“Nic? A little help over here?!”
A slim twenty-something woman with a scruffy look about her that went beyond her baggy pants, sweatshirt, and straight black hair pulled untidily back into an elastic band, was struggling with a heavy cardboard box. Propped up against the railing of a porch, half supported by one of her legs brought awkwardly up underneath where the box tape was starting to give way, she tried her best to look over her shoulder to the moving van parked out in the street.
“Nic? Nicole?!” she shouted, a little desperately as she could feel the sweat on her face cause her glasses to slip down her nose a little, and both her vision and her grasp on the box slip with it.
Hurrying steps, and then one long arm reached under the box, whilst another reached over and pushed Christine’s square black glasses back up her nose. A happy, dimpled grin came back into focus.
“Can Purgatory Sheriff's department's newest deputy help you out, ma’am?” said Nicole Haught. Tall and lean, with red hair slightly damp from the exertions of moving day, and an excited puppyish energy about her, and Christine couldn't help but smile herself.
“I don’t know, but my wife can. What do you need all these books for anyway? I bought you a kindle last Christmas, you've barely touched it.” she grumbled good naturedly, as they shifted the box between them.
“Can’t get ‘Themes in Law Enforcement Leadership: Lessons Ancient and Modern’ for the kindle." teased Nicole right back, grinning at their easy banter as they carried the heavy box up the steps. Sharing the weight, like they'd shared all the burdens of their years together; between them.
Waverly Earp was swaying to the music that she’d put on to keep her company at Shorty’s as she cleaned the bar, preparing both it and herself for opening time. She was lost in thought about the events of the previous evening, and all that Wynonna's return meant.
The return of The Curse. The return of the one other person in the small town she could truly talk to about it, but that self same person who had been running from it, figuratively or literally, her whole life.
Distracted, she knocked the end of a beer tap, which sputtered open, soaking her top by the time she got it shut off.
“Perfect.” Waverly sighed, and then jumped when she heard a voice break into her reverie.
“When Nedley said the beer always flowed at Shorty's I didn't know he meant it literally!”
Waverly looked up to see a Sheriff's Deputy looking at her from the door. Her first thought was, wow, a female deputy, Purgatory really is coming on in leaps and bounds.
“You okay?” said the woman, a generous laugh in her voice, as she straightened from her loose lean against the door and started to stroll over to the bar.
“Yeah, just had a...a crazy night.”
“I'm sorry I - uh, the Sheriff's department wasn't here to help.”
Waverly’s second thought, as the woman smiled at her and introduced herself, was just, wow.
She was...something else. Waverly could feel a part of her brain racing in the background. Yes it said, you thought you might not be quite as straight as you've so far let small town assumptions paint you. No, you've not had any encounters in the real world that have let you be sure of this.
And as this Officer Nicole what-was-it takes her hand and shakes it; yes, it says, you are now sure. Very, very, sure.
Waverly could feel her nervousness in stark contrast to the smooth and apparently unflappable charm of the woman in front of her, as she asks for a coffee. When Waverly tells her they're not serving yet, Nicole just smiles, and says, “No problem. I'm sorry to disturb you when you're getting ready to open. Just when I see something I want - “ The officer cuts herself off, frowning almost confusedly. And then goes on, a little lamely. “Your door was open.”
Waverly doesn't notice the slight hitch in the officer’s easy flow. She's more than occupied cataloguing her own reaction to the woman opposite her, feeling increasingly intrigued, and increasingly flustered.
Flustered enough that when she tries to get out of her wet top she, quite ridiculously, manages to get stuck and has to ask Nicole for help. When that's done and Waverly is left standing rather closer to this stranger than decorum would normally suggest, to her mild horror she hears herself saying the first thing that comes into her mind, to clumsily check what feels like a pretty certain guess.
“Good thing you're not a guy, right, or this would be really, really awkward.”
She catches the duck of the head, the smile. And a long hidden part of her starts to light up; and Waverly suddenly feels brave. “I owe you. How about I buy you that coffee? How about tonight?”
“I’d love - I’d like that. But I can't tonight I'm afraid, I've got plans.”
“Oh, okay, that's no problem, okay so -”
“With my wife.” Nicole interrupts her.
There is a beat, whilst Waverly simultaneously takes in confirmation on her guess, and is hit by an almost physical surge of disappointment that seems vastly out of proportion to their all of two minute acquaintance. She gathers herself together, feeling suddenly as exposed as she should feel, stood half undressed in an empty bar in front of a total stranger. She thinks she thinks she sees a flash of something pass across Nicole's face too; that confusion again maybe? And then some sort of moment between them has passed and gone.
Waverly recovers. And Waverly is Waverly, so then she overcompensates.
“Okay, well that's great, why don't we make a plan some other time, and yeah, why don't you bring her? I’m in a relationship too; I mean a relationship with a boy - a man - and I can bring him too, it can be like a double date? Why don't you leave me your number, we can arrange something for when you're free?”
As she stumbles and stutters on she sees no disdain or second hand embarrassment in Nicole like she's half expecting to, but instead sees her soft smile come back, slowly; like she’s unconscious of it starting to emerge again.
“Sure, Waverly, that would be really great. Here, I think I've got a card somewhere.” She pulls out a few business cards from a pocket and places the top one, clean and untouched, down on the bar.
“Great. I’ll call you then?”
Nicole just nods, walks round the bar, picks up her hat, puts it on.
“I’m counting on it. It was really good to meet you, Waverly Earp.”
She leaves the bar. She doesn't look back.
Waverly waits until Nicole’s left the door, and then picks up the business card.
“It was really good to meet you too. Officer...Haught. Of course.”
Nicole sits outside in the police cruiser, head ducked, heart hammering, gripping the steering wheel tight like it held all the answers she needed, as questions ran through her mind.
It wasn't the first time she'd seen Waverly Earp. On her first patrol of the town, accompanied by Nedley, she'd asked questions about many of the townspeople they’d seen on the streets. Fair questions, expected in orientation week; so when a slight young woman opening a bar door had caught Nicole’s eye, it wasn't out of place to ask.
But Nicole was not immune to good looking women, and though it was subtle enough for the Sheriff to miss it, Nicole knew herself too well, and she at least could hear the difference in her tone.
A week later, and she was sat asking herself the same question.
Who was that? Jesus. What was that? Who was she?
And what the hell do I think I'm doing flirting with her?
A few days later they go on that double date.
It is...awkward. Waverly's boyfriend Champ is all toxic masculinity and no charm at all, interrupting or talking over Waverly frequently, and flat out ignoring Christine, who retreats into monosyllabic quiet in protest. Nicole does her best to keep conversation moving, but thinks maybe she was mistaken about Waverly after all. She seems like a different person now, still bubbly and fun, but with a flat and hard edge to her, as she laughs at Champ’s bad jokes and ignores his railroading of the other women's conversation.
But still, Nicole can't stop looking at Waverly, can't stop feeling the strangest feeling; like she recognises her from somewhere.
When they get home, Christine has moved through reticent and into a full blown sulk.
“Well, that was fun,” she said, in the sarcastic withdrawn tone Nicole hated. “I know you're keen to fit in with this town but honestly? You're starting with a waitress and her hick boyfriend?”
“She's not just a waitress,” Nicole snapped, annoyed. “Didn't you hear her talk about her studies on the town?”
Christine rolled her eyes. “Sure. Her great aunt's local historical society I’ll bet, or she's googled a grandparent or two. Anyway, how about, oh God I can't bring myself to say it - Champ? I mean, who does that? Who literally calls themselves Champ?”
Nicole laughs at this, turns and points a finger, raised her eyebrows in acquiescence. “No. You're right there. He's a dick.”
Christine giggles, the tension dissipating, and walks herself into a hug with Nicole. Looks up to her partner, and goes on in a conciliatory tone. “You're a good cop, Nic. And you're a better person. This town is going to love you. You don't have to force it, you know?”
“I guess. Thanks, Chris.” She returns the hug, reassured by the warm familiar comfort.
The next time they meet up, they both leave their partners at home.
“No Champ today?” Nicole asks, politely, as the waitress in the local diner pours them both their coffees. And just about succeeds in keeping her face straight when Waverly wrinkles her nose with apparent distaste.
“What, after his charming performance last time? I really am sorry Nicole. He’s not all bad you know, but you didn't exactly see him at his best.”
Nicole pretends to study the menu, letting out only a non-committal “Mm”.
“Will you pass on my apologies for him to Christine too? Or, is she joining us?”
“No, she’s on a deadline and couldn't make it.” Nicole felt awkward about the lie, but wasn't going to rehash the mini-argument they'd had, with Chris grumbling about Nicole wasting time with backwater types, and Nicole defending her assertion that the local bar was practically a community centre in a town like this, and getting to know the bar staff a great shortcut to getting to know the town. She had been irked, irritated by Chris’s challenging her choice, and irritated by the strange strength of her convictions that made her not want to back down.
“So…how did you and Champ get together then?”
How? She meant why. She was pretty sure Waverly got that too, as with first an amused twinkle in her eye, and then a wry shrug, dismissed the line of questioning.
“Champ was my high school sweetheart, and we’ve always been in each other’s lives one way or another. And it’s a small town, so…”
Nicole had to cover a laugh as Waverly rolled her eyes. Practically telling Nicole she wouldn't be with him if she had a better option.
“How about you and Christine? I guess if you’re married you've been together a while?”
“Seven years, yeah. We met in college, and were friends first, and then we...” Nicole could actually feel herself blushing, for some reason not wanting to say it. “We hooked up, and we’ve been together ever since. But it's not so much how long we've been together, so much as what we've been through together.”
Waverly stirred her coffee, trying not to let a strange surge of concern at the idea of Nicole having to go through anything show. “Oh? How so?”
“This and that,” Nicole started off evasively. But then met Waverly’s softly curious eyes, and something made her go on. “Chris’s family are pretty traditional. They've not been so great about the whole gay thing, and for a while there in college she was going to have to choose between being who she was, and having parents who spoke to her.”
“Ooh, ouch. I'm sorry Nicole, that must've been so hard for her. For you both?”
Nicole just raised her eyebrows in acknowledgement.
“And your parents…” Waverly asked in a quiet, undemanding tone. “Same sort of thing, or…?” She was surprised when Nicole sat back, and actually laughed.
“No no, quite the opposite actually. I think they were honestly delighted I was doing something away from the straight and narrow. So as to speak.”
She was smiling, but Waverly could see the smile was a little strained. There was something else behind there, something in Nicole's eyes. Again, gently, she asked without asking. “Nicole?”
There was a long silence, in which Nicole held Waverly’s gaze. And then found herself, more than a little to her own surprise, telling Waverly about her parents.
She told her about how they were old school hippies and drop-outs. About how her and her little brother had been raised in a series of squats, friends’ spare rooms, and finally the comparative luxury of their own trailer. How they had been jokingly referred to by the social workers and school teachers who got involved as “free range children”, as their parents had given them a completely free reign, a supposed gift of freedom which was in truth bordering on disinterest. Bordering on neglect.
Nicole had made a point of emphasising that there was a lot of good in an upbringing like this, that it taught her independence, and strength, and how to care for others; as she had first been obliged and then grown to take satisfaction in taking a leading part in the raising of her own little brother.
But then Nicole had looked into Waverly’s eyes again, and saw her looking searchingly back at her, and she fell silent, finding herself for once unable to go with her standard lie, that it was all fine, that it was all character building. She closed her eyes, and remembered.
She could still almost feel the hunger from another night with the dinner money going on beer and weed. The humiliation a teenager felt of having to go to school in old tie-dye clothes, too small after her height had started shooting up, and worse than that, dirty and smelling too much of misspent adulthood and hormonal youth. Laundry was the one chore she couldn't do for her folks, their withholding of even the small change needed for the machines a supposed stand against bourgeois values; but Nicole knew was just an excuse for another beer, another pack of smokes.
Nicole was brought back from the old hurt to a present suddenly warm and soft, as she felt Waverly take one of her hands with both of hers, and start to stroke slow, comforting patterns across her knuckles. It gave her the strength to continue.
“At school some of the teachers knew what the deal was, so when my folks were late picking me up, they'd let me stay behind and found odd jobs for me to do. And then found a way to pay me for it.” She laughed. “Looking back I'm pretty sure under child labour laws that was, like, super illegal. I mean, I was thirteen or something when it started.”
“Thirteen?” repeated Waverly, shaking her head and giving a low knowing whistle. “Yep. That's too young to have adulthood put on you.”
This time it was Nicole's turn to catch something behind Waverly's words.
“Anyway, after that, it got much better. I had my own money, which meant I could buy stuff, just small stuff, but it made a difference you know? Knowing I could buy for myself the things I wanted.”
Simple things, Nicole thought a little bitterly. Simple things like food, clothes; laundry soap. Toys for her brother.
“And I found I liked the responsibility at school, and started to understand you need rules and order, and people to enforce that, if you wanted something big like a school to run. My friends thought I was so weird, like they thought my parents were the coolest, you know, they would give us beer and smokes and hang out with us? And yet there I was,” she laughs again, raising a self-deprecating eyebrow at herself, “locking up classrooms and making sure the janitorial supplies were fully stocked.”
Waverly smiled warmly at the image of a teenaged Nicole solemnly stacking bottles of bleach. She could totally see it. “And that's what got you thinking about the police?”
“Sort of. I'd done a lot of thinking, about my parents and my brother and myself, and how we all were such different personalities. And so I went to college to study psychology, and then took a criminology module, and loved it, and, well.” A shrug. “I knew I always wanted to serve in some way, and for all that I'm not my parents, I couldn't sit still in an office or a classroom either, so. Here I am.”
Nicole gave a crooked grin, and half an easy shrug, and Waverly felt a shiver flare at the movement.
“And honestly Waverly, I like it. I find uniform works suits me.”
“You can say that again,” said Waverly, not thinking; then blushing furiously, covered herself with “and how did your parents react to that choice? Doesn't sound exactly in their wheelhouse.”
“Eh...yeah, not great. That's kinda how me and Chris decided to get married, actually.”
Waverly had still been holding loosely onto Nicole’s hand this whole time, but with last statement Nicole sat back, and their hands fell apart. And then both sets went to their respective drinks; as if feeling the sudden absence of warmth and comfort.
“When I told them we had this huge argument. They were accused me of being a 'willing pawn of the prison industrial complex’, I think it was.” Nicole had put on a stoner drawl, which for all the seriousness of the conversation made Waverly giggle. She saw a shot of happiness in Nicole's eyes at that, and then half an ironic smile as she continued, “and I may have told them that if they put as much effort into protesting, or god forbid actually standing for office and acting on their convictions, as they did their Harold and Kumar impression that they might actually be able to do something about that, instead of just rotting themselves away to nothing and taking their frustrations out on me.
And that was that. When I got back Chris had had another impossible conversation with her mother, who was still refusing to acknowledge I existed, and, well. I told her that we could just be each other’s families, and I proposed.”
Waverly looked at Nicole with mixed emotions, but managed to find genuine warmth in her voice. “That's beautiful, Nicole. That all sounds so tough; I'm so glad you've got each other.”
“Yeah. She's been everything to me.” Nicole said this quietly, like she was telling herself. “God, enough about me though. What about you. Do you get on with your folks?”
“Ahhhh...that's maybe a story for another day, Nicole.”
“Aw, c’mon, I've just bared my soul, you can’t hold back now!”
Nicole had been joking, but then saw the look Waverly was giving her. Unsure, and with a worried looking half-smile. And Nicole didn’t know where this understanding was coming from, because on the face of it Waverly’s expression wasn’t giving anything away, but Nicola felt it, she felt something of a great sadness hiding somewhere in the shadows.
“Waverly?” Nicole asked, suddenly worried.
“Well. Okay. You're right, you just shared something really personal, so it's only fair. Just - please believe me when I tell you I'm not trying to trump anything here.”
Nicole frowned, as Waverly tilted her head, and started to pick her words carefully.
“My parents aren't exactly around. My mom left when I was little, just about four. And Daddy was the Sheriff, and, well, a couple of years later...”
She paused, suddenly wanting to tell Nicole the whole truth rather than the standard lie. But she knew she couldn't, knew she couldn't tell this virtual stranger the things that even those who experienced them doubted were real.
So she went on, telling Nicole the standard 'gang with a grudge’ version of the night her eldest sister was taken, and her father shot by her other sister, as Nicole’s face registered increasing bewilderment and disbelief at the story. Finally, Waverly fell silent, fidgeting with her coffee cup.
“So. There it is.” Waverly said a little nervously, begging internally for Nicole not to react the way she was sure she would.
“Fuck. Sorry, but Jesus, Waverly? I don't know what to say.” Nicole looked so distressed for her, her brown eyes deep and searching Waverly’s.
“I'm can't believe you let me sit here and…”
“Hey. Don't.” Waverly interrupted, starting to hold up a finger as Nicole started to look ashamed of herself.
“...and talk about my…”
“Don't! Don't you dare, Nicole Haught.” Waverly leaned forward, grabbed one of Nicole's hands again. There was a second of shock, as she felt a jolt through her whole body at the renewed physical contact, but then pushed on. “This doesn't diminish or lessen in any way what you just told me, Nicole. I mean, sure, what happened was bad. But after it happened my aunt and uncle took us in, and after that I honestly had a pretty happy childhood. They cared for us, and loved us, and gave me everything a child could want. All the things it sounds like you never had. You were just a child, Nicole, you deserved all that too. And you didn't deserve what you had to go through, okay?”
Nicole was lost for words, and just shook her head, her own thumb moving across Waverly’s hand now. Scarcely believing that this girl, this incredible young woman could be so kind to her, when her own story carried such pain.
“Yeah. Okay. I'm just so sorry, Waves. I'm so so sorry.”
The conversation finally moved onto lighter topics. But this time neither let go of the other’s hand.