyes meet again and Nicole knows she doesn’t need one.

 

She knows, too.

 

“Regardless, though, it won’t…it’s okay if you don’t want to wear it,” Waverly says quietly.

 

Nicole doesn’t say anything in reply; she does , instead.

 

Smiling at Waverly, she takes the bandana and starts to tie it easily around her neck. She’s about halfway through the movement when Waverly’s hands move.

 

“Here,” she offers, reaching over the counter towards Nicole. “Let me…”

 

She doesn’t need help, both of them know it, but that makes Waverly’s gesture even more meaningful.

 

Her fingers move warm and delicate over Nicole’s own as she takes the ends of the bandana gently from Nicole’s grip, and neither of them miss the way a shock passes through both of their bodies when they touch.

 

It’s a little awkward, Nicole half leaning towards Waverly with the counter pressing into her side. The whole thing would be a hell of a lot easier if they were standing without a large slab of wood between them.

 

But Waverly’s hands brush the side of her neck over her pulse, and her breath is warm on Nicole’s cheek, so a little discomfort is nothing. It’s nothing at all.

 

“There,” Waverly says after a moment, leaning back a little to survey her handiwork. “I think that looks mighty fine, Deputy.”

 

“You think?” Nicole asks as she looks behind Waverly, trying to catch her reflection off one of the glass cabinet fronts.

 

“Mighty fine,” Waverly replies a little distractedly before she blushes, realising what she’s suggesting with her words. “I mean…”

 

“I think it’s mighty fine, too,” Nicole says, reaching for Waverly’s hand, flat on the counter, in an attempt to calm her. “Thank you, Waverly. I want to say ‘you shouldn’t have’ a million damn times, but I know you won’t listen, so I’ll say thank you instead.”

 

“It was my pleasure, Deputy,” Waverly returns, her blush deepening. “I mean, it was my pleasure, Nicole .”

 

“Much better,” Nicole says with a laugh before she slides her hand back from Waverly’s.

 

They don’t get far, though, no, because Waverly’s hands chase hers as she draws them back towards her own body.

 

They settle warm over Nicole’s, and at first, she doesn’t say anything, as though she didn’t have any other reason to reach for Nicole beyond the fact that her body wanted to, blindly, but then she does.

 

“Good luck for today,” Waverly offers with a sincerity that Nicole can feel flowing into her body where their hands touch. “And whatever happens, if you need a pick-me-up, or a pull-me-down, you could call by on your way past.”

 

“I appreciate it, ma’am,” Nicole says playfully, which Waverly smiles at, and it makes Nicole feel happy , because it’s been a long time since she had this. Since she had someone to laugh with. “And if you’re not blind with the sight of me, I’ll surely call on you. For now, though, as much as I’d rather stay and drink a drum full of whatever you brew, I’m terribly sorry, but….”

 

“Off with you, then,” Waverly replies with a grin, taking her hand away from Nicole’s with as much reluctance as Nicole has in her entire body about leaving.

 

She could stay and trip over a thousand platitudes, but there will be time for that later. If Nicole is lucky, they’ll have days and days and days of it.

 

For now, though, she needs to take her first step at setting her bones down in Purgatory properly. She needs to find her place, to give herself a foothold so that she might stand next to Waverly as an equal here.

 

And, if she’ll have her, as a partner.

 

The bandana is a comfort around her neck as she leaves with a wink and a tip of her hat.

 

And a promise, too.



-



It’s still exceptionally early when she arrives at the jail, but she’s not the first one to relieve the deputy of his night shift, Nedley is.

 

It’s a confirmation of what she’s already beginning to piece together about his character, that he’s here early to send the young man off to bed.

 

That he cares about his men. That this isn’t something to fill his days with, that this means something to him, as it does to Nicole, too.

 

“Haught,” Nedley says, a little surprised at seeing her so early. “Didn’t expect you for a few hours, not after the journey you had gettin’ to us yesterday.”

 

“You know what they say about the early bird,” Nicole replies with a slightly nervous smile, shifting from foot to foot.

 

“Well, it’s fine of you to be here,” he says, sounding a little impressed. “It’s good, will give us a chance to talk before the others get in the way.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Nicole says keenly as she moves to follow him to his desk. He gestures to the seat in front of it, and Nicole takes her place before waiting for him to speak.

 

“I appreciate you takin’ the job, Haught. I know a few people have been put off after what happened to Ward, even given the accident was years ago,” Nedley says gruffly, and his tone sounds nonchalant, but Nicole can hear the genuineness in it, too.

 

“Of course, sir,” Nicole says, nodding. “I know people talk, but the truth of it is, I’ll never let someone else’s opinion make a decision for me.”

 

“I’m glad to hear it,” Nedley replies as he appraises her. “That’ll do you good here. Place sure isn’t short other people’s damn opinions, that’s for sure.”

 

“That was one of the things I was wantin’ to ask you, sir,” Nicole says, gently probing the subject she’s been dying to ask him about since yesterday. “Your daughter’s told me some, but I’d certainly appreciate a bit more history on the town. Know what I’m dealin’ with, that sort of thing.”

 

“How much time you got,” he asks cynically, to which Nicole laughs softly. “Purgatory’s not short of it’s characters, that’s for sure. There are a few trouble makers, but for the most part, they’re a pretty reasonable mob. Except concernin’ a few things.”

 

“Are you meaning the Earps, sir?” Nicole asks inquisitively, and honestly she’s glad he’s given her a foothold to ask, because Chrissy had been great yesterday, but she suspects there were a few things she was holding back that Nedley won’t.

 

“I’m meaning the Earps,” Nedley replies, sighing heavily as he does so. “I know Chrissy told you some yesterday, but I want you to hear the full story from me, alright? There’s enough gossip in this town, the last thing I need is my deputies spreadin’ it further. You understand me?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Nicole says quickly, shaking her head. “I wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”

 

“Good,” Nedley returns with a scowl, although she suspects he already knew she would do nothing of the sort. “Well, I suppose I should start from the beginning. Their father, Ward Earp, and I had known each other for a long time. I was his deputy for a number of years, and a few around here paint him as a bit of a saint to make what Wynonna did worse, but truth is, he was an asshole.”

 

Nicole settles forward into her chair, listening intently as Nedley begins to tell his story.

 

“He had to raise those girls young, and I know that ain’t easy, but a good enough man would have stepped up, rather than leaving the job to them to look after themselves. He was a devil with the drink, and I had the three of them on my doorstep in the middle of the night more than once, trying to escape his anger. He was a good cop, though, I won’t begrudge him that. He put more people away than anyone before him, which made him popular in town, but not so much with one of the local gangs.”

 

“I didn’t see anyone when I was walkin’ through town yesterday, sir,” Nicole says curiously, trying to recall the faces of everyone she saw and met, looking for anyone that might fit that image.

 

“They used to live on the outskirts, but they don’t dare show their faces ‘round here no more,” Nedley growls, and Nicole can hear the anger clear in his voice now. “Not after what they did.”

 

“You mean…” Nicole asks quietly, referring to what she knows of the night Waverly’s father was killed.

 

“They’d been plannin’ it for goddam weeks, and we missed it,” Nedley laments, and Nicole can hear the regret in his voice now, too. “A good deputy would have caught it. Would have kept those damn girls safe, but we all missed it. It was only that I was late returning home from chasing a loose beast that I came across things myself.”

 

And Nicole wants to interject, to tell him that what she knows of his character tells her that there wasn’t anything he could have done, but she knows it won’t make a difference. She knows she won’t be able to assuage his guilt, as deep as it sounds like it goes.

 

“They turned up to the homestead in the middle of the night,” Nedley says quietly. “Stormed the house. Ward and Willa, she was the eldest, they were on the first floor, so they came across the two of them first. Wynonna and Waverly were upstairs, and came down when they heard the shouts. Wynonna, smart kid, went straight for where she knew Ward kept one of his guns. Even if she knew she couldn’t fire it properly, she was smart enough to know it was going to be one hell of a deterrent.”

 

“You’re not wrong there,” Nicole mutters under her breath before she motions for Nedley to continue.

 

“They came into the room and saw Ward and Willa in a corner, surrounded by part of the gang, and Wynonna, brave as a grown man, started demanding they let her family go. They wouldn’t, of course, they just laughed, as the girls recall it. I don’t think they even thought the gun was loaded, but it was. One of the men tried to grab Wynonna, and they struggled, and the gun went off.”

 

Nedley pauses for a moment as he drops his head into his hands, and he looks so pained that Nicole wants to reach for him to offer some small comfort.

 

“One bullet, two casualties, and four lives ruined,” Nedley says with a heavy drop of regret in his tone. “It coulda’ been any night that idiot was there by himself, but they had to wait until the girls were there, too.”

 

“I’m sorry, sir,” Nicole does offer then, and Nedley nods in recognition of her softness.

 

“It could have been worse,” Nedley shrugs as he sits back in his seat. “They could have taken the two younger ones, too, but Wynonna went at them like the devil possessed after they tried to make away with Waverly. I could hear the ruckus from outside, girl’s got a set of lungs on her, I’ll tell you that. I started yelling a warning, and as soon as they heard someone else outside, they were out the back door and gone before I could so much as look in their direction. I could have ridden after them, but I couldn’t leave the girls with that mess. I rode them straight into town to Gus and Curtis, and collected a few men to help me clean up.”

 

“Jesus H,” Nicole breathes as the full story sinks against her chest, and for the first time, she wonders how Waverly has grown into the young woman she appears to be with that much tragedy in her past.

 

“The whole town knew by morning, Lord knows how,” Nedley says derisively. “A few of them wanted to hang Wynonna, can you believe that? A damn child.”

 

The thought makes Nicole feel physically ill, and she watches as Nedley pales at the memory, too.

 

“We damn near had a shootout in Main Street that morning. A few men turned up at the Inn to take Wynonna to the jail, and Gus and Curtis sent them right back out into the street at gunpoint. Someone came hollerin’ for me, and I found them all screaming at each other with the girls tight between Gus and Curtis. I was Ward’s second, so I had the mantle, and managed to yell down the street myself that we were never, and would never, be in the business of killin’ children,” Nedley says roughly before he starts on the tail end of his story.

 

The picture’s so vivid that Nicole can almost see them all in her mind’s eye, Waverly and Wynonna desperately clinging to each other with their grief wet on their cheeks, and the hounds of rage snapping at them as Gus and Curtis stood guard.

 

“I let a shot off at someone’s feet, and they quieted down pretty quick. Everything went dark after that, I took the job permanently, and the girls went to live with Gus and Curtis. They did what they could to shelter the two of ‘em, but the town turned on Wynonna that day, and nothin’ me, nor they, could do seemed to shift that. She stayed until she was old enough to leave, and then she disappeared for a few years, left Waverly here. Folks use that as another nail in her coffin, but I think she did it to protect Waverly. I think she thought if she left, they’d ease off of her, which they did, but not a great deal. They still treat Waverly like it’s her fault, like they did her sister.”

 

“It sounds like a damn tragedy,” Nicole says sadly once she’s sure Nedley is finished talking.  

 

“It is, Haught,” Nedley replies seriously. “It’s a goddamn tragedy. Now, it ain’t your job, but I’ve made it mine to make sure people know what really happened, alright? None of this crap that the girls are taken by the devil, or they’ve got witches’ blood in their veins. Somebody turned up to murder their family, and they made Wynonna do the job for them, instead.”

 

“I’d like to make it mine, too, sir,” Nicole says with an equal note of seriousness. “I know it’s not my job, and I know I barely know them, but I’d like to make it mine, too. And thank you, for takin’ the time to tell me the full story.”

 

“I thought you might,” Nedley answers with the hint of a smile on his lips. “I knew I’d like you, Haught. You’ll do well here, I think. If you’re like I think you are.”

 

She can feel the conversation coming to an end for now, but there’s something she wants to say to Nedley before he dismisses her.

 

“Sir,” Nicole says with a slight thickness in her throat. “I wanted to thank you, too. For takin’ me on. I know most wouldn’t be interested in a woman for this job, and I want you to know, I’ll be as good a deputy as any of the men here. I promise.”

 

“Gender ain’t no guarantee of competence,” Nedley replies with a wry smile as he stands. “You don’t have to do nothin’ stupid to prove yourself to me, Haught. The letter I got from your old Sheriff more or less beggin’ me not to steal you has already done that for you. And so has your attitude since you got here. Don’t let people like Champ Hardy or any other small-minded idiots tell you differently, alright?”

 

“Begging your pardon, sir?” Nicole says gently, curious to know what he means, but not wanting to make it sound like she’s searching for a compliment. “My attitude, what do you…”

 

“Chrissy couldn’t praise you highly enough when I dragged my boots home last night,” Nedley returns by way of clarification. “Now, I know she seems like a sweet girl, but she ain’t stupid. And she’s a better judge of character than most of my men.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole says, dropping her head to hide her blush. “Well, I thought she was wonderful, too, sir. Couldn’t thank my lucky stars enough that she was the one I bumped into first.”

 

“She told me about your defending young Waverly,” Nedley says with a nod. “And about how you reacted to her tellin’ you their history. Truth of it is, it is a damn tragedy. People of this town have made Wynonna a pariah, but she doesn’t deserve that. She might be a right pain in the ass now, but she is what they made her. It’s even worse that they give Waverly the same treatment.”

 

“Why do you think they do, sir?” Nicole asks, genuinely curious, because she’s been thinking about it herself, and can’t, for the life of herself, figure out why.

 

“I’ve got no damn idea, Haught,” Nedley says honestly. “They didn’t even like Ward, half of ‘em. But something turned them on that girl like someone slipped poison in their water.”

 

“Well, I don’t care about makin’ a few heads turn if I have to in order to let everyone know where I stand on the matter,” Nicole affirms as she stands.

 

“Atta-girl,” Nedley says with an approving eye, grinning. “Now, enough chatter, I’ve gotta’ swear you in, and then the others can tell you about how we divide things here. You’ll have a week of nights once a month, and we take turns patrolling and riding out to the farms on the outskirts, makin’ sure everything’s in order.”

 

“Sounds just fine to me, sir,” Nicole nods, acknowledging him, and again, she’s thankful for the structure he seems to have in place here, because her last assignment had been a damn mess compared to this.

 

“Oh, and Haught,” Nedley says, stopping the both of them short. “If you ever have a problem, big or small, with anythin’, I want you to come to me first, okay? I don’t need martyrs here. I want my people to tell me if there’s something worryin’ them.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Nicole confirms quickly. “You’ll be the first to know.”

 

“Good,” he says gruffly, but Nicole can sense that he’s pleased with how their time alone has gone, and that, if anything, she’s only confirmed what he already thought of her for the positive.

 

It helps to ease some of Nicole’s tension, too. Because she had the impression that Nedley was different to the other Sheriffs she’s come across in her time from their previous communication, but she was prepared for a different picture in reality. However, Nedley is, thankfully, by all accounts so far, the same person she thought he was.

 

“Now,” Nedley grumbles as he starts rummaging through his things, taking Nicole out of her head. “Where did I put that damn badge?”

 

He swears Nicole in shortly thereafter. He pins the shiny new deputy badge to her chest, and it’s one of the proudest moments of her entire damn life.

 

“I’m glad you’re here, Haught,” Nedley offers quietly, stepping away from her with his hands on his hips. “I might have taken a leap giving you the job, but you made one takin’ it, too. I won’t forget that in a hurry.”

 

Nicole softens at that, and normally she’s so careful to school her face around the people, the men , in positions of authority around her, but she wants Nedley to see that this means as much to her as she thinks it does to him, too.

 

“Neither will I, sir,” Nicole replies before she clears her throat and changes the subject. “Now, what else do I need to know about this town?”



-



Nedley sends her off on a visibility patrol after he introduces her to his other three deputies, with a handful of what constitutes a case file on the comings and goings of interest to the local law.

 

There’s nothing much of great note, a few long-running disputes between families, a summary of the last gang activity that pertained to Ward Earp’s death, a few strange animal attacks over the last few years, but nothing that makes Nicole overly concerned.

 

It’s sometime in the late afternoon when Nicole makes her way back into town after riding out on patrol with one of the other deputies that she notices one of the shops on the Main Street closed, and it makes her think of one of the comments the other deputies had made earlier about it being shut when they’d been past it in the morning, too.

 

She makes a mental note to ask them about it in the morning, or to call in herself and make sure everything’s alright on the way past, before she turns her eye to the white washboard of Waverly’s storefront.

 

She’s had a reasonably busy first day of duty, so this is the first time she’s been able to shift her attention fully back to Waverly. She’s far enough away that Waverly hasn’t seen her yet, absorbed as she is with the customer, an older woman, that she’s speaking to.

 

She gestures softly, her hands delicate and animated before she pulls something off of the shelf behind her and drops it into a small brown paper bag. Nicole watches as she waves the woman off, refusing to take her money, and the woman leaves slowly, hobbling heavily out the door.

 

Waverly watches the older woman leave, her eyes following her out of the shop before they run up the length of the distance between her and Nicole, and their gazes catch .

 

And Nicole knows she needs to be careful, but it’s immensely difficult to tell her heart not to get carried away when Waverly’s whole frame lifts at seeing her.

 

The soft brown of Waverly’s hair that turns to gold when the sun glances off it prompts Nicole’s memory, and she realises, mentally admonishing herself, that she’d gotten completely distracted in the morning when she realised she’d left her bandana at the Inn, and she’d forgotten to ask Waverly the question she’d been nervously tossing between her palms.

 

She wants to ask Waverly on a date, well a kind of date, as much as they can have a date in a time where they have to be exceedingly careful about how they present to other people. About what their relationship looks like to people watching them.

 

Because, while they might not be stoned in the street if the true nature of their bond, whatever that is destined to be, is found out, their reception won’t be much friendlier.

 

Nicole refuses to believe it’s wrong, though, or unnatural. She refuses. Despite what society seems hell-bent on telling her.

 

Because she’s had soft skin beneath her hands and her mouth, and the way that felt, how right it rung through her body, she knows there’s no way that it could be truly wrong.

 

She knows that there might be a time a long way in the distance where things like this don’t have to be hidden, but she’s not naïve enough to think they don’t have to be practised in what they present. Not if she wants the people of this town to respect her or the badge on her chest.

 

Irrespective of other people’s closed- mindedness, of their hate, Nicole wants to ask Waverly on a date date, and she’s reasonably sure, based on the evidence she’s been presented with so far, that Waverly is interested, but she’s not certain .

 

Nicole knows it’s bold, and she knows it’s risky, and she knows she needs to ask the question carefully, because while it’s important she makes it clear what her purpose is, and where she stands, she doesn’t want Waverly to feel like she’s in any way obliged to agree unless it’s what she wants, too. Or at least it’s what she thinks she wants.

 

Because Nicole will wait, she’ll wait until Waverly is ready if she’s interested, but she can’t pursue somebody that has no desire to be pursued by her.

 

She can’t bear to have her heart broken. Not again.

 

She’ll be Waverly’s friend, if that’s all she wants, or if that’s all she wants while she waits to see if anything develops further, but she doesn’t want to torture herself, or Waverly, by not calling this pull she feels between the two of them what it is or what it could be.

 

Attraction. Hope. Maybe even love.

 

She’s been back and forth, between Waverly’s attention being strictly friendly or being more , but she’s not interacting with Nicole the way she’s seen Waverly interact with others. She’s not interacting with Nicole the way Nicole interacts with Chrissy.

 

She had made Nicole a gift, spent however long last night, by candlelight, stitching Nicole’s initials into the bandana around her neck. She had asked Nicole to call on her, and her whole body changes when they see each other.

 

That has to mean something.

 

She comes back to herself, to the sight of Waverly glowing like an angel in the late afternoon sun in Nicole’s direction, at Nicole, and that makes her mind up for her.

 

She drops her head to hide her own blush before making her way across the street, tipping her hat into her hands as she walks through the door.

 

“Afternoon, Deputy,” Waverly says warmly, and Nicole can feel the genuine pleasure in her voice. “That’s a mighty dashing badge you’ve got there. I take it this morning went well?”

 

“It did, ma’am,” Nicole replies with a smile, and she mirrors the expression when Waverly’s nose wrinkles at the formal term. “I think it must’ve been your good luck charm.”

 

Waverly’s face softens from excitement to something warmer before she reaches over the counter to run her fingers over the edges of the metal, temperate against the heat of Nicole’s body and the sun outside.

 

“I’m glad I could help,” Waverly says airily, as though not completely in control of her own coherency, before she snaps out of it. “I’m sorry, Deputy, that was awful familiar of me.”

 

She moves to take her hand away, but Nicole catches it before she can, holding it gently against the metal.

 

“It’s okay, Waverly,” Nicole says quietly before she looks to Waverly and tries to breathe into the connection of their skin just how very okay it is.

 

She hazards a glance down the far end of the counter where a couple of older women are engrossed in their own conversation before she judges it safe to hold their contact, and returns her attention to Waverly.

 

“You can be as familiar as you like with me, okay?”

 

“I can?” Waverly asks with a voice barely above a whisper, like giving more volume to the thought will make it turn to smoke between them.

 

“You can,” Nicole affirms as her smile widens, and she runs her thumb over the top of Waverly’s hand. “You absolutely can.”

 

Waverly’s gaze is a little glassy, and Nicole can tell she’s somewhere else, far away in a land where she can do whatever it is she’s dreaming about doing to Nicole, or with Nicole, without fear of reprisal.

 

And she can’t admit she’s not half there herself. That she isn’t thinking about what it would be like to draw Waverly to her, to press their lips together before she laid Waverly back on the countertop and….

 

“I wanted to ask you something,” Nicole says in an attempt to bring herself back to the solidity of this world. Because it doesn’t do to dream about things like that if there’s no hope in them maybe one day coming to fruition. “I left without sayin’ it earlier, and I’m sorry…”

 

“Yes,” Waverly replies before Nicole can actually form her question. Her eyes are eager, and they keep dropping from Nicole’s own to her lips, and it makes Nicole’s heart trip. “Whatever your question is, yes.”

 

“Careful now,” Nicole says playfully, showing her canine’s on a slightly dangerous smile. “I could be askin’ you to commit treason, for all you know.”

 

She gives Waverly’s hand one last gentle squeeze before her own falls away, and she doesn’t want to, but they’ve probably pushed it enough for one afternoon, risking the women glancing down and seeing them.

 

“It wouldn’t matter,” Waverly replies with a similarly dangerous tone to her own voice

 

The recklessness in it isn’t something Nicole’s seen from Waverly before, but it doesn’t dissuade her, it makes the hunger in the tips of her fingers louder.

 

“Have dinner with me,” Nicole says while her nerve holds, and she hates that it falls so quickly and without any sort of build up, but she doesn’t think it would have mattered, because Waverly’s smile looks set to eclipse the sun. “I mean, god, let me try that again. Waverly, I wish to-”

 

“Yes,” Waverly replies as she catches Nicole’s hand boldly in her own before it touches the counter top. “Yes, Nicole . Yes.”

 

“Yes?” Nicole asks, her heart beginning to pound in her chest, a large part of her struggling to register Waverly’s easy acceptance of her invite. “You know I mean…”

 

“I know,” Waverly returns astutely. The maturity in her voice outstrips the youth of her body, and Nicole can’t not think of the reason why. “My answer is still yes.”

 

She’s speechless. Honest to goodness speechless, because she was expecting to have to give Waverly some sort of explanation or hurried apology, but it isn’t needed.

 

Because Waverly said yes .

 

“I know it would be foolish to go out, but I thought maybe we could take some food from Gus,” Nicole says a little bashfully as she softens, because Waverly said yes . “And we could eat above your shop? I’d have you to my room, but I think that’s likely to raise more eyebrows, and…”

 

“Yes,” Waverly says again, and the confidence has retreated and given way to shyness now. “I mean, I have a bed up there, but we don’t…dinner would be…”

 

She shakes her head as though trying to throw the nervousness from her shoulders, and it only makes Nicole fall further, because, god, she’s adorable.

 

“I’m not suggestin’ anything untoward, you have my word,” Nicole replies, winking playfully. “I just…I mean, if you’ll allow it… I’d like to get to know you, Waverly Earp.”

 

I’d like to get to know you, and fall in love with you, too, if that’s not too much trouble.

 

“I’d like that very much,” Waverly says quietly, and Nicole has the distinct impression that this is the first time anyone has said anything of the sort to her. “And I’d like to get to know you, too, if you’ll permit.”

 

You can have everything, Nicole thinks as her heart opens and cracks. You can have everything you want that I can give. You can have my breath, too, seeings as you seem to have stolen that anyway.

 

“I’d like that very much, too,” Nicole replies, her hands hopeful and full with Waverly holding them still.

 

They feel tethered together in the moment, their bodies suspended in some kind of halted time and space, and Nicole has absolutely no idea how she’s going to pull away from Waverly when it feels like their hands are fused where they touch, but then the moment is broken for them.

 

One of the women down the other end of the bar knocks her cup gracelessly off the counter and drops to her knees in a flutter as she tries to collect the broken pieces, and both of their gazes avert immediately.

 

“I’m sorry,” Waverly offers as she moves to take her hands away, but she pauses, like she can’t bear to complete the movement herself. “I should…”

 

“It’s okay,” Nicole says easily, because it is. Because Waverly said yes . “I’ll call on you later, if you’re still here. I should get goin’, anyway.”

 

“Later?” Waverly asks as her fingers slip through Nicole’s.

 

“Later,” Nicole affirms with a quick wink before she spins away from the counter, collecting her hat smoothly.

 

Waverly looks back at her twice within the distance from Nicole to the fuss at the end of the room, and Nicole feels something lift within her, a weight chained to her wrists for years.

 

Nicole knows it’s not that easy. She knows she can’t take that to mean Waverly is truly interested.

 

That she knows what Nicole means , but it’s a start.

 

She’ll tell Waverly properly, when they’re alone. When she can practise her speech a thousand times, she’ll do this properly, she’ll tell Waverly her intentions, but for now, they have later .

 

For now, she feels free .



-



Nicole still has a smile the length of the Great Divide when she walks away from Waverly’s store with the promise of later warm between her palms.

 

And she knows it’s foolish, to be this taken by a girl she’s barely known two days, but Waverly Earp is different .

 

Refreshingly, beautifully , different.

 

Distractedly, Nicole wonders what the swiftest length of time anyone has actually fallen in love is.

 

She moves out into the fading heat of the day with that thought buoying her steps, settling her hat back on her head as she takes a step onto the dirt of the Main Street.

 

She sets a slow, easy pace as she makes her way down the street, tipping her hat to a few people, introducing herself to a few others she has yet to meet, before a scuffle a little way ahead of her catches her attention.

 

A woman, quite striking to look at, with brown hair loose around her shoulders, wearing an outfit not dissimilar to Nicole’s - woolen trousers, a shirt, vest, and overcoat - is standing in the middle of the street, quite oblivious to passersby as she argues at full volume with a man that keeps snatching a wrapped brown parcel out of her hands.

 

It looks, at first sight, to be some sort of domestic dispute between a man and his wife, but as Nicole gets a little closer, she takes stock of the bend of the woman’s body, and the way she holds herself upright.

 

She’s defiant, but like she’s trying to protect herself, like she knows no one else is going to come to her aid. And there’s no familiarity of touch between them either; not that Nicole can see, anyway.

 

“Afternoon, all,” Nicole says cordially as she walks up to the two of them, who cease arguing immediately when they catch sight of the badge gleaming on the breast of her waistcoat. “Can I be of service in settling whatever is important enough to be hollerin’ down Main Street for?”

 

She can see the man eye her with a hint of displeasure as he weighs up in his head whether it’s worth challenging her, which she knows he wouldn’t dare if she was a man, but the mark of respect the badge holds does its job in keeping his mouth shut.

 

On that at least.

 

“You’re Nedley’s new woman deputy?” the man says a little derisively as he eyes Nicole up and down, and it’s just distasteful enough that she straightens herself to her full height so she can level eyes with him.

 

“The one and only,” Nicole answers, holding her hand out to the man. “Nicole Haught, sir. Pleasure to meet you. And you are….?”

 

“Pissed to high hell,” the man replies, avoiding her question neatly as he holds his hand to his own side, refusing to shake Nicole’s.

 

“And what does that have to do with this young woman?” Nicole asks the both of them as she turns her head and takes a measure of the brunette with them. “Someone gonna’ tell me what’s going on? Or do I have to ask someone else?”

 

She’s angry, Nicole notes, and she’s showing it, which is reasonably uncommon for women of their time. She’s not just angry, though, she’s furious, and as soon as the man lets his guard down, she reaches forward and grabs the package back out of his hands.

 

“See,” the man exclaims angrily. “You saw that, Deputy. She’s takin’ things that ain’t hers. Just like usual.”

 

“They’re mine,” the brunette seethes back at him, holding the package close to her chest. “I damn well paid for them.”

 

Nicole’s watching her carefully, trying to evaluate what she can from a first impression, but she’s watching Nicole, too, slightly interested, and with significantly less animosity than she’s watching the man.

 

“Is that true?” Nicole asks with a raised eyebrow as she looks to the man again.

 

“Well, yeah,” he answers reluctantly, shifting from foot to foot uncomfortably. “But I didn’t want to sell them to her. This young idiot did. We don’t sell to Earps here.”

 

He says the name with as much contempt as he can muster, and in an instant, Nicole understands exactly what Chrissy had been trying to tell her yesterday.

 

She can see the woman - Wynonna, she corrects herself, Wynonna - bend her shoulders forward like she’s expecting that to be the end of the argument now that Nicole knows what her last name is.

 

But Nicole’s not like that.

 

Nicole meant it when she’d told Chrissy that nonsense didn’t matter to her, irrespective and not at all influenced by the reasonably-sized crush she’s currently nurturing over Wynonna’s younger sister.

 

She can see the man take a half-step back as well, like the cat that got the cream, now that he considers the argument won with his little trump card.

 

And it’s not that she takes pleasure in what happens next, exactly, but she won’t deny later that it isn’t satisfying.

 

“Seems to me that if Miss Earp paid for the goods, they’re hers,” Nicole says simply, but in a tone that brokers no arguments.

 

She watches as a ruddy colour rises up the man's face, and hot anger sets between his eyes when it becomes clear to him that Nicole isn’t going to take his side, surname or no. A slightly surprised and amused expression makes its way across Wynonna’s face at exactly the same rate.

 

She rests both of her hands on her belt, bringing attention to the pistol at her waist as a gentle, but clear warning of who she is, should the man decide to challenge her.

 

But he doesn’t, thankfully. He stands down.

 

“Goddamn women,” he says, looking between them both before setting his glare on Wynonna. “You might have that flaming package, but don’t think we’re gonna’ sell to you ever again. You hear me?”

 

“Loud and clear,” Wynonna replies in a similarly angry tone before they both watch the man stomp off.

 

“Real gentleman, huh?” Nicole says under her breath as they watch him storm back into his shop with a wind of anger beneath his wings. “I hope that’s not a true sampling of all the men in town.”

 

“How come, Deputy?” Wynonna asks with an amused expression. “You huntin’ for a husband to warm your lonely bed at night?”

 

“No,” Nicole says evenly as she levels Wynonna with a glare of her own, because damn, she’d just helped the woman out of an argument, and this is the thanks she gets. “Not at all.”

 

There’s enough finality in her voice that, combined with her obvious career choice, lights a candle behind Wynonna’s eyes.

 

Damn it, Haught , she thinks to herself. Here you go more or less exposing who you are to everyone in town before your first week is out.

 

She’s expecting Wynonna to pull away with a glare then, or some equally derogatory comment to leave her mouth, but it doesn’t. She smiles a little wryly at Nicole before she holds her hand out as a greeting.

 

“I don’t think that asshole gave me the opportunity to introduce myself properly,” Wynonna says as she straightens her back. “But I suppose I don’t need to bother doin’ it again, do I?”

 

“I suppose not,” Nicole replies with a slightly amused grin. “It’s a pleasure, Miss Earp. I don’t suppose I need to bother reintroducin’ myself, either?”

 

“Not really,” Wynonna returns, and she’s still grinning like she knows something Nicole doesn’t. “I mean, I hear the town’s half buzzin’ with the news of a newcomer - we don’t get them often, you know. Wasn’t them I heard of your arrival from, though. My sister told me you’d come into town.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole says a little airily, the thought of Waverly taking her attention for a moment. “Of course. I’m sorry, I thought…I didn’t think you would’ve had a chance to speak with her.”

 

“I’ve been in town for a few hours,” Wynonna says as she frowns. “I hate this goddamn place, but I had to come and get another trap for the coyotes that are crawlin’ all over the place at the moment. I normally try and get in and out before anyone else is awake, but I stopped by to see Waverly, and I guess we got to talking for longer than usual.”

 

Nicole wants to ask what about, but from the slightly smug look on Wynonna’s face, she thinks she already knows.

 

“That’s kind,” Nicole replies with a soft smile as she thinks of Waverly again. “I’m sure your sister appreciated the visitor.”

 

“She told me about you trying to throw that cucklehead Hardy out the door,” Wynonna says, grinning like the point is exceptionally amusing.

 

“I wasn’t tryin’ to butt in,” Nicole says apologetically before Wynonna can accuse her of anything, but the expression on her face says that isn’t her intention at all. “I promise, it just…he wasn’t taking no for an answer, and your sister looked like she was fed up with the guy, and-”

 

“Haught,” Wynonna cuts across her gently. “It’s okay. I’m trying to say thank you. I can count the people willing to stand up for my sister on one hand.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole replies quietly. “You’re…of course. I mean, I don’t really know her yet, but I know enough to judge that she’s someone worth standin’ up for. Even if this town doesn’t agree.”

 

“She’s a special kid,” Wynonna says with a fondness that she tries to pass off with a rough clearing of her throat, but Nicole sees through it with a grin. “She means a lot to me, so people that are willing to do that for her without knowing her... They’re alright by me.”

 

“That’s a fine thing to say,” Nicole returns with a slight thickness in her throat.

 

“Yeah, well, don’t get used to it,” Wynonna says with an upturn at the edge of her lip as she scuffs her toe in the dirt. “Can’t have no one thinking I’m more of a damn woman than they already think now, can I?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole nods back, trying to temper down her smile. “Anyway, I’d best leave you to make your way out of town if you’d like. I don’t want to keep you.”

 

“Yeah,” Wynonna replies as she holds her hand to her eyes so she can do a quick sweep of the street. “The sooner the better. As soon as a few upstanding citizens have a drink or two under their belt, I’m an open target, deputy at my back or no.”

 

She inclines her head before she starts to walk away, so Nicole has to call her parting sentiment out for her to hear.

 

“I’m sorry for that, Wynonna. For what it’s worth, you’ve got an ally in me. You and your sister, both.”

 

She doesn’t turn around for a moment, and Nicole’s not sure if she’s ignoring her or she simply didn’t hear, but she turns just before the moves completely out of earshot.

 

“I appreciate it, Deputy,” Wynonna calls from a distance. “And thank you, for before.”

 

“You’re welcome, Miss Earp,” Nicole returns with a smile as she turns her own feet in the other direction. “And don’t worry, I won’t tell a soul.”



-



She’s reasonably pleased with how her first meeting with Wynonna goes, because she’d be lying if she said it wasn’t one of the few things she was eager to get over and done with.

 

Figures like Wynonna in a small town like this have connections, even if they’re not everyone’s favourite daughter, and that’s without the added complication of her being Waverly’s older sister.

 

She’s been a little anxious about what the older Earp was going to make of her ever since Chrissy had given her a clipped version of the town's history, anxiety that’s only been heightened by Waverly’s reciprocated interest in her and her acceptance of Nicole’s invite to sup together tomorrow evening.

 

She’s glad the meeting is over and done with, and she’s even gladder knowing she has, hopefully, come across as the kind of person Wynonna would approve Waverly spending time with.

 

That’s not all she thinks about, though, as she walks down the street toward the jail with pockets heavy full of promise and the way Waverly’s smile bends in the late afternoon sun.

 

The shop that had been shut earlier is still boarded up when Nicole makes her way past it, and she surmises that they perhaps decided to stay inside, away nursing a pounding head and a rolling stomach.

 

Everything else seems fine to her eye, though, no broken windows or a spot out of place, so she shrugs and makes her way a little further to seek out Nedley and give him a quick recount of her run in with Wynonna.

 

The jail is quiet when she walks in. One of the other deputies is sitting, talking quietly to the Sheriff when Nicole tips her hat off into her hands and bids them a good evening.

 

“Haught,” Nedley says with a small smile as he gestures her over to where the two of them are seated. “You’ve got a visitor.”

 

“Afternoon, sir,” Nicole replies, confused, frowning at him. “A visitor?”

 

“A visitor,” he says as he inclines his head towards the room designated as his private office.

 

She searches his face for any hint of teasing or unkindness, finding none, before she takes a step in the direction he’s looking towards.

 

It can’t be family, Nicole thinks to herself, because that would require some small miracle of forgiveness, and Waverly was still at the shop when Nicole had glanced back and followed Wynonna, walking in that direction.

 

She doesn’t have any other friends except…

 

“Afternoon, Deputy,” Chrissy says warmly, walking out of her father’s office, smiling as she glances at the badge on Nicole’s chest.

 

“Chrissy,” Nicole replies brightly, accepting the embrace the shorter woman offers her.

 

It’s strange, Nicole thinks. She’s been in Purgatory just a full day now, and already it feels like she’s known Chrissy and Waverly for much, much longer.

 

“Did you come to see your father?” Nicole asks when they part.

 

“I can see him any old day,” Chrissy returns with a playfully dismissive wave of her hand. “I wanted to see how you were settlin’ in. And to make sure this lot were lookin’ after you.”

 

“We’ve been just fine,” the deputy sitting with Nedley tries to argue with a frown. “Haven’t we, Haught? Chrissy wouldn’t believe us. Said she had to make sure you were okay her damn self.”

 

“They’ve been swell,” Nicole says, smiling at the anguish in the other deputy’s face, and she realises how much Chrissy’s seal approval means to her father’s men. “At ease, soldier.”

 

“I’m glad to hear it,” Chrissy replies fondly as she links her arm through Nicole’s. “Unless you have anythin’ you want to talk to Daddy about, he said I can steal you for the rest of the afternoon. I thought you’d like to go and check on Lady Jane.”

 

It’s only a small gesture, and it’s so common for women of the time to be affectionate in that small way, but it means so much more for Nicole.

 

Because Chrissy knows how she feels about the fairer sex, and normally that’s enough for young women to pin as many crosses to their clothes as they can when they get a hint of it, and give her a wide berth, but Chrissy is different . She’s showing Nicole that it’s okay, that that won’t scare her away.

 

She gives Chrissy’s arm a gentle squeeze of thanks before turning to her father.

 

“I don’t want to put you out, Sheriff,” Nicole offers as she looks between father and daughter, trying to make it clear that she’s not looking for a way to skive off early. “I’ll run an extra shift, or take someone’s night shift this week, but I’d hate for Chrissy to have come this way for nothing.”

 

“Get out of here, Haught,” Nedley replies, waving his hand at the both of them. “You’ve already worked a fuller day than the rest of us. See you in the morning.”

 

“Thanks, Daddy,” Chrissy exclaims, pressing a quick kiss to his cheek and slipping her hand into Nicole’s, dragging her bodily from the room before Nedley can change his mind.  

 

“I’ll make sure she’s back before you ride home,” Nicole throws in Nedley’s direction before Chrissy pulls her onto the street.

 

The other woman is beaming at Nicole as she slips her hand beneath Nicole’s once more and they make their way towards the stables.

 

“You’re trouble,” Nicole says, giving Chrissy a sideways look that says as much. “You know that, right?”

 

“Sure do,” Chrissy answers proudly. “And so does Daddy, so don’t worry. I think he’s just pleased I’ve found another friend. It’s not easy to do when the Sheriff’s your father, unfortunately.”

 

“You have Waverly, though, right?” Nicole asks as she squints against the low sun, and looks down to Chrissy.

 

“Yeah,” Chrissy replies with a fondness in her voice. “I surely do. A friend I don’t think I’ll see the likes of again, truth be told.”

 

“Miss Nedley,” Nicole says, mock dramatically. “You wound me.”

 

“Hush,” Chrissy says, swatting at Nicole’s arm playfully. “You know what I mean. Besides, you’ve got a good deal of catching up to do if you want to come close to Waverly Earp.”

 

“I’m sure I do,” Nicole says fondly, allowing her mind to wander a little. To imagine what Waverly’s hand would feel like tucked into the crook of her arm.

 

They approach the stables reasonably quickly, it’s not a great distance from the jail, and Chrissy makes a beeline for the stalls while Nicole has a quick look for Mattie.

 

She can’t see her after a quick scout around the main house, so she heads to the stables to find Chrissy and Lady Jane.

 

“She really is beautiful,” Chrissy says, fawning over the animal, running her hand down the horse's neck as it walks to the front of the stall towards Chrissy’s soft attention.

 

“Careful,” Nicole teases, pretending to put her hands over the horse's ears. “She’s terribly full of herself as it is, she doesn’t need that ego of hers to get any bigger.”

 

“Your Mama is mean to you, huh?” Chrissy coos as she scratches between Lady Jane’s eyes. “Maybe you should come live with me instead.”

 

“If you were closer to town, I’d be more than happy to board her with you,” Nicole replies, pulling a few treats from her satchel to feed the animal with.

 

“I know,” Chrissy says, looking across to Nicole. “I was just teasing. She’s just so beautiful. Where did she come from? A breeder?”

 

“No,” Nicole answers with a shake of her head. “Not at all. A mean old bastard I arrested when I first started this job had her chained to a tree in the sun all day as a foal, and when we threw him in lockup for somethin’ different, my old Sheriff took her with us and gave her to me to celebrate us nailing the guy.”

 

“How could anyone be cruel to you, Lady J?” Chrissy says sadly as she takes a treat from Nicole's hand and offers it to the horse.

 

“She’s had a much finer time of it since she’s been with me,” Nicole offers kindly. “Haven’t you, girl?”

 

Lady Jane winnies in agreement before the two women laugh softly.

 

“I bet she has,” Chrissy affirms, stepping back from the stall for a moment to look at Nicole casually. “ So , I spoke to Waverly this morning.”

 

“You did?” Nicole asks nervously, slightly anxious at whatever Chrissy is going to chase that comment with.

 

“I did,” Chrissy says, turning back to Lady Jane so Nicole can’t read her expression. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her smile so much, and that girl smiles like she’s being paid for it.”

 

The sigh of relief rattles Nicole’s whole body, and she has to suppress the urge to put her hand on her chest to still her beating heart.

 

“Really?” Nicole asks hopefully, and she knows she should hide a little bit of her curiosity, but honestly, she’s so happy that she can’t.

 

“Really,” Chrissy smiles back to her. “I mean, it could be coincidence of course, but I think not, when the only thing she could talk about was Nicole this and Nicole that .”

 

“Oh,” Nicole breathes as she drops her head to hide her blush with the brim of her hat. “Well…”

 

“It’s alright, Nicole,” Chrissy says calmly, placing her hand on Nicole’s tanned and freckled forearm. “I think it’s sweet. And it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Waverly that happy. I mean, she smiles often, but they’re never deep enough that I know she’s smiling for herself, too, and not just someone else’s benefit. But she was happy. She was really happy.”

 

“I’m glad,” Nicole replies, exhaling slowly in an attempt to calm herself a little. “She should be happy regardless, but…”

 

“If you’re the reason, that’s not so bad either?” Chrissy finishes for her.

 

“Somethin’ like that,” Nicole says shyly as she busies her hands brushing the hair back from Lady Jane’s eyes.

 

“She said she was planning on havin’ you around for supper soon?” Chrissy says, and honestly, Nicole’s a little surprised at Waverly having mentioned that, but it makes her more comfortable knowing Waverly feels safe enough disclosing things like that to Chrissy.

 

“You know you can talk about her to me, right?” Chrissy prompts when Nicole hasn’t said anything after a moment. “I mean, if you don’t want to that’s fine, of course it is, I just mean…  it’s safe for you to. If you want.”

 

“You’re sure?” Nicole asks hesitantly as her movements still. “I know most people… I know they think it’s…”

 

“Of course you can,” Chrissy offers softly. “And I don’t give a damn what people think, alright? If you make each other happy, I don’t see a damn problem, man or woman.”

 

“Thank you, Chrissy,” Nicole replies, feeling her throat thicken a little, because it’s rare, this, finding someone so easily accepting. “Truly, thank you.”

 

“It’s my pleasure, Deputy Haught,” Chrissy says genuinely before she reaches for Nicole’s hand. “Thank you for your friendship. It’s rare, findin’ someone our age who’s not taken with boys or children. You’re a bit of gold in the bottom of a pan, that’s for sure.”

 

Nicole’s not sure how to reply to a compliment like that. Come to think of it, she’s not sure she’s had one as kind in her life, so she nods instead, touching her other hand over Chrissy’s by way of a thank you.

 

“Now,” Chrissy says brightly, bringing them back to topic. “What are you going to do for your date?”



-



The rest of the afternoon into the early evening passes quickly.

 

Nicole and Chrissy finish up with Lady Jane, and Nicole escorts Chrissy back to her father before giving Nedley a very brief run through of her meeting with Wynonna, which Nedley seems reasonably pleased with, too.

 

“Good of you to step in,” Nedley says, nodding his approval. “Most folks would have just left them to it, especially if it was Wynonna. I’m sure she appreciated you steppin’ in, even if she didn’t say so.”

 

“She did actually,” Nicole reveals, and Nedley gives her a look that she recognises as mild amazement. “And it’s no trouble, sir. Just doin’ my job.”

 

“Well, there you have it,” Nedley says as he smiles to himself. “Hell’ll be freezin’ over any day, then, I expect.”

 

He thanks her for bringing Chrissy back to the jail before he sends her off for the evening.

 

“Oh, Haught,” Nedley throws just as she’s about to walk out the door. “Was there a shop closed on the Main Street when you walked up and down today?”

 

“There was, sir,” Nicole replies, and she’s pleased with herself at having noticed so soon. “It was closed this mornin’, and still boarded up this afternoon. Do you want me to go and see them on my way past?”

 

“No, we'll leave it for the day,” Nedley says with a wave of his hand. “Might be Miss Hunt got carried away with the drink last night and opted for a bit of darkness today. Swing by and check in the morning, though, won’t you?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Nicole replies with a serious look before she nods her farewell.

 

“One last thing, Nicole,” Nedley says, his voice a little softer than before. “I appreciate you taking to Chrissy like you have. The folk tend to avoid her like she’s my spy or somethin’ idiotic. It means a lot to her to have your friendship. And it means a good deal to me, too. It’s hard without her mother around. I do my best, but I know it gets boring for her with my old bones for company.”

 

“It’s my pleasure, sir,” Nicole returns with a smile. “She’s a wonderful girl. You’ve done a proper job raisin’ her.”

 

The sentimentality is all a bit much for Nedley, who clears his throat and gestures to Nicole that she’s dismissed, which Nicole takes with a respectful nod of her head.

 

She walks out into the early evening light, breathing in the familiar scent of dirt and fading heat before she sets her hat into place and makes her way back towards the Inn.

 

Nicole had planned to stop in and see Waverly before retiring properly for the evening, perhaps firm up an evening for their date, but she’s disappointed to see the white shop front boarded up when she walks past.

 

She wishes she had some way of contacting Waverly, to make sure all was well with her, but short of being able to disappear into thin air, she can’t, and it’s with a slightly heavy heart that she makes her way in through the front door of the Inn.

 

“Evening, Deputy,” Gus says as she tips the hat off her head and into her hands.

 

“Evening, ma’am,” Nicole replies before she corrects herself at Gus’s scowl. “Sorry. Evening, Gus .”

 

“Much better,” Gus says with a wry smile. “How was your first day?”

 

“Good,” Nicole says, nodding with a weary, but happy smile.  “Really good. And, hey, thank you ever so much for the cookies this morning. They were delicious. The boys enjoyed them, too.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Gus says dismissively, waving her hand. “I had to make ‘em anyway. Might as well wrap a few up for you, too.”

 

They both know it’s utter nonsense, but Nicole doesn’t want to embarrass Gus by pressing it, so she drops it instead.

 

“Say, you didn’t happen to see Waverly this evening, did you?” Nicole tries to ask as casually as possible. “The shop was shut up on my way past.”

 

“I did,” Gus replies with a slightly knowing smirk. “She dragged Wynonna in here to say goodbye before they rode out to the homestead for the night.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole says, and she tries to keep the disappointment from coming out too strongly in her response. “Oh, well, that’s good. I’m sure Wynonna will appreciate the company tonight.”

 

She turns to take her leave of Gus, planning on poking her nose into the kitchen to have a scrap of something for dinner, when Gus stops her with a gentle hand on Nicole’s arm.

 

“Hold on a minute there,” Gus says as she holds a small folded note up for Nicole to see. “She said she was sorry she’d miss you this afternoon, and wanted me to pass this on.”

 

“What does it…” Nicole asks before Gus shakes her head.

 

“I dunno what’s in it,” Gus says with a shrug. “Figured whatever it said or didn’t say was private between the both of you.”

 

Nicole’s world narrows to the small bit of paper in Gus’s hand, and her heart picks up a little, because Waverly thought of her.

 

Waverly thought of her.

 

Of her.

 

Enough to take the time to leave her a note when she knew they wouldn’t see each other that afternoon. To bring it to Gus, and take whatever grief she was likely to cop from Wynonna and Gus, both.

 

Waverly thought of her.

 

“Thank you,” Nicole replies, a little distracted, as she reaches for the note when Gus offers it. “Sorry for your trouble. I appreciate you takin’ this for me.”

 

“I ain’t in the service of bein’ nobody's Pony Express,” Gus scowls, but Nicole knows there’s no venom behind it. “But I’ll allow it every now and again. Oh, and don’t you go worryin’ if she’s late into town tomorrow, neither. Wynonna normally makes her rest up when she goes out there, so she won’t be up as early as she normally is.”

 

“Duly noted,” Nicole replies seriously as she nervously thumbs the note, smothering the urge to run up the stairs and read it in the safety and privacy of her room. “Thanks, Gus.”

 

The older woman doesn’t speak straight away, but her words catch Nicole just as she’s about to leave.

 

“She seemed happy,” Gus says with an intentional vagueness, because they both know exactly who she’s talking about. “She seemed really happy. And I bumped into Chrissy Nedley earlier who said the same thing.”

 

“I’m glad,” Nicole replies with a meaningful nod. “She deserves to be happy.”

 

“Affection that burns quick is often more painful than not havin’ anything at all,” Gus says, and her eyes move over Nicole, watching to see how she reacts.

 

“I’ve always been a slow fuse kind of girl,” Nicole replies before she decides to change tack and set aside the delicacy and talk to Gus straight. “I have no intention of starting anything I don’t plan on seein’ through to the end, Gus. The very end. The only other thing didn’t end on my word, and it wasn’t on my wish, either.”

 

Gus looks a little taken aback at her directness, and for a second, Nicole’s terrified that she’s gone and shot herself in the foot, before Gus smiles and Nicole breathes .

 

“I’m glad to hear it, Deputy,” is all Gus says before she turns into the small office to the side of the front desk.

 

Well , Nicole thinks to herself. That’s a victory, I guess.

 

The smell emanating from the kitchen tempts her for all of four seconds before her hand closes around the note, and the desire to read it without being overseen takes over completely.

 

She still has a few strips of jerky and a cookie or two in her satchel, more than enough to fill a stomach accustomed to scraps when she remembers to eat, so she turns tail instead and takes the steps two at a time.

 

It’s ridiculous , she thinks to herself, because it’s only likely to be a few friendly lines, but the thought that it’s Waverly that’s written it makes her cheeks ache from smiling.

 

She shuts the door behind her, slipping the small bolt into the lock before she shrugs her satchel off and falls bodily against the softness of the bed as she unfolds the note.

 

Waverly’s handwriting is, as expected, as soft and beautiful as Waverly is herself, and Nicole gives into the urge to run her fingers over the letters.

 

Nicole,

 

I’m terribly sorry to have left town without saying farewell, but I felt that my sister needed companionship this evening. I sincerely hope your first day went well. If you like, you would be welcome to call on me tomorrow. I’ll look forward to seeing you again soon.

 

Yours,

Waverly

 

Nicole’s hands are trembling a little when she lowers the letter to her chest.

 

Yours , the letter said. Yours, Waverly.

 

Yours.

 

Waverly said yours .

 

And Nicole knows it’s just a turn of phrase, that people with no connection or affection write yours at the end of a letter, but Waverly isn’t just anyone. Waverly is careful, and Waverly chooses her words as though they cost her to speak sometimes.

 

She could have written anything, she could have written farewell , or until next time , or with warm regards , but she didn’t.

 

She said yours .

 

And that means something.

 

She doesn’t remember falling asleep as the heaviness of the day descends on weary limbs, but she knows when she wakes, when the moon is high, to shrug her heavy day clothes off and crawl back into bed in a light nightshirt, that she’s still holding Waverly’s letter.



-

Chapter Text

-



Nicole wakes the following morning feeling different.

 

It takes her a long time to isolate and identify the emotion, but when she does, she smiles deeper than she has in years, because it’s hope.

 

She’s alight with hope.

 

She knows it’s a little dangerous should anyone find it on her person, but it’s probably worse should anyone come across it if they came into her room, so she tucks the note into the pocket of her woolen trousers anyway, because she can’t bear to leave it.

 

She breezes down the stairs and into the kitchen to pick a handful of pancakes up before she makes her way back to Gus at the front desk.

 

“Morning, Deputy,” Gus says with a wry smile. “Good sleep?”

 

“The best,” Nicole replies with a grin of her own. “The best I’ve had in years, actually. That’s a damn good bed you’ve got up there. I don’t think I realised last night, as bone-tired as I was, but damn, it’s good.”

 

Gus drops her head and mumbles something under her breath that sounds a lot like, the bed, sure , before she looks up to Nicole again.

 

“You know, Waverly used to say the same thing,” Gus says casually as she looks back down at the register on her desk.

 

“Waverly?” Nicole asks, lining her forehead with a frown. “When did she…oh, that was her room?”

 

“And they say deputies aren’t clever,” Gus teases. “Yes, that was her room. What did you think she slept on, the floor in ours?”

 

“I don’t know what I thought,” Nicole replies honestly as she looks to Gus. “I’m in her…gosh.”

 

“Thought we’d better give the Sheriff’s new deputy a good room seein’ as you’d be keepin’ the peace and all that. Nothing worse than a grumpy lawman…or woman.”

 

“I appreciate it, Gus,” Nicole says a little airily, and she’s not quite sure why, but it feels special, it feels significant that she’s sleeping in a room, and a bed, that Waverly used to sleep in, too.

 

“My pleasure, Deputy,” Gus returns in the shadow of Nicole’s appreciation. “They’ll likely not be in town yet, given the sun’s only just up, but Wynonna’ll bring her in shortly. If you’re wantin’ to thank Waverly for her letter.”

 

“Of course,” Nicole gushes. “Of course. I mean I won’t be a bother, but of course I will. Actually, Gus, I was wonderin’ if I might ask you a favour?”

 

“Let me guess,” Gus says with a keen eye. “You’re wantin’ to know if you can have a bundle of food one night soon?”

 

“Uh…” Nicole replies, a little caught off guard. “Yes, I mean…”

 

“Waverly beat you to it,” Gus says by way of an explanation. “I know you know what you’re doin’, Deputy, but Waverly’s soft of heart, as you know. I just don’t want folks to start talkin’, or…”

 

“I know,” Nicole returns seriously. “I understand, ma’am. If Waverly decides she would like my company one evenin’, and you’re okay for us to be unchaperoned, I’ll make sure us bein’ there together is…I mean, that we’re discreet.”

 

“Good,” Gus nods her approval. “Make sure you do, Deputy. I might not be ready to throw a damn Bible at you, but some folks will. And worse, if they find out. The name Earp has enough trouble attached to it, you hear me?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole says with a solemn nod. “Loud and clear. I’ll be careful, even if…I mean, I don’t know if she’s…”

 

“Neither do I,” Gus frowns. “But I do know that she’s been more like the carefree child she was before this whole terrible history caught up with her family in the last two days, than I’ve seen in almost two decades. Just…be careful, alright? I know folk in this town seem reasonable sometimes, but I swear they’re like hounds that smell blood when somethin’ goes wrong, too.”

 

“I will be, Gus,” Nicole says clearly, and she locks eyes with the woman who’s spent so many years looking after Waverly in a pit of vipers, because she wants her to know what she’s prepared to do to keep Waverly safe. “I know what’s at stake. I’ve lost things before to what’s at stake.”

 

Nicole can see Gus’s eyes narrow in question, but she knows however much she wants to know, that she won’t ask, as bound as they are by damn social convention.

 

So she turns, checking quickly to make sure they don’t have another set of ears listening in, and answers the question for her.

 

“It was too hard for her,” Nicole says carefully. “I did everything. I made it safer for us than anyone else could have; people were prepared to ignore it for the most part, because of what I’d done. But it wasn’t enough for her.”

 

She can see Gus taking it in, can see her begin to understand some of the devotion Nicole is capable of bringing to the table, so she nods for Nicole to continue.

 

“I will do the same for Waverly, if she’s prepared to entertain the idea of havin’ me around,” Nicole says firmly. “I’ll do anything for her.”

 

“Have you met Doc, yet?” Gus asks out of the blue, and it leaves Nicole scratching her head a little, because she’s not certain, but she’s pretty sure they’re in the middle of a different conversation.

 

“I don’t think so,” Nicole says with a frown. “Does he have a practice in town, or…”

 

“He ain’t no doctor,” Gus laughs. “His name’s Doc Holliday. He’s Wynonna’s ranchhand.”

 

“I haven’t; no, ma’am,” Nicole replies, but she’s still trying to work out where the relevance to this side note is. “I don’t…”

 

“He reminds me a good deal of you, Deputy,” Gus says with an intentional vagueness that makes Nicole want to scream or shake the information from Gus’s wiry form.

 

“Can I ask why?” Nicole asks a little cautiously.

 

“You’ll understand when you meet him, I think,” Gus replies, smiling to herself. “I will say one thing, though, the phrase blind devotion comes to mind.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole says as she understands where Gus is heading with her story. “You mean…are they?”

 

“I don’t think so,” Gus says as she shakes her head. “Although, I know the reluctance isn’t on Doc’s end. He would have married her years ago, if she’d said yes.”

 

“He asked her?” Nicole asks, a little bewildered. “For her hand?”

 

“Even came and sought our permission,” Gus nods in affirmation. “About a month after she came back to town and he started workin’ out there.”

 

“And she said no?” Nicole asks as she tries to piece together the story. “Is she…”

 

“Oh, she’s interested. I know she is. She’s scared, I think,” Gus replies thoughtfully. “Of what happens to the people she loves. She’s afraid to let him close, in case she gets attached and somethin’ terrible happens again.”

 

“You can’t live life like that, though,” Nicole says with a shake of her head. “You can’t refuse to live, just because you’re scared.”

 

“Some do, though, Deputy,” Gus returns sadly. “And sometimes I fear Wynonna might add herself to that number.”

 

“Maybe…” Nicole starts, but she’s not sure how to finish the thought.

 

Maybe, what? She’ll somehow convince a woman she’s met once to abandon her fear and allow herself to fall in love? She’s not that naive, and she knows the world isn’t that kind.

 

“The important thing is that she’s happy,” Gus says finally. “That they’re both happy. She and Waverly. And anythin’ you can do to help either of them will earn our thanks.”

 

“Doc Holliday, huh?” Nicole asks with a small smile. “He comes into town, surely? I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for him.”

 

“He annoys the heck out of most, me included,” Gus frowns. “But he loves those girls to the end of the world. You’ll have an ally in him, I think. Should you want one.”

 

“The more the better,” Nicole says, sighing heavily. “Thank you, Gus, for this, and…”

 

“Don’t thank me yet, Deputy,” Gus returns with a wry smile. “And don’t forget, you hurt either of them, and I’ll meet you down the barrel, alright?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole says with a mirrored grin as she nods at Gus’s warning. “I’d expect nothin’ less.”

 

“Good,” Gus replies gruffly before she looks at Nicole, inspecting her with a parental glare. “Now, you best be gettin’ off. Have you got somethin’ to eat? Can’t have you fadin’ away anymore, there’ll be nothing left.”

 

Nicole holds the stack of pancakes by way of explanation, grinning at the fact that Gus cares enough to check up on her like that.

 

“Make sure you eat ‘em all, you hear me? You won’t be no good to no one if you’re the size of a cricket,” Gus says with a stern tone before her face eases into the faintest smile. “You won’t be no good to Waverly, nor this town, if you’re a husk.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole laughs in reply before she corrects herself and spins to take her leave. “Gus. Yes, Gus.”

 

“Better, “ Gus says with a grin. “Away with you, Deputy. Go find some trouble to make peace of.”

 

Nicole makes her way out into the Main Street just as the sun is beginning to rise above the tops of the buildings across the street, and Waverly’s shop is, as anticipated, closed.

 

She’s expecting it, for the front to be boarded up. Not to see Waverly’s beaming smile. And it’s ridiculous, because it’s not as though she’s seen the sight every day for ten years; it’s been two days, but for some reason, it feels like so much longer, and try as she might, she can’t stop the small jolt of disappointment.

 

Nicole misses her. It’s been a day, not even that, and she misses her.

 

Get a grip, Haught , Nicole says to herself. But it doesn’t do any good, because she doesn’t really want to shake the thought of Waverly, smiling in the dawn light.

 

She wants to treasure it.

 

She’s got a job to do now, though, and she knows she’ll see Waverly later, because she wrote to her, because she asked Nicole to call on her, so she smiles to herself before she makes her way down the road.



-



She’s covered, head to toe, in dirt.

 

She’s filthy, she’s sore, and she’s furious.

 

Her hands are aflame with rope-burn, and she’s probably covered in bruises beneath her clothes, but at least the last damn cattle beast is safely back in the pen.

 

She snaps the gate shut, throwing her gaze over to the youngest son of one of the farms, just on the outskirts of town, who had come tearing into the jail like the devil had been on his heels.

 

“Thank you so much, Deputy,” the young man says, his face flushed with embarrassment as he makes his way off the back porch to the pen where Nicole is standing. “I really appreciate you comin’ out to help me. I know it ain’t your job, but Daddy would have hung me from the fence if he’d come back and found them gone.”

 

“No worries, champ,” Nicole says, schooling her face and ridding her brow of a frown, taking stock of the tremble in his shoulders. “And hey, it can be our secret, okay? Just make sure you keep the gate shut next time, alright?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” the boy says with a shy smile as Nicole reaches to put her hand on his shoulder reassuringly. “I promise. Are you sure I can’t get you somethin’ to eat before you go?”

 

“That’s kind of you to offer, but it’s probably best if your daddy doesn’t notice the extra helpin’s gone, huh?” Nicole asks kindly, squeezing his arm before she lets her own drop to her side.

 

“Oh,” the boy says, his face falling as he realises what Nicole’s suggesting. “You’re right, Deputy. Lord, what was I thinking?”

 

“Don’t worry about it, kid,” Nicole replies softly, picking her hat up from the table on the porch before she turns to leave. “I got your back. And hey, if your daddy ever gets too heavy-fisted, you’ll come let me know, won’t you?”

 

“Sure thing,” he replies with another shy smile and a blush clear across his cheeks, and Nicole knows that he likely won’t, but she wants him to know that there’s a safe port if he wants to seek it out. “And, Deputy? Thank you again.”

 

“No worries, kid. It was good fun. Just maybe don’t let ‘em all out at once, next time,” Nicole says with a wide smile, as she tips her hat to him. “I mean it, alright? Anytime you need anything, you know where to find me.”

 

She leaves him with ruffled hair and a slightly less clenched jaw as she makes her way back towards the jail, a billowing trail of dust in the noon sun marking her retreat.

 

“Jesus wept, Haught,” one of the other deputies says as she walks back through the door of the jail. “What the hell happened to you?”

 

“A runaway herd of cattle and one scared little boy,” Nicole says, slumping down in the chair across from him.

 

“Did you actually get ‘em all?” he asks with an impressed smirk.

 

“‘Course I did,” Nicole replies nonchalantly, giving him a wink. “What kinda deputy would I be if I didn’t?”

 

“I dunno,” he says with a shrug. “One like the rest of us? I mean, it’s not that I don’t try, but there’s a reason I didn’t take on Daddy’s farm.”

 

“Least there’s one person among you lot who can wrangle cattle,” Nedley says with a sly smirk as he walks into the room and looks at Nicole. “Nice work, Haught.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” Nicole beams in reply. “It was even worth it for the bruises.”

 

“They’ll be a damn sight lighter than whatever would have been on that young man if his father’d come home to find those animals gone,” Nedley says seriously. “It’s a good thing you did.”

 

“Just doin’ my job,” Nicole says with a look that she hopes Nedley registers as I know, I know what would have been waitin’ for him otherwise .

 

“We don’t mind a bit of dust, but if you want to go and change, that’s your choice,” Nedley offers thoughtfully, smiling a little at the dust that comes off of Nicole with every movement, regardless of the fact that she beat almost everything off before she walked through the door.

 

“The second I get changed, something’ll happen and I’ll be dirty again,” Nicole says ruefully, and they all laugh in agreement. “I might go and hassle Gus for some food, though, if you don’t mind? I’m damn near starvin’ after that.”

 

“‘Course,” Nedley nods to her. “If she’s got any more of those cookies, bring some with you, won’t you?”

 

“I second that,” one of the deputies echoes.

 

“Third,” the other says with a hand in the air.

 

“Sure thing,” Nicole smiles in reply before she stands up as carefully as she can so as not to disturb the dust all over again. “See you soon.”



-



Nicole is hungry, of course she is after the morning she’s had, but the main reason she wants to be able to make her way back to the Inn is to see whether Waverly and Wynonna have made it into town yet.

 

She sets a slow pace as she walks down Main Street, tipping her hat to a few of the people she’s seen every day now, before she walks a little further and falls within eyesight of Waverly’s shop.

 

Her mouth is as dry as the desert with the half-trough of dust she’s already inhaled this morning, and that’s only made worse when her eyes land on Waverly.

 

She doesn’t see Nicole right away, but Nicole doesn’t mind, because she’s almost more beautiful in profile.

 

She’s talking animatedly with Chrissy, waving her hands with a soft flourish as she tries to explain something, and Chrissy laughs before she reaches forward and closes her hand over Waverly’s on the counter.

 

Nicole knows it’s ridiculous, because it’s been a day , but she feels like Waverly looks lovelier today than she did yesterday.

 

She’s wearing a dark blue shirt rolled up over her elbows that Nicole hasn’t seen before, which sets the tan of her forearms off almost lyrically, tucked into her long khaki skirt, with her light brown hair pulled up and away from her face, held with a ribbon the same colour as her shirt.

 

Almost as though she can feel Nicole thinking about her, she glances up and catches Nicole across the street and her whole body beams.

 

Her shoulders lift and her smile widens and she looks as though she might just float away if she wasn’t holding on to Chrissy’s hands.

 

She loosens one to wave at Nicole, gesturing, almost calling her like a siren's song, to cross the short distance and come to her.

 

Her feet move without her mind’s permission, but she doesn’t care, she just bows and follows, never taking her eyes from Waverly’s own.

 

Chrissy observes Waverly’s reaction before she turns and sees Nicole walking towards them, and the expression her face is knowing, as if to say of course that’s why she’s smiling .

 

“Mornin’ ladies,” Nicole says brightly as she takes her place next to Chrissy at the counter, sweeping off her hat and giving Waverly a wink at the same time.

 

“Good morning, Deputy,” Chrissy replies happily, winding her arm through Nicole’s own, giving it a quick welcome squeeze before she drops her hand to the counter again.

 

It’s only a small movement, and it’s nothing but platonic, but Nicole watches as Waverly’s eyes flick to the movement briefly, and a minuscule, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it frown crosses her forehead.

 

Not jealousy, just a slightly worried curiosity.

 

Chrissy misses it completely, turning back to Waverly before she speaks.

 

“We were just talkin’ about you, Deputy,” Chrissy says with a smile. “And now, like magic, you’re here.”

 

“Must’ve heard you,” Nicole replies playfully, looking directly to Waverly, in a way she hopes Waverly can read as I only really want to look at you. “Good things, I hope?”

 

“Of course not,” Waverly returns with equal jest, and Nicole sighs in relief. “Only terrible things.”

 

“Even better,” Nicole jokes before her face softens. “How are you this morning? How are you both?”

 

“We’re swell, aren’t we, Wave?” Chrissy says as she tries to prompt Waverly, who seems to have taken to watching Nicole wistfully.

 

“Huh? Oh, yeah, just swell,” Waverly replies, bringing herself back to reality, and a blush blooms across her cheeks at having been caught staring. “Just swell.”

 

“Waverly was just tellin’ me how you told that grumpy old beast of a man to lay off Wynonna yesterday,” Chrissy says with a slightly impressed tone to her voice.

 

“Oh,” Nicole returns, a little embarrassed herself. “It was nothin’. He just needed to step back, but it didn’t look like he was going to do it of his own accord.”

 

“It wasn’t, though,” Waverly says with a soft smile. “Nothin’, I mean. It’s very kind of you. Most folks wouldn’t bother to stand up for Wynonna around here. It’s definitely not nothin’.”

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever been most people,” Nicole says as the pride in her chest swells at Waverly’s affirmation. “And it’s no trouble. I’m happy to help with things like that. People need to know things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been, just because they’ve always been that way.”

 

She doesn’t mean to slip the double entendre in there, but it’s there regardless, and she thinks both Chrissy and Waverly recognise it.

 

“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Chrissy says, smiling at Waverly’s softly concentrated gaze on Nicole. “And how about you, Deputy? You definitely don’t look like you’ve been keepin’ yourself out of trouble.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole replies, glancing down at her dust-heavy outfit. “It’s been interestin’, that’s for sure. Actually, I couldn’t trouble you for a drink could I? It’s been a hell of a morning.”

 

“Oh,” Waverly says suddenly as she sets herself to work. “God, how rude of me. Of course. What would you like?”

 

“Water’s fine,” Nicole smiles at the little flutter Waverly’s set herself in. “I’m really not fussy as long as it’s cold. It doesn’t need to be anythin’ flashy.”

 

“I’ve got a bit of the tea I made yesterday that’s been in the icebox, if that’s alright?” Waverly asks as she makes her way down the counter slightly.

 

“Yes, please ,” Nicole says, lighting up at the prospect of getting another taste of whatever magic Waverly had brewed for them yesterday morning.

 

“Chris,” Waverly asks the woman as she draws a couple of glasses from beneath the counter. “You want something?”

 

“No, I’m fine. Thanks, though,” Chrissy says, swatting Waverly’s attentiveness away. “So what’s the reason for all the dust? Is this a new beauty regime the rest of us girls haven’t caught on to yet?”

 

“No,” Nicole says with a frown as she looks down at her dirty clothes. “I had to help one of the Jones boys find all his daddy’s damn cows after he’d left the gate open feedin’ them and they’d all gotten out.”

 

“Thank god you did,” Chrissy replies with a relieved sigh. “Their father is one mean man. I’ve seen those boys with black eyes more often than not.”

 

“The Sheriff said as much,” Nicole says as she frowns, more than a little troubled by Chrissy’s comment, but knowing there isn’t a great deal she can do about it. “Truth be told, I would’ve done it for anyone, but I’m grateful we could get them all back.”

 

Waverly gives her reason to pause for a moment, sliding over a cup full of the aromatic drink they had shared yesterday, and she feels her mouth water in anticipation.

 

“Thank you,” Nicole says, reaching to put her hand briefly over Waverly’s in thanks, and she feels the small resultant jolt echo through them both when they make contact.

 

It’s hard not to drink it in one long draw, because she’s that thirsty and it’s that good, but she wants to savour it. Just like the time she’s spending in its creator's presence.

 

She takes a controlled sip before placing the cup carefully on the countertop, closing her eyes as the light and deliciously refreshing liquid hits the back of her severely parched throat.

 

“God, that’s good,” Nicole says, not bothering to open her eyes, although she’s glad when she does, because the sight of Waverly Earp with her jaw dangerously low is a sight to see.

 

She doesn’t say anything at first, she just licks the tip of her thumb delicately as she reaches for Nicole, and Nicole can’t help but bend forward to meet her movement.

 

For a second, the rest of the world shuts itself away. There’s no Chrissy next to them, there’s no Main Street outside. It’s just her and Waverly, and nothing else.

 

The pad of Waverly’s thumb brushes across the line of her cheekbone delicately as her mouth falls open, just, and both of them stop breathing.

 

“You had a little…” Waverly says airily, biting her lip in a way that Nicole has to curl her hands into fists to stop herself from reaching to touch. “Dust…there was a bit of dust…”

 

Nicole knows damn well there isn’t, or wasn’t, because she’d checked her reflection meticulously in the window a few shops down before she’d come within Waverly’s line of sight.

 

It’s an excuse , Nicole thinks as her blood jumps . It’s an excuse to touch me. She wants to touch me.

 

Waverly’s eyes drop to her mouth and then move back up to her eyes before her tongue swipes over her bottom lip and Nicole feels her knees grow weak.

 

Chrissy clears her throat next to them, and it’s lucky really, because Nicole’s not sure what else it would have taken to bring them out of their reprieve otherwise.

 

“I, uh, I think I’ll take my leave of you two young ladies,” Chrissy says with a smile in the tone of her voice.

 

“Oh,” Waverly replies as her hand falls softly from Nicole’s cheek and she snaps back into the land of the living. “No, don’t go. Surely you don’t have to leave already?”

 

“Piano lesson,” Chrissy says regretfully, which is a fib, because Nicole knows that was the day before last, on her first day here, and Chrissy mentioned they were only once a week. “But I’ll leave you in fine company. Perhaps Nicole could escort you down to the general store?”

 

“Gladly,” Nicole says quickly. “I mean, Nedley gave me leave to get somethin’ to eat, so I’ve got some time.”

 

“Only if you wouldn’t mind?” Waverly asks hopefully. “I’d appreciate the company. Are you sure you have to go, Chrissy?”

 

“Unfortunately, I do,” Chrissy says as she throws Nicole a sly, subtle little look that says you’re welcome before she turns her gaze to Waverly. “But you’ll take good care of her, won’t you, Deputy?”

 

“The best,” Nicole replies with a wink. “If you’ll have me, Miss Earp?”

 

“It would be my pleasure,” Waverly says, and Nicole watches as the pink creeps across her cheeks again. “Would you have time to walk me now?”

 

“Ready when you are,” Nicole obliges.

 

“Enjoy your outing ladies,” Chrissy says with a wink before she makes her way to the door ahead of the others. “Wave, I’ll call on you later if you’re still here. Otherwise, tomorrow?”

 

“Sounds perfect,” Waverly says, giving Chrissy a quick wave goodbye before turning to Nicole. “Are you okay to wait for just a second while I go and fetch a few things from upstairs?”

 

“Of course,” Nicole replies easily. “There’s no rush. Take your time.”

 

Waverly flashes her a beautiful smile before she skips down to the other end of the shop where the small staircase leading up to the second floor rises.

 

She glances back, as though to check that Nicole’s still there, that she hasn’t disappeared or dissipated like some spectre, when she reaches the bottom of the staircase, and Nicole can see her sigh in relief, smiling to herself this time, before she leaps up the stairs lightly.

 

Nicole’s not staring, because she’s chivalrous and not a crazed young buck, she’s watching Waverly’s feet to make sure she doesn’t trip, that’s it, and she just so happens to catch a tanned ankle in the disturbance of skirt that, despite its innocence, feels intimate .

 

She allows herself to get lost in that thought for a moment, because if that part of Waverly is that deeply sun-kissed, then the other parts now hidden by skirt and the lace of her petticoat, must be just as much so, too.

 

And the only way they’d be tanned was if she somehow sat somewhere bearing that much skin, and…

 

Stop , Nicole thinks to herself. She’s a young woman, not the object of your drooling inability to keep your damn desire in check .

 

She tries to shake the thought from her head, focusing instead on the movement of Waverly above her, the floorboards moving under her feet. And it works, for two whole seconds, until Waverly comes down the stairs carefully, holding her skirt and petticoat bunched high in one hand, above her knee, while the other runs smoothly down the bannister so as not to trip.

 

Which, of course, exposes half of her goddamn leg.

 

Her jaw actually hits the floor, Nicole’s sure of it, before Waverly moves close enough to her that the sight of her face eclipses all other thought, and Nicole’s eyes settle on Waverly’s own.

 

“Hi,” Waverly says simply, and the world does that axis-turning-you’re the only other person on this earth-thing, and it’s all Nicole can do to manage a daft hi , in return.

 

“The colour looks beautiful on you,” Nicole replies, gesturing to Waverly’s shirt when she can take a little more air into her lungs. “It looks new?”

 

“I didn’t think anyone would notice,” Waverly says softly, looking down before she replies shyly. “It is, actually. Wynonna had it made for me. It was my birthday last week.”

 

“It was your birthday?” Nicole asks, a hint of regret settling into her fingertips. “I’m sorry I missed it.”

 

“Meeting you was a good belated gift,” Waverly replies with a shy smile. “I would have waited months for that, come to it.”

 

“Lucky you didn’t have to wait at all,” Nicole says, risking a flirty wink in the privacy of Waverly’s empty shop. “I’ll have to make sure I find you an actual gift, though.”

 

“Stop it,” Waverly returns as she bats Nicole lightly on the arm. “You’ll do no such thing. Taking time out of your day to escort me is gift enough.”

 

“I’ll have to make sure I find you an actual gift and not tell you until it’s too late to do anythin’ about it,” Nicole corrects with a playful smile. “How is she? Your sister, I mean. Is everything alright?”

 

“She’s fine,” Waverly says with a nod. “She just seemed a little down after her altercation yesterday. Thank you for that, by the way, for standin’ up for her. I can’t tell you what it means to me. To us both.”

 

“Of course,” Nicole says kindly. “Of course, but I didn’t do a good job if she was still upset after.”

 

“Oh, it’s not in a way anyone else can tell,” Waverly says, smiling a little ruefully. “She thinks she’s bein’ tough as old leather, puttin’ on a brave face, makin’ folks think things like that don’t affect her.  It’s only because I know her well enough that I notice.”

 

“Still,” Nicole offers with a soft smile. “I’m sorry I didn’t do enough. I should have been tougher on him.”

 

“Nicole,” Waverly says, stopping Nicole in her tracks as she reaches for Nicole’s forearm, her delicate fingers wrapping around the warmth of Nicole’s wrist.

 

It takes every inch of her self-control not to jump or sigh or do anything equally embarrassing, and attempt to retain some composure, because the touch sets every nerve in her body on fire.

 

“Trust me,” Waverly says and Nicole almost spills, I trust you, I do, I trust you with everything , but she manages to keep her mouth shut. “You made a difference .”

 

Waverly gives her wrist a soft squeeze, and Nicole fels her entire body throb with the small gesture.

 

“You made a big difference,” Waverly says after a moment, once she can see she has Nicole’s attention on her voice, too, and not just their touch. “Normally things like that keep her away from town for weeks, until she’s so desperate for supplies she has to come in, but she rode me right into the shop this morning, when she normally drops me at the edge of the Main Street. So believe me, Nicole. You made a big difference.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole says simply, more than a little touched as she moves her hand to cover Waverly’s. “I’m glad, Waverly. I’m really glad.”

 

“I’m glad you came to town,” Waverly admits, giving Nicole a beautiful little sideways head tilt. “I don’t know if I’ve said that yet, have I?”

 

“I don’t believe so, ma’am,” Nicole says, dropping her head with some small amount of grace. “But might I be so bold as to say that I’m glad I’m here, too?”

 

“You may,” Waverly returns with a warmth that blooms between the two of them. “Because I am, too.”

 

“Miss Earp,” Nicole says as she summons the most diplomatic tone she can. “I fear I have not done this justice before now, but I wonder if you would allow me to remedy that. The first night I met you, I asked whether you might like to spend an evenin’ in my company. I know you might not have been expectin’ me to ask so soon, but would you perhaps like to… one night this week, at your convenience, of course… if you’d consent to acceptin’ a date with me?”

 

“Nicole,” Waverly says, her voice singing in answer this time, not in question. “It would be my pleasure.”

 

“Maybe, the night after next, if that wouldn’t be too great a strain on your nightly activities?” Nicole suggests as her eyes soften, and she waits, with halted breath, to wake up, and for this all to be a dream.

 

“I believe that will do perfectly,” Waverly says in answer, and Nicole’s breath waits, and waits, and waits…

 

…but it’s real .

 

It’s not a dream.

 

It’s solidly, dust-riddenly, hope-swimmingly, real .

 

They walk out into Main Street, and Nicole holds back, allowing Waverly to walk through the door ahead of her. She waits as Waverly locks the door quickly behind them, before she turns and offers Waverly her arm.  

 

It’s a small gesture, and one she’s done more than a few times with Chrissy now, and other women, too, but when Waverly slips her hand into the crook of Nicole’s elbow, it feels different.

 

It feels meaningful.

 

It feels like a beginning.

 

Like stepping out together, from Waverly’s shop, after agreeing on their first date, it’s the start of the next stage of their lives together.

 

Waverly’s hand fits in the crook of her elbow perfectly, better than Chrissy’s, better than the women she often escorted around her last town as a favour, so they didn’t need to be escorted by men.

 

Better even than Shae’s.

 

Waverly beams, a glow pouring from her skin as she looks up to Nicole and smiles, and that in itself feels like a beginning, too.

 

“That was a good thing you did,” Waverly says to Nicole as they step out together, and Nicole sets her hat on her head to shade the glare of the high sun. “Helping Elias Jones? I know Chrissy and the Sheriff said, but I’ve had the eldest come and see me quietly, for somethin’ to help with pain from the bruising for the younger ones. I had them come show me, so I knew how strong a remedy to give them, and I was… it was bad. It made me feel sick, Nicole. I told Wynonna, and Doc had a less than gentle word with their father, and that seemed to ease things, but…it was a good thing you did.”

 

“I wish we could do something,” Nicole replies with regret heavy in her hands. “ Can we do something?”

 

“Doc said he’ll keep an eye on them, to make sure it doesn’t get any worse, but he needs those boys to help on the farm, he can’t do it without them. There’s no way he’ll let them go quietly,” Waverly replies solemnly. “Doc said he had half a mind to go fetch them himself last time, and be damned with the consequences, but Wynonna managed to convince him that they’d likely be labelled kidnappers, as well as murderers, if they did.”

 

“I’ll keep an eye out for them,” Nicole says, nodding and squeezing Waverly’s hand gently in reassurance. “I’ll do what I can, too.”

 

“I know you will,” Waverly says with a sigh, relaxing into Nicole’s side.

 

Nicole can feel the tension leave the shorter woman’s body at Nicole’s word, and she’s more than a little touched at Waverly’s willingness to put her trust in Nicole so soon.

 

“Speaking of keeping an eye out for people,” Waverly says casually as her body lines a little with tension again. “Chrissy seems fond of you. She doesn’t normally warm to people so soon, but you seem to be an exception.”

 

Waverly’s much too polite to say what she really wants to ask, whether Nicole is as friendly with Chrissy as she is with her, and Nicole wants to kick herself at not separating her affection for the two of them enough, but it’s just that she’s never had to before.

 

She’s never had a friend as thick and fast as Chrissy has presented herself, so she’s never had to worry.

 

“You’ll pardon me for assuming, Waverly, but I want you to know there’s no…it’s not the same affection I feel for Chrissy, that I feel for you, too. They’re very different,” Nicole says clearly, in a way that in no shape or form can be misconstrued as anything else.

 

“I’m sorry,” Waverly replies, tugging on Nicole’s arm a little so Nicole will look down at her. “I know…I mean, of course you wouldn’t. I just…I’ve never… I wouldn’t… is it terribly selfish to say I want you all for myself?”

 

“If it is, I don’t mind so much,” Nicole says with a warm smile. “Might make it a little hard to do my job, but…”

 

“That makes me sound awful. I’m not the jealous type. I think Chrissy makes a wonderful ally and friend,” Waverly says, flushing a deep pink before she lowers her voice so no one outside of the two of them could hear. “I just… don’t want to have to share you… in other ways.”

 

“You’ll never, ever have to,” Nicole says discreetly back, casting an eye around before she does so. “That, I promise you. I’ll be yours and only yours, if that’s what you want, Waverly Earp.”

 

“That’s…thank you,” Waverly sighs in relief. “Thank you, for not thinkin’ I’m some crazy young thing. And for the record, you don’t have to share me, either.”

 

“Speaking of not having to share you,” Nicole mumbles under her breath with an imperceptible growl as Champ Hardy makes his way towards them both from across the street.

 

“I was just comin’ to look for you,” Champ says, ignoring Nicole completely as he looks to Waverly. “You weren’t there yesterday. How’s a guy supposed to make any headway when his girl isn’t there to greet him?”

 

“I’m not your girl, Champ,” Waverly says evenly, and Nicole can feel her hand tighten around Nicole’s arm. “I don’t have to be anywhere to greet you.”

 

“Well, who else have you got trying to court you?” he asks, as if a lack of other suitors gives him the right to harass her however he likes. “Huh? The deputy , here?”

 

Nicole is careful enough to keep her expression neutral, because this isn’t, and it certainly won’t be, the last time someone insinuates something like this to her, but Waverly isn’t so practised, and she must blanch a little, if the mixed look of horror and satisfaction on his face is anything to go by.

 

“I see,” he says derisively as he eyes Nicole distastefully. “You’re one of them, then. Nothing a good man can’t fix, though.”

 

“Watch your mouth,” Nicole says as she slackens her hold on Waverly’s arm slightly so she can take a step towards him. “Miss Earp didn’t say anything of the kind. You’re puttin’ words in her mouth.”

 

“So are you,” Champ replies, taking a step forward before Waverly’s unusually stern voice cuts neatly through the tension.

 

“Enough,” she says strongly. “ Enough , Champ. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you no, but I guess it’s one more than I thought. Now leave us to our day, and get out of the way, or I’ll ask the deputy here to kindly do it for you.”

 

Honestly, she’s more than a little impressed at the strength in Waverly’s voice before the voice in her head tells her strictly not to be, because Waverly’s not a child.

 

And she’s probably stood up to just as many assholes as Nicole has, if not more.

 

“Fine,” Champ replies as he eyes the both of them. “Fine, I’ll leave you be. For now. But I’ll be back, Waverly. Because I know what you need, even if you don’t.”

 

They don’t give him the satisfaction of an answer, and he doesn’t bother to say a proper farewell, pushing past Nicole roughly instead.

 

“He’s a real peach, isn’t he?” Nicole says through gritted teeth as she turns to watch him walk away, softening a little at Waverly’s calming touch on her arm.

 

“You get used to it,” Waverly replies with a glower of her own.

 

“Yeah, but you shouldn’t have to, Waverly,” Nicole sighs, turning to look down at her. “And I’m sorry that you do.”

 

“Let’s not let him ruin a fine day, hmm?” Waverly asks with a light tone as she pulls herself closer to Nicole’s side. “He’s not worth it.”

 

“You’re right,” Nicole says, shaking her head ridding them both of his shadow. “You’re right, let's be done with him. May I ask what you need from the store?”

 

“Just a few little things,” Waverly replies warmly, and Nicole can feel her relax at the change of subject. “I’ve run out of twine, and I could use a few more small glass bottles, too. Do you need anything?”

 

“Nope,” Nicole says easily. “Although, perhaps you could point out to me at the confectionary store what Gus’s favourites are, if you don’t mind us poppin’ in. She’s been awful kind to me, and I wanted to check to make sure the store was open after bein’ closed yesterday.”

 

“Of course,” Waverly replies as she skips a few of her next steps happily. “But don’t let her know where you found out. It wouldn’t do for anyone to know she’s not just a stone creature, if you take my meaning.”

 

“Absolutely,” Nicole says with a mock seriousness that holds for about a second before she smiles at Waverly. “Stone and unfeelin’, check.”

 

A passing gust blows a mouthful of dust straight into Nicole’s lungs and she coughs, covering her mouth with her spare hand before she sighs heavily.

 

“Damn dust,” she says as she coughs a few more times. “I can hardly wait to get into a bath later. I feel like I’m damn near made of it.”

 

“You must look forward to it,” Waverly offers with a casual smile. “Bein’ able to strip those heavy clothes off, and clean up proper after a long day.”

 

It’s innocent enough, but Waverly’s comment takes Nicole aback.

 

Because she could mean “clean up” as in wash off the dirt, or she could mean “clean up” as in shrug off her ‘boy’s clothes’ and into something more feminine.

 

Something more ladylike.

 

Something she definitely doesn’t own.

 

Is that what she thinks Nicole does? That this is a costume of sorts, something for her day job, but not something she wears all the time?

 

Because it’s not.

 

This is her.

 

This is who she is.

 

What if that isn’t what Waverly wants, though? What if she wants something different? Something finer ?

 

“I suppose so,” Nicole replies, watching for Waverly’s response, but she doesn’t really give one. Not beyond a sigh as she leans further into Nicole’s side.

 

Nicole can feel her head spinning, because she knows that Waverly would never say anything to hurt her feelings, which means Waverly just has an automatic expectation that Nicole would wear something less masculine in the evenings.

 

Oh, god. Does this mean she’s expecting something else on our date?

 

It’ll be fine, the rational part of her mind tells the quickly panicking one. It’ll be fine. If that’s what you need to do, then you’ll do it, because Waverly is the kind of girl you move goddamn mountains for, not get hung up over wearing a flaming dress.

 

She tries to pull the part of her brain barrelling off in another direction back under hand, because she can do that. She can wear a dress for Waverly Earp if she has to.

 

She just has to find one first.

 

Chrissy , she thinks suddenly. Thank god for Chrissy, she’ll be able to help.

 

“Hey,” Waverly says gently as she tugs on Nicole’s arm. “Is everything okay? Did I…”

 

“No,” Nicole replies quickly, because this is her insecurity, not Waverly’s, because the more she thinks of it, of course Waverly would expect her to wear a dress outside of working, because what woman doesn’t?

 

Only, Nicole isn’t every woman.

 

“No, you’re perfect,” Nicole says as she turns the charm on in an attempt to reassure Waverly, because the last thing Nicole wants is for her to think Nicole’s interest is waning even one inch. “You’re absolutely perfect.”

 

Waverly lights at the compliment, and Nicole has a horrible sinking feeling that it’s because she’s received such a rare few in her life. Best fix that, Haught, she thinks to herself as they make their way across the last few feet to the General Store.

 

Waverly doesn’t say anything in response, but Nicole can feel the effervescence beneath the soles of her feet as they walk, and that’s all the reply she needs.

 

They reach the door to the General Store, which Nicole holds open for Waverly, before they both walk through, sighing at the slight relief the shade brings.

 

“I won’t be long,” Waverly says as she looks to Nicole, already reaching for one of the things on her list.

 

“It’s fine,” Nicole replies with a smile, quite happy in the domesticity of their task. “Take your time, Waverly. There’s no rush.”

 

She appears to ignore that advice completely before she spins around the store like a quick spring wind, collecting a few glass bottles, and twine, too, which Nicole supposes she uses to hang the bunches of dried herbs from the ceiling like a few of the others she has in the shop, and a couple of other quick things that Nicole doesn’t see.

 

Nicole watches with a soft amusement before Waverly walks to the counter to pay for everything. She strikes down the urge to offer to pay, because if their closeness since she arrived to town hasn’t struck the owner as odd, Nicole offering to pay certainly will.

 

She runs her hand over a small bit of ribbon wound around a wooden circle while she waits, before she looks back to Waverly’s hair, and upon seeing the similar length holding her own ponytail up, decides to come back without her and fetch a small length as a gift for their date.

 

“All done,” Waverly says brightly as she walks towards Nicole with the paper bag containing all of her purchases. “Are you sure you didn’t need anything?”

 

“Certain,” Nicole returns with a smile before she takes the bag from Waverly’s arms and offers Waverly her elbow as they walk out onto the Main Street. “Although, if it’s not too much trouble, I’d still like to call in on the confectionary shop?”

 

“Oh, of course,” Waverly says with an enthusiastic nod of her head. “This is really nice, you know. I never have company on my errands. Wynonna’s far too bull-headed to come and do these things with me. I’ll confess to havin’ a lovely afternoon, even with Champ’s interruption.”

 

“As am I, Miss Earp,” Nicole replies happily, reaching with the hand holding the bottom of Waverly’s bag to give her arm a soft squeeze. “As am I.”

 

“Oh,” Waverly exclaims, pulling them to a stop before she drops her hand into the bag in Nicole's arms. “That reminds me. I know you’ll want a more substantial lunch, and there’s far more indulgent treats at the confectioner’s, but I wanted to say thank you for comin’ with me.”

 

She unwraps a small piece of crystallised fruit and offers it to Nicole with a grin on her face.

 

“Gus mentioned you had an inclination for anythin’ sweet,” Waverly says with an adorable shyness. “I hope you don’t mind me bein’ presumptuous, and you don’t have to eat it, it’s just…it’s very sweet of you to take me out.”

 

“Sweetness for sweetness, huh?” Nicole says with a subtle wink before she reaches for the treat and tries not to blanch at the way their skin jumps beautifully when her hand brushes Waverly’s. “That’s awful kind of you, Waverly, but really, it’s my pleasure. I’m happy to escort you anytime.”

 

“I know,” Waverly blushes as she drops her head and a few strands of hair fall free from her ribbon. “I just…anythin’ to keep you in my company, I’ll do. Happily.”

 

“There’s no fear of me ever not wantin’ to, ma’am,” Nicole says playfully, set on using that term as an endearment when Waverly says anything silly. “Although, I’m not going to tell you to stop plyin’ me with treats, because good lord , this is good.”

 

“They are, huh?” Waverly says, pleased by Nicole’s enjoyment. “Wynonna used to buy them for me when I was small as a treat.”

 

“She was a good sister, wasn’t she?” Nicole says warmly before she moves to correct herself. “Not that she isn’t now, I just mean…”

 

“I know what you mean,” Waverly replies with a soft touch to Nicole’s arm. “And she is, she really is. It’s a damn shame this town is set on making her a witch. It means a lot, you know, that you don’t think she is.”

 

“Anyone that has your stamp of approval would be fine by me,” Nicole says kindly, to which Waverly smiles shyly. “I think you’re a good judge of character, Waverly Earp. Even without that, though, I’ve only met her once, but I can see for myself that she’s good. That she has a great deal of it in her, irrespective of what folks here say.”

 

“How on earth did we get so lucky to end up with you here?” Waverly asks, and it's Nicole’s turn to blush then.

 

“I was askin’ myself something similar,” Nicole returns once she controls the hopeful rolling of her heart.

 

She pops the last bit of sweet fruit into her mouth before she sucks the sugar crystals off her fingers, and she doesn’t miss the way that Waverly’s eyes dip down to follow the movement, ever so quickly, but definitely there .

 

She smiles down at Waverly, and in another world, in another place where people didn’t watch them so keenly, and so judgingly, Nicole would have dropped her lips to Waverly’s own and kissed her.

 

But she knows she can’t.

 

Not here. Not where they’d almost be stoned in the street for it.

 

But someday soon, in the privacy of their own company, Nicole would like to. If Waverly will permit it, she would love to.

 

Nicole thinks the smile on Waverly’s face will follow her into her next life, and her own, too, but it drops quicker than she’s anticipating when they walk a few more feet and stop in front of the still closed and boarded up confectionary shop.

 

“Huh. That’s odd,” Waverly says as she moves to press her face against the glass, but something in Nicole screams wrong , so she reaches with a quick, but gentle hand to stop Waverly before she gets too close.

 

“I’m sorry,” Nicole offers genuinely, taking her hand off Waverly’s arm slowly. “I didn’t mean to…I just, something feels strange. I didn’t want you to get too close.”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly affirms, touching Nicole’s hand reassuringly, showing that she appreciates the thoughtfulness.

 

Nicole gives her a quick wink of what she hopes reads as calming and not mildly apprehensive, walking the few steps so she can hold her hand to the glass and look through.

 

Nothing looks untoward in the shop, there’s nothing disturbed or out of place, and that makes Nicole feel even more uneasy.

 

“Is the shop shut often?” Nicole asks as she turns to face Waverly, who has taken another step forward, whether to be closer to Nicole or closer to the shop, Nicole isn’t sure.

 

“Never,” Waverly answers, shaking her head with a frown across her brow. “I don’t think it’s been closed for as long as I can remember. Maybe she’s unwell?”

 

“Maybe,” Nicole says, distracted as she peers down the side of the building in the narrow gap between its neighbour, but again finding nothing untoward. “How old is she? Is she married? Any children we could speak with to make sure she’s okay?”

 

“Older than us,” Waverly replies as she takes in Nicole’s thoroughness, smiling subtly at Nicole’s switch into a different mindset. “She never married, though, so no children, either.”

 

“Does she have family in town?” Nicole asks, struck by the isolation of this woman, and the potential loneliness that she could have in the future as an unmarried, childless, unpartnered woman.

 

“Not that I know of,” Waverly says as she thinks. “The Sheriff will know better, or Chrissy even, but I think her parents died before I was born and left her the shop. She has a few friends around town, but none that she stays with.”

 

“Does she sleep upstairs?” Nicole inquires, stepping back to look at the small window in the top of the building, and again, nothing looks off beyond the apparent lack of life, but something feels wrong.

 

“As far as I know,” Waverly answers, nodding as she takes a step towards Nicole, sliding her arm back into Nicole’s own. “I can leave you to your afternoon if you need to to see the Sheriff?”

 

“Sorry,” Nicole says, shaking her head, realising how off track she had gone. “I’m sorry, Waverly, I didn’t mean to draw you away.”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly replies with a slightly playful smile on her lips. “It’s interestin’ watching you like this.”

 

“Like what?” Nicole asks, tilting her head to the side curiously.

 

“Bein’ a deputy,” Waverly returns as her cheeks blush a little pink. “Watching you work, it’s…”

 

Nicole desperately wants her to finish the sentence, in spite of the fact that she thinks she knows what Waverly is going to say. That it does something to her, watching Nicole like this. It sets a tingle in her palms the same way that it does to Nicole when she appraises Waverly breezing around her shop.

 

“Special,” Waverly finishes, because there isn’t anyone close to them, but even still, they both know they need to keep their speech clipped. “It’s special.”

 

“I’m delighted I could provide some entertainment for you, ma’am,” Nicole replies with another quick wink before she turns back to Waverly fully. “I probably should be gettin’ back, as much as I’d far rather stay in your company.”

 

“Of course,” Waverly says with a sigh that hides the majority of her disappointment, although Nicole catches the last breath of it. “Of course, I’m sorry to have kept you for so long.”

 

“It wasn’t long enough,” Nicole reassures her as she scoops Waverly’s arm up and repositions her hand in the bend of her elbow. “And it’s been my pleasure. With or without the sweet treat, which I’m very grateful for, by the way.”

 

“That’s my pleasure,” Waverly says easily. “Really, Miss Haught, I appreciate your time greatly.”

 

“My time is always yours,” Nicole replies with a smooth breath. “Anytime. I mean it.”

 

“You’re too kind to me,” Waverly returns, dropping her head, that loose strand of hair falling down around the side of her face again, and Nicole has to bite her lip to prevent herself from reaching for it.

 

“You deserve nothin’ but kindness, Miss Earp,” Nicole says quietly, stopping to look down at Waverly properly, so she knows how much Nicole means what she’s saying. “And I intend to give it to you.”

 

I intend to give you everything you’d ever want, if you’ll let me.

 

“I’d like that,” Waverly replies softly, as though she’s trying desperately not to get her hopes up, but her heart is running ahead of her, regardless. “I’d really like that.”

 

“Good,” Nicole says with a warm, but strong timbre to her voice, before she leads Waverly gently back towards her shop. “For now, though, regretfully, I have to take my leave.”

 

“Will you call in on your way back to the Inn?” Waverly asks eagerly before she catches the quickness of her response, and Nicole can see her mentally admonish herself. “I mean…”

 

“I’d love to,” Nicole says quickly before Waverly has a chance to let doubt slip into her mind. “I’d love to, Miss Earp. If you won’t have retired yourself?”

 

“I’ll wait,” Waverly replies simply. “I’ll wait.”

 

And Nicole tries really, really hard not to let her own hopes run away with her then, but it’s the most difficult thing not to, especially when Waverly’s looking at her like she has the warmth of the sun in her hands instead of Waverly’s own.

 

“Now you’re bein’ too kind to me,” Nicole says with a soft smile as she slows their steps ahead of Waverly’s shop.

 

“No such thing,” Waverly winks back, and Nicole has to admit, she thought she had a reasonable drop of charm, but Waverly certainly isn’t short of it herself, nor of the ability to use it, it would seem.

 

They stop just outside the whitewashed front of Waverly’s store, and Waverly takes her arm back slowly, begrudgingly , and Nicole can’t not smile at that.

 

She hands Waverly her paper bag, letting her hands linger on the sides so Waverly has the option to brush her hands past Nicole’s as she takes it back, which she does, and the jump of lightning strikes low and subtle, as does the touch, but definitely, overwhelmingly, there .

 

“Thank you again for the outing, Miss Earp,” Nicole says formally, before her face bends in a smile.

 

“Thank you kindly for escorting me, Deputy,” Waverly teases back with an equal formalness. “I’ll see you later, perhaps?”

 

“Most definitely,” Nicole affirms strongly, and Waverly beams. “Until then?”

 

“Until then, Deputy,” Waverly says as Nicole tips her hat and walks away.

 

She only manages a dozen steps before the urge to turn and see whether Waverly is still watching her spins her body of its own accord, and Nicole beams herself when she sees that Waverly hasn’t moved an inch.

 

She’s standing in exactly the same spot, both her slim, tanned arms wrapped around the front of the paper bag. but she raises one shyly, gently, meaningfully, to give Nicole a wave that makes her heart trill.

 

Jesus Christ, Haught , she thinks to herself as she turns back, finally, and makes her way towards the jail. You’re doomed already.

 

It’s funny. though, that not so insignificant thing, because she finds that she doesn’t mind at all.



-



The jail is empty, save Nedley and one of the other deputies when she finally makes her way back through the door, an apology fresh on her lips.

 

“I’m sorry I was gone so long, sir,” Nicole says as she walks up to his desk. “Waverly Earp asked if I’d escort her down to the store. Not that I’m using her as an excuse, I was more than happy to, I mean…”

 

“It’s fine, Haught,” he replies, more than a little amused at her rambling. “I don’t know where these jokers are half the time either, apologise if you take a half-day lunch, and nothin’ short of that, alright?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Nicole sighs in relief. “Of course. And actually, I did some work. The confectionary shop was still closed. I had a look around, but I couldn’t see anythin’ out of the ordinary. I can go back if you want, and have another look?”

 

“Damn,” Nedley says by way of response. “Could you see anythin’ in the window? Any movement in the shop or in the window above?”

 

“Nothin’,” Nicole replies, shaking her head. “Nor down the side of the building, either.”

 

“I appreciate the offer, Haught,” Nedley says as he walks over to one of the other desks and starts rifling through it. “But I think it’s best I do it myself. She’ll recognise the badge just fine, and it’s not that you’re not a friendly sight, but if she’s unwell, I think a familiar one might be better.”

 

“Good thinkin’, sir,” Nicole returns, her admiration for his thoughtfulness increasing by the day. “If you need a hand with anythin’ else, though…”

 

“I’ll let you know,” he nods back as he continues to rummage before he pulls out a few sheets of paper. “Thanks, Deputy. And look, I’ll leave these here. It might be best if we start puttin’ up a few ‘missing person’ posters. If she’s hidin’ for whatever reason, that’ll bring her out quick, knowing someone’s worried. Draw somethin’ up and get it down to the printing press so they can make a few copies, will you?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Nicole says, walking over to collect the paper from him.

 

“Oh, Haught, Chrissy came callin’ for you earlier,” he says absently as he collects his things to leave. “She said she’d call on you again later this afternoon once she’d done a few things for me.”

 

“Thanks for the heads up, sir,” Nicole replies with a little smile at Chrissy’s continued show of friendship. “I’ll be sure to wait, just in case she makes her way back here.”

 

“Get her to hang around, if you can?” Nedley asks Nicole as he drops his hat onto his head and prepares to walk out through the door. “I’d rather she didn’t try make her way out home without me. Something about this just don’t feel right, you know?”

 

“Funny,” Nicole comments with a frown. “Gus said the same thing, the other night, my first night in town actually, while we were all in Waverly’s…ah, Miss Earp’s shop.”

 

“Did she now?” Nedley asks, a troubled look settling over his face, as though the fact that Gus felt something has more significance than perhaps Nicole had first thought. “Hmm, maybe I’ll call on my way back here and ask if she’s noticed anything off.”

 

“Good luck, sir,” Nicole says just before Nedley disappears out the door. He tips his hat briefly before he turns on his heel, and then he’s gone.

 

“What do you think’s goin’ on?” one of the other deputies asks once he and Nicole are alone. “Do you think she’s just sick, or…”

 

“I don’t know,” Nicole replies, trying to put her experience to work while she thinks about the last few days, wracking her brain as she tries to identify anything, or anyone, that seemed off or out of place.

 

Normally she’s excellent at picking a grain of sand in a trough-full that’s out of place, but it’s difficult when she’s new to town, when she doesn’t know the habits of the people yet, where the good seeds are, and where the bad are, too.

 

And perhaps it’s in part because she’s been so distracted by Waverly Earp, but honestly, she can’t recall anything to mind that might have been cause for concern. No dubious characters moving about in the open or doing anything they shouldn’t be, other than the asshole Champ Hardy, but Nicole doubts he has the intelligence to do anything beyond clumsily trying to stake his claim over Waverly at every pass and turn.

 

“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know,” Nicole repeats before she sits herself down at a desk and sets herself to making a few missing person posters with the other deputy. “But I wish I did.”

 

“Nedley’s good at his job,” the other deputy replies after a while. “Despite what folk might say about him, this town's been calmer than I can ever remember it being under him as Sheriff. He’s good at his job. If there’s anything going on, he’ll find out, and then we can help him.”

 

“He sounds like a good man to work for,” Nicole says fondly, pausing in her work.

 

“He’s the best, actually,” he says with a look to Nicole. “Damn sight better than Ward Earp.”

 

“You worked for him, too?” Nicole asks as she tries to ascertain the age of the other man.

 

“Sure did,” the deputy replies. “And he was a good Sheriff, too, don’t get me wrong, but he was a real asshole - beggin’ you pardon - to his men. And those poor girls of his, too.”

 

“I’ve heard as much,” Nicole says a little ruefully. “He sounds like a troubled man.”

 

“He was,” the deputy says with raised eyebrows. “I’m damn thankful Nedley stepped up once he…after what happened. We all were.”

 

“Lucky us, huh?” Nicole returns with a smile, attempting to turn the conversation a little brighter, shivering despite the heat of the day at their talk of the dead.

 

“Lucky us, indeed,” he says brightly, taking Nicole’s change of topic quickly before he turns his head and stands to greet an incoming visitor. “How you doin’, Miss Nedley?”

 

Nicole follows suit, despite the fact that Chrissy is her friend, and she frowns at the both of them, waving their politeness away.

 

“Sit down, the two of you,” Chrissy says with a frown that quickly turns into a smile. “Deputy Haught, I’m so glad you’re here. Daddy said I might catch you again if I came back later.”

 

She sweeps over to wrap Nicole in a hug, before she takes Nicole’s hands in her own. “How are you? Good day?”

 

“Good day,” Nicole says, nodding in affirmation. “The Sheriff is just out trying to get to the bottom of why the confectionary shop is still closed, but other than that, it’s been a good afternoon.”

 

“I noticed that was still closed when Miss Earp and I walked past it just now,” Chrissy says with a slightly troubled look on her face. “I can’t remember the last time that it was shut. I hope everything’s alright.”

 

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Nicole answers reassuringly, giving Chrissy’s hand a quick squeeze. “Your father will probably be back in no time.”

 

“It’s not actually him I’m here to see,” Chrissy says brightly as she looks to Nicole. “I came to see you earlier, but that was just to see how you were after your morning. I have something I want to ask you about now, though.”

 

“I do, too, actually,” Nicole replies with a frown across her own brow. “Do you think we could step out for a moment?”

 

“Certainly,” Chrissy says, nodding eagerly before turning to their audience. “Excuse us for a moment, Deputy.”

 

“Of course, ma’am,” he says respectfully as he stands and turns to leave. “I’ll leave you to it.”

 

“Oh no,” both she and Chrissy say at the same time, before they both smile and Nicole continues. “Stay here, we’ll just step outside.”

 

“You’re sure?” he asks, worried obviously, that Nedley will come back and see his daughter relegated to the back porch of the jail.

 

“Absolutely,” Chrissy says with a reassuring smile. “We won’t be a moment. I won’t take up too much more of Deputy Haught’s time.”

 

He sits down from his awkward half-stand-half-squat, still reluctant, until Chrissy gives him one last smile and he leans back in his chair a little easier.

 

They step outside, hidden largely from the afternoon sun, but it’s still hot enough that Nicole feels the need to roll the sleeves of her shirt a little higher.

 

“So,” Chrissy says quietly after she peers back inside and sights the other deputy bending back to his work. “Seen anyone interesting today?”

 

“No,” Nicole replies with a grimace as she tries again to think back to anyone that might have been out of place. “Nothing I can think of, damn it. It’s hard when you’re new and you don’t know everyone’s little habits, you know?”

 

“No,” Chrissy laughs. “I mean anyone else interesting. I just stopped by Waverly’s shop on the way here, and she couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole answers when she realises what Chrissy is insinuating. “Yes, I mean, of course I did. Waverly and I…we, I mean I escorted her to the store to get a few things.”

 

“She said as much,” Chrissy says, her smile holding proudly as she watches Nicole’s cheeks redden. “She mentioned the two of you might…”

 

“Yes,” Nicole replies quickly. “I mean…it’s just…we’re just going to have dinner, if we can manage without anyone… actually, that’s what I wanted to ask you about.”

 

“Dinner?” Chrissy asks curiously, tilting her head.

 

“No,” Nicole says, shaking her head gently, her cheeks burning hotter before she snaps herself back to form, because she’s doing this for Waverly, no matter how uncomfortable it might make her. “I need some…help with something.”

 

“Anything,” Chrissy replies with a smile. “I mean, besides breakin’ a law or something of the like.”

 

“It feels like we just about are,” Nicole says underneath her breath before Chrissy reaches for her arm.

 

“Hey,” Chrissy offers gently. “It’ll be different one day. I know it will. Probably not in our life, nor the children of the next, but I know it’ll change one day, Nicole.”

 

“God, I hope so,” Nicole says, sighing heavily. “I really hope so, but no, this isn’t breakin’ any law I know of, at least. I need help with…”

 

“With?” Chrissy prompts when Nicole doesn’t say anything for a moment.

 

“A dress,” Nicole says finally as her face scrunches and she drops her head into her waiting hands, talking through her fingers. “I need help buying a dress.”

 

“For your date?” Chrissy asks, and Nicole can tell she’s smothering the urge to smile at Nicole’s discomfort, but she won’t, because she can see how nervous and out of her depth Nicole appears to feel just asking the question. “You want help with something to wear?”

 

“Yes,” Nicole says as the embarrassment crawls over every inch of her skin. “A dress. Specifically a dress.”

 

“You don’t have one with you?” Chrissy asks before she berates herself for her thoughtlessness. “I mean, I’m sorry, Nicole. I shouldn’t have assumed. Why a dress, though? Do you want to wear a dress?”

 

“I think Waverly wants me to?” Nicole replies quietly. “She made a comment earlier, and I…I think that’s what she’s expecting? That this outfit...is just for work?”

 

“Did you ask her about it?” Chrissy asks with a gentle question. “Because I’m sure she’d want you to be yourself, Nicole. Not who you think she wants.”

 

“I don’t know,” Nicole says as she thinks back to their conversation and Waverly’s throwaway comment. “I mean, I know she wouldn’t consciously ask me, but I just thought that was her subconscious way of sayin’ she’d prefer if I looked more…”

 

“Proper?” Chrissy offers. “Ladylike?”

 

“Exactly,” Nicole replies with a grimace. “And I might be completely wrong, but if I’m not… I don’t want to risk her bein’ disappointed if I show up dressed in a different way to what she’s expecting?”

 

“I’m not gonna tell you not to do somethin’ when I think your heart’s set on it, but I know Waverly wouldn’t have meant it like that. Not on purpose,” Chrissy says softly, in an attempt, Nicole thinks, to ease her mind. “But, if that’s what you want, I’d be more than willin’ to help you find whatever it is you’re lookin’ for.”

 

“You would?” Nicole asks, sighing in relief. “Thank goodness, because I don’t even know where to start .”

 

“Well, I do,” Chrissy says with a relaxed tone to her voice that immediately makes Nicole feel more at ease. “I could make a profession out of it, if we had an endless pot of gold to pay for it.”

 

“Would you have time tomorrow?” Nicole asks as she rubs her hand over the base of her neck beneath her braid. “I don’t want to put any pressure on you today, and I have to run somethin’ to the printing press soon, as well as clean off half the desert in my hair and down my back, but tomorrow…?”

 

“Tomorrow would be perfect,” Chrissy answers brightly. “Absolutely perfect. I can hardly wait, I’m thinkin’ we’ll look for something dark with that hair of yours, maybe an indigo blue, if the dressmaker has anything. That’ll bring the colour up nicely.”

 

She rattles off a few other points to herself, all of which are far beyond Nicole, before she turns back to Nicole and looks over her shoulder.

 

“That was quick. Daddy’s back already, maybe he found her upstairs,” Chrissy says as they both turn and walk inside, although it quickly becomes clear to the both of them that whatever Nedley has found isn’t good news.

 

“Is everythin’ alright, Sheriff?” Nicole asks as Nedley drops his hat into his hands, wiping his brow with his forearm.

 

“Everything’s just fine,” Nedley answers with a worried frown. “But that’s just the problem. I made my way inside, and everything’s just fine. Nothing out of shape, nothing disturbed or missing, from what I could see. No sign of a struggle. Nothing.”

 

“And nothin’ upstairs, either?” Nicole queries as the feeling of unease in the pit of her stomach deepens.

 

“Nothin’,” Nedley says in confirmation. “Everything was fine. Not a hair out of place. I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind comin’ back with me, Haught, just in case I missed something. Your old Sheriff said how good you were at findin’ things other people miss.”

 

“Of course, sir,” Nicole replies, a warm surge of pride running through her veins at the compliment. “Do you want to go now, or…”

 

Nicole’s brought up short by the appearance of a rather disheveled looking man at the walk-in door of the jail.

 

“Jackson,” Nedley says immediately, stepping forward to greet the newcomer. “What’s takin’ you, man? It looks like the devil chased you here.”

 

“I think he might’ve,” the other deputy says under his breath as he stands to move a little closer to the group.

 

“My daughter,” the man -- Jackson , Nicole corrects herself -- says with a pained breath as he reaches for Nedley’s arm roughly. “Is she here? Have any of you seen her?”

 

“Charlotte?” Chrissy asks gently. “Do you mean Charlotte, Mr. Jackson?”

 

“She’s the only one I got, ain’t she?” he snaps at Chrissy, and all three of them bristle at the way his voice comes out, all stepping forward to put themselves a little in front of Chrissy before the other man blanches a little.

 

“I know you’re aggrieved for whatever reason, sir, but you’ll watch your mouth before you talk to any woman like that, particularly my daughter,” Nedley says with a hard eye, and for the first time since she arrived, Nicole has a glimpse at the true steel of the man.

 

“Of course, Sheriff,” the man says immediately, recognising his rudeness. “Beggin’ your pardon, Miss, it’s just, she didn’t come home to the farm last night, and I thought she might have gotten herself stuck in town, but I can’t find her anywhere, and no one’s seen her since yesterday afternoon. She’s too young and too careful to have found herself in trouble, I just don’t know where else she could be.”

 

“I saw her at the tailor’s yesterday afternoon,” Chrissy offers quietly. “But not later than that.”

 

“You’ll pardon my askin’, but she didn’t have a… suitor of any kind did she? They couldn’t have…” Nedley asks delicately, obviously not wanting to aggravate the already tense man in front of them, but eager to find out everything he can that might help.

 

“No,” he replies, shaking his head. “None at all. I wish she did, then this whole thing would be simpler, but she don’t. I’ve already been to all the stores she normally goes to, everyone she knows, but no one’s seen her.”

 

The sinking feeling in Nicole’s stomach yawns wider as she puts two and two together. Because the woman who owns the shop in town may well be sick and missing of her own accord, and so might this young woman, but if not…

 

“Don’t worry about it, man,” Nedley says with a comforting pat on the man’s arm. “We’ll find her, don’t you worry. I’m sure she’s just gone and got herself stuck somewhere. We’ll all head out and start askin’ a few questions, and I bet you’ll have her back before supper.”

 

Nicole is about to question the positivity Nedley’s giving this man, because it’s very probably false hope, but then she sees the way his body visibly relaxes, and Nicole knows this is better, that he’s better off having some small peace now and a heartache to come, instead of just breaking his heart flat out now.

 

She can see the other deputy out of the corner of her eye, obviously thinking the same thing, and hesitant to put himself on the line of hope, so Nicole does it for him.

 

“Don’t worry, sir,” Nicole says, stepping up to Nedley’s side. “The Sheriff’s right, we’ll rotate searches until we find her, but I’m sure she’s not far away.”

 

“It was a right thing you did,” he says before he looks to Nedley. “Givin’ her the job. She’ll be a fine deputy.”

 

“I ain’t no idiot,” Nedley replies, nudging the man gently. “Now, you can either stick around and ride out with us, or you can head out on your own patrol, it’s up to you?”

 

“I think I’ll head off on my own, thank you kindly, Sheriff,” he says as he collects himself. “I’ll see if I can drag a few others away from their afternoon drinks to help. I’ll call back in at sunset to see if any of you’ve had luck?”

 

“See you then,” Nedley answers with a nod of his hat. “Godspeed to you, man.”

 

He gives the others a tip of his own hat before he leaves them all to it, and Nedley turns back to Nicole with a heavy frown.

 

“Jesus wept, you don’t think…” he offers, his brain scrambling to find connections between the two missing women as Nicole’s had a moment ago.

 

“I think so, sir,” Nicole says solemnly, scratching at the nape of her neck, just to do something with her hands. “We should start…”

 

“Yes, we should,” Nedley replies, looking around the room to Chrissy. “I want you to stay here, young lady. I’ll take you home with me, but until then, I want you to stay with a deputy, alright?”

 

“Yes, Daddy,” Chrissy nods in acquiescence, and Nicole can see that Chrissy is more than a little shaken by the man’s entrance and quick exit. “I’ll stay with Nicole, and…”

 

“I want Haught to come with me,” Nedley says to Chrissy carefully. “I need her to have a look over the shop, see if she can find anything, but you’re okay here with the others.”

 

“Of course,” Chrissy answers, smiling to the other deputy there, who returns her smile fondly. “I can beat him at poker a few times before you come back, I’m sure.”

 

“That’s what you think, is it?” he asks Chrissy with a reassuring and calming tone to his voice, and she watches Chrissy’s shoulders ease a little as they continue to bicker playfully in the background.  

 

“I’m ready whenever you are, sir,” Nicole says, turning back to Nedley.

 

“Good,” Nedley returns gruffly, although Nicole can hear the slight anxiety in his voice, whether at leaving Chrissy here, or at the situation in general, she’s not sure. He shakes the ghosts from his shoulders a few seconds later before he looks to Nicole with a more determined expression on his face. “Let’s go.”



-



The walk down the Main Street doesn’t take them long, but Nicole spends it trying to collect as much information on the missing women as she can.

 

“Couldn’t be more opposite if you tried,” Nedley says when Nicole asks him whether there were any similarities between the two of them. “One’s tall, the other’s short. One’s young, younger than Chrissy and yourself, and the other’s much older.”

 

“Huh,” Nicole replies, digesting the information. “What about the families? Any enemies or grudges? Any reason someone might look for a bit of revenge?”

 

“There are plenty of other families around here that do, but not those two. Both clean as you like,” Nedley answers as he contemplates the information, too. “I can’t think of anything to connect them, beyond the fact that they’re women.”

 

“I mean, I don’t even know them, but that’s the only link I can see, too, sir,” Nicole says before they stop in front of her shop, still boarded and closed, and not, despite Nicole’s wishes on the way here, open with its owner happily inside.

 

“The entrance is ‘round the back,” Nedley says, leading Nicole down between the building and the one beside it. She takes her time walking to meet him as her eyes move keenly over everything in the alley, looking for anything that might offer them some help or clue.

 

She doesn’t see anything out of place, though, not one thing besides a small black smudge about shoulder height on the side of the building, but it’s nowhere near the door where the woman might have come and gone, and could have been left by anyone else in town, given the freely found access to coal.

 

“Anythin’?” Nedley asks her when she makes her way to him at the end of the alley by the door. “Anythin’ look out of place to you?”

 

“Nothin’ that jumps at me,” Nicole returns with a frown as she continues to swing her gaze around. “There’s a coal smudge down a way, but that could have been left by anyone, I suppose.”

 

“Probably nothing,” Nedley says, casting one last look around, too, before he puts his hand on the doorknob and shoulders the door open.

 

The light in the shop is low, but the sun’s still bright enough outside that Nicole can see most things clearly once her eyes adjust to the darkness.

 

She draws in a deep breath, tasting the air for any sort of a clue, but she can’t smell anything beyond the lingering scent of sweetness and sugar from the confectionary.

 

“Is this what the shop normally looks like?” Nicole asks, walking around carefully, conscious of the need to not disturb anything.

 

“More or less,” Nedley says, nodding as he does a loop around the small shop, too, before he meets Nicole at the bottom of the staircase to the upper floor. “Tidier than usual, but then I’ve only been here in the day before, not without customers.”

 

“And you went upstairs?” Nicole questions as she peers up the stairs to the roof of the second floor.

 

“Only briefly,” Nedley replies, putting his hands on the rail and starting to climb. “Only to make sure she wasn’t up here, but I didn’t have a decent look around.”

 

Nicole follows Nedley up the stairs as every hair on the back of her neck and her forearms stands to attention in anticipation of what they might find.

 

There isn’t a lot, she notices, when they walk around the space of the small room. It’s tidy -- as tidy as the shop downstairs -- and to an outsider, everything might look in place, but Nicole has seen enough in her relatively young life to know that not everything that looks untouched, is actually so.

 

“Anything look off to you?” Nedley asks Nicole while he watches her walk around, looking at small things as she tries to find something that might help them.

 

“Maybe. The bed looks to be made, but her dress is hung up,” Nicole says perceptively, pointing to the small cot bed and the wardrobe across the room. “Which says to me that she left here in her nightdress, either before bed, or in the early morning. I mean, she could have worn something else, but the wardrobe doesn’t look disturbed, like she had taken something else in its place.”

 

“I don’t know about you, but I think I would have noticed if a woman was wanderin’ around in her shift, don’t you?” Nedley asks with a frown.

 

“I should say so,” Nicole says a little distractedly by way of agreement as she continues her inspection of the floor.

 

Nothing else looks to be out of place, there don’t appear to be any pieces of jewelery missing from her small nightstand, nothing seems to be missing or disturbed.

 

Nicole’s about to walk back to Nedley when she sees something down beside the cot bed: a cup of untouched tea that looks like it had been placed for the drinker to sip in bed, that is, for whatever reason, as full as it was when poured.

 

“Look at this,” Nicole says, walking over to the cot. “I think wherever she went, she was plannin’ on returning.”

 

“Damn,” Nedley replies as he rubs his hands over his face and takes in what that likely means. “Damn it to high hell. Good work, Haught. Anythin’ else?”

 

“Not that I can see, sir,” Nicole says with a troubled frown of her own. “Everything else looks exactly as it should.”

 

“That’s the problem,” Nedley grumbles before he sighs and turns to Nicole. “Right, if there’s nothin’ else, we should be getting back. See if the others have found anything.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Nicole returns as she casts one last look around before climbing down the stairs behind him.

 

The energy of the room itself feels fine to Nicole, as though whatever had happened here, if something had happened, hadn’t happened inside . Things were too tidy, too undisturbed, very much as though they were waiting for their owner to return.

 

She feels fine downstairs, too, until they step back out into the little alleyway and Nicole shivers.

 

“Everythin’ alright, Haught?” Nedley asks as he watches her blanch a little.

 

“Fine, sir,” Nicole says quickly, not wanting him to think her off at all. “Just that somethin’ doesn’t feel right here, only it can’t show us what, exactly.”

 

“I know what you mean,” Nedley replies, crossing himself quickly as they walk back into the unobscured light of the Main Street. “Good eyes, back there, Deputy. I don’t know if I would have caught that myself.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” Nicole replies, feeling a small swell of pride at Nedley’s recognition.

 

They don’t talk much as they walk back to the jail, both caught up in trying to process just what their small discoveries at the shop really mean.

 

They don’t pass Waverly’s shop on their walk back, it’s a way on in the other direction, closer to the confectionary shop and general store she and Waverly has visited earlier in the day, and she knows it’s ridiculous because it’s still full daylight, but she can’t quite fully smother the urge to want to run at full speed down just to make sure Waverly’s okay, too.

 

“I know what you’re thinkin’,” Nedley says all of a sudden, watching Nicole throw a glance in that direction. “But don’t you worry. The second that sister of hers catches sound of trouble, she’ll be there givin’ Waverly the sermon on makin’ sure she’s extra careful, as if she’s not already.”

 

“Good,” Nicole says with a rough voice, as if trying to convince the both of them that she’s not really that worried. “I mean, I know she’s a big girl, but…”

 

“I know,” Nedley replies, and Nicole knows he won’t bring the subject up straight to her face in light of the surrounding taboo, but she thinks this might be his way of letting Nicole know that whatever her preferences are, they’re okay. “Don’t worry, Haught. I know. Why do you think I asked Chrissy to stay put? I know she’s more than capable, but…”

 

And Nicole knows. She knows . Because Waverly and Chrissy are capable young women, but two disappearances in as many days in a town this size means there’s something wrong , and it’s even more unnerving when they’re so blind as to what it is that could be responsible for them.

 

They don’t know who’s responsible, or what’s actually happening, or how many other people might go missing before they can get to the bottom of it.

 

“What do you think’s goin’ on, sir?” Nicole asks Nedley before they walk through the door into the jail.

 

“Damned if I know, Haught,” Nedley answers, turning to give her his full attention. “But I do know that whatever it is, ain’t good. And I think this is only the beginning.”

 

“I have a feelin’ you might be right, sir,” Nicole says with a deeply concerned frown. “I have a terrible feelin’ you might be right.”



-

Chapter Text

-



They arrive back at the jail and report Nicole’s findings to the other deputies assembled before Mr. Jackson returns with a few men to advise that they haven’t had any luck with their own searches.

 

Nedley doesn’t tell them about the confectionary shop, or the other potentially linked missing person, and Nicole supports Nedley’s decision wholeheartedly.

 

To tell them now, without further information - or, Nicole thinks begrudgingly, any information - is to risk widespread panic. And as much as that will likely put the person - if there is a person - on alert, it could also hasten their hand into actions that are much worse.

 

He leaves with an assurance that they’ll do a last sweep of the town and nearby farms before nightfall, and they’ll meet in the morning to discuss any findings, or if they’re successful in their search, will return the young woman to her father immediately.

 

As much as Nicole wants to think this is nothing more than a coincidence, it’s becoming clearer and clearer in her head that it is not, and that the two are not randomly missing, but rather connected somehow.

 

She watches Jackson leave with his men, dejected, but still hopeful, and she feels sick because she knows even now that they’re unlikely to find his daughter alive. And it makes her heart pull, too, for the woman who owns the confectionary shop, potentially missing for two days without a single family member to sound the alarm for her.

 

And then she thinks of Waverly, of sweet, kind, flawless Waverly, who looks like a maiden fair; who looks like a virgin sacrifice from the Greek tragedies she sometimes reads; who, if there is someone, could very well be in danger, too.

 

Not if I have anything to do with it, Nicole thinks with clenched fists as the watches the last of the men file out the door into the early evening sun. They’ll take her over my dead body.

 

“Right,” Nedley says, turning to the three deputies assembled in front of him, missing only one other, at home, sleeping off his night shift. “I want the three of you to start patrolling, ask questions, start lookin’ for anything that might help us, or that, god forbid, points to anyone else having gone missing, alright? I’m going to stay here in case Jackson comes back with any news.”

 

With any bad news , Nicole finishes in her head. The kind of news that the Sheriff alone can communicate to the town.

 

“Yes, sir,” the three of them echo before Nedley steps towards Nicole, picking the MISSING PERSON sign up off of the desk nearest to him.

 

“Take this to the printing press, will you, Haught?” Nedley asks of her specifically. “Have a good look around town while you’re walkin’, too. Do you think you have a good idea of who’s who yet?”

 

“I think so, sir,” Nicole nods to him as he steps closer to her. “I mean, there might be a few I haven’t seen, but I recognise most already.”

 

“Good,” he says gruffly, watching the other two men walk out the door together before they climb up onto their waiting horses and head out to scout the nearby surrounds for any signs or clues. “Anyone that looks unusual, or anyone you haven’t seen in the few days you’ve been here, I want you to question them, okay? See if others recognise them, if others are talkin’ to them.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Nicole answers seriously. “And, sir... Did you want me to call on Gus, too? See if there’s been anyone stayin’ there that she hasn’t seen before?”

 

“If you’re passin’, that’s a good thought,” Nedley says approvingly, pleased with her initiative. “But if she’s not around, just mention it to her when you head back tonight, alright?”

 

“Of course, sir,” Nicole replies with a nod. “Is there anythin’ else? Anythin’ else we can do?”

 

“Just keep our eyes open,” Nedley says with a growl, and Nicole can tell that this is affecting him more deeply than he’s letting on. That he’s upset at the fact that this is happening on his watch, and they hadn’t realised until they were two missing persons down. “Keep your eyes open and pray to god that we don’t have another visit like this one tomorrow.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Nicole replies solemnly before she turns to leave, giving Chrissy in the corner of the room a farewell wave before she walks out into the street.

 

It’s eerie, she thinks as she makes her way back towards the Inn and Waverly’s shop, a few places up from the printing press. This morning, this street had felt safe, secure, welcoming, and now, with the events of the day, it feels changed .

 

It’s subtle, nothing more than the feeling of someone walking over her grave or the hairs on the back of her neck standing half-high, but the undercurrent of malignancy, it’s there .

 

Nicole shivers, and the sensation slithers down the back of her neck like a snake before she tilts her head to the sun and tries to will the warmth to banish the sense of dread weighing her blood down.

 

As if drawn to it by some rope or thread, her body sensing the need for light, Nicole finds herself face to face with the window of Waverly’s shop, where Waverly is talking, happily ignorant, hopefully, for now, to whatever black-blooded threat is moving through the town unseen and unnoticed.

 

Waverly catches sight of her, as if drawn by the same thread, so Nicole gestures quickly to the paper in her hand, and her intention to return momentarily, before Waverly smiles her beautifully soft smile, and Nicole floats, all stress drained, to the printing press a few doors down.

 

She speaks to the printer quietly, making him aware of the situation and asking whether he had seen anything unusual, to which he shakes his head, advising that he’ll make copies of the sign Nicole hands to him as a priority before she makes her way back to Waverly’s shop.

 

She raises her hand to shield her eyes from the sun, casting her gaze up and down the street as Nedley had asked, looking for anyone unfamiliar to her eye, but she doesn’t see anything.

 

She spots Gus down the way, busy talking to a man outside the cobbler’s, so Nicole makes a mental note to talk to her later, and makes straight for Waverly’s shop instead.

 

It makes Nicole feel faintly sick, the thought that she has to tell Waverly what’s been going on, or rather what they think might be going on, but Nicole knows that Waverly needs to know. More than just to keep herself safe, she deserves to know. This is more her town than it will ever be Nicole’s, after all, and who is she to withhold something like his from her?

 

“Good evening, Deputy,” Waverly says with a light-filled smile as she waves her last customer out the door, and Nicole steps aside to accommodate the departure before she walks through herself. “I wasn’t expectin’ to see you until much later. Is everything alright?”

 

Nicole doesn’t say anything for a moment, and she regrets it, because Waverly’s face falls and her hands reach for Nicole’s immediately.

 

“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” Waverly says as she ducks beneath the counter so she can stand face to face with Nicole. She pulls Nicole a little closer so she can inspect her hands before she runs her eyes up and down Nicole’s body, checking for any visible signs of harm. “Did somethin’ happen?”

 

“I’m okay,” Nicole replies calmly, taking Waverly’s hands into her own properly so she can run her thumb soothingly over the bump of Waverly’s knuckles. “I’m okay, I promise. It’s…we’ve had a few things happen today, and I wanted to come tell you myself.”

 

“What is it?” Waverly asks quickly, and Nicole can feel her brimming with nervous energy. “Is someone hurt, or…?”

 

“No one’s hurt,” Nicole says carefully before she looks around them to ensure there isn’t anyone about to walk into the shop. “Well, not yet, anyway.”

 

“What do you mean, not yet? Wait…” Waverly breathes as she cuts herself off. “Does this have anythin’ to do with the confectionary shop? Did something happen to her?”

 

“That’s the problem,” Nicole replies, her fingers running over the fine bones of Waverly’s hand without conscious thought. “We don’t know, because we can’t find her. She’s missing, Waverly.”

 

Missing ?” Waverly repeats disbelievingly. “Missing in Purgatory? But no one goes missing in Purgatory. It’s been safe for years.”

 

“We’re thinkin’ it might not be so safe anymore,” Nicole says, trying to remain as calm as possible so Waverly feels as though Nicole has it under control. So she feels safe and not panicked. “Because we think there might be a second person missing, too.”

 

“A second…” Waverly says, trailing off again. “But…”

 

Nicole can see her mind spinning as she tries to take the information in, and before she analyses what that means for her own physical safety, Nicole interjects.

 

“Waverly, I didn’t tell you to scare you. If I thought it would make things worse, I would have waited, but I want to make sure you know you’re safe,” Nicole reassures her. “I won’t take my eye off you, as often as I can, okay? I just…I know you’re already careful, but just be extra careful, alright? Don’t go out after dark, don’t open the door to anyone. If you feel afraid, I’m sure Gus would have a room for you at the Inn.”

 

“Who is it?” Waverly asks when her eyes clear once Nicole stops speaking. “Who else has gone missing?”

 

“Mr. Jackson,” Nicole says carefully. “The farmer on the outskirts of town? His daughter didn’t come home last night. He rode into the jail this afternoon and alerted us.”

 

“Have you…” Waverly asks, inclining her head out the window, and Nicole knows she means the confectionaire.

 

“Nedley and I have had a look around, and we can’t see anythin’ that would suggest foul play. She’s just gone . Almost into thin air,” Nicole says as that cold ominous shiver moves across her skin again.

 

“Jesus,” Waverly breathes, and Nicole can feel a slight tremble beneath the warmth of Waverly’s hands in her own.

 

“We’re all lookin’, and I’ve got notices on the way at the printing press. I just wanted to come and see you before anyone else did,” Nicole offers quietly, squeezing Waverly’s hand gently and prompting Waverly to settle her gaze on Nicole properly. “It’s gonna be fine. I’ll make sure you’re safe, okay?”

 

“You will?” Waverly asks with a small voice, and Nicole can see the ghost of her past move across Waverly’s heart. “I mean…”

 

“I’ll make sure of it,” Nicole says firmly, looking into Waverly’s eyes. “I promise , Waverly Earp.”

 

“Thank you, Nicole… I…thank you,” Waverly replies with a shaky voice, and Nicole wants so badly to pull Waverly to her and hide her with the sweep of her shoulders from the world, but she doesn’t want to push, she doesn’t want…

 

She’s scared .

 

She’s scared of pushing too much or too hard, to prompt Waverly for contact she’s not ready for or doesn’t want, but then Waverly does something that takes her breath away.

 

It happens quickly and in slow motion, all at once.

 

They’re standing close, so it’s not that much for Waverly to move a little closer, to step further into the warmth of Nicole’s body.

 

And Waverly does.

 

She looks up to Nicole with watery eyes as she takes Nicole’s hands to her chest, before she folds herself into Nicole’s front, her own balled fists resting against Nicole’s heart.

 

She feels the organ stop mid-thump, and she’s frozen still for about a second - not long enough for Waverly to even notice, she doesn’t think - before her body reacts as though this is something that’s happened a thousand times, that it happens on a daily basis and it’s not the single most important moment of Nicole’s life thus far.

 

Her arms move around Waverly’s shoulders, accepting the gift of Waverly’s presence, sheltering her against the invisible storm to come, as easily as breathing. She pulls Waverly close to her, gently, reassuringly, and her marrow sings when she feels Waverly relax entirely into the curve Nicole’s body creates for her.

 

“It…” Waverly mumbles into her front, and Nicole pulls back slightly to put just enough space between them so she can hear what Waverly’s saying properly.

 

Waverly looks up at Nicole before she draws a handful of Nicole’s vest in her fists and she sets her head back against Nicole’s chest, her ear over Nicole’s pounding heart.

 

“I’m scared,” Waverly admits when the expression on her face is hidden and she can speak to the safety of Nicole’s body. “It… this makes me feel scared. Is that…?”

 

“It’s not silly,” Nicole answers as she tightens her arms and holds Waverly closer. “It’s smart to be a little scared in times like this, but you don’t need to be afraid.”

 

“Times like this?” Waverly asks, her voice still masked a little by Nicole’s chest. “Does that mean…?”

 

“I’ve been around things like this before,” Nicole says carefully, not to scare Waverly even more with the fact that this isn’t unheard of, but to reassure her. “Not often, but this isn’t foreign. And I know it’s scary, but I promise you, the good guy always finds the bastard responsible, if that’s what’s happening, okay?”

 

Because they do, Nicole knows they do, she just omits what she’s seen happen when that doesn’t happen fast enough.

 

“And you’ll…” Waverly asks, lifting her head off of Nicole’s chest before she misses the security of Nicole’s heartbeat and sets her head back down. “You’ll make sure I… you’ll keep watch for me? You’ll…”

 

“With two eyes and every inch of my ability,” Nicole replies firmly, drawing circles between Waverly’s shoulder blades with her thumbs. “I promise , Waverly.”

 

They stand together in the quiet of Waverly’s shop for what could be a minute or an hour, Nicole has no idea, as her hands soothe and her chin rests on the top of Waverly’s head, and she tries to hold the world and it’s worries out for a moment longer.

 

“Everything’s going to be okay,” Nicole breathes clearly when Waverly pulls back to look up at her. “Even if it takes a little while to get there, everything’s gonna be okay. I promise. You trust me?”

 

She doesn’t mean to ask such a loaded question, and could kick herself for it the second it leaves her mouth, so she’s not expecting much of an answer, but Waverly looks at her, into her, and without a second’s hesitation, says yes , as though it’s the easiest thing in the world.

 

“I trust you,” Waverly says with crystal clarity as their eyes lock , and it stops Nicole’s heart all over again. “I trust you, Nicole.”

 

The next movement of Waverly’s hands doesn’t do much to assuage that either, because they move from resting over Nicole’s heart to run down her stomach before they clutch Nicole’s belt for a second and then drop.

 

There’s a breath’s-length reprieve before one of Waverly’s hands moves for her again, resting ever so lightly over the lip of her belt at one of her hips, like Waverly’s loathe to break the contact altogether.

 

She looks up to Nicole with slightly hooded eyes, and it’s the first time she’s seen Waverly look at her with hunger , like she wants something from Nicole, and she finds that she doesn’t mind. Not at all.

 

She can’t deny the heat it brings to her palms where they now rest on Waverly’s hips, too, nor the flush it brings to her cheeks, and the world seems to stop still around them.

 

Waverly’s asking a question gently with her eyes, she’s saying is this okay as her touch wavers, ready to pull away, and Nicole answers yes as her own touch tightens at Waverly’s side.

 

She smiles, a smile that seems to take up the entire length or her body, and Nicole hazards a glance around before she reaches to tuck a loose strand of hair behind Waverly’s ear. She wouldn’t dare risk a kiss, not out in the open like this, no matter how empty the street is outside, and not without more of an inclination that Waverly would permit one, too.

 

But she wants to. God , she wants to.

 

And she thinks maybe - just maybe, if the blush on Waverly’s own cheeks is anything to go by - that Waverly might also want to.

 

She’s not sure how on earth she’s going to bring them out of this moment they’re locked in, because she doesn't want to move for a herd of wild horses, but then a movement outside Waverly’s shop does it for them.

 

It’s Champ, having walked into a barrel outside the door.

 

Champ, who can see how close they’re standing together, and where their hands are placed.

 

Champ, who looks at them like he knows .

 

And Nicole expects Waverly to jump back at his arrival, but she doesn’t.

 

Her hand only tightens on Nicole’s belt as she meets Champs gaze evenly.

 

And Nicole knows it’s not the smartest idea, and that it could come back and bite them in a big way, but for the moment, she couldn’t care less.

 

Because she’s been in the mirror of this position before, only her first love hadn’t held tight, she’d flinched away, and that had been the beginning of their end.

 

But Waverly doesn’t flinch, she holds , and it makes Nicole’s heart sing.

 

His gaze doesn’t shift off of them for a second as his eyes move up and down and up again, and it feels more intrusive than Nicole knows it should. Like he’s devouring the moment for his own ends, and it makes her skin crawl, so she drops her hands in an extremely measured way, letting them linger before they fall, and she turns to Champ in a way that shields Waverly from him.

 

“What do you want, Hardy?” Nicole asks, all pretence of pleasantry gone, because there was none on his side before, and there sure as hell won’t be now. Not now that he can see Nicole has the thing he wants: Waverly’s attention.

 

“Just comin’ to see my future bride,” he says as he eyes Nicole maliciously.

 

“She’s not your bride, Champ,” Nicole returns with a little more fire in her voice now.

 

“What, do you think she’s yours?” he asks derisively, almost laughing before setting his hands on his hips and jutting them forward. “That’s disgusting .”

 

There’s a revulsion in his tone that Nicole’s more than familiar with, sadly, but she’s almost positive Waverly won’t have heard it drip from someone’s words before, not even towards Wynonna, so she looks to her, expecting to find her hurt or scared, but she’s not.

 

She’s upset, that Nicole can tell, but she’s rigid with anger, not fear or hesitation.

 

“Leave, Champ,” Waverly says coldly, walking to Nicole’s side, not bothering to step away from the warmth Nicole’s body offers.

 

“I’ll be back,” he says ominously, and the thought of him coming to claim Waverly makes Nicole’s stomach roll with revulsion. “I know what you need, Waverly Earp. You need the touch of a man . I’ll be back.”

 

“My answer’s not going to change, Champ,” Waverly says coolly as she straightens up beside Nicole, and it makes her proud, how willing Waverly is to stand up for herself. “Do us both a favour and don’t bother.”

 

“So she can have free reign at you?” he asks, throwing a dirty look at Nicole again. “Not a chance.”

 

“She’s not having free reign at anything,” Waverly replies with a quietly seething calm. “I’m my own damn person, Champ. I’m not an object, and if I’m anyone’s, I’m certainly not yours .”

 

“For now,” he says finally, before he turns roughly on his heel and stomps down the street, the dirt giving way and stirring dust into the air in his wake.

 

They don’t say anything for a moment, both caught watching him storm away, ensuring he’s actually gone before they turn back to one another, and Waverly sighs heavily as she leans into Nicole a little.

 

“I’m sorry,” Waverly says, her voice exhausted as she rests her head on Nicole’s arm. “I’m sorry you have to deal with that. I know it isn’t your cross to bear.”

 

“Your crosses are my crosses,” Nicole replies without thought as she watches him disappear from sight. “I mean, I shouldn’t assume, Waverly. I’m sorry. If you’ll let me shoulder that burden with you.”

 

“It doesn’t make you want to run hide and tail in the other direction?” Waverly asks with a tremble between her words, and Nicole can tell how worried she is at the prospect that it might.

 

“I’ve dealt with worse than Champ Hardy for less,” Nicole says with a reassuring smile, running her hand down Waverly’s arm and turning back to face her more fully. “If you want me, I’ll be right here, by your side. But if you don’t, all you have to do is say.”

 

“Don’t go,” Waverly answers quickly as she reaches for Nicole’s hand, tethering them together. “Please, I mean. Stay. If you want to.”

 

“Never wanted anythin’ more,” Nicole whispers, and she doesn’t mean to leave the double entendre there, but she doesn’t mind, not with the way she feels Waverly shiver beside her.

 

And she knows they will need to talk about this, amongst a score of other things, if this tentative friendship is to bloom into something more - about what it will mean , and what people will say  - but it’s not a worry or thought she wishes to leave Waverly with today.

 

Waverly looks to her as she bites her lip, and for a moment, Nicole thinks she might just risk everything to close her eyes and lean up on her tiptoes, before reason interjects and she exhales shakily, tightening her hand around Nicole’s instead.

 

The world stops still again, and Nicole has to fight hard against every urge that’s telling her to move , because now isn’t the time. Because she wants to kiss Waverly more than she wants to breathe, but now isn’t the time .

 

“As much as I really don’t want to,” Nicole says, heavily reluctant to break the moment. “I need to get back to the jail in case the others have any news.”

 

“What if I smile extra sweetly?” Waverly asks with a devilish grin that Nicole hasn’t seen before. It’s new, bold, as is the hunger curling her hands around Nicole’s, but she’s definitely not complaining. “Will you stay a little while longer?”

 

“I think I can spare a moment or two,” Nicole replies with a similarly bold grin and a slow drawl as she dares to run her thumb over the top of Waverly’s hand. “Only for you, ma’am.”

 

Waverly positively glows, and she lets out a small sigh of contentment beneath Nicole’s simple touch, and Nicole thinks just wait, just wait until we can be even freer with our touch than a concealed glancing of our hands like this.

 

She feels as though Waverly reads her mind for a second, because she shivers again, unprompted, somehow reading the anticipation in the bend of Nicole’s body, and she looks at Nicole with a hunger all over again.

 

The setting sun coming through the window draws Nicole’s attention away finally, before she turns to Waverly with a soft frown

 

“I really must be gettin’ on,” Nicole says quietly, as though keeping their voices low will hold the outside world at an arm's length.

 

“I know,” Waverly replies easily, although her hold on Nicole doesn’t ease yet. “Will you…do you think you could call by before you retire for the evening? If it’s not too much of an inconvenience? I understand if it is, of course, and I realise I’ve already asked enough of you today…”

 

“Yes,” Nicole says with a quick, keen, exhale, watching the way Waverly breathes in relief at her answer. “I’d love…I mean, if you’ll admit the visit, yes. Absolutely, yes.”

 

“Go on then, Deputy,” Waverly offers as she frees Nicole’s hand with the promise of another visit safe between her fingers instead. “Away with you.”

 

Nicole drops an expression of mock-horror at Waverly’s playful dismissal before she smiles and takes a step backwards, unable to tear her eyes from Waverly just yet.

 

“Stay safe until then, okay?” Nicole says with a tip of her hat. “I’ll see you before long.”

 

“It already feels too long,” Waverly admits, raising her hands to rest against her own heart as if trying to hold the lingering warmth of Nicole’s touch there.

 

She knows it’s fast, too fast and too hard and too deep, but Nicole looks at Waverly, to Waverly, into Waverly, and she falls .

 

Hard and swift and irreversibly, she falls.

 

Faintly, Nicole wonders again what the briefest time someone has fallen in love with another heart is, because she thinks this must be a record, surely.

 

The early evening sky has a special glow to it when she steps outside, an aura Nicole has never seen before, and it’s almost enough for her to miss something off , but she catches it.

 

At the edge of her vision, she catches it.

 

And it’s so brief that she’s not even sure it’s real, because one second it’s there, a figure at the end of the street she’s sure she has never seen before, with a dark halo, a shadow on them she’s also sure isn’t real, and the next, it - no, they  - are gone.

 

She blinks and shakes her head as she takes step after step in the figure’s direction, or what she thinks the figure’s direction was anyway, but it’s gone.

 

No figure, no shadow, no halo.

 

Gone.

 

If it was even there to begin with.

 

It could be the heat, and it could be her hunger, or it could be the weight of the day, but Nicole is sure it was real.

 

She walks in the direction she thinks she saw it, blindly, ignoring everything else on the street, lest it distract her before she reaches the end, next to the jail, with nothing more in her line of sight than dust and a low-setting sun.

 

“You alright there, Deputy?” Nedley asks as he steps outside to meet her, having seen her approach.

 

“Yeah,” Nicole answers vaguely, still looking around. “I thought I saw something, but I think I’m goin’ mad, because I sure as hell can't see it now.”

 

“You sure?” Nedley questions further, his eyes narrowing before they sweep around the street, following Nicole’s gaze.

 

“Yeah,” Nicole says, looking to him properly. “Whatever - or whoever - it was is gone now.”

 

“You keep that eye peeled, alright?” he says gruffly before he gestures inside. “Come on in, we’re debriefin’ before nightfall.”

 

They discuss quickly the lack of new information and the plan for tomorrow’s search before Nedley releases them for the day. Nicole assures she’ll keep watch and report back after discussing things with Gus this evening, as well, before she walks down to the baths via the Inn to collect a lighter, softer change of clothes.

 

As much as she wants to run back to Waverly this instant, she's desperate to rid herself of the dirt and sweat of the day before the baths shut their doors for the evening, and the activity has the added bonus of presenting Waverly with a cleaner version of herself, too, so she heads there first.

 

She pays the small tariff and takes an extreme pleasure in peeling off the layers of dusty, dirty clothing, trying to smother a groan as she slips into the hot water of the bath.

 

She’s used to long days riding and being on her feet, but her bones ache with a heavier fatigue tonight, and she finds her eyes fluttering closed after only a few minutes in the hot water.

 

Determined not to fall asleep and drown, she sets herself about the task of washing her hair out in an attempt to keep her wits about her. She pulls the leather tie off the end of the braid, running her fingers through the ember-red strands before it falls long, well past her shoulders.

 

She takes a breath and sinks under the level of the water, allowing her back to slide easily along the curve of the steel tub as the water crawls up her cheeks, beneath her eyes, until Nicole is fully submerged.

 

She stays under the water for a moment, until her lungs start to burn, before she brings her head above the waterline and gasps in a deep breath of relief.

 

The oxygen makes its way back into her fingertips as she works her hair into a lather using one of the small bars of soap left for her, and it takes her a moment to recognise the familiar smell, but when she does, she blushes.

 

Waverly , she thinks as she scratches at her scalp, trying to clean her hair as thoroughly as possible. It smells like Waverly.

 

Not exactly like her, but soft and light and vaguely botanical. She must make the soaps and sell them to the bathhouse , Nicole thinks as she leans her head back against the slightly cool metal of the tub.

 

She stills for a few minutes, breathing in the soft smell of the soap as she allows her mind to wander to the day, to the moments spent with the young woman. Her behaviour had been a little different today, more charged , almost as though she’d found some boldness or courage at the homestead with Wynonna the night before.

 

Not that Nicole minds - in fact, it’s a clearer signal than she was hoping to receive so early on - that Waverly appears to be interested in her on a level different to the one the outside world would perceive.

 

They’d touched before, quick glances of their hands or their shoulders bumping together gently, but holding Waverly had been something else entirely, and Nicole can’t help but marvel at how perfectly Waverly had fit into the curve of her body.

 

Because it was perfect, everything about the moment had been, from the way she had curled her hands over her own chest and given herself over to Nicole’s embrace, to the way her hands had held the lip of Nicole’s belt.

 

She’s not sure if that had been intentional, or rather, she’s not sure if Waverly had realised the intimacy of the gesture, or how thoroughly it had stopped Nicole’s heart, but it hadn’t been an accident, or mistake, because she’d done it twice.

 

The thought of her touch low on Nicole’s body and the way the back of her hand had brushed over Nicole’s stomach sends a hot wave into her belly, and deeper , before she tries to stop that train of thought, lest it get too far ahead of her.

 

Because she wants that, she wants everything with Waverly, but it doesn’t feel proper to think such things without Waverly’s permission to, or rather some signal or sign that she might entertain the thought of…

 

Stop , she thinks to herself. Later. There’ll be time for this later .

 

If Waverly is as interested as Nicole thinks she is, as interested as Nicole is reading from the way she reacts to Nicole’s touch and her presence. There’ll be time later.

 

She slides beneath the level of the water again, running her fingers through her hair gently as she attempts to untangle a few knots while her hair floats eerily soft around her face, before she raises herself up again.

 

Running her hands right against her scalp, she wrings as much water out as she can before she lathers the soap in her hands and scrubs one last time at the dirt of the day.

 

Nicole is pleasantly weary by the time she climbs out and redresses using the lighter items she had fetched - trousers and a light cotton shirt instead of the heavier woolen alternatives, and no vest, to save overheating with her post-bath flush.

 

She winds Waverly’s bandana around her wrist rather than her neck, reluctant to part with it, before she walks out towards Waverly’s shop and the Inn.

 

The few top buttons of her shirt are undone, allowing the cool evening air to kiss her hot skin, and she sighs happily at the feeling as she makes her way down the street, the holster and her hat her only other accessories.

 

She doesn’t bother with her hat, reluctant to get it wet from her still-damp hair, which she’s wound into one long ringlet draped over her shoulder, so she holds it in her hands instead.

 

She knows it’s not exactly proper to be seen not formally dressed, but the evening light is low now, and there are only a few people left wandering the street, none anywhere near her.

 

She gives the street one long hard look on the off-chance that she catches sight of the shadow or figure she’d seen earlier, but she can’t. There’s nothing to be seen, save the odd slow-walking person, but no one resembling the shape of the thing she thought she had seen before.

 

Nicole shakes off the ghost whispering at the nape of her neck before she takes a breath and walks towards the white of Waverly’s storefront.

 

She’s busy wiping down the countertop, her face flushed from the exertion of cleaning up, when Nicole walks in, and honestly, Nicole doesn’t know who’s more taken aback, Waverly or Nicole.

 

Nicole, because Waverly looks beautiful like this, a little out of breath with a soft blush from activity, not shyness or embarrassment, that Nicole knows is not dissimilar to the one that rises during…

 

And Waverly at the soft sight of Nicole in her cotton attire, lighter and quite different to the image of Nicole she’s used to seeing.

 

She watches Waverly’s eyes move over her hair, flicking to the small sliver of skin on her chest where her shirt sits open, as she stills in her movement, apparently at a loss for words.

 

“Good evenin’, ma’am,” Nicole says softly, such is the feeling of the air hanging suspended around then both.

 

“Hi,” Waverly replies a little roughly, still not bothering to hide the unashamed way she takes in this version of Nicole. “You’re…you…”

 

“Look different?” Nicole offers for her, eyebrow raised in amusement before she feels a small spike of insecurity and self-consciousness settle between her hands. “I hope it’s not too improper. I didn’t think…”

 

“I love it,” Waverly says quickly, quashing that thought immediately. “You look…”

 

She pauses for a moment as she looks and looks and looks at Nicole, before her gaze finds Nicole’s and holds , the light filling the space behind her eyes as she comes to her senses.

 

“Lovely,” Waverly finishes with a shy smile as she bites her lip and bows her head. “You look lovely , Nicole. If I may be so bold.”

 

“Of course you may,” Nicole says, returning Waverly’s blush, dropping her gaze to her hat in her hands for a moment as he collects herself before looking up to Waverly. “You can be anythin’ you’d like.”

 

“You know, with you, I feel like I can,” Waverly returns with a vaguely thoughtful expression before she moves, ducking beneath the counter so she can stand closer to Nicole. “Be anything, I mean.”

 

“I’m glad,” Nicole replies, holding the urge to reach for Waverly’s hand, not wanting to present herself as too forward, or to assume familiarity unless Waverly wants it. “I hope for nothin’ more than for you to feel as though you can be whoever or whatever you wish around me.”

 

“How does it feel like I’ve known you a lifetime already?” Waverly asks distantly as she moves forward to touch Nicole’s arm briefly, looking to assure herself that it’s alright to do so before Nicole smiles and she takes another half-step closer.

 

“I don’t know,” Nicole returns, watching Waverly’s eyes move over her, as if looking for the answer to her question there, too. “But the feeling is mutual, I assure you.”

 

Waverly looks to her and smiles in soft recognition, and Nicole swears she can feel something old and deep move beneath their skin where Waverly’s touch lingered a moment ago.

 

“Your hair’s so long,” Waverly breathes as she reaches to touch the wet end of it over Nicole’s collarbone. “It’s… I’ve never seen anythin’ like it before. The colour, I mean. It’s beautiful.”

 

“It’s just hair,” Nicole shrugs shyly, even though she knows she could argue the merits of the fact that Waverly’s own is anything but just hair for hours.

 

Waverly fixes her with a look that says as much before she reaches forward and winds the final curl of it around her finger in a way that’s the boldest yet, and Nicole’s breath catches with an audible hitch that she knows Waverly hears, too.

 

She tries to smother her reaction, afraid to make her intentions known so openly before she’s sure Waverly is ready to receive them like that, but she knows she can’t hide the sum total of it.

 

She can hide parts, if she needs, small pieces of the whole, but she can’t hide it all .

 

Not what it does to have Waverly so close to her, or how much it increases her heart rate, how much the hunger burns in the pit of her stomach, how hard her pulse skips. Or how tensely her fists ball in an attempt to stop from reaching for something she doesn’t know for sure Waverly wants to give her.

 

And it’s as though Waverly can read her mind in the next moment, can read Nicole’s internal conflict, because just when Nicole is scared to put her soul on the line, Waverly offers her own.

 

With open palms and the warmest smile Nicole has ever seen before, Waverly offers her hope .

 

“You can, too, you know,” Waverly says as her fingertips slip off the end of a ruby-gold strand of hair, and she flattens her palm ever so lightly against Nicole’s chest. “Be yourself, I mean. Around me, you don’t ever have to be anything but yourself. Because you, just you, it’s…”

 

She can’t breathe, because Waverly’s hand is so light over the place where her soul resides in her body, and not because the touch is oppressive, it’s because she thinks this is Waverly saying yes to the unsounded question, of do you think about me in the same way I think about you?

 

Do you dream of me in the same way I dream about you when the moon is as high as my hope?

 

Do you dream, do you dream, do you see ?

 

She feels as though she waits an age for Waverly to finish her thought, not that it matters, because when she utters it, Nicole knows she would have waited a lifetime to hear what she says.

 

“You don’t ever have to be anything but yourself, because it’s beautiful , Nicole,” Waverly says finally, barely above a whisper. “The loveliest thing I’ve ever seen, in fact.”

 

“It is?” Nicole asks in a tone more delicate than she thinks she’s ever uttered before, her hand reaching to rest over Waverly’s own.

 

“Yes,” Waverly breathes as her smile fills with light at Nicole’s touch. “It is .”

 

It tugs below her navel again, the urge to lean down and press her lips breeze-soft over Waverly’s own, but she knows it’s not quite the right time.

 

Closer, now. But not yet.

 

They breathe the same air for a minute more before Waverly sighs, and she knows they need to draw this to a close, or she’s never going to be able to take herself away.

 

She doesn’t voice the fact that she needs to take her leave of Waverly for the final time today, because she already knows. From the air that leaves Waverly’s lungs, Nicole can tell she knows .

 

“You’ll be okay here for the night?” Nicole asks, and she wants to offer to sleep on the floor of the shop, like a hound guarding the door, but she knows Waverly would ask, if she were in need.

 

“I’m going to bolt the door behind you,” Waverly replies softly, smiling at Nicole’s thoughtfulness. “And you’ll be just across the street?”

 

“Just across the street,” Nicole nods in affirmation as her hand moves over Waverly’s atop her heart. “At your beck and call, alright?”

 

She hears Waverly’s breath catch just the same as her own had the second her touch meets Waverly’s, and she can’t help the small, satisfied smile at having garnered the same reaction that Waverly had drawn from her, too.

 

It might not be the right time for them to kiss, but Nicole feels as though she needs to leave Waverly with something, some small token like Waverly’s bandana around her wrist, only made of contact.

 

She casts a quick, but subtle look around her before she takes Waverly’s hand with an exquisite slowness and presses a kiss to her knuckles.

 

“Good evening, Miss Earp,” Nicole says softly, not bothering to smother the charm she knows she’s capable of producing, watching it bring a fresh blush to Waverly’s cheeks. “Until the morning.”

 

And it could be stepping over a line drawn between them, but she doesn’t think it is, not with the way Waverly bends toward Nicole, nor the sound that escapes her lips.

 

“The morning,” Waverly breathes, her eyes following the path of Nicole’s lips as she leans back from Waverly to put some small distance between them.

 

Her hand tightens beneath Nicole’s, as if to hold her close for a second longer, because she knows what that means, that Nicole has to leave when she wants her to stay .

 

Nicole runs her thumb over Waverly’s fingers where she holds their hands together before lowering it gently to Waverly’s side and taking a proper step back.

 

She gives Waverly a wink before she turns, scooping her hat off the counter, before her heart compels her to plant her feet and stay , and she glows at the way Waverly follows her step for step to the door, as if her own body were compelling her to follow this new light in its orbit.

 

She walks through the door, waiting for Waverly to close and bolt it behind her before she bends forward to bow slightly, giving Waverly one last parting smile as she turns on her heel and walks towards the Inn across the street.

 

Every step away from Waverly makes her heart beat in anticipation of seeing her in the morning, and she’s taken maybe ten before she can’t stand to not turn and catch the sight of Waverly one last time.

 

She’s waiting with her hand resting against the glass at hip height, as though reaching for Nicole, and she offers Nicole the softest smile she’s ever seen in her life before raising her hand to wave shyly.

 

Nicole returns the wave with an equal softness, drinking in the sight of Waverly standing like some sort of deity or queen with the sunset glowing off the glass around her and the botanicals hung from the ceiling before she drags herself from the sight, and walks finally to the Inn.

 

“Good day?” Gus asks with a wry smile as she watches Nicole walk towards her at the desk.

 

“What?” Nicole replies vaguely, her attention entirely focused on the vision across the road, known by the name of Waverly Earp.

 

“I said, good day?” Gus asks again with a wider smile as Nicole narrowly avoids walking straight into the desk.

 

“Oh,” Nicole says when she stubs her toe against the front of the desk. “Pardon me, ma’am — ah, I mean Gus, sorry — I was just…”

 

“Distracted?” Gus finishes for her, her eyebrow raised in amusement.

 

“Yes,” Nicole returns, shaking her head to clear the fog of Waverly, Waverly, Waverly. “Yes, I’m sorry. My day, it was good, great... and actually darn terrible, too.”

 

“That’s a heck of a lot of emotion for one young woman,” Gus says with a laugh. “Care to talk about any of ‘em?”

 

“Oh,” Nicole asks, a little surprised at the simple idea of someone wanting to hear about her day. “Sure, I mean, if it’s not a bother, or you have somethin’ else you need to be doin’?”

 

“Wouldna’ asked if I did,” Gus replies, smiling at Nicole’s reaction. “Tell me all about it, Deputy.”

 

Nicole recounts her day to Gus with a warm feeling in the palm of her hands, because she can’t remember the last time she had an interaction like this with someone, genuinely interested in her day.

 

She tells Gus of her morning with Elias and his cattle, to which Gus replies with a similar sigh of relief at her assisting the small boy that the others had, before she comes to the activity surrounding Mr. Jackson.

 

“Actually, there’s somethin’ I need to talk to you about,” Nicole says with a frown as she threads her fingers together and rests them on the desk in front of her. “You might’ve noticed the confectionary shop closed again today? Well, Nedley and I went and had a look around, because Mr. Jackson came to see us this afternoon, sayin’ his girl hadn’t come home last night.”

 

“Lord, really?” Gus asks, taking the information in. “That girl’s as placid as a sleepin’ hound. She wouldn’t have taken off with some young thing. No way. If she didn’t come home, somethin’s wrong, alright. And you went to look through the shop, does that mean…?”

 

“We think they could be connected,” Nicole replies solemnly. “We all had a look for them both this afternoon, but no one came back with so much as a scrap.”

 

“Good lord,” Gus breathes as she looks to Nicole.

 

“Nedley asked me to inquire as to whether you might have seen anythin’ out of the ordinary?” Nicole asks, watching Gus’s face carefully. “Anyone out of place or new to town that you hadn’t noticed before? Anyone stayin’ here you haven’t met before now?”

 

“No,” Gus says, shaking her head, her forehead creasing in a frown. “Not a soul. The ones we have stayin’ are all faces I’ve seen before, apart from your own. And I ain’t seen anyone in town out of place, neither.”

 

“I thought you might have mentioned as much to Nedley if you had,” Nicole replies with a sigh. “You’ll keep a watch, though? And let one of us know if you do?”

 

“Of course,” Gus says seriously. “Of course, I will. Missing? Two people missing? Lord help us. And there was nothin’ at the shop?”

 

“Only sign is that wherever she went, she wasn’t plannin’ on being away long,” Nicole returns, worrying her lip as she puts her mind back into the shop. “She left in her shift, I think, judging by the clothes she had laid out for the next day. And there was a cup of tea untouched by the side of the bed.”

 

“Nedley didn’t pick up those details, did he?” Gus asks with a hint of wariness in her voice. “The man’s a good Sheriff, but he’s no Pinkerton.”

 

“Oh. No, ma’am,” Nicole answers with a blush, her gaze dropping back to her hands. “It was…I was the one that noticed them.”

 

Gus’s eyes find hers, and she smiles with a look that says she’s caught Gus by surprise at her talent, and Gus nods, seemingly impressed.

 

“Well, I’ll be,” Gus says, appraising Nicole. “You’re a details girl as well as everything else, huh? He did an even finer job of hiring you than I thought.”

 

“I’m sure he woulda’ found them eventually,” Nicole tries to reason in an attempt to cool her embarrassed cheeks.

 

“Probably,” Gus says with a shrug. “But we could’ve been more than a few days down the track by then, and in who knows what state with more missin’ people. I thought we’d seen the last of trouble when Del Rey’s gang left town after Ward died, but obviously not.”

 

“You don’t think it could be them, do you?” Nicole asks suddenly. “The ones that were responsible for…”

 

“No way,” Gus says, shaking her head with a confidence that reassures Nicole. “Those men couldn’t keep themselves hidden like this. Bobo runs on active fear. On bein’ present . He isn’t one for subtlety. Besides, they were criminals, but even they weren’t sick enough to make a business out of takin’ girls. Willa was an accident. We know that shook even Bobo enough to take his men and run. They wouldn’t dare come back while any of the Earps are still alive and there are people around to remember what happened.”

 

Nicole hadn’t really thought it could have been them. Even with her minimal knowledge, it doesn’t sound like their style, and she’s sure Nedley wouldn’t have let something like them being suspects pass him by if there was any chance they could have been involved.

 

“Does Waverly know?” Gus asks Nicole with a frown. “Is it a good idea for her to be alone over there with god knows what happenin’ in the dark?”

 

“I told her just before,” Nicole replies, nodding as her mind wanders across the road again. “I didn’t want to scare her, but I want her to be…I didn’t want to hide anythin’ from her. If there’s danger, she deserves to know so she can do everything possible to keep herself safe.”

 

Nicole’s ready to defend herself further if necessary, but she needn’t have worried at the thought, because Gus holds her gaze for a second before she nods approvingly.

 

“I couldn’t agree more,” Gus says, looking to Nicole. “If there’s danger about, that girl needs to know. She and Wynonna both. She isn’t no child, she doesn’t need anyone makin’ decisions for her.”

 

“I’m glad you agree,” Nicole sighs in relief, the tension in her palms dissipating. “I just…I didn’t want her walking around with some horror in the shadows and her unaware. This way she can be vigilant, just like the rest of us will be.”

 

“And she was okay to stay by herself even after you told her?” Gus asks curiously.

 

“I did try and suggest she come over and stay where you could watch over her a little more easily, but…” Nicole says, rubbing at the base of her neck with the heel of her palm. “I waited for her to bolt the door. And I told her all she had to do was holler if she needed me.”

 

“Stubborn as a mule, our Waverly,” Gus says affectionately, smiling. “That’s alright, Deputy. If she was worried, she’d be over here, and it’s not that she’s naive to the danger, she’s just…”

 

“Sick of letting fear rule her?” Nicole finishes for Gus, thinking back to Waverly’s actions in front of Champ earlier, putting two and two together, wondering if maybe she had known the danger, but had chosen to show their closeness irrespective of that.

 

“I think so,” Gus replies, watching Nicole carefully, evaluating the appreciation of Waverly’s character that Nicole seems to have so early on. “You’ve got a read on that girl, huh?”

 

“Uh,” Nicole blushes heavily at Gus’s forwardness before she drops her gaze again. “I mean, I’m sure I could spend a lifetime and not know it all, but I think I have a start.”

 

“A lifetime,” Gus says, eyeing Nicole and continuing her evaluation before she frowns. “You plannin’ on sticking around that long, huh?”

 

“If she’ll have me,” Nicole replies humbly, and she hopes Gus realises how much the power is so very much in Waverly’s hands, despite her own keenness. “Only if she wishes it.”

 

“Not that it’s any of my damn business, but I think you’ll find she does,” Gus returns with a wry smile, and her words make Nicole’s heart jump in her chest. “If there’s one thing I know about that girl, it’s that she doesn’t quiver in the face of something she wants, be it a path or a purpose…or a person.”

 

She’s not sure how to even begin to address a comment like that, because - and she could be very wrong, but - she thinks this could be Gus giving Nicole her permission to pursue whatever relationship Waverly will permit.

 

And she knows Gus won’t want to be privy to anything beyond knowing that whatever happens will be Waverly’s choice, because she may not be crossing herself as they speak, but Nicole knows her tolerance is only due to her fondness for Waverly, and doesn’t mean acceptance of the inclination on the whole.

 

She’s not interested in making Gus any more uncomfortable than she likely already is, but she does want her to know that Waverly’s safety is paramount for her, regardless of what choice Waverly may make.

 

“I think your niece’s safety is your business, if you’ll permit me to say,” Nicole says respectfully. “And I want to give you an assurance that it’s just as important to me. I’ll keep both eyes on her as often as I can to ensure it, you have my word.”

 

“I know you will, Deputy,” Gus replies thankfully. “I know you will, and I will, too. And I’ll be sure to advise you and the Sheriff if I see anything untoward.”

 

“I’d appreciate that,” Nicole says before a yawn rips its way from her lungs.

 

“Away with you,” Gus growls kindly as she throws her head towards the kitchen behind her. “Go and get some food and sleep, Deputy. You won’t be good to anyone half-dead tomorrow.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole returns with a little bow, picking her hat up and pressing it to her chest as she takes her leave of Gus. She turns at the last second with a small smile on her lips before she addresses Gus one last time. “Thank you, Gus.”

 

“For what?” Gus asks, raising an eyebrow in question.

 

“For takin’ an interest,” Nicole says a little shyly. “It’s been a long time since anybody cared to ask about my day. And for…”

 

“I know,” Gus returns with a nod. “You don’t need to thank me, but you’re welcome, Nicole. Thank you for keepin’ my girl safe.”

 

“Always,” Nicole replies finally, giving Gus a goodnight before she dips her head and makes for the kitchen.

 

She sits and eats in her own company before thanking Gus for the meal and retiring to her room.

 

It feels different, being in here now, with the knowledge that Waverly stayed here, too. That she slept here, that she dreamed here.

 

She wonders what Waverly used to dream of as she pulls her shirt over her head and exchanges it for a lighter sleepshirt, dropping her pants before she takes a look out the window to her shop.

 

Did she used to dream a young man on a horse would ride up and take her away from all of this? Or a young woman with red hair and a kind heart, instead?

 

The street is wide, but not so wide that she can’t see with a reasonable clarity the figure of Waverly walking around in a nightdress of her own that Nicole can see finishes at the knees.

 

Even so far away and through a small glass window lit only by a small number of candles whose glow Nicole can just make out, she’s still the most beautiful thing Nicole has ever seen.

 

As if she can feel Nicole’s attention across the yawning distance between, Waverly looks up and sets her eyes on Nicole’s window, and by some miracle their gazes meet.

 

She raises her hand and gives Nicole a shy wave, almost identical to the one she had offered earlier in the evening, and it fills Nicole with a warmth that spreads to the tips of her fingers. She returns the gesture softly, and it’s too difficult to know for sure, but Nicole thinks she sees Waverly beam in response.

 

Waverly waits for a moment, reluctant to take her eyes off Nicole, but she does, sensing perhaps Nicole’s desire to let her know that she’s safe, that she’s being watched over, that Nicole won’t let anything happen to her while she’s sleeping.

 

She moves around the room, giving Nicole one last look before the room goes black as she blows the last candle out.

 

Nicole waits for a while, watching the dark street, waiting for any movement or sign of anything malevolent watching for the death of light to appear and take, but nothing comes.

 

Satisfied of Waverly’s safety, for the moment anyway, Nicole falls onto her bed, her limbs heavy with wariness and the day’s activity, and before she can register another breath, she’s asleep.



-

Chapter Text

-



Nicole wakes early the following morning, before the sun has crept up to the horizon, so she lies in bed a while before she takes herself from its dreamy warmth.

 

She mentally plans her day, allowing for some interruption, but hoping that, with some luck, she’ll be able to ask Waverly to their arranged date this evening.

 

There are a few things that need to occur before that can happen: Chrissy helping to find her an appropriate dress for one, and arranging some sort of picnic from Gus for dinner as a second. Despite those things, and the darkness from yesterday’s revelations over the missing girls, Nicole rises with more hope than she’s had in years .

 

She plans to seek Chrissy out early in the day if possible, to give the seamstress time to alter a dress before the evening if they do manage to find something, and to ask Gus when she departs for the day about some small offering of food for tonight.

 

The thought of dress-shopping makes Nicole feel slightly worried as the pit of nerves digs itself deeper in her stomach. Her conversation with Waverly last night, after her trip to the baths, gives her pause for a moment, that perhaps the image of Nicole as herself is enough, that she doesn’t need a more feminine appearance.

 

And what she does know of Waverly tells her that she’ll be positively polite regardless of Nicole’s attire, but she can’t stand the thought of disappointing Waverly if she does have an image of how Nicole will present in her head already.

 

It can’t do any harm, finding a dress for the evening. It’s not her, in any way shape or form, but it’s a dress. She can wear a dress. She won’t let a dress beat her.

 

It’s not her, in any way, but if it is what Waverly wants, it’s a price she’s prepared to pay.

 

Because she’d burn her hands taking the sun from the sky if Waverly asked it of her, so wearing a dress, next to that, is easier.

 

But not by much.



-



Gus is nursing a cup of something that smells like a concoction of Waverly’s making when Nicole comes down the stairs, the fragrant smell of peppermint and lemon making its way into her lungs as she walks to greet Gus.

 

She had glanced over to Waverly’s shop the second she’d raised herself from bed, reassured by the sight of Waverly drawing her hair into a ponytail while still dressed in her nightgown, which, not that Nicole was looking at all, was creeping higher up her thighs as she held her hands over her head.

 

Definitely not looking.

 

And definitely not a cause for the blush still warming Nicole’s cheeks as she talks to Gus.

 

“Mornin’ Gus,” Nicole offers, spinning her hat a little nervously in her hands as she prepares herself to ask the favour she needs for the evening.

 

“Mornin’ Deputy,” Gus replies with a smile. “Someone put jumpin’ beans in your bed last night, did they?”

 

“What? Oh, no. No, it’s not…” Nicole says as she registers that Gus is making fun of the visible nervousness in her frame.

 

“Relax, Deputy, I’m just teasin’,” Gus replies, her smile breaking wider at Nicole before she reaches to still Nicole’s fiddling. “What’s on your mind? There’s a question there, that’s plain to see.”

 

“Uh,” Nicole says before casting a quick glance around to make sure they’re alone. “It’s…it’s about tonight, and Waverly, I mean…”

 

She cringes internally at the way she trips over her own words, and she’s about ready for the earth to swallow her whole, because she’s never been this inarticulate in her life, but the thought of having to ask Gus for help for tonight is doing a fine job of making sure that changes.

 

She takes a deep breath, calming herself properly before she looks square at Gus, who’s trying desperately not to laugh, and tries again.

 

“Let me start over,” Nicole says with a grimace. “I would like to take some small thing to share with Waverly this evening. Food, I mean, if she’ll permit my company. And I’d try and rustle something up myself across town, but I fear I might not have a chance today if I get called away to attend something concerning these disappearances. Could I ask whether you might be able to put something aside from the day that I might take with me?”

 

“Of course, Deputy,” Gus answers easily, smothering a laugh. “You don’t have to sweat a bullet. I trust I don’t need to lecture you on the importance of subtlety when you are together?”

 

“Not at all,” Nicole assures Gus quickly. “If Waverly is amenable, I’ll ensure I’m able to find myself there late, when no one else is around, so no one sees me enter. I’ll… we’ll be careful, I promise you.”

 

“I believe you, Deputy,” Gus says, nodding as she holds Nicole’s gaze. “I believe you know what you’re doin’, and I believe you’ll protect Waverly, too. As much as the girl’ll let you, anyway.”

 

“She’s got an iron will, huh?” Nicole asks with a smile, thinking of the strength in Waverly’s voice when she’d spoken to Champ the night before.

 

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Gus confirms, her eyes wide. “Although, you’ll have a good idea of it soon, if you don’t already.”

 

“I’ve seen a glimpse or two,” Nicole laughs softly. “I think it’s wonderful, that she knows what she wants enough to have conviction around it. That’s a quality I’ve found to be reasonably absent for others of our own age.”

 

“She’s always been an old soul, our Waverly,” Gus says with a fond sigh. “I always worried what that would mean about attractin’ a partner. No boy wants a girl who’s not interested in babies and knitting, and Waverly certainly never had a mind for either of them, but…”

 

But I don’t think what a boy wants matters to her at all , goes unfinished between the two of them, and Nicole has to stop and appreciate for a moment the simple fact that Gus and Curtis haven’t ignored that and pushed her towards a man, as so many parents would have instead.

 

“Anyway, it’s no trouble at all,” Gus says, changing the subject a little awkwardly. “I’m sure I can put together a few scraps for the two of you.”

 

“Thank you,” Nicole replies appreciatively as she smiles warmly to Gus. “I’m grateful for the trouble.”

 

“No trouble at all,” Gus returns with a rare softness, and Nicole can’t help but think she might be a little thankful of someone taking an interest in Waverly, even it is a different someone to whom they might have preferred. “Grab yourself some breakfast before you leave, will you? It’s gonna be a hot day today, I think you’ll need it.”

 

“Yes ma’am,” Nicole says playfully, dipping her head and catching a soft note of the tea Gus is drinking. “That smells incredible. Is that…?”

 

“Waverly’s making?” Gus answers with a proud note. “Sure is. Clever thing that she is, makin’ me something that tastes as good as this, even with the things for my aching bones. Tricking me into doctorin’ myself.”

 

“That’s sweet of her,” Nicole says in reply. “I think that’s sweet of her.”

 

“She makes a good brew, that’s for sure,” Gus returns, nodding. “And this stuff doesn’t even have booze in it. She keeps the other out on the homestead and has Wynonna bring in a small amount at a time to stop anyone catching a whiff of it and destroyin’ that shop of hers to get it. Somethin’ to look forward to, when she takes you out there.”

 

There’s an assumed ease in the way she says that, like it’s a certainty and not a possibility, that makes Nicole’s heart skip, and she has to bite her lip to stop from smiling too wide.

 

Because if Gus thinks that Waverly would take her home , then that must mean Gus has some sort of indication or inclination as to how or what Waverly is feeling, and it must be good.

 

“I’ll look forward to that, for sure,” Nicole says as her limbs tingle with something that can only be happiness.

 

She casts an eye outside, sighing at the height of the sun, before she turns back to Gus with a resigned smile. “I’d better get goin’ for now, but thank you again. I’ll see you a little later on?”

 

“Sure will,” Gus replies with a wink. “And I’ll be sure to find one of your lot if I see anythin’ out of the ordinary, too.”

 

“I’d appreciate it, Gus,” Nicole returns finally, bidding Gus goodbye and collecting something small to eat before she heads out and across the road to wish Waverly good morning.

 

The door is closed, but Nicole can see Waverly walking down the stairs at the back of the shop, and she beams when she sees Nicole walking towards her, hurrying to the door to let Nicole in.

 

She’s wearing a crisp white shirt this morning, tucked into a long grey skirt, with her hair up in a high ponytail and her apron knotted roughly around her waist, as if tied in haste, and Nicole forgets herself for a moment when Waverly unbolts the door, completely lost in the sight of her.

 

“Good morning, Deputy,” Waverly says warmly, almost shyly, pulling the door open for Nicole to step in before she shuts it behind her.

 

She doesn’t move back, though -- she doesn’t widen the space between them, staying close to Nicole’s side instead -- looking over Nicole’s figure as if trying to convince herself that the Nicole in her presence is real.

 

“A fine mornin’ it is, too,” Nicole replies once her senses return to her and she can smile charmingly back at Waverly, feeling the smaller girl’s warmth radiating towards the bare skin of her arms where they stand a handspan apart. “Did you sleep well? Are you well?”

 

“Very,” Waverly says with a nod, not taking her eyes off of Nicole for a second. “Better than I have in a long time, actually.”

 

“I’m glad,” Nicole returns warmly as she looks over Waverly’s face, soft and fresh in the morning light. “Do you not sleep well normally?”

 

“Not often, no,” Waverly answers, and Nicole could kick herself when she sees the shadow cross Waverly’s face, her words obviously bringing something dark to the forefront of her mind.

 

“I’m sorry, Waverly,” Nicole says quickly, reaching for Waverly’s hand in an attempt to comfort her. “I didn’t mean to…”

 

“Oh, you didn’t,” Waverly replies with a swiftness, shaking her head before squeezing Nicole’s hand in reassurance. “No, I mean, I don’t sleep well, but you didn’t…I can talk about it. With you, I mean. I can talk about it with you.”

 

“You’re sure?” Nicole asks softly, running her thumb over Waverly’s hand. “Because I’d never… I’d never want to upset you, Waverly. If there’s anything you don’t feel comfortable talkin’ about…”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly says as a shy smile turns the edge of her mouth up. “I mean, I don’t think there’s much I couldn’t, wouldn’t want to discuss with you.”

 

“I’m glad,” Nicole offers with a blush of her own. “I’m glad. And I’m sorry about your sleep. If there’s ever any assistance or comfort I could provide — god, not like that — I mean…”

 

“I know what you mean,” Waverly says, laughing at Nicole’s slip. “And I think you’re helping already, I mean, it was nice, knowin’ you were just across the way. I felt safer than I have in a long time.”

 

“I’m pleased I could, I can , be of assistance,” Nicole says before she remembers what she had actually come with the intention of asking. “Speaking of providing you with a distraction, I wondered whether tonight would be amicable… I mean, if you would be free tonight to…”

 

She’s almost through her sentence when a woman bursts through the door next to them, prompting them to step back and apart to admit the woman into the shop.

 

“I’m terribly sorry, Waverly,” the woman says apologetically to them both. “Mornin, Deputy. I don’t mean to interrupt, nor bother you so early, but that damn boy of ours ate somethin’ yesterday that’s upset his gut all night. Might you have somethin’ to help him? Somethin’ perhaps to settle his stomach?”

 

“Of course,” Waverly says quickly as she drops Nicole’s hand, still having held it subtly at their sides when the woman had come in, to tie her apron more firmly around her waist. “Do you need me to come out to the house, or…”

 

“No, I wouldn’t want to trouble you,” the woman says, shaking her head. “I think he’ll be fine, although I’ll be sure to fetch you if whatever you’ve got don’t work.”

 

It’s something, watching Waverly move so quickly into her role as a healer, and Nicole could stand content and watch it for hours, but she knows she’s in the way. She’s about to excuse herself, to move out of Waverly’s path so she can help, when Waverly’s hand, soft on her forearm, stops her.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says as she gestures to the woman with an apologetic breath before her hand tightens. “But, yes. To your question. Yes. Absolutely, yes.”

 

“Yes?” Nicole asks hopefully, her blood warming in her arm beneath Waverly’s touch.

 

“Yes,” Waverly returns with a shy look to where their skin meets before looking up to Nicole with a nervous excitement. “Yes. You’ll…”

 

“Call later,” Nicole affirms, nodding as she smiles in return. “I’ll call on you later.”

 

Waverly doesn’t say anything in return, just closes her hand tighter around Nicole’s arm in anticipation, before she relaxes it and takes a step back.

 

“Well wishes to your boy,” Nicole says to the anxious woman standing by the door, who softens and smiles at Nicole. “I hope he’s feelin’ much better soon.”

 

“Waverly Earp’s magic,” the woman says, her voice a little less strained as she watches Waverly move behind the counter, collecting things in her hands before she starts crushing them together in a small mortar. “He’ll be fine in no time, I’m sure. I appreciate the well wishes, though, Deputy.”

 

Waverly spins at the mention of her name, and Nicole can’t help but admire her in that moment, so well learned and obviously respected for more than her polite company, for someone with barely two decades of experience.

 

Nicole’s seen a number of healers and the like in her line of duty, necessary as medical assistance often is to her work, and although she doesn’t know the full extent of Waverly’s abilities, she can tell she’s already more competent than a number of women and men who have seen fifty years.

 

She gives Nicole one last smile before she turns to the woman, explaining what she’s doing and how she needs to prepare the brew when she gets home, and Nicole smiles back before she slips away and leaves the two women to it, with the plan confirmed for their evening glowing in the small of her back.

 

Now all she has to do is find a damn dress.



-



Nicole’s a little worried she’ll be the last one there, having been happily waylaid at Waverly’s shop, but it’s only Nedley, Chrissy, and the other yawning deputy finishing his night shift when she arrives.

 

“Mornin’, Haught,” Nedley says as Chrissy moves to give her a quick hug in greeting. “Thanks for bein’ here so early.”

 

“Of course, sir,” Nicole says, looking to him seriously when Chrissy steps back. “Any updates?”

 

“Nothin’,” Nedley replies, sounding more than frustrated. “Not a damn thing. Did you have a chance to speak to Gus?”

 

“I did, sir,” Nicole answers quickly. “Asked whether she’d seen anyone she didn’t recognise, or had visitors she didn’t recognise, but she said she only had the regulars, and hadn’t seen anyone else around town, either. She’s going to keep an eye out for us if she does see anythin’, but no, she didn’t have any new information.”

 

“And you didn’t see anythin’ else?” Nedley asks, referring to the figure Nicole had mentioned before they’d parted yesterday. “No sign of anythin’ unusual?”

 

“No, sir,” Nicole replies regretfully, taking in the increasingly worried look on his face. “But we’ve got a whole day of light to search now.”

 

“Right you are,” Nedley replies with a little more hope in his voice. “Right you are, Haught. I think I’ll send you out on patrols in shifts today, reportin’ back every few hours, just in case anyone finds somethin’, to keep our eyes fresh.”

 

“Sounds good to me, sir,” Nicole says, nodding as she tries to offer some small condolence or comradeship to the man.

 

And Nicole feels for him, she really does, because irrespective of the fact that this is in no way his fault, the responsibility lies heavily on him as Sheriff to keep the town safe, which, in the town’s eyes, he will be failing in.

 

“Daddy,” Chrissy says quietly, taking a step towards him, placing her hand softly on his arm. “I know you’re all busy, and I don’t want to take anyone away, but…”

 

“Right,” Nedley says with a frown. “Right you are, love, I’d forgotten. Haught, I don’t want to make you feel like a babysitter, and if you want to patrol first, that’s your call, but Chrissy needs a few things from town, and I’m reluctant… I mean, I don’t want to leave her alone.”

 

“You want me to go with her, sir?” Nicole asks, trying not to sound too eager, because this would potentially give them an excuse to look in at the seamstress’s together that she wasn’t sure how she was going to wrangle otherwise, and without the dirt of the desert on her yet, too.

 

“I don’t want you to feel as though I’m only askin’ because you’re a woman,” Nedley says with a worried frown. “You know it’s not that, don’t you? It’s just that Chrissy feels more comfortable with you than any of the others, and it’ll be less of a chore for you than it will be for one of the men.”

 

“Of course,” Nicole replies warmly, looking to Chrissy. “Of course, sir. I’d be happy to.”

 

Chrissy beams at Nicole’s response before she walks to Nicole’s side. “I really am sorry to be a bother, but I’m just a little…”

 

Scared , falls unfinished between the three of them, and Nicole only needs to take one look at her to know that, while it might be convenient, and Chrissy might not have wanted or needed anything in town, and thus not needed an escort, she is genuinely afraid to be alone.

 

“I promise it won’t take long,” Chrissy says with a grateful smile and a small wink at Nicole. “Then I can get you back here to join the others.”

 

“It’s no bother at all, Chrissy,” Nicole offers kindly. “It’d be my pleasure.”

 

She watches Chrissy sigh in relief before she turns to give her father a kiss on the cheek. “We’ll be back soon, Daddy. Did you need anythin’ while we’re out?”

 

“I’m fine, darlin’,” Nedley says softly, in a voice he seems to reserve for Chrissy alone, and it lightens Nicole’s heart, watching their fondness for each other in a time where men showing gentility towards their daughters is, as she has seen it, the exception and not the rule. “Thanks for askin’. And you’re okay to go with Nicole? Because I can…”

 

“We’ll be fine,” Chrissy says easily to her father before she pats him on the arm. “I’ll keep Nicole nice and safe, right, Deputy?”

 

“Right you are, ma’am,” Nicole laughs softly in return, Chrissy walks to her, and Nicole holds her arm out for Chrissy to take, which she does happily. “Where to first?”

 

“Well,” Chrissy says just loud enough for the others to hear. “I have to call by the seamstress’s for a moment, and the general store, and maybe a few other places if you’re not bored stiff by then?”

 

“How could I be, with company such as yours?” Nicole says kindly, and Chrissy beams at the compliment as they step outside on the street together.

 

She gives her father one last small wave before she accepts Nicole’s arm again and they make their way down the street. They walk a few paces away from the jail, just out of anyone else’s hearing, when Chrissy turns to her with a playful smile.

 

“So,” Chrissy asks her quietly, grinning coyly as she tugs on Nicole’s arm. “How was Waverly this morning?”

 

“How did you…?” Nicole asks with a confused and slightly worried frown, because Chrissy had been at the jail when she’d arrived, how had she known? “Am I that…”

 

“No,” Chrissy says quickly, smirking at Nicole’s response. “You smell like her, silly. Like the shop, I mean. All sweet and botanical like.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole says as she forces her pulse to slow a little before she speaks again. “Oh, that’s good. I was worried you’d… I mean, I’d…”

 

“You’re fine,” Chrissy reassures Nicole with a soft touch to her forearm. “Although, blushing’ like that is a damn good way to give yourself away, Deputy.”

 

“I know,” Nicole says, frowning to herself. “I know. I’m not normally so reactive, I promise, I’m just… I’m nervous, I think. About this evening, and findin’ a damn dress, and all this disappearance business.”

 

“I’ve said it before, but I’m sure Waverly will be over the moon to see you in your own clothes,” Chrissy offers kindly. “In fact, I know she will. God’s truth, the girl hasn’t missed an opportunity to talk about you once since you arrived in town.”

 

“I know she’ll be complimentary regardless of what I’m wearin’, but I don’t want her to be disappointed is all,” Nicole says with a frown. “If she really doesn’t mind, then I can be myself the next time, but I don’t… I’d just rather fail on the side of formality, if you take my meaning?”

 

“Of course I do,” Chrissy replies, nodding as she looks to Nicole. “And it’s more than sweet of you to be so worried about her reaction like that, so if you want a dress, then I’d be more than honoured to help you out.”

 

“I can’t tell you what a weight lifted it is to have you be so kind,” Nicole sighs in relief. “I mean it, Chrissy. I don’t know what I’d do without you. And thank you, too, for askin’ me out with you. I was startin’ to fret I wouldn’t be able to manage it.”

 

“Don’t worry your head about it,” Chrissy says with a wide smile. “I had a plan cookin’ as soon as you mentioned it last night. I don’t take advantage of it often, but Daddy’s more than a little soft on anythin’ I ask of him since Mother passed. I thought I’d ask for an escort, and if you wanted, we’d call in, and if not, it’d be a quick trip.”

 

Nicole’s more than a little blown away at the forethought, and she resolves so do something special in order to show Chrissy how thankful she is, for her thoughtfulness and for helping her.

 

“That is incredibly kind of you,” Nicole offers with a soft smile. “And an impressive amount of forethought, Miss Nedley. You would do well to think of a future usin’ that brain of yours.”

 

“You think so?” Chrissy asks, her brow turned up in surprise at Nicole’s comment.

 

“I really do,” Nicole affirms with a tone of conviction in her voice that makes Chrissy glow. “I think it would be a shame not to use it.”

 

“Most of the time people either think I’m simple for bein’ a woman, and quiet,” Chrissy says, bowing her head a little shyly at Nicole’s compliment. “But I’d like very much to do somethin’ like you, Miss Haught. Not based on what men tell me I should or shouldn’t do. In fact, I’ve had a fancy towards the law since I was old enough to understand what it was. Not the active part that you and Daddy do - I know I’d be dreadful at that - but the written part of it, I’ve always had an interest in.”

 

“Law, huh? I think pursuing your interest in that is a fine idea,” Nicole replies kindly. “A fine idea, Miss Nedley. I think you would excel at anything you put your mind to.”

 

“Well, thank you kindly, Deputy,” Chrissy says with a small bow at Nicole’s side. “That’s very sweet of you. Perhaps I’ll ask Daddy if he might try and help me find some reading material. If he doesn’t lock me in my room, or send me straight to church for the simple suggestion.”

 

That gives Nicole an idea, a way to show Chrissy how grateful she is for her friendship, and she smiles before Chrissy leads them up to the seamstress and dressmaker’s, and Nicole’s nerves drive everything else out of her head.

 

“Danger’s no problem, but tryin’ on a dress makes you nervous?” Chrissy asks her curiously when she hears Nicole exhale shakily at her side.

 

“Yes, it damn well does,” Nicole replies through gritted teeth, eyeing the store warily, as if it contained some dangerous animal or unnatural threat.  

 

“Well, lucky you’re with me then,” Chrissy says easily, taking Nicole’s hand, and all but dragging her inside. “Because this doesn’t scare me one bit.”

 

The shop is quaint, but filled with so many dresses Nicole doesn’t even know where to look, let alone start, and one smiling woman roughly the age Nicole guesses Chrissy’s mother would be if she were alive, at the end of the store, who calls to Chrissy and beams at seeing her walk in.

 

“Miss Nedley,” the woman says warmly as Chrissy presses a kiss to her cheek. “How good it is to see you.”

 

“And you,” Chrissy replies, smiling widely when the woman takes Chrissy’s hands in her own. “I’m sorry I haven’t been in as of late. Daddy’s been busy, and…”

 

“Don’t worry your head about it,” the woman says with a wave of her hand. “It’s fine to see you here now. And tell me, who might your escort be? Not your father’s new deputy?”

 

“One and the same,” Chrissy replies, dropping the woman’s hands so she can pull Nicole, standing back a little, to the forefront of the conversation. “Miss Jessie, I have the pleasure of introducing you to Nicole Haught.”

 

“The pleasure’s mine,” Nicole says as she reaches forward to shake the seamstress’s hand. “You have a lovely shop.”

 

“I think you’ll find it is mine, Deputy,” Miss Jessie says with a smile. “I’ve heard a number of good things around town about you already, and that’s not an easy thing to achieve here where everyone’s as foul-tempered as an old mule at times.”

 

“That’s kind of them to say,” Nicole replies, blushing slightly as she drops the woman’s hand.

 

“Kindness earned,” she says with an approving nod before she looks back to Chrissy. “Especially if you have our Chrissy here on your side. She’s an eye for a good soul, this one.”

 

“So I’ve heard,” Nicole returns with a fond look to Chrissy.

 

“Now, what brings the two of you here today?” she asks with a glance between Chrissy and Nicole. “Surely not just pleasant conversation?”

 

“Well... that, too,” Chrissy offers charmingly, threading her arm through Nicole’s. “But, no, we do have a purpose, Miss Jessie. We need to find Deputy Haught here a dress.”

 

“Of course,” the woman says with a smile, no hint of teasing or alluding to the fact that Nicole would look ridiculous in one, turning around Nicole to take stock of her frame instead. “Of course, Deputy. I’d be delighted to assist. Did you have anythin’ you were wanting specifically, or…?”

 

Nicole throws a desperate help me glance to Chrissy, who steps in to talk to Miss Jessie for a moment, patting Nicole reassuringly on the arm. They debate a few styles before the seamstress walks around the room, collecting a few things over her arm, and walks back to Nicole.

 

“I think these’ll suit your colouring and frame,” she says objectively as she looks Nicole up and down again, biting her lip in thought. “I’ll look to see if I’ve got anythin’ else while you try these on.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole replies, following the woman behind a screen divider. Nicole watches as she drapes the two dresses in her arms over the top of the divider before she walks away, asking Chrissy a couple additional questions as she sorts through a few more styles.

 

Nicole starts peeling her clothes back as she kicks her boots off: her vest, then woolen pants, before she shrugs her shirt off, leaving her in her underthings. She peers around the side of the divider, not quite sure how to approach this next part by herself.

 

The seamstress catches her look of distress and walks over quickly with a kind smile to assist. She instructs Nicole to slip her undershirt off and leave only her drawers on while she waits off to the side to give her some privacy, before she tells Nicole to try and thread her arms through and pull the dress on over her head.

 

She manages to do as asked, with some difficulty, before she’s in the dress enough for the seamstress to move behind her and help with the last few adjustments, fastening the stays at Nicole’s back to hold it closed.

 

She leads Nicole over to a mirror so she can check her appearance in the first dress, a long, olive green, with a small flare of petticoat at the bottom. She has a frown prepared, ready to scowl at her own appearance, expecting the worst, but she’s more than a little surprised to see how good the dress looks.

 

It’s a completely different appearance from her usual daily image, but it’s not, as she had worried, absolutely ridiculous.

 

“Oh, Nicole,” Chrissy breathes in admiration, watching Nicole in the mirror before she walks to Nicole’s side. “You look lovely .”

 

And she has to admit, she really doesn’t look terrible. She’s uncomfortable as heck, but she looks okay. Good, even. It’s not an overly formal dress at all; it’s practical, but lovely. More suited for a day spent socialising than working, but not by a great deal, which Nicole feels much more comfortable in compared to some of the more extravagant dresses she can see around her.

 

“You certainly do, Deputy,” the seamstress says as she walks behind Nicole, drawing in a few of the darts to tighten it around her slim waist. “The green suits you. A few alterations, and I think that’ll do nicely. Although, you could humour us and try the blue on, if you wanted? Don’t bother with the grey, I think it’ll be too dull in comparison to those.”

 

“If you think so?” Nicole asks unsurely as she spins to look at the others. “I mean, I think this one will do just fine, but…”

 

“Try the blue,” Chrissy says with an excited jump in her voice. “Please.”

 

Nicole gives them both a quick nod before she turns to allow Miss Jessie to unfix the fastenings so she can pull the gown off over her head.

 

“Do you plan to wear your hair up or down, Deputy?” Miss Jessie asks as she waits for Nicole to appear from behind the screen again.

 

“I’m not sure,” Nicole says with a nervous waver in her voice, because god, she hadn’t even thought of that. “Down? Maybe down? What do you think?”

 

“Down,” they both say in unison, before Miss Jessie’s voice separates out. “It’d be a shame not to, with that lovely colour of yours. Nothin’ too fancy, just a simple style will do. Does it behave when it dries?”

 

“More or less,” Nicole answers as she finishes straightening the skirt of her second dress before she takes a breath and walks out to show the others. “It normally sets reasonably straight if I leave it unbraided after I bathe.”

 

Nicole steps away from the screen to showcase the second dress, however the two women waiting for her don’t say a word, staring at her instead with a dumbstruck expression on their faces.

 

She’s about to move back out of sight, embarrassed by how obviously terrible it must be for them to fall silent when they’d been talkative just a moment ago, when Chrissy finally speaks.

 

“Good Lord ,” she says with wide eyes, reaching for Nicole’s arm to pull her in front of the mirror. “You look…”

 

“Awful?” Nicole asks with her eyes fixed shut, too afraid to look at herself. “Ridiculous?”

 

“I’m not sure gorgeous does you justice, darlin’, but it’s the closest I can think of at the moment,” Miss Jessie says in amazement as she moves behind Nicole, smoothing down the skirt and pulling it in at the waist again, tightening the fit slightly.

 

She almost doesn’t recognise the figure standing in front of her, even with her her hair pulled back in its braid. She’s tall and soft and ladylike, the deep blue complimenting the red of her hair, the tapered middle and fitted bodice and sleeves accentuating her slim figure, and the length of the skirt highlighting her stature.

 

Chrissy walks behind her before she comes in close to Nicole’s side, looking up at her hair before gesturing vaguely to the woven strands. “May I? Take it down, I mean? Just so we can see? I can help you retie it before we leave.”

 

“Sure,” Nicole says a little hesitantly, but one glance at Chrissy soothes her a little. “If you think I should?”

 

“Absolutely,” the seamstress says, looking more than pleased with her handiwork, now alive on Nicole’s body. “If you don’t mind us playin’ dolls with you, love. It’s not often I get a figure like yours in one of my dresses. I’d like to see what the full picture looks like, if you’d be so kind as to oblige me?”

 

“Of course,” Nicole says pliantly, bending a little to Chrissy’s slightly shorter reach so she can pull the leather tie loose as the seamstress moves around Nicole’s waist, pinning small sections in.

 

Chrissy threads her fingers into the length of Nicole’s braid as Nicole watches their reflection in the mirror, before Chrissy pulls gently, and the long red strands fall loose at Nicole’s shoulders.

 

Miss Jessie whistles approvingly, standing back with her hands on her hips as she surveys Nicole’s completed reflection while Chrissy takes a step back, as well, to do the same.

 

If she almost didn’t recognise herself before, she really doesn’t now.

 

Her hair falls down free, well past her shoulders, shiny and clean without the influence of the dust and dirt of the day clinging to it yet. There’s a soft wave through it, too, the result of having braided it still a little damp before she’d fallen asleep last night.

 

Miss Jessie’s right. She could hardly have found someone better to fill the dress out, nor natural tone to complement the colour.

 

“Gorgeous definitely doesn’t do you justice, my dear,” Miss Jessie says with a pleased smirk, crossing her arms over her chest. “Do you like it?”

 

“I guess so,” Nicole replies a little awkwardly as she wrings her hands together. Because she agrees, she does look lovely, beautiful even. But she doesn’t look like her . “I mean…”

 

“I think you look beautiful , Nicole,” Chrissy says as she slips her arm through Nicole’s in a quietly reassuring gesture, sensing her unease. “I think it’ll be perfect. If you still want it, that is.”

 

The seamstress senses Nicole’s hesitation and Chrissy’s quiet tone, and, much to Nicole’s relief, she backs away, giving the two of them a small moment of privacy together.

 

“You’re not sure?” Chrissy asks her softly. “You know you don’t have to do anythin’, Nicole. What I said to you this mornin’ still stands. I’m sure she’ll love you in whatever you choose to wear.”

 

And god, she’s so torn.

 

Because on one hand, she does look nice, really nice, and if this is what Waverly wants, a more feminine look for Nicole during the hours she’s not at work, then a dress like this is almost certain to turn her head.

 

But, on the other hand, it’s just not her.

 

And it’s so hard, because her feelings for Waverly are so strong that she could do it, she could change that part of herself if it was what Waverly really wanted.

 

But she’s not sure if that’s right .

 

“Nicole,” Chrissy says gently after a minute, bringing Nicole out of her reverie. “Are you okay? Is everythin’…”

 

“It’s okay,” Nicole replies, shaking her head to clear the mental fog as her eyes fall on the stranger in the mirror. “I’m okay, my apologies, I’m just not used to seein’ myself look like this, I guess.”

 

“You really don’t have to do this if you’re not comfortable enough in it,” Chrissy offers quietly once she knows Miss Jessie is out of earshot. “I mean, you look absolutely beautiful , Nicole, but you should only do this if you feel alright doin’ it. Waverly’ll understand either way. You know she will.”

 

And Chrissy’s right, she knows Waverly will, but she doesn’t want to give Waverly Earp her okay . She wants to give Waverly Earp her greatest dream.

 

And she’s crazy not to do this, to dress in the way society expects of her for Waverly, at least once. And if it is what Waverly wants, what she’s expecting of and from Nicole, then they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it.

 

“No,” Nicole says with a resigned smile. “I will, at least once. For her. Besides, it does look okay, doesn’t it?”

 

“Okay?” Miss Jessie says with a wry smile as she walks back over to the both of them. “Lord, girl, you look like the belle of the damn ball.”

 

“Thank you, ma’am,” Nicole responds with a blush, dropping her head in embarrassment. “That’s fair kind of you.”

 

“My pleasure, Miss Haught,” the seamstress says easily. “So, have you made your decision?”

 

“Yes,” Nicole replies, exhaling nervously as she looks to Miss Jessie with a smile. “I’ll take it.”



-



They leave the seamstress’s with a promise that the dress will be ready for Nicole to call back and collect by the afternoon, ready for her evening plans with Waverly, and Nicole feels so much lighter for the relief in having found something to wear, even if she’s not completely certain how she feels about it.

 

Chrissy’s comforting presence at her side makes her feel a little better, too, and she reassures Nicole again once they step out onto the street, that even with the dress in hand later that afternoon, there was still no expectation on her to wear it if she didn’t feel enough like herself in it.

 

Nerves aside then, and based on the small confidence garnered from Miss Jessie and Chrissy’s reactions, Nicole finds herself a little excited to see what Waverly will think of her in the dress, too.

 

The thought of Waverly sends Nicole’s mind in a spin of its own, because she’s been so focused on the practical side of being ready for the evening, that she hasn’t put much thought into actually being nervous for the event.

 

Until now .

 

Because they’ve more than enjoyed each other's company in the small moments they’ve managed to steal together over the last few days, but they have the whole evening ahead of them tonight. Potentially hours.

 

She’s going to be with Waverly Earp.

 

Alone.

 

For hours .

 

And it’s not that she’s expecting anything to happen, per se, because someone like Waverly Earp deserves to be courted. Properly courted .

 

And Nicole can’t wait to potentially have the chance.

 

The fact still stands, though, that they’ll have the entire evening together. To talk, to learn , about everything Waverly wants to share, and in return to know about Nicole.

 

Alone.

 

She’s going to be alone with Waverly Earp. For hours .

 

Where they can sit close, and maybe touch occasionally, and Nicole can look, she can see , without having to monitor or watch her every move, lest someone else see something they absolutely should not.

 

She’s going to be alone with Waverly Earp. And good God , all of a sudden, she’s nervous about it.

 

Cripplingly nervous about it.

 

And she’s done this before - courted before, dated before - but that had been completely in the dark, without so much as a soul to speak to it about, because if she found out, if she caught so much as a hint that someone might have known, it would have been over.

 

Nicole doesn’t blame her, not really, because fear drives people to do things they would never ordinarily consider. Fear trumps reason. Fear is louder than love, for some.

 

It was for her at least.

 

So Nicole’s only ever courted in secret before, not ever asking another for advice, because she didn’t have any other choice. It was easier then, to know that what she was doing was just okay , or that it was the best she could do, anyway, because she could only rely on herself.

 

And there were no expectations before, because she hadn’t ever courted before either, and they’d been younger, not by much, but some small amount. Small, but large enough for Nicole to know how wrong they were for each other with a few years of hindsight under her belt.

 

But now she has Chrissy, and Chrissy can talk to Waverly. They’re not bound by some societal gag-order, not completely anyway. And they’ll have expectations, however well-meant or excitement-born, and not intentionally difficult, but there.

 

And it makes Nicole that much more nervous, because she wants to meet them all. She wants to give Waverly everything she’s never had, and everything she doesn’t know she wants.

 

Waverly.

 

That’s why the stakes are so high, that’s why the nervousness is now bubbling in the pit of her stomach. Because for the first time in a long time, Nicole has a great deal to lose.

 

And that’s a huge worry to her, but it’s incredible, too.

 

Because she has Waverly. Well, she has the potential of Waverly.

 

She has something she already knows she would lay almost anything on the line for. That she knows soon enough, she will lay everything on the line for, the second she has an indication that Waverly might reciprocate her feelings in any small way.

 

Because that’s who Nicole is; she’s loyal to a fault, and devoted, and she loves, deeply , and she knows she’s good at those things because she had loved them, she had fallen hard for Nicole’s everything, before fear got the better of her.

 

She will give everything to Waverly, and more, more than she could before, when she was younger, because she’s older and wiser now, and she knows more.

 

If that’s what Waverly wants.

 

If Waverly doesn’t let fear get the better of her.

 

Nicole doesn’t think Waverly will, not with the small display she had seen in front of Champ, but being subjected to hatred, pure hatred, is hard. And Nicole doesn’t think you know how anyone is going to react to being subjected to that until they are.

 

She thinks Waverly is stronger than that, though. Braver.

 

For the better or worse of it, Waverly has endured . Waverly has courage.

 

More so than Nicole feels like she has in this moment, that’s for sure.

 

“You’re a million miles away, huh?” Chrissy asks, bringing Nicole out of her head again as they stand outside the General Store.

 

“I’m sorry, Chrissy,” Nicole replies with a frown, admonishing herself. “God, I’m so sorry. I’m just… I’m nervous for tonight. I wasn’t before, but I hadn’t really let myself think about it, in the event nothin’ happened. But now it is, and I’m… Lord, I’m nervous.”

 

“Again I say, you can walk into danger, but courtin’ one tiny young woman, and you’re afraid,” Chrissy says quietly with a smile to Nicole, her expression softening when she sees how worried Nicole is. “Hey, look, you’re going to be lovely, Nicole. I’ve seen the way you look at her, like she drew the sun, and she sees that, too.”

 

“I just don’t want to…” Nicole trails off before she looks to Chrissy hopefully. “I want to make sure she has a nice time. I want to make sure I don’t say anythin’ that bores her out of her mind, or upsets her.”

 

“I highly doubt you’ll bore her,” Chrissy says, rolling her eyes. “You can’t not have seen the way that girl hangs on your every word.”

 

Nicole blushes a little, because she has noticed that, just a little bit, that Waverly gives her full attention to Nicole, that Waverly looks for her as much as she looks for Waverly in return.

 

“Is there anythin’ I shouldn’t bring up?” Nicole asks quietly as they stop outside the store. “Is there anythin’ I need to know not to ask over?”

 

“She’s a pretty open book, that girl,” Chrissy says fondly. “There isn’t much she won’t talk about, even her family history, to the right people. And I think you might be the right people, Deputy.”

 

“You think so?” Nicole asks, her voice gently hopeful.

 

“I really do,” Chrissy returns with an equal gentleness.

 

“I just... I want her to know I’m interested in her,” Nicole says nervously. “I want to talk about things she wants to talk about.”

 

“I think you could talk about coal, and that’d still interest her as long as it was you sayin’ it,” Chrissy replies, laughing softly before she looks around to ascertain their privacy. “If I may be so bold, there must be somethin’ you can draw from… I mean, you’ve courted women before, haven’t you?

 

“I have,” Nicole answers with a blush. “I mean, only one to the point of some sort of an actual relationship, but yes, I have.”

 

“Others not to the point of a relationship?” Chrissy asks with interest.

 

“A lady never tells,” Nicole replies as her blush deepens. “There may have been one or two along the way, for one reason or another needin’ comfort, but not like this. None like Waverly.”

 

“I know you’ll be just fine,” Chrissy says, a calm wave passing through Nicole when Chrissy’s arm loops through her own. “Just be yourself, Nicole. And she’ll love you more than she already does.”

 

Nicole exhales shakily, trying to will the comfort Chrissy is offering to settle her thumping heart. She closes her eyes for a moment, breathes calm , and opens her eyes again, soothed.

 

Chrissy takes Nicole’s pace for a moment, stilling before she feels Nicole come back to the present.

 

“Now,” Chrissy says with a nudge to Nicole’s side. “Let’s see if I can’t get an actual chore done so Daddy doesn’t think I’m hopeless, hmmm?”

 

“I don’t think your father would ever think for a moment that you’re hopeless, Miss Nedley,” Nicole says, frowning at Chrissy playfully. “But I take your meaning. Actually, I wanted to get a small thing for Waverly, too. There was a piece of ribbon she saw yesterday that I think she’ll… that I’d like to take as a small token tonight.”

 

“Lord,” Chrissy breathes in an exasperated voice. “Why aren’t the young men in this damn town half as chivalrous as you are? You put them all to shame, you know.”

 

“They could do with workin’ a little harder for their young women,” Nicole says wryly, and she believes it, too, completely unagreeable with the mediocrity the women of this time settle for.

 

“I’ll be sure to tell the young man that courts me,” Chrissy replies with a cynical sigh. “If someone ever decides to take that burden on.”

 

“You are anythin ’ but a burden, Chrissy Nedley,” Nicole says firmly. “Anyone who says less than that can come and tell me to my face.”

 

“Nicole Haught,” Chrissy replies fondly, squeezing Nicole’s arm in appreciation. “What in the world would I do without you?”

 

“Well, you’d certainly be around a heck of a lot less sin,” Nicole says, laughing. “That’s for sure.”

 

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Chrissy says before she pulls Nicole towards the door. “Come on, let’s get your girl somethin’ nice, huh?”



-



A few things for Chrissy, and a small packet of lace wrapped up and hidden carefully in her pocket later, has the two of them walking back towards the jail.

 

“What do you think’s goin’ on?” Chrissy asks Nicole with a slightly scared hint on her tongue. “I mean, with these disappearances?”

 

“Honestly, I haven’t a clue, Chrissy,” Nicole replies regretfully. “But I know your father’ll be doing everything he can to find out. The rest of us, too.”

 

“It’s strange,” Chrissy remarks as they walk up to the door of the jail, lingering outside for a moment. “I couldn’t have told you what it was like to be scared before a few days ago, it’s been that long since I’ve felt any real fear, but this… I hope we can stop it before it gets any worse.”

 

“So do I,” Nicole replies, smiling reassuringly to Chrissy as the fear slides down her own back like icy river water. “So do I.”



-



They arrive to a rather solemn mood in the jail, five or so faces looking hopeful at their entrance before they realise it’s only Nicole and Chrissy returning, and their hopeful gazes fall.

 

No one has any new information, nor has anyone found any other clues as to where either of the two women might be, or any other piece of information that might tell them exactly who is behind this.

 

The only small blessing is that there haven’t been any further reported disappearances; no more distraught fathers arriving to advise their daughter or wife has gone missing, too.

 

Yet .

 

Nedley debriefs Nicole quickly before he asks whether she’ll take up one of the patrols around to some of the nearby houses to see whether anyone’s noticed anything. Or if anyone acts unusually to her visit.

 

“You feel alright goin’ alone?” Nedley asks her quietly before she gets ready to leave. “Not because you’re… I mean, I asked the other men the same question. I don’t want you to think I’m sendin’ you all into danger, Haught. Your safety is as much my concern as the people we’re lookin’ for.”

 

“I appreciate the offer, sir,” Nicole says gratefully. “But I think I’ll be fine. Lady Jane has a good nose for danger, she’ll get us both out of there if she doesn’t like the smell of somethin’.”

 

“You’re sure?” Nedley asks one last time. “Because there ain’t no shame in wantin’ help. The boys went out this mornin’ in pairs.”

 

“I’m happy to go with one of the others if you’re worried, sir,” Nicole offers, watching the concerned look on his face. “It’s no skin off my nose either way. If I didn’t know Jane so well, I’d take you up on that, but I feel safe with her. She knows when somethin’s up. Lord knows she’s gotten me out of danger before.”

 

“Smart horse,” Nedley says appraisingly, grinning before he nods. “Well, if you’re okay, then we can divide ourselves up and search a bit more ground. You feel anythin’ you don’t like, you hightail it out of there, alright?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Nicole replies, smiling at his concern before she moves to gather herself and leave.

 

She stops by Chrissy, seated behind one of the other deputies’ desks on the way out, reaching out to give her hand a light squeeze.

 

“Thank you for this mornin’,” Nicole says with a soft smile. “I can’t tell you how much I…”

 

“I know,” Chrissy returns as her hand closes over Nicole’s. “It was my pleasure, Deputy. Thank you for comin’ to keep me company.”

 

She tips her hat to Chrissy one last time, taking a step away when Chrissy’s hand in her arm stills her for a moment.

 

“Be careful, won’t you?” Chrissy asks quietly as a parting comment. “It won’t do for me to have to tell Miss Earp you’re standin’ her up because you’ve gone missin’ your darn self.”

 

“Of course I will,” Nicole winks back. “Wouldn’t dream of anything but.”

 

Chrissy gives her a heavy nod that says good before she turns and starts to walk down the Main Street towards the stables to collect Lady Jane.

 

The animal is beyond delighted to see her, and Nicole’s glad she thought to put a few sugar cubes in her satchel on the off-chance she was able to come and visit her friend at some stage today.

 

“I think she missed you,” Mattie says, smiling as she walks over to greet Nicole with her hands on her hips. “She was a grump yesterday afternoon.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Nicole offers apologetically, feeling more than a little guilty at not having made it to see her yesterday. “I don’t mean to leave her without at least coming to check on her, the day just got away from me.”

 

“Don’t worry your head about it,” Mattie breezes flippantly. “She was fine, and that’s what she’s here for, so you don’t need to mind that she’s not bein’ taken care of. We cheered each other just fine didn’t we, Lady J?”

 

The horse nickers in response as Mattie runs her hand down the animal’s neck, and Nicole watches on, pleased at how well Lady Jane seems settled in her presence. She’s someone I can trust then, Nicole says to herself. Good .

 

“And I’m not surprised you didn’t get to me yesterday. Nedley stopped by and asked a few questions before he told me about what’s been happenin’,” Mattie says, her voice solemn. “I don’t envy your job at times like this, Deputy.”

 

“I’m glad Nedley mentioned somethin’ to you,” Nicole replies. “I had a mind to ask you myself. You’re okay out here by yourself?”

 

“Just fine,” Mattie says, smiling wryly. “A rifle next to the bed is better than a husband any day.”

 

“You’ve got that right,” Nicole says under her breath, but Mattie must just hear it, because she smiles a little knowingly before changing the subject.

 

“Anyway, we’ll be just fine. This lot makes a hell of a racket if anyone’s here that isn’t meant to be,” she says as she gestures around to the other horses in the stable.

 

“Good,” Nicole nods in reply. “Good. And you know where to find us if anythin’ happens or you notice anythin’ unusual?”

 

“You’ll be the first to know, Deputy,” Mattie offers with a smile. “Now, will you be takin’ Lady J out with you today?”

 

“I will,” Nicole says, scratching between the animal’s eyes. “I need to go check a few of the surroundin’ houses, stick my nose in, see if anythin’ comes up from it. I’ll bring her back later in the day, if that’s alright?”

 

“Right as rain, Deputy,” Mattie replies, opening the stall for Nicole to lead her horse out by the bridle before she sets the saddle on Lady Jane’s back and gestures her readiness to Nicole. “She’s all yours. Look after her, Lady J, alright?”

 

“Best friend anyone could ask for, aren’t you,” Nicole says fondly as she swings easily up into her saddle before she leans down to wink at the animal. “Thanks, Mattie. We’ll be seein’ you.”

 

“Ride safe, Deputy,” Mattie replies, watching Nicole ride away, and it’s faint, but Nicole thinks she can hear a parting note of find that asshole, Haught, before they take us all.



-



Nicole is thoroughly exhausted by the time she makes her way back from the seventh homestead, sliding up into the saddle again before setting Lady Jane back on the route towards town.

 

Seven houses and not one clue.

 

Nothing, except a few newly wary fathers and worried mothers. At least, she thinks gratefully, at least there aren’t any other disappearances. At least no one else has gone missing. Thank the Lord for small mercies.

 

Or, no one else has gone missing that they know of, Nicole adds soberly.

 

There hadn’t been one single thing out of place at any of the homes she had visited, nor any of their behaviour out of the ordinary. Nothing. Like the women had just vanished without a trace.

 

Christ , she thinks as she bites her lip in frustration, what if we can’t find them. What if we don’t intercept them before they take others.

 

She’s about to give Lady Jane a gentle nudge before something out of the corner of her eye catches her attention. A tiny flash of red shooting behind a tree on the very edge of the property she hadn’t quite left.

 

It’s likely just a rabbit, but something, maybe her curiosity on high alert, makes Nicole slide off the back of her horse. Her boots crunch lightly on the gravel when she makes makes contact with the ground, and she leads Lady Jane by the halter in the event that she needs to be able to take off in a hurry, but another few hesitant steps reveals she needn’t have bothered.

 

The red shape, huddled and trembling with its hackles raised and its back against the tree, is a tiny pup.

 

The owners of this land didn’t have a dog, though. They’d made a point of noting that when Nicole suggested they let any animals they did have give them an indication of danger, and to note if any of them were acting strangely.

 

She drops Lady Jane’s halter, motioning for the horse to stay where she is for a moment, before she crouches down to present a less imposing stature to the small puppy.

 

Nicole offers her hand out slowly to the animal, trying to coax it forward to greet her, and it pauses for a moment before it senses the lack of danger around Nicole and takes a hesitant, shaking step.

 

It’s a reasonable size, Nicole thinks as she appraises the animal, obviously still a puppy, but too large to just have normal dog in it’s blood. The body is slender and gangly, even for a puppy, with huge paws it has yet to grow into, and she surmises that whatever this animal is, at least one of its parents was enormous.

 

“Come here, little one,” Nicole says gently, trying to soothe the small body into taking another step towards her. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”

 

Her soft voice does the trick, reassuring the animal enough that it takes the last two steps to press its dry nose against Nicole’s hand, drawing in her scent.

 

She stays still for a moment, allowing the pup to grow accustomed to her smell before she brings her other hand slowly to move down its back. A girl, she surmises as the animal moves a little closer to her, leaning into her affection.

 

The little body is malnourished, quite severely so, and it breaks Nicole’s heart a little because she knows the owners of this house aren’t likely to feed her if she were to show up on their doorstep, and the next homestead isn’t for a good hour’s ride. In this sun, there’s no way an already tired and starving animal would make it that far, and even then, there’s no guarantee they would offer it food.

 

Nicole knows it would be significantly easier to just leave the animal here, but she can’t bring herself to, so she sighs and turns back to Lady Jane instead.

 

“What do you reckon girl? Should we take her with us?” Nicole asks herself as much as Lady Jane. The horse snorts before it takes a step towards them, and Nicole smiles at the yes she takes from the gesture.

 

“What do you think, huh?” Nicole asks the pup in front of her, quite happily leaning against Nicole’s leg for support now. “Do you want to come home with us?”

 

She’s already running through the justification speech to Gus, even though she knows there’s no way the woman will allow her to bring a puppy into the Inn, before she has another, better idea.

 

“You know, I think you might just make someone a very sweet birthday gift, little girl,” Nicole says, smiling as the pup allows Nicole to pick her up. She ponders for a moment about how she’s going to transport the small animal home before her elbow knocks the satchel at her waist.

 

Not exactly its intended purpose, Nicole thinks wryly as she opens the satchel and places the pup in it, its little head and huge paws propped over the top.

 

She clicks softly, gesturing for Lady Jane to move towards her, which the horse does warily, eyeing the bundle in Nicole’s hands. She holds her hand and then the bag containing the pup out for the horse to familiarise herself to the scent she normally associated with predators. Lady Jane sniffs a few times before swinging her head away, satisfying herself that she’s okay for the animal to be in her presence.

 

“Good girl,” Nicole says to the horse before she scratches between her big brown eyes, grateful for Lady Jane’s acceptance. “Let’s get back to town, shall we?”

 

She holds the bag with the pup in it close to her chest before swinging up into the saddle, a little less smoothly than normal, in an attempt to jostle the bundle as little as possible. She settles into her seat, checking on the puppy, who’s busy looking up at Nicole with a mildly curious, but reasonably relaxed expression, before she nudges Lady Jane forward into a walk.

 

It takes her longer to get into town with the pup nestled carefully in front of her, but not by much, because she wouldn’t have ridden Lady Jane at a gallop back into town in this heat regardless of their extra package.

 

Gus is going to kill me , Nicole thinks to herself as she nears the edge of town, what was I thinking? Nicole doesn’t even know if Waverly likes dogs, she just thought the companion would be nice in her shop alone at night, even more useful as a guard against anything malevolent in the darkness.

 

She supposes Mattie might take the small warm body in her arms if Waverly doesn’t want her, and breathes a little easier having identified a backup plan. Just in case.

 

She heads straight to the stables so Mattie can give Lady Jane a well-deserved water and brush after her long day of helping Nicole.

 

The sun is low in the sky when she returns, late afternoon, she supposes, as she swings down from her horse carefully. She looks down to check on the pup, but she’s fast asleep, lulled by the rhythmic movements of the larger animal’s gait, apparently more than comfortable in Nicole’s presence to allow sleep to overtake it.

 

“What in the sweet hell have you got there, Deputy?” Mattie asks quietly as she approaches Nicole. “Is that a pup ?”

 

“I guess so,” Nicole replies with a guilty shrug. “I’m not entirely sure what breed she is. I was thinkin’ some kind of hound, maybe? I found her on the edge of one of the farms, and couldn’t leave her there. She was starving.”

 

Mattie levels her with an expression that says you’re too soft for your own good before she gestures Nicole closer so she can inspect the small red furball in Nicole’s satchel.

 

She peers down with interest, her hand moving for the animal before she stops, conscious of waking her or spooking her. Nicole smiles at Mattie’s conscientiousness, and her obvious experience with animals that leads her to temper her own curiosity for the sake of the pup’s comfort.

 

“She’s beautiful, even as rough as she is half-dead. Look at her feet, she’s going to be big,” Mattie says softly. “What on earth are you going to do with her? I doubt Gus’ll let you keep her.”

 

“I thought I’d… I mean, I was going to see if I might gift her to…” Nicole starts before she trails off, unsure how much she can safely reveal to Mattie. But the other woman’s no idiot, and she smiles knowingly at Nicole before she finishes Nicole's sentence.

 

“Waverly Earp?” Mattie asks wryly, patting Nicole on the arm reassuringly as Nicole feels her own face drain of blood. “Don’t worry, Deputy. Your secret’s safe with me. I’ve got enough of my own, god knows I can keep another.”

 

Nicole blows a shaky breath out between her teeth before she looks to Mattie gratefully.

 

“I won’t pretend most folks ‘round here won’t be ready to condemn the two of you, but I won’t be one of ‘em,” Mattie offers. “I had my great love, and now that he’s gone, I’ll care for this lot rather than give another my broken heart, but I won’t begrudge no one love.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Nicole says sincerely. “Truly, Mattie. I’m sorry. Can I ask what…?”

 

“Tuberculosis,” Mattie replies, the anger in her voice. “Damn disease. He was fine until he wasn’t.”

 

“That’s terrible,” Nicole says as she watches the light go from the other woman’s eyes.

 

“We had a few good years together,” Mattie says, coming back to the present when the pup stretches in her sleep, making them both smile. “I’m glad the two of you have found each other.”

 

“Nothin’s… I mean, I don’t know what’s goin’ to happen yet,” Nicole says as a frown crosses her features. “We’re… I’m takin’ Waverly a small picnic tonight, but we’re not… we haven’t… I think she’s interested, but she’s not… she hasn’t done this before.”

 

“And you have?” Mattie asks curiously, interested.

 

“Yes,” Nicole admits with a reasonable level of confidence that Mattie’s not going to run to the minister for a trough of holy water. “I mean…only once properly, but yes, I have.”

 

“Fair enough,” Mattie says, nodding as she takes the information in. “Well, mind you don’t hurt that girl more’n she’s already been hurt, alright? Lord knows she don’t need no more pain in her life than she’s already had.”

 

“Of course not,” Nicole says quickly. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I think she’s… I mean…”

 

“It’s okay, Deputy,” Mattie offers, smiling at Nicole’s reaction. “I know you mean well. I just meant that others do, until the goin’ gets tough, and then they get goin’ with it.”

 

“I’m the one that stays,” Nicole says with a firm voice. “If there’s one that’s runnin’, it won’t be me. But I hope… I mean, you never know, but… I don’t think Waverly’ll run.”

 

“Nor do I, Deputy,” Mattie returns, eyeing Nicole for a moment. “And I trust you know what that means? For the both of you?”

 

“Absolutely,” Nicole replies with conviction that she hopes shuts down the question Mattie has about how serious she is about this, that she might not know what she’s getting herself into, because she does. With an old, broken heart as proof, she does .

 

“Good,” Mattie says finally, nodding, pleased with her interrogation. “Now, if you’ve got some business to attend to before your evenin’, how about you leave that bundle with me. Give you a chance to speak to Gus and get ready without worryin’ about this wee thing.”

 

“Would you mind?” Nicole asks hopefully, because it would be an enormous help to have Mattie assist with the pup.

 

“Of course,” Mattie replies, looking down to the small red shape in Nicole’s arms. “Give me a chance to try and get some food and water into her, too.”

 

“I’ll come and fetch her just before sundown?” Nicole asks as she picks the little sleep-heavy body up out of the bag. The pup stirs, panicking a little before Nicole’s voice calms her. “It’s alright, girl. Mattie here’s a friend, okay? She’s gonna look after you for a while, and I’ll come and get you later, okay?”

 

The little shape resists for a moment before she settles in Nicole’s arms and allows her to hand the red ball to Mattie carefully.

 

“Christ, she’s heavier than she looks, isn’t she?” Mattie asks, surprised at the weight behind the pup. “She’s gonna be a big girl, that’s for damn sure. As long as she’s trained well, she’ll make an excellent companion, I think.”

 

“So do I,” Nicole smiles at the little animal in Mattie’s arms. “I’m so darn fond of her already.”

 

“I’m surprised she went with you, to be honest,” Mattie admits with a note of surprise in her voice. “Most wild pups’ll bite you and run as soon as look at you.”

 

“Maybe she recognised a kindred spirit,” Nicole says quietly, reaching to run her fingers through the soft fur.

 

“I think she must’ve, Deputy,” Mattie replies, casting a look to Nicole. “You know, if an animal’ll trust you, so will I. I’m never sure of outsiders, but I think you’re one of the good ones, Haught.”

 

“I appreciate that, Mattie,” Nicole returns kindly. “And for takin’ care of her for a while. You’re sure she won’t be a burden?”

 

“Not at all,” Mattie says, shaking her head. “You’ll be lucky if I’m willin’ to part with her when you come back, I think. She’s a sweet little thing.”

 

“That she is,” Nicole says with a soft tilt of her head. “Anyway, I’d best be off, I need to liaise with the others before I head off to get ready. You’re…?”

 

“We’re okay, Deputy,” Mattie nods before she shoos Nicole away with the hand not curled under the pup. “You go do your things, and we’ll see you back here later.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole thinks suddenly when she jostles her gun at her side, her quick mind jumping ten steps ahead of her. She had a fleeting thought earlier in the day about how in the sweet hell she was going to find a way to keep her gun on her this evening while wearing her dress, and suddenly, while glancing at Mattie’s belt, Nicole has an idea. “Mattie, you wouldn’t have any old lengths of leather to spare lyin’ around, do you?”

 

“Might have,’ Mattie answers, her eyes narrowing. “I can try and dig somethin’ out before you come back later, if you don’t need it now?”

 

“No,” Nicole sighs gratefully. “No, that would be wonderful, thank you.”

 

“My pleasure, Deputy,” Mattie says, eyeing her suspiciously, like she wants to ask Nicole why , but she almost doesn’t want to know. “Now get on out of here. We’ll have everythin’ ready for you when you get back.”

 

Nicole tips her hat to Mattie in thanks before she turns on her heel and makes her way back towards the jail to share her lack of news with the others.

 

Christ, Nicole thinks to herself as she stuffs her hands in her pockets, kicking dirt with each step. Let someone have found something. Anything.

 

She spots a few MISSING PERSON posters up, pinned to the outside of the jail when she walks onto the porch, and she’s thankful that someone had gone and fetched them from the print shop for her and started hanging them up.

 

The sooner the town’s on alert, the better, Nicole thinks warily, eyeing the printed black letters on the page, as if willing them to reveal the location of the two missing women by some stroke of magic or witchcraft.

 

They don’t, of course, so it’s with a heavy heart that she walks into the structure she’s beginning to feel a sense of home with.

 

The mood in the jail when she steps her tired legs through the door isn’t promising. Nedley is hunched over in his chair, looking through a set of documents -town records or family trees, Nicole supposes - with Chrissy perched at his shoulder pointing out one thing or another, and one of the other deputies is walking laps around the jail, trying to jog his memory or stir a thought.

 

“Haught,” Nedley says as he sees her approach, slipping his glasses of the edge of his nose to rub at his brow. “Did you…?”

 

“Not a damn thing, sir,” Nicole replies, frowning with disappointment. “Almost every house I could reach in a half day’s ride, and nothing.”

 

“Nothin’?” Nedley asks with an equal tone of disappointment in his own voice. “Not…”

 

“A hair out of place or one drop of suspicious activity or behaviour,” Nicole replies, shaking her head. “Nothin’, sir. Absolutely nothin’.”

 

“Christ,” Nedley says, rubbing his hands harder over his eyes, and Nicole can see the strain in his shoulders. “How can there be nothin’? These girls didn’t disappear into thin goddamn air, did they?”

 

“There’ll be somethin’, Daddy,” Chrissy consoles as she runs her palm over her father’s back. “You’ll find somethin’, I know you will.”

 

“At least we haven’t had any more reported disappearances, have we?” Nicole adds hopefully, looking to Chrissy or the other deputy for confirmation.

 

“No,” the deputy says, walking over to Nicole. “Small mercies, huh?”

 

“I think so,” Nicole replies, trying to squeeze as much positivity into her tone as possible. “Chrissy’s right, sir, we’ll find something. And in the meantime, we’ve got the town vigilant, too.”

 

“Vigilant and panicked,” Nedley says critically, frowning up to Nicole. “I’m sorry, Haught. I don’t mean to be so negative, it’s just…”

 

“It’s okay, sir,” Nicole returns softly, and she means it, because she can only imagine the stress Nedley’s under with the town now watching his every move, waiting for him to fix everything and catch the person responsible while reclaiming the missing women. “Truly, it’s alright. We’ve got your back, you know that, right?”

 

He looks to Nicole, his frown melting slightly at her show of support, before a hesitant smile turns his face. “I know, and I appreciate it, Haught. I really do. Lord knows I’d be a dead man without you lot behind me.”

 

“They’ll have to come through me first,” Chrissy says firmly at Nedley’s side.

 

“I know, sweetheart,” Nedley softens as he looks to his daughter. “And a hell of a job they’d have gettin’ through you, too.”

 

Chrissy looks to Nicole for a moment, as if trying to prompt something before Nicole’s mind catches her wave of thought. The dress, she remembers suddenly. We have to go and pick up the dress.

 

“Sir, I wonder if you’d mind me doin’ one last walk up and down the street before I turn my hat in for the night,” Nicole says under the guise of being able to pass the dressmaker’s, too. “Just in case there’s somethin’ that wasn’t there earlier in the day?”

 

“That’d be great, Haught,” Nedley breathes wearily. “Take Chrissy with you if you don’t mind the company? We’ve kept her cooped up with us boring men all day.”

 

“It’s been a fine day, Daddy,” Chrissy says, nudging his shoulder, which causes him to smile. “But I wouldn’t mind the fresh air, if it’s going to be a few hours ‘till we ride home.”

 

“See if you can’t find us somethin’ for dinner?” he asks her softly. “Whatever you’d like, alright?”

 

“Sure thing,” Chrissy replies happily, giving her father one last squeeze on the shoulder before she slides off the arm of his chair and over to Nicole. “Ready now?”

 

“Sure thing,” Nicole answers as Chrissy slides her hand into the crook of Nicole’s arm. “We’ll see you soon, sir.”

 

“Thanks, Haught,” Nedley says, sighing, but Nicole thinks she can hear a hint of relief in there now, too.

 

The two of them walk out onto Main Street in the early evening light, and Nicole gives the street one good look before she takes a step down any further.

 

Activity has petered off, as it seems wont to do when the dusk takes over the day, and there are only a few people walking up and down now, similar to this time yesterday evening when Nicole had done the same thing.

 

She casts a glance down to the spot where she thought she saw the figure last night, but there’s nothing; only the dusty street and one or two familiar faces talking down the way. She throws her gaze around one last time before she looks to Chrissy, smiling and gesturing that they can carry on.

 

“Is your father okay?” Nicole asks Chrissy with a frown. “I know this can’t be easy on him, but if there’s anythin’ I can do to lessen the load, you’ll let me know, won’t you?”

 

“Of course,” Chrissy says, smiling at Nicole’s thoughtfulness.  “And I think just lettin’ him know you’re there like you did about does it. He takes so much worry on himself so no one else has to, you’ll be hard pressed to get him any less wound than he is now.”

 

“I wish there was more I could do,” Nicole says, frustrated. “I wish there was anythin’ I could do. I’ve never felt so helpless before. Normally we have a lead or some small clue, but we haven’t found a damn thing. It really is like they’ve vanished into thin air.”

 

“Well, we both know that’s not possible,” Chrissy offers by way of solace, chuckling lightly. “There’ll be somethin’ somewhere. You’ll find it, Nicole. You or Daddy or the both of you. I know you will.”

 

She wants to take Chrissy’s calm words to heart, but try as she might, she just can’t. All of a sudden, the frustration boils over and she stops still in the street, looking to Chrissy with a panicked expression.

 

“But what if we don’t?” Nicole asks with exasperation. “God, what was I thinkin’, setting’ this up for tonight? I should be out there lookin’, doing something, not indulging myself.”

 

Chrissy levels her with a glare that Nicole guesses she’s given her father more than once in his life, and thank god she chooses that moment to be the more settled of the two, because her firm, but gentle voice quiets Nicole’s racing pulse almost immediately.

 

“You should be spending time with someone who probably needs the distraction and reassurance as much as anyone else in this town,” Chrissy says clearly. “Remember that, alright? This is probably panicking Waverly a heck of a lot more than she’s lettin’ on. And even if she didn’t need the company and reassurance, you can’t starve yourself of good just because you think you’re not helping. Because you are Nicole. And you can’t run yourself ragged, neither. You need to rest. You need to find yourself some calm, so you can help those without it, because trust me, the next few days? Somethin’ tells me you’re gonna need it.”

 

“You’re right,” Nicole replies as the air leaves her lungs in a sigh. “Of course you’re right. I’m sorry, Chrissy, I didn’t mean to panic, I just feel so…”

“I know you do,” Chrissy says, her voice kind as she pats Nicole’s arm and leads her along into a slow pace again. “I know, which is why it’s so important to have a night to forget all about this so you can come at it tomorrow with a fresh pair of eyes, huh?”

 

“Anyone ever tell you you’re far too clever for your age?” Nicole asks with a smile, her mind racing a little slower now.

 

All the time,” Chrissy replies, her turn to sound exasperated as she rolls her eyes dramatically. “Isn’t that dull?”

 

“I think it’s wonderful,” Nicole says kindly, bumping her hip against Chrissy’s and they walk the rest of the way to the seamstress’s in quiet, light chat.

 

“So, what have you got planned for the evening, then?” Chrissy asks Nicole just before the reach the shop.

 

“Actually,” Nicole says, smiling when she remembers the pup waiting for her with Mattie that she hasn’t mentioned to Chrissy yet. “I did somethin’ a little crazy today.”

 

“Nicole Haught, crazy?” Chrissy asks, aghast. “I don’t believe you. What could you have possibly done in between all that rangin’ today?”

 

“It was kinda there that I found her,” Nicole replies, smiling shyly.

 

“Her?” Chrissy questions, pulling Nicole up short to look her in the eye. “You found her ? Don’t tell me this is another long lost girl, Nicole, because I’m as open-minded as they come, but that might be a step too far.”

 

“No,” Nicole laughs, looking down at a slightly worried Chrissy with a wide smile. “It’s not that at all. Even I’m not that progressive, Chrissy, don’t worry. No, it’s… I found a pup out on one of the ranges this afternoon. She was half-starved and almost a goner, and I almost didn’t see her, but she came when I held my hand out, and she was so beautiful, I couldn't leave her there.”

 

“You bought a pup back into town?” Chrissy asks incredulously. “Is it wild, or tame, or?”

 

“I think it’s too small to be one way or the other just yet, although it’s parentage definitely shows some type of hound. Mattie thinks so, too. Her little paws are enormous,” Nicole answers, a warm feeling spreading into her chest at the thought of the animal. “Anyway, I thought about bringin’ her in for myself, but then I thought... Well, Waverly’s in that shop all by herself at night, and if I can’t be there to protect her, I’d feel a damn sight better if she had some company. The pup might not be big yet, but she will be, and I reckon she’d give someone who wasn't supposed to be there a good bite, in spite of her small size, even now.”

 

“You found Waverly a dog?” Chrissy asks, her mouth still agape as she tries to process the information, and it sends a cold spike through the heat of her chest when Nicole realises Chrissy might be able to shed some light on whether or not Waverly would even like a companion like that.

 

“Is it ridiculous?” Nicole questions Chrissy as her face lines in worry. “Is she not fond of animals, or allergic, or…”

 

“No,” Chrissy replies, shaking her head, laughing gently. “Truth couldn’t be further from that, in fact. That girl loves animals more’n anyone I’ve ever met. Even Mattie, who’s lookin’ after Lady Jane. It’s just… I’m laughin’ because you say you don’t think you know what to talk about to make her happy, or what to do, but it’s like you know exactly what she wants without actually knowin’ .”

 

“Thank god,” Nicole sighs in relief. “So she might like her, then? I didn't make some terribly misguided decision?”

 

“Not at all. I think she’ll love her, Nicole,” Chrissy says brightly. “Does she have a name, yet?”

 

“No,” Nicole answers, shaking her head. “I thought I’d let Waverly name her. If she wanted to keep her, that was.”

 

“I think she’ll definitely want to keep her,” Chrissy says with a smile. “Wait till you see that girl’s face when you walk into that shop. She’s goin’ to think you damn near walked in there with the sun in your arms.”

 

“You really think she’ll be okay with it?” Nicole asks unsurely. “I mean, I know it was her birthday not too long ago, and I knew I couldn’t get her anythin’ in town without arousing too much suspicion, so…”

 

“It’s perfect ,” Chrissy affirms, looking to Nicole brightly. “Wait, if she’s not here, where is she now?”

 

“Mattie’s lookin’ after her until I run it past Gus,” Nicole replies. “I didn’t just want to turn up with her at the Inn and expect Gus to let me through the door.”

 

“Probably a wise thought,” Chrissy says, smiling at the same thought running through Nicole’s mind regarding Gus shooing her outside with the little red bundle in her arms.

 

“I thought so,” Nicole returns with a smile of her own. “I thought I’d pick up the dress, call by the Inn, speak to Gus and collect the bundle of food I asked her to set aside for me and anythin’ else I want for tonight, stop by the baths, go pick the little one up and then surprise Waverly. You really don’t think it’s a terribly misguided idea?”

 

“I think it’s a wonderful idea, Nicole,” Chrissy offers kindly. “I know you think you’re lucky, but I hope you know Waverly’s damn lucky in this equation, too.”

 

“You think so?” Nicole asks uncertainly before her heart warms a little against Chrissy’s affirmation, quieting the question in her palms. “I mean, I know it’s fast, and I know it’s a forward gesture, but…”

 

“I think it fits,” Chrissy says, beaming up to Nicole. “I think it fits, Nicole. I know it’s fast by normal standards, but the two of you… I don’t know, maybe I’m speakin’ out of turn, but it feels like… it feels like maybe the two of you were made for each other.”

 

They floor Nicole, Chrissy’s words, they floor her.

 

Because honestly, in the dark, lying in the bed she now knows Waverly had once lain in, listening to the steady beat of her own heart, Nicole has thought the same thing.

 

It’s difficult, not knowing quite where Waverly sits, even though she thinks they’re on the same page, but Nicole knows this thing with her, their connection , even platonically, it’s different to anything else she’s ever experienced with another person.

 

It’s deeper . And she can’t wait for tonight, to see where this connection might take them next.

 

Because she’s not sure where Waverly stands, she’s not , but she thinks she knows - based on the way her touch lingers on Nicole’s body, and the way her breath catches when Nicole comes close, and the way her gaze finds Nicole from across the street - she thinks she knows.

 

And it makes her nervous and terrified and tremendously excited all at the same time.

 

“I’m sorry,” Chrissy says after a moment, drawing Nicole’s attention back to the ground beneath her feet instead of the sky above them. “I must be a sentimental fool tonight, I didn’t mean to…”

 

“It’s okay, Chrissy,” Nicole replies, stopping Chrissy mid-apology with a hesitant smile. “I think… I mean, I think that’s how I feel as well, I just… I don’t want to let my hope run away with me, just in case she doesn’t…”

 

“I know you don’t,” Chrissy says softly, and her voice is kind and brimming with something she wants to say, something exciting, but knows it’s not her place to, so she holds back. Just. Spilling only a fraction of her secret out instead. “But, I think that maybe… it’s okay to be a little hopeful. I mean, I can see, Nicole. I can see the way she looks at you. I think it’s okay to be a little hopeful.”

 

“You do?” Nicole asks, and she thinks that she knows what Chrissy is saying, that she knows more than Nicole does, that Waverly has told her something, some small piece of information that’s causing Chrissy to smile wider than Nicole’s seen yet.

 

“I do,” Chrissy returns firmly, and Nicole’s hope dawns . “Now, let’s go and get this dress, huh? Before I hold you up for a second longer and keep you from your girl.”

 

My girl, Nicole thinks dreamily. My girl. Waverly Earp could be my girl, and I could be hers . If she’ll have me. Maybe, maybe, maybe .

 

“Dress,” Nicole says, bringing herself out of her reverie as she looks towards the seamstress, waving to them from the door of the shop.

 

“Dress,” Chrissy nods, pulling an ever-increasingly nervous Nicole with her in that direction.

 

The seamstress beams and beckons them both inside, laying the dress out across the counter before she shows the alterations to Nicole, and she doesn’t really know or understand the first thing about the mechanics of dressmaking, but she’s aware of enough to know that Miss Jessie has done a beautiful job.

 

“This should fit you like a glove,” the seamstress says happily, smoothing her hand over the fabric to press out non-existent crinkles and lines.

 

Ordinarily, Nicole would try on a piece of clothing before she left the tailor’s or seamstress’s, in the event that another alteration was necessary, but she’s so dusty from the length of her day again, she’s loathe to get the fabric even a little dirty.

 

“Thank you for makin’ time for it so quickly,” Nicole offers kindly, and while she’s still not sure about this damn dress, she’s hugely grateful that she has this other option. “I really appreciate it.”

 

“Oh, my pleasure, Deputy,” Miss Jessie says, waving Nicole’s thanks away. “It’s a point of personal pride when I can make a dress that looks as good on someone as this does on you. He’s one lucky man, whoever’s takin’ you out to see this.”

 

The assumption makes Nicole’s skin crawl a little, but she knows it’s far better that the seamstress assumes that than it is to have her question who else the dress might be for.

 

“He sure is,” Chrissy inserts at her side, and Nicole’s more than a little thankful at her filling in the gap when she can only clench her teeth at the plain need to have to do it in the first place. “Speakin’ of which, we should get the deputy here movin’ so she won’t be late.”

 

“Of course,” the woman offers quickly before she begins to wrap the dress into a parcel for Nicole. “Now, I know you’re plannin’ on wearing your hair down, but I’ve cut a length of ribbon to match the colour in case you do braid it.”

 

“That’s very kind of you, ma’am,” Nicole says in return, smiling at a mildly jubilant Miss Jessie as she hands over a few coins to pay for the dress and alteration. “I’m indebted to you.”

 

“Hush,” she says with another wave as she deposits her newest takings into the till at the counter. “You just make sure you tell ‘em where you got it from, alright? That’s thanks enough.”

 

“I sure will. Thank you again,” Nicole replies, taking the package and tipping her hat to Miss Jessie one last time before she and Chrissy walk from the shop and back out onto Main Street.

 

The sun is beginning to set now, the perfect time for Nicole to go about her last few chores before meeting Waverly in an hour or so, by which time the mostly deserted street will only be more so, and she’ll have a suitable cover to be able to slip into the shop, hopefully without being seen by anyone beyond Gus, Mattie, and the woman at the baths.

 

“I wish I could see Waverly’s face when you turn up there soon,” Chrissy sighs wistfully. “Between the dress, if you choose to wear it, and the pup, she’s not going to know what to do with herself.”

 

“It won’t be too much, will it?” Nicole asks Chrissy as they make their way back down to the jail so Chrissy can return home with her father. “It won’t be too overwhelming?”

 

“Just overwhelming enough,” Chrissy winks. “In the best way, of course. Do you think you will wear it then?”

 

“I think so,” Nicole says, nodding before she looks down at the parcel in her arms. “I think I will. There’s no harm, not at least once. Especially after the trouble you’ve gone through to help me with it today.”

 

“Don’t you worry about me,” Chrissy says firmly, levelling Nicole with a glare. “You just do what you feel comfortable with, alright? Pay no mind to me. It was a pleasure helpin’ you, Nicole. Truly.”

 

“Thank you, Chrissy,” Nicole returns kindly, struck again with how lucky she is to have found Chrissy here. “I couldn’t have done any of this without you.”

 

“Sure you could,” Chrissy replies, nudging Nicole in the side with her elbow. “It’s just a heck of a lot more fun with me around, huh?”

 

Nicole laughs at Chrissy’s effortless optimism, feeling a little less anxious in the presence of Chrissy’s positive air as they arrive at the jail. Chrissy slips her arm out of Nicole’s elbow and pulls her into a tight hug, whispering one last good luck, I can’t wait about hear about it in the morning, before she pushes Nicole gently back out onto the street and on her way.

 

She takes a deep breath, turning for the other end of the street where she’s scarcely been today, and the excitement and nerves start to creep up her arms again.

 

-

Chapter Text

-



She’s nervous - god she’s nervous - but she’s excited, too. It’s heightened by the fact that she’s been so busy that she’s barely seen Waverly at all today, and she’s only realising now, with the ability to slow down a little, how much she’s actually missed her.

 

The package is heavy in her hands, and the doubt is real enough, but the rational part is more present now, and it’s telling Nicole exactly what she just said to Chrissy, that as unconfident in it as she will be, she’s silly not to wear it at least once.

 

If for nothing else, than to see whether Waverly’s reaction is similar in any way to Chrissy and Miss Jessie’s, which, selfishly, she’s hoping it is.

 

She had planned on calling in to see Waverly ever so briefly, to assure her she’d be back before Waverly knew it, but when she reaches the shop, Waverly is busy with an early evening rush. She’s all the way down at the other end of the shop, serving a couple of women Nicole recognises as having met the first day she was in town.

 

She contemplates giving Waverly a quick hello, regardless, before she decides she’d rather not distract Waverly from her customers, so she casts one last longing look before turning towards the Inn instead.

 

The front desk is unmanned when she first walks in, so she runs up to her room instead of waiting, eager to get to the baths as quickly as possible. Ensuring she has everything she needs for the evening while divesting herself of extra things she doesn’t, with the small package containing the length of ribbon for Waverly securely in her pocket, Nicole makes her way down the stairs, smiling when she sees Gus standing there now.

 

“Good evenin’, Deputy,” Gus says warmly when Nicole steps off the bottom step.

 

“Good evenin’, Gus,” Nicole replies with an answering smile. “Good day?”

 

“Not too bad, thank you, Deputy,” Gus says, smiling a little at the bubbling nervousness she can sense in Nicole. “And yourself?”

 

“Busy,” Nicole replies with a sigh. “Fruitless in some ways, and fruitful in others.”

 

“No sign of the missin’ girls, then?” Gus asks, frowning at Nicole.

 

“Nothin’,” Nicole sighs in exasperation. “Not a damn thing. I had a hard ride to the homes near here, and still nothin’. You didn’t see anythin’ either today, did you?”

 

“No,” Gus says, shaking her head as her frown deepens. “Me neither, and I had a good hard look, too. I think the MISSING posters were a good idea. They’ve got folk talkin’, that’s for sure. And that ain’t a bad thing. Ought to put whatever scum is out there on guard that we’re lookin’ for him, too. Anyway, fruitful, that have somethin’ to do with whatever’s in that package?”

 

“Pardon?” Nicole asks, confused for a moment before she flushes red in embarrassment, even though Gus can’t see what’s in it. “Oh, this? Kind of… I mean, I-”

 

“Deputy,” Gus cuts across, stopping Nicole’s rambling.

 

“Sorry,” Nicole replies with a shy shrug. “I guess I’m a little nervous. No, ma’am. Well, yes and no. The main reason for the fruitfulness is… and I hope you won’t think I’m too mad, but… while I was out rangin’ today, I did find somethin’. Just not the somethin’ I was lookin ’ for.”

 

“And that was…?” Gus questions, raising an eyebrow at Nicole.

 

“A pup,” Nicole says a little more confidently as she thinks of Chrissy’s positive affirmation about the idea. “I found a pup, abandoned at the edge of one of the ranches. And I couldn’t bear to leave her there, so I brought her home.”

 

“We aren’t in the habit of allowin’ our customers to bring animals into their rooms, Deputy,” Gus offers with a little warning in her voice, and Nicole smiles because this is exactly the reaction she was thinking she’d get from Gus.

 

“Oh. No, Gus. She isn’t for me,” Nicole says by way of clarification, watching the frown on Gus’s brow ease. “I thought… I’m goin’ to ask Waverly if she might like the pup. As company, I mean, at night in the shop. It’s small now, but by the size of its paws, it’s not going to stay that way. By the looks of it, I think it’s a hound of some type, which means it’ll be less than quiet, even as a pup, if someone turns up that’s not supposed to be there. She may not abide the idea at all, I just thought it might be prudent to try and offer some other means of security, given what’s goin’ on?”

 

Gus is silent for a moment, and Nicole’s actually worried she’s going to lose her cool, or call Nicole’s idea ridiculous or stupid or worse, but thankfully, her face splits into a reluctant smile instead.

 

“I think dogs have a place in our lives, and it sure as hell ain’t inside with us, but I have to admit, I like the idea of that girl havin’ something else to watch over her during the night,” Gus replies with a wry grin. “And the girl has an affinity for animals, too, that’s for sure. I don’t think you’ll have a great deal of trouble getting her to agree to take the pup on.”

 

“I mean, if she doesn’t want her, I think Mattie will be more than happy to take her in instead,” Nicole offers as an alternative. “She’s out there with her now. Not that Mattie would admit it, but I think she’s a bit smitten for the small thing already.”

 

“I think you’ll have no chance of that, unfortunately for Mattie,” Gus says, laughing. “I think that’s a fine thought, Deputy. And good of you to worry for her.”

 

“Of course,” Nicole says enthusiastically. “Of course I do.”

 

“I know, Deputy, and I must admit, I’m more thankful for it than I thought I was goin’ to be,” Gus returns, looking to Nicole. “Especially with what’s goin’ on.”

 

Nicole smiles softly at Gus’s recognition, and she’s trying to think of an appropriate way to ask whether Gus has had a chance to set aside some food when Gus puts her out of her misery.

 

“Now, before you bounce right out of your skin, let me go and fetch this basket for you,” Gus says, throwing Nicole a teasing smile before she turns into the kitchen, not bothering to wait for Nicole’s reply.

 

“Thank you, Gus,” Nicole says sincerely as she looks over the beautiful selection of food hidden under a homespun cloth, and it’s clear from the effort Gus has gone to that she might not love their meeting each other like this, but she’s okay with supporting them in this one small way. “This looks… thank you.”

 

“Get out of here, Deputy,” Gus says to Nicole once Nicole looks up at her, smiling at Nicole’s obvious eagerness. “You be careful, you hear me?”

 

“As careful as I possibly can, ma’am,” Nicole answers respectfully. “You have my word.”

 

“Away with you, then,” Gus says, gesturing Nicole out the door, but it’s not dismissive, it’s playful, and Nicole catches the smile that slips out just before she turns to leave.

 

Because Gus might not like that it’s Nicole Waverly seems to have taken a liking to, and not one of the town’s eligible bachelors, but Nicole knows Gus would rather have Waverly happy, even if that means it’s Nicole that’s making her so.

 

Nicole throws her one last thankful smile before she scoops the basket up in her arms and heads for the baths.

 

Waverly appears to be engaged with another customer when Nicole walks out of the Inn, but she lifts her head at precisely the moment Nicole’s toe hits dirt, like she could feel Nicole taking a step for her, and she beams .

 

She looks down to the basket in Nicole’s arms, her smile widening impossibly, before her attention is stolen by the woman in front of her, gesturing to one of the bottles over Waverly’s shoulder

 

She returns to the customer, but she casts one last look across the street, blushing in answer when Nicole raises her hand to give her a small wave that says see you soon.

 

Positively elated at having seen Waverly, properly, Nicole floats over to the baths, setting the package and basket down carefully after she pays the woman at the door, sinking into the warm bliss of the bathwater a few minutes later.

 

It’s even better than the previous night, the water that folds itself around her body, and she’s hard-pressed to smother the groan of pleasure, conscious of not startling the attendant walking around the room, empty but for Nicole, when she dips her head under, too.

 

It’s tempting to stay and take her time in the fragrant water, to let the scent of Waverly wash over her until the water cools, but she has places to be tonight. And why would she linger here this evening, when she can have the real thing?

 

She scrubs the dirt and worry off of her body, taking extra care to make herself as presentable as possible, before she washes her hair, too, finally standing to let the water drip clean from her body as the scent of Waverly fills her lungs and warms her hands.

 

Drying herself off quickly, wrapping the provided towel around her middle, she sets herself dressing in her undergarments before she turns her attention on the wrapped brown package.

 

Eyeing it as though it were relatively unstable dynamite, Nicole takes one last steadying breath at the bundle before she unwraps her fate.

 

It’s as beautiful as she remembers, which she’s abjectly thankful for as she pulls it from its wrappings. If she’s going to look like a fool, she’ll at least look like one in a lovely dress.

 

She starts to pull the dress on and over her head before she gets stuck halfway, and panicking, tries to extricate herself before she feels the gentle touch of a stranger’s hands on her back.

 

“Easy there, Deputy,” the attendant says as she helps Nicole right her situation. “Let me help you.”

 

“My thanks,” Nicole offers, red-faced and flushed when her head finally comes through the neck of the dress. “Good Lord, these things should come with some sort of warning.”

 

“Not familiar with them?” the attendant asks Nicole kindly, helping Nicole smooth down the dress.

 

“Not at all,” Nicole grouses before she pats down the skirt of the dress with her palms, too, already regretting having chosen to try the damn dress.

 

“Well, for what it’s worth, you probably should be, because you’re a sight in this, I’ll tell you,” the attendant says with a nod of her head. “Would you like me to help?”

 

“Would you?” Nicole asks gratefully, the woman’s compliment settling her nerves a little. “I’d sure as heck appreciate it, if you wouldn’t mind. The last thing I want is turning up lookin’ even dumber, having put the darn thing on wrong.”

 

“Of course,” the woman says, moving behind Nicole, laughing softly, but not cruelly, at the exasperation in Nicole’s voice. “You really are a sight, I’ll tell you.”

 

“Thank you,” Nicole replies, trying to temper her blush. “The vote of confidence is appreciated, I assure you.”

 

“There we are,” the woman says a few minutes later when she finishes fastening the final stay. “All done.”

 

“You’re a godsend,” Nicole sighs in thanks when the attendant steps back.

 

“No problem, Deputy,” the woman replies, nodding as she looks Nicole over. “You’re goin’ to wear your hair down, yes?”

 

“I think so,” Nicole says as she twists her hair into a single large ringlet over one of her shoulders. “I mean, it’s a right pain, but…”

 

“Here,” the attendant offers, scooping up the length of ribbon the seamstress had added to the package. She gathers Nicole’s hair at her shoulder and ties the ribbon into a small bow, leaving Nicole with something that appears to be the best of both worlds: down, but out of the way. Formal, but relaxed, too.

 

“Perfect,” Nicole sighs when she catches a look at her reflection in the looking glass, because this is better, this feels at least a little more like her. “Thank you, truly.”

 

“My pleasure,” the woman smiles, standing back to survey her handiwork. “Now, get goin’ to wherever it is you’re goin’, and stop deprivin’ whoever it is this is for a second longer, will you?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole laughs and scoops up her clothes, tucking them under one arm as she loops the basket over the other.

 

The front door to Waverly’s shop is shut when Nicole comes out of the baths, but she can see Waverly moving around, presumably readying herself for the evening upstairs.

 

She makes good time getting out to the stables again, thankful for the largely deserted street and the fact that no one pays her mind, nor really even sees her.

 

“Look at you,” Mattie says, whistling when Nicole walks up to the porch of the house after having left the bundle of clothes next to Lady Jane’s stall to save her having to take them back with her. “Good Lord, Deputy, don’t you scrub up well.”

 

“I feel ridiculous, but if Waverly likes it…” Nicole mumbles quietly before she cuts herself off. “I’m sorry, Mattie, you don’t want to hear that.”

 

“Nonsense,” Mattie says dismissively. “Don’t matter to me who warms your bed at night.”

 

“I appreciate it,” Nicole replies, smiling shyly, and she does, because having an ally, or more than one person in town, is more than Nicole has had in a long time. “Truly, Mattie, I do.”

 

“No skin off my nose,” Mattie shrugs before she turns her body inside. “Wait here for a moment, will you? She must’ve fallen asleep again.”

 

Mattie leaves Nicole alone in the low dusk light while she turns to presumably fetch the pup, grinning widely with a far more presentable red bundle than the one Nicole left her with.

 

“She can’t seem to keep her little eyes open for more’n a few minutes at a time, but she’s clean and fed and watered now, at least,” Mattie says as she folds the sleeping puppy into Nicole’s arms.

 

“Mattie,” Nicole says, touched at the obvious effort Mattie’s gone through.

 

“It’s nothin’. I could hardly leave the wee thing covered in dirt like she was,” Mattie replies dismissively. “Even I’d be tempted to turn my nose up at that. By the way, Deputy, have you ever heard of a Redbone? They’re a type of Coonhound. I think that’s what our little friend here is. Won’t know till she’s a little older, but the red fur and build are a decent clue, for now.”

 

“I can’t thank you enough,” Nicole says, the warm body wriggling for a moment before it comfortably settles against Nicole’s heart. “And maybe we’ll have to have a wager on that breed, huh?”

 

“Don’t you go tellin’ anyone,” Mattie warns. “Can’t have anyone thinkin’ I’ve gone soft out here by myself.”

 

“My lips are sealed,” Nicole replies while trying to control the smile at Mattie’s obvious fondness for the pup. “I’ll ask Waverly to bring her out to see you, if she wants to keep her?”

 

“I mean, it’s probably for the best,” Mattie bluffs, attempting to come off nonchalant and failing miserably. “Just so I can check she’s growin’ alright and what not.”

 

“Of course,” Nicole replies with a serious look. “For the pup’s sake.”

 

Mattie offers her a softer smile that’s gone so quick Nicole’s not sure it was even there, before she turns, gesturing Nicole back to town.

 

“Oh,” Mattie says quickly, reaching into the work apron tied around her waist, drawing out a long length of soft looking leather. “Before I forget, will this do?”

 

“Yes,” Nicole replies happily, reaching to take the leather strap when Mattie offers it to her. “It’s perfect , Mattie, thank you.”

 

“You’d best get goin’ before you lose the light, Deputy,” Mattie says by way of a farewell, gesturing to the fast-setting sun, before she turns and offers Nicole a parting comment Nicole isn’t expecting. “Enjoy your evenin’, Nicole. You deserve a break, too. You won’t catch this asshole if you work yourself into the ground.”

 

“Thank you, Mattie,” Nicole nods before she inclines her head. “I’ll swing by tomorrow, if I can, pay Lady Jane a visit.”

 

Mattie nods in response, smiling after the pup fast asleep in Nicole’s arms before turning back inside, leaving Nicole and the pup outside alone.

 

Nicole takes a seat on one of the porch steps, balancing the little red bundle on her knee carefully before hitching up her skirt to expose one of her calves. She makes quick work of strapping the gun in its holster to her leg securely, testing its comfort by standing and moving a little, before deducing that her hasty hack-job will do for the brief walk and evening, and making her way back into town.

 

Her heart starts racing the second she turns from Mattie’s residence, and she’s more than a little thankful for the red ball that seems to be having some sort of a calming effect on her, stopping her runaway heart from pounding too hard through her chest and into the ever-darkening night.

 

She was worried that carrying a squirming animal in her arms might have been a little hard with the basket in the other hand, but it’s not difficult at all with the pup as placid as she is, and as such, Nicole finds herself approaching the white boards of Waverly’s shop in no time at all.

 

Her heart is hammering thickly in her wrists as she knocks gently on the door, quiet enough that it shouldn’t bring any attention to them, not that there’s anyone around to see Nicole waiting outside, but loud enough that Waverly will undoubtedly have heard her from upstairs.

 

The nerves from a thousand different streams of thought converge on her all at once: the pup, her dress, the way she has her hair, the roll of ribbon in the pocket the seamstress had thoughtfully sewn into one of the darts for her, and even with the soft sleepy weight in her arms, she’s terrified, until Nicole sees Waverly’s boots appear at the top of the stairs and her heart stops .

 

Absently, she notices Waverly’s jaw almost hit the floor in shock at Nicole’s appearance before she casts a glance to Nicole’s arms, but it’s all background noise and movement, because Nicole only has eyes for Waverly herself.

 

Because she looks beautiful .

 

She’s changed into a clean white shirt, with the collar high, and a deep blue skirt that sits at her waist and drops to the floor, almost complementary to the colour of Nicole’s own dress, and her hair is loose down around her shoulders, in a way Nicole has yet to see, and quite honestly, she takes Nicole’s breath away.

 

Their eyes lock as Waverly makes her way across from the bottom stairs to the front door, and Nicole doesn’t miss the way she sees Waverly’s hands tremble a little when they move to unbolt the latch.

 

Waverly’s eyes don’t leave hers for a second as she opens the door and gestures Nicole through it, only speaking once she and the pup are standing inside.

 

“You look…” Waverly breathes, forgetting herself completely as her eyes drink Nicole in. “Nicole, you look…”

 

“Silly?” Nicole asks nervously. “I’m so sorry if you think it’s ridiculous, I just-”

 

“No,” Waverly says, cutting Nicole off quickly, but kindly. “No, you look… beautiful, Nicole. You look beautiful .”

 

“I could say the same thing about you, too, although I’m afraid the word doesn’t do you justice, Waverly,” Nicole offers, trying to quiet her racing heart, lest Waverly hear it thumping between them. “You might be the finest thing I’ve ever set eyes on, if you’ll permit me to be so bold.”

 

Waverly drops her head as a blush sweeps its way across her cheeks, and it only serves to endear her more to Nicole’s eyes, only making the desire to reach out, to somehow touch Waverly, even greater.

 

“I think I’ll have to argue that point with you,” Waverly says shyly, her eyes moving over Nicole again before they finally settle on the pup. “Although, I think this small body might be the only thing that could rival you. Who do we have here?”

 

“Oh,” Nicole replies, suddenly remembering as she looks down. “Well, it’s… I mean, if you’d like - and please, there’s absolutely no pressure if you aren’t comfortable with her, but… if you’d like, a slightly belated birthday present?”

 

“She’s for me ?” Waverly asks with a slightly astonished expression on her face.

 

“Only if you’d like her,” Nicole hurries to say. “She’s… I found her while I was out rangin’ today, and I couldn’t leave her, so I brought her back in with the intention of findin’ another home for her, before I thought she might make a nice companion for you here? I know it’s a little unorthodox to have an animal inside, but while you’re here alone at night, I wondered if you’d maybe like the company?”

 

“You brought her for me ?” Waverly asks again, as though she can’t quite believe what Nicole is saying to her. “She’s…”

 

“Yours, if you’d like her,” Nicole offers, smiling at the tremor in Waverly’s hands as she reaches to touch the small body in Nicole’s arms.

 

The pup stirs lightly at the touch, reaching out its nose to Waverly’s hand, sniffing it before licking Waverly’s knuckles softly. Waverly looks up to Nicole with eyes brilliantly alight before her lips part in a question.

 

“May I?” Waverly asks softly as the pup raises its weary head, looking to its new guardian before Nicole nods happily, shifting her into Waverly’s arms.

 

Her hand brushes over Waverly’s in the movement, and they both look up at the electric shock that echoes out from the touch, before Waverly’s attention shifts back to the little bundle.

 

“Hello there,” Waverly’s voice sings softly. “Aren’t you the second loveliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life?”

 

She looks up to Nicole in a way that leaves no doubt as to who the loveliest thing is in her mind, before her eyes drop back to the pup. “Does she have a name?”

 

“No,” Nicole says, shaking her head. “I thought maybe you’d like to be the one to…”

 

“What do you think your name should be then, huh?” Waverly coos to the pup before she rubs her nose on top of the little red head. “Nicole, I can’t believe you found me a puppy.”

 

“Do you like her?” Nicole asks nervously. “Because if she’ll just be a burden, I’m sure Mattie would have her in a heartbeat.”

 

“I love her,” Waverly replies gently as the little shape yawns in Waverly’s arms. “She’s beautiful, Nicole. It’s… I think she’s the best gift I’ve ever had. And she’s not goin’ anywhere. Mattie will just have to fight me for her.”

 

“I’m glad,” Nicole sighs in relief. “God, I was so darn worried you’d think it was a dreadful idea.”

 

“It’s the best idea,” Waverly replies with a wide smile. “The best. I think I might be in love already.”

 

And Nicole thinks the feeling might be mutual, by the looks of the way the pup seems to have come to life, sniffing Waverly’s face softly before pressing its nose against Waverly’s, making her own crinkle adorably.

 

It’s heart-meltingly cute, and Nicole has to repress the urge to sigh, tilting her head to the side as she watches Waverly happily.

 

“I think she’ll probably crash for the rest of the night once we get her settled,” Nicole offers as she holds her hand out when the pup looks her way, too. “Whatever she’s been doin’ hasn’t been easy on her, she’s been flat out of air all day, so I don’t think she’ll be a bother tonight. I mean, I didn’t want you to worry she’d interrupt-”

 

“Our evening,” Waverly says suddenly after she glances up to find Nicole looking at her softly, placing the hand not holding the pup to her chest on Nicole’s arm gently. “God, where on earth are my manners? Come in properly, won’t you? I hope you won’t think it presumptuous, but I’ve set the room out upstairs. If you’d prefer to stay down here, however, I can…”

 

“No,” Nicole says quickly, shaking her head. “I’m sure… I mean, if you don’t mind my bein’ up there?”

 

“Not at all,” Waverly says, a shy smile breaking across her face. “It would… I’d like to show you, if you’d like?”

 

“I’d love,” Nicole affirms before gesturing to the basket in her arms. “I had Gus throw us a few things together to sup on. I thought you probably don’t have much of a chance to slip away durin’ the day to eat.”

 

“That’s why Gus wouldn’t let me pinch anythin’ from the kitchen when I dropped by after I saw you just before,” Waverly says in comprehension. “She could have told me. I’ve been so panicked about what I had here to turn into something for us.”

 

“I’m sorry she didn’t just say,” Nicole says apologetically. “If I’d known you were worried, I would have told you at once.”

 

“Oh, I wasn’t too worried about me,” Waverly blushes. “I was worried about what a terrible first impression I’d make, cookin’ you somethin’ from the plain stores I had upstairs. I don’t tend to keep a lot here. I can normally convince Gus to let me cook somethin’ over at the Inn. Or pinch somethin’ she made, if it looks good.”

 

“I’m sure it would have been delicious, whatever you’d been able to make,” Nicole returns, watching the way Waverly’s face lights with every compliment. “And far better than what I’d be able to make myself. Maybe next time, Gus won’t be so generous, but we don’t have to worry for tonight at least.”

 

“Next time?” Waverly catches eagerly, and Nicole smiles at her apparent keenness.

 

“Of course,” Nicole says, her voice charming in reply. “If I make a good enough first impression myself, that is. And you’d like my company again?”

 

“I’d hate to presume too quickly, Deputy,” Waverly returns playfully. “Perhaps you’ll let me know when the evenin’ is over whether you’d like to?”

 

“That I can do,” Nicole says, smiling at Waverly’s reply, nodding before she gestures to the basket. “For now, though, can I tempt you with a bite?”

 

“Why, yes,” Waverly beams, her eyes alight with what Nicole thinks is the thought of their evening in front of them, before she gestures towards the staircase. “I’d like that very much. Would you like to…?”

 

“Yes,” Nicole answers with a simple nod, but even that feels loaded, too. With hope and anticipation and something else that tastes like a low lonely ache about to be fulfilled. “I’d like that very much, too.”



-



Waverly turns the shutters on the front window of the shop, Nicole offering her assistance after she watches Waverly attempt to do the task one-handed, before leading Nicole to the other end of the shop where the staircase is.

 

“The shop really is beautiful, Waverly,” Nicole offers, looking over the hanging dry herbs and the immaculate and extremely well-stocked shelves as she walks close behind.

 

“You think so?” Waverly asks, turning her body with a questioning grin.

 

“Absolutely,” Nicole replies with a nod of her head. “I must confess, I haven’t ever seen anything quite like it. In other towns I’ve visited, places often have a small doctor’s surgery, and there’s a much smaller apothecary, but I’ve never seen anything as extensive as this.”

 

“We’ve never really had a doctor in town,” Waverly replies, placing her foot on the first step of the stairs. “I think we had one before I was born, but never an established one. When I got a little older and started to gather more of an inventory, people just started to come here for ailments and the like. I guess we’ve been lucky not havin’ a demand for one.”

 

“It sounds like that’s because you’ve done a more than adequate job of takin’ the place of one,” Nicole compliments, trying to keep her wits about her as she catches the flash of bare skin around Waverly’s ankles when she takes the steps ahead of Nicole.

 

“Oh, I don’t presume to be anywhere as clever as a doctor,” Waverly replies modestly, dismissing Nicole’s comment. “I only help with some small things.”

 

“I think you’re bein’ far too humble, Waverly Earp,” Nicole returns, catching Waverly’s eye when she looks back down the stairs. “I think you do far more for this town than you realise.”

 

“Maybe,” Waverly says in reply, but Nicole knows she still doesn’t have Waverly convinced, as unsure as she seems to be about her own importance here.

 

It’s not easy to watch, Waverly’s self-doubt so strong even with the things that Nicole knows she’s good at. It makes her want to grab the whole town by the shoulders and shake into them just how poor their recognition of this young woman must be if she can have served this place for years now without being sure of her own value.

 

Nicole makes a note in her head during their time together, both tonight and tomorrow and the tomorrow beyond, to make sure she helps Waverly, slowly and gently, to see this herself.

 

“What do you think of Oakley?” Waverly asks just before they reach the top of the stairs, casting a look down at the red shape in her arms. “You know, like Annie Oakley? Do you think that might suit her?”

 

“I think that’s perfect ,” Nicole replies happily, looking to the pup as well. “I think that’ll suit her perfectly, Waverly.”

 

“What do you think little one?” Waverly asks the sleeping lump softly. “Will Oakley fit, do you think?”

 

As if on cue, the pup yawns widely, and Nicole looks to Waverly before they both laugh gently. “I think that’s a yes, don’t you?”

 

“I think so,” Waverly smiles in return, just as they reach the top of the stairs. “I do apologise for the lack of grandeur. I know it’s smaller than your room at the Inn. I find it a little cozy myself, but it’s home now, you know?”

 

Nicole takes a moment to look around the room, her jaw dropping at how beautiful the small space is. It’s whitewashed, like the shop is downstairs, and it might have made the space feel a little clinical, but here, it makes the space warmer.

 

There’s a low bed, neatly made, at the opposite end of the room to the stairs, the head of which is centred beneath the window that looks out to Nicole’s room, with a small table on one side, and Waverly’s tall armoire on the other.

 

There are a few clippings hung up on different spaces of the wall, their aroma filling the room softly, but beautifully, and at the other end of the room is a modest bookcase, positively crammed with different tomes, and a small, low table, set with two matching chairs, also low to the ground.

 

The whole space it lit with a number of candles, and it’s so effortlessly calming and peaceful, Nicole is worried for a second that she’s died and gone to heaven in the time they’ve walked up the stairs.

 

Her first impression is of Waverly. The space breathes Waverly.

 

“Waverly,” Nicole says, taken aback, not quite certain how to finish her sentence. “It’s…”

 

“Small?” Waverly offers as she wrinkles her nose. “I know, I-”

 

“No,” Nicole says quickly. “No, no, not at all. I was going to say beautiful. It’s beautiful, Waverly.”

 

“You think so?” Waverly asks shyly, watching Nicole’s wordless sweep of the room with a soft smile on her face. “I was really hopin’ you’d like it. I mean… if you did, you might want to come and visit again, or…”

 

“Visit?” Nicole offers, still a little thunderstruck by the calm the room seems to radiate. “God, I’d set up camp and stay forever if you’d have me, it’s that lovely.”

 

Nicole catches herself, registering what she’s just said, clambering to recover as Waverly watches on with a tilted head and an amused grin.

 

“I mean…” Nicole tries to reason. “I didn’t…”

 

“It’s quite alright, Deputy,” Waverly assures her. “It’s… it means a great deal you like it. I’m rather fond of it myself. What about you, Miss Oakley, do you think you’ll like it here, too?”

 

She raises her little nose to the air at the new set of smells, looking around inquisitively, so Waverly sets her down on her feet, standing back and watching with Nicole as she makes her way around the room. She does a small loop before climbing up onto the foot of Waverly’s low bed, once satisfied with her surroundings, curling herself up into a ball, and promptly falling straight back asleep.

 

“I think we can take that as a yes?” Nicole asks with a soft laugh, looking down to Waverly.

 

“I think so,” Waverly smiles in return before she shifts her attention back fully to Nicole. “Thank you, Nicole. For thinkin’ of me? I’ve… thoughtfulness isn’t somethin’ I’ve been lucky enough to be the recipient of very often, and I have to confess, I feel more spoiled these last few days with you than I ever have in my entire life.”

 

“You know, I feel a little the same myself, Miss Earp,” Nicole replies, watching the way Waverly’s face lights in response to Nicole’s admission.

 

“If you’ll allow me to be so bold as to rewind time before the very welcome distraction took my attention away,” Waverly offers, and Nicole can see the nerves almost visibly tingling along her arms as she reaches to place her palm at the crook of Nicole’s elbow. “Nicole, you look… I fear I don’t even have the words.”

 

“You like it then?” Nicole asks uncertainly, her eyes darting down to the place where Waverly’s touch has settled. “I was so nervous about wearin’ it, I almost didn’t, but Chrissy had gone through such trouble to help me with it, and she’d said it looked alright, so…”

 

“You didn’t have to buy anything special for little old me,” Waverly says as her hand falls from Nicole’s elbow so she can turn and look at Nicole more fully. “Anything would have been more than okay.”

 

“Maybe I wanted to make a good first impression,” Nicole winks playfully. “Besides, I only would’ve had my other attire to wear. I didn’t… I didn’t actually have a dress, and I thought you might prefer a dress to…”

 

Waverly’s face falls at the admission, and she wishes she could kick herself for adding on the last sentence, or turn back time, because she hadn’t meant to make Waverly upset, she hadn’t meant to mention it at all , come to that.

 

“Waverly, I-” Nicole hurries to apologise, but Waverly cuts over her gently.

 

“You bought a dress?” Waverly breathes in question. “You bought a dress for tonight? For me?”

 

“I mean, I’m sure I’ll find occasion to wear it again,” Nicole reasons as she watches an expression she can’t quite determine the base of cross Waverly’s face.

 

“Of course,” Waverly says airily, and Nicole knows the comment is rhetorical, so she doesn’t bother replying yet. “Of course, you’d normally wear…”

 

“I would, but I’m… I mean, I don’t mind if this is what you’d prefer,” Nicole offers, still watching Waverly’s face carefully.

 

“You did this because you thought it was what I wanted?” Waverly asks, as though not quite believing what it is Nicole’s saying.

 

“I didn’t want you to be uncomfortable with my other… attire,” Nicole admits, deciding to tell Waverly the truth, rather than try and disguise her actions. Because Waverly deserves only the truth from her, from the beginning. No smoke and hidden meanings. Even with something as simple as this. “I wasn’t sure what you were expectin’, so I thought it best to err on the side of this .”

 

“I don’t know what to say,” Waverly says a little speechless.

 

“You don’t have to say anythin’, Waverly,” Nicole offers. “I can... I mean the seamstress has my measurements now. I’m sure it’ll be no trouble for her to amend a few other things for me.”

 

“I don’t wish to offend you,” Waverly says carefully, and Nicole braces herself for an impact. “Truly, Nicole, because this dress is… it’s lovely. But your normal dress, I like that very much, too.”

 

“You do?” Nicole asks as her heart stops in her chest, because out of everything, that is not what she was expecting to hear.

 

“I do,” Waverly nods shyly. “It’s… you. It’s you. It suits you.”

 

She pauses, and Nicole’s entire body waits, poised on her next words. A fresh blush climbs her cheeks, and Nicole can feel her own burning as it rises warm from her heart.

 

“Last night, when you came to call before closin’, I… I thought you looked very fine in that, too,” Waverly admits shyly, her voice almost a whisper. “I mean, it was clear you were comfortable, and… you… your other attire, it’s you . If this is what you wish to wear, then I think that’s fine, too, but I’m fond of what I see you in normally. Very much so.”

 

She thinks Waverly doesn’t mean to admit so much, but it comes tumbling out regardless, and Nicole finds she doesn’t mind at all, because for the first time since the worry about her damn dress settled in her mind, she can breathe free , because Waverly likes her , just as she is.

 

“So, if I was to call on you another night wearin’ somethin’ different, that would be okay, too?” Nicole asks gently.

 

“More than,” Waverly affirms with a soft nod. “The dress truly is lovely, though. And your hair… I like it down. Do you wear it like this often?”

 

“Hardly ever,” Nicole admits with a little shrug as she shuffles the basket she’s still holding to her other arm. “It's a pain to have it down durin' the day, given that it's so long.”

 

“Gosh, where are my manners,” Waverly says quickly, taking note of Nicole’s movements before she bends to take the basket from Nicole. “Here, would you like to have a seat? You must be starvin’, too?”

 

“It’s more than okay,” Nicole laughs gently at Waverly’s panic. “I assure you. I could definitely eat, though.”

 

“I have a terribly distractible mind sometimes,” Waverly admits. “Wynonna always says so. I’m sorry, too, if that was too forward. Me sayin’ that I liked…”

 

“That’s more than okay, too,” Nicole offers clearly.

 

Because it is , because they have to be so careful how they carry themselves around others, but here, in the safety of a private room, Waverly can say whatever she damn well pleases to Nicole, and regardless of whether things between them will develop further, she intends to let Waverly know as much.

 

“I know we spoke of it a little last night,” Nicole says, remembering back to their conversation in the shop downstairs. “But you don’t ever have to temper your speech around me. If there’s something you don’t like… or somethin’ you do … don’t ever be afraid to tell me, alright? I don’t want there to ever be anythin’ between us but the truth.”

 

“You don’t mind?” Waverly asks, a little hesitant, and Nicole can tell she’s still a little embarrassed about speaking so frankly. “Some folks say that, but sometimes I think they just want a girl that doesn’t say much unless she’s asked.”

 

“I’m not most folks,” Nicole laughs, ducking her head bashfully.

 

“No,” Waverly replies, blushing a beautiful dusk. “No, you’re not.”

 

There’s a quiet moment between them, and Nicole feels the air in the room still again, as it has done on the edge of every turning point between the two of them, and when Waverly raises her hand, reaching forward, for her , Nicole knows this will be no different.

 

“In that case,” Waverly says as she reaches to touch the end of Nicole’s hair where it drapes over her shoulder, briefly. “I like you best in your other clothes, but I think… I mean… I like your hair… like this. Down like this. It suits you. It’s you, but a different you. One I feel like maybe only I get to see?”

 

Nicole can tell, she can tell how nervous Waverly is, and how much it’s costing her to put a foot forward, and Nicole adores her for it, but she doesn’t want Waverly to step forward alone.

 

So she takes a step, too.

 

“It is,” Nicole offers in return, running her forefinger to trace the strand of Waverly’s hair from her crown down to her shoulder, catching happily the shiver it draws from Waverly’s form. “Just for you. May I say that I like yours like this, as well?”

 

“You may,” Waverly replies a little breathily, her eyes darting to try and catch the movement of Nicole’s hand, and Nicole can just about hear her heart stop.

 

It’s bold , Nicole’s touch, and it’s one of the first intentionally suggestive moves Nicole has made, because she wants to respect whatever it is that Waverly wants, she doesn’t want to push too far and end up breaking her own heart again like she did with Shae, but at the same time, she wants to make it clear to Waverly where she stands and what she would have this relationship evolve into, if Waverly would have that, too.

 

Waverly turns her head slightly, as though chasing the warmth of Nicole’s hand against her cheek, and Nicole is just about to lift her thumb to brush the line of Waverly’s jaw when Oakley yawns loudly on the bed behind them, breaking the tension of the moment.

 

Nicole drops her hand slowly, a half-amused, half-exasperated laugh falling from her lips before she steps back, putting a little more space between them.

 

She steps back, but Waverly doesn’t .

 

She stays planted in the exact spot where Nicole had touched her, with glassy eyes, and it looks as though she’s trying to elongate the memory, before finally the veil falls, and she looks to Nicole again.

 

Raising her hand to the side of her face, where Nicole’s touch had glanced, she smiles before bending down onto her knees next to the seat she pulls out for Nicole to sit in and begins to unpack the food Gus had set aside for them.

 

“Will you sit?” Waverly asks shakily, her mind clearly still a little fixed on the lingering ghost on her cheek before gesturing to the seat she’s drawn up.

 

“I’d love to,” Nicole replies, unable to stop the smile at the obvious effect she’s just had with a simple touch.

 

Because that must mean something, right?

 

She bends to take her seat at the lower chair, her eyes catching Waverly’s across the short distance between them, when something stops her mid-movement.

 

“Oh,” Nicole says, frowning slightly.

 

“Is everything alright?” Waverly asks with a worried note in her voice. “Is something…?”

 

“No, no it’s not you at all. You’re perfect, Waverly,” Nicole offers, her hand traveling down her leg for the gun she had forgotten, as distracted as Waverly had left her, that was strapped to her calf still. “It’s just… I have my revolver with me. I don’t make a habit of bringing it as an added companion for dinner, I promise, but I thought it best to have it on me at all times while things are… should I have any cause to use it, I mean. I didn’t want to come here unable to protect you, should anythin’ happen.”

 

“Oh,” Waverly replies with a soft sigh, looking to Nicole with an expression that breathes how touched she is by the small gesture. “That’s… that’s very kind of you to think of me, Deputy.”

 

“Of course,” Nicole returns easily, smiling warm at Waverly. “The only thing is… it would probably be more comfortable to remove it for dinner, if you wouldn’t mind?”

 

“It’s not in the basket?” Waverly asks, a little confused before her eyes settle on Nicole’s dress and she blushes heavily. “Oh, it’s…”

 

“I didn’t want to alarm you by havin’ it in there,” Nicole says back, her own blush creeping up her neck now, too. “It’ll only take me a second to remove, if you would…”

 

And it’s not that she minds in any way revealing the long, lean muscles of her calf to Waverly in the process. It’s more a desire to preserve a touch of modesty, to save exposing quite so much bare skin until such time as Nicole knows that Waverly feels comfortable seeing her like that, and not simply in a moment of Nicole’s prompting.

 

“Oh,” Waverly says again, her blush deepening as she turns quickly, flushed at the prospect of what Nicole is saying once she takes the meaning. “Oh, of course. Here, I’ll turn so you can…”

 

It doesn’t take her longer than a few seconds to lift the hem of her dress and release the tie holding the gun in place, but she’s still almost sad to watch Waverly turn away. She sets the weapon down on the floor next to her before sitting across from Waverly, reaching for Waverly’s hand atop the table, indicating that she’s ready for Waverly to turn back.

 

Waverly turns with Nicole’s hand hovering just over her hand, like she could feel Nicole’s reach beneath her skin, and Nicole makes to move away, the touch now unnecessary, but Waverly surprises her, lifting her hand to make contact, regardless.

 

She drops her hand again after a second, but it’s enough. Because the simple fact that she crossed that last inch for Nicole, its significant .

 

“It’s very kind of you to think of me like that, Nicole,” Waverly says quietly. “About me bein’ safe, I mean. It means a great deal.”

 

“It’s my pleasure, Waverly, truly,” Nicole offers gently, because it is. To have Waverly trust her enough to grant Nicole the opportunity to look out for her, it’s a privilege.

 

She can sense Waverly’s shyness now, that she’s not quite sure whether to say whatever it is that’s on her mind, so she changes the subject gently instead, shifting their conversation back into a realm Nicole knows Waverly will feel more comfortable.

 

“So, you like to cook, too?” Nicole asks, shuffling forward in the low chair now that she’s free of her burden, helping to unpack the basket in front of them.

 

“When Gus lets me at her kitchen,” Waverly answers shyly, relief creeping into the edges of her smile. “It’s a little hard to do a lot here, but I do like playin’ with how different herbs help enhance different flavours and the like? I think Gus would rather I just cooked somethin’ straight half the time, but Curtis loves it.”

 

“I’m very glad you have them in your life, Waverly,” Nicole offers, watching the way Waverly’s hands move nimbly over the contents of the basket, setting everything out in front of the both of them.

 

“So am I,” Waverly replies gratefully. “We were exceptionally lucky, Wynonna and I, that they were able to help us after…”

 

“You don’t have to talk about anything that upsets you,” Nicole says quickly, reaching for Waverly’s hand again. “I’m sorry. We can talk about somethin’ else, if you’d…”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly returns, tilting her head at the unexpected thoughtfulness. “I don’t mind talkin’ about that. Or I don’t mind talkin’ about it with you, at least.”

 

“You’ll tell me if you’d prefer not to, though?” Nicole asks of her. Because the last thing she wants is to make Waverly in any way uncomfortable.

 

“Of course,” Waverly replies, smiling warmly, releasing Nicole’s hand so she can lay out the last of the food. “We were very lucky to have Gus and Curtis, though. We’re as good as daughters to them, I think.”

 

“I think so, too,” Nicole returns, her chest warm at the simple domestic scene in front of her. “I mean, look at this spread, Waverly. I don’t think love does what that woman feels for you justice.”

 

“Our family is different, but it’s no less a family, I don’t think,” Waverly says fondly, and Nicole can almost see Gus’s shadow at Waverly’s shoulder, guarding and present, always. “But what about you? I’ve just realised I don’t know a single thing about your own. Forgive me, how rude of me not to ask, Nicole.”

 

“It’s more than alright,” Nicole says, laughing softly at the minor horror etched into Waverly’s face at the perceived shortfalling. “I promise, Waverly. Truth be told, there’s not a lot to tell.”

 

“If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s okay, too,” Waverly offers gently.

 

“No, no, it’s fine,” Nicole returns. “It’s more than fine, we just don’t… we’re not close. They don’t approve of a many number of the ways I’ve decided to live my life is all.”

 

“Are they far from here?” Waverly inquires, gathering a small mouthful of food, passing it to Nicole as she watches Nicole intently. “Do you have any siblings?”

 

“Probably a month’s ride or so away,” Nicole answers with a casual shrug, devouring the mouthful instantly as her suddenly hungry stomach yawns for more. “And I… I did, yes. A brother. But there may well be…they may well have had more children since I left, I can’t be certain. I was such a disappointment to them, I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to erase me entirely. Them figurin’ out that my, uh… preferences were a little more delicate than they would have liked was the first straw, and me announcin’ I wanted to intern beneath the lawmen in town, instead of startin’ a family like a proper woman, that was the one that broke the horse’s back. The night I told Mama and Daddy that , they screamed the house down, and told me to leave and never darken their doorstep again.”

 

“They didn’t?” Waverly asks, horrified as she stills in her movements . “But… you’re… they’re your parents , Nicole.”

 

“Unconditional love isn’t a guarantee, I guess,” Nicole says sadly, and she knows it sounds cold to say such a thing so flippantly, but the truth of the matter is that it hurt her for years, her parents’ betrayal and refusal to accept who she was or the career she wanted to pursue, and the only way to stop the pain in the end had been to shut the emotion towards them off altogether.

 

“Oh, Nicole, I’m so sorry,” Waverly breathes from across the table, and she can feel the battle in Waverly’s body to reach for her snap the second before she actually does.

 

She’s expecting Waverly to take her hand again, or touch her arm, but she does more than that. She shifts out of her chair, shuffling on her knees over to Nicole before enveloping her in a hug.

 

Her hands fit perfectly in the hollow at the small of Nicole’s back and her chin rests on Nicole’s shoulder as Nicole rises on her knees a little to meet Waverly’s embrace.

 

She doesn’t bother to suppress the quiet sigh, because she wants Waverly to know how much the gesture of comfort means to her. Because she’s been on her own for a long time, but that doesn’t mean the hole her family left so long ago doesn’t still ache from time to time.

 

“I’m sorry, Nicole,” Waverly offers, her breath soft like a gentle breeze. “They don’t know what they’re missin’ out on. I know it doesn’t make it easier, but the people that have left your life? It’s their loss. It’s absolutely their loss. And if that’s led to you bein’ here, then that’s our gain.”

 

Nicole closes her eyes for a moment, savouring the way her own arms sit across Waverly’s shoulders like they were molded for the space, and Waverly’s final words on the matter are so quiet that Nicole’s not even sure if she’s heard them or dreamed them, but they fill the space between her ribs nonetheless.

 

And my gain, too.

 

“It’s their loss that they haven’t seen you grow into what you are now, Nicole,” Waverly says quietly, drawing back from Nicole slowly. “You haven’t seen them in a long time, then?”

 

“Not for many years,” Nicole replies, watching Waverly take her seat once more, her body already urging her to reach for Waverly’s touch again.

 

“Guess we’ll just have to adopt you into the family then, huh?” Waverly offers, winking as she takes a small bite of food herself. “The name’s not worth a lot to others, but it still means a great deal to us. And we’ve done the same with Doc, even though Wynonna hasn’t got her head out of the sand and told him that she reciprocates his feelings.”

 

“Gus mentioned him,” Nicole says, trying to control the flutter of her heart as a result of Waverly comparing her to the man that could be her brother-in-law. Her sister’s companion. Like she might one day be for Waverly. “Do you think that’s likely to happen soon, then?”

 

“I goddamn hope so,” Waverly replies in a rare show of exasperation. “We’ve only been waiting the last few years for it to happen. I think she’s on the verge of it, myself. Lord only knows why she’s holdin’ back. Gus thinks it’s because she doesn’t want to give up her independence, but I think it’s more than that. I think she doesn’t think she deserves happiness after what happened.”

 

“Everyone deserves happiness,” Nicole says easily. “Well, maybe not everyone , but your sister certainly does. Maybe more than others, given what she’s been through.”

 

“It means a lot that you think that,” Waverly returns. “Most people don’t, but it means more than I can tell you that you do.”

 

“I hope you don’t mind,” Nicole offers, softening her eyes as she watches Waverly, picking thoughtfully at the sweet things Gus had assembled. “Chrissy told me a lot of what happened. To your family, I mean. She didn’t mean to be a gossip or deprive you of your own story. I think she just wanted to make sure I wasn’t goin’ to run the other way like a coward, or form some sort of awful opinion about it.”

 

“It’s quite alright,” Waverly replies, smiling at the gentleness in Nicole’s voice. “She does a fabulous impression of a guard dog, Chrissy Nedley.”

 

“That she does,” Nicole says, smiling at the idea of Chrissy marching her away from Waverly’s shop if she’d said anything Chrissy wasn’t happy with. “Hey, will you tell me somethin’ she didn’t? Tell me more about your shop. How did that come to be? I’ve gotta say, Waverly, it’s pretty obvious your knowledge of this stuff far outstrips your years.”

 

“Oh,” Waverly says, a little surprised at being asked. “Well, I guess some of this is easy when you enjoy it as much as I do? And I always wanted to help people. That made the learnin’ easier, too? When I knew there was a purpose behind it?”

 

“You obviously have a natural aptitude for it, too, though?” Nicole says, smiling at Waverly’s modesty.

 

“Maybe a little,” Waverly admits shyly. “It’s just… I don’t know, some of the things that plants can do it’s… it’s incredible. Sometimes I’m not totally convinced it’s not magic, the way they work. If I didn’t know how they worked, or at least how we think they work, I’d definitely think they were. You just have to know how to unlock the potential they have, and you can fix almost anythin’.”

 

The colour rises in Waverly cheeks, breathing a tangible passion into what she’s talking about, and Nicole can’t help beaming in return.

 

“I got carried away again, huh?” Waverly blushes, dropping her eyes. “I’m sorry, it’s just… I don’t get to talk to someone often who seems to have a genuine interest in this topic. In me, I should say. It’s probably enough to bore you to tears, though. God, I’m sorry. We can talk about somethin’ else if you’d like?”

 

“No,” Nicole says quickly, shaking her head. “No, no, not at all. It’s not borin’ at all, Waverly. I’d love to hear more about it, sincerely. I have to confess a reasonably significant lack of knowledge of the topic myself, but I’d love to learn a little more, if you’d be willin’ to share?”

 

“Of course,” Waverly says, lighting up at Nicole’s interest and affirmation. “What would you like to know?”

 

“How about… everythin’?” Nicole asks, turning the corner of her mouth up in an ever-so-slightly forward way. “Does that work for you?”

 

“Everythin’,” Waverly breathes, looking to Nicole, eyes wide with possibility and potential and hope . “I could do everythin’. For you.”

 

“Well, where does one start then, with the world of knowledge at their feet?” Nicole asks, gathering a few small pieces of the sweeter items in an echo of Waverly a moment ago, smiling to herself.

 

“How about… the beginning?” Waverly offers, watching carefully, and smiling, too, when she notices Nicole’s preferences from their selection.

 

“The beginning?” Nicole says with a grin before she sucks a lingering morsel of sweetness from the end of her finger. “That sounds like a mighty fine place to start.”



-



They talk for what feels like hours, well into the night, first about the sweep of Waverly’s medicinal knowledge, then into the other more varied of her botanical applications -- cooking and liquor-making, tea-brewing, perfumes and fragrances -- until their voices begin to grow hoarse.

 

“Gosh,” Waverly says when the moon hangs high in the night, not quite able to stifle the entirety of her yawn. “I’ve been talkin’ for hours, Nicole. I’m so sorry.”

 

“There’s no need to apologise,” Nicole replies easily, standing and stretching her arms at her sides as Waverly does the same across from her. “I’ve barely noticed the time passin’, if I’m honest.”

 

Waverly levels her with a look that challenges the validity of her statement, but Nicole keeps her gaze, trying to demonstrate how true she holds that statement to be.  

 

“I know you’ll think I’m just sayin’ so, but this evenin’ has been fascinatin’, Waverly,” Nicole says gently, reaching to touch Waverly’s hand briefly. “I promise you. Your knowledge is rather…well, extraordinary, if I’m honest. And compelling. I don’t think I thought about the time for a moment.”

 

“I feel dreadful,” Waverly says, shaking her head insistently, refusing to believe Nicole’s assurance. “I’ve done nothin’ but talk at you for hours .”

 

“I assure you, if I wanted to change the subject, I would have,” Nicole affirms, her voice calm, but certain. “I wanted to hear about you. Not about borin’ old me.”

 

“I don’t think you’re borin’ at all,” Waverly says, mostly to herself, underneath her breath, but Nicole catches it, regardless. “But I do feel awful. I just get so carried away, when someone asks, and not so many people do, so when I get the opportunity to… I really am sorry, though. How about if I convince you to talk about yourself next time? Assuming I haven’t scared you off of spendin’ another evening with me, that is?”

 

“I’d like that very much,” Nicole replies sincerely, because she would . Because she won’t put pressure on Waverly by admitting as much, but this has been one of the better nights she can recall to living memory, and would have been just being in Waverly’s presence, let alone with the brilliant - and not as one-sided as Waverly fears - conversation. “If you think you could spend another night in my company?”

 

“Hmmm,” Waverly muses, teasing a little, prompting a smile to grace Nicole’s lips before she looks to Nicole seriously. “Yes, Nicole. I think I could. For now, though, I’d best let you find your bed? I hope you won’t be too tired in the mornin’?”

 

“I’ll be fine,” Nicole assures her. “I’ve slept a heck of a lot rougher than Gus’s Inn, with less sleep, and that’s without a stomach full of food. I hope I haven’t kept you ?”

 

“Like I said to you,” Waverly starts, her voice drifting a little before she comes back to finish her sentence. “I’m not much of a sleeper. It’ll be hours before I do. Although, who knows? Maybe all I needed was some small furry weight, warmin’ my feet at night.”

 

Nicole smiles before they both turn to look at the small chest rise and fall rhythmically, completely oblivious to the two heartbeats dancing delicately around one another while she sleeps on soundly.

 

“Will you be okay with her?” Nicole asks, walking over to bid goodnight to Oakley, fast asleep in a ball on top of Waverly’s bedding. “Because I can take her, if you’re…”

 

“We’ll be just fine,” Waverly says confidently. “I promise. I’m lookin’ forward to havin’ the company, if I’m honest. I don’t mind bein’ here by myself, but… it’s nice knowin’ I’ll have another little soul here with me. Thank you, Nicole. Again. I still can’t quite believe she’s mine.”

 

“I’m glad the two of you took to each other,” Nicole replies warmly, beaming at the way Waverly casts another longing glance at Oakley’s small, sleeping form.

 

She digs her hands into her pockets, tilting her head and watching Waverly distracted for a moment, frowning at the unfamiliar object her hand closes around, before she remembers what the item is.

 

“Oh,” Nicole says suddenly, before Waverly turns to her with a frown.

 

“Is everything alright?” Waverly asks, concerned, turning to face Nicole fully.

 

“Yes,” Nicole says happily, withdrawing the small wrapped package from her pocket. “More than. I forgot I had something small with me, is all…For you.”

 

“For me?” Waverly queries, her forehead lining in question. “But you…”

 

She doesn’t finish her sentence, but Nicole knows what she means to say. But you already brought me a gift. But you’ve already given me your evening.

 

“I found it before I came across our young Miss Oakley,” Nicole explains, not wanting to seem like she’s trying too hard to buy, or otherwise persuade or influence Waverly’s attentions. “It’s only a small thing. It’s just… I saw it at the store today with Chrissy, and I thought you might like it.”

 

She hands Waverly the small package, smiling as Waverly takes it with a slightly shaky grip before she unwraps it delicately, sighing when she reveals the wrapped length of ribbon.

 

Nicole ,” she breathes, holding the ribbon to the light to inspect the detail. “It’s…“

 

“It’s only small,” Nicole says again, trying to rationalise the extra gift, worried she’s gone too far, and kicking herself for giving Waverly something else. “I’m sorry if it’s too…”

 

“It’s not…” Waverly replies, and Nicole watches as her eyes start to well, tears collecting in the corners. “It’s… no one’s…”

 

“I’m sorry, Waverly,” Nicole hastens to say, leaning down to try and offer some comfort, having obviously upset Waverly. “I didn’t mean to…”

 

“It’s not…” Waverly says shakily before she clears her throat, steeling herself and looking to Nicole with more focused eyes. “I’m sorry, it’s only, very few people in my life have been generous enough to help me celebrate my birthday, and here you are, someone who I’ve only known for a handful of days, and you’re…”

 

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” Nicole tries to offer again. “I’m truly so very sorry.”

 

“I’m not upset,” Waverly returns, stepping closer to Nicole to help demonstrate her point when Nicole’s expression says I don’t believe you . “I’m not, Nicole. It’s just…it’s very kind of you, and I’m not so used to kindness like this.”

 

“I’m very sorry to have to advise that you’re going to have to get used to it,” Nicole says, her voice gently playful when she can see that Waverly really is okay. “Because as long as you’ll have me for company, you’re going to have to abide things such as this.”

 

“Well,” Waverly says with a playful tone of her own before turning to walk over to her armoire. “In that case, you’re going to have to abide something similar yourself.”

 

She scoops something off the top of the piece of furniture, Nicole doesn’t see what exactly, until Waverly walks back to her, gesturing for Nicole to hold out her hands, before placing a small glass phial into them.

 

Nicole frowns, confused for a moment, before Waverly opens her mouth to explain.

 

“It’s… now that I’m about to explain it, somethin’ that sounds terribly vain. I don’t mean it to be, I promise, it’s just…” Waverly says, and Nicole can see her questioning her own actions, so she tries to soften her own expression in an attempt to encourage Waverly a little. “It’s the perfume I wear. You seemed to enjoy the smell of the tea I made the other mornin’, and this is one of the complementary scents. It just so happens to be the one I favour myself, too, and I thought… I mean, I wondered if you might like a small measure of it yourself. If you like it, I’d happily set aside some more the next time I make some. And if you don’t, that’s more than okay, too, Nicole. I promise I won’t be offended if you set it in the bottom of your things, and never take the stopper out, it’s just… I wanted to say thank you. For spendin’ the evenin’ with me.”

 

“This is for me?” Nicole asks breathily, her turn to be rendered near speechless now as she holds the small glass bottle in her hands like the treasure it is.

 

“If you’d like it?” Waverly says, watching Nicole carefully as she turns the phial over. “It’s okay if you don’t, Nicole, truly.”

 

“No,” Nicole says quickly. “I do, I really do, it’s just… I’m not overly used to recievin’ gifts myself, you see, and I’m just a little…”

 

She runs her thumb over the smooth glass, scarcely able to believe she’s actually holding it. And, honestly, it could be water for all Nicole minds, but the fact that this is Waverly’s perfume, the scent that Nicole dreams of, it’s worth more than gold.

 

“Touched,” Nicole finishes finally, looking to Waverly with slightly cloudy eyes of her own. “I’m touched , Waverly. I don’t… I don’t know what to say?”

 

“I find thank you often works well in situations like this?” Waverly returns with a wink, and Nicole can tell she’s trying to lighten the mood, to make this a little less intimidating for Nicole.

 

“Thank you,” Nicole says, smiling at Waverly’s light teasing. “Really, Waverly. I…”

 

“I’m glad you like it, Nicole,” Waverly says kindly, reaching for Nicole’s elbow, to press her touch like a kiss there. Light, but like she’s trying to tell Nicole it’s okay. “I’m really glad you like it.”

 

“Thank you for the evenin’, as well,” Nicole says, watching Waverly’s hand as it drops back to her side before looking to her eyes. “I can’t remember the last time I’ve had such a pleasant one.”

 

“Nor can I,” Waverly replies warmly, and her smile heats every last drop of Nicole’s blood, because she looks like she means it. Really, really, means it. “And I’m especially glad that I didn’t bore you into a stupor.”

 

Never ,” Nicole winks back, more than a little satisfied when Waverly blushes in return. “In fact, I’d love to borrow a book sometime, if you’d be happy to lend me one. I wasn’t just sayin’ so when I said it was fascinating.”

 

“You would?” Waverly asks brightly, and Nicole is so glad she had thought to ask, because Waverly reads it as the genuine interest it is.

 

“Absolutely,” Nicole returns, casting a glance to the rather intimidatingly stacked shelves. “Although, it’s probably best to start somewhere reasonably simple. I fear I won’t have as much of a brain for it as you.”

 

“Simple, we can do,” Waverly says excitedly, skipping over to run her finger along the spines of the books. “I think this will do, as a start?”

 

She returns to Nicole’s side with a volume that looks to cover useful herbs and remedies found from simple plant applications, something that Nicole would potentially benefit from in a very useful day-to-day way.

 

“Don’t feel like you need to take it,” Waverly says, shifting from foot to foot nervously as Nicole thumbs through the first few pages. “I just… you might find a few things in here that might be helpful?”

 

“Absolutely,” Nicole breathes, already having found at least one thing she can very practically use. “I mean, I have a basic knowledge of what to try and eat and what not to locally, but that’s about as far as I can claim to understand. This will be immensely helpful, Waverly. Thank you.”

 

“Thank you for listening,” Waverly replies shyly. “I can’t tell you how much it means that you’re interested. Truly, Nicole. Tonight has been…”

 

“I know,” Nicole says easily. “As it has been for me, too.”

 

Nicole can feel the evening coming to a close now. She can feel the air start to still around them both again, she can feel the warmth of Waverly’s forearm where it rests only an inch from her own. Waverly is looking up at her, like she’s trying to read some unknown language in the freckles scattered across the bridge of Nicole’s nose, and she knows what she wants to do now, but she’s terrified at the same time.

 

She wants to lean down, to close the small distance between them, and press her lips sweetly to Waverly’s, and listen to time stop around them.

 

She wants to pull Waverly to her, with her hands gently on Waverly’s arms, she wants to feel Waverly sigh against her chest as the air leaves her lungs in a rush, she wants to kiss her and feel the end of the world.

 

But she’s terrified.

 

Because she thinks she’s read the signs correctly, she thinks Waverly understands her intentions, and reciprocated at least some of her feelings in return, but she doesn’t know . Not for certain.

 

And perhaps if she didn’t have the history and ghost of Shae at her back, watching her every move and breath with Waverly, she might be more carefree and willing to put her heart on the line. But it hadn’t just been bad before, it had been tragic , and both she and Shae had put her in a position she had not been comfortable with, and she will not do that to Waverly, too.

 

She won’t. She refuses. So if that means she has to play this slow and safe, holding back until she’s sure this is something Waverly wants, too, then she will.

 

Because she had loved Shae, with all of her heart, but things feel different with Waverly. Even now, it feels different. It feels bigger, deeper somehow, like they’re connected at more points than one. Or two. Or ten.

 

And she thinks that’s what Waverly is waiting for, for Nicole to lean down and start a new universe between their lips.

 

But she’s not sure .

 

So she holds back.

 

For now.

 

And she knows the second she steps back that she’s made a mistake, because Waverly’s face falls, an infinitesimal amount, barely discernible, but it falls .

 

Because she had wanted Nicole, too.

 

And damn it, she wants so desperately to lean in and fix her mistake, her misgiving, but she knows it’s too late, in this moment at least. She knows she’ll have to wait now.

 

She wants to kick herself or swear or do something , because she’s letting a shadow of days past rule her life still , even now, but then she tries to calm herself, because it’s done. In this moment, it’s done. And she just needs to focus on creating another moment for them now, so she can right that wrong.

 

Nicole burns to kiss her, but she can’t. Maybe she can do the next best thing, though.

 

Waverly exhales slowly next to her, and Nicole smiles as another yawn makes its way across Waverly’s small frame before she tilts her head with a suggestion.

 

“Time for me to take my leave, I think?” Nicole asks, trying to infuse her expression with as much warmth as she can in the face of her lack of physical attention. “As much I’d like to stay, I can’t have you yawnin’ to all your customers tomorrow. You’ll never have me back.”

 

“You want to come back?” Waverly asks hopefully, and Nicole bites her lip in response, because she’s an idiot for making Waverly question herself for even a second.

 

“Very much so,” Nicole replies easily. “If I haven’t outstayed all my future welcomes by stayin’ so late?”

 

“Never,” Waverly says, shaking her head in an attempt, Nicole thinks, to hide the tears collected at the corner of her eyes in relief, before she shakes herself right. “You’d best be gettin’ to sleep yourself, Deputy, or the Sheriff’ll have me cuffed as soon as he sees you.”

 

Nicole goes about gathering her things, setting the book carefully in the basket, with her gun easily accessible on top of that to save having to restrap it to her calf for the quick walk across the road. She nestles the small, precious phial in the bottom of her dress pocket before she turns to Waverly, ready for the shorter woman to walk her down the stairs.

 

She casts one last glance to find Oakley still fast asleep, before winking at Waverly and following her down the stairs. She makes to walk across the front of the shop before she remembers something Chrissy had said about another entrance.

 

“Waverly,” Nicole asks curiously. “I hope you won’t think this a strange thing to ask, but is there another entrance to the shop that isn’t the front door?”

 

“Oh,” Waverly says suddenly. “Yes, there is.”

 

She turns, walking to the end of the counter where it meets the wall, before placing her palms down on the wood panelling in an area that, to Nicole, is indiscernible from the rest. She drops to the floor, just out of sight, and Nicole hears a small click before Waverly rises, resets her palms, pushes hard, and a door shape reveals itself from the wood.

 

“It’s not meant to be secret,” Waverly says, blushing a little sheepishly. “I mean, Doc built it in for me at Wynonna’s beckoning so I’d have another exit in case anything set fire or the like. It opens out into the alley behind the shop.”

 

“I don’t mean to make it seem like I’m tryin’ to hide, but I think it’s probably for the best that I leave this way if I’m here after the shop closes?” Nicole says carefully, because she needs to make sure she words this in such a way that Waverly doesn’t take a drop of offence from it, because that’s not how she means it. Not at all. She’s trying to keep Waverly, to keep them both, safe.

 

Well, as safe as she can.

 

“Oh,” Waverly breathes in understanding. “Just in case…”

 

“I need you to promise me you understand that it’s not because I don’t want to be seen here after dark, because I don’t give a damn about what other people think, Waverly, but I don’t want… I think it’s best, for now at least,” Nicole says, a conscious meaning behind every word. “But you have to promise me you understand it’s not because I’m at all worried about what people think of me, okay?”

 

“I understand,” Waverly says warmly, nodding easily. “I promise, Nicole.”

 

“Good,” Nicole breathes in relief. Because the last thing she wanted now was for Waverly to feel in any way worse about the evening, and to have any more doubt in Nicole’s intentions. “That’s good, I’m sorry, Waverly. I know it’s a load of nonsense, but…”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly says with a soft smile as she reaches to pull the door ajar slightly so Nicole can see that it leads outside. “You’re forgettin’ I’ve lived with these people and their backwards thinking for years.”

 

“One day it’ll be different,” Nicole says, trying to reassure her, even though she knows it’s unlikely to happen in either of their lifetimes.

 

“Until then, a back door seems a small price to pay for a lovely evenin’,” Waverly returns thoughtfully, placing her hand on Nicole’s arm next to where the basket is propped over it.

 

“A small price, indeed,” Nicole says, steeling herself. Because she might have missed the opportunity to leave Waverly with a parting goodnight kiss, but she can leave her with the next best thing.

 

She leans in, placing her hand at Waverly’s elbow, watching as Waverly’s eyes track her movement like a hawk after a mouse, her eyes fluttering closed just before Nicole presses a kiss to her cheek.

 

It’s tempting to place it closer to the edge of her lips, but Nicole doesn’t want to push too far, not with an earlier miss in her hands, so she settles for safe, her body singing when Waverly’s breath catches, and then releases, in a shaky sigh.

 

It’s chaste, but she lingers, and Waverly responds beautifully .

 

“Good night, Waverly Earp,” Nicole says softly when she pulls back, smiling at the way Waverly’s entire body seems to have slackened, her cheeks darkening with a blush.

 

Her hand moves to cover the place where Nicole’s lips were a moment ago, her own lips slightly parted, her eyes glassy.

 

“Good night, Deputy Haught,” Waverly returns airily, her eyes flashing with something that looks a little like confusion, but Nicole isn’t certain.

 

“Thank you again, for the evenin’,” Nicole says, trying to read Waverly’s expression, but not quite finding something she can put her finger on. “It’s been wonderful.”

 

“It’s been my pleasure,” Waverly replies, coming back to herself with a smile. But it doesn’t quite reach her eyes, and Nicole’s heart falters a little, because maybe that had been too much. “Sincerely. Thank you. For everythin’, Nicole.”

 

“I’ll call on you in the mornin’, if you’d like?” Nicole asks, trying to test the water, because she’s really not sure what Waverly’s small withdrawal means.

 

“I’d like that very much,” Waverly says with softer smile, one that reaches a little further than before, and Nicole bends toward its warmth, concerned still, because it’s not quite as wide as before.  

 

She gives Waverly one last parting glance that she hopes says I’m sorry, and I wanted more, but I don’t want to push you further than I know you want , before she slips out the door Waverly holds open for her, waiting on the other side until she hears the click of the lock back in place and then walking down the alley towards the Main Street.

 

It’s dark, sometime well after midnight, if Nicole’s read on the height of the moon is correct. The street is deserted, and the scent of Waverly lingers overlong, and their evening had been wonderful, but Nicole can’t help but feel like she’d made a mistake in its final minutes.

 

Maybe she should have dropped it. Maybe she shouldn’t have taken the opportunity to right her earlier wrong.

 

Maybe she shouldn’t have nursed the idea at all.

 

She casts her eyes around the deserted, darkened street, looking for some sign of danger or concern, but there’s nothing, save the gentle summer night’s breeze, a little cool on her skin.

 

Sighing, Nicole makes her way with a slightly heavy heart across the road, looking left and right and left again before she finds herself face to face with the door of the Inn. It’s unlocked, and Nicole is surprised to find Curtis asleep at the front desk, a book beneath his arms in the candlelight, when she walks in.

 

She smiles at Gus’s obvious thoughtfulness, sending him down here to wait for her to return. Nicole is careful not to wake him, but blows the candle out, lest it knock over still lit, before leaving the basket, removing Waverly’s book and her gun, outside the kitchen door, and then waking as quietly as possible up the stairs, wincing with every one that creaks.

 

It takes her a while to get herself out of her dress, although it’s easier to do this than the other way around. She at least has some experience with having helped Shae out of hers enough to understand the mechanics, even without being able to see the back of the garment properly.

 

She’s not angry at herself, as she strips and pulls her soft nightshirt on, because the rest of the date had gone so well, she’s just disappointed she had let herself down at the last hurdle.

 

Because Waverly had been disappointed when she hadn’t given her a goodnight kiss, but then Nicole had, kind of, and Waverly had shone for a second, before her face had fallen into an expression of mild confusion.

 

And maybe she hadn’t been clear enough regarding her own intentions. Maybe she had given Waverly mixed signals. Slowly, it dawns on Nicole, and she begins to understand how her actions might have been misconstrued, no kiss to a half of one that could be taken as something expressed in friendship, too.

 

Damn it, Haught , Nicole thinks to herself, setting the small glass phial down on the top of her dressing table. You’ve gone and messed things up royally now.

 

Except, maybe she hasn’t. Maybe she just needs to make herself a little clearer. If Waverly is still interested in hearing her out.

 

She’s about to climb into bed when a thought comes to her, reluctant as she is to see the evening come to an end. Walking back to the dresser, she picks up the glass bottle carefully before releasing the stopper and closing her eyes.

 

Waverly, floods Nicole’s senses as she breathes the light, rich scent in. It smells exactly like her, soft notes and the deeper ones, Waverly, Waverly, Waverly.

 

She opens her eyes to the sight of Waverly’s shadow at her window, obviously about to crawl into bed herself. It’s too far to see clearly, but she thinks, Nicole thinks, she sees Waverly glance her way and smile.

 

She closes the stopper, reluctant to allow too much of the fragrance to escape, intent on treasuring the small gift, in the event that she has done something irreparable.

 

The bed beckons to her, and for a second, Nicole sees a flash of something that could be a spectre or a dream or a premonition, of Waverly in the bed, waiting for her, smiling as she turns the cover back, calling Nicole to her.

 

She’ll make amends tomorrow, Nicole thinks to herself sternly. She’ll make amends, and she’ll close that gap, and she’ll leave Waverly without doubt nor reason to be confused as to where Nicole’s chess pieces sit on the board between them, handing her the board so that Waverly might set her own.

 

Sliding between the sheets, the ghost of Waverly Earp softly humming some long-forgotten tune of Nicole’s childhood, Nicole submits to her exhaustion.

 

Sleep grips her limbs and pulls her underwater, slowly, peacefully, and with the smell of Waverly in her hands and her bed, Nicole sleeps .

 

-

 

Chapter Text

 

WAVERLY'S POV

 

-


Waverly Earp is confused.

 

Lying in her bed, with her new companion nestled into her side by her ribs, Waverly Earp is more confused, perhaps, than she has been in her entire life.

 

Oakley raises her head, yawning widely, sniffing the air to check for other scents that would cause her - or her new owner - alarm, before she drops her satisfied head and drifts off again.

 

It’s before dawn, the glow of the sun only just beginning to rise in the background, and Waverly Earp is confused.

 

She hasn’t slept a great deal, she never does , so it’s not that which concerns her. It’s the thought of how her evening with Nicole had ended last night.

 

Waverly is confused, because the evening had been going so well, as had all of their other interactions thus far. Nicole had been attentive as she always was, polite and sweet and just a little forward, as Waverly had been hoping she would be, and then at the end, just when Waverly had been expecting Nicole to lean down and leave her with a goodnight kiss, she hadn’t .

 

She had paused, looked to Waverly like kissing her was the thing she wanted most in the world, but she hadn’t .

 

And Waverly knew she hadn’t been able to completely hide her disappointment at the fact that Nicole didn’t, hating knowing that Nicole had picked up on it. But she couldn’t help it, because every indication Nicole had given her was that that was the direction the night was going to take.

 

That that was the direction Nicole wanted the night to take.

 

She thought Nicole was going to kiss her, but she hadn’t. And she thought Nicole liked her, but maybe she didn’t .

 

She thought Nicole liked her, and she thought Nicole knew that Waverly liked her, too. That Waverly had wanted Nicole to kiss her. But maybe she hadn’t been clear enough.

 

It’s a damn delicate balance, Waverly thinks to herself, walking a sliver-thin line, because it’s just not appropriate to ask someone you barely know whether they’re interested in women or men, even when you think you already know the answer.

 

But then Nicole had confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that her inclination was toward the fairer sex, but she still hadn’t kissed Waverly.

 

She hadn’t, and Waverly’s heart had fallen, but then Nicole had leaned in and kissed her on the cheek, and that had confused Waverly even more .

 

In the rising light of the morning, Waverly isn’t wholly certain where she stands with Nicole. She does have some small clues, however, that spark the glimmer of hope in her hands.

 

She knows Nicole is interested in women. She knows Nicole wanted to spend another evening with her. She knows Nicole was beyond touched by Waverly’s gift, and put up with far more of Waverly’s blathering than any other sane person who wasn’t interested in her like that.

 

But she hadn’t kissed her.

 

Well, she hadn’t kissed her in the manner in which Waverly was hoping for. And she knows it means something, Nicole’s kiss on the cheek, she’s just not sure what it means.

 

Waverly wants to think she had done it because she had really wanted to kiss her, kiss her, but hadn’t wanted to cross a line, not if she wasn’t certain that’s what Waverly had wanted.

 

But, it could have been a token gesture, too. A demonstrated show of friendship, a pointed gesture instead of another more intimate one, not because that’s what she thought Waverly wanted, but because that was all Nicole was interested in.

 

Because Nicole kisses Chrissy on the cheek, the way she had kissed Waverly, but she’s already assured Waverly she doesn’t think of Chrissy in that way.

 

Enough, Waverly thinks to herself suddenly. It’s enough. She’s not a silly little girl. She’s a grown young woman, thank you very much. She just needs to make it clear to Nicole what she wants, so Nicole can make it clear in return.

 

Because Nicole had said another time , and she had almost suggested another date, too. Waverly just needs to know in what capacity she wants those to be.

 

And it can’t be difficult at all to clarify a few simple points like that.

 

Can it?


-


Waverly gets up and starts her morning routine with a quiet red shadow at her heels. She gets out of bed, washing quickly with the small bowl of fresh water before dressing herself for the day.

 

As soon as she makes herself minimally presentable to leave the warm confines of the shop, Waverly picks up the still sleepy pup, walking down the stairs. When she gets to the outline of the hidden door, she presses heavily against it with the weight of her body at the point of her hip, her hands obviously otherwise engaged. It’s a little awkward with a living bundle in her arms, but it’s a movement she’s done countless times with arms full of something or another to store outside and away from the shop.

 

The door pops open, and Waverly widens the gap with her foot before stepping out into the fresh morning air. Oakley wanders around for a while before setting to her business, walking another little circle around the outside area behind the shop, then moving back to sit on Waverly’s feet, indicating her readiness to return inside.

 

Waverly grins down at her new companion and her expressive little red face before picking Oakley back up and making her way inside to continue her morning routine on the second floor of the shop.

 

She sets Oakley back on the bed to watch her again, more than a little impressed at how docile the pup is, having expected her to be a ball of energy this morning after her enormous sleep yesterday, but she’s not. Instead she just looks up at Waverly as she breezes around the room getting ready, with a silently inquisitive look on her features.

 

Waverly sets the kettle to boil for her morning cup of tea before she finds a small bowl, filling it with some of the still cool kettle water and setting it in front of Oakley, smiling when she starts to lap at the water slowly.

 

She walks over to the table, looking through the little neatly piled leftovers, picking out a bit of dried meat before walking over and bending down next to Oakley.

 

“Good morning, beautiful,” Waverly says softly, running her hand down Oakley’s back, smiling when the pup’s tail starts to wag happily. “Would you like a small bite to eat? I’ll see about gettin’ somethin’ you’ll like better today, but you might want a bit of this for now? You must be hungry, huh?”

 

Oakley sniffs the meat hesitantly, and Waverly can tell she wants to take it from Waverly, but she’s holding back for one reason or another, so Waverly tries speaking to her again softly.

 

“It’s alright, girl,” Waverly coos, breaking the piece of meat into smaller sized pieces as she speaks. “This is for you, it’s okay to take it.”

 

The pup looks at Waverly before moving forward, taking a piece gently between her teeth, beginning to chew at Waverly’s encouraging. She finishes the piece, and another, and another before Waverly leaves her with the small pile and returns to her morning chores.

 

She makes the bed, tidies the table, and rearranges the few leftovers, still more than enough for her dinner tonight unless Gus brings something over, before the kettle has warmed enough to pour herself a drink.

 

The little wooden box next to the range where the kettle is cooling contains a small amount of tisane, just enough to prevent Waverly having to go down into the shop to make herself her morning drink each day. She makes herself a cup before taking a seat at the table.

 

Oakley comes to sit at her feet as Waverly blows the rising steam off the cup in an attempt to cool the liquid further, and she smiles down at the pup before picking a few pieces of dried fruit from the pile of leftovers in lieu of an actual breakfast.

 

Waverly sits, drinking her tea slowly, her mind drifting to Nicole again, as it always does the second she has more than a few minutes alone.

 

Nicole, who swept into town on a spring breeze. Nicole, who came and changed the shape of Waverly’s entire life without even knowing the half of it.

 

Because Waverly’s never been interested in boys. For a long time, it was just something she assumed she would grow into, that she was a slower bloomer than some of the other girls her own age; than Chrissy. But then adolescence came and went, and Waverly was left with nothing.

 

Well, not nothing .

 

Because boys have never, ever turned her head, but she’s always been fascinated by women.

 

And it hasn’t always been a crush on the female side of the population, per se. It’s shifted over time; beginning with a deep fondness for her school teacher when she was a small girl, to a lit fascination for Miss Jessie, the woman who runs the local dress shop, before finally it began to settle into something more solid —an admiration for some of the other girls Waverly’s own age, something more closely aligned with the kind of feelings she currently has for Nicole.

 

Because she has feelings for Nicole, make no mistake. It’s not friendship she’s after, or simple companionship like she has with Chrissy.

 

Waverly likes Nicole. She really likes Nicole. In an I’d like her to kiss me and never ever stop kind of way. She really likes Nicole.

 

And she’s had feelings like this before —echoes of the depth of the feelings she feels for Nicole now—  for years, but she’s never really truly known what that meant . What that made her.

 

She’s heard whispers before, of men in town that married a woman, but took other men to their bed sometimes, and the reaction was always negative. In fact, negative was probably too kind a word for the type of things she hears people say in reference to people that commit acts like that.

 

But she’s never understood it, because actually, it never sounded heretical or ungodly or like they were taken with the devil, it always just sounded like a different kind of love.

 

She remembers asking Wynonna about it one night a few years ago when she’d stayed upstairs here, sleeping on the floor, having been stuck in town on account of the storm raging outside. About what that meant — two people of the same gender together, because it simply wasn’t spoken about openly— and whether that was as bad for two women as it was for two men.

 

Waverly can remember the moment so clearly, Wynonna’s expression freezing on her face, before she’d explained carefully that it was considered almost as bad for two women as two men, before asking Waverly why she had brought it up.

 

She almost hadn’t said anything. She wouldn’t have dared to with anyone else, even Chrissy, this early on. But Wynonna was her sister, Wynonna loved her unconditionally , like no one else in her life ever had. So she’d burst promptly into tears, and cried through sobs that it was because she thought she was one of those women, the ones who didn’t love men.

 

And she hadn’t been expecting Wynonna’s support. She hadn’t been expecting Wynonna to sweep her into her arms and tell her it was going to be alright - which Waverly knew was a lie - and that she loved Waverly absolutely, regardless - which Waverly knew was true — before carefully explaining to Waverly that, while it was okay with her, it wouldn’t be to everyone else, and that she needed to be careful. Very, very careful.

 

Which Waverly had been. For the two or three years that followed that conversation. Ignoring every ache in her heart and turn of her head. Until she met Nicole.

 

And they hadn’t been easy years either, because she’s been constantly conflicted the entire time. Did she really feel like that? Because she hadn’t even kissed another girl yet, she hadn’t ever touched anyone’s hand in anything beyond friendship, so how did she really know ? How did she know she wasn't just wrong? That she wasn’t just confused, instead?

 

She had been confused and conflicted and lost .

 

Until she met Nicole.

 

Until the moment she walked into Waverly’s shop, tipped her hat into her hands, and smiled. And Waverly had fallen.

 

Waverly had known .

 

“What do you think, little one?” Waverly says gently to Oakley, fast asleep on her feet again. “Do you think she likes me? Or not?”

 

The furry red head looks up at her soft question, yawning in a way that Waverly chooses to take as a yes, of course she does , before sweeping Oakley into her arms.

 

“I don’t know about you, girl, but I feel like you could hardly have wandered into our lives at a better time, huh?” Waverly asks, bumping her nose against the pup’s, smiling when she tries to lick her chin. “You’re going to be a surprise for my customers today, that’s for sure.”

 

She stands, holding Oakley to her chest as she walks around the room with her cup of tea, looking for something softer she can take downstairs for the pup to sit on. She walks to the wardrobe, setting her cup down before pulling the door open, spying an old blanket folded neatly at the bottom that she uses to throw on the bed during the winter.

 

“Gus’ll kill me for givin’ you this,” Waverly smiles, pulling the blanket out one-handed before dropping it on the end of her bed. “But I think it’ll be perfect, don’t you?”

 

She sets the pup down on the end of the bed while she finishes her morning routine, sweeping her hair up into a ponytail and fixing it with the length of ribbon Nicole had gifted her with the night before, a token for Nicole to see when she calls in this morning. She picks up the larger glass bottle containing the same scent she had given Nicole the night before, dotting a drop on her wrists and over her pulse at her neck, before checking her appearance quickly in the mirror.

 

Waverly takes a small sip of another bottle she has on her dresser, peppermint and ingestible, to freshen her breath before she’s finally ready.

 

“Alright,” Waverly says to Oakley, turning to pick both her and the blanket up before making her way down the stairs. “Welcome to your new morning routine, Miss Oakley. Let’s see if we can’t find you somewhere to sit for the day, huh?”


-


It’s perhaps an hour before she catches sight of Nicole exiting the Inn, and Waverly’s heart begins to thump quicker and quicker as she makes her way across the road.

 

Part in anticipation, and part in nerves, because she’s excited to see Nicole, of course she is, but she’s nervous, too. Because what if Nicole takes the opportunity to let Waverly down easy first thing, so she doesn’t spend the day worrying about where Nicole stands.

 

But then again, what if she does the opposite .

 

She glances to Oakley, curled in a ball on her blanket, behind the counter, but visible through the gap where Waverly ducks under to cross to the other side, trying to emulate the pup’s sleepy calm before sliding beneath the countertop to unbolt the door, ushering Nicole inside.

 

“Good mornin’, Deputy,” Waverly says warmly as she holds the door open for Nicole to walk through, dropping her hat into her hands.

 

And Waverly had liked the dress, she’d really liked the dress, but there’s something about seeing Nicole in this attire, the one she knows Nicole feels far more comfortable in, that makes her heart beat faster still.

 

She takes careful note of Nicole’s expressions this morning, even more than she does normally, and she’s pleasantly surprised to find no difference in the way Nicole normally greets her, smiling as brightly, appearing to drink in as much of Waverly’s appearance as she normally does.

 

No change whatsoever.

 

Until Nicole speaks, that is.

 

“Good mornin’ to you, too, Miss Earp,” Nicole says, and she’s warm, but there’s something in her voice that Waverly can’t quite place. Hesitation maybe, and nervousness, too?

 

Could she be just as nervous about how Waverly feels as she is about how Nicole feels? It can’t possibly be the case, though, because Nicole is confident and she knows what she’s doing because she’s done this before, courting women, so why should she be nervous?

 

Unless Waverly truly has done a terrible job of making it clear just how much she is so very interested in Nicole. God , Waverly thinks to herself as her stomach drops, what if she really doesn’t know?

 

And what if that makes her pull away, because she thinks she’s trying to make her interest known to someone who is completely not interested.

 

She needs to fix this, and she needs to fix this fast .

 

“How did you sleep?” Waverly asks Nicole, reaching to run her touch down Nicole’s arm briefly, a glancing touch, but enough for Nicole to realise Waverly isn’t interested in moving backwards with their small displays of physical affection. “Okay, I hope? You’re not too tired today? I really am sorry to have kept you so late last night.”

 

“It’s more than okay,” Nicole assures her, her eyes glancing down to track the movement of Waverly’s hand as it falls from her body. “I slept wonderfully, actually.”

 

“But you’re a little tired?” Waverly asks, looking at the ever so slightly dark spaces beneath Nicole’s eyes.

 

“No,” Nicole tries to reason, just as an enormous yawn tears its way from her lungs.

 

Waverly fixes her with a look that challenges that statement completely, and Nicole returns her look sheepishly, shrugging gently. “Okay, maybe a little, but I don’t mind at all.”

 

“You know, I’ve you've got a few minutes, I can make you somethin’ that might help with that?” Waverly asks, the guilt at Nicole’s fatigue heavy against her chest.

 

“You don’t have to trouble yourself,” Nicole replies, and Waverly’s worries she’s just a little anxious to leave, but she doesn’t think that’s the case, she thinks that’s just Nicole’s don’t bother on my account mentality.

 

“I don’t mind at all,” Waverly returns warmly, hoping Nicole can feel how much she’s trying to infuse into her words. How glad she is to see her.

 

“Only if you don’t mind,” Nicole says hesitantly, her eyes lifting a little at the offer. “And only if you’ll have some, too.”

 

“Of course,” Waverly replies softly before she sets herself off to making the drink for the both of them.  

 

“How did you sleep?” Nicole asks quietly when Waverly busies herself on the other side of the counter. “How was our Miss Oakley? Did she settle alright once I left?”

 

“Bend down and say hello yourself,” Waverly says, smiling as she gestures to Oakley still asleep on the folded blanket. “I don’t think she heard you, or she would have come and said hi the second you walked in.”

 

Nicole’s face lights up when she peers over the counter and sees the pup, crouching down to look through the hollowed space beneath the counter top.

 

“Good mornin’ to you, too, Oakley,” Nicole says as she reaches forward, holding her hand out to for the pup to recognise her scent.

 

Waverly stops what she’s doing for a moment, watching the small interaction between the two of them. Oakley raises her head at the sound of Nicole calling her name softly, her little tail wagging excitedly as she gets up off the blanket to walk towards Nicole.

 

“I think she’s happy to see you,” Waverly laughs as the pup clambers up into Nicole’s lap where she’s crouched down, licking Nicole’s hands while Nicole tries to pet her.

 

“I think you might be right,” Nicole laughs in reply, smiling down at Oakley, trying to lick as much of Nicole’s bare skin by way of a greeting as possible. “Did you have a good night with your Mama? I hope you kept an eye out for her, even if you were a tired little thing. You know, I thought Coonhounds were supposed to be quite vocal, but she’s as quiet as a mouse.”

 

“I know,” Waverly replies, watching the two of them with a widening grin. “She’s hardly made a sound since you arrived with her last night. I think this is the most active I’ve seen her, too.”

 

“Maybe she was just on her best behaviour for you, huh?” Nicole says, throwing a little wink at Waverly as Oakley starts to calm down. “Isn’t that right, girl? You just wanted to show your Mama how good you can be?”

 

The pup crawls back to her little pile of blankets after another minute or so, evidently exhausted by her small show of affection for Nicole, and without the distraction, Waverly is suddenly aware of the fact that she and Nicole are alone again.

 

“I’m glad she was well-behaved last night,” Nicole says, and Waverly doesn’t miss the way she settles on comfortably neutral conversation. “I was a little worried I’d leave you with this pup that would come alive the second I left, and you’d hate me by mornin’.”

 

“Not at all,” Waverly replies, shaking her head at Nicole as she stands to meet Waverly’s gaze. “Even if she was an absolute monster, I could still never…”

 

“You’re wearin’ the ribbon,” Nicole says a little distractedly, not cutting Waverly off exactly, rather just speaking aloud the thought.

 

“Oh,” Waverly replies, her hand finding the ribbon in her hair as her eyes set over the bandana she had given Nicole on her second day, around Nicole’s neck . “Yeah, I… it’s beautiful, Nicole. I couldn’t wait to wear it.

 

“Oh,” Nicole echoes back, her expression a little lost as she looks over Waverly, like she’s searching for something that she can’t quite see, hidden in Waverly’s eyes.

 

“It’s nice to see you in your attire, too,” Waverly comments, smiling shyly, appraising Nicole’s return to the clothing she’s so fond of.

 

“Waverly, I…” Nicole begins, and Waverly’s breath catches , because she thinks that this is it, before Nicole’s voice trails off, not quite full of the courage Waverly knows they both need to continue the conversation.

 

God, it’s so frustrating, this little dance they’re stepping through together this morning, because Waverly wants so badly to just flat out ask Nicole where her head is relative to Waverly’s own, but the fact that Nicole hasn’t holds her back.

 

Because maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe she’s not ready to, or Waverly had done or said something last night that Nicole doesn’t want to have to discuss this morning.

 

She wants to respect Nicole’s wishes, she does, truly, but she thinks it could only be helpful to have them on even ground, to lay out where she is clearly for Nicole, so she takes a breath, setting the armour against her skin lest she need it, and she’s a second away from opening her mouth to speak, when her course of action is diverted.

 

Because, of course the running of the universe has a completely contradictory idea for the day that doesn’t involve allowing Waverly to rectify things up so quickly.

 

One of Waverly’s customers comes barrelling through the door, almost startling them both, completely oblivious to the conversation the two of them are about to engage in.

 

“Mornin’, Miss Earp,” the woman says warmly. “And you, too, Deputy. Out and about early I see?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole replies cordially, inclining her head to the woman.

 

Anyone not familiar with Nicole’s tone of voice would miss the mostly concealed disappointment in Nicole’s words, but Waverly doesn’t. She offers Nicole a look in return that says I’m so sorry and please, can we continue this later, because actually having the conversation is out of the question with an audience now.

 

“Deputy…” Waverly starts, before Nicole beats her to it.

 

“I’d best be on my way,” Nicole says, casually and without much of the warmth Waverly has become so accustomed to hearing from her. “I’ll call by later, Miss Earp, if that would suit you? To come and check on your new housemate?”

 

“Of course” Waverly says, trying not to give her enthusiasm away too greatly in front of the other woman present. “Of course. That would be wonderful.”

 

Nicole gives her one last look that Waverly registers as vaguely sad, or regretful, or something of the like, before she inclines her head to Waverly, too, and then she’s gone.

 

She doesn’t realise until after Nicole’s out the door that she didn’t even stay for her tea.



-



The next few hours pass busily for Waverly, with a constant stream of customers coming through the door, and she estimates it’s about lunchtime before she has more than a few minutes to herself.

 

She rests her head on the counter atop her hands, her head aching with the thoughts racing through her mind all morning about Nicole, and what the heck does it all mean, and why had she left so quickly, and what does she want, god, what does she think I want.

 

The silence and Oakley’s steady breathing below her calm her a little, and she decides to make use of the reprieve to walk Oakley out the back of the shop for some fresh air.

 

Picking the warm body up against her chest, Waverly makes her way to the hidden door, in a mirror of her actions from earlier in the morning.

 

She sets Oakley down once she pulls the door open with her foot again, watching as the pup wanders around for a while before picking a spot to her liking while Waverly leans heavily against the outside of the building for support.

 

It’s exhausting, this worry, and she knows Nicole is likely to be absolutely hectic today, continuing the search for the missing women, but Waverly wishes so badly that she would come back in and see her, just for a moment, so that Waverly might hurry over the details of her own feelings, exorcising them out and away from her heart.

 

She closes her eyes again, inhaling and exhaling slowly in a measured way, trying to distract her own thoughts, very nearly succeeding until she hears the sound of someone walking into the shop.

 

Her heart leaps heavily in her chest, and she’s about to turn when a voice that isn’t Nicole’s floats down the length of the shop toward her.

 

“Wave?” Chrissy says curiously, unable to see Waverly where she’s leaning just to the side of the open doorway. “Are you there?”

 

“Hey, Chris,” Waverly answers warmly, swinging her head into view. “I’m out here.”

 

“Oh,” Chrissy replies, her tone excited, walking down the length of the shop. “Have you got your new companion out there?”

 

“Sure do,” Waverly returns before waving Chrissy down towards her and Oakley. “Want to come and say hello yourself?”

 

“Of course I do,” Chrissy answers happily, her smile wide as she approaches them, her expression melting a little when she sees the pup for the first time. “Oh, Waverly, she’s gorgeous .”

 

“Isn’t she just?” Waverly replies, grinning back and crouching down to call Oakley over to them, the thought of Nicole holding her on Waverly’s doorstep coming unbidden, but lovely, to her mind’s eye. “Come here, girl. I want to introduce you to your new friend.”

 

Oakley isn’t sure of Chrissy at first, but then Chrissy bends down to the pup’s level, offering her hand, and Oakley stumbles forward a little awkwardly to meet her.

 

“What did you name her?” Chrissy asks, watching Oakley with wide eyes as the puppy takes a few hesitant steps towards her.

 

“Oakley,” Waverly answers, tilting her head to watch their interaction. “Annie Oakley, formally, but we thought Oakley was nice as her everyday name?”

 

“Well, Miss Annie, I think you’re beautiful,” Chrissy coos, patting the animal’s back once she moves a little closer to Chrissy, evidently comfortable enough to allow Chrissy to pet her. “The name is perfect, by the way, Wave.”

 

“You think so?” Waverly asks before bending down to pet Oakley as well. “I’m glad. Nicole seemed to like it, too.”

 

“I bet she did,” Chrissy says, her eyes narrowing at Waverly a little playfully, and Waverly knows she won’t have missed the inserted we in her sentence before, either. “So, how was your evenin’ then? The pup obviously went down well?”

 

“How did you know about her?” Waverly asks wryly, watching to catch the answer in Chrissy’s reply.

 

“Deputy Haught told me about her yesterday afternoon,” Chrissy replies casually, but she’s only teasing, her face folding into a smile at Waverly’s frown before she explains fully. “Sorry, Wave, I’m only teasin’. I saw her at the jail just after she came back into town from droppin’ her with Mattie, and she told me about her then.”

 

“Oh,” Waverly says in understanding as her mind ticks over, taking the information into account.

 

She knows it’s ridiculous to feel even a little bit jealous, because she’s not even a jealous person for a start , but it’s hard to let the image of Nicole and Chrissy spending time together without her yesterday go, and it’s only exacerbated by the fact that she’s still worried Nicole doesn’t actually like her, like her.

 

It’s not jealousy, Waverly realises then. It’s insecurity. She’s worried that she isn’t enough to keep Nicole’s attention. That she might not be what Nicole is looking for.

 

“Sorry, Chrissy,” Waverly says, shaking her head after a moment, trying to clear the thought from her mind. “I’m sorry, my mind’s somewhere else this mornin’.”

 

“Is everything alright?” Chrissy questions, her brow wrinkling in concern. “Last night did go alright, didn’t it?”

 

“It did,” Waverly replies, nodding slowly. “It did, the beginning and middle were wonderful, it just… I’m worried I messed somethin’ up somewhere along the line.”

 

“What do you mean?” Chrissy asks gently. “How could you have…?”

 

Chrissy’s confusion is helpful, actually, because it says something to Waverly about the fact that she assumed the evening would go perfectly between the two of them. Which lends itself to the theory that Nicole is interested. Maybe. Or maybe she’s just referring to the fact that she knows the two of them had always had good spots of conversation when they had spoken in the shop…

 

“It was fine, brilliant, amazin ’ even,” Waverly admits a little dreamily. Because it had been. “She was kind, and she listened to me ramblin’ on about this place and my interests for hours, and she was interested, genuinely , not just humouring me. At least I don’t think, anyway. And then there was a moment at the end when I thought maybe there was… when I thought… but now, I’m not sure if she feels the same way I do.”

 

“What?” Chrissy asks with a frown, unsure what Waverly’s implying a little vaguely before she understands . “Oh…”

 

She’s not implicit in what she says, because as much as Chrissy is her best friend and she so desperately wants to tell Chrissy every last detail, she knows their date - if that is what it was - is something to hold between her and Nicole. For now at least.

 

“I’ve spent the whole mornin’ frettin’ about the whole thing, and-” Waverly says, her pulse running away with her as she begins to ramble.

 

“Waverly,” Chrissy cuts over her, holding her hands up, trying to placate Waverly. “Look, Wave, you need to calm yourself down, alright? You’re reading too much into this, you hear me? I’ve seen the way that Nicole looks…Look, it’s not my place, but from what she’s said to me, she definitely seemed interested, okay? Just… talk to her , won’t you? I think you’ll find this is a situation you’ll be able to right pretty quickly when you do.”

 

“What does that…?” Waverly tries to ask, but Chrissy shakes her head instead, inhibiting further questioning.

 

“Uh, uh,” Chrissy smiles to her, shaking her head again. “Talk to Nicole, okay? This is somethin’ you need to talk through with her. Now, what you can tell me all about, is what you thought about that dress.”

 

“I thought it was lovely,” Waverly says honestly, her mind wandering to the thought of Nicole, completely unexpected at her doorstep, resplendent in deep blue. “I thought it was absolutely lovely.”

 

“I can talk to you about that,” Chrissy offers, a little excitedly. “I’m so glad she wore it in the end. She was worried about it all day. I think she kept goin’ between her normal clothes and the dress for most of it.”

 

“She wanted to wear her normal things?” Waverly asks, frowning. “Then why did she…”

 

“She thought that was what you might’ve wanted her to wear,” Chrissy says gently, and Waverly feels a stab of guilt somewhere deep in her gut, wondering desperately what on earth she could have said or done to make Nicole think she wanted that. That she wasn’t more than happy with…that she didn’t love what Nicole ordinarily…..

 

“God, did I…” Waverly breathes, before Chrissy shakes her head quickly.

 

“No,” Chrissy says hurriedly. “No, Wave, it wasn’t anythin’ you said, I don’t think. I think she was just worried about makin’ sure she didn’t disappoint any preconception you had, alright? Look, I’m only tellin’ you this because…I know that you’re worrin’ about where her head’s at, and…what does somethin’ like that tell you, huh?”

 

“I don’t know…” Waverly says airily while her head spins, which is a half-truth, because she doesn’t know what it means exactly, but she knows it means something.

 

Because Nicole was obviously worried enough about what Waverly would think of her appearance, and of what Waverly would expect to - or like to - see her in. Enough to go to the trouble to buy an item of clothing she didn’t even own and didn’t normally wear. One that made her so uncomfortable, she debated whether to even wear it, but still had. Because she thought that was what Waverly wanted.

 

And someone wouldn’t go that far for an evening with someone they just considered a friend, and only wanted friendship from.

 

Would they?

 

“Look,” Chrissy says again, watching Waverly’s face carefully. “Just…talk to her, will you? If I know anythin’ about her already, it’s that if you’re feelin’ conflicted or worried about somethin’, chances are she definitely is, too.”

 

“She is?” Waverly asks quietly, and she knows she has to remove the image of Nicole, high and confident in her mind’s eye, because she knows Nicole is that personified in her role as a deputy, but she’s different when she takes the badge off.

 

She’s softer. Gentler. More cautious.

 

With Waverly, she is anyway.

 

“I’d imagine so,” Chrissy answers before patting Oakley one last time, standing as Waverly collects the pup and echoes the movement. “Just talk to her, okay?”

 

“I will,” Waverly replies, and she’s trying to ground herself in this conversation, but her mind is already with Nicole, mapping out their next conversation, trying to articulate everything she wants to say, because there’s so much she wants to say.

 

I like you just the way you are, please don’t ever think differently, and I’m sorry if I said anything to make you think so and I like you, do you like me?

 

“You really are a beautiful thing, aren’t you?” Chrissy says soothingly to Oakley, sitting placid in Waverly’s arms with her head against Waverly’s heart. “Talk some sense into your Mama, would you? Both of them.”

 

“Thanks, Chrissy,” Waverly returns, hugging Oakley a little closer to her chest, eternally thankful in the moment for the warm comforting weight of her little heartbeat. “For everything, truly.”

 

“You don’t need to thank me, Wave,” Chrissy says before she smiles broadly, like she knows something. “Just talk to her, okay?”

 

“I will,” Waverly sighs. “I will, Chrissy, thank you. You know, you’re pretty good at this whole advice thing. Perhaps you ‘ought to think about settin’ up a shop in town, huh? I bet there’s a ton of people who’d pay good money to come and tell you their woes.”

 

“Come on, Wave. No one wants to talk to silly old me,” Chrissy says dismissively, blushing and frowning at what she obviously thinks to be Waverly playfully joking.

 

“You’re not silly, Chrissy,” Waverly replies seriously, her voice warm, but firm, important to her in this moment that Chrissy realises how much she means to Waverly, and how valuable she is, not just to Waverly, but to the town in general. “You’re one of the smartest people I know. Now, I know this town doesn’t have a great standard to measure yourself by, but I know you’re so far beyond anyone else here, that’s gotta count for somethin’”

 

“You’re just sayin’ that because I’ve cheered you up, some,” Chrissy says, still intent on shrugging off Waverly’s compliment, but Waverly isn’t having an inch of it.

 

“Now, you listen to me, Chrissy Nedley,” Waverly replies seriously, rocking Oakley in her arms. “You’re a smart girl, you hear me? And worth more’n most of this town put together. I’m sure I can find at least a dozen people that would say as much, you hear me? In fact, I bet Deputy Haught would affirm as much, even in the few days she’s known you.”

 

“I think she already has,” Chrissy returns, frowning and smiling at the same time. “Yesterday, when we were talkin’ about somethin’ else, she said I’d be good if I ever wanted to take up law seriously. That I’d be a help, not a hindrance. Didn’t make fun of me or anythin’. No one but Daddy’s ever been that supportive of somethin’ the rest of the town thinks I’ve no place doin’. Oh, other than yourself, of course.”

 

“She did?” Waverly asks, blinking as she takes in this new piece of information, this new morsel that reveals more of Nicole’s character than Waverly thinks Nicole would ever assume anyone would take from it.

 

Not only that she’ll happily support something like Chrissy’s interest in law, regardless of whether their society thinks she should do it or not, but that she’ll take care and kindness to affirm Chrissy’s worth in that situation, as well. That, regardless of others’ opinions, she thinks Chrissy would add value; that she made Chrissy feel like it wasn’t a stupid or aimless idea.

 

“I mean, she’s right. Of course she is,” Waverly adds, busy with her own thoughts while still trying to carry the conversation with Chrissy. “But…”

 

“She’s a good’n, Waverly Earp,” Chrissy says, smiling, dragging Waverly back inside. “Don’t you let that pass you by because the two of you can’t get on the same damn page. You talk to her, you hear me?”


-


Waverly walks Chrissy to the front door after that, promising to tell her everything she can after she and Nicole talk.

 

She feels a little less wound in knots about everything now, only slightly, but it’s enough that she can, for the most part anyway, try to focus on her day. Several other customers come and go, taking Waverly well into the afternoon, when she receives a visitor she’s not at all expecting.

 

“Mattie,” Waverly says brightly when the woman walks through the door of the shop, looking as though she feels completely out of place being in town, not dissimilar to how Wynonna herself looks when she does venture in for one thing or another.

 

“Waverly Earp,” Mattie says, plucking her hat off the top of her head to give Waverly a nod of greeting.

 

She’s never quite known how to take Mattie, or her frosty presentation, constantly unsure whether the woman hates her or thinks well of her - the same way she imagines half the town feels about Wynonna, too - so she settles for adopting the same manner she uses when speaking with Wynonna. A sunny dash of optimism.

 

“What good fortune brings you to my door?” Waverly asks genially. “Can I fetch you anything to drink?”

 

“If it wouldn’t put you out,” Mattie answers, surprised, Waverly thinks, at the offer. “Anythin’ cold’ll do, it’s so darn hot outside now that the wind’s disappeared.”

 

Waverly sets about making Mattie a drink, similar to the one she made for Nicole a few days ago. Similar, as well, to what she would have made for Nicole this morning if she hadn’t left so quickly.

 

She slides the drink across to Mattie when she’s finished, smiling when she sighs as the cold liquid hits her parched body. “Good lord, that’s damn good.”

 

“Thank you,” Waverly says happily in reply, adding to her comment without even thinking before catching herself. “Nicole liked it, too. Deputy Haught, I mean…”

 

“Calm your racin’ heart, girl,” Mattie says, smiling wryly at Waverly’s flushed complexion and mild panic at having potentially revealed something to someone maybe already suspicious. “It’s alright. Your secret’s safe with me.”

 

“Secret?” Waverly asks, intending to play coy on an attempt to throw Mattie off, but the other woman just levels her with a look that says don’t even bother . “Sorry, Mattie, I…”

 

“It’s alright,” Mattie says with a softening expression. “Don’t fret your pretty little head, alright?”

 

“Thank you,” Waverly replies sincerely, sighing in relief that she hasn’t just made a potentially huge mistake. “I appreciate it. I’m sorry for bein’ so jumpy. I’m… I’m learning, I think. Now, was there anything I could help you with, or…?”

 

“I had to come and fetch a few things from the store, and I thought while I was in town, I might as well come and bid how-do to your new companion,” Mattie says, and Waverly can tell she’s going for vaguely nonchalant, just like Wynonna does, but there’s an edge of softness that gives her away. “But, I mean, if you’re…”

 

“She’s right here,” Waverly says warmly, gesturing to her side, just as she had done with Nicole this morning. “You want to say hello?”

 

Oakley must sense the two of them talking about her, because she raises her head at Waverly’s mention, her tail wagging enthusiastically when she catches sight of who else is there.

 

“How do you do, little one?” Mattie says with a softness that Waverly doesn’t think she’s ever heard come from the other woman before. “Did you behave yourself last night?”

 

“She was perfect,” Waverly replies happily, watching Mattie run her hand down the pup’s back, scratching in a way that makes Oakley’s tail wag harder. “Weren’t you, girl?”

 

“Have you named her, yet?” Mattie asks, looking up to Waverly briefly.

 

“Oakley,” Waverly returns a little shyly, before Mattie nods in agreement.

 

“Like Annie,” Mattie nods, smiling as she does so. “I think that’s an excellent name. Now look, I brought a couple of things into town for the both of you. You and the pup, that is.”

 

She holds a leather length that Waverly identifies as a collar and a longer piece that Waverly deduces must be some sort of tether or lead, as well as a package containing what Waverly assumes must be food of some description for Oakley.

 

“Now, the food’s just a few things to keep her fed for the next few days so you don’t have to worry about it. And to help give you an idea of what type’a thing she should be eating, for when you start makin’ it or buyin’ it yourself,” Mattie says, shifting onto her knees from her crouch before she hands Waverly the leash and collar. “And the lead and collar, you don’t have to use ‘em, and she might hate the collar so much she won’t let you, but I thought it might be helpful, you havin’ her in town and all.”

 

“Thank you,” Waverly says as she takes the items from Mattie, her voice wavering as the gesture renders her a little speechless. “Mattie, that’s… that’s awful thoughtful of you.”

 

“It’s nothin’,” Mattie says dismissively, swatting Waverly’s gratitude away casually. “Just somethin’ I had lying ‘round. Besides, we don’t want you gettin’ into somethin’ you’re not meant to while your Mama’s not lookin’, do we? Nor no one pinching you, neither.”

 

“I appreciate it, nonetheless,” Waverly says gratefully, unwinding the leash and taking the little leather collar to set around the pup’s neck. “What do you make of this then, huh, girl? I think it looks mighty fine.”

 

Oakley twists her head around, but she doesn’t make too much of a fuss at the foreign object around her neck, which Mattie takes note of. “They’ll always accept a collar more easily if it’s someone they trust offerin’ it.”

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever had to collar a dog before,” Waverly says, frowning. “They’ve always just come and gone on the homestead as they pleased. I’ve never had one in town, though, and I think you’re right about the leash. I’d hate to take her for a walk with all the unfamiliar smells and have her bolt and hurt herself.”

 

“It’ll show she has an owner, too,” Mattie adds thoughtfully. “Just in case someone’s of a mind to take her, thinkin’ she’s a stray.”

 

“You’re not a stray though, are you?” Waverly says, her voice heavy with fondness as she scratches behind Oakley’s ear. “You’ve got a nice new home.”

 

“I think she’ll be happy here with you,” Mattie offers before she stands. “Wouldn’t be the worst thing for that sister of yours to get one, neither. She’s a placid thing now, but she’ll let you know if there’s anything she doesn’t like in her surroundin’s.”

 

“She will?” Waverly asks curiously. “Because I was startin’ to think she was a bit of a mute. She’s hardly made a noise since Nicole brought her ‘round last night.”

 

“Don’t worry,” Mattie says with a smirk. “You’ll know the second she thinks somethin’ ain’t right. She gave me a hell of a fright last night before the Deputy called back to pick her up.”

 

“You did, huh?” Waverly coos to the pup at their feet before dropping to press a quick kiss to Oakley’s forehead. “Well that’s good to know. I’ll look forward to you givin’ me a hell of a fright when you see somethin’ you don’t like.”

 

“She’ll make a nice sentry for you when she’s a little older,” Mattie says to Waverly when she straightens up from her crouch. “No one’ll dare come anywhere near you with any kind of trouble.”

 

“We certainly don’t need any more of that,” Waverly asks Oakley rhetorically, “do we, girl?”

 

“Look, I’d better be gettin’ on,” Mattie says after she finishes watching Waverly make moon-eyes at the pup. “I just wanted to drop you by those things. Thank you kindly for the drink.”

 

“It’s my pleasure,” Waverly returns, smiling widely. “And Mattie, thank you. For everythin’. I can’t tell you how much t means…”

 

“Don’t go gettin’ all sentimental on me,” Mattie warns, shaking her head. “I told your girl last night, I can’t have people thinkin’ I’ve turned into some soft old woman out there by myself.”

 

She doesn’t miss the way Mattie says your girl like she knows something, too, and it takes all of her self-control not to let her smile crack and give away her delight at hearing Mattie say that so casually.

 

“Your secret’s safe with me,” Waverly teases playfully before Mattie rolls her eyes. “And look, don’t be a stranger if you want to come and see her, alright? I’m sure she’d love the visit anytime you’re callin’ by.”

 

“I appreciate that,” Mattie says, almost surprised again at Waverly’s small gesture of kindness. “Like I said to Nicole, it’ll be good to make sure she’s growin’ alright, and…”

 

“Anytime,” Waverly repeats again. “You don’t need an excuse, alright? It’ll be good for her to see a face she likes.”

 

Mattie smiles at Waverly’s astuteness, before dropping her hat back onto her head, nodding in farewell. “Take care, Miss Earp. And listen if that dog tells you she doesn’t like somethin’, alright?”

 

“Will do, Mattie,” Waverly says with smile at the other woman’s concern. “See you soon, alright?”

 

Mattie gives her one last look, sending one to Oakley, as well, before she nods and takes her leave. Waverly has maybe another half an hour to her own devices before her last customer of the day comes walking in.

 

Oakley’s slow, rumbling growl makes her turn quickly, spinning from where she’s trying to clean one of the shelves, on her tiptoes on a stool, the last speck of dust she can see just out of her reach.

 

“You know, I could help you with that,” Champ’s cocky voice calls from the door of the shop. “If you asked nicely enough and gave me a kiss on the cheek.”

 

“No, thank you, Champ,” Waverly replies firmly, dropping down from her tiptoes, her feet firmly flat on the step of the short stool, sighing heavily at the sight of him. “I can do it myself, just fine.”

 

“You sure about that?” he asks, taking another step before Oakley’s growling grows louder, and he finally looks down, paying her a moment’s attention. “What in the hell is that thing?”

 

“My new guard dog,” Waverly says evenly, her blood chilling as Oakley’s growling and Mattie’s warning both swim icly through her veins. “You don’t like her? I’ve been told she’s a great judge of character.”

 

“Yeah, well, she must be broken or somethin’,” Champ says dismissively, not bothering to hunch down and try to introduce himself to the pup like everyone else had, ignoring her instead to walk closer to Waverly.

 

She’s grateful for the countertop between them as she makes her way off the stool, preparing to try and get him out of the shop as quickly as she can, frowning when he leans over the counter trying to get as close to Waverly as he’s able.

 

“I think she’s workin’ just fine,” Waverly says, sighing in exasperation, and she’s not normally as short with Champ as she’s being right now, but honestly, she’s fed up.

 

She’s sick of him not taking no for an answer, and she’s sick of the way he looks at Nicole like he’s planning something terrible in his head, and to her like he’s planning something even worse .

 

She’s sick of batting off his advances and she’s sick of his horrible smug face, and she’s sick of the fact that he feels entitled to her attention.

 

She’s sick of it.

 

“That’s no way to talk to a man, Waverly Earp,” Champ says, his voice a little harder, annoyed at her dismissal. “I’m just trying to offer you help, and that’s how you speak to me? I think you’ve been spendin’ too much time with that damn Deputy.”

 

“It’s none of your business who I spend my time with or how I choose to speak to you, Champ,” Waverly answers evenly, trying to keep her calm, bending down to pat the still growling Oakley in the hopes that it might soothe the both of them.

 

“You're damn right it is,” Champ says angrily, and it’s the first time Waverly’s seen a flash of something different in his eyes. Something she’s scared of.

 

Oakley must sense her fear, too, because she barks, the first sound she’s made of the sort around Waverly, and she’s impressed by how loud it is given her small size.

 

“That beast of yours better keep its trap shut,” Champ warms dangerously, glaring at Oakley when Waverly stands to Champ’s eye level again. “Or else.”

 

“She’s just fine as she is,” Waverly says carefully, her eyes glancing to look out the window, trying to gauge whether there’s anyone close enough nearby to come and interrupt them. “I think you need to leave, Champ.”

 

She’s worried how quickly this conversation has escalated, how much quicker to anger than normal Champ is, so she takes a step backwards to put more distance between them, uncomfortable even with the wide countertop between them.

 

“I’m not goin’ anywhere,” he replies with a clenched jaw. “I came here to have a conversation with you, and you’ll damn well give me what I came for.”

 

“I don’t want to talk, Champ. I want you to leave ,” Waverly returns, trying to hold her ground as much as she can, refusing to let him see how scared she is. How scared he’s making her.

 

“And I want you to come on another date with me,” Champ says testily. “Give me what I want, and I’ll leave.”

 

“No,” Waverly refuses, balling her fists at her sides, hoping beyond hope that, for whatever reason, Nicole just appears in a puff of wind between the two of them in the next few seconds.

 

“You know, I knew she was bad news,” Champ seethes, and Waverly can feel how angry he is, knowing exactly who he’s talking about without him having to mention a syllable of her name. “I knew she’d poison you against me. You know that’s what she’s doin’, right? She’s poisoning you. She’s making you see and feel things that aren’t right. They’re a sin , Waverly. You’re supposed to be with me . In my house, not in this ridiculous shop. Under my roof, in my bed.”

 

“Leave, Champ,” Waverly says again, and her voice is harder now, no trace of civility left in her tone.

 

“You know, some men don’t ask first?” Champ says coldly, and Waverly’s blood runs like ice at the shift and the calmness there now, because it’s worse than the anger. It’s cool and calculated, and it makes her scared .

 

He leans further forward, almost fully over the counter top now, and just before he spits out his next words he reaches out roughly, trying to catch Waverly by the arm and presumably hold her in place.

 

She tries to move out of the way, but she’s limited by how far she can move back, and how narrow her side of the aisle is. Her back hits the shelves roughly, with the force of trying to evade his reach knocking bottles together, but it’s not far enough, and his hand closes around her forearm hard enough to make her squeak involuntarily.

 

“They just take what they want,” Champ breathes harshly, his hand clamping down hard over her narrow wrist. His eyes move over her in a way that makes her skin crawl, and when she tries to pull back, his grip only tightens. “I wanted to give you the option , Waverly. I tried to be a gentleman, but I guess I’ll just have to show you you’re wrong. I’ll have to show you what you’re supposed to do.”

 

“Let go, Champ,” Waverly says slowly, and she’s trying to keep her voice calm, but she knows there was panic in between the syllables this time, because his eyes light up like he enjoyed hearing them.

 

“You might not like it to begin with, but you will ,” Champ says, and Waverly’s properly scared now, so much so that she doesn’t even hear Oakley’s growling getting louder and louder. “Like I said before, you just need a man’s touch. You need to tell everyone you’re done with her. That whatever disgusting thing it was you were doin’, it’s done. That you’re with me now.”

 

“I won’t,” Waverly grits steadfastly, still trying to yank her arm free, but his hold is like a vice.

 

“You will,” he insists, tugging her closer to him, and it almost looks like he’s in some sort of trance now, like everything she’s saying is only bouncing off his broad shoulders, not settling. “I’ll make sure you do. I just need to work whatever she’s done and planted in your head out, and I know exactly how to-”

 

“Champ, let go ,” Waverly says louder, raising her voice for the first time, and that’s enough for Oakley to act.

 

The pup gets up off her bed and starts barking, loud , surprisingly so for such a small animal, growling viciously between barks, her hackles raised and her teeth bared.

 

She begins to bark more insistently, louder and louder still, before finally the noise starts to enter Champ’s distracted mind and he throws an angry glare at her.

 

“Shut her up,” Champ growls, glaring at the pup advancing towards him. “Someone’ll hear. Shut her up Waverly, or I will.”

 

“Let go, Champ,” Waverly repeats coldly, ignoring his other request, silently urging Oakley to bark louder and louder still. He still doesn’t look as though he’s any closer to actually releasing his grip, though, so Waverly raises her arm instead of pulling, before knocking it as hard as she can down against the wooden countertop.

 

It’s just enough to get his attention. Well, either that, or Oakley’s barking begins to worry him more, and he releases her arm slowly, his grasp unfolding, leaving a purplish bloom where his fingers had been.

 

“Leave, Champ,” Waverly says, taking a step to the side, picking up her small paring knife off the back ledge discreetly, the warm wood a welcome weight in her hand in addition to Oakley’s insistent barking. “Now.”

 

“She’s sick, Waverly,” Champ spits again, finally taking a step back as he throws a glance to the furious pup. “I’m gonna make sure this whole damn town knows it. And that she’s got you turned against me, too.”

 

“The only one with a problem is you, Champ,” Waverly says, her voice shaky as the adrenaline in her blood starts to plummet. “For seemingly losing your comprehension of the word no. Now leave, before I fetch someone to find me a deputy.”

 

“I can take her,” Champ sneers, broadening his shoulders in an attempt to make his frame seem bigger than normal. “Give me a challenge.”

 

“Leave, Champ,” Waverly repeats one final time, not bothering to justify his jab with a response. “I won’t ask you again.”

 

“You’ll come around,” Champ says self-assuredly, ignoring Waverly’s warning, but turning to leave nonetheless. “I’ll make you see.”

 

He throws one last dirty look to Oakley, who’s barking has reduced to a low growl as she stalks towards him, following him out the door, as if making sure he’s really gone and away from her Waverly.

 

He steps onto the street and stomps away - Waverly can hear the dirt crunching under his heavy footfalls - before the air leaves her lungs in a rush and everything overwhelms her and she slides to the floor with her back to the countertop.

 

Her breathing is erratic, and her hands are shaking, and the bruise from Champ’s grip is bold enough already, the purple hinting at just how much more it’s going to grow before it reaches full bloom, and the panic is thick in her hands, but he’s gone.

 

She’s okay. He’s gone.

 

Oakley returns from the door, promptly dropping herself in Waverly’s lap, not to sleep like she had been earlier, but awake and alert and offering Waverly comfort instead.

 

She looks up to Waverly with her big wide eyes and soft russet fur, and she licks the underside of Waverly’s chin, as if saying it’s okay now, you’re okay now, before turning so she can watch the door from her position in Waverly’s lap.

 

“Good girl,” Waverly offers with a tremble in her voice as she runs her hands up and down the pup’s back in an attempt to calm herself. “You did real good. Nicole and Mattie are gonna be so proud.”

 

Oakley looks up at Waverly over her little shoulder again before turning in Waverly’s lap, obviously trying to distract her.

 

Waverly closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths before trying to stand. Her legs are shaky, but it’s almost dusk outside now, and as much as she wants to lock all the doors and curl up in bed, or run to find Nicole and curl up in her arms instead , there are a few things she has to do before night sets in.

 

She has a few plants in a barrel of dye out the back, setting the colour in them in a heavier tone for her to use in a soap, well away from Oakley’s curious little nose, that she needs to extract before the dye spoils them, so she calls Oakley at her heels as she takes a few slow steps towards the back door.

 

It takes a few tries to get the darn door open, as unsteady as she is on her feet, but eventually she manages to push hard enough, hearing the soft click as it releases, pulling it back and walking through.

 

Oakley pushes before her, unusual for the normally placid pup, and Waverly’s just about to call her back, nervous that she might bolt, when she realises that the animal is doing a quick perimeter check before she allows Waverly out. She sniffs the air, finding nothing untoward, before looking at Waverly as if to say the coast is clear, and Waverly sets about her work quickly while Oakley peers around the small area.

 

It’s not what Champ was saying that’s upset her so much, because honestly, she’s been steeling herself for that sort of attitude since the day she told Wynonna where she thought her inclinations might lie. It’s the quickness with which he went straight to roughness and physicality that has so shaken.

 

Because she’s always known he was stubborn and righteous and pig-headed, but she never thought he would resort to violence to get what he wanted. She’s under no illusion as to the fact that he won’t lean on that if he needs to in order to get what he wants now, however.

 

He has toed the fine line that crosses into behaviour she would identify as inappropriate before, but this is the first time he’s actually crossed it. This is the first time he’d left that line so far in the distance, Waverly knew he couldn’t even see it anymore.

 

And honestly, it terrifies her.

 

It terrifies her, because she knows she has absolutely no hope of overpowering him if it came down to it. She doesn’t even know if she would have been able to handle the knife in an effective enough way to defend herself, or whether it would have been as simple as picking grass to pluck it out of her hand.

 

And it’s not something she’s ever worried about before, because he’s never actually touched her. He’s never shown any inclination of taking something she isn’t prepared to give him, until now. The ease with which he was able to hold her still, and the strength of his grip, and the resultant bruise growing darker on her forearm are what makes her hands tremble now.

 

Because it had been so easy for him. Too easy.

 

She knows that Nicole would protect her without a moment's hesitation, Gus and Curtis and Wynonna and Doc, too, but they can’t be around all the time. They weren’t here now. And if Oakley hadn’t been here, she doubts she would have been able to break him out of that terrifying, unreasonable trance by herself. He could very well have dragged her to the end of the shop and up the stairs without anyone even seeing them go, and…

 

It makes her bones cold, the thought, and she tries to clear her head of it, but it won’t leave, the ache at her forearm keeping the image of him pulling her towards him fresh in her mind, and, slightly distracted as she is, she spills a large measure of dye over her apron and shirt as she pulls the flowers from the barrel.

 

She misses her skirt for the most part, at least, but her top and apron are thoroughly ruined. “Damn it,” Waverly curses, holding her now wet shirt as far away from her body as she can without getting any more dye on her hands than she already has. “Damn it, damn it, damn it.”

 

Oakley walks to her at once, stopping at her feet, whining in sympathy before Waverly looks down at her with an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, girl, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

 

She crouches down, lowering her face to the pup’s to demonstrate that she’s alright, lest she get more agitated at Waverly’s distress. Oakley licks her nose and Waverly sighs heavily, trying to calm herself down before she tries to remedy her current situation.

 

“What are we gonna do, huh, girl?” Waverly says, biting her lip in an attempt to stop the swelling and thickening of her throat. “I’ve made a right mess of this, haven’t I?”

 

She’s not sure if she’s referring to her interaction with Champ, her misunderstanding with Nicole, or the mess she’s made of her clothes, although she thinks she’s probably more than suitable for them all.

 

It’s immensely tempting to just give up and drop to the dusty ground and have a very unconstructive cry until she doesn’t have any tears left, but honestly, she’s not sure she’ll have the strength to pick herself up again unless someone comes to find her.

 

And the only person that she wants to see is also the person she doesn’t really want to demonstrate she’s capable of being that pathetic to this early on in their relationship. If that’s even what this is.

 

If she hasn’t made a terrible mistake by not showing Nicole that she wants this. God, she’s made such a mess of things.

 

She doesn’t lament not having a mother often, because she hasn’t been short of other strong female role models in her life, but this is one of those times. She wishes she could fall into the arms of the mother she barely remembers, and cry and cry and cry . She needs to be allowed to be completely weak for ten whole seconds while someone, not even her mother, but anyone she trusts enough to be completely vulnerable with, strokes her hair and tells her everything is going to be okay.

 

She thinks, in time, that Nicole could be this person. That she, as a lover, could fill that gap. If Waverly hasn’t made a mess of everything.

 

As much as she wants to keel over, she can’t. She knows she can’t. Because she’s strong. As a person, she’s as solid as the rocks that form the foundation of this town. She has to be. Because she can’t afford to lean on others as heavily as other people do. She has to be independent. Without her own strength driving her, she depends on that of someone else’s to get her out of bed every morning, and that simply isn’t an option.

 

She needs to be strong.

 

She needs to get herself up and get cleaned up, but she can’t leave Oakley here, not so new to her environment, and she doesn’t think the attendant would take kindly to Waverly bringing her along to the baths, either.

 

Gus, she thinks suddenly. Gus will help her. She can go and see Gus.

 

She beckons Oakley back inside, locking the hidden door as they enter it before making her way up the stairs to gather a fresh set of clothes to change into. If she leaves the ruined ones with Gus when she picks Oakley back up, Gus might even be able to salvage them.

 

“We can do this, can’t we girl?” Waverly asks Oakley, watching Waverly from prime position on the edge of the bed while Waverly arranges her things and bites back her tears. “We can do this?”

 

Oakley barks once, but it’s a different bark than before with Champ, more agreeable. Gentler. She’s agreeing with me, Waverly thinks with a smile.

 

She needs to be strong. She knows she does, but she knows she can’t run her heart like that every hour of every day, too. She knows that sometimes, it’s okay to rest her hand on someone else’s shoulder while she catches her breath.

 

“If I don’t fall to pieces the second I stop to draw one in,” Waverly says out loud to herself when her gaze falls to the starburst over her pulse, blooming deeper still.


-

Chapter Text

-


“What in damnation happened to you?” Gus asks quickly, stepping around the front desk the second Waverly walks through the door.

 

She holds her breath, because Oakley is on the leash Mattie had brought them, just out of sight of Gus, and she’s expecting another outburst the second her aunt sees the animal.

 

“Uh…” Waverly stammers, unsure what beast in the room to address first, before Gus marches up to her, pulling at the front of her shirt.

 

She throws a glance down at a curiously quiet Oakley, obviously unfazed by Gus, given Waverly’s own comfort around the woman.

 

“I don’t care about the dog,” Gus says, waving her hand dismissively. “Nicole told me about her yesterday. What on earth happened to you? You’re never clumsy enough to ruin clothes, Waverly Earp.”

 

Waverly must look suitably on the edge of a breakdown, because Gus softens considerably, pulling Waverly gently towards the kitchen without another word.

 

Gus takes the basket that belongs to her from Waverly’s arms, the one Nicole had brought food over in last night and Waverly had brought back to return, that now contains her clothes, before leading Waverly, still holding Oakley, into the kitchen.

 

“Sit,” Gus says sternly, but kindly, motioning for Waverly to take a place at the small table off to one side of the kitchen, which she does, beckoning Oakley to sit placidly at her feet.

 

Gus begins rummaging around in one of the cupboards before moving onto the next, still empty handed, and Waverly can’t help but smile as soon as she registers what it is Gus is looking for.

 

“Top left,” Waverly says shakily, smiling through watery eyes to look at her would-be guardian. “Remember? I moved it after we had the little girls in here the other night.”

 

Gus rolls her eyes at her own memory before opening the top cupboard, swiping the bottle of amber liquid and two glasses. She pours two, handing one to Waverly before downing her own, sitting back to wait as Waverly mirrors her action.

 

“Now,” Gus says calmly, looking to Waverly with soft eyes again. “Tell me what’s wrong. What’s made you quiver like a leaf, hmm? Did somethin’ happen?”

 

Waverly nods as she nurses the glass in her hand, not trusting her voice to leave her lungs unbroken, and Gus’s frown only deepens.

 

“Was it somethin’ last night?” Gus says angrily. “Did that damn woman do somethin’ to-”

 

“No,” Waverly says quickly, cutting across Gus as fast as she can, because she doesn’t want Gus for a second to think Nicole has been anything but the true gentlewoman that she is. “No, Gus, it wasn’t Nicole at all. The thing that hap… It wasn’t Nicole. And it wasn’t last night. It was just now… it’s why I can’t stop my hands from shakin’.”

 

“Well, if it wasn’t Nicole that’s upset you, then what has?” Gus asks, reaching across the table to take something from the plate piled high with leftovers there before offering her hand out to Oakley while she holds Waverly’s gaze.

 

“Champ,” Waverly replies shakily, rubbing her hand absentmindedly over her forearm before she flinches, forgetting how tender the bruise is. “He came to see me today like he always does, only, he… he got angrier than he has before.”

 

Gus straightens up in her chair slowly before pushing both glasses aside and reaching for Waverly’s arm gently. The arm of her shirt is long so it covers the bruising well, and Gus has to edge the fabric up to get a good look, growling as she does so.

 

“I’m gonna kill that boy,” Gus seethes as she looks at the ugly bruise marring Waverly’s skin. “What in the hell got him this mad? I know the kid’s an idiot, but normally he’s got better control of his faculties than this?”

 

“I said something he didn’t like,” Waverly says a little slowly, continuing at Gus’s motioning, and it’s not that she doesn’t want to tell Gus the thing that made him so furious was Nicole, she doesn’t want to give Gus any reason to build a case against Nicole. If there’s anything to build a case against. “He was just talkin’ about how he thought I should be his , and I told him I wasn’t, and that I wouldn’t ever be, and…”

 

“Ahhh,” Gus says understanding as she fills the gaps in Waverly’s answer. “So it’s the Deputy that’s done and got him so riled.”

 

“Not only Nicole,” Waverly rushes to clarify. “He didn’t like me standin’ up for myself, and he certainly didn’t like Oakley barkin’ at him, and-”

 

“The pup was barkin’ at him?” Gus asks with interest, cutting Waverly off lightly. “She doesn’t seem like she makes a lot of noise.”

 

“She doesn’t,” Waverly returns, smiling a little as she does so. “She barely makes a peep, but from the moment he walked into the shop, she was. She started growlin’, and then when he grabbed me, she started barkin’, too. Mattie came in earlier. She told me if Oakley makes any sort of noise or doesn’t seem to like somethin’, it’s best to listen to her. I guess even she knows enough to know he’s a bad seed.”

 

“Well, aren’t you a clever young thing?” Gus says with a reluctant grin to the dog at Waverly’s feet.

 

“Very clever,” Waverly nods, her hands beginning to shake a little more again. “If she wasn’t there, I don’t think he would’ve let go. It was only the noise that seemed to bring him out of whatever state he was in.”

 

“I think Curtis needs to have a little word with that boy,” Gus says with a frown. “Before he gets it in his head to come and try that again. Maybe the Sheriff, too.”

 

“I don’t want to cause a fuss,” Waverly insists, leaning down to set Oakley on her lap as a balm to stop the tremble beneath her skin. “I just… I was scared , Gus. I’ve never seen him like that before.”

 

“I can tell,” Gus growls, leaning over to tear a slightly bigger chunk for Oakley, smiling when the pup licks her hand after. “Now, I don’t want to be the one to have to ask this, but no one else is goin’ to, so I guess it’s my burden…. Perhaps you need to rethink your…. friendship with the Deputy, Waverly.”

 

“What?” Waverly asks, her brow wrinkling in confusion. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean…” Gus says before she sighs heavily, dropping her hands to her thighs with a soft thump. “I mean, I know she’s a nice girl, Waverly, and I know she’s taken a real shine to you, but I’m not sure you fully appreciate the consequences of a friendship like that.”

 

“I’m not sure whether you’re referring to the part where people whisper about us behind our backs, or holler at us in the street, but I can assure you, I have,” Waverly asserts, and she appreciates Gus’s worry, she does, but she needs to make it very clear to Gus that she understands exactly what she’s walking into.

 

Because Waverly Earp is a thinker. She’s not reactive, or quick to respond without taking into account every consequence of her actions. She has lain awake more nights than she can find a number for thinking about her future, what that might look like, if she’ll ever share her bed with anyone.

 

Honestly, she’s not surprised by Gus’s comments. She’d been expecting it, in fact, because Waverly Earp thinks about everything , and never thought for a second that Gus wouldn’t feel compelled to have a conversation like this with her at some stage, be it about Nicole or another alternate love. And she’s touched by Gus’s concern, be it from a place of her own self-preservation or Waverly’s, but that still won’t stop her.

 

She exhales deeply, prompting Oakley to set her head against Waverly’s chest before she looks to Gus and speaks.

 

“I’m also not stupid, Gus. I know what this means. How it changes things,” Waverly says carefully. “I’ve thought about what it would mean if I ever found someone from the moment I realised I was different.”

 

“I know you’ve thought about it, girl,” Gus says wryly, looking to Waverly with a smile. “But have you really thought about it? Because I know you’re not stupid, far from it, in fact, but I just want to make sure you know what this means, forever, because you can’t take somethin’ like this back. People’ll remember this ‘til the day you die.”

 

“People have looked sideways at me my entire life, Gus. And I know this is going to be different, I know people will be nastier about this if they find out, and I know we can’t walk down Main Street holding hands, but I’m willing to accept that,” Waverly says calmly.

 

Gus sighs again, and Waverly knows she understands that she won’t shake Waverly’s view, nor the position of her mind now that it’s been made.

 

“I just want you to be sure she’s worth it, is all,” Gus says, looking to the exposed bruise on Waverly’s forearm, and Waverly understands the implication immediately.

 

“Champ Hardy is a damn thug and shouldn’t be grabbing’ people, whether they don’t like him or not,” Waverly growls to Gus before leaning down to rub her nose on the top of Oakley’s head.

 

“It’s not just him, darlin’,” Gus says softly, reaching for Waverly’s hand. “He won’t be the first, nor the last, who thinks that way, if a pretty young thing like you takes up with a woman. I just want you to be certain that she’s worth it. Because you’ve got a good life now, more freedom than most girls do. And we won’t ever pressure you into marrying someone like Champ Hardy, but that don’t mean you need to jump into another relationship for the sake of it.”

 

“Don’t I deserve to be happy, too?” Waverly asks a little sadly, and she knows that Gus doesn’t mean she doesn’t, but she wants Gus to know it’s not about that, some arbitrary need to fill a gap because everyone else does, it’s about having someone to share her life with.

 

And she knows it’s not going to be easy, but Waverly Earp has thought this through, and Nicole Haught? She’s worth it. She’s worth every bit of it.

 

If Nicole still wants her.

 

“I know that’s not what you mean,” Waverly says to clarify, looking to Gus with kind eyes. “I just… I want that, too. I know I have a good life, and I know I’m not ever alone, because I have you and Wynonna and Curtis, but it’s lonely sometimes. And that’s not why I’m so willin’ to jump at the first girl who shows an interest in me, because I’d rather have nothing than something that isn’t right. It just so happens that I think she’s kind of perfect.”

 

She knows it’s probably more than Gus wants to hear, but she needs to say it. She needs Gus to understand that she’s thought this through, long before meeting Nicole. She’s the catalyst now, but she’s not the point of origin. That began a long time ago.

 

“But,” Waverly says with a shrug that she tries to pass as casual, but knows Gus sees through in an instant. “This talk might all be moot, because I don’t even know if she likes me.”

 

“She likes you,” Gus laughs, reaching to scratch under Oakley’s chin. “Trust me, darlin’, the girl’s head over heels for you, alright?”

 

“You think so?” Waverly asks quietly, because if Gus thinks so, then there must be something there.

 

“I know so,” Gus answers with a confidence that makes Waverly’s heart lift a little. “Now, I don’t want to hear nothin’ that’ll burn my ears, but how was your night last night?”

 

“It was perfect,” Waverly replies easily, because she’s beginning to realise that it was. With or without the kiss she’d been half-expecting.

 

“Good,” Gus says, frowning with a gruffness in her voice that Waverly recognises immediately as kind. “She might be bigger and stronger than me, but she steps a toe out of line, and I’ll march her out into the street same as any man who might be courtin’ you, alright?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Waverly replies a little playfully, Gus’s unorthodox acceptance of Nicole, and Waverly’s decision not to abandon this path, warming in her hands.

 

“I think I’ve got some of that concoction of yours left here somewhere,” Gus says, standing as she begins to rummage through drawers and cupboards again. “You know, the one you gave me to stop the bruisin’ when I walk into somethin’ and it looks like Curtis has raised his fists? Poor man.”

 

“Next to where the whiskey was,” Waverly says quietly, pointing to the top cupboard again before Gus returns with a small bottle of healing salve Waverly had mixed for Gus to help reduce swelling and bruising when she knocked something extra hard during the surprisingly manual parts of minding an Inn.

 

Gus eases Waverly’s shirt up over her elbow before she starts to spread the balm over the ever-deepening bruise. Waverly had mixed it with a few of the scents she knows Gus loves, things Waverly associates with her, so the smell is both nostalgic and calming when she breathes it in as Gus goes about her task.

 

She hisses when Gus brushes over a particularly tender spot, not flinching away, but sucking in a sharp breath, and Gus winces herself. “I’m sorry, Waverly. He had a darn decent hold on you, didn’t he?”

 

Waverly doesn’t say anything in reply, her throat thickening, dropping her head to rub against Oakley’s head instead.

 

“Now, don’t you worry about Champ Hardy, alright?” Gus says when she finishes. “We’ll make sure he don’t bother you like that ever again if he values his hands on the end of his arms.”

 

“Thank you, Gus,” Waverly says gratefully. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

 

“You’d be just fine, Waverly,” Gus offers reassuringly, looking to Waverly a little proudly. “But you don’t have to worry about that, because you’ve got us. Now, how about you leave that shadow of yours here while you go and get cleaned up?”

 

“Would you mind?” Waverly asks, suddenly feeling a little desperate to wash the day off of herself.

 

“Of course not,” Gus says, watching Oakley with a look that softens the longer she stares at the pup. “‘Bout time me and this young lady became properly acquainted, I suppose. What did you name her?”

 

“Oakley,” Waverly replies, blushing a little at the admission. “Her name is Oakley.”

 

“It suits her,” Gus says with a wry smile when she makes the connection. “Well, Oakley, it’s mighty fine to meet you. Especially if you’re in the habit of watchin’ out for our Waverly.”

 

The pup begins to wag her tail excitedly when Gus leans in her direction, evidently having decided Gus is someone worth attention.

 

“We might just have to see if there are any scraps lyin’ around for you, if you’re lucky. We’d best get that body of yours growin’ so you can have a go at that boy yourself next time,” Gus says, looking at the pup before holding her arms out. “Might as well give her to me now, huh? So you can get goin’.”

 

Gus’s tone is gruff, but Waverly can tell it’s just an excuse, something only solidified at the way Gus’s eyes soften further when Waverly shifts Oakley carefully into the older woman’s lap.

 

“Well, aren’t you a pretty little thing?” Gus says quietly to Oakley, her hands moving over the pup gently in inspection. “And the Deputy just found her?”

 

“All alone and half-starved,” Waverly replies sadly. “Lucky she didn’t just leave her, I’d hate to think of her out there all by herself.”

 

“Lucky indeed,” Gus says, and Waverly knows she means lucky for Waverly, too. “Now, you’d best get goin’, girl. Get that body of yours in some hot water.”

 

She can feel the shot of liquor warming her belly now, and the thought of a steaming hot bath is calling to her stronger than before, almost enough to take her off her chair in compulsion.

 

“You’re sure you’ll be okay here with her?” Waverly asks Gus, smiling at the way she’s already cooing over the pup.

 

“We’ll be just fine,” Gus replies easily, looking to Waverly with a wry grin. “If I can handle you and that sister of yours as children, I can handle one puppy.”

 

“Thank you,” Waverly says gratefully, and she means for looking after Oakley, but it’s more than that, too.

 

“You’re welcome, darlin’,” Gus says, her expression warm. “Now, get, or you’ll miss the baths before she closes up.”

 

She looks at Gus one final time before she scoops the basket containing her clothes up. “I’ll see you soon?”

 

Gus nods before shooing Waverly out of the kitchen, and Waverly can’t help the grin that splits across her face when she hears Gus talking softly to Oakley as she walks towards the door leading out onto the Main Street. Dusk has almost settled across the stretch of road, and Waverly sighs at the cover it provides, because she doesn’t think she has the energy to talk to another person, not before she’s submerged her weakening body in almost too-hot water.

 

In the quiet, dim light, Waverly has a moment to reflect on the events of the day. The confrontation with Champ had been awful, frightening and painful and horrible, but honestly, she’s not overly sorry it happened. Sure, she’d rather not have a bruise to show for it, nor be as emotionally exhausted as she is now, but she can’t find it in herself to regret the epiphany it’s wrought in her own head. Because this, Champ treating her this way, it’s only made her more determined to have a true partner in her life like she thinks Nicole can be, and not a brute like him. It hasn’t scared her away, instead it’s hardened her resolve, firmed her mind that if this is the price she must pay to live her life true to who she is, then so be it.

 

And she knows it probably should have frightened her into smothering these feelings, into dampening her ever-growing desire for Nicole, but it hasn’t. It’s only fed that fire. It’s only made it burn more. Because the only thing that’s running through her head isn’t a chant of no , and scared and run, Waverly, run . It’s Nicole . Nicole, Nicole, Nicole.

 

Waverly wants Nicole, she wants her, and she’s determined now more than ever to make sure that Nicole knows how she feels, so that she might take the step Waverly desperately wants her to take. To close that gap between them, both emotionally and physically. To open her heart to Waverly, the way Waverly is willing to open her own heart in return.

 

She doesn’t see anyone directly while she makes her way across the road and down to the baths, which she’s tremendously grateful for, only having to make conversation with the attendant when she arrives at the baths. She takes one look at Waverly covered in indigo dye, glancing to the bruise on Waverly’s arm, her face softening in sympathy immediately before she quickly beckons Waverly inside. Waverly tries to hand the attendant the tariff to enter, but the woman shakes her head, pushing Waverly’s hand away gently.

 

“Your money’s no good here, Waverly,” the woman says gently. “Not tonight, alright?”

 

Waverly must look at her with a suitably pathetic and beaten face, because the woman leads her by the arm into the women’s room quietly, her hand warm and assuring at Waverly’s elbow.

 

“Are you okay gettin’ everything off?” she asks Waverly gently, obviously worried that the bruise on Waverly’s arm isn’t the only one.

 

“I should be alright,” Waverly replies kindly. “Thank you for the offer, though.”

 

“Do you need anything else?” the woman asks just before she leaves. “You’ll find your soaps and whatnot just next to the bath.”

 

“I don’t think so,” Waverly says, bending down to set her basket on the ground before she toes off her boots. “Maybe just come back in a little while to check I’m not fast asleep?”

 

“Of course,” the woman answers, touching Waverly’s arm softly before walking out to the front entrance again.

 

The women’s room is thankfully completely empty, so it’s with a relieved pleasure that Waverly begins to remove her things slowly, folding them in a pile before she lowers herself into the soothingly hot water. The sigh is audible when she slides down, her shoulders dipping beneath the water line as well, and it’s the easiest thing then to close her eyes and slip down the rest of the way, submerging her head, too.

 

It’s quiet beneath the water, and for a moment Waverly can pretend she’s in another world. One where she doesn’t have to worry about hiding her affection for Nicole, one where they can speak and hold hands openly, one where one day they might marry as a man and a woman do now.

 

Her lungs begin to creak after a moment, so she pushes up off the bottom of the bath, bringing her head above the water line, gasping a little when she does so. Opening her eyes against the water running into them, Waverly blinks a few times before she catches the silhouette of someone else preparing to disrobe beside the bath next to her.

 

She frowns a little in disappointment at the other bather before something in her mind clicks and she takes stock of the woman with her back to her. It’s dark in the room, but Waverly just catches sight of a flash of red hair as the woman pulls her shirt over her head, before…

 

“Nicole?” Waverly asks, just as the woman straightens up. “Is that you?”

 

Nicole turns immediately at the sound of Waverly’s voice, and it is dark in the room, but Waverly can see the blush fall across Nicole’s cheeks regardless.

 

“Waverly?” Nicole asks through the steamy darkness, now clutching her shirt to her chest, an effort that isn’t really necessary, given she’s still wearing her undergarments. “What…oh, dear…”

 

At the sight of Waverly - not that Nicole can even see anything yet, given her current position on the other side of the tub next to Waverly’s own - Nicole takes a step back, as though scared to come an inch closer, lest she see something inappropriate, or something Waverly doesn’t wish her to see.

 

“Wha….” Nicole says a little dumbly, clutching harder at her shirt as she tries to look anywhere but actually at Waverly. “What are you doing here?”

 

“I’d imagine the same thing as you?” Waverly says, smiling widely, and she’s carefully unmoving, making sure Nicole notices that she makes no effort to flinch away from Nicole’s gaze.

 

“What?” Nicole asks, uncharacteristically flustered, seemingly even more so by Waverly’s nonchalance.

 

“Getting clean,” Waverly says with a smile, lifting her dripping hands up out of the water as if to demonstrate.

 

“Oh,” Nicole replies, keeping her eyes trained upwards, finally settling on Waverly’s face, and it’s the first time, she realises, that she’s seen Nicole all day, since their cut-short conversation this morning. “Good?”

 

“It is good,” Waverly nods, trying to suppress the smirk threatening to cross the room and reach Nicole, and she can’t help but be a little pleased at Nicole’s behaviour, because she seems flustered, which wouldn’t be, Waverly thinks anyway, something one would feel if they weren’t in some way attracted to the person seemingly causing the flustering. “It’s warm. It’s nice.”

 

“Nice,” Nicole repeats a little dreamily as her gaze holds on Waverly’s face.

 

“Nice,” Waverly affirms, nodding to Nicole who stands unmoving still, one boot on and one boot off. “It is nice. You should try it.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole says when she realises what Waverly is suggesting. “You mean, get in … oh, I don’t have to… I can come back later, if…”

 

“Why?” Waverly asks, her voice soft and genuinely a little confused, wrapping her fingers over the edge and pulling herself forward, her chin resting on the lipped metal edge of the bath.

 

“Because you’re…” Nicole stammers a little unintelligibly. “Because… I should give you some privacy, or…”

 

“I don’t need privacy,” Waverly says clearly, holding Nicole’s line of sight so Nicole can hopefully see the soft sincerity in her eyes. “Not from you, anyway.”

 

“You don’t?” Nicole asks, her own voice careful, as though she can hear the implication in Waverly’s voice, she just isn’t sure if Waverly means what Nicole thinks she means.

 

“I don’t,” Waverly replies gently, shaking her head, and Nicole moves her gaze now that Waverly’s modesty is well hidden by her position in the water. “Not unless you want privacy, in which case…”

 

“No,” Nicole says quickly, one of her hands reaching outward, and Waverly is gifted with the curve of muscle the movement reveals in the length of Nicole’s bare arm. “No, I don’t need… I mean, if you don’t mind…”

 

“I don’t mind at all…” Waverly returns with a purposefully coy note to her words, and she thinks she sees Nicole’s eyes light at the potential implication. “Your company would be lovely, in fact.”

 

“If you wouldn’t mind…” Nicole says, her gaze dropping a little lustfully at the still steaming bath water, the exhaustion in the arch of her body clear. “It would be rather lovely to… it’s been a long day, is all.”

 

“Not at all,” Waverly beckons softly to Nicole’s bath. “I’m sure you’re far more deserving of the luxury than I am.”

 

She notes Nicole’s continued inaction, and realises suddenly that she likely does want a little bit of privacy to strip down so she can actually get in the bath without having to worry about her own modesty.

 

“I can turn, if you’d rather not…” Waverly says a little shyly, blushing as she looks at Nicole.

 

“It’s okay, I mean… I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, is all,” Nicole offers, stumbling over her words a little.

 

“I’m pretty comfortable,” Waverly says easily, and Nicole’s eyes soften again at the additional meaning to her words. “But look, I’ll cover my eyes for a second, just so we’re both okay, alright?”

 

She goes about lifting her arm to cover her eyes, the one without the bruise, peeking through her fingers once playfully, catching Nicole’s eye with a cheeky wink before she closes them properly. It’s actually one of the better self-control tests Waverly has ever had to perform, because the toned preview she had seen a moment ago has made her a little restless for more. She wants to respect Nicole’s need for privacy though, so she keeps them tightly closed instead, waiting patiently for Nicole to give her a signal that it's fine to look again.

 

“I don’t know about that, you know,” Nicole says before she corrects herself. “About deservin’ the luxury, I mean. I know you work just as hard, Miss Earp. You won’t trick me into thinkin’ otherwise.”

 

“I don’t help people like you do,” Waverly replies a little dismissively of herself, still holding her hand tight over her eyes.

 

“You darn well do, Waverly,” Nicole growls in her defense, and Waverly’s surprised at the feeling she can hear there. “And you’ve probably helped more people than I ever will, without even takin’ a lick of credit for it.”

 

“I don’t know about that,” Waverly returns with a note of doubt in her voice. “I think we could probably argue about this for hours, though. How about you tell me how your day was instead? I must confess, I hadn’t thought I’d see you until the morning, so this is a nice surprise.”

 

“It is?” Nicole asks softly, and Waverly drops her hand without thinking to look at Nicole, hurrying to re-cover her eyes before she realises that Nicole’s almost fully in the bath anyway. She does catch the quickest, faintest glimpse of the side of Nicole’s breast though, nothing more than the swell of flesh, but it makes Waverly shiver .

 

“It is,” Waverly affirms easily, dropping her hand slowly, wrapping it around the edge of the tub again now that Nicole is hidden largely by the recline of her body against the back of the metal, watching Nicole’s face for her expression. “It really is. I hope your day wasn’t too awful, though. Did you find anythin’, or…?”

 

“Nothin’,” Nicole says sadly, and Waverly can hear her frustration strung out between them as Nicole raises her hands out of the water to rub them over her face. “Nothin’ again. Not a damn thing. I’m startin’ to doubt how good a deputy I actually am, to be plain.”

 

“You’re a wonderful deputy, Nicole,” Waverly says quickly, scooting as far forward as she can in the water in an attempt to soothe Nicole with her proximity. “A wonderful deputy. I know you are.”

 

“Am I, though?” Nicole replies, defeated, and it takes all of Waverly’s self-control not to raise herself out of the water and take Nicole’s hands in her own. “Because I haven’t found more than a mark on a wall so far by way of a clue as to where the heck these women have gone.”

 

She sighs heavily, leaning further back in the water before looking to Waverly with heavily apologetic eyes.

 

“I’m sorry, Waverly,” Nicole says sincerely. “I don’t mean to be so down, I’m just… I hate that I can’t do anything more. I hate that I can’t help.”

 

“You are helping,” Waverly offers softly, looking to Nicole with quiet eyes. “You are Nicole. You’re looking, and you’re trying. You’re helping , I know you are.”

 

“Any chance you can make me somethin’ with that self-assurance in it when I call by for tea?” Nicole asks, smiling weakly, but strengthening when Waverly returns the expression.

 

“Absolutely,” Waverly replies with a smooth confidence she doesn’t quite fully feel, winking a little playfully. “And if I couldn’t make that , then I could definitely make something that might cheer you up, at least?”

 

“I’d like that,” Nicole breathes quietly, her tone soft and hopeful, closing her eyes before cupping a handful of water to press against her face again. “I’d really like that.”

 

“As would I,” Waverly returns with an equal softness, tilting her head to watch the mesmerising rhythm of Nicole running her palms over her arms with a bar of Waverly’s soap in them before sliding up, across the line or shoulder to the nape of her neck.

 

“Listen to me talkin’ about myself,” Nicole says, admonishing herself, dropping her hands into the water with a soft splash . “I’m sorry, Waverly. Will you tell me about your day?”

 

“I like hearing about you, though,” Waverly offers, dropping her chin on top of her hands to look at Nicole with what she’s hoping is a slightly adorable expression. Nicole smiles warmly at her in the next second in response, and Waverly can’t help but grin at her small success. “Besides, my day was a little awful, actually. Well, part of it was.”

 

“I hope Oakley wasn’t the bother?” Nicole asks quickly, obviously worried she had left Waverly with a little problem, but it’s easy for Waverly to shake her head in reply.

 

“No,” Waverly replies, her grin widening as she thinks of Gus’s completely love-struck face. “No, she’s been the highlight actually. Well, apart from this, of course.”

 

She watches Nicole’s expression go from a slightly dazed one to something slightly more focused as she concentrates on Waverly’s face instead of watching it dreamily. Waverly can feel her blood grow steadily warmer, and she tries consciously to slow her pulse as her heart thumps a little louder, and louder still in her chest, because she knows now really isn’t the time or the place to tell Nicole how she feels, but the attendant isn’t here for the moment, they’re blissfully alone, and she’s not sure when she’ll next have the chance, reluctant to let another opportunity pass by, lest Nicole lose hope altogether.

 

And she knows she needs to tell Nicole about Champ, too. She wants to, but she doesn’t want to ruin this perfectly lovely chance encounter with that . She doesn’t want to, but then she raises her arm to push a few stray strands of her ponytail back into her up-do, and she drops herself into the conversation regardless.

 

“Waverly, what is that…” Nicole asks, peering through the darkness before settling on the bruise, even angrier for the blush the hot water and Nicole has brought to her skin. “Is that a bruise ?”

 

“Oh,” Waverly replies, her face falling instantly. “Um…”

 

“What happened?” Nicole asks with concern heavy in her eyes, almost raising herself up and out of the water to take a closer look. “Waverly, are you okay? What on earth…?”

 

“Ah, that’s the awful part, actually…” Waverly says slowly, reluctantly, because she can feel the possibility of telling Nicole how she feels slipping rapidly away with every second that passes. “And what I was goin’ to tell you about later on. Champ kind of…”

 

“Champ?” Nicole asks quickly, and Waverly can hear the fury in her voice as quick as a lightning strike. “Champ did that? Jesus Christ, Waverly, I’m gonna kill him. Are you okay? Did he hurt you anywhere…”

 

Nicole stops, gathering her thoughts before she looks back to Waverly with a much softer, much calmer expression than before, and when she does speak, her voice is like that of someone trying not to scare a spooked dog.

 

“Waverly, did he hurt you anywhere else?” Nicole asks gently, and Waverly knows if Nicole could touch her softly, to reassure her, she would, if Waverly would admit the touch.

 

“No, no, he… Oakley was makin’ too much noise,” Waverly replies, hoping to pour as much reassurance into her voice as possible, even though the thought of the incident is making her hands shake a little again.

 

“But you think he would have… You think he would have if Oakley wasn’t…?” Nicole asks, and Waverly can see the shiver that passes through her in spite of the warm water at the thought.

 

“I don’t know,” Waverly returns with some trepidation, not wanting to worry Nicole any more than Waverly knows she will be. “I just… I don’t think I’ve ever seen him like that before.”

 

“What happened?” Nicole asks, trying with some visible effort to keep her voice calm, Waverly thinks, for her sake. “What set him off?”

 

Waverly opens her mouth to explain, or to try and put Nicole a little more at ease, but before Waverly has a chance to say anything, the attendant breezes back into the room.

 

Waverly’s explanation dies in her lungs, biting her lip in frustration, because they can speak civilly here, as casual acquaintances, but anything more than that would be dangerous. Waverly knows it would be. The woman is on the other side of the room, but Waverly thinks she could probably hear everything they said to one another if she wanted to, as quiet as the room is without other bathers, so she lowers her voice as much as she can, her eyes trying to tell Nicole that she’s okay, really, she’s okay , because Nicole looks set to cry or yell at the idea that someone has dared harm her.  And she’s beyond touched, beyond, at the thought that Nicole might care that much, but honestly, as much as she thinks Nicole wants to make sure she’s okay, Waverly wants to make sure Nicole is, too.

 

“I promise I’m alright, I just… will you come to the shop later?” Waverly whispers, her voice pleading a little. “There are… there are other things I need to say, too.”

 

“Of course,” Nicole says at once, nodding, but Waverly notices her face fall.

 

Her own stomach drops the next second when she realises what Nicole thinks she could be intending to say, that Waverly wants to break things off, once and for all, and Waverly wants so desperately to set her mind at ease at once , but before she can so much as breathe, the attendant moves next to them.

 

“Everythin’ alright, ladies?” the woman asks kindly, her eyes falling to Waverly’s forearm. “You doin’ okay there, Miss Earp?”

 

“Just fine, thank you,” Waverly replies, nodding to the attendant.

 

“There anythin’ else I can get either of you?” she asks, looking between Nicole and Waverly, thankfully, Waverly thinks anyway, completely oblivious to whatever tension is or isn’t swirling around the two of them like a tornado.

 

“I think we’re fine,” Waverly says, and it’s almost a question really, as she looks to Nicole for clarification. “Unless…?”

 

“Oh, no,” Nicole adds quickly, and Waverly notes how Nicole watches her the whole time, her concerned gaze trying inconspicuously to move across Waverly body in search of any other evidence of hard or ill-treatment. “No, I’m alright, thank you kindly. Unless there’s anythin’ else Miss Earp requires?”

 

Waverly smiles softly to Nicole at her thoughtfulness, before shaking her head to the attendant. “No, I’m fine, thank you both.”

 

“Just holler if you do, alright?” the woman asks kindly, to which Waverly and Nicole both nod, before she leaves them to it again.

 

Waverly raises her hands out of the water when the attendant walks away, registering the wrinkling of her fingertips and how long she’s likely been here for.

 

“I should probably head back and fetch Oakley from Gus before she falls so in love with her that I don’t get her back,” Waverly says softly, watching the way Nicole’s eyes don’t stop their gentle check of the parts of Waverly she can see.

 

And it’s not what she wants to say, because that would consist of a hurried explanation containing everything they can’t say in front of the attendant, but the sooner they’re both out, the sooner they can meet at the shop and finally, finally , talk.

 

“I imagine she’ll be missin’ you,” Nicole says with an ever so slightly strained smile.

 

“Me?” Waverly replies, smiling lightly in a way that seems to make them both relax a little. “I doubt it, not with the treats Gus’ll be feedin’ her. She’ll hardly have even realised I’ve been gone, I’m sure.”

 

“I doubt that. You’re a hard presence to not notice missin’, Waverly,” Nicole says so quietly that Waverly has to strain her ears to hear it.

 

“I’m sure she’d like to see you later, too,” Waverly whispers quietly, risking the attendant hearing for the sake of trying to ease Nicole’s mind in whatever way she can.

 

“If you want me to, of course I’ll be there,” Nicole answers with an almost tangible sense of commitment, of possible devotion irrespective of how it might harm Nicole, and Waverly gets her first taste of the idea that Nicole would do anything for her, if only she asked.

 

Waverly nods, looking to Nicole with a little nervous blush before her heart sinks when she realises she’s going to have to do exactly the same thing as Nicole had, in order to get out of the bath now, rather than in. And she doesn’t want to make Nicole feel embarrassed or awkward in any amount, but she can’t stay in here forever, and she’s not really going to be able to cover herself at all, either.

 

Nicole must catch sight of the internal conflict written on her face, her own face flushing deeper than Waverly’s when she registers what it is that’s making Waverly a little unsettled.

 

“Oh,” Nicole says, pink crawling slowly up her neck as her eyes move around the room, looking anywhere but at Waverly. “I’ll, um… I’ll just turn, and…”

 

Nicole’s gentle splashing in her attempt to look away and give Waverly some privacy has drawn the attention of the woman walking around quietly in the background.

 

“Is everythin’ alright?” the woman asks innocently, without a hint of concern, and Waverly breathes a sigh of relief in the fact that she doesn’t appear to have overheard anything.

 

“Yes,” Nicole answers quickly. “Sorry, ma’am. I just… slipped a little. I’m sorry to disturb you.”

 

“More than alright, Deputy,” she says, waving her hand vaguely. “Sure there’s nothin’ else I can get you?”

 

Waverly takes the opportunity while Nicole is temporarily distracted, talking to the attendant, to slip out of the bath before wrapping a towel around herself quickly. And it’s not that she doesn’t want Nicole to see, that she doesn’t mind at all, but she’s conscious of the way that Nicole has been utterly chivalrous in every facet of their interaction this evening, and she doesn’t want to undermine something Nicole is obviously taking incredibly careful effort to maintain.

 

She sees Nicole register the movement out of the corner of her eye, not moving a muscle in order to maintain Waverly’s privacy, an effort that makes Waverly feel warm. Unless she’s simply acting that way because she doesn’t care to look, at all . But then again, she had reacted visibly to the idea of seeing Waverly unclothed. God, the thoughts and different pieces of rationale spinning around in Waverly’s head are enough to make her feel slightly sick, and she closes her eyes, taking a deep breath before she starts to dress herself carefully.

 

She can hear the attendant move away after a moment, and once she’s clothed in enough that Waverly doesn’t think Nicole will be too uncomfortable, Waverly turns to her again.  She’s careful to keep her eyes on Nicole’s face because she can see more from this different vantage point than she could see from the other, but Nicole has her arms, not intentionally, Waverly doesn’t think, crossed over her chest in a way that protects her own privacy perfectly.

 

“You’re okay?” Waverly asks quietly, once the woman is far enough away on the other side of the room. “I mean…”

 

“I’ll see you soon,” Nicole affirms with a slightly sad smile, nodding as she lathers some of Waverly’s soap between her hands, and Waverly doesn’t think she’s ever been envious of a block of soap before, but… “I’ll come to the back door?”


“Knock three times, so I know it’s you?” Waverly asks, and she sees Nicole nod approvingly at her little security measure.

 

“Good thinking,” Nicole smiles at her before dropping her gaze to her hands beneath the water, and Waverly can’t help but beam at her praise. “You’re okay to get back to the Inn? Because I can finish up…?”

 

“No,” Waverly says quickly, shaking her head and freeing a few more of her hairs that drop down into her eyes, making her blink. “No, you stay here for a while longer. Don’t rush on my account, alright? You’ve earned as long a rest as you need. I’ll be just fine.”

 

“If you’re sure?” Nicole asks, her eyes softening, her concern for Waverly’s wellbeing clearly at war with her desire to remain in the steaming hot bath as long as humanly possible.

 

“Of course,” Waverly affirms before bending down to collect the basket containing her dirty clothes, hooking it over her arm. “Take your time, please?”

 

Nicole nods gently, giving Waverly a small smile that she can’t quite read, unsure if it’s hope or resignation in her eyes, before Waverly draws in a deep breath, preparing to remove herself from Nicole’s presence. She bids the attendant a kind farewell, thanking her for the service and her concern, before making her way back across to the Inn. It’s almost fully dark now, and she’s sure it’s just the thought of what she knows is happening somewhere in this town, but Waverly could swear she can feel something oppressive in the darkness, watching her, so she hastens her steps, almost running to close the short distance to the front door of the Inn.

 

Curtis is there at the front desk when Waverly bursts in, a little breathless, clutching the basket to her chest.

 

“Lord, darlin’,” Curtis says with a smile. “The devil on your heels or somethin’?”

 

“No,” Waverly sighs in relief at being inside the comfort and safety of the Inn, and she’s sure she’s only being ridiculous, and there wasn't actually anything there. She wonders if Oakley will make a fuss, when she takes her home in a moment. “No, I’m sorry Uncle Curtis. I don’t know what got into me.”

 

“It’s alright,” he replies, smiling at her with a slightly bemused expression. “Your aunt’s in the kitchen with your new friend. I’m not sure you’ll actually manage to pry that dog from her arms long enough to take her home, though.”

 

“I thought that might be a problem,” Waverly says wryly, her lip curling in a smile as she looks to her uncle. “Love at first sight, huh?”

 

“Not that she’ll ever admit it,” Curtis laughs as Waverly makes her way past him and into the kitchen. “Hey, kiddo, if you want me to walk you back over soon, just holler, alright?”

 

“Thanks, Curtis,” Waverly replies warmly, smiling at him before walking through the door, following the heavy scent of something good enough to make Waverly remember she hasn’t eaten today.

 

She walks into the kitchen to find Gus and Oakley, as expected, completely wrapped up in each other’s attention, Oakley on her haunches while Gus gestures to her, teaching Oakley, Waverly thinks anyway, to sit.

 

“Well, aren’t you two a sight?” Waverly says, smiling as she leans her hip against the door frame.

 

Gus doesn’t bother to move or hide what she’s doing, just looks up at Waverly with a sort of resigned, slightly reluctant smile.

 

“Clever animal, you’ve got here,” Gus growls affectionately, gesturing for Waverly to take a seat across the small table again, which Waverly accepts with a smile.

 

“She is, isn’t she?” Waverly replies fondly, tilting her head to look at Oakley watching Gus. “You two have had a nice time, then?”

 

“Taught you two new tricks, haven’t I, girl?” Gus coos to Oakley in a voice Waverly has only ever heard spoken to children Gus has a great fondness for. “We can sit and speak, huh?”

 

At the command speak , Oakley barks once, and Gus rewards her with a scrap of dried meat before turning to Waverly, looking mildly pleased with herself.

 

“I’m very impressed,” Waverly says as she drops her elbows onto the table and then her head into her hands. She felt okay before, but she’s beginning to feel the tendrils of exhaustion wind their way up her arms and into her chest.

 

“Feelin’ better?” Gus asks softly, her eyes moving appraisingly over Waverly, just as Nicole’s had done.

 

“Much,” Waverly sighs happily, and she does feel better, thank goodness, the feeling of Champ’s hand around her arm washed clean from her body, replaced with the soft image of Nicole and long, lean muscles, instead. “Thank you for lookin’ after her for me.”

 

“Any time,” Gus replies, looking to a very happy Oakley. “She’ll not need any more to eat tonight, if you’re of a mind to feed her. I think she’s had mor’n enough.”

 

“Thank you,” Waverly says, bending down to pat Oakley, who turns her head excitedly at Waverly’s return, licking the proffered hand. “Mattie did leave me with a bit of food, but I think it’s better she’s eaten a little earlier; she’ll probably fall fast asleep as soon as we get back.”

 

“What about you?” Gus asks with a raised eyebrow. “I don’t think that scrawny behind of yours has had anythin’ to eat today. Do you want me to whip you somethin’ up?”

 

“No,” Waverly says in spite of the growling of her stomach, because she’s already aware of how much time she’s spent here, and she doesn’t want to risk missing Nicole if she arrives before Waverly has a chance to get back. “No. Thank you, Gus, but I’m alright. I think I’m just going to try and sleep.”

 

“You sure you’re alright, darlin’?” Gus asks her, her eyes settling on Waverly with heavy concern. “Because we’ve got a room spare upstairs if you want to stay here the night. The shop’ll be fine without you. I know you say you’re okay, but that asshole Hardy has a way of getting under everyone’s skin, it’s okay to admit that. It’s okay to admit that it affected you, Waverly.”

 

The sigh that slips from her lungs is heavy, almost painful, because she’s tired . She’s tired of thinking about him, she’s tired of the ache of his grip. She just wants Nicole.

 

“I’ll be alright there, Gus,” Waverly says softly, reaching to place her hand on Gus’s shoulder. “I promise. Besides, I think it’ll be good for me to be there. Home. I can’t let the last memory of the day there be him. It’s my shop, I won’t let him taint that for me.”

 

“Good girl,” Gus growls, nodding approvingly. “But, if you change your mind…”

 

“I know,” Waverly nods, her eyes softening in an unspoken thanks. “I know, Gus. I’ll come right back here.”

 

“Sure I can’t talk you into eatin’ anythin’?” Gus offers, obviously noting Waverly’s eagerness to leave.

 

“I’m sure, Gus,” Waverly says kindly before setting the basket on the floor so she can free her hands for Oakley. “Thank you, though, for everythin’.”

 

And she doesn't just mean for looking after Oakley, or her offer for food, or helping to calm her down after Champ’s visit. It’s everything , her acceptance of Nicole and of her interactions with her thus far, too.

 

“Of course,” Gus returns easily, smiling that soft smile that Gus only reserves for special occasions, when Waverly sees the side of her that she knows no one else save Curtis and maybe Wynonna have seen. “That’s what I’m here for, love. That’s what we’re both here for.”

 

Waverly nods, fighting back a handful of tears, her throat thickening, a little overwhelmed by everything, before Gus notices, standing to hand Oakley to Waverly to play the distraction Gus knows she needs in the moment. She takes the warm body gratefully, hugging Oakley tightly to her chest, allowing the small heartbeat to draw her own into a calmer rhythm. It takes a minute, but it slows, gradually and softly, it slows .

 

“You want Curtis to walk you back over?” Gus offers before she stands to walk Waverly to the door. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”

 

“He already offered,” Waverly returns softly, smiling at both of their thoughtfulness. “And I think I’ll take him up on it, if you don’t think it would be a bother.”

 

“That man’d dry the oceans up if you asked him to, kid,” Gus replies, smiling at Waverly’s concerned frown. “I think walkin’ you across the road will be just fine.”

 

Waverly blushes a little at the sentiment before she finds herself alongside her uncle, already standing up from behind the desk to see her out. 

 

“Come on, let’s get you and your shadow there back home to sleep, huh? You just about look dead on your feet," Curtis replies with a wink, sweeping his coat off the back of his chair.

 

“Thank you, Curtis,” Waverly says gratefully, giving him a small smile before looking to the elbow he offers her, juggling Oakley slightly so she can free herself to take it.

 

Waverly spins, turning to press a quick kiss to Gus’s cheek before her uncle grins at the gesture and begins to walk Waverly towards the door. The second they’re out of easy earshot of the front desk that Waverly knows Gus will now be sitting at, Curtis turns to her with a smile on his lips.

 

“So,” he offers casually as they take slow step after step. “Your aunt tells me you’ve been spending an awful lot of time with the new deputy.”

 

Waverly’s blood runs a little cold at his words, because she knows Curtis would have found out eventually, it’s just, she has no idea how he actually feels about a different kind of relationship like that.

 

“Uh…” Waverly stammers a little incomprehensibly, not sure at all about what to say, or where to try and steer the conversation, before Curtis pats her arm reassuringly.

 

“It’s alright, darlin’,” Curtis says, his voice soft and low like one might speak to a nervous animal. “I think she’s a wonderful girl.”

 

And that is not what she had been expecting at all, not at all , and if she was caught off guard before, there really aren’t any words for how she’s feeling now.

 

“You…” Waverly says awkwardly, not quite sure what she’s actually going to say, before she pulls her nerve together between her palms and tries again. “You do?”

 

“I do,” Curtis answers kindly. “I think she’s a fine young woman, Waverly. And she seems, if I might be so bold, rather smitten with you.”

 

“You think so?” Waverly asks nervously, because she wants so desperately to believe that to be true, but she just doesn’t know.

 

“I do,” Curtis nods again, the smile falling from his lips easily, causing the ache in Waverly’s heart to ease, just a little.

 

He stops them up short, and Waverly’s surprised to find the two of them outside the front door of her shop already. She’s about to try and awkwardly jostle Oakley in her arms to reach for the key in her skirt pocket when Curtis stops her gently.

 

“Don’t fret, love, Gus gave me her spare in case you wanted me to walk you home,” Curtis says, pulling a key out of his pocket. “I’ll just come in and have a quick look around, huh?”

 

Waverly nods, aware instantly of what it is that Curtis is actually doing, offering subtly and non-verbally to do a security check of the shop and her room upstairs, to make sure Waverly feels safe here alone for the night after the events of the day. Waverly smiles a little tearily as she watches Curtis open the door before walking through, checking downstairs before walking upstairs quickly, returning to Waverly’s side with a smile on his face.

 

“You’re all good, kiddo,” Curtis says affectionately, placing a hand on Waverly’s arm reassuringly. “You sure you’re gonna be okay here?”

 

“Just fine,” Waverly grins in return, breathing a little easier with Curtis’s check of the shop complete. “I’ll be just fine, thank you, Uncle Curtis.”

 

“Anytime,” Curtis replies graciously as he makes to leave. “Now, how about you let me out through the back door, and I can take a quick look at that alley before I head back across the road.”

 

Waverly nods, bending down to place Oakley on the ground so she can complete her own scout of the shop while Waverly sees her uncle out. They walk to the door, Curtis doing the chore of opening the hidden door before Waverly helps pull it back so he can step half into it.

 

“I’m real proud of you, kiddo, I want you to know that, alright?” Curtis says suddenly, looking to Waverly with an expression slightly softer than usual. “I know this life’s dealt you a damn terrible hand, but you conduct yourself better than most other people twice your age. You’re brave, and you’re not shy about standin’ up for what you believe in, and I’m damn proud to call you ours, even if we weren’t responsible for makin’ you.”

 

Waverly’s composure cracks clean down the middle at his words, because she’s always known Gus and Curtis have been beyond fond of her, but hearing it from Curtis is something else. Her eyes start to water dangerously, but it’s okay, because Curtis doesn’t hesitate for a moment before sweeping her up into his arms. She breathes two huge bone-shaking breaths before he feels her calm in his arms and pulls away.

 

“You’re going to be just fine Waverly,” he says with so much certainty that Waverly can’t help but believe him. “I promise. You and the Deputy’ll sort things out, I know you will.”

 

“How did you…?” Waverly asks, confused, because she hasn’t actually said anything about that to Gus, or anyone for that matter, only Chrissy, so how did he…

 

“You’re not the only one who’s looked like someone took their favourite toy today, darlin’,” Curtis clarifies with a wry smile as he wraps his arm across her shoulder affectionately. “I don’t know what’s goin’ on, but just… promise an old man that you’ll talk to her, will you?”

 

Waverly nods again, not quite confident in the strength of her voice until she can swallow thickly and clear her throat. “I promise.”

 

“Atta-girl,” Curtis replies, squeezing her shoulder gently before releasing it and letting his hand drop to his side. “You sure you’re okay here?”

 

Waverly nods one last time, leaning forward to press a kiss to Curtis’s cheek before he dips his head, smiling, and leaves Waverly to herself. Oakley bumps into her legs as if to say don’t worry, I’m here and Waverly softens, bending down to scratch behind Oakley’s ears for a moment.

 

She’s just about to close the door when she hears Curtis speak to someone else, her heart stopping for a second until she hears the voice that answers his genial greeting.

 

“Good evenin’, Deputy,” Curtis says, his voice sounding slightly amused. “Fine evenin’ for a stroll, isn’t it?”

 

-

Chapter Text

-

 

She’s careful not to be seen, not wanting to disrupt the privacy Nicole will think she has with Curtis, but Waverly can’t resist peering out of the crack in the door that presents her with a very narrow view of the darkened street.

 

There’s not a lot actually visible in the non-existent light, but she can just make out the faint outline of Nicole, dressed in a similar outfit to what she had been wearing the other night, her lighter clothes, without a vest, and with her hair long and wet down around her shoulders, that makes Waverly’s heart flutter.

 

“Yes, sir,” Nicole replies with a note of worry in her voice, obviously distressed at being found down the back alley of Waverly’s shop after sundown. “I, uhhh… I was just…”

 

Waverly smiles at the endearingly sweet waver around her words, as caught off guard as she obviously is having not expected to find anyone else on her way here, before daring to look out again.

 

“It’s quite alright, Nicole,” Curtis says simply, resting his hand briefly on Nicole’s shoulder when he passes her, an obvious sign of his blessing, and Waverly can see Nicole’s face soften at that, even in the dark. “Just make sure you take care of our girl, you hear?”

 

Waverly can see Nicole’s expression change at that, from soft to hopeful, and then to something Waverly can’t quite ascertain the root of, although she thinks Nicole looks sad.

 

Curtis doesn’t seem to notice that, though, or if he does, he takes it for some other meaning, but Waverly has seen enough of Nicole’s expressions now, she’s spent enough time watching her closely. She’s spent enough time seeking to learn as much as she possibly can from the curve of Nicole’s lips and the angle of her shoulders and the way she sighs sometimes when Waverly walks within a few feet of her, to know the difference between Nicole happy and Nicole not .

 

“Have a good evenin’, Deputy,” Curtis says by way of a farewell before Nicole watches him leave. She doesn’t move for a moment, transfixed, Waverly thinks, by Curtis’s words, exactly the same way as they have frozen Waverly herself.

 

He doesn’t stall to talk further, having evidently said everything he needed to say, leaving Nicole alone in the alley for a moment to gather her thoughts. Waverly watches Nicole close her eyes, visibly steeling herself for a conversation she obviously doesn’t think is going to go well, before taking the few steps towards the door.

 

“Nicole,” Waverly asks half-rhetorically, because she can already see that it is her, smiling brightly when the redhead comes a little closer, trying to play nonchalant as best as she can.

 

“Hi,” Nicole says with obvious trepidation, and Waverly can see the flash of something warring within her, slowing her steps to delay whatever inevitability she obviously thinks is about to occur. She still moves for Waverly regardless though, as if bound to her by some invisible ribbon.

 

“Did you pass Curtis?” Waverly asks innocently, trying to play a little dumb so Nicole need not worry about having been overseen or heard.

 

“You didn’t hear us?” Nicole questions in return, tilting her head to the side in a way that makes Waverly’s heart swell .

 

“No,” Waverly answers easily, smiling at Nicole. “Not at all, I’m sorry. Oakley was fussin’ at my feet and I was bent down to her, so I…”

 

Waverly pauses before looking to Nicole, uncharacteristically quiet and uncertain. She softens instead of continuing directly, focusing on the bend of Nicole’s neck and the shade of her eyes, ever so slightly darker than they normally are.

 

“Are you…” Waverly begins, wanting to ask Nicole whether she’s okay. She’s not sure whether that will make things better or worse, and she really doesn’t want to push, so she changes the subject instead to give Nicole a moment’s breathing room. “Would you like to come in?”

 

“Of course,” Nicole says with, Waverly thinks, a nervous note in her voice. “If you’re not up to a visitor however, I can call on you another time?”

 

“Now is fine by me,” Waverly replies, trying to keep the desperation out of her voice, because she wants to do this now, before she loses her nerve. She doesn’t want to wait, even if she’s bone-tired. It’s important for her that she do - speak to Nicole about everything - now. “But if you’d rather…”

 

“No,” Nicole says quietly, shaking her head in a way that tells Waverly that despite Nicole’s own clear discomfort, she’ll acquiesce if it’s something Waverly herself desires. “If you’d like my company, then-.”

 

“Nicole,” Waverly interrupts with equal softness and strength, because she appreciates this, honestly she does, but she won’t keep Nicole here if she really doesn’t want to be here. “I want you to stay because it’s what you want. That’s what I want. I don’t want to put you out or make you in any way uncomfortable, or-”

 

“You’re not,” Nicole says, cutting across Waverly gently, shaking her head again. “I’m sorry, Waverly, it’s just been a day is all. But it’s not fair to bring that to you.”

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” Waverly asks before watching Oakley take herself up the stairs, gesturing for Nicole to join her inside. “I don’t want to presume, but if you’d like to stay, would you…?”

 

“Of course,” Nicole returns with a small smile, and it sounds a little bit more like the person Waverly has come to know when she does. There’s something in the strained timbre of Nicole’s voice that tells Waverly she’s still anxious though and it’s only then, too, that Waverly notices the basket draped over Nicole’s arm, as focussed as she had been on Nicole’s presentation and demeanour.

 

“Gus made me bring something over,” Nicole says a little sheepishly, holding the basket Waverly had just returned to her, now laden again with food. “She said you need to eat, and she’s right, Waverly.”

 

“Not you, too,” Waverly scowls at Nicole playfully before she starts to walk up the stairs behind Oakley. “Perhaps I’ll rescind my invitation, huh?”

 

When she looks back over her shoulder to smile at Nicole, Waverly catches sight of an unfamiliar expression on Nicole’s face that worries her. It makes her take the step quicker, so that she might finally sit Nicole down and ask her what it is that’s troubling her so clearly. They reach the upper floor and Waverly’s thankful she had thought to tidy up before she’d left to see Gus earlier, the room presenting itself similarly to the night previously when Nicole had arrived for their date.

 

“Your room really is lovely, Waverly,” Nicole sighs appreciatively when she takes the final step behind Waverly, looking around the space dimly lit by a few oil lamps Curtis must have turned on when he’d come up a moment before.

 

“Thank you,” Waverly says, smiling quietly, watching Nicole’s eyes move around the room, settling on different parts of Waverly’s heart assembled across the small space.

 

She moves to take the basket from Nicole’s hands and their eyes both fall, distracted, on different parts of one another’s bodies. Waverly’s to the strands of liquid fire draped over Nicole’s shoulder and the almost exquisite softness in her eyes, and Nicole’s across Waverly’s face before falling to the bruise now visible on her arm with the movement of reaching for the basket.

 

Nicole stops everything else, setting the basket down on the table so she can take Waverly’s forearm in her hands. She stops an inch away from the skin, though, remembering where she is and what she's doing, looking to Waverly for consent before she makes contact.

 

“I’m sorry, Waverly. I shouldn’t have assumed,” Nicole says quietly, pausing in her movement, looking to Waverly with an expression that’s so carefully thoughtful, Waverly could cry beneath the weight of it. “May I have a look?”

 

“Of course,” Waverly says with a swift exhalation, not moving her arm, but taking another step to bring the rest of her body towards Nicole’s, to be closer to her.

 

Nicole’s touch is so soft that Waverly barely feels it at first. Her fingers whisper across the skin as she meets Waverly’s gaze, something like confusion settling in her eyes at Waverly’s step forward before she returns her concentration back to Waverly’s arm.

 

“Are you okay?” is the first thing that falls from Nicole’s mouth, not an admonishment for letting this happen, or an accusation that Waverly must have done something to draw this upon herself. “Are you hurt anywhere else? Does it hurt badly now?”

 

“It aches a little, but it’s okay,” Waverly says, wincing ever so slightly when Nicole’s thumb brushes a particularly heavy part of the bruise.

 

“God, I’m sorry, Waverly. I didn’t…” Nicole says quickly, moving to draw her hand away, but Waverly’s free hand closes over it quicker, holding it in place.

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly says, her voice as gentle as Nicole’s touch. “It’s okay, Nicole. It’s nice. It feels nice. Your touch, I mean. Instead of his. I don’t mind yours at all.”

 

“You don’t?” Nicole asks with an uncertain waver in her hands, as well as her breath, looking to Waverly as though trying to ascertain something else from her gaze.

 

“I really don’t,” Waverly assures her, tilting her head to the side to watch Nicole watching her.

 

“He should never have been able to get his hands on you, Waverly,” Nicole says a little fiercely, and the emotion there is plain. “I’m so sorry that he did. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there. I promised you I’d be there for you, that I’d keep you safe, and I…”

 

“Nicole, it isn’t your fault,” Waverly hurries to say, taking Nicole’s hand off her forearm so she can hold it between her own hands. “It wasn’t your fault. It was Champ’s, alright? Only his.”

 

“I know, but-” Nicole tries to reason, but Waverly shakes her head gently, and she stops mid-sentence.

 

“No, buts,” Waverly says with a soft smile. “It was the middle of the day, with people everywhere. No one would have thought he would be so dim as to try and hurt me in plain-sight. I don’t think he thought he was going to until he did.”

 

“I want to knock his ass into the dirt,” Nicole growls quietly, and Waverly can see her concentrating on the way their hands touch, using it, Waverly thinks, to calm herself. “Or worse than. God, the nerve of him.”

 

“I think Gus shares the sentiment,” Waverly replies, trying to infuse her contact over Nicole’s hands with as much calm as she can. “It’s okay, though. I’m okay, I promise.”

 

“But he hurt you,” Nicole says with a heavy sigh, and Waverly can feel the ache of Nicole’s guilt in her own ribs, that she hadn’t been able to prevent it. “He hurt you, Waverly.”

 

“I know, but I’m alright,” Waverly breathes steadily. “And besides, I know it’s not an excuse, but I think I might have provoked him a little. Not intentionally, but…”

 

“What happened to make you think that?” Nicole asks, furrowing her brow in question, and Waverly sees the flash of something across Nicole’s eyes, the hint of what Waverly thinks is realisation.

 

That she knows what it was that had made Champ so angry. Something about them. It must have been something about them . Them, or Nicole, or both.

 

“It was barely anything at all,” Waverly says slowly, choosing her words as carefully as she can while maintaining contact through Nicole’s palms. “I told him I wasn’t his, that I was never going to be his, and he took that to mean… he took that to mean that I must have been… someone else’s .”

 

“Mine,” Nicole says a little distractedly as a look of horror crosses her face. “He thought you were mine . This is my fault.”

 

“No,” Waverly says strongly, tightening her grip on Nicole’s hands. “No, Nicole, this is not your fault. Not at all. Please, I didn’t mean for it to sound like that.”

 

“But…” Nicole begins, her face pale now, her grip slackening beneath Waverly’s with her worry.

 

“No,” Waverly says again, stronger than before. “It’s not your fault at all, but it did… it made me realise how greatly I need to talk to you about somethin’.”

 

If Waverly thought Nicole looked pale before, she looks deathly so now, and Waverly’s actually about to ask her if she needs to sit down, when Nicole speaks with an even shakier voice than before.

 

“Waverly,” Nicole says quietly, trying to draw her hands away from beneath Waverly’s. “It’s okay, you don’t have to… I understand.”

 

“You understand what?” Waverly asks, frowning again, and she tightens her grip on Nicole, not enough to feel oppressive, but enough that Nicole gets the message that she doesn’t want to let go.

 

“That you…” Nicole says a little thickly, and Waverly can feel her shoulders closing in already, trying to protect herself. Although from what, Waverly isn’t entirely sure yet. “That you… that you want to…sever our ties.”

 

“Why would I want to do that?” Waverly asks, genuinely confused, before every inch of Nicole’s behaviour tonight, her nervousness, her quietness, comes crashing down around Waverly’s shoulders. “Oh, god. You think I want to…”

 

“It’s alright, Waverly,” Nicole says stoically, swallowing hard, although Waverly knows it’s a front.

 

She can see the tears already collecting at the corner of Nicole’s eyes, in spite of how much Waverly knows Nicole will be fighting so hard against them. “It’s alright, truly, you don’t have to explain… I can just take my leave of you. I won’t bother you again, I promise.”

 

“Nicole,” Waverly says quickly, when Nicole tries to pull away more insistently, no longer meeting Waverly’s eyes. “Nicole, I don’t want you to go.”

 

That draws Nicole up short, and she stops like stone in place before looking to Waverly with a confused expression of her own.

 

“But…” Nicole utters quietly, her eyes moving over Waverly’s face for some kind of explanation. “But… Champ…?”

 

Waverly’s more than a little furious with herself for allowing Nicole to think for a moment that she had wanted to break off their contact at all, let alone because of Champ’s threats, and she’s even angrier at herself that she hadn’t realised what the clues Nicole had been subconsciously giving her the entire evening, meant.

 

“He’s the reason for this,” Waverly says, her voice soft and her eyes softer. “He’s what made me realise I don’t want to settle for someone like him, Nicole.”

 

“What do you want?” Nicole asks, barely above a whisper, one small grain of hope between her teeth.

 

“I want you , Nicole,” Waverly breathes, and she’s so nervous she feels faintly sick, but it’s worth everything when she sees Nicole’s whole body lift . “I don’t want to settle for someone I’m never going to be happy with. Someone who doesn’t know who I am. I want you .”

 

“You do?” Nicole questions in reply, and it’s so soft, her voice, that it feels like a heartbeat. “But…”

 

“No buts,” Waverly repeats shyly. “I just want you. I want to be by your side, Nicole. No one else’s. I want to be yours, and selfishly, want you to be mine.”

 

“Me?” Nicole says with such an exquisite softness that it makes Waverly’s ribs tense. “You want…”

 

“If you’ll have me, of course,” Waverly says quietly, shrugging her shoulders, dropping her eyes to their still-joined hands. “If you want me. But if you don’t, then that’s alr—.”

 

“I do,” Nicole replies with a glistening in her eyes and relief in her lungs. “Of course I do, Waverly. God, I’ve never wanted anything more in my entire life, but…”

 

But .

 

There’s a but. Waverly’s heart drops at the word, messily on the floor between them, because she was right. There is something there. Nicole doesn’t want her, just like she’d been worried about.

 

“I do,” Nicole affirms softly at the crestfallen look that must appear on Waverly’s face, before trying to finish her thought. “I really do, but… Waverly, have you thought about what this means, havin’ me by your side? Have you thought about what it will do ?”

 

“Thought about it?” Waverly asks, assuming Nicole is referring to the potential stigma associated with a relationship such as the one they’re considering pursuing. “I mean, I know it’s not gonna be easy, that we’ll have to be careful and we can’t be open about everythin’, but…”

 

“It’s more than that, though, Waverly,” Nicole says gently, imploringly, and there’s a pain that appears in her eyes that Waverly hasn’t seen before. “It’s more’n just havin’ to hide from everyone, it’s…if people find out, it can be worse than a few dirty stares down Main Street. There will always be men who want to do this to you, who will want to set you right like Champ does, and no matter how careful we are, that is always gonna be a risk.”

 

“I know it is,” Waverly answers, and she’s not sure, but she thinks it sounds as though Nicole is trying to talk her out of this. “I know all those things, Nicole. I’ve run them through in my head night after night after night since you set foot inside my shop.”

 

“The thing is, though, I’m not sure if you do,” Nicole says softly, and Waverly knows she’s not trying to undermine her, and it’s not that she’s not taking Waverly seriously. She’s worried . Waverly can see clearly how worried she is. “I’m not sure if you’ve thought about what that would be like, to be the object of conflict and hate like that.”

 

“Don’t I?” Waverly asks a little disbelievingly, her eyes widening defensively, and she knows Nicole won’t have thought of it like that, not when she watches another look of horror cross Nicole’s features, but it stings nonetheless.

 

“Oh, god. Waverly, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, of course you have,” Nicole hurries to clarify, her eyes pleading for Waverly’s forgiveness, shaking her head crossly and scowling at herself. “I just mean… it’s different like this. It can be more personal, when someone’s disgusted at you, not at your family. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to cause any offense to you, never ever that, it’s just…”

 

“It’s just, what?” Waverly asks quietly, waiting for Nicole to strike the death-blow to her tenderly-hanging heart.

 

“It’s just…” Nicole starts sadly, and Waverly can tell there’s a physical toll on each word that falls past her lips now. That every single breath hurts her to speak. If only Waverly knew where the origin of the pain was. “I don’t think I can do this again.”

 

“Don’t think you can do what?” Waverly asks, so, so quietly, waiting tremulously for everything to fall apart with Nicole’s answer.

 

“I don’t think I can do this with someone who hasn’t thought all that through,” Nicole says, with tears beginning to well in the corner of her eyes. “Who isn’t totally prepared for the consequences, every single horribly unpleasant one. Who’s gonna run back to safe when those come front and centre, because they’re scared. Because I fell in love with someone who wasn’t. I let my heart run away with me and cloud my judgement, and I fell, hard, and it broke me, Waverly. It broke every single bone in my body, and they took years to grow back.”

 

“What happened?” Waverly asks timidly, because she doesn’t want to cause Nicole any undue stress or pain recollecting what is obviously difficult, but she knows that whatever it is that Nicole’s holding on to, it’s important. “Will you tell me?”

 

“If you want to know?” Nicole offers quietly, dropping her head and breaking their eye contact for a second to give herself a moment’s reprieve. “Of course I’ll tell you.”

 

“I do,” Waverly replies with an equal softness, her thumb sweeping over Nicole’s knuckles. “But only if you feel like you can.”

 

“It’s better now,” Nicole says, sighing a little, and Waverly can tell that the weight of whatever it is, is less of a burden on the curve of her spine now than it was.

 

“You can stop whenever you need,” Waverly returns, conscious of Nicole’s still delicate appearance, and the fact that she really doesn’t want to push Nicole past a point she’s comfortable speaking about.

 

Nicole nods once at Waverly’s offer, smiling a small sad smile and taking a deep breath, squeezing their joined hands to draw strength from their connection, before she begins.

 

“We met young,” Nicole explains, dropping her gaze again. “We were still children when our friendship began. Just past ten years, I think? And we were friends for a long time before somethin’ changed. The first time she kissed me, I was eighteen, under the eaves of her family’s barn, and I couldn’t believe what was happenin’ because I’d spend the last three years pining after her.”

 

Waverly can see that Nicole is somewhere else as she speaks, her eyes in another time, another place, even if her body is here and present with Waverly herself. She watches Nicole swallow heavily, before she breathes and continues.

 

“It was good, for a while, we had a good couple’a years together,” Nicole explains with still-glazed eyes. “She was terrified of anyone findin’ out, but we were still young, so no one batted an eyelash when we spent every wakin’ second with each other. That changed after we both turned twenty, though. She’d had suitors sniffin’ around for the last year or so, pushing back against her parents to facilitate anythin’, under the guise that she wasn’t ready, when it had really been on account of me.”

 

She watches then as Nicole’s expression shifts from nostalgic to something slightly harder.

 

“The night I told her I wanted to be with her forever, and everything changed,” Nicole says with a firmer tone to her words. “I made some passin’ comment, nothin’ serious, and she changed. She panicked, I think. She froze, and said that could never happen because we’d need to be married someday —to men— and we could be friends maybe, but that this would have to stop, because she couldn’t have people find out . I knew she was scared, and I thought it was just a knee-jerk reaction, you know? So I calmed her down a little, reassured her that it wasn’t anythin’ we needed to worry about just yet, because we were young, but things were never the same after that.”

 

Nicole’s tone isn’t spiteful or resentful, as one might expect someone else recounting a tale of abandoned love. But not Nicole. Even faced with a thing like this, she stays calm.

 

“She started worryin’ every time we were seen out together. She stopped holdin’ my hand when we were around others, even though we’d done that for years,” Nicole recounts, looking up to Waverly briefly when Waverly tightens her grip around Nicole’s hands. “I saw the signs. I should’ve done something sooner, but I was in love, and I knew the only thing I could really do was break our bond.”

 

Nicole sighs heavily then. Waverly can feel her lungs creak under the depth of it. She looks to Waverly for a moment, clarity in her eyes breaking through the fog for a second.

 

“Are you alright?” Waverly asks gently, moving a half-step closer to Nicole in an attempt to help with the warmth of her own body. “You don’t have to carry on if you don’t…”

 

“It’s okay,” Nicole affirms, nodding, taking her turn to tighten her hands around Waverly’s.

 

Waverly nods in return, trying not to smile too widely when she notices the way Nicole reacts to her half-step, moving the same distance closer to Waverly. She gives Nicole a supportive little nod of the head, encouraging her to begin again, and Nicole does.

 

“It didn’t take long for it to come to a head after that,” Nicole says factually, and it’s a mild relief to Waverly that she hears very little emotion attached to the tale now, a demonstration that Nicole does seem, and is perhaps, over whomever this was. “Somebody made a passin’ comment about her not bein’ married and spendin’ all her time with me, and did she want to shack up with a woman like those women he’d heard tale of, and she just froze, which, of course, was the worst thing to do.”

 

Nicole pauses for a second, looking to Waverly, checking in, Waverly thinks, to make sure that she’s alright, too. Cognisant maybe that this can’t be easy for Waverly to hear, either. She’s okay, though, so she gives Nicole a little signal of affirmation before she begins to draw things to a close.

 

“His eyes went wider than hers, and the next thing we knew, she was battlin’ the local rumour mill,” Nicole says balefully, a reflection of the town, and not whomever this woman was. “That didn’t last long, though. A day after that happened, she turned up with the hardest look I’ve ever seen on her face and broke our ties. She said that she’d been confused. That she hadn’t known what she’d wanted, but that she knew now. And then she was engaged by the end of the week to one of the boys we’d grown up with.”

 

“Oh, Nicole,” Waverly breathes, stepping closer still, running one of her hands up to Nicole’s elbow and back, because it would have been hard enough snapping their relationship in two, but to have to watch her with someone else must have been torture. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“It’s alright,” Nicole says softly, and while Waverly can tell it hurts to say it, the hurt isn’t a fresh —still enamoured, still attached— hurt. It’s the hurt from an old wound that aches when pushed. Dull, and no longer invasive or controlling, but there as a part of her body still, as it will always be. “It was a long time ago now. I’m… the feelings I once had for her are long gone, and that makes it easier.”

 

“They are?” Waverly asks hesitantly, asking but not asking, the question she so badly wants to ask. “You don’t… you’re not still…”

 

“My feelin’s for her faded to nothing a long time ago, Waverly,” Nicole clarifies in reassurance. “They had to, or I wouldn’t have been able to draw myself from bed every mornin’.”

 

“How long?” Waverly questions, dropping her head to watch the way Nicole’s hands curl so beautifully around her own. “Since you… since that happened?”

 

“I was twenty and one,” Nicole replies with little emotion, as if recounting drops of water on a window after rain. “And I’m older than twenty and five now. God, it feels like so much longer. I feel like the world’s a completely different place now.”

 

“It is. You have me now, after all,” Waverly says sweetly, trying to draw a smile out of Nicole now that her story’s done, but she’s not quite finished.

 

“I know you say that, but…” Nicole begins, cutting herself off mid-sentence, sighing with a grief-heavy frown. “Don’t you see? That’s why I don’t know if I can do it again. What I did with Shae. With someone who hasn’t thought it through. Because it almost killed me with her, but Waverly, with what I feel for you already , I don’t think I’d survive that with you.”

 

Waverly’s heart stops at Nicole’s admission before she takes a breath, a slow trembling one, because this is her chance. This is it. This is her moment, toes over the cliff, for her to throw her bones into the earth with Nicole, forever.

 

“How do you know I haven’t?” Waverly questions with a shaky voice, gathering every scrap of courage, taking a breath and jumping into the abyss for Nicole. She slides her palms up Nicole’s forearm, watching Nicole’s eyes flick up to meet hers like a hawk with the intentional movement. “How do you know I haven’t been thinking about this since I was sixteen years old?”

 

Nicole’s face changes then, her eyes shift from devastated to confused, and then to something Waverly knows is hope . “What do you mean… wait…you have?”

 

“I might not have ever done anythin’ about it,” Waverly says shyly, shrugging her shoulders as she holds on to Nicole’s hands firmly. “But that doesn’t mean I didn’t think about it. Every night in the dark. Imaginin’ what it would feel like for soft lips to touch mine, instead of rough ones.”

 

“You did?” Nicole asks incredulously. “But… you’ve never…”

 

“It wasn’t for lack of wantin’ to, trust me,” Waverly laughs, rolling her eyes in a moment of lightness. “Well, not exactly, anyway. It was just… I never found anybody I wanted to take that risk for, you know? And I know you’re worried about me not thinkin’ this through, the consequences through, but I have, Nicole. I’ve worried about them night after night, wonderin’ if I should abandon what I know my heart wants for somethin’ easier. And do you know what? Do you know what I realised, lying in the dark, night after night, in the bed you’re sleepin’ in now?”

 

Nicole shakes her head simply, obviously not trusting the strength of her voice, which Waverly takes as a signal to continue.

 

“That I didn’t care,” Waverly says easily, and with the words, for the first time in her life, she feels free from a weight she didn’t even know held her to the earth, with its claws in her shoulders. “That when I met the right person, it would be worth it, all those consequences, if they loved me back.”

 

She watches a change fall over Nicole then; something shifts, something changes behind her eyes. Waverly watches Nicole unbind her affection for Waverly, free from the tight shackles she’s had it chained to, not wanting to give them free reign until she knew there was a chance.

 

“And I know that sounds naive, or like I’m just a young dreamer, but I promise you I’m not,” Waverly affirms, because this is important to her. It’s crucial that Nicole know how seriously she’s thought about this for years. “I didn’t come to that easily. I came to that through sweat and tears and despair , but I came to it nonetheless. If you don’t believe me, ask Wynonna about the conversation I had with her a couple’a years ago, because that’s how long I’ve known for sure that I wasn’t gonna settle for a man. You’re new, and my feelin’s for you are new, but my heart, and what it knows it wants... that’s not .”

 

Nicole takes one huge deep breath, rocking back on her heels to accommodate the movement, and Waverly thinks maybe she’s on the edge of tears.

 

“I’m not Shae, Nicole,” Waverly says softly, ducking her head to catch Nicole’s gaze properly, risking the gesture of tilting Nicole’s head back with a finger under her chin. “I know what I’m doing. And I don’t mean any disrespect, but it’s just that I know what I want, and I know what I’m riskin’ to have it. And I don’t know if you’ve felt something similar in your life, but this is it for me. You’re the one I want to risk it for.”

 

She watches as a thought crosses Nicole’s eyes then, and they widen before she stumbles over an explanation.

 

“I’m not… I need you to know, too, that I’m not the kinda’ girl that throws her attention towards the first person that pays her mind,” Nicole clarifies for her, imploring Waverly to see. “I know it might seem like that with me comin’ in here and all, but my feelings for you are… they came on quick as a flash, but they’re real, Waverly, more so than I’ve ever felt before. And I…”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly soothes, stepping in closer still, feeling Nicole’s knee bump gently against her own. She has to tip her head back to retain eye contact like this. “It’s okay, Nicole. I know.”

 

“You do?” Nicole asks so, so, softly, and the vulnerability in Nicole’s voice isn’t like anything Waverly has heard before.

 

“I do,” Waverly nods easily, running her thumb along Nicole’s jaw, and they’re close now; close enough that Waverly can smell the scent of her perfume she’d given Nicole the night before; close enough that if she pushed up off her tiptoes just enough, their lips would meet.

 

They both breathe in the echo of one another, balanced perfectly between present and hope , before Waverly sets her heart in the hollow their bodies create.

 

“I’m all in, Nicole,” Waverly whispers, barely daring to move, lest she break the network of fine lines around them. “I’m yours. I’m all yours. If you want me?”

 

She watches Nicole’s breath catch in her throat, watches her eyes well before biting her lip, and with a movement that stops Waverly’s heart, nods .

 

“I do,” Nicole sighs more than says, and Waverly watches as her face fills with possibility , and she moves further into Waverly’s touch at her jaw. “I’m yours, too.”

 

She has to strain to suppress a dry sob then as her entire body floods with relief, because she wants me, Waverly thinks, she wants me, she wants me, we can do this. Her eyes flood with tears, and she bites her lip and breathes in the smell of warmth radiating off Nicole, closing them before feeling Nicole’s hand hovering an inch off her hip.

 

“Can I…” Nicole asks softly, the puff of her breath moving over Waverly’s lips.

 

She’s not sure if Nicole is asking for permission to kiss her, or touch her, or both, but it doesn’t matter, because the answer is yes either way. Yes, yes, yes, Nicole, yes.

 

Waverly nods slowly, keeping her eyes closed, and it drives this simultaneous want to reach for Nicole, too, before she realises that she can now, she’s allowed to, if Nicole will permit it. She’s so distracted thinking about touching Nicole that she doesn’t notice Nicole’s hand moving to make contact with her hip until Nicole does , and Waverly can’t help jumping a little automatically in response.

 

“I’m sorry,” Nicole says hurriedly, moving to withdraw her hand before Waverly catches it and holds it in place. “I didn’t mean to…”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly returns easily, reassuringly, resetting Nicole’s hand where it was a moment ago, watching Nicole shiver when her hand makes contact. Her reaction is so whole, so satisfying, that Waverly doesn’t even know how they’re both going to survive when they finally touch skin to skin.

 

“I want you to touch me,” Waverly says, her voice quiet, and a little timid with the shift into now unfamiliar territory, and she’s relieved to see Nicole step into the hollow her retreating confidence has left. “I always do, just for the record…”

 

Nicole smiles the loveliest smile Waverly thinks she’s ever seen, before dropping her eyes down to the one hand they still have joined. She turns Waverly’s hand over, moving her fingers for the space between Waverly’s own, and Waverly can’t help but sigh when they settle there perfectly.

 

“I hope you won’t mind that I’ll always check,” Nicole offers sweetly, flexing her fingers to find an even more comfortable position. “Because I’d never want you to think that just because you say yes once, that means I can take whenever I want. I always want this to be what you want, too, Waverly.

 

It’s almost crippling, her kindness, and Waverly’s actually speechless for a second before swallowing heavily, nodding in lieu of a verbal response. She shakes her head to regain control of her faculties after a moment, because it’s important that she articulate just what it means that Nicole has given her choice . And she wants Nicole to know that she has the same in return.

 

“I hope you won’t mind that I will, too,” Waverly says, trying to put as much strength into her voice as she can, because she might be nervous, but that’s no indication that she doesn’t want this more than she wants to breathe.

 

Nicole’s face breaks out in a flawlessly wide smile, and she ducks her head for a moment to hide her blush, before taking Waverly’s other hand in the hand that was, until a second ago, resting over Waverly’s hip.

 

“Well, I hope you know that it’s always alright for you to touch me, Waverly,” Nicole affirms, placing Waverly’s hand, palm up, in the space over her collarbone.

 

She tries to control the shaking of her hand beneath Nicole’s, but it’s so hard when she can feel the pounding of Nicole’s heart beneath her fingertips, and the rise of Nicole’s breast beneath the heel of her palm. The ugly purple of the bruise is forefront in her mind, and she almost withdraws it in embarrassment, before Nicole reads the thought in her head. She takes Waverly’s arm gently, raising the bruise to her lips, stopping just short of touching her for Waverly’s nod, which she gives hurriedly. Nicole smirks a little before moving forward that remaining inch, pressing a featherlight kiss to Waverly’s arm.

 

There had been a tiny breath of pain with the previous touches, but there’s nothing but a tingling that spreads to the ends of her hair with this touch, and her heart stops so solidly she wants to beat her chest in order to prompt it into starting again. And she knows it’s ridiculous, because magic isn’t real, or at least Waverly didn’t think it was, but when Nicole’s lips touch her skin for the first time over that bruise, Waverly swears she can feel the blown vessels knitting themselves back together beneath her skin.

 

Nicole lifts her head after what feels like a lifetime, her eyes setting in place against Waverly’s, and Waverly can’t even think , because Nicole’s setting Waverly’s hand softly back on her chest so she can raise her now-free hand to push a few strands of hair back away from Waverly’s face. And then she’s leaning in, Nicole is finally leaning in, and then she licks her lips and Waverly’s stomach drops, and she’s looking to Waverly with a question, and all Waverly can do is nod yes, yes, yes , before Nicole runs her thumb along Waverly’s jaw, closing her eyes, and Waverly follows suit.

 

She feels the ghost of Nicole’s breath on her lips, and she can feel her moving in, and her heart is thundering like a runaway train, and just when they’re about to kiss, the second they should make contact, Oakley’s sharp bark halts them in place.

 

She barks once, and they freeze, and then she barks twice, and Waverly feels Nicole’s instincts trip, and she pulls her head away sharply - reluctantly, but sharply - to where Oakley has perched herself at the head of Waverly’s bed, presumably barking at something outside the window. Nicole has turned her body toward the source of the noise, but she hasn’t moved her hand from Waverly’s jaw, nor has she unwound her fingers from between Waverly’s own. Oakley begins barking more insistently, though, causing Nicole to turn back to Waverly with a heavily regretful look before she drops her hand from Waverly’s chin.

 

She goes to extract her hand from Waverly’s own, but Waverly holds tight at the movement, keeping their hands intertwined, causing Nicole to beam, before she begins to walk over to Oakley, still holding Waverly’s hand. She’s distantly nervous at whatever it is that’s making Oakley feel uncomfortable like this, but she’s distracted, almost entirely, by the fact that Nicole is holding her hand. The distraction is short-lived, unfortunately, because Oakley begins growling between her barks, menacingly, at whatever is bothering her outside, and it finally drags Waverly from her reverie.

 

“What’s the matter, girl?” Nicole asks in a soothing voice, keeping her distance from Oakley for a moment, lest she give the dog a fright. “Is there somethin’ out there?”

 

They both peer into the darkness, and Waverly doesn’t think she can see anything, but it’s pitch dark now, there aren’t any lights illuminating the street, and the moon is only small, the beginning of a new cycle, so whatever it is Oakley can see, if she can in fact see something, is invisible to Waverly’s eyes.

 

“Can you see anythin’?” Waverly asks, looking to Nicole, easing the frown on her brow from squinting into the darkness.

 

“Not a thing,” Nicole answers, not yet breaking her eyes away from outside, but not breaking away from Waverly’s hand either. “Can you?”

 

“No,” Waverly says with a slight waver in her voice, because she feels like she knows Oakley well enough now to know that she won’t bark unless there’s cause to. “I can’t see anythin’ at all.”

 

Nicole doesn’t bother to ask Oakley the rhetorical question of whether she’s sure she sees something out there to be barking at, because she trusts the pup as much as Waverly does, which does nothing to assuage the prickling hairs on the back of Waverly’s neck.

 

“I think I’d best go out and see if I can find anythin’ untoward,” Nicole says with a sigh, finally looking to Waverly with a sad frown on her brow, like she’d rather anything else in the world than have to move from this moment with Waverly.

 

“But…” Waverly says, before stopping herself halfway through her thought. Because she won’t ask Nicole not to go, because she knows this is Nicole’s calling, searching the dark corners so that other people, so that she , can remain safe, as much as she knows that helping people is her own.

 

“You’ll be alright here,” Nicole says, her eyes softening, looking at what she thinks is fear for Waverly herself in Waverly’s eyes. “I’d never leave you if I didn’t think you’d be safe somewhere.”

 

“It’s not me I’m…” Waverly says with a blush, averting her eyes, because yes, she’s a little unnerved at Oakley’s barking, and to say she wasn’t scared at all would be a lie, but it isn’t herself she’s worried about.

 

It’s Nicole. And she knows Nicole can handle herself better than the vast majority of people in this damn town, but still, Waverly hates the thought of risking it.

 

“It’s you .” Waverly admits shyly, scuffing her foot on the floorboard beneath her toe. “I’m not worried about me, I’m worried about you . And I know you’re… I know you can handle yourself, but…”

 

“It doesn’t stop you from worryin’?” Nicole finishes for her, eyebrow raised, and Waverly smiles at the playfulness in her voice. “Believe me, Waverly, the feelin’s mutual.”

 

“It is?” Waverly asks shyly, looking down to where their hands are still joined before flicking across to Nicole’s other hand, resting reassuringly on the butt of her gun.

 

“Yeah,” Nicole answers wryly, her answer curling up the edge of her lip. “It is. How do you think I feel seein’ that bruise on your arm? Worried, is what. And I hate that you would have been scared, too.”

 

“It wasn’t so bad,” Waverly fibs, her tone nonchalant, biting her lip in an effort to reduce Nicole’s worry, but Nicole sees through the thinly veiled attempt immediately. “Okay, so maybe I was, but I’m alright now. You seem to make everythin’ better.”

 

Nicole visibly softens at Waverly’s admission, and it makes Waverly’s heart feel even more whole than before.

 

“I hope you know you do the same thing to me. You just… everything feels calm, now. Settled,” Nicole admits quietly before something in her changes and a more confident expression settles over her features. “I don't want to leave you, but I want to make sure this is alright. If you don’t want me to go though, I won’t.”

 

“I don't want to stop you from doin’ your job,” Waverly says kindly, tugging Nicole a little closer to her, where they’re standing at the side of her bed. “Go, Nicole. I promise, I’ll be fine.”

 

“You’re sure?” Nicole asks hesitantly, searching Waverly’s face for any sign that it’s not, that Waverly needs her to stay.

 

“I am,” Waverly says, looking up to Nicole with what she hopes is a crystal clear line that says I want you to stay, but I know you need to go. “ You’ll only be outside, and I have Oakley here, just… be careful, will you? Because…”

 

“I’ll be back before you know it,” Nicole says softly, leaning down to press a quick kiss to Waverly’s cheek, freezing her in place, in the very best kind of shock. “You’ll come lock me out and then let me back in again?”

 

Waverly nods before following Nicole down the stairs with Oakley at their heels, Waverly’s constant shadow, just as Gus had said. They reach the hidden door, Nicole doing the honour of pushing it open, before they both breathe deep and peer out into the darkness. They can’t see anything, or at least Waverly can’t, and neither can Nicole, judging by the lack of reaction, and Waverly sighs a little in relief before Nicole turns to her with a frown.

 

“I’m just gonna do a quick scout around the building, alright?” Nicole says calmly, drawing her weapon and checking it’s loaded in readiness for her to face whatever could possibly be out there waiting for her. “I’ll knock three times and say your name if everythin’s alright to let me back in.”

 

Waverly almost goes to ask her under which circumstances it wouldn’t be alright to let her back in before deciding she’s not sure if she actually wants to know, biting her tongue instead. Nicole looks more reluctant now than she was before, looking heavily to Waverly’s slightly furrowed brow, leading Waverly to push her away gently.

 

“Go. The sooner you do, the sooner you can come back,” Waverly offers sweetly, already planning exactly what they could do when she does, her mind playing image after image of Nicole’s hands on her hips and her lips just glancing Waverly’s.

 

Nicole nods firmly, leaving Waverly with one parting reassuring look before disappearing out into the dark of the night. She takes two steps before turning back to Waverly, gesturing for Waverly to close and lock the door, which, with great reluctance, she does.

 

Waverly can just hear the sound of Nicole’s boots on the dirt outside, the echo slow and calming before the steps become more and more distant. She waits a moment before walking to the front of the shop, smiling in relief when Nicole appears at the front window, gun raised, but fine. She does a small circuit of the area outside the shop before turning to shrug at Waverly, gesturing back to the other door and disappearing down the side of the shop again.

 

Waverly walks quickly to meet her, smiling at Nicole’s three knocks and the sound of her name before pushing the door open with her hip in haste. Nicole appears in the door like a storybook vision, her long, loose hair swept roughly back off of her face. The unbuttoned collar and first two buttons of Nicole’s shirt do nothing to stop Waverly’s eye from settling there either, and it’s with an almost visible effort that she has to drag her eyes up and away from the sight.

 

“You’re okay,” Waverly sighs a little in relief, drawing Nicole into the room and bolting the door behind her, smiling as Oakley winds herself excitedly around Nicole’s legs.

 

“Fine,” Nicole beams at Waverly’s expression, happily taking a step toward the hand Waverly offers, outstretched.

 

“Did you see anythin’ out here?” Waverly asks curiously, walking back up the stairs to her room before gesturing to the small table for Nicole to take a seat, which she does, sitting much closer in comparison to her seat across the table last night.

 

“Not a damn thing,” Nicole grouses, running her thumb over Waverly’s knuckles. “No tracks, no noises, no nothin’. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say we were tryin’ to hunt a darn ghost.”

 

Waverly shivers subconsciously at the mention, the hair at the nape of her neck prickling like someone had stepped over her grave.

 

“Everythin’ alright?” Nicole asks with a frown at Waverly’s reaction, and Waverly shakes her shoulders to rid herself of the fleeting spirit.

 

“Fine,” Waverly says, softening her eyes again as the shadow retreats quicker once she feels Oakley’s soft weight settle over her feet. “I’m fine, sorry, Nicole. Just a little worried is all.”

 

“Would you prefer to sleep over at the Inn tonight?” Nicole asks, reaching for Waverly’s other hand, too, and she can’t help but glow at the small, but significant change in Nicole’s level of affection now that she knows she can touch Waverly. “I’m sure Gus wouldn’t mind if you wanted to…”

 

She considers it, honestly she does, but she makes the decision in her head swiftly enough. Because she might be scared, but she’ll be damned if she’ll let it rule or change her behaviour.

 

“Thank you for the offer,” Waverly says carefully, doing her best to sound soothing, squeezing Nicole’s hands lightly in her own. “But I think I’ll stay. I’ll be alright here if I lock the door, and I’ve got Oakley, and I’m sure if I needed to, you’d hear me from across the road. But, if you think I should, then I respect your opinion, too, Nicole, and I’ll go.”

 

“I want what you want,” Nicole says quickly, scooting forward in her chair a little. “And I’d much rather have you there where we can be in the same building, but I’m only…  it’s your choice, Waverly. You’ll be safe enough here, truly, I would insist on you coming over if I didn’t think you were, but… I’ll never tell you that you can’t do somethin’, alright? So if you want to stay, then you’ll stay.”

 

She has to physically smother the urge to crawl across the table top and kiss Nicole for her thoughtfulness, for understanding the importance of Waverly having independence , but she doesn’t want to push, not if Nicole hasn’t tried to replicate the almost-kiss before Oakley started barking, so she stays put and allows her eyes to fill with tears instead.

 

“Thank you,” Waverly says finally, taking her lip between her teeth to calm herself a little. “Thank you for letting me choose. I know it’s silly, but I’ve been fretting for years about losing that, and…”

 

“I’ll never take that from you,” Nicole says a little fiercely, loosening her hold on Waverly’s hands to demonstrate her point. “Never, ever, Waverly. Your life is yours. Yours to choose your own path, okay? And if I’m lucky enough to be on one of the ones you choose, then I’ve hit gold, but if not, then that’s fine, too, because your choice is more important than my own happiness.”

 

“I choose your path,” Waverly breathes, lifting one of Nicole’s hands to her mouth to press a light kiss there, watching with abject satisfaction as Nicole closes her eyes and shivers at the contact. “Our path. If you want that, too?”

 

“Never wanted anythin’ more in my entire life, Waverly,” Nicole admits softly. “And I’d be honoured to walk it with you, if you’ll have me there.”

 

It’s only a small thing, no sweeping declaration of love, but it’s hope. It’s a future and it’s Nicole , and in that moment, Waverly doesn’t think she’s ever been as happy, and judging by the look on Nicole’s face, she wonders if Nicole might just feel the same. Nicole’s hand closes around her own again, and Waverly’s heart lifts clean off the wall of her chest, and she closes her eyes for a moment, wishing to drink in as much of this night as she possibly can, winding the memory of Nicole’s hand in her own into her bloodstream.

 

Nicole looks back to her with a similar expression to the one she thinks is fixed on her own features before Waverly yawns, and the weight of the day, and of the evening, too, comes crashing down around her feet. Something must flash behind her eyes, because Nicole grimaces before looking at her with a concerned frown.

 

“Are you sure everythin’s alright, Waverly?” Nicole asks quietly, looking over Waverly for some sign or signal that something isn’t.

 

“I’m fine,” Waverly says, hiding her second yawn behind the palm she frees reluctantly from Nicole’s hand. “I’m just… It’s been a long day.”

 

She rubs her hand over the bruise on her other arm, the one still connected to Nicole’s, and she winces without thinking to hide the action, which, of course, beautifully attentive Nicole picks up on in an instant.

 

“Is your arm botherin’ you?” she asks with a soft, sympathetic breath, running her thumb over the edge of the bruise behind Waverly’s. “Is it painful? It’s okay to say if it is.”

 

“A little,” Waverly admits, and it’s not a huge pain, but there’s a dull ache somewhere deep in the tissue from being gripped so tightly that is just persistent enough to make her grit her teeth if she focuses on it. “It’s not terribly bad, though, just…”

 

“Can I make you somethin’ for it?” Nicole asks, her eyes brightening at the idea that she might be able to help. “Is there a tea you have on hand? Willow bark is good for pain, isn’t that what you said last night? I could brew you a cup if you tell me where it is?”

 

“Willow bark,” Waverly breathes in slight disbelief at Nicole’s recollection. “Did you…you remembered . You remembered what I…”

 

“Of course I remembered,” Nicole frowns at Waverly’s response, seemingly unable to comprehend why she wouldn’t have. “It was… I mean, I might have forgotten one or two details, but everythin’ you told me about last night was fascinatin’, Waverly.”

 

And she knows Nicole is thoughtful, and she knows Nicole was listening last night, but there’s a difference between listening, and then remembering and retaining information, and Nicole seems to have done all three, likely because she was interested, but more likely because it’s Waverly who was doing the talking.

 

“I can’t believe you…” Waverly utters, still a little flawed, looking to Nicole with wide eyes before she shurgs a little shyly and continues. “I know it sounds daft, but people don’t listen when I talk once they’ve heard what they need to, and certainly not when they don’t. And to have you… It means a lot that you listened, Nicole. More than I can say.”

 

“I’ll always listen,” Nicole says, barely above a whisper, reaching forward to push a strand of Waverly’s hair behind her ear. “Even if it’s the number of boards in the ceilin’ above your head, I’ll always listen.”

 

Waverly drops her eyes to hide a blush that she’s sure will be bigger than any other she’s born across the space of the evening, before Nicole collects her beneath her chin, tipping her head up to look Nicole in the eye. “Now, willow bark for pain, was I right?”

 

“Yes,” Waverly affirms with a nod, smiling at Nicole, not sure how she’ll ever actually stop . “Yes, you’re quite right. I have some in one of the small containers on the dresser, but you don’t have to… I mean, I’ll be just fine, or I can make it myself.”

 

“I don’t mind at all,” Nicole says sweetly, tilting her head to the side, and Waverly knows in that moment that she doesn’t. She really, really doesn’t. That she wants to do some small kind thing for Waverly in a way that so few people have ever done before. “Will you walk me through it? I’m sure I could manage, but I want to make sure it’s drinkable , so…”

 

Waverly laughs, they both do, both blushing before Nicole moves to stand, walking over to where Waverly had indicated a moment ago, holding up the jar Waverly had pointed to last night when she’d been telling Nicole about it. “This is the one?”

 

“Good memory,” Waverly sighs, setting her elbow on the table and placing her chin in her hand as she watches Nicole move around her room, so perfectly at home that Waverly could be forgiven for thinking she’d been there their entire lives.

 

“What do I need to do?” Nicole asks with a wrinkled brow, the tip of her nose adorably scrunched as she holds the foreign object in her hand. “Set the kettle to boil, and then…?”

 

“Just put a little pinch of those leaves in the cup to steep in the boiling water,” Waverly says, smiling as she watches Nicole begin to attend to the task with unrivalled intensity. “And then bring it over to me.”

 

“That’s all?” Nicole asks curiously, looking to Waverly with a slightly amused smirk. “Well, not all . I know it probably took you hours to make the mixture, but…gosh, I’m sorry, Waverly, that makes me sound like I don’t appreciate what goes into this at all.”

 

“You’re very sweet when you worry yourself about somethin’,” Waverly says a little forwardly, curious to see how her words affect Nicole, what her reaction is, before reaching for the steaming mug that Nicole offers her. “Did you know that?”

 

“You think so?” Nicole asks, genuinely taken aback, her hands freezing in place around the mug when Waverly’s cover her own in the action.

 

“I really do,” Waverly nods coyly, running her thumbs along the line of the delicate bones in Nicole’s hands.

 

“I am sorry, Waverly, I didn’t mean to do a disservice to your…” Nicole offers, her voice a little quick with the panic that she might have offended Waverly with her comment.

 

“I know,” Waverly says soothingly at Nicole’s half-sentence, her eyes kind. “I know you a little, you know? Not well, not as well as I’d like. Not as well as I hope I will , but…”

 

She’s quiet for a moment, because all of a sudden she wants to show Nicole just how all in she is, because Nicole has been brave, Nicole has taken so many first steps for her, and Waverly wants to pay her back in kind.

 

“Will you go on another date with me?” Waverly asks suddenly, looking up to Nicole with wide, hopeful eyes. “I want to take you home. I want to show you my home. I want to know everything, Nicole. If you want that, too.”

 

For a moment she thinks Nicole might cry or sob or something, because her face breaks into an emotion akin to pure joy, and she nods, biting her lip softly.

 

“Yes,” Nicole replies simply. Beautifully. “I’d like that very much.”

 

“You would?” Waverly asks, her voice relief-heavy, easing out her hard-held breath. “I mean…”

 

“Of course I would,” Nicole says with glassy eyes, reaching to cover both of Waverly’s hands around her mug. “I’d be honoured to go home with you, Waverly.”

 

“You would?” Waverly returns simply, not expecting the reaction from Nicole that she’s received at all . Anticipating instead some halted reluctance or a flat out denial, not jubilant acceptance.

 

“I would,” Nicole replies again, breaking out in a blush. “I think I’m gonna request to do a night shift tomorrow night, but maybe the one after? If that works for you?”

 

“I appreciate the sentiment, but there’s no way that invite is gonna change,” Waverly says confidently, playfully, holding Nicole’s gaze as she moves one of her hands from around her mug to run up Nicole’s forearm again.

 

The goosebumps that break out in the wake of her hand are one of the loveliest things Waverly has ever seen in her entire life —satisfying, too— and she’s a half-second from scooting closer to Nicole when a sizeable yawn leaves her lungs.

 

“You’re exhausted,” Nicole says kindly, taking her hands back so she can hold Waverly’s arm gently, running her fingers over the bruise again. “I really should take my leave and let you rest.”

 

“You don’t have to leave just yet. I’m not that close to sleep,” Waverly offers with a rushed breath before another yawn flows out between clenched teeth.

 

“I think if I don’t, you’ll be asleep at this table in less than a few minutes,” Nicole laughs softly. She must see something in Waverly’s eyes she doesn’t quite mean to portray, though, because Nicole bends a little toward Waverly then, leaning in low. “Are you sure you don’t want to come across the road?”

 

“I’m sure,” Waverly replies, smiling at Nicole’s flawless thoughtfulness. “I’ll be just fine, and as much as I don’t want you to go, I think you’re right. I'm sure it’s not overly charmin’ at all to fall asleep in front you.”

 

“I think you’re plenty charmin’, Waverly Earp,” Nicole replies instead, with a tone in her voice that Waverly hasn’t heard from Nicole, and it takes her a moment to place it, but when she does, it sends a shock through her stomach somewhere deeper.  

 

Hunger , Waverly thinks to herself. Want. I think that’s want.

 

“Well, I think you’re plenty charmin’ yourself, Nicole Haught,” Waverly says with a playfully shy sigh, because she doesn’t know how to do any of this, courting a woman, being courted by a woman, if that is what they’re doing now.

 

But she knows she wants it.

 

Nicole looks to her, holding her gaze without breaking it for what feels like minutes, or maybe hours, before shaking her head with a smile.

 

“If I don’t leave now, I don’t think I’m gonna,” Nicole says, reluctantly dragging herself away from the table a little.

 

“I wish you didn’t have to,” Waverly means to say internally, but by the surprised and pleased look on Nicole’s face, she verbalises it, too.

 

“So do I,” Nicole says, brushing off the front of her light trousers as she stands. “But imagine the gossip if I didn’t.”

 

The comment is meant playfully, but the insinuation, not of the town finding out, but of Nicole staying , sends that line of lightning down Waverly’s belly again. Nicole takes it for the other, though, apologising before Waverly shakes her head.

 

“I’m not worried about people findin’ out,” Waverly says, standing as well, a little distracted as her mind wanders elsewhere. “I promise, Nicole. Not that at all , I’m…”

 

Nicole looks puzzled for a second before the realisation of what Waverly is referring to strikes her, and the blush already present spreads across her cheeks, down her neck, and to the small triangle where the top of her shirt is unbuttoned, deepening Waverly’s blush, as well.

 

“Oh,” Nicole says simply, and the blush covering them both deepens. “You mean…”

 

“I’m sorry,” Waverly returns, jumping quickly to apologise. “I didn’t mean to…”

 

“It’s quite alright,” Nicole says once she manages her conscious thought a little better, regaining full control of her expressions before she lowers her voice, barely above a whisper. “If I could be so bold, my mind didn’t go somewhere dissimilar .”

 

The lightning bolt cracks again, and Waverly balls her hands into fists for a moment at her sides, catching the way Nicole’s eyes flick to them.

 

“I’m…I’m not sure how to do this. I know that I want to, but…” Waverly says shyly, balling and unballing her fists, because she wants this, but she doesn’t know the protocol.

 

Because she’s never really done this ever, let alone with a woman, and she’s not sure how much she can say or do that isn’t crossing a line. But she needn’t have worried for a second, because before she can utter another slightly drawn syllable, Nicole sweeps in with strong arms to catch her.

 

“I’ll show you everythin’ else,” Nicole says with a smile that’s warm, but it’s something else, too. “All you need is the want, alright?”

 

And Waverly sighs in relief, because she wants this, she wants it, and that’s all that matters. Nicole can lead her gently through the rest, with their fingers intertwined, and their hearts, too. Waverly takes a step towards her, reaching for Nicole’s hand like it's something they’ve practised a thousand times with their eyes closed, as Nicole bends without thought, meeting Waverly mid-step.

 

“I really should go,” Nicole says, taking a step back in the same breath, and Waverly can’t help but be a little disappointed, because they’d been leading to some kind of conclusion for the night before, and she feels like they’re on the precipice now, but Nicole obviously must not.

 

Or she’s holding back for some reason.

 

“Of course,” Waverly says, trying to school the disappointment out of her features. “Of course, I’ll see you out.”

 

And she understands, because the moment had mostly passed when Oakley had alerted them to whatever was outside, but Nicole’s right here, and they’ve talked now, they’re on the same page. But Nicole’s obviously not stepping forward for a reason, be it exhaustion, or the bruise on her arm and Champ’s shadow in the corner of the evening, or something . And Waverly wants to respect that. Whatever it is.

 

Nicole smiles gently, warmly, before bending down to pick Oakley up and press a little kiss to the top of the pup’s head and setting her back on her feet.

 

“Goodnight, shadow,” Nicole says to Oakley affectionately, leaning to pat her one last time. “You take care of Waverly, you hear me?”

 

Oakley yaps once, as if demonstrating that she understands, and both Waverly and Nicole laugh softly in reply. Nicole makes for the stairs in the second that follows, turning back to make sure Waverly is following her. They stop at the bottom of the stairs, and Waverly’s not sure how to proceed until the perfect thought enters her mind, and she reaches for Nicole’s hand.

 

“Thank you,” Waverly says simply. Kindly. Her body flooding suddenly with light. “Thank you for comin’ here tonight. Thank you for talkin’ to me. Thank you for trustin ’ me, Nicole. Thank you for… well, thank you for everythin’.”

 

“Thank you?” Nicole says, as though not quite able to comprehend what it is Waverly is saying. “Waverly, I think I should be thankin’ you for everythin’ you’ve done for me since I walked into town. Lettin’ me into your life, showing me kindness, and now…”

 

“You’re welcome,” Waverly says graciously, ducking her head and swinging their joined arms. “Will I…will I see you in the morning?”

 

“Of course,” Nicole replies, her voice easy and her hand steady in Waverly’s own, taking a step, Waverly notes, towards her again. “You’d be the first person I’d see if I could. You might be, if I beat Gus up before dawn.”

 

“I’d like that,” Waverly says coyly, moving towards the warmth of Nicole’s body. “I’d like that very, very much.”

 

“Good night, Waverly Earp,” Nicole bids her with a smooth silky note to her words as she steps finally away to push the door open, a sound that Waverly thinks she could get lost in. That she is getting lost in. “I hope you sleep well.”

 

“And you, also,” Waverly says sweetly in return, pulling the door back for Nicole to take a step through. “And Nicole…thank you again for tellin’ me about Shae.”

 

Nicole stops still in place, halfway in her movement to turn towards the door. She turns her body into Waverly’s, placing her hand on the door just above Waverly’s left ear. She bends down and her lips brush the top of Waverly’s ear, and shivers break over every inch of her body, only more concentrated when Nicole finally speaks. “Thank you for listenin’.”



-



Euphoria.

 

That’s what snakes its way around her wrists and across the small of her back as she kneels on her bed, watching Nicole walk across the road back to the Inn.

 

Oakley sits on the foot end of her bed, curled in a small ball atop the soft blankets, once again, at Waverly’s relaxed demeanour, fast asleep. Nicole’s steps are steady and calm as they cross the road, although there’s a waver in her step, just before she pushes through the Inn door, when she looks up for Waverly at the window, and Waverly sees a flash of something less calm.

 

Something more excited. Something, Waverly thinks, she can see still in the dead of night.

 

Regardless of whether she had or hadn’t kissed Waverly, Nicole, even in the dark of a new moon light, looks euphoric.

 

Hope , Waverly thinks calmly. Because Nicole likes her, because Nicole wants to show her everything, because Nicole told her everything, and she couldn’t have dreamed of a better reaction or ending to the evening if she had a thousand years ahead of her to ponder it through.

 

-

Chapter Text

NICOLE'S POV

 

-



The day feels brighter somehow when Nicole opens her eyes the next morning.

 

She wakes before the sun rises, stretching her arms above her head in a motion that makes her spine crack with relief before her breath comes out in a rush. Her heart feels buoyed today, and she still can’t quite believe she and Waverly actually had the conversation they’d had last night, because it feels almost too good to be true. Because they hadn’t continued to miscommunicate, they’d talked and listened and they’re something to one another now.  

 

Nicole’s not sure what yet, but they’re something .

 

And no, she doesn’t know exactly what that something is, but it’s okay, it’s okay , because Waverly Earp isn’t interested in Champ Hardy, or anyone else in this town, man or woman, she’s interested in Nicole Haught.

 

She wishes so badly she could have finished their small, but significant impromptu date with a kiss, she really, really does, and she thinks Waverly had wanted that, too, if the disappointed look on her face when Nicole hadn’t followed through was anything to go by, but it just hadn’t felt right . Because as much as she’d really wanted to, the whole night felt just slightly tainted by Champ Hardy and his damn manhandling, and she hadn’t wanted that milestone, them kissing for the first time, to be shared with anything as distasteful or horrible as that.

 

So she’d settled on the second best thing instead, on trying to leave Waverly with a little reminder of what it would feel like when they did, and hoped that would be enough to suffice. For now.

 

Until their next date, Nicole thinks. Their next date that Waverly has initiated. It would be the lie of the century if Nicole said she hadn’t been absolutely floored by Waverly’s invitation out to the homestead, because she’d already been planning a few ideas in her own head about how she might go about asking Waverly to spend another evening with her, but then the moon had changed, and Waverly had asked her , and she couldn’t have been more thrilled. The gesture itself is sweet, but it’s more than that for Nicole, it shows how much Waverly wants this, how much she’s willing to step outside her comfort zone for Nicole, because she’d seen Waverly’s nerves loud and clear, but Waverly had asked her anyway.

 

Waverly had asked her, and Nicole’s knees had almost gone weak, because never, in any world, would Shae have asked her the same thing. Never, ever would Shae have put her heart on the line like that; she only ever waited for Nicole to do it first.

 

I’m not like Shae, Waverly had said, and Nicole had known before, but she knows now. She knows how different they are in every single aspect of their personalities, but in their courage, too; in their braveness. Because Shae was a church mouse most of the time, and that was fine, Nicole would never have asked her to change a thing, but Waverly Earp is a lion , and Nicole loves her for it.

 

She knows it’s early to use that word, love , and she won’t until she knows Waverly is ready to hear it, but she already knows her feelings for Waverly run deeper and stronger than anything she’s ever felt in her life. It’s easy to drag herself out of bed this morning, because she knows what waits for her across the road, someone who wants to see Nicole perhaps as badly as Nicole wants to see her.

 

The way Waverly had shivered when Nicole had touched her lips to Waverly’s cheek last night —a small consolation, but still something— had been extraordinary, and Nicole thinks she’ll remember the sensation for the rest of her life. That’s what draws her out of bed, swinging her legs over to the side before standing and stretching again, the feeling of Waverly’s body next to hers, close enough to touch. Close enough to…

 

There’s a faint glow over the horizon, but it’s some time before the sun will rise fully, and Nicole is worried she might have to wait and bide her time before calling on Waverly, but one quick glance out the window reveals a soft candlelight glow, and Waverly’s silhouette moving around the room slowly behind the drawn curtain.

 

She’s awake , Nicole thinks, almost sighing in relief at the sight. I wonder if she could feel me thinking about her.

 

Nicole takes her time getting dressed this morning, not wanting to appear at the front door earlier than Waverly might be ready to receive her. She draws on a clean pair of trousers and a shirt that Gus had washed and dried for her the day prior, before pulling her waistcoat on and wrapping Waverly’s bandana around her neck, as well. She tidies her room a little before finally taking herself downstairs. The front desk is, for one of the first times since Nicole started laying her head down upstairs, empty.

 

There’s a delicious smell ebbing from the kitchen, though, so Nicole surmises that Gus must be preparing breakfast instead. A quick look into the kitchen confirms her thought, and she goes to give Gus a quick wave before stopping herself, not wanting to disturb the older woman as she concentrates, probably enjoying one of the small moments of peace she gets to experience during the day. She resolves to call back and pick some food up if she needs to a little later in the morning instead, the few bits of dried food in her satchel that Gus had given her the day before more than enough to tide her over until then.

 

The air is crisp this morning, but Nicole doesn’t mind at all, breathing in the chilled surroundings with a gratifyingly half-awake sigh before walking the short distance to the front of Waverly’s shop, pleasantly surprised to see Waverly walking down the stairs with Oakley at her heels as she approaches.

 

Waverly catches sight of Nicole the second she looks up from her feet when she reaches the bottom step, smiling widely in reply to Nicole’s small wave and walking smoothly over to the front door. She holds Nicole’s eye the entire time as she bends down to loosen the bottom bolt and reaches up on her tiptoes to release the top, so Nicole is a little breathless when Waverly finally does open the door.

 

“Good mornin’,” Waverly offers, holding the door open, peering out behind Nicole for any sign of anyone else before leaning forward to tug Nicole by the hand into the shop.

 

Nicole beams in response to the small show of affection, happily allowing herself to be pulled inside. Waverly takes a step back to accommodate Nicole’s entrance, but not one further, so when Nicole does move forward, she finds herself nice and close to Waverly.

 

“Good mornin’ to you, too,” Nicole says happily, turning Waverly’s hand in her own and winding their fingers together. “Did you sleep well?”

 

“Very,” Waverly replies, nodding as she looks to drink in as much of Nicole as she can. Her eyes move over Nicole’s face with a soft relief, as though worried Nicole and last night might have been a dream, before returning the question. “You?”

 

“Surprisingly well, too,” Nicole answers honestly, because she’s surprised she slept at all with how full of light she was when she did finally return to the Inn.

 

“Surprisingly?” Waverly asks with a furrowed brow, tilting her head adorably to look at Nicole. “What do you mean?”

 

“Oh,” Nicole says a little taken aback, not having expected Waverly to ask why exactly. “Well, honestly? I think I was so happy, I wondered if I’d sleep at all, but I guess it put my mind at ease instead, and knocked me right out.”

 

“Oh,” Waverly replies, a blush falling over her cheeks. “You were happy, after…”

 

“‘Course I was,” Nicole says shyly, shrugging her shoulders, suddenly feeling a little on display. “Weren’t you?”

 

“Very much so,” Waverly replies with a smile, her eyes refocusing on Nicole. “I think it’s why I slept so soundly myself.”

 

That makes Nicole smile even wider, and she looks - properly looks - at Waverly for the first time that morning. Her hair is still down, such as her haste or distraction must have been this morning, and she’s wearing a different skirt today, similar, but a darker khaki, with a clean, cream-coloured shirt.

 

“You look beautiful,” Nicole says easily, without actually stopping or thinking over the appropriateness of her comment.

 

“You think so?” Waverly replies with a deeper blush as she drops her gaze to their feet, obviously a little taken aback by Nicole’s comment. “I haven’t even done my hair yet, or…”

 

“It looks lovely down,” Nicole assures her, because it does, and she half-wishes Waverly didn’t have to tie it up to keep it out of the way during the day. “I like it like that very much, if I may be so bold.”

 

“I think you may,” Waverly returns coyly, looking up to Nicole again, a sweet pink covering her neck now, too. “Are you sure you do? Because once Champ saw it down, and he said I looked…”

 

“Champ Hardy is an asshole,” Nicole says a little fiercely, cutting Waverly off gently. “And he doesn’t know anythin’, alright? I know I’m not the fountain of knowledge in this big, wide world, but I know better than him, at least in this, and I think you look beautiful.”

 

“I don’t know how I’m ever gonna get used to this, you know?” Waverly replies with a sigh that Nicole can feel in her fingers, too.

 

“Get used to what?” Nicole asks, her turn to be slightly puzzled as she looks to Waverly.

 

“Havin’ someone say such nice things to me all the time,” Waverly says back, and Nicole’s heart twists in her chest because it kills her that Waverly doesn’t have someone in her life that shows her small kindnesses like this already.

 

“Well, you’d best get used to it,” Nicole says easily, turning their hands over so she can draw small shapes on Waverly’s palm. “Because, I’m sorry to say, it’s only gonna get worse.”

 

“Worse?” Waverly asks, and Nicole can see her trying to suppress the shiver at Nicole playing with her hand.

 

“Worse,” Nicole nods solemnly, but playfully, teasing Waverly a little. “Much worse, I’m afraid. Because now that I’m allowed to say things like that to you, I don’t know how I’m ever gonna stop .”

 

Waverly looks lost for words for a minute, only able to smile a wide, awestricken smile back at her, but Nicole doesn’t mind at all.

 

“Now,” Nicole says breaking the small moment reluctantly. “I’m afraid to say, as much as I’d far prefer to stay here for the rest of the day, I have to take my leave to see if I can talk Nedley into givin’ me a night shift tonight, so we can have tomorrow night to… so I don’t have to be worried about bein’ called in unexpectedly.”

 

“It’s fine,” Waverly returns airily, still distracted by the ghost of Nicole’s touch in her hand before she shakes her head to correct her attention. “I mean, I’d much rather have you here, too, but I understand. And I’d be terribly happy to have your company tomorrow night, but if you can’t…”

 

“I’ll be free,” Nicole says quickly, smiling easily at Waverly. “I promise, I’ll be free.”

 

“I was goin’ to offer to make you a cup of tea,” Waverly says sweetly, swinging her hands Nicole has since released to her side. “But if you have to go, perhaps I can propose the offer later? Just in case you needed motivation to call again.”

 

“You know I don’t need a scrap of motivation beyond what you already provide,” Nicole says wryly, smiling down at Waverly looking up to her with a beautifully innocent expression.

 

“Well, I didn’t think so, but I guess it never hurts…” Waverly shrugs innocently, and Nicole can’t help but beam in return.

 

“This mornin’?” Nicole asks, her voice hesitantly hopeful. “Later, I mean? If that’s not too soon? I can call again on my way back from callin’ on Nedley? I might swing past Mattie’s to see Lady Jane, but that’s about all. I’ll be right back here if you’ll have me after?”

 

Waverly is silent for a moment before her face turns in a frown, and Nicole isn’t quite sure what she’s said wrong until Waverly opens her mouth to speak.

 

“Lady Jane?” Waverly asks curiously, delicately trying to keep the sound of mild hurt and confusion out of her voice. “Who is…”

 

Nicole laughs, and she knows she shouldn’t, but she can’t help herself, because it’s mildly hilarious, the thought that Lady Jane is anything other than Nicole’s horse. A brilliant, constant companion, and perhaps her oldest friend now, but still…a horse.

 

“I’m sorry,” Nicole says apologetically, trying to soothe the frown on Waverly’s face, holding her hand when Waverly moves to take it from Nicole’s. “I’m sorry, Waverly, it’s just… Lady Jane is my…”

 

“Old friend?” Waverly interjects softly, her voice sad and a little worried. “An old…lover?”

 

“My horse,” Nicole says plainly, not wanting to cause Waverly any more undue stress. “Lady Jane is the name of my horse.”

 

Waverly blanches before blushing deeply, dropping her head before looking up to Nicole with a guilty look on her face.

 

“Your horse?” Waverly asks, embarrassed, her blush only deepening. “Lady Jane is the name of your horse.”

 

“No old lover - or recent lover - in sight, I assure you,” Nicole says soothingly.

 

“I’m sorry, Nicole,” Waverly says with a clear look of regret. “I’m so sorry, I should never have assumed.”

 

“It’s quite alright,” Nicole replies earnestly, raising Waverly’s hands in hers. “I’m terribly sorry to have concerned you. Let me assure you, though, there isn’t another soul in my heart apart from you. I promise. Except for perhaps Oakley and Lady Jane.”

 

“You’re sure?” Waverly asks, her eyes soft and uncertain, and she knows it’s not Waverly’s distrust of her that’s driving the need to ask, it’s the lack of assurance from others in her life before Nicole.

 

“More than,” Nicole says easily, trying to breathe some of her own confidence about the matter into Waverly through the point where their hands meet. “As sure as I am that there won’t ever be again.”

 

Nicole speaks the words without meaning to, really, and she’s terrified she’s overstepped the point beyond which Waverly might be comfortable speaking about, but one quick look to Waverly’s face assures her that there’s nothing at all to worry about, because Waverly looks like she might just leave the earth altogether if it weren’t for Nicole’s hand in her own.

 

“You are?” Waverly asks softly, incredulously, her eyes and hopeful. “You really…”

 

“I am,” Nicole says smoothly, because it’s the simplest thing to admit surenesses like this to Waverly now, only a simple translation of what her heart already knows.

 

Waverly looks like she’s about ready to kiss Nicole, or throw herself into Nicole’s arms or something, and Nicole isn’t sure she’ll have the self-restraint to stop anything now, not with how close Waverly is standing and how loud her own heart is in her ears, but a noise from outside causes them to move apart instead, Nicole dropping Waverly’s hands with a massive reluctance.

 

“No such thing as to soon,” Waverly says with a shy smile, referring to Nicole’s earlier comment about calling in on her, before reaching discretely for Nicole’s hand, gripping tight for a moment. “If I had my way, you’d never leave at all , so…”

 

“That so?” Nicole replies, raising an eyebrow and smiling at Waverly’s slight forwardness, buoyed, Nicole is sure, by Nicole’s revelation and Waverly’s newfound confidence in their connection. “Well, I wouldn’t either, just so you know. Maybe I should tender my resignation, in fact; spend the days here with you instead.”

 

“I’m sure you’d make a wonderful assistant,” Waverly beams at Nicole’s admission before letting Nicole’s hand drop to her side gently.

 

“I’d be terrible, I think,” Nicole laughs a little, transfixed by the way Waverly keeps fixing her bottom lip between her teeth.

 

“You would not,” Waverly scolds Nicole lightly. “I’m sure you’d be wonderful.”

 

“It would be to your own demise to test that, I’m afraid,” Nicole smiles, amused by the horrified expression on Waverly’s face. “My old Sheriff used to say he’d no idea how I was so graceful half the time, and so clumsy the other. Like I had two people in my body.”

 

“I guess it’s lucky you’re so darn adorable then, huh?” Waverly says nonchalantly, turning back with a smirk to gage Nicole’s reaction.

 

“I think you’ll find you’re far more deservin’ of that particular endorsement,” Nicole says sweetly, drawn closer to Waverly again by an invisible hand at her lower back.

 

“We’re goin’ to have to agree to disagree on that point I’m afraid then, Deputy Haught,” Waverly says, smirking at the eyebrow Nicole raises in disbelief.

 

Time suspends it’s eternal march for moment as Nicole looks past the front of Waverly’s eyes, somewhere much deeper, swallowing hard at the confidence she can see there, in Waverly’s feelings for her, and she could stay and watch all day long, until the sun sets and rises again, but she knows in order to do that tomorrow night, she has to leave now.

 

“I have to…” Nicole says with as little weight as she’s ever heard in her own voice, because she really doesn’t want to leave.

 

“I know,” Waverly smiles easily, her own voice much lighter than Nicole’s reluctant one. “Later?”

 

“Later,” Nicole promises, nodding before looking over Waverly with a faintly dreamy sigh.

 

She takes a step, crouching down to bid Oakley farewell also, sitting obediently at her master’s feet, before finally moving towards the door, her heart almost falling clean from her chest when she does so, because Waverly raises her hand to her mouth, blowing Nicole a perfectly subtle kiss, and Nicole’s heart swells .

 

Waverly gives her one last wink before pushing her from the shop with a gesture, and Nicole doesn’t lose her smile the whole walk to the jail.



-



It’s quiet when she steps through the door, only Nedley there, obviously having just relieved the overnight deputy, which Nicole is immensely thankful for, given her desire to be here so early.

 

“Haught,” Nedley says by way of a morning greeting, looking up to give her one quick nod before returning to whatever it is he’s looking over, thumbing through old-looking papers set in front of him.

 

“Mornin’ sir,” Nicole returns with an inclination of her head. “Any news?”

 

“Not at all,” Nedley looks up to her and sighs, although Nicole thinks he looks slightly impressed at that being the first thing she asks. “You notice anythin’ odd last night?”

 

She’s about to say no, when Oakley’s little reaction springs to the forefront of her mind, and she opens her mouth to recount the story to Nedley.

 

“Actually, sir, there might have been somethin’, although I couldn’t actually see anythin’ when I went out to look,” she says, watching his eyes flick up in interest.

 

“Where were you?” he asks, abandoning the papers in front of him and giving Nicole his full attention. “What happened?”

 

“I was…” Nicole starts and then trails off, not sure how to proceed before recognising that honesty is probably better than a half-truth. “I was up at Miss Earp’s, sir, seein’ her home safe after bein’ out, and the pup I found for her a few days ago that we’ve come to learn is an exceptional measure of danger, was fine one minute, and then she just started barkin’ at somethin’ outside.”

 

“And?” Nedley asks her eagerly, his eyes hard and worried, but intrigued.

 

“Nothin’,” Nicole says with a deep frustration, shrugging heavily. “I went and had a reasonably thorough scout outside, and I couldn’t see a damn thing. Couldn’t hear a damn thing, either, but I know Oakley must have seen somethin’. She doesn’t make a sound unless she thinks some harm is about to come to Waverly.”

 

“What time was this?” Nedley asks, scratching at his chin. “Early evenin’ or late?”

 

“Not late, but not early, neither,” Nicole replies with a frown. “Early enough that someone could have been out, but late enough that most people wouldn’t be.”

 

“Did you have a look around this morning?” Nedley questions again.

 

“A brief one, sir,” Nicole admits, because she had looked a little when she’d left the Inn, but honestly, her mind had been more on Waverly than anything else. “But I could definitely have another one, more thorough, if you’d like?”

 

“I think it’s probably not a stupid idea,” he grumbles before looking to Nicole. “What do you think, Haught? Or you think the night’s swept away any trace?”

 

“No, I think it’s always worth another look,” Nicole says in agreement of his idea. “You might turn up nothin’, but what if you don’t?”

 

“Exactly what I was thinkin’,” Nedley growls, nodding at Nicole’s answer. “You think you could do that sooner rather’n later? I’d imagine you’re eager to check on your horse, too, after your long day yesterday. Go and see her first if you want, but make it a priority after that?”

 

“Of course, sir,” Nicole says, nodding eagerly, almost forgetting the question she’d wanted to ask in the first place. “Actually, Sheriff, there was somethin’ I wanted to ask, if I could?”

 

“‘Course, Haught,” Nedley replies with a surprised look. “What is it?”

 

“I completely understand if not, but I was wonderin’ if I might be able to work the night shift tonight? I know I won’t be rostered on to a whole run for a while, but I’d like to do a night, just to see? And I kinda had plans tomorrow night, too, and I was hopin’ by doin’ tonight, I might have that off? Just in case I was rostered on.”

 

Nedley looks like he wants to ask her a question before reason gets the better of him and he nods in reply.

 

“‘Course, Haught. Jed is due to run things tonight, and I’m sure he’ll be more’n happy with the night off. I’ll make sure I’m here to walk you through things before we leave you to it,” Nedley says easily, and Nicole’s heart sighs in relief, the tension in her stomach relaxing in relief.  

 

“Thank you, sir,” Nicole says gratefully, nodding respectfully. “I appreciate the flexibility. And I promise it won’t be a regular occurance, it’s just…”

 

“Nicole,” Nedley stops her gently, raising his hand. “My people have lives, I understand that easily enough. You never have to feel like you can’t ask for somethin’ like that, alright? Besides, I’m glad to see you’re makin’ friends already after such a short time, too. I hope that means you’re plannin’ on stayin’ around here.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” Nicole replies with a soft smile, her pulse beating quicker at my people, and the fact that Nedley clearly has some desire to have her stay here, because by some ridiculous happenstance, Nicole feels like she might just have found herself another family here in Purgatory. “Truly. And, you know, I think I will settle here awhile, sir. Seems to me like a fine place to put down roots.”

 

“Glad to hear it, Deputy. Now, I suppose you’d best be off to get yourself back into bed before long,” Nedley says, taking Nicole’s compliment before shrugging it off, clearly uncomfortable with the kind words. “Would you mind havin’ a look around first? Don’t worry about comin’ to report it back unless it’s somethin’ important. You can fill me in tonight if it’s not.”

 

“Absolutely, sir,” Nicole responds, the feeling of elation high in her chest. “I will.”

 

“Off with you, then,” Nedley says, shooing her out with a gruff smile. “And if you see any of the others, be sure to tell them to keep an extra eye out, too, alright?”

 

“Of course, sir,” Nicole nods quickly in agreement. “Absolutely. And thank you again.”

 

He doesn’t reply again, just waves her away, a motion she’s beginning to become fond of, because she’s noticed he seems to reserve it for her and one of the other men, not bothering to reply at all to the others, and she takes it for the fondness she thinks he means it as, however subconscious the gesture might be. She settles her hat on her head again as she takes the step down onto the Main Street, the flare of sun above the buildings beginning to bother her eyes.

 

Worried for a moment, before realising that Mattie was probably up before her, Nicole turns and makes her way towards the stables, eager to check on her friend after their hard, hot, and totally empty-handed ride yesterday. They’d ridden for miles, visiting all the houses beyond the ones Nicole had been to the day before, and found nothing whatsoever, but Lady Jane had rode marvellously as always. She’d returned to Mattie’s defeated, exhausted, and running out of hope, before she’d made her way to the baths, where she’d found Waverly, to her obvious surprise.

 

Mattie is sitting on the porch, smoking a cigarette, when Nicole makes her way up to the house, as if having known Nicole was on her way. “Mornin’, Deputy,” Mattie says cordially, standing out of her chair as Nicole approaches. “Glad to see you managed to drag yourself out of bed after that day of yours yesterday.”

 

“It wasn’t so bad, in the end,” Nicole returns with a half-smile that Mattie, in her immense perceptiveness, catches hold of immediately.

 

“Sorted things out with Miss Earp then, did you?” Mattie asks with a wry smile, her grin only widening at Nicole’s look of shock.

 

“Come on, Haught,” Mattie says, walking down to clap Nicole roughly on the arm. “You turned up here yesterday lookin’ like someone’d stolen your heart. It wasn’t hard to guess what might have set that gloom beneath your bed.”

 

“Yeah,” Nicole replies a little reluctantly, her own smile getting away from her after a moment of trying to suppress it. “Somethin’ like that.”

 

Oh . That good’a reunion, huh?” Mattie says with wide eyes, jumping ahead to an incorrect conclusion that Nicole’s keen to steer her back from.

 

“No,” Nicole corrects her hastily, shaking her head. “It’s not… we haven’t even… we haven’t even kissed yet, Mattie. It’s nothin’ like that at all.”

 

“But you’d like it to be,” Mattie says, a statement and not a question, her eyes amused at Nicole’s embarrassment.

 

“‘Course I would,” Nicole says shyly, feeling her blush break down her neck as she tries to shrug off Mattie’s assumption. “But it’s not… it's more than that, Mattie, I…”

 

“Anyone with half a wit and eyes can see it’s more than that, Haught,” Mattie says with a laugh. “I’m just teasin’ you. Girl’s gotta get her kicks somehow out here, you know?”

 

Nicole gives Mattie a hard, but amicable, shove with her shoulder before Mattie laughs and begins walking them towards the stables.

 

“Was she alright yesterday after she had a bit of water and a rest?” Nicole asks, her concern now with Lady Jane. “I was worried I’d worked her too hard, but I just… Christ, I just wanted to find them yesterday, Mattie.”

 

“I know,” Mattie says with an unusual softness, waiting at the door for Nicole to walk through into the barn ahead of her. “I know you did. And she was just fine. She’d run you to the ends of the earth, that horse, if you asked her to.”

 

“I know,” Nicole replies with a frown, reaching into her satchel for a sugar cube she’d managed to get from Gus the day before. “I know she would, that’s why I’m worried about her. Because she won’t gripe when I push her. I think she’d rather fall over than stop. It’s why I’ve gotta keep an extra eye on her.”

 

“You’re right, but she wouldn’t leave you, neither,” Mattie smiles, reaching across the gate of Lady Jane’s stall to rub her neck when they arrive. “She knows her limits, and yours, too, I think.”

 

“I’m a lucky girl to have you huh, Lady J?” Nicole coos, holding her hand out to the horse so she can pluck the sugar cube from Nicole’s fingers.

 

“I think she’s mighty lucky to have you, too, Deputy,” Mattie says by way of a compliment. “Not so many people pay such a mind to their animals as you.”

 

“I don’t know why in damnation they don’t,” Nicole replies crossly, taking extra care to scratch between Lady Jane’s eyes. “Look at you, girl. How could they not.”

 

The horse nickers at the compliment, stamping her feet happily at the tone of Nicole’s voice she’s obviously come to recognise as being a positive one, and Mattie grins in reply.

 

“See?” Mattie asks, turning to Nicole with a relaxed expression. “I think she’s just fine.”

 

“Lucky for me, Lady Jane,” Nicole says to her horse gently. “Lucky for you, you get the day off, too.”

 

“You’re not ridin’ today? Mattie asks curiously, turning to Nicole with a frown.

 

“I’m workin’ the night shift, so Nedley’s asked me to do a few things around town instead,” Nicole says in answer, running her palm down the column of Lady Jane’s neck as she speaks.

 

“I thought Nedley normally waited a month or so before givin’ his men that shift when they start?” Mattie asks her perceptively while moving into the stall and looking down to check the horse’s legs and hooves in the morning light.

 

“I asked for it,” Nicole replies, leaning down to watch Mattie’s movements. “I have… I have an engagement tomorrow night that I need to keep, and I didn’t want to risk bein’ called in, so I asked to have a night tonight in anticipation.”

 

“Engagement, huh?” Mattie asks, grinning suggestively when she stands upright. “Not with Miss Earp, is it, by chance?”

 

“Hush, you,” Nicole grumbles in reply, trying to hide the flush of mild embarrassment at being read by the other woman so easily.

 

“I didn’t say a thing,” Mattie says, miming locking her lips while barely covering her smile. “On a serious note, though, I think it’s sweet. Gus said she’s scarcely seen Waverly so happy, since you found your way into town.”

 

“I’m glad,” Nicole says with a soft smile. “Truly, I’m glad. That girl deserves a world full of happiness for the start to life she’s had.”

 

“I couldn’t agree more, Deputy,” Mattie says kindly, her eyes flashing with lost love and regret. “She’s more deservin’ than most, in my opinion.”

 

“I hope I can… I’d like to think I could only build on that,” Nicole says, forgetting herself for a moment. “I’d like to try and give her everythin’, if I could.”

 

“And people say love like this is a sin,” Mattie scoffs before spitting in the dirt at the side of the stall. “Hell to the lot of them, I say. You go be happy, girl. And don’t let no one and their damn backwards opinion change that, alright?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole replies seriously before casting her eye to the now risen sun. “I’m afraid I have to leave the both of you for now. I need to go and have a look around town, and a few other small chores before restin’ for the afternoon.”

 

“Off with you then, Deputy,” Mattie says with a wink, turning back to Lady Jane. “We’ll be just fine, the two of us, won’t we girl?”

 

Lady Jane snorts her approval before pushing her nose against Nicole’s cheek when she extends her head over the gate of the stall. “Thanks for lookin’ after me, beautiful. You have a nice rest today, hmmm? If you’re good, Mattie might even give you a brush down.”

 

“First thing on my mind,” Mattie says, laughing as she holds the brush in her hand. “Now get out of here, Haught. Go find these assholes, will you?”

 

Nicole dips her head in a farewell, rubbing Lady Jane’s nose one last time before kicking the dirt with the toe of her boots on the way back out into the road.

 

It’s warm here already , Nicole notes, wiping the sweat from her brow in an echo of her first day here, casting a wide look around when she hits the Main Street. The heat feels off today, though. Not hot and welcoming like it had been her first day, but different somehow. Oppressive .

 

She takes her time walking down the street, checking every which way for anything odd or out of place, standing in the middle of the road, watching people pass her by, before retracing her steps from this morning. She looks down every side street, looping around to walk behind the Inn, and crossing the road a few shops down before checking for anything strange behind Waverly’s shop, but there’s nothing . Not so much as a smudge of black on any of the sides of the buildings.

 

Nothing.

 

But there can’t be nothing, there just can’t. Because people don’t go missing without a trace, no matter how much it might seem like they do. They don’t. They can’t . There must be something. There must be, she’s just missing it, she has to be missing it. Nicole just has to find it before it’s too late. Before anyone else…

 

The worry carries her down the street, only stopping completely once she sets eyes on the front of Waverly’s shop, sighing in sweet relief at Waverly leaning casually towards Chrissy Nedley, her elbow on the countertop with her chin resting on her upturned palm as they chat about something making Waverly smile wide like she does when she looks at…

 

Nicole . When she looks at Nicole .

 

As if feeling the object of her affection near, Waverly looks up, catching Nicole’s eye from across the street, and her smile, if possible, widens further. Nicole echoes the sentiment, her face aching with it, and she crosses the distance remaining between them without cognitive thought as to anything or anyone around them, only coming back to herself when she walks through the door of the shop.

 

“Hi, you,” Waverly’s voice sounds like a summer bell to Nicole’s ears, cutting through the heat outside like a cool stream of water.

 

“Hi, yourself,” Nicole returns, her eyes only for Waverly until Waverly hears her words settle against her skin - Nicole sees them still and simmer there - before she turns to smile at Chrissy. “Afternoon to you, too, Miss Nedley.”

 

“Hi, yourself ,” Chrissy says back with an equally bright smile, looking between Nicole and Waverly like the cat that stole the cream; like she knows exactly why they’re so happy. “Good mornin’?”

 

“I’ve had worse,” Nicole replies playfully, moving until she can lean against the counter, within touching distance of Waverly. “And yourself?”

 

“Just fine, thank you kindly, Deputy,” Chrissy says amicably in return. “Just fine. Waverly here was tellin’ me about your plan for tomorrow night?”

 

“She was?” Nicole asks, a little surprised at Waverly’s blatancy, to which Waverly pales, before looking around and finding the shop completely empty, but for the three of them. She exhales in relief before turning back to Waverly with a look that says if you’re okay with talking about this in front of Chrissy, then I am, too.

 

“I was,” Waverly repeats, easing her worried jaw at Nicole’s accordingly relaxed stance, leaning towards Nicole across the counter.

 

“Yes, she was,” Chrissy says a little sterner, before taking Waverly’s exposed forearm and holding it up in front of Nicole’s face. “And she was explaining away her bruise here, which she assures me you know all about?”

 

“Unfortunately, yes,” Nicole returns with a frown. “And trust me, I’m about as happy with the fact that it’s there as you are. Perhaps even less, so.”  

 

“I’ve half a mind to pay a visit to Mr. Hardy, my damn self,” Chrissy growls, looking over Waverly’s arm carefully before her eyes flick to Nicole.

 

“I‘m fine,” Waverly says casually, trying to bat Chrissy away, turning to Nicole for some kind of support. “Won’t you tell her I’m fine?”

 

“Waverly assures me she’s fine,” Nicole says pointedly to Chrissy before softening, because this isn’t Waverly’s fault, not one bit, so they shouldn’t be treating her like she should be making them feel better. “But she’ll tell us if she’s not, right? If there’s anythin’ we can do for her?”

 

“Of course I will,” Waverly replies gently, noting the change in tone in Nicole’s voice with a smile. “But I truly am fine, it barely hurts this mornin’.”

 

“Who the hell does he think he is?” Chrissy snaps, crosser than Nicole’s ever seen her before, about a handspan away from thumping her fist on the counter, or against Champ’s cheek…

 

“I don’t know,” Nicole replies, looking to Chrissy. “Someone who won’t dare try that again the second I see him, or Wynonna does.”

 

“Oh, you can’t tell Wynonna,” Waverly says with a slight shake in her voice, looking between Nicole and Chrissy with a worried expression.

 

“Why not?” Nicole asks curiously, turning to Chrissy with the question as well as directing it towards Waverly.

 

“Because she’ll shoot him,” they both say in unison, and Nicole knows she shouldn’t, but she can’t not laugh at the comment. Because she’s only met Wynonna once, but even from that small interaction, she doesn’t think Chrissy and Waverly are exaggerating one bit.

 

“Well, it won’t come from me, but your aunt’s bound to tell her the next time she sees Wynonna, isn’t she?” Nicole questions gently, balling her fists to stop from reaching for Waverly’s hand that’s so close to her own.

 

“More than likely,” Waverly grimaces, finding the reason in Nicole’s words, and Nicole thinks she sees Waverly’s hand twitch with the desire to reach for her, too. “With any luck, though, that won’t be for a day or two, by which time this will have faded a little, and it won’t look quite so bad.”

 

“He’s a real devil, huh?” Chrissy says, half-rhetorically, before blowing her exhale out through her teeth. “Anyway, enough of that nastiness. If you assure us you’re alright, Waverly, I won’t ask Daddy to dig us a nice deep hole.”

 

“Not that I don’t appreciate the offer, but I think it probably best not to get on the wrong side of the new law in town, don’t you?” Waverly says playfully, turning sweetly back to Nicole.

 

“You wouldn’t want that at all ,” Nicole replies dramatically, winking at Waverly before sliding down the counter just a fraction further towards her. “I hear she’s a real devil, too.”

 

“Well, I’ve heard completely contradictory statements, myself,” Waverly returns with an innocent shrug. “I hear she’s kind, and thoughtful, and very sweet…”

 

Nicole rolls her eyes at the compliment, but she can’t deny the warm swell it sets off in the pit of her stomach upon hearing Waverly speak like that about her.

 

She looks around the shop and out the window, assuring herself that there isn’t anyone within a distance to catch sight of what she’s about to do, and it’s only simple, not dramatic or inappropriate, but the urge to take Waverly’s hand is too strong to ignore. She moves her hand across the counter, expecting to have to lean over a little to reach, but she doesn’t, because the second she moves for Waverly, Waverly moves, too, meeting her half way.

 

The relief when their skin meets is instant and heavy and light all at the same time, and Nicole can’t help but sigh just a little in response.

 

“How is it that the perfect newcomer waltzes into town with eyes for you, Waverly Earp, and not me, huh?” Chrissy says ruefully, but Nicole knows there’s no malice in it, not at all, not when a smile stretches across her face at seeing the simple gesture of the two of them holding hands.

 

“Guess I’m just lucky?” Waverly replies simply, shrugging before turning back to Nicole with an expression that makes her heart pull.

 

“I think I’ll respectfully disagree, and argue that I’m the lucky one here, Miss Earp,” Nicole says with a wink, smiling at the exasperated sigh Chrissy lets off in the background before turning to apologise. “Sorry, Chrissy, I’m sorry, it’s not…”

 

“Don’t you dare apologise for bein’ happy, Nicole Haught,” Chrissy says sternly, inclining her head towards the two of them. “I won’t hear it. The two of you deserve it more’n anyone else in this damn town, save maybe Wynonna. Besides, if I can’t find a love of my own, I guess I’ll just have to live through yours.”

 

“Well, any other day that’s fine, although I have to insist on leavin’ you behind when I take Nicole out to the homestead tomorrow night,” Waverly replies, smiling to Nicole before winding their fingers together.

 

“Maybe next time?” Chrissy jokes, her eyes turning down to their joined hands with a look of longing.

 

“Of course,” Nicole says with sincerity, nodding in a way that brings a smile to Chrissy’s face, just as she had hoped.

 

“So what are the two of you gonna do out there, then?” Chrissy asks curiously, tilting her head in question.

 

“This and that,” Waverly says a little vaguely in reply, and Nicole looks to her with a face as curious now as Chrissy’s is.

 

“No clues, huh?” Chrissy asks, narrowing her eyes at Waverly. “Not a one?”

 

“Well, not with Nicole right there ,” Waverly answers with a slightly breathless laugh. “Then it’d spoil the evening, wouldn’t it?”

 

“I don’t think anything you do could spoil the evening’,” Nicole says kindly to Waverly, grinning at the way her eyes light with the compliment.

 

“You know what?” Chrissy starts before a frown appears on her brow. “I take it back. Be a little less happy, won’t you? You’re makin’ me feel even more envious than I was before.”

 

“Sorry, Chrissy,” Nicole says genuinely, releasing Waverly’s hand to turn to their friend. “I’m sorry, truly. I’ll keep it to a minimum, next time, alright? Besides, I’d best be on my way for now, anyway.”

 

“Oh, you don’t have to leave already, do you?” Waverly asks, reaching for Nicole’s hand again with a note of disappointment in her voice.

 

“I arranged to take the night shift for tonight,” Nicole says, trying to keep the regret out of her own voice, because she knows it’s for the best, that having to part now means they get the whole evening together tomorrow, even if it feels like a terrible decision at the moment.

 

“You’d best be off to rest soon then,” Chrissy says with the knowledge held of watching her father doing the same thing for years. “Daddy always has a better night if he can find sleep before midday.”

 

Not for the first time, Nicole is struck by the casual ease with which Chrissy seems so observant to things around her, seemingly subconsciously even, and it serves to remind her that she'd like to ascertain a way of helping Chrissy somehow make use of these talents, resolving perhaps to talk to her father about it this evening.

 

“I’m not sure how I’m gonna find it, if I’m honest,” Nicole replies with a frown to Chrissy. “I feel as wide awake as I’ve ever been.”

 

“Oh,” Waverly says suddenly before disappearing down the back of the counter, reappearing with a smile a few seconds later. “I can help with that, at least.”

 

“You can?” Nicole asks with a surprised and slightly amused smile at the happiness on Waverly’s face.

 

“I can,” Waverly repeats, placing a small phial of clear liquid between them on the counter.

 

“What in good graces is that?” Chrissy asks with a hesitant note, leaning forward to inspect the bottle. “Some kind of sleepin’ draught?”

 

“It’s only light,” Waverly assures Nicole softly, turning to answer her unasked question. “Nothin’ to take you into too deep a sleep, just somethin’ to help you clear your mind so you can find it to rest a little before tonight. It won’t make you feel anythin’ once you wake up, not like some of the others I’ve got, but you don’t have to take it if you don’t want to, I just thought…”

 

“That’s very kind of you,” Nicole says softly, brushing her fingers purposefully across Waverly’s when she moves to take the proffered phial. “I’d be happy to try it.”

 

“I know some people don’t like to have… you know that you don’t have to take it just because…” Waverly stammers a little uncertainly before Nicole fixes her with a look that says I trust you and I want to.

 

“I might have to ask Gus to come and rouse me,” Nicole says with a wink. “If this is as good as everythin’ else of yours I’ve had, I might need the wake up call.”

 

“It’ll only work for a few hours,” Waverly replies gently, her eyes following Nicole’s hand as they tuck the phial into the pocket of her trousers. “So you shouldn’t need to if you take it shortly, just as it is. You don’t need to mix it with water or tea or anythin’ else.”

 

“Thank you, Waverly,” Nicole says sincerely, casting her eyes around one last time to check for onlookers, before raising Waverly’s hand and pressing a kiss to her knuckles.

 

It’s bold, she knows it’s bold, but it’s so important to her in that moment that Waverly know exactly how much faith she has in Waverly and her abilities, that she trusts her, that she’s immensely thankful for any part of it that she’s able to share with Nicole herself.

 

My pleasure,” Waverly breathes in return, her cheeks glowing a faintly pretty pink. “It’s my pleasure, Deputy.”

 

“Don’t make me respectfully disagree with you again, now,” Nicole winks playfully, releasing Waverly’s hand slowly. “I really should get mo vin’, though. I want to head down to Shorty’s before I retire, to inquire around about…well, you know.”

 

She trails off, not wanting to draw any more attention toward the disappearances, and not wanting to distress Waverly or Chrissy in any way, either.

 

“Good time of the day to try there,” Chrissy says, nodding at Nicole’s plan. “You’ll find half the men in town there having a drink or a meal if you go now.”

 

“Is that so?” Nicole asks, highly interested at Chrissy’s additional observation. “Well, in that case, I’ll…”

 

“Call by on your way to the jail this evenin’?” Waverly asks hopefully, her eyes drawing Nicole in.

 

“If you’re not sick of the sight of me, of course I will,” Nicole smiles in return, and she’s amazed at the difference it makes, not having to hide her raw feelings for Waverly anymore, what a weight it is off her shoulders.

 

“As if she’d ever be sick of the sight of you,” Chrissy interjects with a wry smile.

 

Nicole beams at the compliment, looking to Waverly one final time before inclining her head in farewell.

 

“Sleep well,” Waverly says sweetly, tilting her head to the side in that soft way that makes Nicole’s heart skip and threaten to stop in her chest.

 

“I’m sure I will,” Nicole answers easily, tipping her hat back onto her head. “Later?”

 

“Later,” Waverly affirms, her reply warming the palms of Nicole’s hands when they fall back to her sides.

 

She throws Chrissy one last nod, too, before turning and making her way back down the Main Street, only relenting once and looking back to Waverly’s shop.

 

It doesn’t take her long to make it to the saloon at all, and she’s not sure why she’s filled with a hint of reluctance before walking in, but she is, so she pauses for a moment with her hand on the door, taking a steadying breath in just as she enters. It’s gloomy in here, and busy, just as Chrissy had said, the air heavy with smoke, and it takes her eyes a second to adjust before she makes her way down the step into the main part of the saloon towards Shorty himself.

 

“Good afternoon, Deputy,” Shorty offers cordially, leaning across the bar to shake Nicole’s hand. “What can I get for you today?”

 

“I’m not after a drink, though I thank you kindly for the offer,” Nicole says politely, nodding with respect before straightening up again.

 

“Serious business then?” Shorty asks, his tone growing a little more grave. “The Sheriff came in day before yesterday askin’ about the women missin’.”

 

“That’s exactly why I’m here, I’m afraid,” Nicole confirms, nodding again. “Nedley's requested I do another ask around town, see if anyone’s noticed anythin’ new the last few days?”

 

“I haven’t seen nothin’ myself,” Shorty replies, frowning before looking around the saloon. “Not a damn thing. And nobody that’s come in here’s said anythin’ beyond that they wish they knew where the heck those women had gone to, either.”

 

“And you haven’t seen anyone you’ve never seen before?” Nicole asks with one last push before resignation sets across her shoulders again. “No one new or unusual, nothin’ out of place, no one actin’ strangely?”

 

“I count myself a reasonably good judge of character, and a good eye for every person in this town, and I haven’t seen nothin’, Deputy,” Shorty says regretfully. “I almost wish I had, so I could offer you some help, but I haven’t.”

 

“That’s alright, Shorty,” Nicole replies with a sigh. “I appreciate you keepin’ an eye out, nonetheless. And I know the Sheriff does, too.”

 

“‘Course,” Shorty returns, looking pleased with the compliment. “Happy to help in any way I can. You’ll be sure to let me know if you’re in need of anythin’ else now, won’t you?”

 

“I surely will,” Nicole says with a smile, more than a little appreciative at his offer to help. “Thank you, Shorty.”

 

“Any time, Deputy,” Shorty says, giving her a quick wink. “You’re more’n welcome to go round and ask folks yourself, if you want? Just in case you’re able to get somethin’ out of ‘em they haven’t mentioned to me.”

 

“I might just do that,” Nicole replies, nodding as she looks around the room. “If it’s not too much of a hassle, and I’m not gonna drive folks away?”

 

“To be honest, I reckon people’ll be more than happy to answer any questions you might have if they, and you, think it’ll help,” Shorty says with a sigh, dropping his hands onto the bar.

 

“I won’t be long,” Nicole assures him, scooping her hat up off the counter, her eyes already travelling around the room, looking for her first point of contact. “I’ll be gone before you know it.”

 

Shorty gives her one last smile before turning to tend to another customer, and Nicole allows her eye to move around the room again. There are a few men in small groups, so she starts with them first, asking a few easy questions, watching for their reactions and body language as much as their answers, but they don’t appear to have anything of value to add to the information she already has in her head.

 

Nicole turns her attention to a few other solitary figures around the room next, but the answers to her questions are still the same: they haven’t seen anything strange or out of place, they don’t know anything. Nothing. In fact, if anything, things appear to have been quieter than usual, with little to no trouble in town at all.

 

She’s about to give up and head back to the Inn to rest when movement in the far corner of the saloon catches her attention, and her eyes find Champ Hardy and the two York boys curled around a large, otherwise empty table, taking up significantly more space than they should. They must have come in since she started talking to folks around the room, Nicole surmises, because there’s no way her eyes would have missed them if they’d been here to begin with.

 

The noise coming from their small group is, unsurprisingly, obtrusive and rude and much louder than anyone else in the room, and she catches Shorty frown in their direction briefly before tucking her thumbs into her belt and making her way over to them herself. She catches the end of what sounds like should have seen her face and reckon I should just have taken it, she’s almost mine anyway before the York boys dissolve in rough, ugly laughter, as she makes her way over to their table.

 

Champ looks at her pointedly before turning back to the other boys, ignoring her completely, so she has to clear her throat before they actually pause their conversation and look at her.

 

“What do you want, Deputy?” Champ sighs, taking a messy swig of his whiskey before narrowing his eyes at Nicole. “We aren’t doin’ anythin’ wrong, are we boys?”

 

“Yeah, Deputy ,” one of the boys jokes derisively before they all dissolve into obnoxious laughter again. “We’re just mindin’ our own business, nothin’ you can tell us off for. Champ here’s just tellin’ us here how close he is to baggin’ his girl, right lads?”

 

Nicole’s blood runs cold at that, because she’d known that was the she Champ had been referring to, but to hear one of them say it makes her feel sick.

 

“Your conversation is your own, but manhandlin’ women is another thing, Hardy,” Nicole says with as strong a voice as she can manage without letting her anger seep in.

 

“That all women, Deputy, or just the ones you’re tryin’ to court yourself?” Champ says boldly, tipping his chin upwards in Nicole’s direction.

 

“You’ll do better to mind your manners when you’re speakin’ to a Sheriff’s deputy, Mr. Hardy,” Nicole replies coldy, trying desperately to keep her own temper in check.

 

“Hit a nerve, did I?” Champ parries, his eyes light with the knowledge that he’s found something sensitive. “Anyway, what business is it of yours who I touch, Deputy? Last I checked, we didn’t have to run courtships in this town past the Sheriff. If we do, though, I’ll do so gladly. I’d love to see the look on your face when I bring Waverly Earp in on my arm. Willing or not.”

 

“That’s not a joke, Hardy,” Nicole says with steel on her tongue, because she hadn’t wanted to descend to his level, to argue with or threaten him, but she will, if that’s what it takes. “As a deputy of the law, I’m tellin’ you that you’d best not be forcin’ yourself on any more women, or I’ll drag you down to the jail myself.”

 

Her words seem to hit a nerve with him this time, and the legs of his chair screech across the wood when he scrambles to stand and set himself on Nicole’s level, broadening his shoulders in a childish attempt to make his shape look bigger.

 

“Is that a threat?” Champ spits, balling his fists at his side as he steps up into Nicole’s personal space. “You think you can take me?”

 

His anger doesn’t bother Nicole, she doesn’t flinch away, much to his disappointment, she thinks. She just stands her ground instead, meeting his eye evenly.

 

“I do,” she says calmly, her gaze following the furious tremble of his entire body as she holds her own position with a perfect stillness. “As a matter of fact, I do.”

 

Nicole senses his body about to move and take a step back, whether to take himself away or prepare to hit her, she’s not sure, but she readies herself to defend a blow or whatever he thinks he’s about to try and do, when the saloon doors swing open loudly, and Curtis comes through them, looking around the room before sighting Nicole.

 

He raises his hand in an amicable hello before moving towards the bar to greet Shorty, his eye trained on her and Champ in the corner of the room.

 

Nicole feels, rather than sees, the air leave Champ’s overextended chest in the second that follows, his eye obviously fixed on Curtis, too. He shrinks back, grabbing his drink roughly and downing it in one gulp before pushing roughly past Nicole, the York boys following him like stray dogs.

 

“This isn’t over,” Nicole hears him spit over his shoulder, the boys sniggering beside him as they leave the saloon, and it’s only then that she releases her breath, unclenching her own fists at her waist.

 

She isn’t scared of him, lord knows she’s met and dealt with worse men in the world than Champ Hardy, it’s Waverly that Nicole is worried for in the end. Because he isn’t likely to take out his anger on or around her directly; she knows he’s much more likely to take it out where he knows he’ll cause Nicole the most pain.

 

On Waverly, instead.

 

She’s tempted to go after him, to drag him down to Nedley for general disobedience, but she knows that’ll only make things worse, that that would only provoke his anger more, in the end. Instead, she takes a few steadying breathes before walking back over to the bar to apologise for any disruption she might have caused Shorty.

 

“You alright there, Deputy?” Shorty asks her with a concerned frown. “Everythin’ okay?”

 

“I’m sorry, Shorty,” Nicole says quickly, rushing to apologise. “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble, he just… he overstepped a line, and it wouldn’t have been right of me not to call him on it. I understand if you’d like me to…”

 

“It’s more than alright, Deputy,” Shorty reassures her with a friendly smile. “We all know what that Hardy kid is like. You did well to stand your ground.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” Nicole nods, appreciative of the compliment, particularly given she had been expecting the first thing to come out of Shorty’s mouth might be an order to leave. “I am sorry.”

 

“Don’t let him get the better of you,” Curtis offers Nicole with a kind voice, clapping his hand on her shoulder. “Lord knows he’ll try, but he’s just not worth it.”

 

“It’s worth it if it’s Waverly he’s threatenin’,” Nicole says partly under her breath, but the others hear it regardless.

 

“He what?” Curtis asks gruffly, looking after the door, as if of a mind to chase Champ himself.

 

“Not exactly,” Nicole replies, trying to explain herself without letting her anger disrupt her. “Seems he feels he can take something he thinks is already his, and I just corrected his misguided impression.”

 

“Christ, I’ve half a mind to make him see sense myself with something stronger than words,” Curtis says in the first show of anger or frustration Nicole’s seen from him since meeting him a few days ago, finding herself reassured by the fact that he seems as bent on ensuring Waverly’s safety as she is.

 

“I don’t need to remind you that it’s not worth it to pick a fight with that boy, do I?” Shorty says to his friend with a smile, before shaking his head. “Anyway, let’s not waste anymore breath on that problem. Did you happen to find anythin’ talkin’ to anyone, Deputy?”

 

“Not a thing,” Nicole sighs in disappointment, trying to let her frustration over Champ drop from her fingertips so she can focus on where the frustration should be directed. “I’m startin’ to wonder if I’m doin’ somethin’ wrong. Unless people really do disappear into thin air.”

 

“By all accounts, I think you’re doin’ a fine job,” Curtis says, smiling warmly at her. “Everyone I’ve spoken to’s said how it’s makin’ everyone feel a little more at ease knowin’ you’re on your guard lookin’ for those ladies so diligently.”

 

“Really?” Nicole asks quietly, and she’s not one to hunt for compliments, ever, but she can’t deny it’s nice to know the town doesn’t think she’s completely useless.

 

“Really,” Shorty affirms, agreeing with his friend, nodding to Nicole. “You’re doin’ a good job, Deputy. Just don’t give up, alright?”

 

“Never,” Nicole says quickly, shaking her head, dismissing the idea immediately. “I’d never dream of givin’ up, not until we know their fates, whatever they might be.”

 

“Atta-girl,” Shorty says before pouring Curtis a drink. “You sure I can’t offer you a drink? Lord knows you’ve just earned one. Might help to steady yourself before you leave?”

 

“Thank you for the offer, but I should get on my way,” Nicole replies, trying to convey how much she appreciates the gesture. “I’ve asked Nedley for the night shift tonight, so I’d best try and get some rest before it.”

 

“Boy, you’ll have made someone’s day, givin’ them the night off,” Curtis says, smiling broadly. “Make sure you stop in and get Gus to make you somethin’ before you rest, and to take with you for tonight.”

 

“I don’t want to trouble her,” Nicole says hesitantly, but Curtis is already shaking his head.

 

“No trouble, Nicole, none at all,” Curtis returns kindly, reaching to shake Nicole’s hand, and the use of her first name makes her feel warm. “‘Specially if you’re out here defendin’ our Waverly’s honour against that hound in the background of dealin’ with this other trouble.”

 

“I’ll ask, if I remember,” Nicole says with a shy shrug, reluctant to put Gus out at all, regardless of whether she’s helped Waverly or not, because she’s more than happy to do whatever it takes to defend Waverly, willingly and without reward.

 

“Make sure you do,” Curtis says pointedly, narrowing his eye like he knows that she has no intention of bothering Gus at all.

 

“I’ll see you later, sir,” Nicole replies respectfully instead, giving Shorty a nod of farewell, too. “And my apologies again, Shorty.”

 

Both men wave her goodbye before Nicole makes her way for the door. She takes a step outside, her eyes spinning white for a moment as she adjusts to the vastly different light source. She takes a long, grounding breath, closing her eyes and drinking in the late morning sun before opening them again.

 

Her gaze, whether by design or some unfortunate coincidence falls on Champ and his companions walking into one of the shops across the way. He doesn’t lay eyes on her, thankfully, but it makes her blood boil again, even seeing him from a distance, his words about Waverly still sitting like poison in the bottom of her stomach.

 

She finds her feet taking her to Waverly’s shop without directed thought, the walk disappearing somewhere into a half-conscious blur until she sets foot inside the bright white front room. Her pulse settles immediately, her racing heart quieting completely in Waverly’s presence, and Waverly looks up from measuring whatever herbs she has in a number of small bowls in front of her, sensing Nicole’s nearness again.

 

“I wasn’t expectin’ to see you so soon,” Waverly beams the second she sees Nicole, ducking beneath the counter to greet her in the absence of anyone else in the shop.

 

“Nor was I,” Nicole admits with a shy smile, shrugging, taking a step closer to Waverly whose hair is pushed messily up off her forehead, but with a series of lose strands falling beautifully around her face.

 

“Is everythin’ alright?” Waverly asks, frowning at whatever small thing must be off about her demeanour. “Did you… have you found…”

 

“No,” Nicole hurries to reassure her, taking Waverly’s hand softly into her own. “No, nothin’ like that at all, I promise.”

 

“But somethin’ else happened?” Waverly asks softly, perceptively, her thumbs soothing over the flat of Nicole’s palms. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

 

“It’s nothin’ to worry about,” Nicole says softly, not wishing to worry Waverly more than she already has. “Nothin’ at all, I’m not sure why I’m feelin’ a little uneasy, I just had a conversation with Champ Hardy at the saloon.”

 

“You did?” Waverly asks, blanching a little, and it makes Nicole want to hit him all over again, hating the reaction just hearing his name causes in Waverly. “What about?”

 

She thinks about telling Waverly a smaller version of the truth, not wanting to cause her anymore distress, but changes her mind, settling on the thought that the truth, and not keeping anything from her, is the more honorable route to take. Because Waverly Earp can handle far more than people give her credit for, and Nicole won’t assume anything less than her highest point of strength, ever.

 

“About you, unfortunately,” Nicole says, choosing her words carefully. “Nothin’ you’d done of course, he just… he made an inappropriate comment, and I couldn’t let it go unchecked, but it resulted in a… shall we say, a conversation between the two of us.”

 

Waverly grows a little paler for a second before she seems to find strength in Nicole’s hand in her own, looking to Nicole with something that might be awe.

 

“You defended me?” Waverly says quietly, her expression soft as she looks to Nicole with clear eyes.

 

“Of course I did,” Nicole says smiling down at Waverly gently. “I’ll always defend you, Waverly. Always . Without exception.”

 

Waverly takes a deep breath, closing her eyes for the length of a heartbeat before looking up to Nicole again, and Nicole thinks she sees something deep there, beyond Waverly’s simple thanks, something that sits further in her chest, hidden beneath her ribs.

 

“You’re…” Waverly starts before her eyes turn a little glassy, and she shakes her head, trying again. “Thank you, Nicole. It’s… to have someone who just… thank you.”

 

“It’s what I’m here for,” Nicole says simply, because she is. To be Waverly’s companion and friend and protector, too, not that she can’t defend herself, but because she shouldn’t have to do so alone all the time.

 

It’s the middle of the day, and anyone, including Champ himself, could walk past at any second, and Nicole knows they should be more careful, but that doesn’t matter, not in this instant. None of it does. All reason suspends itself beautifully, because Waverly Earp folds herself into Nicole’s arms, and Nicole finds home .

 

“Thank you,” Waverly says again, only this time the vibration from her voice makes its way through the wall of Nicole’s chest, to her heart, and Nicole feels changed from it.

 

Waverly’s hands slide around her waist, tying themselves together in the middle of Nicole’s lower back, and Nicole can’t stop the small contended hum that escapes when her chin comes to rest softly atop Waverly’s head.

 

“You’re welcome, Waverly,” Nicole says softly, her arms draping as unobtrusively as possible over the shorter girl’s shoulders, holding Waverly close, rocking them both slightly where they stand together.

 

She feels Waverly sigh heavily against her again before she takes a step back, extricating herself from Nicole’s body, her hand finding Nicole’s, reluctant to break their contact entirely.

 

“I’m sorry,” Waverly says a little shyly, her eyes moving down to where their fingers intertwine. “I know we probably should be…”

 

“It's alright,” Nicole replies with a reassuring wink, checking out the corner of her eye for any onlookers discreetly and finding none.

 

“I don’t wish you to think me careless,” Waverly says carefully, following the line of Nicole’s eye outside the shop. “I know we need to be careful most of the time, and I know you know that, too, but sometimes it’s more important…it’s worth the risk to reassure one another, don’t you think?”

 

Nicole nods, touched and impressed, both by the depth of Waverly’s understanding, but also her willingness to flout the rules for the sake of comforting each other, something she knows Shae would never risk, and did never risk, even at times when Nicole needed her to.

 

“I do,” Nicole replies, smiling at Waverly with something akin to pride in her voice. “I agree completely.”

 

Waverly drops her head, looking to Oakley who has moved off her daybed to wind herself around Waverly’s feet.

 

“I’m sorry you had to defend me,” Waverly says apologetically, looking a little embarrassed. “I wish I’d never given him the time of day to begin with, I just thought… I thought it might help… I thought it would make him lose interest, if he saw how little interest I had in him, but it only seems to have made things worse.”

 

“Try not to worry about him,” Nicole says, reaching forward to tuck a strand of Waverly’s hair behind her ear, smiling when she moves into Nicole’s touch. “I have a feelin’ he would have continued pursuin’ you regardless, Waverly. I don’t think there’s anythin’ you could have done to dissuade his interest.”

 

“He can’t do anythin’ can he?” Waverly asks with a slightly uneven voice, the fear there easy for Nicole to read. “I mean… he doesn’t have a claim over…”

 

“He can’t do anythin’, Waverly. I promise you, alright?” Nicole replies with a conviction and strength in her voice that she wants Waverly to hear loud and clear. “You’re your own person, okay? Neither he, nor anyone else can take your freedom away from you.”

 

She had come here to calm herself down, to reassure herself of the notion that Waverly was here safe. She hadn’t planned on needing to reassure Waverly, too, but she finds it does a better job of calming her than anything else, being strong for Waverly’s sake.

 

“I’m my own person,” Waverly says quietly, looking to Nicole with a small glint of something special in her eye, something that makes her smile a little deeper. “I’m my own person, but I’m yours, too.”

 

It makes Nicole’s heart skip and her pulse falter, to hear Waverly state such a thing so plainly, and she finds herself struggling with a response for a moment before her words come to her with a crystal clearness.

 

“As I am yours,” Nicole says with a simple smile, watching the way Waverly’s eyes glow in reply. “If you’d have me?”

 

“Never been anythin’ I’ve wanted more,” Waverly says sweetly after a moment, leaning back to rest against the counter between two of the high stools. “I’m keepin’ you, though, aren’t I? You need to go get some rest.”

 

“I’m more than alright for the moment,” Nicole replies with an easy shrug. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

 

“I’m fine, I promise you, Nicole.  Even better for the unexpected visit,” Waverly says in reassurance, in a way that makes Nicole’s tension ease more thoroughly. “Although, I’d be remiss if I didn’t send you off to rest now. I know you’ll be just across the way if I need anythin’, alright? Chrissy’s already promised to come and call on me again soon.”

 

“She’s an angel, that girl,” Nicole says, her thoughts flooding with appreciation for the young woman.

 

“Isn’t she just?” Waverly replies, although by the look in her eye, it isn’t so much Chrissy she appears to be thinking of with a dreamy expression written on her face, as someone a little closer .

 

“You sure you’re gonna be okay here?” Nicole asks her quietly, lowering herself a little to be closer to Waverly’s level.

 

Waverly nods back slowly, and Nicole can tell that she’s not saying it for the sake of making Nicole feel better, she means it, for now at least.

 

“But you’ll call on me on your way to the jail later?” Waverly asks hopefully, leaning up on her tiptoes, her body reaching for Nicole’s.

 

“Try and stop me,” Nicole says winking, and she wants so desperately to lean down and press a quick kiss to Waverly’s cheek, but she knows that’s pushing it, because they can explain away an embrace like a hug, but not that, should someone see them.

 

She reaches for Waverly regardless, though, as some sort of interim measure, running her hand down Waverly’s arm from shoulder to elbow, and Waverly leans into the touch with her eyes closed. Her hand moves from Waverly’s elbow down her forearm, squeezing her hand briefly before dropping her touch from Waverly’s fingertips, not missing the way Waverly hums in contentment.

 

They both sigh softly, and before Nicole loses the will to leave completely, she gathers her hat from the counter. She’s struck with the most peculiar feeling as she takes step after step away from Waverly, like her heart is watching her leave for war, and the feeling turns her body without her prompt, to find Waverly looking after her with something that smells in the pre-noon air... like love.

 

Her own smile must still be written high and plain on her face, because Gus has to suppress a smirk when Nicole walks through to the front desk.

 

“Good mornin’, Deputy?” Gus asks, amusement spelled easily between her words.

 

“It is now,” Nicole says a little dreamily, before coming back to the earth enough to turn to Gus and form a coherent sentence. “Sorry, Gus. Mornin’ to you, too. How are you?”

 

“I’m just fine, thank you, Deputy,” Gus replies with a continued look of amusement. “What brings you back here so early? You hungry for a bite of lunch?”

 

“I’m actually gonna work the night shift tonight,” Nicole explains, running her fingers through her hair, pushing back the strands knocked lose by removing her hat again. “So Nedley’s sent me back for rest before then.”

 

“Good on you, givin’ someone the night off,” Gus says, obviously impressed with Nicole’s work ethic. “S’pose you will want somethin’ then? I’ve got a stew settin’, and some bread, too, if you’d like?”

 

“I don’t want to be a bother,” Nicole tries to reason, just as her stomach growls loudly, and she realises she hasn’t actually eaten any of the small morsels in her satchel while she’s been out and about this morning.  

 

“Go and sit down,” Gus says, rolling her eyes at Nicole before walking off into the kitchen behind her desk. “I’ll bring you somethin’ in a minute.”

 

“You don’t have-” Nicole attempts one last time to reason, but Gus isn’t having any of it, walking quickly around the kitchen as Nicole takes a seat at one of the tables in the small dining area.

 

She’s more than efficient, Nicole will give her that, because before she can so much as try to argue, Gus is setting a bowl of something that smells delicious in front of her, with a freshly baked loaf to the side. Nicole must look at her with something close to love, because Gus just laughs, clapping Nicole on the shoulder lightly before gesturing to her food.  

 

“You’re welcome, Deputy,” Gus says, smiling at her while Nicole’s mouth waters, before leaving Nicole to eat.

 

She just about inhales the soup, only slowing when she gets to the warm bread, and it takes her a second to remember the last time she had a full meal like this, and not mouthfuls here and there. A few days at least, she thinks, before leaning back in her chair, pleasantly full.

 

Nicole sits there for a minute before she slips her hands into her pockets, her fingers brushing over the small bottle Waverly had given her. She does pause for a moment then, not because she doesn’t trust Waverly implicitly, but because she’s never not been in full control of her faculties before. She doesn’t ever drink to excess, she doesn’t smoke like so many others do. It’s the losing control that worries her a little.

 

But then she remembers that Waverly would never give her anything that she thought Nicole wouldn’t like, or anything that would make her feel uncomfortable, so she stands, resigned to take it when she makes her way upstairs, unsure how quickly the effects will take hold. She strips off her things, changing into the loose nightshirt she sleeps in, before picking up the little glass phial from where she’d left it on the small writing desk. Popping the top off, she drinks it down in one gulp, surprised by the pleasantly sweet taste it leaves on her tongue.

 

It takes a minute for the tonic to hit her stomach, but the second it does Nicole starts to feel pleasantly drowsy, and she climbs into the softness of her bed as it begins to take full effect. She looks at the ceiling, pulling the light blanket around her waist, her eyes travelling the lines of the wooden boards there once, twice , before her eyes grow too heavy to hold open, and easily, calmly, she finds sleep.




-

Chapter Text

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When Nicole opens her eyes a few hours later, she doesn’t think she can ever remember a time she felt more rested when rising from sleep, even the first few nights here at the Inn.

 

She sits up quickly, all of a sudden worried she might have overslept, but when she pulls her pocket watch off the small table at the side of the bed, it reveals just past six in the evening. Marvelling at the perfectly timed sleep, just as Waverly had said it would be, Nicole sits up properly, stretching her arms above her head. She checks in with her body, but finds no lingering side-effects of the elixir, marveling at how good she feels before swinging her legs out of bed.

 

Gus had set a fresh bowl of water in her room while she’d been out earlier in the morning, and Nicole moves for it eagerly, splashing the room temperature water over her face and down her neck before drying off with the towel resting beside it.

 

The small mirror in the room reveals a fresh and reasonably invigorated face, for which Nicole is immensely thankful, as she pulls her hair back into a more respectable braid. She moves to pull her clothes back on then, fixing Waverly’s bandana around her neck, her fingers lingering on the carefully stitched NH, before making her way back downstairs.

 

“Evenin’, Deputy,” Curtis says happily when she reaches the bottom of the stairs, taking the few steps to the front desk. “Sleep well?”

 

“Wonderfully,” Nicole replies with a wide smile, rubbing the base of her neck lightly. “Better than I have in my life, I think.”

 

“Waverly give you one of her wee potions, did she?” he asks, his eyes softening at the mention of his niece.

 

“She did,” Nicole says in return, blushing a little at her obvious transparency. “I confess, I was a little nervous to take it, but I’m sure glad I did.”

 

“I know what you mean,” Curtis says with a wry smile. “Imagine the look on our faces when she wanted us to start tryin’ things she’d made. I mean, the young thing’s always been marvelously talented, but it’s hard not to balk at bein’ asked to drink something like that.”

 

“You were good to go along with it,” Nicole says kindly, hoping to show her appreciation for Curtis’s support. “She’s become a wonderful young woman with your encouragement, sir, if I can say so.”

 

“Well, she only needed to talk us into it once,” he replies, laughing gently, recalling the memory. “Once we felt what her little tonics could do. I tell you, Gus has had a bad back that’s kept her from sleepin’ well most of the years I’ve known her, and within a few months of startin’ to play with her remedies, Waverly’d found something to give her relief for the first time in a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Gus as happy as the mornin’ after her first draught.”

 

“She’s a very talented young woman, isn’t she?” Nicole offers a little dreamily in response, her mind finding the image of Waverly smiling at her easily.

 

“You’re not so far off yourself, young lady,” Curtis says in return, his eyes kind as he appraises her. “I know your talents are a little different to Waverly’s, but I think you make a fine pair.”

 

She freezes at his words, at the blankness and simplicity with which he offers the statement, and Nicole finds herself waiting for a warning or a reprimand or something, but it doesn’t come. He only smiles softly in return.

 

“I’m glad you had a good sleep, Deputy,” he says, grinning, and reaching down to one of the shelves she knows are built into the other side of the front desk. “Now, before I forget, Gus put a little bite to eat together for you for the night, and she told me to make sure I threatened you with somethin’ terrible by way of a consequence if you didn’t come and see her for breakfast before you retire in the mornin’.”

 

“I’d hate to find myself in a world of trouble like that,” Nicole replies with a laugh, her whole body light with their conversation. “I’ll make sure I get myself back for breakfast. And…thank you, sir-”

 

“Curtis,” he cuts across her gently, shaking his head. “Call me Curtis, Nicole.”

 

“Thank you, Curtis,” Nicole says softly, taking the proffered bundle of food when he walks around the side of the front desk. He presses one broad hand to her shoulder in affection before seeing her out the door.

 

The low light of the evening casts a beautiful glow over the Main Street, and Nicole finds a distant elation in her blood, despite the happenings of the previous day and her altercation with Champ earlier in the morning. She’s hoping to see the door of Waverly’s shop open for her still, not closed early for whatever reason, and she’s not disappointed, beaming when she sees Waverly leaning over the counter talking to Chrissy again.

 

“Evenin’, ladies,” Nicole says with a wide smile, coming to rest next to Chrissy, sliding her arm around Chrissy’s shoulders when she prompts Nicole for a hug.

 

“Hi,” Waverly returns softly, her eyes warming at the sight of Nicole, a small smile tripping the edges of her lips as she bites at her lower one in an attempt to temper her reaction.

 

“Rest well?” Chrissy asks kindly when she pulls away from Nicole’s side.

 

“Wonderfully,” Nicole replies to Waverly directly, removing the small bottle and placing it on the counter. “More than, in fact.”

 

“That sleeping draught is amazing, isn’t it?” Chrissy says in admiration, turning to Waverly, as well. “She’s magic, I think, this one.”

 

“That she definitely is,” Nicole agrees, drinking in the sight of Waverly with the evening sun resting in the glass bottles on the shelves behind her, like some kind of halo.

 

“I hope that’s Waverly you’re talkin’ about,” Gus’s voice comes from behind them, and Nicole spins to see her walking through the door, as well.

 

She’s smiling wryly, in a way that says to both Nicole and Chrissy that she knows Waverly is exactly who they were referring to.

 

“Evenin’ ladies,” Gus says to them all before Waverly sweeps underneath the counter to press herself into her aunt’s side. “We all well?”

 

“Very,” Chrissy and Nicole say in unison while Waverly looks to Nicole with a soft glow in her eyes.

 

“Good to hear,” Gus says gruffly before turning to Waverly. “Now, I’m sorry to interrupt, but you’re comin’ across for dinner whether you like it or not, young lady. You and that shadow of yours.”

 

Nicole smiles internally at the mention of Oakley, the pup raising her head as if hearing mention of herself, before making her way over to sit at Waverly’s feet, looking up to Nicole in a dopey, sleep-heavy manner.

 

“It’s more than alright,” Chrissy says easily, looking to Nicole. “I was hopin’ you wouldn’t mind walkin’ me down to the jail with you, Nicole? Daddy was going to come and get me on the way out home, but I’ll just come alongside you, if that’s not an inconvenience?”

 

“‘Course not,” Nicole says easily, shaking her head and more than a little elated at Chrissy’s continued trust in her, particularly given how nervous she knows Chrissy is with the current state of things. “I’d be more than happy to escort you down. We should probably be makin’ our way, actually. I don’t want to be later’n the Sheriff’s expectin’ me.”

 

“Curtis give you that hamper of food?” Gus asks Nicole with a suspicious look, obviously worried he might have forgotten it.

 

“He did, yes,” Nicole replies thoughtfully, holding up the bundle in her other hand by way of an answer.

 

“Good,” Gus growls, looking over Nicole with the same slightly maternal look she gives Waverly. “Make sure you eat, alright, Deputy? If you’re gonna have more run-ins with the likes of Champ Hardy, we need to make sure you’ve got your wits about you every time.”

 

She’s not surprised Curtis has obviously shared details of her lunch-time visit to the saloon with Gus, aware that half the town probably knows by now, even though there hasn’t been anything dramatic to come out of the encounter.

 

“I hope they aren’t a regular occurrence,” Nicole says with a sigh, smiling in spite of herself at Gus’s concern. “But I appreciate the sentiment, Gus. Don’t worry, it’ll take more than hunger for him to get the better of me.”

 

“Glad to hear it,” Gus replies, giving her a quick wink before her face smoothes over again and she turns to Waverly. “Now, come on, kid. Dinner time. You ladies, too, so Waverly can lock up behind you.”

 

They exit the shop en masse, Gus holding Oakley in her arms, her brow softening again when she coos softly to the pup about her day before stepping off into the Main Street.

 

“I hope your shift goes well,” Waverly offers softly when Gus takes a step towards the Inn, and Chrissy the opposite way to give them a quick moment.

 

It’s not private, and they’re in the middle of the street, so Nicole dare not actually reach for her, no matter how fiercely her body is aching for it, but she offers a smile that she hopes conveys how much she wants to.

 

“Thank you, Miss Earp,” Nicole replies quietly, dipping her head. “Have yourself a good evenin’, and I’ll call on you in the mornin’, on my way home, if you’d like?”

 

“I would,” Waverly returns sweetly, her eyes beautifully darkened in the fading light. “Take care?”

 

“Always,” Nicole says with a wink of her own before Gus grumbles in the background.

 

“Come on you lot, or we’ll be out here in the dark with growlin’ bellies,” Gus grouses, collecting Waverly around the waist with her other hand and leading her inside. “She’ll see you in the mornin’, Deputy. Good night, Miss Nedley.”

 

“Goodnight, Gus,” Chrissy says, spinning back around from looking down the street with a frown on her face. “Night, Wave.”

 

Waverly offers them both a parting farewell before Chrissy holds her arm out for Nicole to take, which Nicole does smoothly, watching Chrissy’s expression carefully.

 

“Everythin’ alright?” Nicole asks her cautiously, following the direction of Chrissy’s gaze as her eyes fix on something at the far end of the road.

 

“I think so,” Chrissy says distantly, frowning still, straining her eyes further and holding onto Nicole’s arm a little tighter.

 

“Can you see somethin’?” Nicole asks softly, not wanting to startle the other young woman, as distracted as she obviously is. “Chrissy?”

 

“I think I’m goin’ mad,” Chrissy says finally, shaking her head before looking to Nicole finally. “I thought I saw…”

 

Nicole feels her blood chill in her veins at Chrissy’s words, because it wasn’t far off this time of the evening when she’d had her own experience with a fleeting black shape a few nights ago.

 

“You thought you saw what?” Nicole questions Chrissy with a gentle tone, her hand closing over Chrissy’s in an attempt to reassure her some.

 

“Some flash of black down the end of the street?” Chrissy answers airily, her voice still distracted with the effort of trying to re-see whatever it was she had just seen. “But I can’t have…”

 

“And you can’t see it now?” Nicole asks, trying to stop her whole body from tensing in response to the potential threat.

 

“No,” Chrissy says vaguely, swinging her head from side to side before looking to Nicole again. “I can’t. I must have been seein’ things.”

 

“Perhaps,” Nicole says in response, a little distracted herself now, and she doesn’t want to say anything else, not wanting to frighten or unsettle Chrissy further. She’ll save the recollection for her father later, when Chrissy is out of earshot. “Shall we go?”

 

“Yes,” Chrissy says, nodding faintly, her full attention still divided between Nicole and whatever she may have seen down the way. “Let’s.”

 

Nicole walks them at a reasonable pace down to the jail, not wishing to hurry them and worry Chrissy, but eager to get her into the safe presence of her father, too. She’s relieved that Chrissy doesn’t seem particularly concerned at least, quite happy to hold tight to Nicole’s arm and have her lead them away.

 

The jail is nice and quiet when Nicole and Chrissy do make their way there, only Nedley present - currently mid-argument with a man Nicole hasn’t met, locked in one of the cells - and one other man, dark skinned and exceptionally cleanly dressed, waiting patiently for Nedley at one of the desks when they enter.

 

“I know he’s a wholesome asshole, but every second word out of his mouth is a slight against those Earp girls, Holliday,” Nedley says, obviously trying to reason with the man locked away. “You can’t hit him everytime he says somethin’ about Wynonna you don’t like, alright?”

 

“I let a good deal slide,” the man - Holliday - says, shaking his head in anger, clutching the bars of his cell with white knuckles. “More than I’d like, Sheriff, but sometimes one has to be a man, and stand up for-”

 

“She’s not your woman, Doc,” Nedley says with a tone holding a surprising amount of what Nicole thinks is regret.

 

“I know she’s not,” Holliday - or Doc, Nicole isn’t sure - growls balefully before drawing back from the edge of the cell. “But it wasn’t just her he was having it out about. It was young Miss Waverly, too, and then damn Champ Hardy jumped in, and…”

 

“I saw the rest,” Nedley grouses, narrowing his eyes at the dark-haired man. “You got into a bar fight with four men, alone and unarmed. And Wynonna tries tellin’ me you’re smart, when she comes to bail you out.”

 

His eyes glow at the compliment before flicking to the newcomers, Nicole and Chrissy having entered almost silently.

 

“Good evenin’, Miss Nedley,” Doc says smoothly in their direction, tipping his hat politely to Chrissy. “And you must be the new Deputy, Miss... Haught , is it?”

 

“Evenin’ Doc,” Chrissy replies, blushing a little, and Nicole supposes she could see the charm present there in the raven-haired man and his seemingly impeccable manners, if one was so inclined.

 

“Ladies,” Nedley says by way of a greeting, turning at Doc’s words and walking over to meet them, taking Chrissy into his side from Nicole’s. “Thank you kindly for bringin’ Chrissy down, Haught. I was gettin’ worried she’d walk herself if I was here any longer.”

 

“It’s no problem at all, sir,” Nicole says easily, smiling at Nedley’s obvious concern for his daughter. “You seem more’n a little preoccupied. I’m sorry I wasn’t here earlier.”

 

“It’s normally quieter’n a graveyard here now,” Nedley replies, rolling his eyes in the direction of the cells before raising his voice slightly. “Only Doc here decided to take half the town on himself, and ruin my peaceful evenin’. Haught, this here’s Doc Holliday, Wynonna Earp’s ranch hand. The two of you will be well acquainted before the month’s out. In fact, it’s some small miracle you haven’t met him already.”

 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Deputy Haught,” Doc says from within the cell, bowing in a way that Nicole would consider a jape or rudeness from any other man, but from this one, somehow coming across with a genuine respect. “I’m terribly sorry to make your acquaintance from this side of these bars for the first time.”

 

She walks over to him, putting together the pieces in her head - Gus’s comments regarding him a few days ago, in addition to the reason for his current incarceration - of a man obviously better than what his unlawful record might suggest.

 

“I believe the pleasure might be mine, Mr. Holliday,” Nicole replies with a smile, extending her hand to shake his, much to his obvious surprise. “In spite of our current positions. I’ve heard a few things about you.”

 

“Have you now?” Doc asks, winking when he releases Nicole’s hand. “All terrible, I hope.”

 

“Undoubtedly,” Nedley says with a growl from across the room. “Haught, there’s someone else I’d like to introduce you to, as well. This here is Xavier Dolls. He’s one of the local lawyers, lives on the edge of town. Mr. Dolls, this is my new deputy, Nicole Haught.”

 

The dark-skinned gentleman stands at the end of Nedley’s sentence, inclining his head respectfully in Nicole’s direction. Nicole walks over, extending her hand just as she had done with Doc, and Dolls takes it with a pleasantly surprised grin.

 

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Dolls,” Nicole says politely, looking the man in the eye while she shakes his hand. He’s obviously a man of few words, not replying verbally, only with his eyes, quite the contrast against the obviously talkative Doc Holliday, but there’s a calmness and intensity there that Nicole doesn’t mind either.

 

“Dolls and I have some business to attend to quickly if you’ll be alright here with this hooligan and Chrissy?” Nedley asks Nicole, the strain of the day evident beneath his eyes.

 

“Of course, sir,” Nicole says quickly, a little proud that Nedley is so easy to trust such things to her, obviously comfortable with her ability to manage anything that may occur.

 

Nedley nods his head in thanks before disappearing into the next room with Dolls, giving Nicole the opportunity to turn back and watch Chrissy in easy conversation with Doc. That does a significant amount to reassure her as to the strength of Doc’s character, because if she thinks she’s a good judge of one, she knows Chrissy is, and she seems not only perfectly at ease in his company, but to truly enjoy it.

 

“Daddy didn’t want to lock you up here,” Chrissy is saying regretfully when Nicole makes her way back over to them. “I could tell, he just… you don’t make it easy for him sometimes, Doc.”

 

“I know,” Doc replies with an equal tone of regret, hanging his head in something Nicole thinks might be shame. “And I’m sorry to be a bother to him and yourself, Miss. I know you’d rather be at home by now.”

 

“Why’d you start it?” Chrissy asks, tilting her head and frowning, drawing the chair she has in her hands closer to the cell so they can talk more easily.

 

“It doesn’t matter, darlin’,” Doc says in reply, and Nicole knows at once that he’s trying to be a gentleman about the specifics.

 

“It does to me,” Chrissy says softly, and Nicole can see his resolve crumble at her kindness, finding herself wondering how often they’ve found themselves in this very position. “Please?”

 

“Don’t you go tellin’ your father or the Earps I’ve told you this, alright?” Doc growls before pushing his hair back off his face. “The men were just… sayin’ somethin’ less than complimentary about Wynonna, and then Miss Waverly, too, and I felt my blood boilin’ at that, because that girl’s never done anythin’ but help people in this damn town, and before I knew it, your daddy was holdin’ my fist back while the other deputy with him was holdin’ the others away.”

 

“Oh, Doc,” Chrissy says sadly, and Nicole knows it’s sympathy for where he’s ended up tonight, but it’s something else, also. “You’re a better man than anyone in this town gives you credit for.”

 

He laughs softly at that, ducking his head in what Nicole thinks is a blush, before looking up to the both of them, suddenly noticing Nicole standing back respectfully.

 

“If you could tell the young Wynonna that, I’d be much obliged,” Doc says with a seemingly cavalier wink, but Nicole knows there’s depth to that, too.

 

“She knows, Doc,” Chrissy says quietly, reaching to take his hand between the bars. “She’ll come to her senses one day. We all know she will, alright?”

 

“I do very much hope so,” Doc replies to Chrissy with an equal softness, and instantly Nicole’s respect for the man is trebled, because clearly he’s madly infatuated with Wynonna, in love with her even, but there isn’t a hint of the possessiveness Nicole had seen in Champ for Waverly. Not a drop.

 

Nicole’s about to open her mouth to speak when Nedley and Dolls come back through from the next room, Nedley looking a little grave, but slightly lighter than when they’d entered.

 

“Thank you, Dolls,” Nedley says firmly, shaking the man’s hand before walking him to the door. “And remember, they don’t know a damn thing. If they don’t want your advice, they don’t deserve it. I’ll be in touch, and you’ll let me know if you hear…”

 

“Yes, sir,” Dolls says in reply, and Nicole’s struck by the timbre of his voice. “The moment I hear anythin’. Take care of you and yours, alright?”

 

Their conversation strikes a thought in Nicole, and she hurries to try and make a mental note of it before something else distracts her, because Nedley had said lawyer , and yes, it’s unorthodox to take a woman on, but if anyone might understand unorthodox, it could be Xavier Dolls. Nedley obviously thinks highly enough of the man as well, so perhaps there’s something there she could organise to Chrissy’s advantage by way of a mentor, if law truly was something she wanted to develop some skill in.

 

“I always do,” Nedley says gravely, nodding in response to Dolls before seeing him out and turning back to Chrissy. “Alright, young lady. Best we’d get home, I think.”

 

He walks back over to the three of them, setting his hands on his hips and sagging down against the support of his own arms before addressing Doc.

 

“Assure me you’re not going to be trouble for Haught’s first night shift, Holliday?” Nedley says with a heavy sigh. “Because I’ll be tempted to thump you myself if I hear you’ve been difficult.”

 

“I’ll be the perfect gentleman, my life on it,” Doc says seriously, and it’s flamboyant, but Nicole knows he means it regardless.

 

Nedley rolls his eyes, but seems to take it for the truth Nicole had, as well, turning back to Nicole with a reassuring expression.  

 

“Haught, there really isn’t a lot more to do overnight. Just stay awake in case anyone comes lookin’ for you, which highly likely won’t happen. If it does, and you have to leave, send whoever’s come in straight out to me, and I’ll come and join you as quick as I can,” Nedley says, and Nicole’s a little nervous at the thought, but she knows it’s only first night flutters, and she’ll be fine once he leaves and she and Doc can settle into the evening.

 

“Sounds good to me, sir,” Nicole replies, turning to give Nedley her full attention.

 

“Oh, the older Earp is likely to turn up in around... what, Doc? An hour or so? To try and bail him out, but she has to wait ‘till mornin’, and she knows that good and well. Don’t let her try and tell you otherwise,” Nedley says with a lightly warning tone.

 

“I’m sure I can manage her,” Nicole says with a little smile, to which Nedley and Doc both make a face. “She might find it easier dealin’ with a woman after you two, you know?”

 

“I suspect you might be right, Deputy,” Doc says, laughing genially. “I suspect you might be right, indeed. Good night, Sheriff. I’m terribly sorry again to have been a bother.”

 

“It’s alright, Holliday,” Nedley grumbles, looking the other man in the eye. “I can’t say I would have done differently in your position, truth be told. Just… try not to do it in front of the Sheriff next time?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Doc says with a sweep and a bow before nodding to Nicole. “And I’ll be sure to make for some pleasant company as best I can tonight, too.”

 

“See you tomorrow,” Chrissy says next, sweeping past her father to press a quick kiss to Nicole’s cheek. “Thank you for walkin’ me down, and I’m sorry about whatever that was earlier down the street. I don’t know what came over me.”

 

That prompts Nicole to remember to speak to Nedley about that matter in the morning, because she’s not sure what Chrissy saw, or what she herself saw, but she thinks it’s more than worth mentioning to the Sheriff. Nedley catches the comment, too, frowning for a moment before Nicole is able to mouth I’ll explain tomorrow when Chrissy turns her attention to Doc for a second. He nods seriously, changing his expression the second Chrissy turns back to him.

 

“He’s actually not bad company,” Nedley offers begrudgingly, swinging his head towards Doc when Chrissy takes his arm and they make for the door. “See you in the mornin’, Haught.”

 

“Goodnight, sir,” Nicole replies warmly, seeing them out before walking back over to the cell, depositing herself down in the seat Chrissy had recently vacated. “You mind if I…?”

 

“Not at all, Deputy,” Doc answers with a pleasantly surprised tone. “Please, do. Perhaps I can reintroduce myself and try to form a better impression for you.”

 

“I think you’re doin’ better than you might think,” Nicole says easily, smiling when she crosses her legs, making herself comfortable. “So, you’re Doc Holliday, huh?”

 

“The one and only,” he says graciously, bowing his head to her. “And you are Miss Nicole Haught?”

 

“That I am,” Nicole nods, watching his expressive face as he appraises her while she speaks. “Word get around that fast, huh?”

 

“In a way,” Doc says with a shrug, moving back to drag the small stool in the cell towards the bars so he can sit, too. “Wynonna mentioned the new deputy offerin’ a hand with a small spot of trouble when she came home from town the other day.”

 

“Ah,” Nicole nods in understanding, recalling that encounter easily, not only because it had been her first and only time meeting and speaking to Wynonna. “Not all the men in this town are as charmin’ as you, it would seem.”

 

“That they are not,” Doc replies, frowning, taking in Nicole’s words heartily. “I must convey my thanks to you for offerin’ Wynonna assistance in that matter. She may not, as our kind Sheriff pointed out, be my girl, but she is someone very close to my heart. It’s troublin’ sometimes, the attitude this town has towards the Earps, and I count myself more than lucky when I find an ally in the matter against that attitude.”

 

“I must confess it’s more than troublin’ to me, too,” Nicole admits, acknowledging Doc’s thoughtfulness. “Particularly the attitude towards Waverly Earp, given her guilt only by association.”

 

Ah ,” Doc says, his eyes flashing at Nicole’s words. “You’ve met Miss Waverly, then? Charmin’ herself, is she not?”

 

“She is,” Nicole admits, not worried that Doc’s question is anything more than a simple question, not containing any untoward insinuation. “And a talented young woman, too, at that.”

 

“She has an uncommon skill with healin’, that’s for sure,” Doc says with a smile, nodding in agreement. “She’s patched both Wynonna and myself up more times than I can count.”

 

“Speakin’ of which, are you in need of anythin’?” Nicole asks, eyeing the cut on Doc’s lip with concern. “I’m sure it’s nothin’ worse than you’ve experienced before, but there might be somethin’ here to help that lip if you need?”

 

“A swig of whiskey wouldn’t go amiss,” Doc says wryly, winking at Nicole, to which she scoffs, before shaking his head. “But beyond that, I’ll be fine. Although I thank you for your concern, Deputy.”

 

As soon as he finishes speaking, his stomach growls in the quiet, and they both laugh a little, before Nicole stands and walks to retrieve the wrapped bundle Gus had prepared for her.

 

That , at least, I can help with,” Nicole says easily, unfolding the bundle on the desk behind where she’s sitting, surveying the food before handing Doc a large piece of dried meat and bread.

 

“Not that I don’t appreciate it, Deputy,” Doc says when she takes a piece of food for herself. “But why the kindness? The other deputies are polite, to be sure, but…”

 

“Anyone who shows kindness to people like Waverly and Wynonna Earp deserves my own,” Nicole replies with a simple shrug. “I think you’re a decent man, Doc Holliday, even if we are havin’ this conversation through the bars of a cell.”

 

“If I had a drink in my hand, I would toast to that, Deputy,” Doc says, smiling easily at her, and Nicole can’t help but agree with the sentiment.

 

“Perhaps we can eat to it instead?” Nicole says warmly in reply, and she’s just about to raise a bite of bread when heavy footfalls make their way across the porch before stomping through the front door of the jail.

 

Nicole tenses, her hand moving to her weapon quickly, but she needn’t have bothered, because the figure that appears isn’t a ghost or an enemy. It’s Wynonna Earp. Just as Nedley had predicted.

 

“You’re a pain in my ass , Doc Holliday,” she grouses, before making her way over to the cell to greet Nicole and Doc. “What in the sweet hell have you done now?”

 

She sighs a little in relief, but it doesn’t move the whole way through her body, because it’s Wynonna Earp, yes, but she’s not actually sure if this means she’s in more danger than if it were a stranger, or less. Nicole stands to reintroduce herself, but Wynonna beats her to it, walking up to the cell bars with her hands on her hips.

 

“Haven’t you got anythin’ better to do than bother the new deputy, Holliday?” Wynonna says a little testily. “This is what... your first night shift, Haught?”

 

She’s more than a little impressed, both at Wynonna’s perceptiveness, and the fact that she’s actually remembered Nicole’s name.

 

“It is, but-” Nicole starts before Wynonna cuts her off again.

 

“Her first night shift,” Wynonna says directly to Doc, who has since shifted to a standing position, holding his hat over his stomach, in a gesture of respect, but probably also of a mind to protect his vital organs. “Jesus, Doc. What the hell did you do this time? I hope you at least had the thoughtfulness not to get dragged in by the Sheriff himself.”

 

“Actually, he-” Nicole says, eager to explain the situation properly, to ease Wynonna’s anger with the tale of the truth, before being cut off again, this time by Doc instead.

 

“Got caught in a stupid fight when I lost a game of cards,” Doc says smoothly, and Nicole frowns for a moment before Doc throws her a please go along with this look, and she sighs in resignation.

 

“You what?” Wynonna deadpans, raising an eyebrow in disbelief, and Nicole doesn’t know her well, but she knows that this is not a good expression to be on the other end of.

 

“Those damn York boys and the Hardy kid cheated, and beat me, and I couldn’t stand the slight,” Doc says with a shrug, and Nicole thinks that those details probably aren’t too far from what happened in so far as those names being the participants in the fight, Doc’s just omitting one important detail.

 

That the reason he has a split lip has more to do with his love of the Earp girls, and less about his own selfish need to protect his ego or seek revenge on a lost handful of coins.

 

“Christ, Doc,” Wynonna says, thoroughly exasperated. “You just can’t help yourself, can you? I had half a dozen things for you this afternoon, and instead of helpin’ me, you’re out there throwin’ your fists around for a goddamn stupid reason.”

 

Nicole is dying to step in and correct her, to set Wynonna right, because she’s got it all wrong. Doc isn’t irresponsible, he’s kind and good and he’s only here for defending Wynonna’s honour, and her sister’s, too, but one look at a still-pleading Doc makes her draw the words off her tongue.

 

Because for whatever reason - and she can’t for the life of her see what it is now - he’s chosen not to divulge this, and Nicole needs to respect that.

 

“I’m sorry, Wynonna,” he says gently, and she can hear the true sincerity in his voice, as can Wynonna, if the look that softens on her face is anything to go by, her shoulders rounding a little. “Truly, I am. I wasn’t thinkin’ of how I would let you down, and I offer you my deepest apologies.”

 

Wynonna is weakened by his response, the rage leaving her in a rush, and for a moment, Nicole can see a clear and strong connection between the two of them that Gus had been alluding to the other day, because Wynonna’s eyes soften towards Doc the way she knows her own do towards Waverly, and she’s left wondering more than just why it is Doc won’t tell her the truth, but also why Wynonna won’t give in to the love she obviously has for Doc, either.

 

“Just… try to do it when Nedley isn’t lookin’ next time, alright?” Wynonna says with a begrudgingly softer tone, dropping her hands to her sides. “It’s borin’ as hell out there without you makin’ a fool of yourself.”

 

“Very good advice, Miss Earp,” Doc returns, smiling at the way her anger has obviously eased, and Nicole wonders how much further it would retreat if Wynonna knew what was really happening. “I will strive to hit the boys when the Sheriff’s back is turned next time.”

 

“Sorry to interrupt your otherwise rivetin’ evenin, Deputy,” Wynonna says finally, turning to Nicole finally. “I’m sure you were lookin’ forward to settin’ you’re feet up and sleepin’ the night away, and now you’ve gotta look after this fool.”

 

“I’m not quite so jaded by the job that I need to sleep on a shift just yet,” Nicole says a little smartly, keen for Wynonna to take away a good impression of her. “But maybe in a month or two, I’ll be more tempted.”

 

“I hope so,” Wynonna replies with a half-frown. “I’d hate to think you’re one of these goody two-shoes deputies, like the rest of ‘em that can’t take a joke.”

 

“I think what the Deputy here lacks in mischief, she makes up for in her good heart,” Doc interjects, and Nicole is more than a little touched at his quick observation of her.

 

“Shame,” Wynonna says with a sulky look, placing her hands on her hips again. “Suppose you’re not interested in springin’ him early, then?”

 

“I’m afraid not,” Nicole returns, grimacing softly. “Probably a little too early for me to start breakin’ the rules, don’t you think?”

 

“That’s quite alright, Deputy,” Doc says amicably, taking a seat back down on his stool and gesturing for Nicole and Wynonna to do the same. “I wouldn’t expect you to. Besides, it’s not such a bad spot here currently. I’ve never been offered part of the other deputies’ supper before, especially not one of Gus’s creation.”

 

“Gus made that?” Wynonna asks, looking down at the collection of food behind Nicole with bright eyes, and Nicole wonders when the last time Wynonna might have had the opportunity to sample some of Gus’s food was.

 

“Sure did,” Nicole replies easily, taking her seat in the hope that it might prompt Wynonna to, also. “You’re welcome to stay and join us, if you’d like. It’s certainly more eatin’ than for two.”

 

She watches the contemplation pass across Wynonna’s face, obviously torn between giving in and the desire to eat as much of Gus’s preparations as she can, before the food wins out, and she slides into a seat next to Nicole.

 

“It’s only because I haven’t made dinner, waiting for this fool to turn up, and I’m starvin’,” Wynonna rationalises, eagerly looking towards the fresh baked bread. “I’m not in the habit of eatin’ with lawmen - or women - often, you know.”

 

“And you never have to again,” Nicole offers with a smile, pushing the helping of food towards Wynonna, gesturing for her to make a start. “Though, you’d always be welcome to, if you wanted.”

 

“Good Lord, that woman can bake a loaf of bread,” Wynonna says around a mouthful, in what feels like less than a second later. “Even if she is as sharp as a hawk when you try and steal it out from under her.”

 

“You’re not wrong there,” Nicole replies with a wry smile, taking another handful and passing it through the bars to Doc. “Although, I think I value my life better than to try and steal from Gus.”

 

“You think the woman can cook? You should see how fast she can smack you with a wooden spoon, still cookin’ with the other damn hand,” Wynonna says, snorting before reaching for a couple of the fresh baked cookies next.

 

“I can imagine,” Nicole laughs, calling a likely scenario of a young Wynonna trying to sneak in and out of Gus’s kitchen without being seen, only to fail tremendously, and walk out with a red face and a redder behind instead.

 

“Still, it wasn’t so bad,” Wynonna admits with a shrug, breaking off half a cookie and popping it into her mouth. “Waverly used to take the blame half the time, and Gus always let her off.”

 

“That’s good of her,” Nicole says, smiling at, but unsurprised by, Waverly’s kindness.

 

“She was the best kid sister you could hope for,” Wynonna sighs, surveying the pile of food for one last morsel. “Say, speakin’ of her, Gus tells me you’ve been playin’ rescue, and helpin’ Wave out with a few things, too?”

 

Nicole blanches at that, completely unsure of the extent to which Wynonna is aware that their relationship extends, not wanting to reveal more than Waverly has been comfortable sharing, even if she has mentioned to Nicole that she’s disclosed the true nature of her feelings towards the fairer sex to Wynonna previously.

 

“Uh…” Nicole says a little dumbly, to which Wynonna smiles with something that Nicole thinks is a knowing look, but she doesn’t actually say anything about it, seemingly content not to raise that with Nicole for now.

 

“It’s damn lucky I had to come here and find your stupid ass, I’ll tell you that much. Have you seen the size of that bruise?” Wynonna seethes, and there’s something in Nicole that warms to her infinitely more upon hearing how upset she is over what Champ had done, too. “I’m still not completely beyond the want to knock on his front door with the end of a rifle once I leave here.”

 

“Come on now,” Doc says quietly, in a voice Nicole has yet to hear, and she wonders, actually, if it’s one he reserves exclusively for Wynonna. “You know you’ll only do the girl harm by gettin’ into trouble defendin’ her. And young Mr. Hardy isn’t worth you endin’ up in here with me.”

 

Wynonna looks at him like she wants to argue, but holds her tongue for now, amazingly, and Nicole speculates whether anyone else in the world, even Waverly, would have calmed her anger so effectively.

 

“Besides,” Doc says with a wry smile, the edge of his moustache turning up in amusement as he leans closer to Wynonna, and by extension, Nicole. “You might be happy to learn that I secured a very solid punch on your behalf before Nedley pulled me off him.”

 

“Very happy,” Wynonna replies, trying to suppress her own smile as the two of them share a private look. “But, you didn’t hear that, right Deputy?”

 

“Don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” Nicole says casually, watching an approving smile spread across Wynonna’s face. “And for what it’s worth, I had a few words with him this mornin’, too, actually.”

 

“You did?” Wynonna asks, instantly curious, her mouth turning up in surprise, moving her body to face Nicole properly. “What’d you say?”

 

“Nothin’ like what I really wanted to,” Nicole says balefully, frowning before reminding herself that something is better than nothing. “But enough to let him know I wouldn’t tolerate any behaviour like that again, against Waverly or anyone else, and I won’t hesitate to drag his ass down here and lock him up, neither.”

 

“Huh,” Wynonna says, nodding in acknowledgement, a smile curling the corner of her mouth. “Whaddaya know, Deputy Haught’s got stones.”

 

“I think it’s fine of you,” Doc agrees, albeit in a slightly more polite manner. “And something I think hurt young Mr. Hardy’s pride significantly, if the fact that it was still on his mind when I encountered him is any indication.”

 

“Good,” Wynonna says plainly, and Nicole can’t help but nod in agreement. “Asshole.”

 

“He’s a bully,” Nicole says, the mere memory of Champ Hardy threatening to ruin her mood. “I don’t like bullies.”

 

Wynonna gives her a carefully curated smile in return, like she knows what Nicole isn’t saying, that she would have done that and a lot more just because it was Waverly, but it’s more than that, too, like Nicole has impressed her somehow.

 

“Nor do I, Deputy,” Doc agrees smoothly, watching the interaction between Nicole and Wynonna. “And I agree, it was most certainly a decent thing to do.”

 

“Still, shame you couldn’t arrest him,” Wynonna says, shrugging, slapping her hands on her legs as though preparing herself to leave.

 

“Give me time,” Nicole replies with a wink, pleased when Wynonna does smile then.

 

“Glad to hear it,” Wynonna returns, grinning perceptively, and Nicole wishes so badly she could get Wynonna to articulate whatever it is that’s going on in her head, because she looks like she’s thinking about something . “Anyway, if I don’t leave, I’ll be ridin’ home in the pitch dark. Christ that moon is small, isn’t it?”

 

“It’s unsettlin’,” Doc grumbles, and Nicole knows he means the moon itself, and the fact that Wynonna is riding back alone. “Sure we can’t tempt you to remain here the night, instead?”

 

“Not a chance,” Wynonna says with a look that says you should know better than that.

 

“Be careful, Wynonna,” Doc says seriously, and Wynonna’s own expression changes at his tone. “Remember what your aunt and uncle said, alright? Don’t be stupid. Ride hard and stay home.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Wynonna replies a little facetiously, but Nicole knows she’s taken Doc seriously, and so does he. “Hey, Deputy Haught? Thanks for bein’ a hero today. I’m glad someone else is lookin’ out for her, too.”

 

“Always, Wynonna,” Nicole says sincerely, and she knows by the nod of acceptance on Wynonna’s face that she knows Nicole means it.

 

“Send word for me if Nedley won’t let him out in the mornin’, won’t you?” Wynonna grouses, looking to Doc. “I don’t want to have to, but I’ll drag my ass in if need be, and have a word with the good Sheriff myself.”

 

“I can’t see why there’d be a problem,” Nicole says easily, knowing full well Nedley won’t keep Doc in any longer than strictly necessary. “But if there is, I’ll come out myself.”

 

Wynonna nods before walking to the edge of the cell, reaching for Doc’s hand briefly, and it’s only a glancing touch, a small farewell, but the significance of it for Nicole is huge. Doc’s eyes slide shut and he breathes in, his fingers slipping from hers like something liquid and not solid at all. Wynonna’s at the door before she turns back to speak to Nicole, her eyes bright and intelligent and keen, before she offers Nicole a parting sentiment.

 

“You’re a rare breed, Haught, true to your first impression,” Wynonna throws over her shoulder. “And not so bad after all.”

 

Nicole tries to smother the beaming grin that threatens to release itself at her words, dropping her head lower to hide it, but Doc catches the edge of it, smiling, too.

 

“She’s a far better person than most folk are prepared to give her credit for,” Doc says to Nicole when she finally raises her head fully. “She’d do anythin’ for her family, not just her blood kin - although she’d kill for Waverly, I know she would - but her family, too. Her real family.”

 

“I think you are, too, Doc Holliday,” Nicole says perceptively, taking her seat next to him again. “And I think the Earps are exceptionally lucky to have you. Wynonna especially. I know it’s none of my business, but it looks like there’s somethin’ there, for her, at her end.”

 

“I know there is,” Doc says sadly, and for a moment, he looks old, so much older than the young years reflected by his body. “One day she’ll come to her mind about it. I just hope we’re both here to see that day dawn.”



-



The rest of the night passes pleasantly, and Nicole is surprised by just how good of company Doc turns out to be. He’s interested and perceptive and curious, but he has a politeness, too, not shared by many men from his time.

 

He asks her of her life before Purgatory, of her history and her interests and why she wanted to take up her life’s journey with the law, and with anyone else, she might be worried their interest had a malicious intent, but she knows there’s a genuineness to his inquisitive questions, and somehow, she feels like she can trust him. Slowly, as they finish the food between them, Doc learns of her life, and Nicole learns of his, too, and by the end, when the dawn begins to rise outside, Nicole decides there is no better man that she could think of to act as a guardian for the Earps.

 

Doc dozes off at some point in the early morning after keeping Nicole company all evening, not long before Nicole is expecting Nedley to arrive, and it takes a conscious effort for her then to stop herself feeling a little sleepy also, eager for Nedley to walk through that door and relieve her. He isn’t far after the first suggestion of light on the horizon, without Chrissy this morning, yawning a little when he makes his way into the main part of the jail.

 

“Mornin’, Haught,” he says with a bit of warmth, walking over to the desk Nicole had taken as her own for the night, close to Doc’s cell should he have need for anything. “How was the night? No problems?”

 

“Not a one, sir,” Nicole replies with a confident smile, standing to meet Nedley, trying not to groan when her body contests the movement.

 

“Holliday alright?” Nedley asks, throwing his head in the direction of a still fast-asleep Doc.

 

“He was excellent, actually,” Nicole says easily, her own eye turning to find Doc also. “He’s not a half-bad man, is he?”

 

“He’s one of the good ones,” Nedley grumbles, and Nicole’s surprised, but not surprised, at the ease with which Nedley admits this fact. “Shame the town turns their noses up at him for the simple fact that he supports the Earps too clearly.”

 

“I think it’s good they have each other, sir,” Nicole replies before the next thought forms instantaneously. “It’s good they’ve got each other, and us, too.”

 

“Us, too, indeed,” Nedley says with a smile that’s gone as quick as it came, and he’s about to walk away when Nicole catches his attention, wanting to ensure she communicates the two things she has front of mind before anyone else arrives.

 

“Sir,” she says quickly, to which Nedley turns immediately. “I wondered if I might speak to you about a couple of matters?”

 

“‘Course, Haught,” he says gruffly, his eyes crinkling in concern. “Everythin’ alright?”

 

“Fine, sir,” Nicole says quickly, knowing that one isn’t exactly fine, but nothing she wants to worry him about up front in the event that they’re interrupted. “They’re just small things, really.”

 

“Go on then,” he encourages, moving to sit at his desk and gesturing for her to take the seat across from him.

 

“First of all, and I hope you won’t be angry at me bein’ so forward, but I’ve spent a not insignificant amount of time with Chrissy lately, sir, and, to be plain, she’s a remarkable young woman,” Nicole begins, watching for any sign that Nedley wants her to stop, and upon seeing none, continues. “I’m sure she’d be more than happy to stay and keep your house until she’s married, but I’m of the opinion that she would be more than capable of doin’ that and picking up another pursuit, if you would be so inclined as to facilitate it, sir.”

 

“What kinda pursuit is that?” Nedley asks, and Nicole’s impressed that the tone of his voice is interested and curious, and not stubbornly set on his own opinion.

 

“Well, she may have already said as much to you, but she shows a desire and an inclination, and I think, has some natural aptitude towards the field of law,” Nicole says carefully, and she watches as the cogs start to turn in his head. “I wondered, if you were amenable, and he was also, whether you’d consider her studyin’ some under Mr. Xavier Dolls, sir?”

 

Nedley’s face moves through a number of emotions so quickly she can barely keep up with them, but she thinks she sees approval there, and appreciation, and perhaps even him being impressed, too. She doesn’t think he’s angry, but he doesn’t actually say anything, and it begins to worry Nicole, so she scrambles to apologise, lest she have overstepped some boundary with him.

 

“I completely understand if I’ve assumed too much, sir, and I won’t again, I’m-”

 

“Haught, it’s alright, calm down,” he says quickly, holding his hand up to silence her. “You know, I can count the number of people on two hands who’ve showed concern for my daughter other than myself. Two of them are in this room right now, two of them run the Inn, and the other two share the surname Earp. Now, would this have been inappropriate to ask anyone else in the world? Yes, probably. But is it acceptable to me? Yes, it is.”

 

He’s smiling a little when he finishes speaking, and Nicole can’t fully suppress her own in response.

 

“Quite frankly, I’ve been thinking’ of tryin’ to organise something exactly like this myself for a long time,” Nedley offers to Nicole, folding and unfolding his hands on the desk. “I know Chrissy’s got a good head on her shoulders, it’s just been a matter of findin’ the right thing for her, but I hadn’t thought of Dolls.”

 

“I just…” Nicole says before trailing off, wanting to choose her words carefully. “I thought he might appreciate bein’ a minority in a field like that, sir. He might be more willin’ to take a woman on?”

 

“It’s a good thought,” Nedley replies, nodding to her. “It’s a very good thought, actually. I’m impressed. I might just have a talk with Dolls when he’s here again.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” Nicole says in return, blushing a little at his compliment. “And thank you for bein’ amenable to the suggestion.”

 

“I probably won’t say it a lot, but I meant what I said when you first arrived here, Haught,” Nedley says with a gruff affection. “It means a great deal you’ve taken to Chrissy so well, and you’re still lookin’ out for her. It’s hard to let her out of my sight at the moment, but I trust her with you just as much as I do myself.”

 

“She’s an easy and lovely addition to my day, sir,” Nicole replies, smiling a little. “It’s really no problem at all.”

 

Nedley nods, presuming that’s the end of what Nicole had wanted to speak to him about, obviously preparing to return to his morning routine, so Nicole speaks again softly.

 

“I’m sorry, sir,” Nicole says quickly, not wanting to keep him, but knowing full well how important it is that she get her second point across. “There was one more thing, if that’s alright?”

 

“‘Course,” Nedley looks up, surprised. “I’ve told you, don’t ever feel like you can’t talk, especially if somethin’ is bothering you.”

 

Nicole takes a breath, trying to organise her thoughts into something that doesn’t sound quite so crazy. She can’t deny that it looks like madness, but she’s hoping against hope that Nedley knows her well enough by now to know that she wouldn’t even raise anything if she didn’t think it was important.

 

“You asked me to tell you if I saw anythin’ off, or out of place, right, sir?” Nicole asks him, watching the way his face changes from interested to concerned at Nicole’s tone.

 

“I did,” Nedley says shortly before beckoning her on, waving his hand to demonstrate.

 

“Well… the thing is that I’m not sure what I saw, but I think I saw somethin’, and I think Chrissy did, too, on a separate occasion,” Nicole explains carefully, trying to sound as sensible as possible.

 

“What was it?” Nedley asks quickly, and Nicole can tell she has his absolute full attention now.

 

“Well, and I can’t stress enough that I don’t know what it was, or what it meant, sir, but a few nights ago, I was standin’ on the Main Street at dusk, and this… feeling came over me, and I turned, and saw somethin’. A flash of black that was there for a second, and gone the next.”

 

“You mentioned that before?” Nedley says perceptibly, nodding along with her story. “And did Chrissy see somethin’, too?”

 

“She did, sir,” Nicole affirms, her voice a little grave as she recalls the event last night that had set her blood to ice. “Same as me, didn’t know what it was, just knew it was somethin’, I think.”

 

“So the same time of day?” Nedley asks rhetorically, obviously trying to build a picture in his head. “Is there any way to describe what it looked like, Haught? Any descriptors?”

 

“Well, it looked roughly human-sized, sir,” Nicole answers, trying to wrack her brain for more detail. “But it didn’t look solid. It looked… well, it looked like it was made of smoke, to be honest. It seemed to move like smoke, after my eyes found it. I saw it, and then it was gone.”

 

“Jesus Christ,” Nedley grumbles, dropping his head into his hands, and Nicole feels her stomach drop because maybe he does think this is just ridiculous.

 

“I know it sounds mad, sir. I’m sorry,” Nicole says quickly, hurrying to apologise.

 

“I’m not…” Nedley says through his hands before dropping them and looking to Nicole. “I don’t think you’re mad at all, Haught. That’s the problem.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole replies with a sigh of relief, sagging a little on her chair. “You don’t think it sounds crazy?”

 

“It definitely sounds crazy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe you,” Nedley says seriously, thumbing his moustache as he thinks. “Not if Chrissy thinks she saw somethin’, as well.”

 

“I’ve been lookin’ everywhere for a sign of anythin’ since I saw it, sir, and I haven’t found a damn thing,” Nicole says by way of an assurance that she has taken this seriously. “I don’t know what it was or is, but I thought it important to tell you.”

 

“You did the right thing,” Nedley says, nodding, appraising the worried look on her face. “Absolutely the right thing. It’s hard putting’ your neck on the line like that, but that’s what makes you a good law woman, I think. I’ll keep an eye on things myself, and tell the others too, as well.”

 

“Thank you,” Nicole says, nodding at his affirmation, because she’s been worried about telling him since resigning to say something last night, and it’s a massive relief that he was not only prepared to listen, but that he took her seriously, too.

 

“This damn town, I tell you,” Nedley curses under his breath, and Nicole’s about to question him when he finishes the sentence for her. “More oddness here than I’ve ever been able to make sense of.”

 

“Really?” Nicole asks curiously, her own interest piqued now, narrowing her eyes. “What do you mean?”

 

“Christ, I don’t even know where to start,” Nedley says, waving his hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about that now, Haught. We’ve got enough on our plate, I think. Why don’t you go home and get some rest, hmmm? We can talk more tomorrow.”

 

“Sure thing, sir,” Nicole replies with a nod, trying to keep the disappointment out of her voice, because she wants to pull Nedley’s last comment apart, but senses he’s closed that avenue of conversation down for now. “Oh, one last thing. Wynonna - Miss Earp - said if we weren’t gonna release Doc this mornin’ that she wanted someone to send word, and I said I’d tell her if that were the case…”

 

“He can go as soon as he’s awake,” Nedley grumbles, a smile on his lips. “We don't need to keep him any longer. It was only a formality, havin’ him here. So, Wynonna came after all, huh? She’s normally here at dusk like clockwork if he’s not home by then, and she says it’s for the good of the land that she’s here for him, but…”

 

“It’s not,” Nicole says, smiling in return, casting a look back to Doc. “I got that impression good and strong last night myself.”

 

“They’ll get their act together,” Nedley says with a look that speaks to the wistfulness of unrealised love. “Or Wynonna will, one day or another. I know she will. You might find you help with that without meanin’ to, actually.”

 

“How do you make that, sir?” Nicole asks, genuinely surprised, frowning at Nedley.

 

“I hope you’ll not think it’s out of place,” Nedley says, clearing his throat roughly before continuing. “But… I think you’ll show her it’s not weakness to have someone to lean on, like I’ve seen Waverly already start to do with you.”

 

“I hope so, sir,” Nicole says, trying to sound unaffected by Nedley’s words.

 

“Get out of here, Haught,” Nedley offers after that, tossing his head roughly towards the door, handing Nicole’s hat to her. “You’ve done a good job. Get some rest. You deserve it.”



-



Nedley’s affirmation carries her like she’s moving on pure elation, a feeling that only intensifies as she nears Waverly’s shop, because Nedley had believed her, and he’d validated her, and tonight she gets to go on her second formal date with Waverly Earp.

 

There are only one or two early souls moving around the street, watering animals tied up, just ridden into town, or preparing to open their shops, and the sun isn’t up yet, but Waverly Earp is, and that’s the next best thing.

 

She’s walking around the very back of the shop when Nicole reaches the front door, waving a little shyly, beaming when Waverly’s face breaks out in a grin at her appearance.

 

Oakley sees her, too, her tail whipping around behind her at the sight of Nicole. She gets wound between Waverly’s legs when she makes her way to unbolt the door for Nicole, sweeping down gracefully to scoop Oakley into her arms before pulling the door open.

 

“Good mornin’,” Nicole says easily, removing her hat and walking through the door that Waverly holds open for her.

 

“Mornin’ to you, too, Deputy,” Waverly replies, her tone light like the breeze that had carried Nicole here. “I think someone here’s happy to see you?”

 

“Only her, huh?” Nicole says playfully, her eyes taking in as much as she can in the morning light. “I’ve gotta do somethin’ to change my approach then I guess, if I want everyone to be happy to see me?”

 

“Oakley’s not the only one happy to see you,” Waverly returns with a little smile that makes her heart swoop.

 

There’s a string of tension that tugs between the two of them, tight and bold, that’s pulling Nicole inch by inch closer to Waverly, and she can see the same power beckoning Waverly towards her, too.

 

She’s never had a problem with her own self-control, ever, normally able to keep it on a tight leash like an animal, but there’s something about Waverly Earp that makes her want to throw caution to the wind and act around Waverly in ways she knows full well are completely inappropriate.

 

Because she knows it’s wrong, but all she wants to do, in full sight of whomever should walk past and see, is lean down and kiss Waverly for everything she’s worth. She wants to slide her hand along Waverly’s jaw and curl her fingers around the nape of Waverly’s neck and sigh when Waverly moves towards her of her own accord before their lips just

 

“Nicole,” Waverly says softly, and Nicole has the impression that this is maybe the third or fourth time she’s said Nicole’s name, trying to catch her attention. “Nicole, are you alright?”

 

She shakes her head, clearing the ghost of Waverly’s jaw beneath her fingertips to look at Waverly with a warm smile.

 

“Fine,” she replies with a slightly coy smile. “I’m fine, sorry. I think I was daydreamin’ for a second.”

 

“You were?” Waverly asks sweetly, tipping her head to the side in the same length of motion by which she also reaches to take Nicole’s hand. “What about?”

 

“You,” Nicole replies simply, because she doesn’t see any reason not to tell Waverly, especially not when she’s rewarded with the smile she is. And the blush, too.

 

“You were?” Waverly asks, her cheeks pink when she finally looks up to meet Nicole’s eye, squeezing Nicole’s hand slightly.

 

“Of course I was,” Nicole returns with a more playful smile, turning her grip in Waverly’s so she can properly thread their fingers together.

 

“And is this a regular occurrence?” Waverly questions shyly, her blush only deepening and her eyes fluttering closed at the feeling of Nicole’s fingers sliding between her own.

 

“Oh, of course,” Nicole replies, her voice smooth and her body moving towards Waverly’s. “I’d lose count how many times a day, if I tried to keep track.”

 

“You would?” Waverly breathes more than says, her eyes going a little glassy with the realisation.

 

Waverly parts her lips on the last word, her eyes dropping to Nicole’s lips at the same instant that Nicole looks to meet them, and it takes balling her hand into a fist, digging her nails into her palm, to stop Nicole from leaning in.

 

“Hi,” Nicole says instead, her eyes finding the curve of Waverly’s lips this time as she desperately tries to rein herself in.

 

“Hi,” Waverly replies, smiling at what must be a slightly lost gaze on Nicole’s face. “Did your night pass well?”

 

“It did, actually,” Nicole says with a nod, almost all of her energy centered around Waverly’s thumb stroking over the lines of bones on the top of her hand. “I met Doc Holliday.”

 

“You did?” Waverly asks, brightening, leaning up on her tiptoes in excitement. “Oh, does that mean…”

 

“I met your sister again?” Nicole finishes for her, watching Waverly light up as she does so. “Sure did.”

 

“Doc’s wonderful isn’t he?” Waverly says warmly, and Nicole can feel the affection Waverly obviously has for him conveyed easily through her words.

 

“He was,” Nicole replies, her voice pleasantly surprised, as she had been upon meeting him. “He cares a great deal about your sister, too, if you’ll permit me to say?”

 

“Of course you may,” Waverly nods, her expression soft at Nicole’s observation. “I’m pleased you were able to deduce as much. To be honest, it’s a little hard to describe their relationship without seein’ it with your own eyes.”

 

“I take your meanin’,” Nicole replies, her gaze moving to the window to ensure their continued privacy before shifting to settle on Waverly again. “It was nice to see them interactin’ a little. I imagine it’s the same when they’re at home?”

 

“It is, and speakin’ of which,” Waverly starts a little nervously, her head dropping halfway through her sentence. “I’m sure you’re probably exhausted from the night, but I wondered if you were still prepared to come out to the homestead tonight?”

 

“Of course I am,” Nicole says quickly, before pulling back on her eagerness, only to see Waverly trying to suppress a smile at it. “I’d…  I’d really like that. It’s your home, Waverly. I’d be… well, to be frank, I’d be honoured to see it.”

 

“It’s nothin’ really,” Waverly tries to reason, but Nicole isn’t having a second of it. “It’s-”

 

“It’s your home , Waverly,” Nicole says with a significance, because she’s not undervaluing what this moment means to her, and she wants Waverly to know that. “Even if it’s not a place you lay your head as often now, it’s still your home. And I’d be honoured if you’d allow me to visit it for myself.”

 

Waverly breathes something that sounds like half-disbelief and half-shaky wonder, and it makes Nicole sad how little people must have valued Waverly Earp her whole life, if something like this gets that reaction.

 

“I’d love for you to see it,” Waverly says quietly when she does speak, her voice not quite solid. “It’s not a place I like to be often, but there are a few good… there are a small number of things I’d like to show you.”

 

“And I’d love to see them,” Nicole replies with a stability that she hopes Waverly feels like she can lean against. “I won’t need the whole day to rest. We could ride out together a little before sunset if you’d like?”

 

“Together?” Waverly asks, obviously choosing to pick that detail out of Nicole’s sentence, and for a moment she’s worried she’s assumed too much, that the closeness of a ride that far might be more than Waverly is comfortable with.

 

“I mean,” Nicole rushes to backtrack. “We can of course ride out separately if you’d rather, I just thought…”

 

“No,” Waverly replies, shaking her head as a new blush breaks across her cheeks. “No, I’d… I’d like that very much. Ridin’ out together, I mean.”

 

“You would?” Nicole asks with a slight tremor in her voice as the image of Waverly, nestled into her front, actually takes hold in her mind.

 

“Yeah,” Waverly says a little coyly, dropping her head bashfully again. “Yeah, I really would.”

 

They both take a moment, lost in thought - no, the daydream - of the ride before Waverly comes back to her senses a little.

 

“And sunset isn’t too late?” Waverly asks, and Nicole can hear the excitement in her voice now, just tempered enough to sit below elation.

 

“Sunset is perfect,” Nicole says smoothly, her whole body warm with the anticipation of this evening now. “It’ll make for a lovely ride. Does it take long? I’ve just realised I don’t actually know how far it is.”

 

“Half an hour at a quick pace,” Waverly answers, her brow wrinkling as she considers Nicole’s question. “Longer at a slower one, but I don’t mind takin’ our time. If that’s what you’d like, too?”

 

“I can think of few things I’d like more,” Nicole returns, and she tries to reserve making too much of an advance on Waverly, wanting to respect where her boundaries are to something so new, but sometimes she can’t help opening the bottle on her charm. Just a little.

 

She’s not even really trying, but the slightly different timbre in her voice makes Waverly shiver, and she moves closer to Nicole, infinitesimally, and Nicole considers that a victory won.

 

“Will your sister join us for the evenin’?” Nicole asks politely, and as keen as she is to get to know Wynonna, she’s half-hoping Waverly says no, only because she wants as much time alone with Waverly as possible. “Because I can ask Gus for food for us all if you’d-”

 

“I’ll organise supper,” Waverly cuts across her gently. “It’s only fair, after you did so last time. And as much as I’d like you and Wynonna to become better acquainted, I… is it so bad to say that I want you all for myself?”

 

“Not at all,” Nicole replies finally, after her stomach settles from dropping. “I can say the sentiment is most certainly true for myself, too.”

 

“So,” Waverly says, her breath leaving her body in a rush, like she has a chest full of something she’s almost bubbling to express. “This evenin’, then? I’ll come by and collect you just before sunset?”

 

“That sounds wonderful,” Nicole nods happily, and she can see the grin on Waverly’s face widening further and further in something that looks like anticipation and excitement.

 

“I can hardly wait,” Waverly admits, and Nicole can tell that she’s brimming with the same sort of tension that Nicole herself is full of.

 

“Nor can I,” Nicole offers in kind, and she knows the time is nearing for her to leave, but she’s not sure how she’s going to make her feet move.

 

“I wish you could stay here ‘till the evenin’,” Waverly says a little sheepishly, lowering her gaze before looking up to Nicole brightly.

 

“As do I,” Nicole returns, before smiling. “Although I’m afraid I might fall asleep on the back of Lady Jane if I did so, and I don’t think that would do well for you or her.”

 

“True,” Waverly laughs softly, squeezing Nicole’s hand a little. “And we can't have that at all, can we?”

 

“I’d like to be present for as much of the evenin’ as possible, so I’m gonna say no,” Nicole says playfully before a huge yawn crawls it’s way up and out of her lungs.

 

“You need to rest,” Waverly says, her whole body softening as she speaks. “Go, Nicole. And you can have me all evenin’, alright? I’m not goin’ anywhere unless it’s at your side.”

 

“Anyone’d think you were tryin’ to get rid of me,” Nicole says with a bite of cheek, to which Waverly’s expression changes, but not in a way that’s by any means bad.

 

She’s not sure what Waverly’s game is, or what she’s trying to do, but before she can ascertain it for herself, Waverly shows her. In the same heartbeat, Waverly lifts up on her tiptoes, beckoning Nicole down with a little pressure on their intertwined hands, to press a lingering kiss to Nicole’s cheek.

 

“Most definitely not,” Waverly breathes into her ear when her lips lift off Nicole’s cheek, and it feels like she’s breathing directly into Nicole’s bloodstream. “If I had my way, you’d never leave.”

 

She holds the position for a second longer than necessary, by which stage every single hair on Nicole’s body is high to attention, and when Waverly finally drops to her heels, Nicole isn’t sure she’s still breathing.

 

“I believe I may have found my match in you, Waverly Earp,” Nicole admits a little shakily, struggling to wrestle her heartbeat into submission.

 

“And I in you, Nicole Haught,” Waverly replies, beaming at the compliment, before her expression turns mock-serious. “Now go to bed, won’t you?”

 

“Yes ma’am,” Nicole says with a laugh, unlacing their hands with some difficulty, not for any other reason but for the fact that she really doesn’t want to. “I’ll see you this evenin’?”

 

“You’d better,” Waverly sends back playfully, walking Nicole the few steps to the door and opening it for her to leave. “Have a good rest, Deputy. And thank you for callin’ by.”

 

“Any time, Miss Earp,” Nicole says officially, for the sake of a couple walking past the shop a few feet away on the road, before turning back to wink at Waverly.

 

Waverly beams at the small note of attention, and Nicole’s smile doesn’t leave her face until she walks through the door of the Inn.

 

“I’m sure most of the other deputies don’t come off a night shift with a smile like that,” Gus says with a wry grin when Nicole takes a few steps towards the front desk. “Haven’t been up to any kinda mischief already have you?”

 

“Pardon?” Nicole asks, confused for a moment before she realises Gus is teasing her. “No, no mischief, I just stopped in to—”

 

“See Waverly?” Gus finishes for her, her smile growing wider. “I never would have guessed.”

 

“How did you…?” Nicole asks with a frown, before Gus smirks and puts her out of her misery.

 

“You’re smilin’ wide enough to split your face, Deputy,” Gus answers, raising an eyebrow as she gestures to the corner of her own mouth.

 

“Oh,” Nicole says, immediately trying to school her face before Gus shakes her head, indicating Nicole needn’t bother.

 

“It’s alright. I won’t tell a soul,” Gus says smoothly, before tilting her head as if sizing Nicole up. “Waverly tells me she’s thinkin’ of takin’ you out to the homestead tonight?”

 

“She is,” Nicole replies, not bothering to try and hide her smile this time. “I’m gonna ride the both of us out after I have a rest today.”

 

“It’ll be good for you to see the place,” Gus says a little roughly. “If you’re plannin’ on stickin’ around. She’s not overly fond of the place, but I know Wynonna would have her out there more often in a heartbeat.”

 

“Perhaps she just needs a few new memories out there?” Nicole suggests thoughtfully, not blaming Wynonna for missing having Waverly there one bit.

 

“Perhaps,” Gus returns, giving Nicole an approving nod, obviously appreciative of the comment. “I think you might be right, Deputy.”

 

“Oh, I met Doc last night,” Nicole adds after she can see Gus finish processing the last thought in her head.

 

“Christ, what did he do now?” Gus asks with a frown. “Another fight, was it?”

 

“It was, but it wasn’t under the circumstances he told Wynonna about,” Nicole clarifies, eager to have Gus understand the truth behind the matter, confident that this won’t compromise the confidentiality she had promised to retain in regards to the matter with Wynonna personally.

 

“What do you mean by that?” Gus asks curiously, her frown easing a little at the sides.

 

“Well he did find himself in a fight,” Nicole confirms, following up quickly when the frown deepens again. “But it was on account of him protecting the honour of Wynonna and Waverly against a few men in the bar that had taken it upon themselves to do them a disservice.”

 

“He what?” Gus asks, and Nicole can see her putting this, and a number of other instances under her own scrutiny.

 

“Champ Hardy and a few others were braggin’ or something equally awful in the saloon, and Doc took umbrage to their speech, steppin’ in to defend the two of them, gaining a split lip and a night in the cells for his trouble.”

 

“Is this the first time that’s been the reason Nedley’s thrown him in a cell overnight?” Gus asks slowly, watching carefully for Nicole’s reaction.

 

“I don’t know for certain, but from the way Nedley reacted, I’m thinkin’ this was the last in a reasonably long line of occurrences,” Nicole answers, her reply careful. “He’s really never told Wynonna the truth before?”

 

“I don’t think he’s told anyone the truth before,” Gus says with a slightly amused tone. “I mean, I know he cares for the girl, but… he’s somethin’, huh. Wonder why hasn’t ever said anythin’?”

 

“I suppose because if he said what the reason was, Wynonna’d want to know what they were sayin’, and I suppose he didn’t want to risk hurtin’ her feelin’s. Or Waverly’s,” Nicole replies with an honest shrug.

 

“And here we were thinkin’ he was just a troublemaker,” Gus reflects, shaking her head. “I knew there was somethin’ else to the boy, but I didn’t know he was that much of a man.”

 

“Guess you just never know about some people, huh?” Nicole says, smiling thoughtfully, before snapping her attention back to Gus. “He’s a much better man than I think most give him credit for, that’s for sure.”

 

“Well, perhaps I’ll have to have a word with Mr. Holliday the next time he crosses my path,” Gus says, her eyes narrowing a little. “See if I can’t get to the bottom of a few things myself.”

 

“Please don’t mention what I’ve told you,” Nicole says quickly. “I’m not… I made a promise not to mention anythin’ to Wynonna about what he’d done, and he didn’t explicitly say I was to keep it from anyone else, but…”

 

“Quit your worryin’, Deputy,” Gus says soothingly, and Nicole takes a breath in reply. “I won’t say a thing about anythin’ you’ve said. Lots of other ways to get that kinda information out of him.”

 

“I don’t doubt your effectiveness for a second, Gus,” Nicole says, laughing a little, because she doesn’t doubt Gus could get blood out of stone if the woman needed to.

 

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Gus says, directing a good-natured scowl at Nicole. “Now, you should be gettin’ yourself off to bed, Deputy. Can’t have you fallin’ off the back of that horse if you’re takin’ Waverly out to the homestead later.”

 

“No,” Nicole admits seriously, and it brings a matter forefront to her attention.

 

Because Waverly’s as safe with her as she would be with anyone else, but they’ll be out in the dark, along with any danger associated with that, regardless, so Nicole needs to ensure she’s as alert as possible.

 

“No,” Nicole repeats again, looking back at Gus. “You’re absolutely right. I’m not goin’ to be any use at all unless I’ve got a few hours of sleep under me.”

 

“Do you want anythin’ to eat before you head upstairs?” Gus asks, her voice a little softer. “I can whip you up somethin’ as quick as you like?”

 

“I might take you up on that offer when I wake,” Nicole answers, gratefully. “But I still feel well fed from that meal last night, thank you again. Doc and Wynonna helped me get to the bottom of it, actually.”

 

“You sure you had enough with Wynonna there eatin’ it, too?” Gus asks, raising her eyebrow in amusement. “I’ve never seen anyone eat like that girl does.”

 

“Plenty,” Nicole says easily, noting the way Gus beams a little at the compliment of all her food disappearing. “You packed enough for four, at least.”

 

“Well, I knew you’d share whatever I gave you if there was anyone else there,” Gus says, watching Nicole carefully, smiling a very small smile her way. “Even if you only had enough for you, so I packed you a little more. Just in case.”

 

Honestly, she’s more than a little impressed at the fact that Gus has taken enough notice of her to deduce such a thing, touched by her thoughtfulness.

 

“That’s very kind of you, Gus,” Nicole says softly. “I appreciate it, and I know the others did, also.”

 

“Least I can do if you’re out there fendin’ the girls off from the likes of Champ Hardy, and worse ,” Gus says dismissively, but Nicole can tell it’s more than that, that she’s beginning to become a little fond of Nicole, as Nicole is of her.

 

“You know I’d do that without the promise of food, don’t you?” Nicole returns a little cheekily, to which Gus grins. “Although I won’t deny it’s a very welcome treat bein’ fed so well.”

 

“I know you would, Deputy,” Gus says, and her voice is a little softer now, slightly affectionate around the edges. “Why do you think I don’t mind doin’ it? Because you don’t expect a drop.”

 

“That I most certainly do not,” Nicole replies, smiling a small, soft smile at the same instant a yawn ripples through her entire body.

 

“Bed, Miss Haught,” Gus says in a matronly tone, shooing Nicole away towards the stairs. “I’ll have somethin’ little ready for you when you wake up, to see you through until dinner.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole laughs, dragging her tired body towards the stairs, and she’s surprised at the level of her exhaustion, because she hasn’t had an active night, but staying up seems to have been draining, nonetheless.

 

The steps seem three longer than usual by the time she reaches the top, her body beginning to stretch with the desire to sleep. She doesn’t waste any time once she closes and locks the door behind her, unbuttoning her vest while she walks across the room so it’s hanging in her hands by the time she reaches the chair, draping it over, closely followed by her shirt, and then her pants.

 

She removes her bandana from around her neck last, setting it carefully atop the other clothes before turning to rid herself of the last of her day clothes, her undershirt, swapping it for her nightshirt.

 

It’s tempting, then, to fall heavily amidst the soft, welcoming covers on the bed, obviously carefully made by Gus while Nicole was at work, but she can’t pass up the chance to glance over to Waverly one last time. Nicole can’t see her at first, her view of the downstairs half of Waverly’s shop much less visible than the top part, but almost like she knew Nicole had just thrown her glance in Waverly’s direction, Waverly walks to the front door to unbolt it for her first customer, a woman waiting outside.

 

She looks up to Nicole, whether having sensed Nicole was looking down, or simply hoping to see Nicole herself, and their eyes meet .

 

It’s something else, that moment of connection, and Nicole feels her stomach drop, climbing messily before swooping again when Waverly raises her hand to Nicole, in a gesture that is completely innocent, but to Nicole looks almost like Waverly is blowing her a kiss.

 

Her face splits in a smile, and her whole body feels like it lifts a few inches off of the floor at the simple sight, before Waverly is forced to turn and follow her customer inside. She gives Nicole one final wave before disappearing from view, and Nicole could easily spend all day watching, but it’s enough. That one small moment, it’s more than enough.

 

Elated now, it’s easy for Nicole to drop gracefully onto the bed, and she wants to lie there and play the moment over again and again and again in her head, of Waverly’s smile and the smell of her perfume, freshly dabbed on her neck, and the feeling of her lips on the shell of Nicole’s ear, but the second her head settles on the pillow, her eyes flutter closed, and she sleeps.



-

Chapter Text

-

 

Nicole wakes a few hours later, the soft caress of sleep ushering her back down deeper while her consciousness battles to stay alert. It takes her a moment to become fully conscious, and the second she does, the planned events of the night ahead of her wake her immediately.

 

A date , Nicole thinks, rolling over in bed sleepily. I’m going on another date with Waverly Earp . To her home. She’s taking me home.

 

She glances briefly at the pocket watch that stays propped beside her bed when she’s not wearing it, absorbing the hands eventually, sighing in relief when they read four in the afternoon. Plenty of time for her to get ready before Waverly arrives to collect her for their ride out to the homestead.

 

Rolling herself out of bed, Nicole stretches long and hard, uncoiling the muscles held stiff from her hours of sleep, before standing and walking over to the basin, freshly filled with water by Gus earlier in the day.

 

Nicole would much rather have had the opportunity to visit the baths before their evening together, but she knows she’d be too pressed for time, and she’d rather spend the time with Waverly instead of soaking alone. She does as thorough a job of cleaning herself as she can with the fresh water, though, stripping right down to nothing before rinsing all over, feeling significantly more awake by the time she finishes.

 

It’s warm enough in her room that she doesn’t shiver too hard while she’s looking for a towel to dry herself off with. She takes her time getting herself ready, putting on her heavier woollen pants, and her gun at her waist, but her lighter shirt, in an attempt to strike a good balance between the current temperature, and the temperature she knows they’ll be contending with on their ride back into town much later.

 

Nicole’s about halfway through her braid, something done by muscle memory in her morning routine, before she stops herself.

 

She thinks back to how much Waverly had seemed to enjoy seeing it out and long instead, and settles for binding it together low on her shoulder, a good halfway measure that’s still practical enough for riding, and isn’t likely to get in the way should she need to have her wits about her at any stage, but closer to the style Nicole knows Waverly had a preference for.

 

Walking over to the mirror, Nicole buttons and then unbuttons the top two closures on her shirt, before nodding, pleased with her overall appearance.

 

She winds Waverly’s bandana around her wrist, still nice and clean on account of the lack of riding she’s had to do over the last day, readying herself to walk downstairs and wait, before she remembers one final thing. The small bottle of perfume Waverly had gifted her sits pride of place on the dresser with a few of her other tokens: a gold ring and a necklace she’d been given as a child by her grandmother, but had never really worn.

 

She’s used the perfume sparingly over the last few days, despite the fact that she can’t get enough of the scent, wanting to ensure she can draw the bottle out for as long as she’s able in the event that she doesn’t get another, but it’s important for her to show how much she appreciates the gift tonight, so she dabs a dot on her wrists and behind her ears, closing her eyes to breathe in the scent she marries so easily to Waverly in her head.

 

It’s heavenly and soft and it makes her heart pound a little quicker, so much so that it takes her a moment to come back to herself, focusing in the sensation of her bare heels on the ground to help settle back into her skin. She takes a seat on the edge of the bed next, pulling her socks and boots on before standing with her palms flat on her thighs, brushing the front of her pants.

 

She’s beginning to feel a little nervous now - excited, but nervous, too - and she wishes so badly she’d thought earlier to buy Waverly some small token to present her with this evening, resolving to make sure she picks something up tomorrow, instead, to thank her for what will undoubtedly be a wonderful evening.

 

Casting one final glance in the mirror to ascertain that she’s still happy with her appearance, Nicole smiles, a little buoyed by the reflection looking back, before making her way downstairs, grabbing her jacket at the last second, not that she thinks she’ll need it, more than acclimated to the cooler temperature at night, but Waverly might.

 

She takes one last look at her pocket watch, just after four-thirty, time yet to call downstairs and settle her rumbling stomach before Waverly arrives, a necessity, given it’ll likely be a few hours before she’s able to actually sit down with Waverly and eat. Gus is sitting at the front desk, thumbing through the ledger book in front of her, frowning at something she appears to be looking for, and from where they are, Nicole can also hear two men in what sounds to be a reasonably important conversation.

 

“Evenin’, Gus,” Nicole says softly, so as not to startle the older woman. “Is everythin’ alright?”

 

“Deputy,” Gus says, and she’s not sure, but Nicole thinks Gus sounds both relieved at her presence, and surprised to see her, as though she had been deep in thought up to that point.

 

“Is everythin’ alright?” Nicole asks again when Gus doesn’t answer right away, staring at something over Nicole’s shoulder.

 

“Everythin’s…” Gus trails off before seeming to realise who it is she has in front of her, shaking her head. “Alright. We're all alright.”

 

Something’s most definitely off , Nicole knows it is, she can feel it in her chest, beating next to her heart, only she doesn’t know quite what it is yet .

 

“Gus,” Nicole says again, in a way she means to be soothing, because she’s not sure why, but Gus appears to be a little shaken, and Nicole’s not seen her shaken the whole week she’s been in Purgatory. “Gus, what are those men talkin’ about?”

 

“Someone else has gone missin’,” Gus replies with a voice that sounds a little…broken, Nicole thinks, and when the words actually sink in, Nicole feels her stomach just drop .

 

“When?” Nicole asks breathlessly, feeling like the world’s been pulled from beneath her feet, because everything was fine…everything was fine , and now… “When did… when did they go missin’?”

 

She ,” Gus says, confirming the question Nicole hasn’t asked yet, because two women could be a coincidence, sheer luck, but three missing women is a pattern. “She went missin’ last night. Daisy Monroe. Didn’t come back in from feedin’ the horses. Her father’s just come in to see the Sheriff while you were restin’.”

 

“While I was…” Nicole trails off, and she feels sick , because she was on duty last night, she was responsible for the guard of the town, and on her watch, someone else has gone missing.

 

“Now you listen to me,” Gus growls at her, firmly. “Ain’t no bit of this that’s your fault, alright? It wouldn’t have mattered if it was you or Nedley on watch, their farm is an hour’s ride from town. What was gonna happen was gonna happen, regardless.”

 

“Why didn’t anyone come and wake me?” Nicole asks, her voice feeling strung out and her heart upset, because maybe Nedley hadn’t because he blamed her. Because he thought it was her fault .

 

“Nedley came here himself, and said not to,” Gus says, like she can read Nicole’s question on her tongue. “That you needed your rest, because he wants you good and alert tomorrow. And he didn’t want to see you tonight, neither. Said you were to go about your plans, they’ve got more’n enough people lookin’ tonight.”

 

“But…” Nicole attempts, but Gus is shaking her head again.

 

“No buts, young lady,” Gus says sternly, eyeing Nicole warily. “That’s the Sheriff’s order there. And don’t forget I know who you’d be standin’ up tonight, too.”

 

“I wouldn’t ever want to…” Nicole says quickly, because she’d never dream of standing Waverly up, but she could go and help once she had Waverly safely home much later on…

 

“And you’re not to stay up all night, goin’ to help them after, neither,” Gus returns, finishing Nicole’s thought for her. “You need rest, Nicole. And although you’re skilled, sure, you’re still only one person. You’ve gotta let them handle tonight, because believe me, they’re gonna need you tomorrow, when they’re ready to rest.”

 

“Okay,” Nicole replies, nodding as her mind tries to make sense of everything. “And he’s…”

 

“Certain,” Gus affirms confidently. “I’m certain. You think he wants to run you out of town the first chance he gets while you’re tryin’ to find your place here?”

 

“No,” Nicole admits, folding her shoulders a little in acquiescence, and Gus breathes in relief a little, too.

 

She knows both Gus and Nedley are right, of course they are, and if Nicole hadn’t arrived, they would be a man down anyway. And she knows Gus is right, too, that she couldn’t have helped that girl, not really, but that doesn’t stop her feeling sick with guilt, regardless. She tries to shake the thought from the front of her mind to focus on her actual plan for the evening, her mind and her heart turning to Waverly instead, and it doesn’t help completely, but the next breath comes just a little easier.

 

“Have you seen Waverly this afternoon?” Nicole asks, trying to make herself calm. “Has she… did she say when she was gonna call by?”

 

“I’ve seen her, alright,” Gus answers with a smile that says she knows more than she’s willing to share. “She said she’d be here any minute now, actually. Why don’t you come and have a little bite before she arrives? Help settle yourself a little.”

 

“Sure,” Nicole says a little vaguely, her mind wandering back to her guilt, allowing Gus to lead her by the arm into the kitchen, bypassing the men still talking in the dining room.

 

She sits at Gus’s direction at the small table, gladly accepting the sweet looking bread roll that Gus offers her. The roll is gone by the time Gus turns back around, and Nicole can only look a little guilty and shrug, as if to say I guess I was hungry after all .

 

The older woman comes back a few minutes later with a bottle of something deeply amber, placing the liquor and two small glasses in front of Nicole. Nicole gives Gus a slightly wary look, but doesn’t say anything, because as much as she needs to have a clear head, and not be under the influence of anything, she can’t deny that this might actually help.

 

Gus pours two generous measures, one for each of them, gesturing for Nicole to take the glass in front of her, before raising her own.

 

“To health amidst chaos,” Gus says clearly, saluting some unknown soul, before tipping her head back and drinking the shot down in one gulp.

 

Nicole wants to add something - a prayer, even though she’s never been a religious woman, or a plea, even though it’s been a long time since she asked anyone else for help - but the words fall flat on the palms of her hands, so she raises her glass, and toasts to Gus instead.

 

“To keeping family safe,” Nicole says simply, drinking her own shot, and Gus’s eyes glow with the sentiment in it, before she nods gravely.

 

“A very good toast, Deputy,” Gus offers, nodding solemnly before turning to Nicole seriously. “You feel better in your mind now?”

 

Nicole knows her concern is for Waverly in this instance, that Nicole will treat her to the evening she deserves tonight, but she can hear the worry in her voice for Nicole, too.

 

“I do, actually,” Nicole replies, and she’s surprised by how much that’s actually true, because she does feel better after her short time with Gus, significantly so.

 

“Good,” Gus returns easily, a relieved and very small smile on her lips before they both hear a noise across the room that can only mean Waverly’s arrival.

 

Oakley precedes her, tearing across the floor and all but throwing herself into Nicole’s lap. It’s a very welcome distraction, actually, and Nicole is busy trying to fend off Oakley licking at any inch of bare she can see, when her eyes find Waverly Earp.

 

“You should really carry her when you’re in here, you know, kid,” Gus scowls at Waverly when she walks through the door a moment later, but Nicole knows her heart isn’t in it, because she bends to pat the pup on Nicole’s lap, and her whole face lights up.

 

But Nicole doesn’t have eyes for that, she only has eyes for Waverly, because she looks beautiful .

 

She’s wearing a dress tonight, and it takes Nicole a moment to realise that she hasn’t actually seen Waverly in a dress before, only a skirt, because she’s so distracted by how stunning Waverly looks.

 

The dress is a deep olive, and not dissimilar to the dress Nicole herself had worn on their date a few days ago, but different enough that it takes Nicole’s breath away. She stands at Waverly’s entrance, chivalry and something deeper in her belly drawing her to her feet the second Gus scoops Oakley out of her arms, moving back to give the two of them a little privacy.

 

“Hi,” Waverly says airily, her eyes moving across Nicole, wide and a little glassy. “You look…”

 

“Waverly, you…” Nicole says with equal coherence, or lack thereof, her cheeks burning distantly at the way Waverly’s eyes move almost with a hunger over her presentation.

 

Gus makes some noise of dismissal behind them, but Nicole barely hears it, because Waverly takes a step towards Nicole, careful not to actually touch her given the dining room is open just behind her, but with eyes heavy enough that their interest may as well be tangible.

 

“Hi,” Nicole says finally, gulping around the lump in her throat, her eyes still not done absorbing the view in front of her.

 

“Hi, yourself,” Waverly says a little coyly, risking a lightning-quick touch to Nicole’s arm. “You look…”

 

“So do you,” Nicole replies dumbly, but sweetly, in return, and they both stand there in silence for a moment, eyes bright and alert and ravenous, before Gus clears her throat.

 

“You’d better get goin’ if you want to catch the last of the light,” Gus says from behind them, and Nicole can hear the amusement in her voice, even if she can’t actually see her.

 

“Of course,” Nicole says quickly, nodding, turning to Gus to acknowledge her. “Waverly, are you ready to make our way?”

 

“When you are,” Waverly says sweetly, smiling warmly at Nicole before looking to Gus. “You sure you’re alright with her? Because I’m sure Mattie’ll have her for the night if you’re—”

 

“She’s quite alright here,” Gus says quickly, and Nicole smiles at the woman’s obvious fondness for the small animal. “We’ll be just fine, won’t we, shadow?”

 

Oakley leans up, licking the underside of Gus’s chin, making them all laugh before Nicole turns back to Waverly.

 

“Shall we?” Nicole asks softly, holding her arm out for Waverly to take, even though they’re inside, and it’s just an excuse to touch in a way that’s actually socially acceptable, but Nicole will take it gladly. “Do we need anythin’ else with us?”

 

“All taken care of,” Waverly winks, gesturing to the small satchel at her hip that Nicole can now see is loaded with food, before looking over Nicole’s shoulder to Gus. “Thanks again for—”

 

“Anytime,” Gus replies, winking at Waverly quickly, obviously not wanting to ruin some kind of surprise before shooing them out. “Now, get, the pair of you. Make sure that Mattie’s alright, while you’re at it, won’t you?”

 

Nicole feels the temperature of her blood drop significantly, because she hadn’t thought about that, about the fact that they’ve got another missing girl and Mattie is so isolated out there by herself.

 

“We will,” Nicole says seriously, and Waverly, perceptive as she is, catches the look easily.

 

For a moment, Nicole thinks Waverly might actually ask what it is that’s just transpired between the two of them, but she doesn’t, allowing her attention to drift before pulling Nicole toward the dining room.

 

“Good night, Gus,” Waverly throws backward, turning her body in Nicole’s hold so she can look back at her aunt. “I’ll come get her in the mornin’ to save unsettlin’ her later on.”

 

“I get you for the whole night,” Gus coos down to Oakley, making Nicole and Waverly both smile. “Good night girls. And you be safe, you hear me?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole replies seriously, giving Gus a very quick salute before she rolls her eyes and turns her attention back to the pup, reaching over to the preparation table for a piece of dried meat.

 

With Gus and Oakley happily content in one another’s company, Nicole can turn her attention fully back to Waverly, smiling as Waverly beams up at her.

 

“It’s nice to see you,” Waverly says quietly when they enter the dining room, holding on a little tighter to Nicole’s arm, and Nicole’s about to reply when the men she had walked past earlier raise the level of their conversation.

 

She doesn’t catch a lot, thankfully, which means Waverly won’t have either, because Nicole wants to be able to tell Waverly in a manner in which she can release the information such that it doesn’t prompt panic, in a way that she can reassure Waverly. Not being overheard by two slightly-drunk guests of Gus’s.

 

It’s enough to slip her slightly into a melancholic frame of mind though, and she tries to shake it when they walk through and out into the Main Street, but it’s not so easily done, even in Waverly’s company.  If Waverly notes a difference, and somewhere Nicole knows that she has, she doesn’t say anything, choosing to sigh heavily into Nicole’s side instead, and Nicole is quite happy to accept that.

 

They walk down the Main Street, much quieter now, owing to the lateness of the day, and as heavy as her mind is, Nicole closes her eyes and focuses on the feeling of Waverly’s hand beneath her own in the crook of her elbow. The smell and quiet of the air, with her eyes closed, in this moment, they could be the only two people on the earth.

 

Waverly seems content to focus on the silence for a little while, too, and Nicole’s never really had this before, where the silence is comforting and not threatening or haunting, and it makes her feel easy, it makes her happy , and she thinks Waverly senses that, too. The end of the street approaches before Waverly gently breaks the silence, looking up to Nicole and biting her lip slightly.

 

“Thank you for doin’ this. For comin’ home with me,” Waverly says softly, and Nicole gazes back at her in amazement for a moment.

 

“Oh, Waverly,” Nicole says easily, leaning into Waverly’s warmth slightly. “Thank you for invitin’ me.”

 

“Can I confess somethin’?” Waverly asks, and Nicole can actually feel her nerves jump beneath her hand.

 

“Of course you can,” Nicole replies smoothly, nodding in encouragement. “Always.”

 

“I’m a little nervous,” Waverly admits finally after a moment’s silence, and when she looks up to Nicole next, she’s blushing. “To take you home, I mean.”

 

“Why do you feel nervous?” Nicole asks, a little concerned, because she hopes beyond hope that she hasn’t pressed Waverly somehow into thinking or feeling that she has to share this with Nicole if she isn’t ready.

 

“I’m just…” Waverly says before trailing off, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth again. “What if you don’t like it? What if it makes you think differently…? About me, I mean.”

 

Nicole softens, wanting nothing more in that moment than to sweep down and pull Waverly into a hug, but she can’t, even with the cloak of dusk around them, because they’re in the middle of the street, but she saves the emotion, intending to make up for it when they’re alone.

 

She can’t touch to express how she feels about Waverly, but she can speak, so she tries that instead.

 

“You listen to me, Waverly Earp,” Nicole says with a playful seriousness, drawing Waverly’s eye to her own. “Nothin’ short of you turnin’ into another person is goin’ to change that, you hear me? Lord, you could be runnin’ an opium den out there and I’d still probably feel the same.”

 

“Really?” Waverly breathes, and the relief is palpable, almost enough for Nicole to reach out and touch.

 

“Truly,” Nicole says easily, and Waverly beams a little brighter, lifting her head up higher at that realisation, too.

 

“I wish…” Waverly says to her then, turning her body into Nicole’s a little more, properly folding herself into Nicole’s side.

 

She’s looking at Nicole’s lips in a way that makes Nicole think she understands exactly what Waverly wants to say - wants to do, but can’t - and it drives everything from her mind and dries her throat…

 

…until she catches another MISSING poster nailed up alongside the other two on the last post before the street turns to Mattie’s road, and her pulse skips a beat in a way that makes her feel distinctly ill all over again.

 

Waverly visibly notices that time, too, but she still doesn’t say anything, and Nicole could kiss her for respecting the fact that if she wanted to talk, she would have, for now at least.

 

They talk about small things - Waverly’s afternoon, how Nicole slept - as they walk down the dirt road to Mattie’s house, nothing heavy or serious, obviously conscious of the fact that whatever they begin to talk about is likely to be interrupted by Mattie in a few minutes. During the day, Nicole might have gone straight to the stables first to see Lady Jane, but with things as they are, and night approaching, she steers them directly towards the house first instead.

 

A booming bark heralds their arrival, and Nicole can see the top of an enormous dog’s head through the window, shushed swiftly by Mattie, pushing in front of the dog to open the door.

 

“Do you mind if I let him out?” Mattie calls to them. “He won’t hurt you, but he’ll make a din if I just leave him in the house.”

 

Nicole feels Waverly tense reflexively beside her, and she doesn’t blame her, because she’s been around animals her entire life, but the dog is intimidating, there’s no doubt about that at all.

 

“I’m okay,” Waverly says beside her quietly, holding on a little tighter to Nicole’s arm in a motion that she doesn’t mind whatsoever. “I’m just… I haven’t been around big dogs a lot. We had smaller ones, growin’ up, and I loved them, but…”

 

“I can ask Mattie to leave him inside,” Nicole offers gently, putting her hand over Waverly’s in a gesture of reassurance. “She won’t mind. I’ll look after you, though, if he’s alright to come out. I promise.”

 

Waverly gives her a shaky nod that implicitly says, I trust you , before she calls out to Mattie. “It’s alright, Mattie. Let him out.”

 

Mattie nods, swinging the door open, allowing the dog to walk out behind her, and he lopes on long, high legs towards them, all the defensiveness of a moment ago completely gone.

 

“Not so bad after all, are you,” Nicole says, stepping in front of Waverly automatically when he walks towards them, effectively shielding Waverly entirely, but giving her plenty of room if she feels confident enough to step towards him herself.

 

She feels Waverly relax a little at her back, relieved Waverly hadn’t thought the gesture too overprotective, bending down toward him with an outstretched hand. The dog walks up to Nicole’s hand, sniffing it before promptly dropping to his haunches and rolling onto his back, exposing his belly, deferring to the obvious authority or something that he must be able to sense on Nicole.

 

She feels Waverly move next to her then, bending down and rubbing the dog’s belly, too, to his obvious delight, before standing back with her hands on Nicole’s shoulders lightly.

 

“You call yourself a guard dog,” Mattie scowls at the dog, bending to scratch at his stomach roughly, too, before standing to meet the eye of both women. “Evenin’ to you both. This is a surprise. I wasn’t expectin’ you till mornin’.”

 

“I hope it’s not a bother to drop by,” Nicole says apologetically, but Mattie shakes her head quickly.

 

“Not at all, Deputy,” Mattie reassures them both, looking from Waverly to Nicole. “Not at all. I presume you’re here to see young Lady J?”

 

“I’ve managed to trick the Deputy into comin’ out to see the homestead,” Waverly says with a smile, looking to Mattie and then back up to Nicole, but Nicole’s mind wanders a little as Waverly does so, only coming back to herself at the sound of a change in voice.

 

“I don’t think there’s much trickin’ to it, Miss Earp,” Mattie replies to Waverly in a tone softer than the one she uses for most other people. “I’m sure the Deputy is a willin’ companion.”

 

“Most definitely,” Nicole manages to return, but she’s a little distracted still, her mind replaying the image of the MISSING poster, when Waverly’s warmth moves temporarily at her side.

 

Mattie eyes her a little warily, but doesn’t call Nicole on her distraction just yet, locking the door behind her instead, and turning towards the stables.

 

“We had a good, short ride today, and I brushed her down after, so she’ll be in good form for a little nighttime outing,” Mattie remarks on the short walk to the barn.

 

“She’ll be fine to carry the both of us out all that way?” Waverly asks, looking briefly concerned before turning back between Nicole and Mattie.

 

“I forget, you won’t have seen her,” Mattie replies, smiling at Waverly. “Wait till you meet her, Waverly. You’ll know the two of you will be nothin’ for her.”

 

Waverly walks a little quicker then, and Nicole can’t stop the warmth that spreads through her body at Waverly’s obvious excitement to see her oldest friend. She breaks away from Nicole’s arm after a moment, walking ahead, looking back to them, grinning brightly.

 

“Everythin alright, Deputy?” Mattie asks quietly when Waverly is just out of earshot. “Has somethin’ happened, or your nerves gettin’ the better of you?”

 

“Is it that obvious?” Nicole sighs, disappointed in herself that she hasn’t been more discreet with her worry.

 

“Not overly, no,” Mattie reassures her, watching Waverly push through the barn door easily, not bothering to wait for them. “Although, Miss Earp is bound to pick up on it, if she hasn’t already, with the number of times she looks at you every minute.”

 

“There’s been a third disappearance,” Nicole says simply, coming to a stop just outside the stables, casting a glance to see Waverly near Lady Jane’s stall. “Another woman. That’s not a coincidence, Mattie. It can’t be.”

 

“Jesus Christ,” Mattie curses, stubbing her toe on the dirt when she stops still.

 

“You’ll make sure you’re extra vigilant, won’t you?” Nicole says seriously. “And if there’s anythin’ that bothers you, ride hard for town, come to the Inn, alright. Gus’ll find a bed for you.”

 

“I’m not gonna let nothin’ drive me off this land,” Mattie says stubbornly, and Nicole glares at her for a moment until she relents. “But I appreciate the concern, Deputy. Really, I do. And if I do find myself worried, I’ll come in. For sure.”

 

“You don’t have to be a martyr out here, you know?” Nicole says straight, not fussing around niceties, because Nicole doesn’t know Mattie well yet, but she has a distinct sense that this is the kind of women who appreciates a more direct approach. “You’re allowed to rely on someone else from time to time.”

 

“So they can let me down? The only person who won’t is the one standin’ in these boots,” Mattie says, gesturing to her feet, and Nicole can’t help but laugh at her stubbornness.

 

“I know,” Nicole says softly, turning to follow Waverly into the barn. “I had no one to depend on but that one for a long time, Mattie, but that person gets tired sometimes, I know she does, and it’s okay to let her rest.”

 

Nicole doesn’t wait for Mattie to answer before following Waverly into the barn, her heart swelling at the sight of Waverly patting Lady Jane’s neck softly, running her hand smoothly down to the horse’s shoulders.

 

“I was worried Waverly wouldn’t take to her, or she to Waverly, but…” Nicole says, trailing off, watching as Waverly takes Lady Jane’s muzzle in her hands, leaning her forehead to the top of the horse’s forehead.

 

“I don’t think that’s gonna be a problem,” Mattie finishes for her, laughing softly before whistling, obviously a little impressed at Waverly’s courage in approaching the impressively sized animal.

 

Nicole can see Waverly close her eyes and whisper something almost silently to Lady Jane before releasing a heavy breath, and pulling back slightly to look at Mattie and Nicole as they approach.

 

“She’s beautiful, Nicole,” Waverly says in awe of her horse, and Nicole falls effortlessly, even deeper, into adoration with her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horse so lovely.”

 

Waverly turns away from Lady Jane slightly to address Nicole and Mattie, her hand slipping from the horse’s muzzle, and before any of the can say anything else, Lady Jane headbutts Waverly gently, as if upset the affection has stopped.

 

“I think she might be of the same mind,” Nicole says sweetly, eyes for Waverly and Waverly alone, as she walks towards the stall. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her warm to someone so quick, save maybe Mattie. But I think that’s only ‘cause she’d figured out where her meals were gonna come from the second they met one another.”

 

“I resent that, Deputy,” Mattie replies, with mock-hurt, moving away as Gus had, to give the two of them a moment alone with Lady Jane.

 

“You think she likes me?” Waverly asks nervously, looking from Nicole to the horse, and then back again. “How?”

 

“I know she likes you,” Nicole affirms, taking a step closer into the shadow of Waverly’s body. “And I know that because we have been friends for a very long time, she and I.”

 

“Really?” Waverly asks, blushing a little, moving forward a breath in answer of Nicole’s compliment.

 

“Truly,” Nicole returns easily, grinning at Waverly’s smile.

 

“Do we need to do anythin’ else for her?” Waverly asks, turning back to glance at the horse quickly. “Does she need to eat? Before we…?”

 

“She’s already eaten,” Mattie confirms, turning back to the two of them. “Fed her an hour or so ago, so she’s good’n ready to go when you are.”

 

“Thank you,” Nicole says gratefully, moving around Waverly so she can pull the stall open and lead the horse out by the halter that she’s just slipped on. “For everythin’, Mattie. I’ll bring her back later on tonight, but I’ll try not to wake you.”

 

“No great concern if you do,” Mattie shrugs, before turning back to the both of them with a smirk. “Enjoy your evenin’, won’t you ladies? Don’t do anythin’ I wouldn’t.”

 

“So that leaves us with murder, or…” Nicole teases her before moving back to allow Waverly to approach the now saddled Lady Jane.

 

“That mouth’a yours is gonna get you into a fight one day, Deputy,” Mattie says with a playful warning, pointing her finger at Nicole.

 

“Already has,” Nicole replies, to which both she and Mattie both laugh before she turns to Waverly, giving Waverly her full attention. “Do you feel alright ridin’ in the front? Normally I’d take that, but…”

 

“Front is fine,” Waverly says quickly, her eyes flashing with something that looks like hunger or excitement, and Nicole feels her own blood pick up in response.

 

She throws Mattie a warning look when she catches her with a smirk off to the side, to which Mattie just winks at her before turning her attention to another horse a few stalls away.

 

“Do you ride often?” Nicole asks Waverly quietly, wracking her brain, unable to recall whether Waverly has already answered this question in the midst of their other conversations.

 

“Not as often as I used to when I was a child,” Waverly recalls, placing her foot in the stirrup and reaching for the saddle horn. “Wynonna's a much better rider than I am, but I do okay, I think?”