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a place is only a place

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Waverly cries most of the way to the Canadian border. Five times she asks Nicole to turn around and five times Nicole clenches the steering wheel so hard the material creaks under her fingers, her foot firm on the gas pedal and her eyes on the road. The baby sleeps the entire time, snug in Waverly’s arms. Nicole has an infant car seat in the back, but Waverly refused to put her down and Nicole can’t blame her. Waverly tries not to drip her tears on little Alice, instead turning her head against her shoulder to nudge at her sleeve, sometimes using the edge of the baby blanket.

They switch cars in Lethbridge. Nicole pulls into a public garage and parks one level up next to an unremarkable sedan. The keys are exactly where she was told they’d be, inside a plastic bag taped up inside the front right tire well. “Perry,” Nicole says simply. “He owed Wynonna. She called in the debt.” They transfer their bags over in a hurry, not wanting to stop any longer than they have to. Waverly sighs once and lays a hand on the red jeep hood.

“Perry will make sure it gets back to Purgatory,” Nicole says. She waits for Waverly to get in the passenger seat first, scanning in a complete circle twice before ducking in herself. She twists to reach through the gap in the front seats, pulling a manila envelope out of her travel bag in the back, and shakes three passports out into her hand.

Waverly slumps in her seat, looking exhausted in every possible way. But she still holds Alice close. “What’s that?” she asks.

Nicole fans out the passports with their telltale embossed blue covers. “Yours, mine, and Alice’s.”

Waverly finally looks something other than completely miserable, confusion taking over for a few blessed moments. “I don’t have a passport. Alice doesn’t…” She seems to connect the few data points she does have. “Just how long have you been working on this?”

Nicole tries not to feel guilty, even though it’s hard after everything they’ve been through when it comes to secrets. Waverly never would have helped with this, never would have even agreed to contemplate this. There’s a reason Wynonna asked Nicole. “Perry,” she says again. “Money makes everything move faster.”

Waverly reaches out with one hand, taking her passport, flipping it open to look at the inside cover with her photo and information. “I always thought I’d get a passport when I was ready to leave Purgatory. Go see the world. I had a whole route planned out.”

Nicole touches Waverly’s thigh, trying to comfort her however she can. “I’m sorry it had to happen like this.”

Waverly’s eyes flick over the information next to her headshot. “Emily,” she reads out loud, pronouncing it slowly. “I’m Emily.”

“I’m sorry you didn’t get to pick it yourself,” Nicole says. She would have torn her own passport in half with her twisting, nervous hands if not for the sturdy cover. “I tried to pick something you’d like.”

“Emily,” Waverly repeats again.

“For Emily Stowe,” Nicole says. “You said you liked that biography of her? At least…at least if you can’t be Waverly, you can have a name that still means something to you.”

Waverly stares at her passport for another minute, fingers tracing the letters of her fake name. “Thank you,” she says at last, so quietly Nicole thinks for a moment she imagined it.

It seems for a moment that Waverly might cry again, but she lets the passport close and leans back in her seat, eyes closed over a long inhale. And after she exhales, her eyes open hard and cold like the barrel of her favorite shotgun – the same shotgun now stowed in the back, with proper permit papers and everything, once again courtesy of Perry. “We can do it,” Waverly says, the same way as when she’s stubbornly refusing to back down to a Revenant or to Black Badge or even to Nicole herself. “We have to do it. For Wynonna.”

Nicole squeezes her leg once and then turns the key in the ignition. They have a long drive ahead of them.

*

They cross at Coutts, a barebones border town with faded buildings dotted around the main highway feeding into the checkpoint. Nicole pulls off into a slightly wider street lined with small single-story buildings, each as nondescript as the last. “I’ll be right back,” she says, parking the sedan outside of a squat painted concrete bank. She’s in and out in a few minutes, a few hundred in Canadian exchanged for US currency.

The border crossing is uneventful, all their paperwork perfectly in order. She keeps driving through the evening and all through the night. Nicole is exhausted but the energy drink she chugged when they stopped for gas in Shelby, Montana won’t let her do anything but keep driving, eyes cast only as far ahead as the headlights because she can’t bear to contemplate the world beyond the moving bubble of their car. Her entire life, packed up in a couple of bags in the back. At least Nedley will be thrilled to take custody of Calamity Jane.

Waverly is finally asleep, Alice still tucked firmly against her in a sling after her first ever feeding. Maybe it’s her full belly, or the motion of the car is a lullaby humming her to sleep; maybe, deep down in her little intuitive baby Earp sense, she knows she’ll have to save her crying for later. Still, the silence rides Nicole’s nerves until she flicks on the radio as low as it will go, just enough to be a barely-audible murmur of white noise.

The road stretches on for miles and miles, the vast and quiet plains slipping away in their wake. Sometimes she rolls into the fugue of a long-distance drive, startling back into total awareness fifty miles along and the speedometer edging past 100 mph. But there’s no one out here with a radar gun to chase them down, and so they make very good time and when Waverly wakes up Nicole is pulling into a motel on the edges of Boulder. By her count, she’s driven for nearly sixteen hours. A good head start.

“Where are we?” Waverly asks, rolling her shoulders and her neck, arching her back away from the seat. She rubs sleep from her eyes, looking around at the rows of nondescript doors, the big red arrow sign pointing off the road, now lit by the first peeking rays of sunrise.

“Colorado,” Nicole says, twisting the ignition off and immediately ripping an enormous yawn.

“You look awful,” Waverly says, tucking a bit of hair behind Nicole’s ear. Her other arm is instinctively rocking Alice, not enough to wake her, just enough to keep her soothed and somnolent.

Nicole just laughs, a small, tired sound with its own bitter tinge. “Let me go get us checked in,” she says.

The desk clerk takes a few dings of the little silver bell to pop up, unleashing a few yawns of his own. So much the better if he’s sleepy and doesn’t quite remember the redhead in the ballcap who slides a few twenties across the wood in exchange for a room key. She trudges back to the car, fingers twisting idly around the plastic keychain embossed with the room number. Waverly is waiting for her, walking in a little circle in front of the car.

“Come on,” Waverly says, watching her slump against the driver’s side door and gently tugging the key from her limp hands. “You can crash and I’ll find us some food.”

Nicole pulls the overnight bags from the back seat, one for her and one for Waverly, and the hard-sided case holding the shotgun and her Smith & Wesson. It was a relief eventually confessing all to Waverly, this crazy plan Wynonna cooked up because it was the only way she could see a future for her child, which made it feel much less like a violation to dash over to the homestead and start cramming every suitcase she could find with Waverly’s things. Her favorite sweaters, her jewelry, the research journals in her desk. And a leather jacket Nicole knew Wynonna wouldn’t begrudge Waverly, dangling off the edge of the dresser in her room.

She follows Waverly up the clanky iron staircase, shuffling inside and using her foot to press the door shut behind her. The bags drop to the cheap carpet and she makes it two steps to the single queen bed before flopping onto it and passing out.

*

When Nicole wakes up the light has changed; it feels like afternoon, maybe almost evening. It’s hard to tell, as grey and cloudy as it is. Waverly is on the other side of the bed, propped up against the headboard, still with Alice in her arms. Nicole doubts she’s put the baby down for even a second.

Waverly gently tilts the bottle of formula so Alice can suckle, humming something low and rather tuneless, her other hand making idle patting motions. She turns her head as Nicole rolls over onto her side with a muffled groan, still feeling stiff from the drive and then from sleeping in her clothes. She paddles her feet a few times, feeling the slide of socks on the comforter. Waverly must have pulled off her boots.

“You really did think of everything,” Waverly says, glancing at the baby bottle. It’s as much accusation as it is compliment.

Nicole lies still, just watching Waverly and Alice for a moment. She breathes and blinks, trying to find something to say, to explain why she had to do this for Wynonna. For Waverly. Trying to swallow down the fear and resentment already starting to crowd back in against the fear and sheer adrenaline of getting the hell out of Dodge, John Henry’s overcoated figure receding in their rearview. “I had to,” she says eventually.

Waverly is silent too, the only sound between them Alice’s tiny little suckles at the bottle. Her voice comes out soft, resigned. “I know.”

They don’t speak again until Alice pulls away from the bottle, blowing a milky bubble and wiggling in her sling.

“Who are you now?” Waverly asks, and Nicole knows what she means, but everything she says is stained with blame whether she means it or not.

“Roberta,” Nicole says. “Roberta LeBlanc.”

Waverly cocks her head, eyebrows rising. “Roberta as in Roberta Bondar?”

Nicole can only offer a sheepish smile. “I idolized her as a kid.”

“Roberta,” Waverly says again, rolling it around in her mouth. “Roberta and Emily.”

“I, uh.” Nicole massages the back of her neck with one hand. “I wouldn’t mind going by Bobbie?”

“Emily and Bobbie,” Waverly says, head still cocked thoughtfully as she tries it out. Nicole’s gut untwists just slightly at the way Waverly automatically ampersands their names. Her next question makes Nicole’s stomach swoop in an awful way. “Are we married?”

“No,” Nicole says, and can’t really hide how much it hurts her to see the relief on Waverly’s face. “The more paperwork Perry had to fake the more risk, and anyone who looks for us will probably look for a couple. But we’re both Alice’s legal guardians. Or Bobbie and Emily are, anyway,” Nicole says. She can’t quite look at Waverly while she lays out how thoroughly she has managed to erase any trace of Wynonna from Alice’s background.

Waverly’s voice is shaky, but not weak. Just the voice of someone learning to cope on the fly, hopping from emotional rock to rock in search of something solid. “That’ll mean fewer questions for us.”

Nicole wants to hug her, tell her it’s incredible the bravery it takes to face the situation and accept it this quickly. But she can’t, because they both only really have room for survival mode right now, and neither one of them can afford the time it takes to really process.

“Why don’t you take a break,” Nicole says. “I can hold her for a while.”

Waverly clutches Alice closer to her for a moment, instinctively rejecting any suggestion she let go. Nicole knows it’s not about her, but it still cuts at her a bit. She’s here. She brought them both here safely. She squashes the feeling down and just lets her fingertips trail along Waverly’s thigh, allowing her to decide.

“Okay. Thank you,” Waverly says. She reaches behind her neck, pulling the sling over her head. Nicole pushes herself up so she can take Alice in her arms, supporting her head with one hand and cradling her securely with her other arm.

“Try to get some rest,” Nicole says. The car sleeping hasn’t done much to actually rest Waverly, still leaving shadows under her eyes, pale skin drawn over her cheeks. “We still have a ways to go.”

*

It’s easier leaving the United States than it is entering it. The border crossing at El Paso is congested with cars at a near standstill, the checkpoint bottlenecking families and businessmen and delivery drivers alike all trying to drive into Juárez. The drive from Boulder was relatively easy, Nicole once again slipping in and out of highway hypnosis, pushing the speedometer without realizing it on those long, flat stretches of New Mexico highway. They only stop for gas twice, picking up a couple more energy drinks, a few bottles of water, a bag of trail mix and some sad convenience store fruit. Nicole is glad that Waverly spends most of the drive napping with Alice cradled to her chest in a sling; otherwise they’d be forced to sit in silence and ignore that it felt too tense in the car to even talk.

But Waverly wakes up as they slow down to approach the border, and they sit in sweltering silence, windows down to circulate warm Texas air. The climate change is a bit of a shock when only two days ago they were layering in Purgatory, but Nicole doesn’t want to run the A/C the whole time to save them some gas and cut down on the number of stops they have to make.

Creeping forward a few car lengths at a time has the back of her neck itching, arms prickling. She’s constantly scanning, hand wishing for her gun close at hand. But it has to stay locked away for the time being; even if Perry managed to rig up the various agency permits and hunting licenses that let them bring weapons across borders, that doesn’t mean she can sit with a holster on her hip while a customs official asks her why she’s entering Mexico.

From time to time she waves off street vendors, weaving between the lines of cars selling bottles of water and snacks. Any one of them could be The Order or, more likely, Black Badge. Dolls had a notion they’d be a little bit safer in Mexico, where Black Badge doesn’t have as many contacts, but until they’re over that border she sees spies everywhere.

She doesn’t realize just how tense she’s holding herself until Waverly touches her arm and she jumps hard enough she would’ve yanked against her seatbelt if she hadn’t unclipped it when they joined the queue so she could stretch a little bit. “Sorry,” Waverly says, holding out a bottle of water.

“No, I’m sorry,” Nicole mutters, accepting it. She sips instead of chugging; she doesn’t want to add needing to pee on top of this interminable wait. “Little on edge.”

Waverly purses her lips in a grimace. “Me too.”

The crossing inches closer, and finally they’re pulling up to the inspection station, handing over their passports, plastering on fake smiles and feeding the customs officer something about a family vacation. They roll through without complication, Perry’s paperwork holding up just as he promised it would.

*

The last leg in the car is the hardest. Nicole’s Spanish is piecemeal if she’s being kind and nonexistent if she’s being honest. Fortunately, Waverly has more than a beginner’s grasp and they switch off behind the wheel. Waverly is reluctant to let go of Alice, she can tell, and she holds Alice close to her body as if to reassure Waverly she’ll protect the baby. She’ll protect them both.

It's ten hours to Torreón, the radio now picking up Spanish-language stations that Nicole can only understand a word every five minutes when they’re not playing English top 40 songs. Waverly intermittently hums along to the music; Nicole doesn’t think she knows she’s doing it, because she looks stricken every time she stops, as though horrified she could be humming at a time like this. Nicole is just glad that she can still hum at all, and tries to nap in between feeding Alice and burping her and pulling over to change her diaper.

Both she and Waverly are in dire need of sleep when they pull in to the motel on the edge of Torreón, another plain setup that looks almost exactly like the motel in Boulder, different country or no. Waverly handles the check in with her passable Spanish and Nicole waits with Alice and the bags, cooing nonsense things at her when she’s not trying to keep an eye on the parking lot from under the brim of her cap. It might be a little while until the interested parties realize Wynonna sent them away from Purgatory, but if she and Waverly can make it this far in a few days, so can Black Badge and The Order and any agents of the Revenants.

Waverly comes back with the keycard, both arms folded up tight and shoulders hunched, eyes on the ground. Nicole wants to tell her to keep her head on a swivel, to be more aware of her surroundings. But they’re both exhausted and she knows Waverly is still half-sure they’ll just turn around and go back soon. So Nicole can watch the world for the both of them, for the moment.

In their ground-level room, Nicole pulls the curtains tight while Waverly sinks onto the bed, holding her arms out for Alice. “She’s been so good this whole time,” Waverly says, letting Nicole loop the sling around her neck and help settle Alice into her arms.

“She takes after her aunt,” Nicole says, shaded with just a little gentle teasing, as much as she thinks they can both bear at the moment.

It pulls the beginnings of a smile out of Waverly, like she wants to form one but can’t go through with it. It’s the best they can do for now. “Is it okay if I crash?” Waverly asks.

“Go ahead and sleep, baby,” Nicole says. She drops a kiss on Waverly’s forehead. “I’ll be here.”

*

The last twelve hours to Mexico City crawl by. They climb out of the Chihuahuan Desert, winding along with the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental pacing them in the distance. It’s better than New Mexico, at least. More to look at by way of scenery, and more cars on the road that keep it from feeling so awfully lonesome.

As they come upon the outer edges of Mexico City, Nicole wants to squirm with anticipation. This will be the real test; crossing borders in a car within North America is one thing, but getting on a plane and hopping continents is another. She had originally wanted to just drive to Winnipeg or even Toronto, where it wouldn’t be so unusual for them with their Canadian passports. But when she was preparing the escape route, Dolls had said Black Badge could easily access airport records anywhere in Canada. It was more of a jurisdictional mess for BB if they flew out of Mexico, so it would buy them more time, let them build a bigger lead. She wonders if Dolls knew what she was planning despite her attempt at innocently working the questions into the conversation, disguised by her desire to know more about BB in general. Probably he did. They were just starting to build a real professional rapport, and now she and Waverly are in the wind.

It's something of a shock, driving into a city again after so long with nothing but the road and sleepy little outskirt motels as their companions. The last city where they really spent any time instead of just passing by was Calgary, and Mexico City is much larger. Even with Waverly able to read the signage, it takes them a little bit to work their way over to the airport and pull in to the long-term parking lot.

Nicole has their tickets ready in her carry-on satchel and she piles their bags onto a trolley while Waverly meticulously wipes their prints from the car. They don’t have time for her to be sure she got everything, but at least she can make it harder for anyone following them.

Their flight isn’t for another five hours, though that’s still cutting it a bit close for Nicole’s tastes. She had originally planned on 16-hour driving days for at least a day’s cushion, but she and Waverly both needed the extra rest. It’s not just the travel, it’s everything they’ve been through with Mikshun and the widows and the secrets she’s kept. This is the home stretch, but they’ve been moving so long it feels like they’ll never be still again. She misses lying in bed with Waverly on a snowy morning, holding her close in the cold, muffled silence, the whole world frozen in place around them. She misses the luxury of inaction.

“You ready?” she asks as Waverly finally shuts and locks the car, standing up straight and stretching her lower back, Alice still patiently hanging out in her sling as she’s jostled around.

Waverly shrugs, shoulders barely able to manage a single despondent twitch. “To leave for good? Not really. Part of me thinks any moment Wynonna will call and say it was all a big joke, she changed her mind.”

“I know,” Nicole says, and takes Waverly’s hand in sympathy.

Waverly looks down at their twined fingers. “How about you? Are you ready?”

Nicole tightens her grip. “I’m scared as hell,” she admits. “But yeah, I’m ready.”

It was just what Waverly needed to hear, if her answering grip on Nicole’s hand is any indication. She only lets go so Nicole can grab the luggage cart and lead the way into the airport.

*

Nicole would have thought that they would both immediately pass out on the plane, but Waverly can’t stop craning her head to stare out the window. She wishes she’d thought to record Waverly’s face on takeoff, her exhilarated smile as the plane whined and rumbled into acceleration that pressed them into their seats, the sudden transition into empty air beneath them as the wheels left the ground. For a girl who’s never left the Ghost River Triangle, three countries and her first airplane in less than a week is a lot. She’s glad she asked Perry for a window seat. He had offered them first class, but they need to be as inconspicuous as possible. Sweet guy that he is, he did buy a third ticket just for Alice, leaving open the seat to Nicole’s left since Alice remains snuggled in Waverly’s arms.

Nicole watches Waverly as long as she can, but the little murmurs that Waverly presses into Alice’s skin and the crash from days of nonstop vigilance finally send her into a deep, dreamless sleep. She only wakes up when she feels the grind and chunk of the landing gear extending.

Her neck has a crick in it from leaning on Waverly and she feels a series of cracks go off down her spine as she sits up, squinting and smacking her dry mouth. “Waves,” she says hoarsely, too tired to remember to call her Emily, then feels the tug on her skin from a dried drool trail out of the corner of her mouth. She rubs at her face. “Oh god, I’m sorry.”

Waverly at least looks amused rather than offended. “You needed to sleep.”

Nicole blinks a few times, rolling her head around, stretching as much as she can in her seat. She should have agreed at least to economy plus; folding her longer body into this seat has left her with all kinds of complaints. Waverly, damn her, has been able to stretch her legs out just fine. Nicole peeks over the edge of Alice’s blanket. “Wow. Did she cry at all?”

“Mostly out the whole way,” Waverly says. “She woke up a few times but just passed out again after I fed her.”

“Lucky duck,” Nicole says, letting the tip of one finger just barely trace along Alice’s cheek before withdrawing her hand. She tries to stretch again, wanting to cover up the sudden tender longing she feels towards Alice, who is not her daughter – not even her blood. “Did you rest at all?” she asks when she settles back in her seat.

“A little,” Waverly says. “Watched a couple of movies.” The little screen set in the headrest in front of her is still displaying the in-flight entertainment menu.

The plane banks, wing dipping to give them a view of the city they’re circling before leveling out again. Nicole’s hand lands lightly on top of Waverly’s on the armrest and they wait impatiently for the plane to descend into Charles de Gaulle airport.

*

Nicole feels on a more even keel in France, hearing a language she understands all around her. Waverly keeps whipping her head around, staring at everything, though in the tourist way and not in the security way.

“I always wanted to go to Paris,” Waverly says as they wait at baggage claim. She leans into Nicole, back to front, and Nicole lets her hand stay steady on Waverly’s hip. “Not like this though.”

Nicole grabs their bags off the conveyor belt one by one, checking to see if they’ve been searched. She didn’t put anything vital in them besides their disassembled weapons, just their clothes and some odds and ends. Their documents, money, Waverly’s journals, all of it stayed in their carry-ons. She feels a little better with the gun case in hand.

Their car is waiting for them in the park by the terminal, another unassuming little dark blue sedan that Nicole only matches by the plates. She does a quick inspection and then loads them up. Waverly finds two phones in the glove compartment, all charged and with the right SIM cards to connect to the Orange cell network. She programs the numbers for “Emily” into Nicole’s phone and “Bobbie” into hers as they drive.

Nicole drives them to their hotel on the edge of the city, marginally more relaxed here with an entire ocean between them and Purgatory. Beside her, Waverly can’t stop craning her neck, taking in the sights, buildings and people all so new and different. Their hotel is a somewhat plain grey brick building, and Nicole wants more than anything to take Waverly into Paris proper, check in at some ridiculously expensive getup overlooking the Seine. She wants to take her out for dinner and drink real French wine and walk hand-in-hand under lights along the Champs-Élysées like a couple of carefree tourists. She so desperately wanted the whole experience for them – young and in love in Paris, without the weight of the world.

Waverly seems content enough though, exploring the room, poking at the bed, glancing through the curtains at the scenery outside.

“You hungry?” Nicole asks.

Waverly seems to consider the idea as though it hadn’t occurred to her to be hungry. “Now that you mention it,” she says. Neither of them has had a real meal in days, subsisting off of gas station snacks and bottled water.

“I think I saw a corner store nearby,” Nicole says. She wants to unpack her gun and slip it into her concealed carry holster, but not even Perry had managed to fake up a carry permit for her here, where the gun laws are fairly strict. Their best protection right now is their anonymity and their ability to stay mobile. She checks her wallet for the euros she exchanged at the airport and then slips out, already anxious about leaving Waverly alone with Alice, even for 10 minutes.

She picks up some water, fruit, a couple of premade sandwiches and bags of chips, as well as a newspaper. The shopkeep doesn’t pay much attention to her, but she doesn’t miss how his eyes flick automatically to her red hair.

She breaks into a bit of a jog returning to the hotel, bounding up the stairs to the second floor and using the coded knock she and Waverly agreed upon before entering, paper bag crinkling in the crook of one arm. Waverly is on the bed, feeding Alice, looking down at her with such pure adoration that Nicole almost wants to turn around and leave to give them some more alone time.

“Look at her go,” Nicole says, watching as Alice sucks greedily at her bottle.

“She’s a natural,” Waverly says, eyes glued to Alice’s tiny face.

Nicole sets up Waverly’s food within easy reach on her bedside table, knowing she won’t want to move when Alice is done. Alice will drink until she’s in a near stupor with her belly full of sink-warmed formula, and then Waverly will gently burp her, and she’ll go out like a light. Nicole takes up the other side of the bed, pulling the plastic off of her sandwich and taking slow bites in between watching Waverly and Alice. “You’re good with her,” she says.

Waverly sighs. “I must have read like twenty books to prepare for this. There’s just…so many things that can go wrong. A thousand different ways to ruin your kid.”

“Look,” Nicole says, food set aside, one hand rubbing a reassurance along Waverly’s knee. “From what you’ve told me, Ward wasn’t so hot as a dad. But look at how you turned out. You’re kind and brave and willing to do anything for family.”

Waverly turns her head a bit, just enough that Nicole suspects her eyes are watering. She sniffles. “Gus and Curtis did a great job raising me.”

“And I’m guessing they were probably pretty anxious too, taking you in. But they loved you all the same, and isn’t that what matters?” Nicole asks, reassuring herself as much as anything.

Waverly turns back to Nicole, all of sudden tucking herself up against Nicole’s side and letting the tears come. Quiet and still because Alice remains in her arms, but full of sincere grief all the same. Nicole wraps an arm around her shoulders, cheek resting on top of Waverly’s head, and tries to be a warm blanket shrouding her from the world for a few minutes.

*

Between sleeping on the plane, uncomfortable as she was, and the energy from the food, Nicole insists that she’s fine to stay up while Waverly naps. Neither of them is quite comfortable enough to be asleep at the same time yet, and so Nicole makes a slow circuit of the room with Alice in the crook of her arm while Waverly twitches uneasily in her sleep. They have a few days here at the hotel before they move again; Nicole figures they can use this time to recharge a little bit and get into a rhythm with Alice before they start hopping around the country.

Alice is blowing snot bubbles in a regular rhythm against the burp cloth on Nicole’s shoulder when Waverly wakes up, gasping softly as she remembers where she is and why. Her eyes search out Nicole, seated in the desk chair, turned towards the bed to watch Waverly sleep. “Hi,” Waverly says softly, sinking back onto her pillow.

“Hi,” Nicole mouths back, not wanting to wake Alice. She makes a subtle incline from the waist, offering Alice back, but Waverly shakes her head.

They’re getting used to these silences between them, where the weight of what they’ve done hangs so heavy in the air, settling thickly all around like fog. Nicole can hardly believe it was less than a week ago she was still in Purgatory, still in her uniform, still hoping there might be a last minute solution that let her stay. She’s not really sure she believes this is her life now, not yet.

“Can I ask you something?” Waverly says.

Nicole stands, so carefully, and tiptoes over to the bed. She lowers herself just as carefully, keeping Alice completely still, until she’s sitting on the mattress next to Waverly, leaning back against the headboard. “Always.”

“Why France?”

Nicole looks down at Waverly, hands tucked under her pillow, looking young and vulnerable with traces of sleep still on her face. “Well,” Nicole says. “It had to be a place we’d blend in. And preferably where we knew the language, although I’m pretty sure it won’t be long before someone makes fun of our Canadian accents. And.” Nicole’s mouth twists in a sad smile. “I knew you always wanted to visit anyway, so I thought at least we could go somewhere you’d find interesting.”

“Anywhere but Purgatory feels…wrong,” Waverly says, curling in on herself for a moment.

Nicole’s smile turns from sadness to sympathy. “I know, baby. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Waverly says. She wriggles closer, so her legs brush up against Nicole’s. “I just wish Wynonna had trusted me with this.”

“Wynonna loves you too much to ask,” Nicole says, because if they’re to keep going, Waverly needs to keep her sister in her heart. Thinking of Wynonna has to be her strength, not her sorrow. Nicole can take the resentment for both of them.

Waverly flicks her eyes down, thinking for a moment. “I never would have agreed to help with this if I had known from the start,” she admits at last. “I would have fought with Wynonna to stay.”

Nicole says nothing, letting her work through it.

“I still want to call her and fight her on this. But god, everything around the birth, and Rosita, and the Revenants, and the Order…” A sigh, something halfway between resignation and acceptance creeping in all around the edges. “Alice deserves a chance at a normal childhood. And I sure as hell don’t trust anyone else but us to protect her.”

“We’ll be okay,” Nicole says.

Waverly looks up at her, for the first time with anything other than exhaustion or grief. Now there’s the first glimmer of something approaching hope, or at least the raw will to start putting up a fight. “We’ll be okay,” she agrees.

Chapter Text

Waverly is quietly reading something on her tablet, one hand idly rocking Alice’s carrier, when Nicole says, “I think it’s safe for us to stop moving for a while.”

It sees to take a moment to properly register as Waverly frowns before looking up from her reading. “You really think so?”

“We haven’t seen a trace of Black Badge or Order since we left Purgatory, and we’ve hit seven different towns in the past two months. I think…” Nicole tries to measure her tone very carefully. “No one was expecting Wynonna to get Alice out of the Triangle so quickly.”

Waverly grips the top edge of her tablet with both hands, bracing it against her stomach. It forms a barrier between the two of them, Waverly on the hotel bed, Nicole at the desk while she scans the news on her laptop and idly clicks around the internet, trying to keep abreast of the outside world. “What if they’re just waiting for us to slow down, and then they’ll drop us and take Alice?”

“They could have done it any time since we left,” Nicole points out. “And we can’t keep hopping around forever. Sooner or later we’re going to run out of money, and at some point Alice is going to be old enough-” She stops herself right there, but already she knows she’s gone too far.

“Old enough to ask questions?” Waverly fills in. “Instead of back home with her mother? God, you really think Wynonna isn’t doing everything she can to end the curse and bring us back?”

“Waves,” Nicole says softly, even though they’re both supposed to be practicing at their new names, trying to keep this from escalating into a fight. But it’s far too late. With every move, every new hotel room, the tension has built and built into a brittleness between them, threatening to snap with the least pressure.

“We have to believe that Wynonna will bring us back,” Waverly says, pushing up from the headboard, back ramrod straight. “What do you want us to do, just settle down here, build new lives just like that?”

“Waves,” Nicole says again, even gentler. “You knew when we left that we weren’t going back for a long time.”

“But we’re going back,” Waverly says, voice slipping into a hiss instead of a shout to spare the sleeping Alice. “We can’t just…we can’t…”

Nicole leaves her chair and mounts the bed, shuffling forward on her knees before settling on her legs in front of Waverly. Her hands reach for Waverly’s face, cupping her cheeks with delicate pressure. “I believe in Wynonna as much as you. But she asked us to do this because she trusts us to do right by Alice. And that means offering her the kind of stability Wynonna didn’t get to have. No Revenants, no curse, no Triangle. Just a happy childhood with people who love her. And we can do that for her. You can do that for her, because Wynonna loves you and trusts you that much.” Her thumbs rub a soothing pattern on Waverly’s skin, catching a few tears and wiping them away.

Waverly screws her eyes shut, tears falling in earnest now. “I want to go home,” she says.

Nicole pulls her close, pressing their foreheads together. And for the first time since they left, she cries. “Me too, baby. Me too.”

*

It’s not exactly a secluded seaside cottage, but this apartment in Nice has its charms. Nicole suspects at this point anywhere they’re allowed to stay longer than two weeks would seem charming.

But the quiet second-floor apartment near the top of a gently sloping hill gets plenty of sunlight and if they catch the breeze right with the windows open, they can smell the nearby sea.

“Qu’est-ce que tu pense?” Nicole asks while they’re in earshot of the landlord, who’s showing them around the place and believes them to be a young ex-Quebecois couple who have decided to return to the motherland. What do you think? Nicole’s French has certainly been stretching to fill in the gaps and her school lessons all came flooding back in their first weeks in country, more out of necessity than anything else, but her accent is usually a dead giveaway.

“It’s nice,” Waverly says, also in French. Her accent is much better than Nicole’s, less apparent as to its Canadian roots. She sounds noncommittal, though, wandering aimlessly with Alice snug against her in a baby bjorn.

“Comes with everything you see,” says the landlord, indicating all the furniture.

Nicole sidles up to Waverly, not wanting to pressure her. But this is the nicest place they’ve been that is still in the price range they agreed upon, and they’ve been looking for almost two weeks. “Lot of museums nearby,” she murmurs, now in English and low enough not to be overheard.

“Hmm.”

“Nice neighborhood. Good vantage points, multiple escape routes from the building, close to the tram.” Nicole waits, hunched a little with her hands in pockets, body between Waverly and the landlord.

Waverly mouth tightens, then relaxes. “It’s nice,” she admits. Her hand reaches out, fingers brushing the back of Nicole’s arm in a conciliatory gesture.

“It should be somewhere we both like,” Nicole says. Her voice drops even lower, barely audible as she stares at the wooden floor. “I hope we don’t have to stay here long, but if we do, it should feel…homey.”

Perhaps the temerity of her voice draws Waverly the rest of the way out of her shell, because she latches onto Nicole’s hand, tugging it free of its pocket, and squeezes. “If you like it, I like it.”

Not exactly the ringing endorsement Nicole was hoping for, but more than she showed at any of the other apartments. “You sure?” Nicole asks.

Waverly turns toward her, body opening up a bit, one hand in Nicole’s, the other cradling the back of Alice’s head. “It’s nice,” she says again.

Nicole doesn’t think she can take another week of desultory visits to places Waverly doesn’t care about and so she hops on the opportunity while it exists and switches back to French. “We’ll take it,” she says to the landlord, and hopes she won’t end up regretting this decision.

*

The apartment is just big enough for them and the baby, a decent-sized bedroom for them with a tiny second bedroom perfect for conversion to a nursery. It’s certainly not the house she was renting in Purgatory, with its broad porch and spacious kitchen and master bed. She’d been thinking about actually buying the house; property values in Purgatory were ridiculously livable, and even her modest deputy’s salary would have let her comfortably afford the mortgage. In her more vulnerable moments, when sleep was elusive, she would let herself consider the possibility of asking Waverly to move in with her. There was plenty of space for the both of them, with room to grow. But now they live in Nice, in a 900 square foot apartment that has likely never seen an inch of snow, amongst a crowd of other apartment buildings and villas all within throwing distance.

Moving was pathetically easy, the two of them pulling up in a car holding everything in the world they owned. It took two trips to carry it up, including Alice’s carrier and the extra bag of baby stuff they’ve picked up in bits and bobs over the weeks as necessary.

Nicole remembers moving into her place in Purgatory, driving the U-Haul herself and pulling up to a tidy little house that charmed her right away. She misses the views, the ability to look all the way to the horizon and feel connected to the land, the people flung out through the grassy hills and dark forest. As comfortable as she is in a city, Purgatory was like discovering a new way to breathe - minus the regular attempts on her life.

Waverly clearly feels the same way, especially with her whole life spent in the Triangle. Nicole watches her ghost around the apartment, always connected to Alice, staring through windows at nothing while memories play across her face. She’s still clinging to the past and Nicole has no idea how to gently nudge her into the present. She’d hoped Nice would do the trick, filled with ancient history and good food and mounted right on the edge of the Mediterranean.

They’re both going a bit stir crazy inside the apartment and sometimes, when Nicole is lying awake and she knows Waverly is awake next to her but they’re both pretending that they can sleep, she contemplates picking up and moving again. At least the momentum of travel seems to drag Waverly out of her own thoughts. But here in the apartment, where she won’t even go down to the corner store for groceries and Nicole’s only escape is her irregular patrol of the area, they’re stifling each other.

On very rare occasions, exhaustion will catch up to Waverly and she’ll sleep like the dead. These nights Nicole will wake up first if Alice cries, like tonight, and it’s a moment’s work for Nicole to slip from the bed and lift Alice from her temporary bassinet at the foot of the mattress. The nursery isn’t ready yet – Waverly isn’t ready yet. She hasn’t been more than ten feet away from Alice for more than an hour at a time until now. Nicole hasn’t even looked through baby furniture yet because she wants it to be something they do together, something that brings them closer instead of a practical decision pushing them apart as Waverly agonizes over what Wynonna would want.

“Well, it’s you and me baby girl,” Nicole says, holding Alice close to her chest and running a finger down her tiny nose. She shuffles into the kitchen, one-handedly pulling a bottle from the fridge and filling a pot with water to warm on the stove. While she waits for the bottle she sinks heavily into one of the kitchen chairs and idly nudges at Alice in some semblance of a rocking motion, eyes half-lidded while she thinks longingly about climbing back in bed.

The feeding is easy; Alice always latches like a laser-guided missile, and Nicole presses a thankful kiss to her tiny forehead. “Your mom loves food too,” she mumbles into that baby-soft skin, inhaling the scent of her, a warm little glow of smell that fans an answering glow inside her chest that still catches her off guard.

Not half a bottle later Alice has had her fill and Nicole once again deftly one-hands her way through some cleanup while the other holds Alice over her shoulder with a burp cloth protecting her sleep shirt. She hasn’t gone through the motions enough for it to feel routine, but she finds comfort in it nevertheless. She feels the pop of Alice’s burp, wipes her mouth, and for a moment just enjoys holding her close, marveling over her feet smaller than Nicole’s palm, her uncoordinated arm wiggles, her chubby face with eyes already creased deep as she once again sinks into slumber with the ease of any snug little creature who feels safe and warm.

“Thanks for an easy night,” Nicole says, the words barely a hum in her throat to keep Alice lulled asleep. When she tenderly returns Alice to her cradle, she finds Waverly awake and watching them.

“Go back to sleep,” Nicole whispers as she slips under the covers.

Waverly looks as though she’s been awake for a while, no drowsiness to her as she rolls onto her side to watch Nicole. “Sorry she woke you up.”

Nicole feels instinctively offended, as though Waverly is apologizing to a guest in her home for the inconvenience. “It’s both our responsibility,” she says, glad that being reduced to whispering removes most of the defensiveness.

She can’t tell if Waverly has heard the edge to her words, if she’s even heard Nicole at all, the way her eyes fog in place of a response. She wants to turn over, then, and nurse her hurt in as much privacy as she can find, but she forces herself to wait and to watch.

“Yeah,” Waverly says, returning to the two of them. It’s not much, only a single exhaled word, but Nicole can feel the sincerity of it.

“Go back to sleep,” she says again.

“We need to order a crib in the morning,” Waverly says before slumping flat on her back again, face gradually going slack.

*

The nursery furniture arrives a couple of days later thanks to Amazon Premium. Nicole loads it on a hand truck and brings it up the tiny elevator, getting stuck a few times before she manages to maneuver it out of the car and into the hallway.

It’s all backwards, dragging in the crib and unpacking the parts in the nursery with the baby already waiting for a place to sleep. Waverly would have kept Alice right in their bed if she hadn’t read a million articles about all the ways that could result in infant death, and so Alice has gradually worn a wee depression into her carefully-padded wicker hamper over the past couple of months.

“Crib’s here,” Nicole says cheerily, shoving the box past Waverly into the nursery.

“I’ll give you some space then,” Waverly says, and while she’s right that the nursery isn’t quite big enough for two adults sprawled out around a bunch of disassembled crib parts, Nicole has to swallow the lump of disappointment that they won’t be doing this together. All the things she wanted with Waverly, all the first moments of a serious relationship, of starting a family – they’re being taken away from her in parcels and she suddenly wants to just shove the box into a corner and sulk her way to the nearest bar. She had hoped that when Waverly helped her pick out the crib in the first place that she would want to go through the rest of the motions together, but it seems merely admitting they need something more permanent is as much as Waverly will concede for now.

But Alice needs a bed, and she needs to make this home, if not for Waverly, then for herself, to feel like she has a tether to something. She has to be the ground for Waverly and Alice, but she needs to be able to feel both her feet solidly planted somewhere too. The Nicole who could take off on a whim, meet a girl on a random adventure, get married on a tidal wave of oxygen-pumped false euphoria - that Nicole had the wanderlust burned out of her as she fled Canada with a grieving girlfriend and a newborn baby in her care. All she wants now is for Waverly to feel as much at home with her as she does with Waverly, no matter where they are.

She opens up the box of parts with much crinkling of plastic and squeaking of styrofoam, eventually laying out all the pieces and then studying the instructions carefully because she refuses to be a cliché who can’t assemble a crib. She’s meticulously methodical about it, disinfecting every single piece before reaching for a Phillips head. And maybe she needs this time to herself, if Waverly won’t be here with her. Sometimes Waverly shuffles past the open door and she’ll pause, and every time Nicole hopes that she’ll step inside and ask if she can help. Every time she turns away and disappears somewhere into the apartment.

The crib slowly turns into something that an actual baby can sleep in, and when Nicole drops the mattress into the bottom of the frame, she stands back and lets herself feel at least a little accomplished. Waverly needs more time, which is one of the few things Nicole can provide. Meanwhile there’s Alice, who never asked for any of this, and deserves the clean slate they all sacrificed so much to give her.

Nicole straightens up, hands massaging at the small of her back. Her wounded pride pokes at her bitterness, the loneliness of building the crib by herself flickering at a pile of dry resentment. This was never supposed to be her life. But in a way, Wynonna gave her a chance at something amazing and different, the kind of thing younger Nicole dreamed about. Living in France with the woman she loves, taking care of a baby together. But not her baby, she’s reminded every single time Waverly clutches Alice close and won’t let Nicole hold her for more than a minute at a time, and not her choice.

Nicole leans on the crib with her forearms crossed, staring at the bare mattress. It’s sturdy underneath her weight; they picked a nice, safe crib. She can hear Waverly moving in the bedroom next door. Even though she just wants to stop and breathe until life settles around her and the waters clear, there’s still the changing station left to assemble. She swipes the boxcutter from a nearby shelf and tries to think about how nice it will be not having to change Alice on the kitchen table.

*

Waverly doesn’t like leaving Alice in the nursery. For so long Alice has been just an arm’s length away at night, sleeping in a makeshift cradle that they could drag around from hotel to motel. Alice’s first night in the new crib, Waverly tosses and sighs and ultimately pushes herself out of bed to go gather Alice and return her to the nearby cradle.

“Emily,” Nicole says softly in the morning, hating how it sounds instead of being able to say Waves, low and intimate. Waverly sighs some more, but in the way that means she knows Nicole is right. But now instead of bringing Alice into their bedroom, when Waverly gives up on sleep, she shuffles her way into the nursery and stays there until sunrise, when Nicole will drag herself in with a blanket to cover Waverly where she’s slumped in a kitchen chair, her hand reaching through the slats of the crib to touch Alice. Nicole is starting to feel the same creeping exhaustion of their first couple of weeks in France, when neither of them dared sleep for very long or at the same time.

She patrols just to have something to do. Waverly has her reading and she has Alice, but Nicole doesn’t feel like she has a right to intrude on the two of them, despite loving them both. And so she performs her own reconnaissance under the guise of going out for runs, familiarizing herself with their neighborhood, fixing a map of it in her mind until she’s sure she could reliably navigate them out of it in any direction, on foot or in a car. Her loops are always random, different paths and different times of day through the zigzag streets lined with concrete sidewalks and apartments and stores and churches and schools. She sometimes misses the dirt roads of Purgatory, where you could drive straight for miles with nothing but grass and sky to keep you company.

She spots it on one of her loops around their apartment building. The rocking chair is out on the curb, clearly abandoned, scattered nicks and scrapes all along its old frame. They’ve needed something like it in the nursery, especially Waverly, who needs a place to sit instead of having to stand up and rock Alice around on her feet for an hour. Nicole wrestles it into a position semi-comfortable for carrying on her back and hauls it all the way to their building, depositing it on the little patch of grass outside the front entrance and then taking a moment to catch her breath.

It's early yet so she almost quite literally runs to the hardware store a few blocks away and picks up sandpaper in a couple of grits, wood filler, glue, clamps, varnish, everything she would need to restore a chair, and stashes all of it in one of the outdoor bins the building manager uses for gardening equipment. She doesn’t tell Waverly, doesn’t even hint at it. She never knows how Waverly will take these things, what will make Waverly appreciative or what will make her withdraw into the sad space where she just wants her sister back.

“I’m taking a longer route today,” she says the next morning, because even if Waverly is preoccupied, they’re both careful to always know where the other is, just in case. She doesn’t want to unexpectedly be gone for a couple of hours, at which point she knows Waverly would probably bleach their entire apartment and disappear with Alice and Nicole would never be able to find either of them again.

Removing the chair’s original finish is hard but honest work, and doing it all by hand instead of using a sander lets her lose herself in the back-and-forth rhythm, in the resistance of her muscles and the sweat of her labor. She likes seeing her action followed right away by result; she scrapes, the worn varnish comes up dust, and the original grain is revealed.

She’s suitably sweaty and already feeling the soreness when she heads back up to the apartment.

“Good run?” Waverly asks, a bit absently, from where she sits with Alice on the living room floor, showing her some brightly-colored alphabet blocks.

“Think I’m gonna hurt tomorrow,” Nicole says, but with a grin, and strips off her clothes to hit the shower.

The next day she fixes some of the wobbles in the chair and fills in a couple of spots. It doesn’t take a lot, but the glue needs to set, so after she clamps everything down she goes for a run in earnest, for once not preoccupied by what’s waiting for her at home, but by the timeline of her project.

The third day, the chair feels nice and solid when she gives it a test sit, and so she breaks out the varnish. The movement of her brush is hypnotically soothing, and the wood immediately warms up a bit under the polyurethane. It’s killing her to have to wait so much between every step, but the first coat needs a day to dry. She adds a second coat, and then waits another day for a third coat just to be really sure. And then she waits for a night when Waverly sleeps – truly sleeps – and slips downstairs to grab the chair. But Waverly is waiting for her when she returns, trying to silently wrestle the chair through the narrow front door.

“Where were you?” Waverly whispers harshly, although she can’t possibly miss the large rocking chair now sitting in the entranceway.

Nicole stares at her. “Did I wake you up when I left?”

“God, of course I woke up when you left,” Waverly whisper-cries, both of them aware that Alice is nearby, sleeping. “What did you think would happen when you left in the middle of the night? No note, nothing. I was about to get the shotgun.”

The first retort that bubbles up is ugly and completely unworthy of both of them and it takes Nicole a long moment to swallow back down the resentment that Waverly would miss her at all. Her hands clench the chair’s headrest until she can speak again. “I’m sorry. I just needed to get your…surprise,” she finishes with a wince.

Waverly seems to register the chair for the first time. “A rocking chair?”

Nicole gestures. “What do you think?”

Waverly’s mouth opens, but no words emerge at first.

“I found it and fixed it up,” Nicole says, hurrying to fill the silence. “The nursery needs a nicer chair and this one looked solid. I think it’s oak? It’s solid and now you don’t always have to walk around to rock Alice. And…”

Waverly starts to cry, given away by a deep sniff, and then the turn of her head in an attempt to hide it.

“Oh baby,” Nicole says, scooting around the chair to wrap her arms around Waverly. Waverly leans into her, her tiny frame folded up against Nicole. She sniffles again, but her tears aren’t quite the usual sobs that kick into her chest and heave her shoulders with every wave. She folds up and drips steady tears onto Nicole’s shirt and Nicole holds her until Waverly can take a breath without hitching. Then she uses her foot to push the rocking chair into the living room proper, and guides the two of them into it, pulling Waverly into her lap.

“See, I told you it was sturdy,” Nicole says, getting a watery laugh out of Waverly before she settles again, head pressed against Nicole’s shoulder, forehead tucked against Nicole’s chin.

Waverly breathes deep, the breath of someone trying to clear out the last of her tears. “I just feel so lost,” she says. “I don’t want to stay in one spot but we can’t keep moving. I don’t know what I’m going to do or even what I want to do. And any time I think maybe I could pick a direction I feel awful because every direction still leads away from Wynonna.”

“It’s…”

Waverly pounces. “And don’t say it’s okay. It’s not. You’ve been taking care of both of us and I want you to know I see it and I appreciate it and it’s not fair of me to be mad at you when you’re just doing your best.”

Nicole really doesn’t know how to respond to that, gratifying as it is to hear. She lets her thumb stroke against Waverly’s hip and just tries to be present with her, the same solidly reassuring person that Wynonna trusted enough to protect her baby and her baby sister.

“I don’t know…I don’t think I can be okay with this, not for a while, but I want to try. For you, and for Alice,” Waverly says. “You’ve been so patient. I feel terrible asking you to wait a little longer.”

“Hey,” Nicole says, squeezing her lightly. “As long as you’re trying, that’s all you can do. There’s no timeline on when to stop feeling sad or angry at the whole flaming shitbag the world laid on us. We’ll do our best together. That’s the important part. We’re a team.”

Waverly’s forehead nuzzles against her temple as she reaches up to stroke Nicole’s other cheek. “Can we sleep now?”

Nicole releases her and nudges upwards with her legs so that Waverly can get up. Waverly trails one hand, reaching back for Nicole, who grasps it and follows her back to the bedroom, rocking chair to be left for the morning.

*

When Waverly Earp says she’s going to try, what she really means is she’s going to devote a thousand percent of her not inconsiderable brain- and willpower towards a problem, and so it doesn’t entirely surprise Nicole when a week after what she’s been calling in her head the rocking chair in the nighttime incident, Waverly plops down at the kitchen table with her laptop and says, “I’ve been doing some research.”

“Okay,” Nicole says, because all she has to do is indicate that she’s listening, and Waverly will give her everything in the most minute, meticulous detail.

“Did you know Perry included work visas in our documents?” Waverly asks. She turns the laptop around so Nicole can see PDFs of their visas.

“Yeah,” Nicole says slowly. She’s intimately familiar with everything Perry sent along with them out of necessity. She couldn’t afford to assume that she wouldn’t need to have all their information memorized, or that Waverly would be helping her with it.

“Well.” Waverly fidgets with the laptop a few times. “I know we’re both feeling a little cooped up. And we do have a finite amount of money. So…”

“Emily.” She looks up from the tabletop, finally starting to get used to responding to a new name, and Nicole smirks at her. “Are you asking me to get a job?”

“Well, I mean-” Waverly blushes. “I don’t mean it like that.”

The smirk turns into an outright laugh as Nicole slides her hand across the table to cover Waverly’s. “I know what you mean. And I think it’s a great idea.”

“You do?” Waverly asks, the relief evident on her face.

“You’re right. We have enough for two years’ worth of rent here with what Perry gave us and my savings-”

“Wait, your savings?” Waverly asks, frowning.

Now it’s Nicole’s turn to look down at the table. “Yeah? I mean, we needed it. What else was I going to do with it? Let it sit in the bank?”

“Nicole,” Waverly says, eyes going soft, hand turning to squeeze hers. “I mean – Bobbie.”

Nicole clears her throat. “So we’re set on rent for a while, but it would be nice to be able to keep some of that as an emergency reserve. We can’t rely on Perry to send us more money. So. I’ve been thinking about jobs.”

Waverly takes the hint not to push more on the savings issue. “Did you think of something you’d like to do?”

“Well.” And now Nicole smiles, although still focusing more on the table than on Waverly as she goes a bit shy. “I can’t exactly be a cop here, but there are a ton of nice museums with nice art that needs protecting…”

“Oh my god,” says Waverly. “A museum guard. That would be so perfect! And in a museum!”

“I thought you might like that part,” Nicole says, catching Waverly’s enthusiasm.

“We have to make a list of every museum in Nice,” Waverly says, pulling back her laptop and already clicking away on the keyboard. Nicole sits her chin the palm of one hand, elbow on the table, and watches her work.

*

Summer is fully upon Nice. The days are long and sunny, the nights cool and fragrant. Nicole almost whistles a bit as she hops off the tram and begins the uphill walk to their building, enjoying the midday sun even though it feels a bit like it’s beating down on her in her dark suit. She likes the way the sunshine seems to slowly evaporate off of her when she steps inside, like her body stores it up and it lives under her skin.

The streets here are much narrower than Purgatory, well-lined with shrubs and bushes. The nicer buildings have gates lining the sidewalk, and she sometimes sees people hanging outside on their terraces. Lots of vacationers come and go through their neighborhood, where it’s cheaper to stay instead of right on the beach. They haven’t been to the beach yet, but soon, now that they’re really settled, and maybe ready to stop looking over their shoulders every second of the day.

“It’s me,” Nicole calls as she enters, although Waverly probably already knows from the motion sensor and surveillance camera they surreptitiously installed in the hallway.

“In the kitchen,” Waverly calls back. Nicole swings around the corner of the narrow front entryway and finds Waverly standing over the stove, checking the temperature on a bottle, Alice kicking her feet in her carrier on the kitchen table. Convinced though she is that they’re safe enough for the moment, Nicole’s heart still unclenches at the sight of them.

“Hi,” Nicole says, walking right up to Waverly and dropping a kiss on her cheek.

“How’d it go?”

“Well,” Nicole says, drawing it out. “Let’s just say if you want to visit the Musée d'art moderne et d'art contemporain, you’ll be able to use the employee discount.”

Waverly whirls around, bottle temporarily abandoned. “You got it?”

“I got it,” Nicole says, opening up her arms so Waverly can throw herself into them. Waverly hasn’t hugged her with this kind of solid affection in so long, it nearly squeezes a few tears out of Nicole. But she basks in it instead, soaking up the feeling of Waverly’s warm body, the sense that something in their lives is going right for once.

“Well, now that I have an inside woman, we can plan that art heist and go live on a pleasure yacht in the Mediterranean,” Waverly says, pulling back and poking her once in the stomach.

“Sorry babe, but the first suspect is always the newest hire,” Nicole says, starting to sway them both a little at the hips. “The detectives would start poking around and asking about that new security guard who disappeared with her insanely hot girlfriend after a month on the job.”

“Well, so much for turning our lives into a Jay-Z and Beyoncé video,” Waverly says. She gets up on her tiptoes to press a quick kiss into Nicole’s lips. “I knew you’d get it.”

Nicole chases after her, turning one kiss into another, and another. They’ve been intimate a couple of times since arriving in France, but never out of the simple happiness of being together. They spent a lot of time waiting and watching and the tension would eventually build to a peak, leading to something quick and dirty and just rough enough to take the edge off while Alice slept in the next room over.

Waverly pulls back with a little smack. “Just let me feed Alice and put her down for a nap, and then I am all yours.”

“All mine,” Nicole repeats dreamily. She watches Waverly scoop up Alice and shuffle into the nursery with a soft smile before beginning to rummage in the cabinets for that bottle of wine they picked up when they first moved in. It was supposed to be their “yay we found a place to live” wine, but they hadn’t much felt like drinking it. Waverly cried herself to sleep the first night that they spent here, Nicole holding her close in the dark, feeling her own heart thumping heavy in her chest.

Nicole turns up the merlot from underneath the tiny desk in the living room with only a shrug for how it ended up there. The bottle opener is still in its package in the top right kitchen drawer, purchased with the wine before they even had forks and knives. She pulls off its cardboard backing and jams the tip right into the cork, almost gleeful at the thought of a relaxing glass of wine with her girl while they catch a nice midsummer breeze through the open windows.

Two glasses sit breathing on the coffee table that came with the place and Nicole is relaxing with her hands behind her head when Waverly returns. She plops down on the cushions next to Nicole, head coming to rest on Nicole’s shoulder. “She threw up twice,” Waverly says.

“Gross,” Nicole says, arm wrapping around Waverly’s shoulders. Her feet go up on the table, longer legs stretching out.

Waverly leaves the half-circle of Nicole’s arm to reach for the wine, passing one glass to Nicole and then holding hers up so they can clink them in satisfaction. “You got a job,” she says proudly.

“I got a job,” Nicole says. They sip their wine, cozied up together, and Nicole lets herself start to believe that this can really work.

*

The guys at work – they don’t dislike her, exactly. But they don’t know her, and it doesn’t help that there just aren’t a lot of women on the museum’s security team. Her supervisor, Quentin, is decent enough, and at least overnight shifts are rarer with more of them rotating through positions.

Her first day, Waverly smirks at her in her dark suit, sauntering over and reaching up to grasp her starched collar. “I’m going to come by and steal some art so you can arrest me,” Waverly says, one hand sliding around her collar to the base of her neck to toy with the ends of her hair. She dyed it brown a few shades darker than Waverly’s at their second hotel; a tall redhead with a Canadian accent was just too obvious for her to walk around as-is. She’d liked her hair a lot and it was jarring at first to see herself looking so un-distinctly herself. And deep down, she’s always thought that at least 30% of the reason Waverly fell for her was the red hair. But Waverly had popped into the bathroom to see how the color settled after she rinsed out the dye and slipped up right behind her, arms circling her waist. No words, just a hug from behind. Nicole can deal with brown hair.

And the museum is close, just a few miles away, which makes her less anxious to be separated from Waverly for large chunks of time. She’s the one who wanted to settle and that means being okay with the two of them sometimes being apart. She promised Wynonna a normal life for Alice, not a watch dog who would never let her feel like she was safe. Just normal. People who love her, take care of her, but give her room to be herself.

Nicole doesn’t bother pointing out to Waverly that she has no power to arrest anyone as a security guard; playful is still a rare mood and so she lets herself sway into Waverly for a minute. Plenty of time yet for Nicole to still be fifteen minutes early for her shift.

A few of the guys greet her as she clocks in and joins them for the morning briefing. Not quite friendly, but at least professional. She’s been serious and observant on the job, like her first few weeks in Purgatory, even if Quentin is somehow even grumpier than Nedley. Perhaps it’s the language barrier; her French has improved in truckloads over the months they’ve spent in country, but sometimes idioms or regional colloquialisms go over her head. Whatever slang she picked up as a schoolgirl was barely relevant to French Canadians; to modern French citizens, it’s laughably unhip.

Still, it’s a very cool job. It doesn’t scratch the itch to really help people, but she spends her day surrounded by art, the kind Waverly always fantasized about seeing on vacation. Waverly hasn’t been to visit her yet, still reluctant to get out, to get really familiar with the neighborhood, the city at large. Maybe once she adjusts to the apartment. Maybe when she feels comfortable taking Alice out into the open. Maybe when she doesn’t sleep restlessly half the week, waking up in the early hours whether Alice cries or not.

In the meantime, at least work is a distraction. Nicole is afraid of crowding Waverly, forcing her to adjust faster than she has to. So she focuses on work, as much as she can focus on anything that’s not Waverly and Alice. The pay is decent and there’s nary a khaki trouser in sight. She doesn’t think the French believe in khaki trousers.

Afterwards, she stops at a little wine shop to pick up a bottle of rosé – the local wine is very good and quite cheap, compared to home – and then crosses the street to a grocer’s to grab some pasta and cheese and fresh veggies. She walks the rest of the way with a paper sack of good dinner supplies in her arms, enjoying how the evening cools rapidly as the sun sinks below the horizon.

Normally Waverly is reading or with Alice or doing the most intense possible workout in their little living room with all the furniture pushed to one side, anything that helps keep her mind off of Wynonna. But today when Nicole slides through the door, she can smell something heavenly drifting from the kitchen, and there’s Waverly in front of a sauté pan with a baby monitor nearby and the radio on to the local pop station.

“Wow,” Nicole says, leaving her bag of goodies on the kitchen table and slipping to the open spot at the stove to peer over Waverly’s shoulder. “That looks fresh.”

“I went out,” Waverly says, using a spatula to flip a crackling piece of cod and a steak-sized slab of tofu. She pauses with the spatula still poised over the pan. “I didn’t get to cook with fresh fish a lot, in…”

“Well it smells amazing,” Nicole says before Waverly can think too much or too hard about a tiny town where anything more complicated than beef or chicken required a 45-minute drive to Calgary. She presses a quick kiss to Waverly’s cheek. “I’m gonna go change.”

Once in her jeans and t-shirt, she finds Waverly sending up a cloud of steam as she quickly deglazes the pan with white wine. Hot food gets plated next to two bright salads, and Nicole grabs a pair of wine glasses to complete the picturesque table setting. Waverly pours them both a healthy glug from the rest of the white wine and as they sit, Nicole feels unbearably, guiltily happy.

*

“So,” says Waverly. She tucks herself a little more snugly into Nicole’s side as they lie in bed, a sure sign she’s about to propose something she’s been thinking about. Nicole tries her very hardest not to be afraid that Waverly wants to give up the apartment and keep moving. She’s been making so many strides – trips to the market, walks to the local park with Alice, more and more outings to bookstores, enough that Nicole tentatively suggested that perhaps Waverly should consider the benefits of digital books to avoid cramping the apartment even further.

“You have two days off next week, right?” Waverly asks.

Nicole riffles through her mental schedule, though if Waverly is suggesting it like this, it means she’s done her research and knows exactly what days off Nicole has. “Yeah,” Nicole says slowly.

“I was thinking,” Waverly says. She shifts her legs under the covers. “Maybe…it might be nice to go to the beach.”

“Oh,” says Nicole, surprised enough to sound taken aback. She can feel Waverly tense against her. “I mean, I like the sound of that. Let’s go. We can have a picnic.”

Waverly relaxes again, now squeezing her arm once. “You can wear a bikini.”

Nicole coughs. “Sure. That is an option.”

“I just figured…” Waverly sighs. “We’ve been living here for almost three months now and we still haven’t seen the beach. We live in walking distance of a beach and we still haven’t gone there, or just had a day where we’re…”

Happy, Nicole thinks. Neither of them needs to say it aloud. “I know,” she says. Her hand slides around the curve of Waverly’s waist, holding her close. “I know it’s been harder for you, baby, and that’s okay.”

Waverly buries her face in Nicole’s arm, voice muffled against the sleeve of her shirt. “No, it’s not okay.” Her voice hitches. “Wynonna trusted me to give Alice a good life.”

“And you have,” Nicole says, letting Waverly continue turtling into her. Hope has been sparking inside her ever since they moved in, but they were only errant lighter clicks that never caught on anything. Now she cautiously thinks of letting the spark catch, nursing it into a warm little flicker. It’s hard not to give Waverly another push. “Alice is the happiest baby I’ve ever seen. All that matters is that you love her, and you do that. We do that.”

Silence dims around them for another few minutes, muffling their cocoon of blankets and pillows into something very small and intimate. Waverly’s voice is a tremor in the air, as though she almost doesn’t want to say the words. “You don’t…you don’t spend a lot of time with Alice.” No judgment, but real worry, and perhaps a dose of self-recrimination.

Nicole takes her time to gather up the words. It’s so easy for them to hurt each other right now, whether they mean to or not. “I, um. I don’t really feel…I mean. I love Alice. So much. But I don’t want to…overstep.”

“Oh,” Waverly says, and Nicole knows she feels hurt all the same. “I didn’t mean to-”

“I know you don’t,” Nicole says quickly, soothingly.

“It’s – it’s about Alice. And me. I promise it’s not about you,” Waverly says.

“I get that.”

“I wish you didn’t,” Waverly admits. “I wish you’d get mad and yell and we’d fight and just. Not feel like everything is so fragile all the time.”

“I get that too.” Nicole lets her cheek drop on top of Waverly’s head. “How about we both agree to just say what we feel tonight? No judgment. I think we both need to let it out.” She expects Waverly to perhaps pull away, but instead she settles in with a sigh that sends her body limp. Maybe it’s easier to do this if she can still feel reassured of their connection. Nicole doesn’t mind; this would be so much worse if they were sitting down at a table, like they were having a conference. Here in their bed they can just be two people trying to untangle a mess.

“I’m mad at you for taking me away from Wynonna,” Waverly says, pushing forward with measured abruptness. “Even though I know it was Wynonna, I just saw you driving me farther and farther away from Purgatory and I guess I’m like…mad at the hand for doing what the brain asks, but I can’t help it.”

“I’m mad at Wynonna for asking me to do something she knew I wouldn’t be able to refuse,” Nicole says. She’s terrified Waverly will bolt from the bed at her words but she keeps going. “I’m mad at having to leave behind a life that I really liked. And I feel guilty because I, uh. I’m starting to like the life I have now.”

Waverly tenses, but abides by their agreement. No judgment. Just the truth. She takes her turn. “I’m mad at you because it seems easier for you. Sometimes I resent that you didn’t have to leave your sister or the only place you’ve ever known as home.”

“It is easier for me,” Nicole tells her, and it feels good to hear it out loud. “I’ve left homes before. I have more practice coping.”

“That doesn’t mean it should be easier for you,” Waverly says.

“No, I guess not,” Nicole says, and for a moment they coast on the feeling of being in agreement, the warmth that comes with comforting each other.

“I don’t know if I feel any better,” Waverly says. She sounds exhausted from their confessions, short as they were. But they were big confessions, and Nicole is just as wrung out.

“Let’s sleep?” Nicole suggests.

“I don’t know if I can.” But the slump of Waverly’s body is too pronounced to ignore.

“Just think about the beach,” Nicole says. “The warm sun, water as far as you can see, the waves coming in and washing over your feet.” She describes it in a low murmur until she feels Waverly sag completely against her, the limp release of true sleep. Nicole thinks of the beach too, and follows Waverly on the gentle tide of promise.

*

In the morning, they wake up face to face. They both scooted down under the covers some time in the night and now Nicole is content to watch Waverly, eyes tracing the pale morning light painting a stripe across her shoulder, from where they haven’t drawn the curtains all the way. Some of what they said last night lingers, but now with a little distance she can think about it with less emotion. Waverly knows she’s not close to her family. She had Shae, some friends from college, a pal from the academy she would email every couple of weeks. But there was a reason she decided to pick up her life and move to Purgatory, other than the appeal of small-town policing.

She doesn’t dare shift too much, or try to touch Waverly. Waverly has needed a good sleep for a while, and she looks most like the sweet girl Nicole remembers from a beer-drenched bar as she slumbers.

A breathy little sigh heralds Waverly’s awakening. In Purgatory, it was always a half-hour ordeal to coax her out of bed, out from under her four blankets instead of dragging Nicole back into that nest-warm coziness. In Nice she’ll wake up in stages, but she won’t linger once her eyes are all the way open, and so Nicole tries to savor these last few minutes.

But Waverly begins to shift, and when her drowsy eyes do blink into total wakefulness, she stares back at Nicole, hands folded up underneath her pillow. “Hi,” she says, voice still hoarse with sleep.

“Hi,” Nicole whispers back.

“How do you feel?”

“I love you,” Nicole says, answer and conclusion together. She holds herself still on her side of the bed, her message to Waverly out there on a line, hoping for a sympathetic answering tug.

Waverly’s reply is earnest, entirely serious, like a promise she needs Nicole to believe with all her heart that Waverly will keep. “I love you too.”

From the baby monitor they hear the rustling that means Alice will soon join them, hungry and inquisitive.

Waverly nudges her head a little closer to Nicole’s, edged up to the gap between their pillows. “Would you take her this morning? I can get breakfast started.”

Nicole can’t hide the smile of real pleasure that steals over her face at being asked to do such a simple thing. “I’d love to,” she says. When she scoots forward, Waverly meets her in the middle for an affectionate kiss.

*

The beach is only the first step. Waverly has them all up and ready to go just after sunrise, a baby bag and a picnic hamper packed while Nicole and Alice sit at the kitchen table and trade identical yawns. But once on the beach – sparsely populated so early in the morning – Waverly rolls out a pair of towels and Nicole lies down and naps in the sun, dozing off to the feeling of Waverly working sunscreen onto her bare shoulders and down her arms and legs. They have fun building a little sand castle around Alice, burying her up to her waist in damp, cool sand and taking turns to go dunk in the sea before traipsing back home with salt water in their hair and sun glare in their eyes leaving negative impressions until they adjust to the cool shade indoors.

Then the museums, which Waverly has actually plotted out on a map to visit in order of establishment from oldest to youngest. Admission is free for locals in lots of places, which is basically catnip to Waverly, and Nicole spends several weekends in a row following Waverly from exhibit to exhibit, Alice snug against her chest in her sling. Waverly collects post cards wherever they go, to remain blank and unsent but held as a hopeful reminder that perhaps someday, she’ll show them all to her sister.

Waverly saves Nicole’s job for last, and Nicole spends her lunch break walking her girls around the museum, pointing out some of the general security measures for each exhibit, occasionally introducing Waverly to a coworker.

”Elle est très belle,” Quentin says after Waverly leaves with a quick peck and a soft smile. His eyebrows lift in approval. Not salaciously, but a sincere compliment between two people friendly enough to go past work talk now.

“Très intelligente aussi,” Nicole agrees with a lopsided smile that she can’t at all help.

“Votre fille ressemble à elle.”

Your daughter looks like her.

This is the one lie Waverly absolutely refuses to tell, and so Nicole casually corrects him with a smaller lie. “She’s my niece. We’re raising her.”

The approval quirks into something Quentin wants to ask, but knows is far too personal for the relationship they have.

“Her mother…it’s complicated,” Nicole says, and lets the pause imply everything which a polite person would be too apologetic to press her on. No one likes to intrude on a family tragedy.

Sure enough, Quentin makes a low humming sound and apologizes. “It’s good of you.”

“It’s what you do for family, right?” Nicole says, hoping Quentin doesn’t hear all her doubts and questions and worries that Alice will always be one step removed from her and the guilt that she is here to love Wynonna’s little girl when Wynonna is not.

Quentin grunts and nods his agreement; she hadn’t expected much else from him, as taciturn as he is. This conversation is already longer than anything else non-personal they’ve ever shared. But Nicole notices in the weeks to come that he squares his shoulders a little less and nods approvingly a little more, and even if it’s not quite the same as Nedley asking her to just be a good cop, it’s enough to give her a taste of the satisfaction she misses from her work.

*

Waverly is really trying, Nicole can tell. She seems to have dug her teeth into a fake-it-til-you-make-it attitude and so if she still holds Alice too tightly for too long, she also listens to Nicole talking about her day and mentions things like that she found an error in an exhibit at the archeological museum in Cimiez.

“Maybe you could apply for a position there,” Nicole says as she finishes laying out dinner. Even if Waverly doesn’t go for it, at least she’ll have planted the seed of an idea.

“I’m not really qualified,” Waverly says, splitting her attention between her own food and attempting to interest Alice in tasting pureed carrots from the tip of a baby spoon.

“You’re a great researcher though,” Nicole says.

“I mean, I obviously know more than those dumb dumbs if they’re classifying third-century religious iconography as second century,” Waverly says. The spoon hovers in front of a defiant Alice, who only last week seemed to love carrots but this week just wants her bottle. She sighs. “I just mean I don’t think I have the right paperwork. Perry couldn’t have included an advanced degree in our documents?”

“I’m sure it just slipped his mind.”

“Do you want to try?” Waverly asks, offering Nicole the spoon, and though it’s entirely out of exasperation, Nicole is only too happy to have a go.

“Come on, baby girl,” Nicole says, trying to make the spoon dance enticingly on a serpentine mid-air track. Her voice pitches higher, trying to sound enthusiastic. “Mmm, so good. Carrots. It only looks like hot vomit, I promise.”

“Hey!” Waverly says, though she cracks a smile.

Nicole’s cheery tone doesn’t waver as she continues entreating Alice with the spoon. “She can’t understand me, she just hears the tone of my voice. Yes she does. And the tone of my voice is saying please eat these carrots.”

Alice waggles her arms a few times, lightly thunking them against the plastic tray of her feeding chair. And then a single sound issues out of her mouth, dissipating thinly among the rest of her burbles. “Nuh.”

Nicole freezes in place, spoon hovering a few inches from Alice, who is now wiggling in her seat.

“Did she just say…?” Waverly asks, also frozen.

“Alice?” Nicole asks, and she responds to her name with a look at Nicole, another at the carrots, and then disinterest in favor of continued wiggling.

Waverly motions for Nicole to try again with the spoon, which she does, but Alice only shies away and does not speak again, at least nothing more coherent than her usual nonsense sounds.

It’s plain Alice won’t be doing solid foods tonight, and so Waverly gives her a bottle and after she’s burped and clean and in her crib, she and Nicole huddle together in the living room. “She totally said ‘no,’ right? I’m not going crazy?” Waverly asks.

“I heard it too,” Nicole says, though she’s half-wondering if she really did. She drops onto the couch and puts her feet up on the coffee table, head thrown back so she can stare at the ceiling and let out her confusion.

“She’s only six months,” Waverly says.

“She’s a fast learner?” Nicole suggests.

“When did you start talking?”

Nicole shrugs. “I think I said my first word when I was almost one, but I don’t know exactly when. Just whenever’s normal for a baby to start talking.”

“See, this is not normal,” Waverly says, looking very close to a full on panic.

“But it’s not bad normal,” Nicole says, trying to keep Waverly on an even keel. “Right? She’s a smart baby. I mean all your baby books say she’s been developing faster than usual. This is just one more thing she’s great at.”

“Yeah, but…” Waverly looks miserable so disproportionate to the actual issue that Nicole can’t help but feel rather alarmed.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, hands rubbing up and down Waverly’s arms to keep them connected, to give Waverly something to focus on.

“She’s…Alice…” Waverly’s breathing thickens until it wavers into a quiet sob. She sniffs and turns her head away, one forearm harshly scrubbing across both eyes. “She’s talking. She said her first word. And Wynonna wasn’t here for it.”

Nicole scoots closer so she can gather Waverly into her arms, at first in a hard embrace, as though she could possibly squeeze the sadness from Waverly. She holds Waverly tight, feeling Waverly’s hands digging into her back, face buried into the crook of her neck. “Listen to me,” she says, softening her hold just enough to be able to press a kiss to the slope of Waverly’s shoulder. “Wynonna knew what she was doing. She entrusted these moments to you, because you’re family. It is not your fault that Wynonna couldn’t be here and the best that you can do is save all these moments for her for when we go back.” She holds on a while longer, feeling Waverly loosen up until she finally manages to pull her face from where she burrowed it against Nicole’s neck, once again ready to acknowledge the outside world.

“This is it. This is our life now,” Waverly says, head still bowed.

Nicole presses another kiss to the top of her head, laying her cheek on the spot.

She exhales, a bit messy, but clearly letting go of something that was sitting inside of her. She pulls back farther, far enough to be eye to eye with Nicole. Her hands reach up and cup Nicole’s cheeks, eyes searching her face. Nicole is as still and calm as she can be, blinking slowly in Waverly’s hold.

“This is our life now,” Waverly says again, stronger. A fact, a promise, an apology. And then a slight snort and a tug at the corner of her mouth. “Wynonna’s daughter would say ‘no’ as her first word.”

Nicole cracks a relieved smile. “Well, at least it wasn’t ‘whiskey’.”

Waverly smiles too, though it’s too sad to be a proper smile. But it’s not tears, and it’s not panic. It’s self-aware, the expression of a woman who knows life isn’t as it should be but has to accept it for what it is. She squeezes Nicole’s face in her hands once before letting go. “I think we need some beach therapy this weekend,” she says.

“That sounds perfect,” Nicole says, and picks up one of Waverly’s hands to dot a kiss on the knuckles.

Waverly tugs her hand back, bringing Nicole’s with it, and mirrors the gesture. And then she leans in close again and her kiss is warm and soft against the corner of Nicole’s mouth. “You, me, and Alice,” Waverly murmurs with their heads tilted together. For the first time it sounds natural, like Waverly is thinking of all three of them together as a unit. As a family.

Chapter Text

“Regarde, c’est Alice ici”,” Nicole calls, hefting Alice in her arms as she enters Maison Renard. Waverly emerges from the back of the café, face awash with delight as she accepts Alice and cuddles her close, nose rubbing Alice’s soft baby cheek and drawing out a gummy giggle.

The other waitresses immediately crowd around Waverly, cooing over the baby in their midst, several cries of trop mignon! echoing among them.

“Hi”, Waverly says, leaning out of the circle just far enough for Nicole to plant a kiss on her cheek. “Give me five minutes and I’m off work?”

“Nonsense,” says Sylvie, taking a break from gently wiggling her finger in Alice’s grasp. Somehow she and another waitress herd Nicole into a corner seat, where Alice lands in her arms and a pastry on a plate appears in front of her.

“Eat, eat,” Sylvie encourages her. “Emily always says you work so hard.”

Nicole looks up at the expectant faces around her and slowly picks up the pastry for a small, polite bite from the corner. “It’s very good, thank you,” she says, trying not to watch them watching her.

They beam at her and then continue to fuss over Alice. Waverly peers over the tops of their heads from the back of the group and mouths five minutes, corresponding number of fingers held up for good measure.

Nicole wants to tell Waverly not to leave her with these women, but it’s far too late, and for the next five minutes she’s stuck trying to appreciatively eat her pastry (which actually is quite good) while holding Alice as Sylvie and Co. fawn over them both and comment on how Bobbie is keeping French national treasures safe. Waverly has only been working at the café for a couple of months, but already Alice is the darling of the place, Waverly’s coworkers seemingly charmed by their little family, although they still tease Nicole over the Canadian accent she can’t seem to shake. Waverly, of course, is beginning to sound like a native, her French picking up something of the slower drawl of the local women who staff the café.

Eventually Waverly returns, wriggling through the waitresses to rescue Nicole, who gratefully accepts her hand and stands up.

“Have a good evening, ladies,” Nicole says dutifully as she lets Waverly lead her to fresh air and freedom.

Outside, Waverly holds her arms out and once again accepts Alice, rubbing noses with her and greeting her after a long day apart. “They just love your Auntie Bobbie in there, yes they do,” she says in her baby voice.

“A little too much,” Nicole grumbles, brushing a few crumbs from her shirt without any real resentment. She’s still a cop at heart, and the free pastries go a long way towards making up for all the fussing.

They walk hand in hand, Alice on Waverly’s hip, hitting some farmer’s market stalls along the way to pick up fresh vegetables, available here even as fall is beginning to drift into winter. The Mediterranean sun has given them both a healthy glow, although even on overcast days Waverly won’t let Alice out of the house wearing anything less than an SPF Nicole didn’t know they made in numbers that high and one of several adorable baby hats that flop cutely around her chubby cheeks.

They’re in no rush to return home, enjoying the brisk afternoon air and the smells of the bakeries and restaurants along the way. Sometimes Alice will reach out towards a passing dog or attempt to grab the leaf off of a bush. She’s an inquisitive baby and prone to crawling towards the nearest fun-by-baby-standards object if left unattended for more than five seconds.

They enjoy dinner picnic style in the living room, taking turns to feed Alice mouthfuls of pureed lentils while they leisurely nibble through a simple spread of cheese, bread, olives, and fruit. Waverly has slowly relaxed out of veganism into a loosely pescetarian diet, too enamored of the local cheese selection to forgo dairy entirely and assuaged by their favorite market’s ethical local sourcing.

“I’m gonna apply to Master’s programs,” Waverly says, quite out of nowhere as she plucks grapes from the stem and rolls them around in her hand.

Nicole looks up from where Alice is messily gumming at the plastic spoon in her mouth. “Really?”

Waverly shrugs, but Nicole can hear the thread of eagerness in her voice. “It’s the simplest way to get my foot in the door at a museum.” Nicole is suddenly unbearably fond of Waverly, perhaps the only person who would consider a graduate program the easy path.

“So what’s the plan?” Nicole asks.

“Well I work Monday through Wednesday at the café, so I can get together the paperwork the rest of the week. There’s a checklist of requirements and I’ll have to show French language proficiency too but I can make it before the deadline at the end of January. And it won’t actually cost that much, especially if I keep working part time.”

“Sounds like you know what you’re doing,” Nicole says, hiding her grin at how Waverly has perked up over a study schedule. “And it’ll give me some more quality time with this little monster,” she says. Alice slaps her hand in a spilled puddle of lentils, which transforms it into several smaller puddles of lentils dispersed across her tray and onto the towel placed strategically under her seat.

“You don’t think it’s…you know, too much?” Waverly asks, and Nicole knows she means is it okay for me to do what I really want.

“I think you should go for it. It’ll be really fun and lord knows any one of the museums here would be lucky to have you,” Nicole says.

“Thank you for making sure our paperwork included school documents,” Waverly says, leaning over to pop a rather olive-y kiss onto Nicole’s cheek.

“Oh, Perry-”

“Might not have really thought about what it would take for us to make lives here without your help,” Waverly says. “And he definitely wouldn’t have known to give me a history degree from U of C.”

“Well.” Now it’s Nicole’s turn to shrug, because she had indeed made sure that they would have more than just travel papers and fake IDs. She had been willing to contemplate more than just a short-term absence, had even considered that they might never return at all for Alice’s sake, Earp heir be damned. That part she hasn’t shared with Waverly, just that she had thought years ahead instead of months. Waverly isn’t ready to think of an entire lifetime without her sister and she probably never will be.

“You’d make a really good criminal mastermind,” Waverly says, eyes crinkled as she takes a sliver of compté.

“You know, you tell me not to worry that you’re going to heist my workplace, but it really seems like you have a plan,” Nicole says with mock suspicion. “Maybe I should interrogate you.”

Waverly’s eyebrows shoot up. “You think you can get me talk?”

Nicole wipes Alice’s face of lentils and pulls her out of her chair, smooshing their faces together so they can both look at Waverly. She pouts.

“No!” Waverly says, holding up a hand to block them both from view. “Please.”

“Alice, please ask Emily to tell us her plan,” Nicole says.

“Ya!” Alice says cheerfully, one of the four or five words in her vocabulary now. Nicole never knows when she’ll come home to discover that Alice has picked up another word; every one has been a delight, though none quite as delightful as the day Waverly uttered a shit, only to hear a tiny s’it echoing her nearby. Waverly had been mortified, while Nicole had to leave the room in order to finish laughing.

“This is not a proportionate response. This is forbidden by the Geneva Convention,” Waverly complains.

Alice wriggles in Nicole’s grasp, wanting to be put down, and so Nicole lets her sit on the carpet between her and Waverly, where she waves a pudgy fist in the air and makes interested eyes at the nearby spread of adult food.

Slowly, Waverly lowers her hand, checking to make sure the ambush is over. “So unfair,” she says, but her grumbling fades as Alice tries to climb into her lap.

Nicole resumes eating, watching the two of them play peekaboo, enraptured with each other.

*

The door on the bell doesn’t even finish tinkling before Sylvie zooms up to Nicole, who has Alice strapped into her carrier in front. It’s her one day to pick up Alice from the halte-garderie since one or both of them is able to stay home with her the rest of the week. That had been an interesting first day apart, Waverly getting ready for her shift and Nicole assigned to drop Alice off since it was on the way to the museum. Waverly had nearly been late for work, reluctant to leave, to let Alice out of her sight and entrust her to the care of strangers for the first time. Well, carefully vetted strangers. One of the guys at the museum had an old national police buddy back in Paris and the background checks had all come up clean, bearing out Nicole’s two weeks of careful surveillance.

“Go talk some sense into her,” Sylvie says.

“Um,” Nicole says.

“She’s going to spend another year as a waitress instead of going to school,” Sylvie says with all the gentle disapproval of a mother. Her tone stays light, though, mindful of Alice, to whom she wiggles a finger like a worm inching along. “She’s in the back, go on through.”

Nicole follows her instructions after an apprehensive thanks and weaves her way through the small tables and behind the counter, ducking through the door leading into the back with the ovens and storage. “Em?” she calls out.

Waverly’s voice slides around a stack of flour bins. “Here.” She emerges, balling up her white apron to join the dirty linens. She smiles automatically at Alice, but Nicole can see the preoccupation in her eyes tempering it into something distracted.

“How was your day?” Nicole asks, leaning down for a peck.

“Oh, you know.” Waverly flaps one arm.

“Sylvie seemed…concerned.”

Waverly makes a dismissive face. “It’s nothing.”

“You sure?” Nicole asks. Alice begins fussing, so she automatically bounces on the balls of her feet, steadily jiggling them both while one hand pats lightly against Alice’s back.

A sigh from Waverly, part exasperation, part guilt from the way she turns her head away from Nicole, eyes stuck somewhere on the racks of flour. “I just don’t feel ready. It’s too soon.”

“Baby, I know you’re worried about Alice, but you’ve been so much happier since you started getting out of the apartment,” Nicole says, gentle as ever with Waverly’s feelings when it comes to Alice and what she represents.

“I’m…” Waverly takes a deep breath. “Let’s go for a walk? I don’t want to talk about it here.”

“Sylvie’s probably right outside the door,” Nicole says, only half joking.

Waverly pops her head into the café proper to call out a goodbye and then they leave through the back door, not wanting to have to navigate a good ten minutes of cooing and attempts to foist off a bag of day-olds on them. Nicole uses her arms to keep up Alice’s soothing little bounce as they walk, waiting for Waverly to organize her thoughts.

“It’s too soon,” she says again, aiming them towards the apartment.

“Do you not feel ready to try for your master’s?” Nicole asks, knowing the only thing for it is to draw Waverly out a question at a time.

“No. I mean. Maybe.”

“What would change if you waited a year to apply again?”

“My…I don’t know.” Waverly folds her arms, head down, eyes on the sidewalk.

“You don’t have to accept,” Nicole says. “If you apply and get in, you still don’t have to go. Why not just see if they say yes?”

Waverly walks along in silence, still contemplating the ground, her brain eaten up with weighing her options.

“Hey,” Nicole says, spotting a worn wooden sign. “Come on, let’s go in here for a minute.” She splits off from the path, looking both ways before crossing the street to enter a bookstore. She holds the door for Waverly, who, once inside, focuses on the books despite herself.

“Do you need a book?” Waverly asks, already drifting through the shelves, eyes scanning the titles.

“Uh, yeah. For Alice,” Nicole says, spotting a small children’s section in one corner. “Meet you back here in five minutes?”

“Sure,” Waverly says, now using her index finger to wiggle a book loose from its friends.

Nicole takes her time picking out a picture book for Alice, something with bright colors and felt farm animals labeled in appropriately fun-sized letters. Ten minutes later she finds Waverly in the history section, three books in the crook of her arm and a fourth sliding out to join them. “Ready,” she says.

“Oh, okay,” Waverly says, and then hefts her books with a hint of self-consciousness. “Maybe I should put one back.”

“You’ll just be back here in a couple of days to buy it,” Nicole says, and slips Alice’s book on top of Waverly’s stack to take to the counter.

Once outside, Waverly grasps the handles of her paper purchase bag and gets up on her tiptoes to kiss Nicole on the corner of her mouth. “That was a very nice distraction. Thank you.”

“Did it help clear your head?”

“A little,” Waverly says, sounding like she means it.

“Whatever you decide, I support you,” Nicole says, which is enough to get Waverly’s smile to blossom for real this time, eyes crinkling at the corners while she shifts the bag to her left hand so her right can take Nicole’s as they resume their walk in the dusky evening.

*

Nicole had prepared herself mentally for the application process. She had figured Waverly would be nervous about it, and a nervous Waverly liked to control everything possible to make up for the things she couldn’t that were giving her nerves in the first place.

Instead Waverly pulls together her applications with brisk efficiency, sends them off, and then promptly ignores them for the rest of the month, as though out of sight, out of mind is the only way to assuage her guilt. She dotes on Alice more than ever while she waits for the replies, ferociously repeating Wynonna’s name to her over and over again in stories of her life. Some of them are true, albeit sanitized of the gore and swearing and scary parts. Some of them are pure fancy, an imagining of the heroic cowgirl riding across the plains to rescue towns under siege by loathsome ruffians with the help of her handsome sidekicks, Dolls, Doc, and Jeremy.

And then one day Waverly is checking her e-mail (and discreetly checking Purgatory news, reluctantly published online by the town paper’s grumpy, aging editor) and she makes a sound. Something almost like a surprised “oh” but more nasal, more shapeless than that.

“What is it?” Nicole asks, doing up the last of the buttons on her work shirt. She grimaces a little; Waverly starched all her shirts in one of her more energetic delaying-the-inevitable episodes, and the sharp fold of it is cutting into her neck.

“Uh.” Waverly shifts around on the bed, pushing the laptop to the foot and turning it so Nicole can get a look at the screen.

Nicole bends at the waist, fingers still working on that last button, and squints to scan the first few lines. “Oh my god. You got in.”

Waverly stares at Nicole. “I got in.”

“You got in,” Nicole repeats, and now Waverly is pushing to her knees to shuffle towards Nicole, nodding in bigger and bigger arcs.

“I got in.”

Nicole throws her arms out wide and gathers Waverly up, feeling her arms fling around Nicole’s shoulders. Nicole leans back, fully lifting Waverly off the bed for a moment before letting her thump back down. “Baby! I’m so proud of you.”

Waverly just holds both hands folded up in front of her mouth, still unable to say much else. She sinks back onto her heels and Nicole decides she can be a little late for work if she has to. The paintings will keep. “Still having second thoughts?” she asks.

Waverly unfolds her hands and buries her face in her palms for a second. Her eyes peek out over the tips of her fingers. “Am I crazy? I’d be so crazy not to go.”

“I don’t know about crazy,” Nicole says. “But there’s a difference between not letting something hold you back and forcing it.”

“I want this! Clearly I wanted it, or I wouldn’t have spent so long on thinking about it and applying and taking all these tests to qualify.” Waverly flops back, arms flung wide, face a blank as she stares up at the ceiling.

Nicole’s hand curls around her ankle and squeezes. “Do you have to answer right away?”

A sigh heaves out of Waverly. “I have a few days.”

“Well why don’t you think about it. You don’t have to say yes or no right this second.”

Another sigh. “I want to say yes or no right this second though. I just…I want to know what I want to do with my life. I want to be sure of myself. I used to be sure of myself.”

Nicole squeezes her ankle again. “You’re doing the best you can. That’s all you can do.”

Waverly manages to disengage from the ceiling, head lolling onto the covers to look at Nicole. “You’re gonna be late for work.”

“I got a few minutes,” Nicole says easily.

Waverly’s foot nudges at her thigh. “Go to work. I promise I won’t freak out again until you come back home.”

Nicole can tell Waverly just wants some time to freak out privately instead, and so she leans over to press a kiss on Waverly’s knee and then tugs on her suit jacket and hopes and hopes and hopes that Waverly won’t make a decision out of guilt. Quentin notices her distraction, she can tell, but by now she’s earned a little leeway, and he lets her work the security office instead of her usual walkthrough of the museum floor before sending her home fifteen minutes early. She picks up some flowers on the way, sweet white carnations that she hopes will at least brighten up the apartment and the evening, but when she opens the front door, the apartment is silent.

Where are you? she texts, not overly worried despite the initial heart rate spike that had her reaching for a gun that wasn’t there. They used to text each other every single detail of every move they made throughout the day, but with their growing sense of safety has come a willingness to loosen their grip on each other. And if something were wrong, the apartment would definitely not be in such pristine order.

Cimiez ruins, is the quick reply, followed by a selfie of Waverly and Alice, a crumbling stone archway behind them.

Nicole knows the place; she’s already spent a day following Waverly around as she coos over the ruins, taking notes like she was on a school field trip. Should I join you> she asks.

Sure.

So Nicole quickly ditches her suit for a pair of jeans and an olive canvas jacket over a henley, plops the flowers in the sink, and heads out again, eventually managing to find Waverly at the site with Alice in her baby bjorn, telling her about the inner workings of Roman baths. Nicole sits down beside her, not wanting to interrupt the flow, which seems to have Alice mesmerized. Normally she responds to either one of them if she hasn’t seen them in a while, demanding attention and wanting to snuggle. She’ll be a sweetheart when she grows up a little, Nicole can tell, sweet just like Waverly. But today she just stares up at Waverly, captivated by the sound of her voice, the animated lilt of her storytelling.

“You’re pretty good at that,” Nicole says when Waverly finishes.

“At boring babies to sleep?” Waverly asks as Alice yawns.

“At making history sound really exciting,” Nicole says, which makes Waverly smile and lean back into her, so that Nicole has to wrap her arm around Waverly’s waist or have it pinned to her side.

“I guess I just wanted to be somewhere that reminded me of the dreams I always had for myself,” Waverly says. She peers up at the ruins, a testament to Roman engineering that could leave even this much behind after two thousand years. “There’s so much I’ve read about and always said to myself I would experience one day. But only once the curse was finished. And now that I’m here, I’m so mad that the only thing I want to do is go back to Purgatory. It’s like the frickin’ curse knew about my dreams and wanted to ruin them.” She rests her head on Nicole’s shoulder. “But it’s so confusing because I love being here with you. And I’m not supposed to love being here with you.”

“I know how you feel,” Nicole says, tipping her head to lean back against Waverly’s crown. The words don’t really hurt. It’s nice that they come so easily now, frank and honest and open. Tip-toeing around each other’s emotions has always made things worse for them.

“I’m going to accept,” Waverly says. “The curse took so much from us already. It’s not going to take this too.”

“I support you,” Nicole says. “If it makes you happy, I support you.”

“I love you,” Waverly says confidently, like it’s the most true thing in the world, and perhaps in that moment, it is.

*

Nicole really did not think she would be the one with worse separation anxiety when they started having to put Alice in daycare most of the week, but with Waverly practically living at the library in an effort to catch up with the rest of the students in her master’s program, it’s an inevitability. Quentin mentions her to the museum curator, who has a friend in the mayor’s office, who finds a spot for them in a nearby crèche despite a waiting list hundreds of people long. Nicole would feel a little guilty jumping all those people in line, but seeing Waverly come home every day with her satchel of bulging books, happily exhausted, assuages the worst of it.

The real problem is knowing that Alice is somewhere that isn’t with her or Waverly for so much of the week. Waverly has to convince her not to take a week off of work and just linger around the crèche when they first start bringing Alice there. “You already did the surveillance,” Waverly had said, tugging her away from the building on the first morning of dropping Alice off, and so she had gone to work and put on a smile and pretended she didn’t want to bolt every five minutes. The only thing that keeps her sane is being able to reassure herself of Alice’s location via the GPS trackers laboriously sewn into all of her clothes. Before all the sewing, a small stack of trackers piled between them, they had both had a moment of wondering if they were being crazy overprotective parents before doing it anyway, thoughts of Purgatory never very far away.

“It’s always hard at first,” Quentin says, trying to be sympathetic, and Nicole plays along like it’s normal separation anxiety and not a humming current of worry that never quite manages to subside from her gut that someone will take Alice and Wynonna’s sacrifice will have been for nothing. These days she can usually forget that it’s there, like learning to live with an old injury, but this shift in their patterns has it flaring up again.

It takes over two weeks of rushing to the crèche after work and finding Alice there, whole and safe, before she manages to release some of the tension from her shoulders and go back to pushing that buzz of worry to the back of her mind. Waverly comes up to speed in her program, slowly at first, but then with increasing rapidity – her French now is superb, indistinguishable from the native speakers she works with – and before Nicole can quite comprehend it, Waverly is six months into her degree and looking for a work position to help with her research. Her professors love her, her peers respect her, and Nicole watches in amusement one day when she meets Waverly after a lecture and finds another woman trying unsuccessfully to flirt with her.

“Oh Bobbie,” Waverly says, eyes lighting up as she spots her walking down the hall, Alice on her hip. She pulls away from the woman, who splutters as Waverly bounds over to go tippy-toed for a kiss. She grabs Nicole by the hand and drags her over, making introductions in French. “Nicole, this is Louisa. Louisa, this is my girlfriend, Bobbie.”

Louisa, who is also much shorter than Nicole, blushes a little but gamely shakes Nicole’s hand and on the way home Nicole teases Waverly about her cute French girlfriend. “Didn’t know you had a thing for blondes,” she says, earning her a light slap on the arm from the back of Waverly’s hand.

“She’s French. Maybe she doesn’t mind being a mistress,” Nicole adds, this time dodging away from the retaliatory slap and putting Alice between them like a tiny human shield.

Waverly pretends to scowl, but she’s as lively as she’s ever been, truly thriving in such an intellectually rigorous environment, surrounded by people who have never thought to question that she’s one of the smartest among them, that she clearly belongs at the front of the classroom. “Oh,” she says after a moment, her indignation melting away as they continue walking, “There’s a conference in London about six weeks from now.”

“You always wanted to go to London,” Nicole says, already thinking about ways to take off work so she can stay home with Alice. Maybe when they first arrived she would have torn her hair out at the thought of letting Waverly out of her sight for more than an hour, let alone several days, but there have been plenty of opportunities to abduct either one of them while they’re apart for work. Thinking of how happy it would make Waverly to travel to one of the great cities on her all-time list outweighs any potential fear at this point.

“How about a vacation?” Waverly says, and Nicole nearly runs into a lamp post.

“Vacation?” she repeats once she manages to re-align her body into something that knows how to walk again.

“You told me you wanted to see London,” Waverly says, pivoting away from her for a moment so that Nicole can’t quite make out her expression.

“Yes,” Nicole says slowly.

“Do you still want to go?”

Nicole thinks about it, but in that breakneck way of someone trying to run a thousand risk assessments at once, warned by Waverly’s body language that something hinges on her answer. “If I could get the time off work, sure,” she says, waiting to observe Waverly’s reaction.

“I mean.” Waverly is still unreadable. “Do you think it’s safe for us to go?”

Nicole’s heart squeezes, just a little, realizing that Waverly is still asking for permission. Perhaps it’s too much to want more, now that she already has her studies. “It’s another passport check,” she says, thinking it through from a security point of view, and she can already see Waverly trying to convince herself that she shouldn’t go, so Nicole hurries on. “But if we travel separately I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”

“Really?” Waverly asks, turning back to her, eyebrows hopefully quirked.

“Yeah, I think it would be fine,” Nicole says, and lets herself enjoy how her heart swoops at Waverly’s beautiful, happy face.

*

Nicole’s major concession to security is that she goes ahead first. If she doesn’t raise any flags, then Waverly will follow the next day with Alice. They’d debated the merits of air versus ground, which had taken a brief detour into a viewing of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, before they finally figured on the Eurostar train. The train takes longer, but more variables are in their control on the ground, and the security is less stringent.

Nicole spends her extra day in London prowling around the perimeter she set for the hotel and for the conference building on the University College London campus, getting a feel for the traffic layout and trying to reassure herself that they weren’t making a mistake by just trying to have a family vacation. She sleeps badly without Waverly, stress dreaming that Alice is crying nearby and jerking awake every few hours convinced she has to get up. But her tired crankiness dissipates as she waits on the train platform at St. Pancras, waiting for Waverly to emerge. They’ve kept in constant contact and she knows to look out for Waverly’s grey overcoat and Alice’s blue knit hat.

She strains up on her toes, eyes scanning the crowd back and forth – for Waverly, yes, but for anyone out of place, anyone who trips her cop sense.

And then, like a homing beacon, she picks Waverly out of the press, Alice on her hip, suitcase rolling behind them. She looks a little tired, but her eyes crinkle with a smile as she and Nicole converge on the platform.

“Hi,” Nicole says, not bothering to hide her relief. She tips her head down, meeting Waverly’s forehead with a gentle bump.

“Hi,” Waverly says, sounding just as relieved.

A moment to breathe Waverly in, and then Nicole is grabbing the handle of her suitcase, dropping a kiss on top of Alice’s head, and guiding them to the Tube stop part of the station, not letting her arm fall away from its protective curl around Waverly’s shoulder until they reach the stop for their hotel. The entire way Waverly drinks in all the details of London: the slightly overcast sky, the clash of classical architecture and modern glass buildings, the occasional honk and distant siren.

Their hotel is a few blocks away from the conference building and once in their room, Nicole deposits her suitcase in the corner and takes Alice in her arms so Waverly can flop down on the bed and puff out a relieved sigh.

“Baby, this is incredible,” Waverly says. Her feet twist so she can toe off her shoes one by one, letting them clunk onto the floor at the end of the bed. Nicole boops Alice on the nose with the tip of her finger, heart all aglow as Alice waves happily at their reunion. A day apart was quite enough for her; at some point, she knows they’ll have to learn to be apart for much longer, but for now she just wants to keep Alice as close as possible, as much as possible. Alice seems to agree, hands wrapping clumsily around Nicole’s neck, head butting softly at Nicole’s chin.

“So,” Nicole says, speaking around Alice’s little bobs and weaves. “Did you want to go out for dinner tonight? There’s some really nice places in walking distance.”

“Nap first?” Waverly suggests, and Nicole is only too happy to let Waverly rest for an hour while she quietly reads to Alice, who also ends up going down for a nap. In the ensuing silence, Nicole stands to the side of the window and watches the London streets below, trying to comprehend how she ended up in this place, a metropolis overflowing with history, buildings hunched everywhere while crowds thrum past and the trains rumble underneath. It doesn’t feel so long ago she was planning on settling in a sleepy little prairie town for the forseeable future, but at the same time it feels like that was another life, almost from a dream. Now she pauses in her sightseeing – half-surveillance too, she has to admit to herself – and watches Waverly on the bed, passed out next to Alice, hand just reaching out as though to touch Alice’s tiny little fingers.

*

Their three days in London are some of the happiest of Nicole’s life. The first night they take it easy with a casual dinner a few blocks away. Their waitress is just as charmed as anyone else by the adorable baby with them and slides them a free dessert in exchange for a minute spent delighting over Alice grabbing her finger.

Waverly has her conference the next day, and Nicole watches her fret over her outfit and the schedule and her notes for nearly an hour the morning of before kissing her and promising to meet her for lunch. “Have fun,” she says, holding Alice on her hip as Waverly trots off down the carpeted hotel hallway in her grey tweed skirt and matching jacket.

At lunch, Waverly can’t stop talking about the amazing panels she attended and how this is going to really help put a shine on her thesis and Nicole has to keep nudging her to take bites of her food so she’ll actually stop and eat. Then she’s off again with a kiss each for Alice and Nicole, and they meet at the hotel before another lovely dinner and a walk through the neighborhood, a cool spring breeze ruffling lazily along the hem of Waverly’s skirt.

Their last day, Waverly only has a breakfast panel and a meeting, leaving them free from lunch onwards to explore the city. “Come on,” Nicole says, and leads them to the British Library, where she could swear Waverly actually cries for a moment before immediately beelining for the massive glass tower of the King’s Library and hovering longingly over the books on exhibit in their temperature-controlled cases. “They add miles of bookshelves every year, Nicole,” says Waverly. “Miles.”

“Sounds like heaven,” Nicole says, not really teasing. This is the kind of place Waverly belongs, surrounded by history and knowledge, carefully preserving the past while using it to help build the future.

Their last dinner is at a cozy spot with a nice view of the Thames at night, though not so cozy that they stand out with a baby in tow. The nouveau cuisine menu is hurting Nicole’s wallet a little bit, but tonight is special. Their first real vacation together, even if she still scans every room for sightlines and exits and regularly checks to see if they’re being followed.

“We should come back some time when I don’t have to work,” Waverly says, chin perched in her hand as her eyes drift lazily along the river and the lights dotting the far bank.

“It’s not that far. We can come for a weekend any time,” Nicole says, and Waverly slides her eyes back with a smile slowly curling the line of her mouth.

“There is a lot more I want to see at the library,” Waverly admits. “And I want to go to the Tate. And the natural history museum.”

“We’ll make a list,” Nicole says, toying with Waverly’s fingers where they rest on the table.

“I like lists.” Waverly toys back, her touch unhurried and familiar. “Is there anything you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” Nicole says, offering a one-shouldered shrug. “Fish and chips? Soccer? Sorry, football.”

Waverly leans closer, conspiratorial. “Like that scene from Imagine Me and You.”

Nicole tilts her head fondly. They’d watched it together as part of Waverly’s “cultural research,” a still-ongoing list of books, movies, and TV shows featuring women in romantic relationships. She’d drawn the line at re-watching The L Word, leaving Waverly to slog through all six seasons on her own. “I just want to explore the city with you,” she says.

Waverly’s hand melts into hers, fingers intertwining neat and natural, a custom fit. “That sounds perfect,” she says.

*

Nicole can’t stop fiddling with the collar of her button down at breakfast.

“Stop,” Waverly says, flicking her hand away from the lapels, then following up with a kiss to the cheek for good measure. “You’re gonna be great.”

“You sure about that?” Nicole asks, only half joking. Waverly just places a bowl of fruit and granola in front of her before sitting down with her own bowl. In her high chair, Alice wriggles happily, batting at the spoon of baby food every time Waverly brings it to close to her mouth before accepting it. Waverly has thoughtfully kept the table between Alice and Nicole so no little spots of pureed spinach can go flying onto her pristine suit.

“One hundred percent sure,” Waverly says.

One of the shift leaders under Quentin has decided to retire, and so with the spot opening up, Nicole is angling for more responsibility – and a pay bump – at work. Waverly presses an extra good-luck kiss to her cheek on her way out the door, and she makes her way to work, twenty minutes early to give herself some time to prepare for the selection interview. A couple of the guys are going for it, ones with more time at the museum, locals who have known Quentin for years. She’s not nearly as optimistic as Waverly, but it can’t hurt to try.

Quentin is handling all of the interviews personally in his office. Nicole tries not to pace nervously outside while she waits for her appointed time, pointedly avoiding the coffee pot because she’s jittery enough. Finally the hand on her watch ticks over and she knocks promptly on Quentin’s door, poking her head in when she hears his gruff command to come.

“Good morning,” he says, and Nicole greets him in kind before taking a seat opposite him. He shuffles a few papers around on top of her obviously open file. She can just make out her upside-down headshot next to a list of her stats. ”Why do you want this job?” he asks, straight to the point.

Nicole had practiced her answer last night, first in front of the mirror, and then with Waverly. “Because I’m ready for the responsibility. I know the museum inside and out. I know the staff and our team. I’ve facilitated the installation and transport of several exhibits now. I can handle it.” She pauses, and then gambles a bit. “And to be honest, I have a family at home and a promotion will help me provide for them.” Quentin’s not the most sentimental man, but she knows he respects duty and commitment.

“Alain has a family too,” Quentin points out. “You think I should give this job to him because he has two children and you have one?”

Nicole is still not quite used to how casually Quentin refers to Alice as hers, but she has to focus on the job. “Of course not. But my evaluations are as good as Alain’s. And I have a better grasp of how our security systems cover an exhibit, and a better relationship with the installation crew.”

Quentin grunts. “Everyone has a better relationship with the installation crew than Alain.”

Nicole knows it, and has been counting on Alain’s general grumpiness and temper to work against him.

Quentin makes some kind of mark in his notes, not looking up as he speaks. “You’re too qualified for this place. You have dual citizenship. Why not take the police exam? You could be an investigator, with your smarts and skills. You know I’m friends with the commandant over at the station. It’s no problem to get you a recommendation.”

Nicole sits back in her chair, now trying not to fidget as Quentin looks up, observing her carefully.

“Come now, you and I both know you’ve got policing in your veins. Take it from an old officer. This is a place for retirees and guys who couldn’t hack it in the service. Alain will end his career here. Yours should just be beginning.”

Nicole can’t help but remember Nedley, asking her to be a good cop, trusting her with his secrets, preparing her for a bigger role. She wonders sometimes how mad he must be that she just up and left, although she hopes he understands. It hurts, now, to lie to Quentin, to repay his faith in her so churlishly. “I…I’m flattered, really. But it’s just not an option for me. I made certain promises that I have to keep,” she says.

“Emily is afraid if you take a dangerous job?” Quentin asks.

“Yes,” Nicole fudges, willing to take the out. “I know my jacket lists guard work but we’ve been through a lot and I really can’t do that to her again. Pursuing a police career, it would take devotion that I can’t afford right now. I need something safe and stable for my family.” She fumbles a little at the end, wanting for the first time to be able to talk about her life with someone not Waverly, to find a sympathetic ear who doesn’t have the same problems as her. To the extent that she trusts anyone, she trusts Quentin. But it goes both ways, and if he knows too much, it brings danger into his life as well. She’s probably already said too much.

Quentin watches her still, that stare that weighs out the evidence and sifts it into probable and improbable. “I see,” he says at last.

“Whatever you decide, I appreciate the offer. It…your confidence, it means a lot to me,” says Nicole.

Another grunt from Quentin at that, though it seems more thoughtful than gruff. He sighs. “Okay, well. Thank you. I’ll let you know my decision at the end of the week.” They both rise to their feet and shake hands. Nicole keeps her grip firm, warm, and Quentin uses his other hand to pat hers twice. He clicks his tongue. “Family, eh.”

She answers with a wry half-grin. “Yeah. Family.”

*

“Baby,” Nicole calls, pushing open the apartment door with her toe, hands full with wine and a bag of delicacies from their favorite little sandwich shop.

Waverly patters out of the kitchen, a half-open book still in one hand and a highlighter in the other. “You got it?” she asks, rather breathlessly.

Nicole kicks the door shut and holds up the wine, grinning broad and white. “I got it.”

Book and highlighter get tossed back somewhere onto the table as Waverly squeals and launches herself at Nicole, who has to dance her balance around to keep hold of her groceries and get her arms around Waverly at the same time.

“I knew you would,” Waverly says, and presses an enormous kiss right onto Nicole’s mouth.

“Uh huh. Yay me,” Nicole says, a little dazed at the sudden kiss. She holds up the wine again. “Drink?”

Waverly snatches the bottle and whirls back into the kitchen, grabbing the corkscrew and handily twisting and popping the cork. She produces two wine glasses with a flourish and pours as Nicole unpacks her paper bag of goodies, laying out a couple of cheeses, baba ganoush, stuffed grape leaves, and a loaf of fresh-baked bread.

“To the newest shift leader. Art has never been safer,” Waverly says, handing Nicole her glass so they can toast together. Just as quickly, she plucks Nicole’s glass from her hand and sets the pair aside. Two steps, and she slides effortlessly into Nicole’s space, backing her up right against the fridge. Her chin tilts up, and her lips press to Nicole’s again, warm and thorough where before they were excited and a little frantic. She licks easily into Nicole’s mouth, pressing closer as Nicole’s hands slip under the hem of her shirt, palms splaying along the small of her back. Nicole slowly widens her stance, drawing Waverly into the space between her legs until she can feel Waverly slowly pushing hips into hips. One hand wanders down, cupping and squeezing Waverly’s ass, earning a harsh exhalation into her mouth.

“You’re so good to me,” Nicole murmurs, feeling how her lips have gone kiss-swollen, Waverly staring up at her with her own lips parted in naked desire.

“I’m happy,” Waverly says. She touches Nicole’s cheek. “I really need you to know that. I’m happy and I love you.”

“I love you too,” Nicole says, feeling every intimate detail of the moment: Waverly’s muscle and bone pressed against her, stomach expanding and receding with her breath, the two of them standing in the dim quiet with the hum of the refrigerator and the smell of Waverly’s tea gently wafting from the kitchen table.

Waverly pushes up for another kiss, just enticing enough to carry a promise, not quite enough to incite another heavy makeout session. “Dinner,” she says. “And then I have a reward for you.”

Nicole’s eyebrows shoot up towards her hairline. “Oh?”

One last kiss, the lightest one yet, and Waverly is pulling away, Nicole’s hands sliding across her hips as she withdraws. “Wait and see.”

“What if I’m not hungry,” Nicole says, taking a slow step forward, maneuvering herself into position with one foot braced to push off the floor. Waverly spots it a moment later and takes off, Nicole chasing her around the kitchen table once before finally catching her just inside the bedroom door. She curves one arm around Waverly’s waist and half-throws herself, half-falls onto the bed, pulling Waverly on top of her. Waverly lands just about perfectly, body thudding solidly against Nicole’s and then relaxing against her. Nicole loves Waverly’s weight on top of hers, the tender connection she feels holding Waverly against herself and their bodies entering simpatico.

“You caught me,” Waverly says, breathless. One hand creeps up Nicole’s chest, toying with her top button. “What are you going to do with me?”

“Let’s talk more about this reward,” Nicole says, both her hands wandering, slipping just under the waist of Waverly’s pants.

“Oh.” Those clever fingers have already managed the first button. “It’s not really the kind of thing you talk about.” Waverly’s lips press to a spot just below Nicole’s collarbone, freshly exposed as Waverly slowly peels back her button-down.

“You seem to be describing it just fine.” Nicole tries to watch as Waverly manages a second button, but her head falls back when she feels teeth sink into the top of her breast. Just a raking bite, but enough to have her fingers digging into Waverly’s hips. There are no more words after that, just Waverly’s hands and mouth stoking her desire, careful and deliberate at first, but once Waverly has her stripped down to the skin, bolder and bolder until Nicole is nothing but the sensation of Waverly’s hot, wet mouth drawing her taut until she snaps.

“Come here,” Nicole demands before she can even catch her breath, and they only remember the food half an hour later, when the baby monitor crackles and Alice makes her hungry noises from her playpen in the living room.

“I love your surprises,” Nicole says, watching Waverly pull on a robe. “Although I think I guessed what it was pretty early.”

Waverly bends over her, smirking. “Settle down, hotshot. We’re gonna eat, I’ll put Alice to bed, and then it’s time for round two.”

“I think I can guess what round two is too.”

“Well then.” Waverly leans even closer, whispering in her ear, sending a tingle all through her body. “You know you’d better eat, because you’ll need your strength.” She saunters away, fully aware she’s being watched.

Nicole stretches under the sheets once, a full body pull from legs, up her spine, through her arms, before sliding her feet to the floor so she can find her robe and follow Waverly.

*

“Baby, she’s only two,” Nicole says as Waverly hustles around the apartment, putting up decorations and checking on food for the other parents from the crèche. “As long as there’s cake and something bright and shiny, she’s gonna have a wonderful time.”

Waverly makes a vague sound like she heard and agrees and continues to bustle. Nicole has no other option but to dutifully follow whatever instructions Waverly gives her, occasionally checking in on Alice, who is preoccupied with her picture books in her room.

“Alice, honey,” Nicole says as the time approaches for their first guests. “Are you ready for your party?”

Alice looks up from her mini bean bag, halfway through another book with cloth numbers and dinosaurs on each page. “More books?” she asks.

“We can finish the one you’re looking at now, but then we’re having your birthday party,” Nicole says, sing-songing the last words in a way that makes Alice’s eyes go wide with excitement. They’ve managed to impress upon her the concept of a party, at least, and she’d certainly noticed the cake Waverly baked this morning.

“Party!” Alice repeats, book forgotten. She pushes out of her chair, wobbles once, and then flings herself at Nicole’s legs. She’s small for her age, but no less physical for it, and has worn them both out plenty running from them at the park or the beach. Nicole catches her and swoops her up in her arms, holding her up with just enough momentum to toss her a couple of inches in the air.

“How old are you today, baby girl?” Nicole asks once Alice is tucked firmly on her hip.

Alice frowns, thinking so hard, the little line of concentration furrowing her brow exactly like Waverly’s. “Deux,” she says eventually, confident in her answer, slipping into French as she’s wont to do. They use a mix of English and French with her at home, but her days at the crèche are always in French, and Nicole wonders sometimes if she’ll grow up properly French, her mother’s first language second on her tongue.

“C’est vrai. Tu as deux ans,” Nicole says, holding up two fingers. Alice mimics her, clumsily managing two fingers like Nicole’s as she’s carried out into the living room. Her head swivels, looking at the bright decorations and the floating mylar balloons in one corner.

“Balloon!” she says, reaching out, and Nicole carts her over she can grab the ribbon dangling from the one that reads “Joyeux Anniversaire!” over a friendly green dinosaur.

“Happy birthday,” Waverly says, walking over with her arms held out. She takes Alice in a hug, whirling her once. “Are you excited?”

“Yes,” Alice squeals, and Waverly carts her over to the kitchen to look at her cake until their door buzzer sounds. Nicole lets in the first batch of parents and their kids, friends of Alice’s from the crèche, and then another couple a few minutes later. It’s a bit of a squeeze having seven adults and four toddlers in the apartment, but with the furniture in the living room all pushed back against the walls they’re making it work. Nicole is already filing the experience away to ask if Waverly wants to move to a larger place.

“We’ll miss seeing Alice so much,” says Karima as they watch Alice open up a gift at the kitchen table with a little help from Waverly.

“I know, she loves it so much at the crèche. But she’s finally potty trained and testing so well so…” Nicole shrugs, not wanting to seem boastful, but unable not to sound proud of her extraordinary child, who will be joining children a year older than her at a nursery school.

“A little genius, that one. You’re going to have to keep an eye on her,” says Karima.

Nicole could tell her about Alice figuring out how to unlatch the front of her crib, or how it’s impossible to keep her anywhere she doesn’t want to stay put like a little jailbreak artist, but Alice is done with her presents and is now eyeing the approaching cake, which is the signal to start singing.

Alice manages to blow out the “2” candle with only a few attempts, the cake goes over a treat, only one child cries and has to be taken home early, and by the end Alice is completely tuckered out and in her bed more or less on time, which is more than they could have ever asked for.

Nicole hums quietly to herself as she makes a circuit of the apartment, taking down the decorations and picking up scattered plates and glasses. Waverly emerges from Alice’s room, leaving her ocean creatures night light on and partially closing the door, and helps Nicole with the last of the cleanup before they flop down on the couch together, leaning into each other in the middle of the cushions.

“Okay, maybe I went a little overboard,” Waverly admits.

“You only turn two once,” Nicole says, meaning to make Waverly feel better, but seeing her pull away instead. Nicole remains where she is, head tilted to rest on the back of the couch, partly not wanting to chase Waverly and partly too tired to move. She had been hoping to get through the entire day without this, but now the cheer of the balloons and streamers and candles has faded, gloom settles around Waverly like an old habit.

But if Waverly is intimately familiar with sadness, she and Nicole now have years of experience handling it together, and after a few minutes Waverly sinks back against Nicole, head resting on her shoulder. Nicole loops an arm around Waverly’s shoulders and pulls her close. She knows the thousand and one photos from today will get backed up on two separate hard drives, to be delivered to Wynonna when the day comes. In the meantime neither of them can help but remember this day two years ago, desperately fleeing Purgatory with a newborn Alice, every mile disappearing in the rearview carving out a hollow inside Waverly that took a long, long time to fill back in.

“Alice is happy,” Nicole says at last. “She’s so loved. She’s so smart, and kind, and funny.”

Waverly turns her head, face pressed against Nicole’s upper arm, as though all she wants is this physical connection. Round two is a distant consideration; it was easier to fall into bed with the sun still out, but nighttime presses in on them and makes escape impossible. “I love you,” Waverly says, words mumbled against the soft sleeve of Nicole’s shirt.

“I love you too,” Nicole says, kissing the top of Waverly’s head. Tonight they can be sad. It’s not like when they first arrived and she was afraid that Waverly might never really smile again. Tonight is hard, but tomorrow will be better.

*

The ring is nothing terribly ostentatious, not that that had prevented Nicole from paying a pretty penny for it. She holds it still so Quentin can admire it before snapping the velvet box shut once again and stowing it safely in her jacket pocket.

“Congratulations,” says Quentin.

Nicole warms, a combination of Quentin’s regard and her own nerves. “She hasn’t said yes yet.”

Quentin scoffs. “We’ll have you over for dinner after the engagement. Faustine has been asking when you’ll join us again.”

“Soon. I hope,” Nicole says, enjoying Quentin’s hearty handshake and genial clap on the shoulder.

She has everything planned to the least detail. Tomorrow is date night and Alice will be staying with Amel and Theo, who have a three-year-old at the same nursery school. Theo works at the museum too, and his background as a former police officer has made him a trusted babysitter. Nicole will have Waverly alone for several uninterrupted hours at an intimate, personal dinner, and then they’ll go for a walk by moonlight on the beach, and Nicole will get down on one knee and hope for the best.

She hums a bit the morning of, sashaying around with Alice while Waverly gets ready for school. Her humming goes tuneless as she noses into Alice’s cheek, preparing to sit her down at the table for her usual little plate of eggs, toast, and fresh fruit. Alice squirms good-naturedly. “Petit déjeuner,” she insists.

“Your wish is my command, baby girl,” Nicole says, setting Alice down with a flourish. Approaching three now, and still small, but her dark, intelligent eyes don’t miss a single thing and Nicole deposits her plate with an extra caress along the back of her head. She’s about to take a seat herself to help Alice eat when Waverly shrieks from the bedroom. Nicole snaps towards the sound, instantly thinking of the gun safe on the high shelf in their closet. Alice looks startled by the sound and startles again as Nicole abruptly shoves her chair back so she can run to the bedroom, prepared to confront anyone or anything.

But there’s only Waverly in the bedroom when Nicole slams around the edge of the door frame. “Em?” she asks, heart pounding so hard it practically roars in her ears.

Waverly is stuck to her phone, thumb still hovering mid-scroll as she stands next to the bed, power cord dangling where she must have just unplugged it. Nicole sidles over, not wanting to spook her. “Emily?” she tries again.

Wordlessly, Waverly shows her the screen: the Purgatory paper’s online wanted section, listing an old Ford Pinto for sale. 1980, hunter green, 193,000 miles on the odometer, serious inquiries only. The exact pre-arranged all-clear signal from Wynonna. Waverly’s other hand covers her mouth, eyes staring at Nicole in something incomprehensible. It was one thing to hope for this day and another to have it land without warning nearly three years later.

“I’ll send the counter-sign,” Nicole says as her brain catches up with the new information. She takes a moment to clasp Waverly’s forearm. “It’s gonna be okay.” Waverly just nods, still frozen, eyes scanning the ad over and over again.

Nicole runs out to the living room to grab her laptop, where she starts up her VPN and answers the ad with the right code: “Very interested in the car, although color is not preferable. Willing to make $1150 offer, cash or check, in next 24 hours.” By the time the e-mail has zoomed off into the ether, Waverly has managed to shuffle into the living room, arms folded tight against her body, phone still clutched in a clawed grip as she stands by the wall opposite Nicole. Alice is silent in the kitchen, still confused but waiting for Nicole to return. Nicole suddenly wishes she could, that she could simply ditch her laptop, apologize to Alice for rushing off, and continue helping her take bites of toast and egg and apple. She can feel resentment in her treacherous heart at her interrupted plans, at Wynonna’s absolutely atrocious timing, at being yanked back into that world on this nice early spring day she’d been hoping to spend with her family. The guilt of it makes her almost physically nauseous, and she tries her best to just sit still and focus on her laptop while they wait for the reply.

Only a minute later, the page updates with one new email. She clicks it, sensing more than seeing Waverly tense at the motion of her hand on the trackpad.

“Offer is good. Can repaint the car for you if willing to pay $1300 total cash.”

Nicole flicks her eyes up at Waverly. She can’t speak, can’t think of a single word. All she has is a slow nod.

Waverly’s breath frays and turns ragged, tears welling instantly. “Oh my god,” she whispers into her hand. She covers her eyes then, covers the tears that leak free.

Nicole lets instinct carry her through what comes next; she’s never been able to stand Waverly suffering in any form, and so she pushes aside her laptop and crosses the room, pulling Waverly into her arms even while her heart beats no, no, no against her will. “I know, baby. I know. We’re going home.”

Chapter Text

Alice is fidgety and restless all through the trans-Atlantic flight. Accustomed as she is to trains, she’s never been on a trip quite as long and as cramped as the flight from Paris to Toronto. She’s never been gone from home more than a few days either, and they’d both asked for two weeks off for their “family emergency.” Whether they actually come back at the end of the two weeks - well Nicole hasn't thought that far ahead yet, for once. She does her best to distract Alice with books, toys, movies, the view from the window. In the aisle seat, Waverly is just as fidgety, unable to entirely remain still as they return to Canada. She alternates between gripping Nicole’s hand on their shared armrest and staring blankly at the book she packed into her carry-on.

Six hours and change after takeoff, Nicole is thankful to be hauling Alice off of the plane, sensing how close she is to a tantrum. Even for a child who lives as much in her head as Alice, confining herself to a tiny seat for so long is pushing it. At least in the airport there’s plenty for Alice to look at, and Nicole can admit that stepping foot on Canadian soil again feels like being able to take a deep breath for the first time since she left. It’s not terribly different for Alice, who has seen her share of back-and-forth to London, but at the same time she’s certainly aware that this is an entirely new experience. Just the night before Nicole had pulled up a world map and shown her Canada in relation to France, trying to explain the concept of an ocean and the distances involved.

It's a little strange, walking through the airport, hearing English all around them. A smattering of French too, but with that Quebecois accent that has faded from both their speech patterns. Alice asks to be held for most of it instead of tottering off to inspect anything and everything, and Waverly holds her tight, letting Alice bury her head in Waverly’s neck, as though she senses their lives are about to tilt dramatically off axis.

Nicole half-expected Wynonna would be at the Toronto airport waiting for them, but they find their connecting gate by themselves, and Nicole volunteers to go get them some bottles of water and a couple of sandwiches. She pays with Canadian bills – kept locked in the bottom tray of her gun safe all this time, just in case - and contemplates how they don’t look all that different from Euros.

They both eat automatically. Nicole can tell Waverly isn’t all that hungry, but Alice didn’t have much appetite the plane, and so this is the best way to convince her to eat her little cut off triangle of sandwich. The food settles her somewhat, at least, and they spend a lot of their layover taking turns to walk her up and down the big glass windows showing the planes taxiing around on the tarmac. Alice leaves smudges on the glass at regular intervals from pressing up against it with her face and hands, fascinated by the planes, the tiny people scurrying around in their bright safety vests. From time to time she looks up at Nicole, forehead crinkled, as if she’s laboriously assembling some kind of puzzle in her mind, and indeed she eventually points a chubby finger at a plane just taking off and asks “Comment?”

Nicole offers her hand and Alice takes it readily, used to reaching out and finding Nicole there. They toddle back to the seats, where Alice struggles a bit to climb into Waverly’s lap, but manages to pull herself up in the end with only a discreet nudge from Nicole. “She wants to know how planes fly,” Nicole says, and lets Waverly take over.

It’s a good distraction, at least, and Alice is preoccupied by Waverly’s simplified explanation of how planes stay in the air, followed by a nap, as though thinking so hard has tired her out. Waverly holds her as she sleeps, armrest up so she can lean against Nicole. Their hands lock together between them, resting on the seats, and Nicole’s heart beats harder and harder the closer they get to Calgary.

*

Waverly is frozen in her seat. People in the rows behind them are filtering out of the plane and soon they’ll be the only passengers left. But Waverly remains in her aisle seat, Alice clutched to her stomach.

“Waves,” Nicole says, the name sounding strange coming from her mouth, almost rusty.

Waverly blinks a few times, adjusting to hearing her name after all this time. They still respond to Bobbie and Emily, and half the time Nicole still wants to say “Em” instead of “Waves.” They’d worked so hard to get the name habit ingrained in them both, aware of the consequences if they slipped up in front of the wrong person. Even now Nicole can feel a twinge of panic at using Waverly’s real name – hard to turn off after almost three years of associating their real names with messing up, with danger.

“We gotta go,” Nicole says.

Waverly looks at the people shuffling down the cramped center aisle and finally pulls the latch on her belt. She stands up, Alice in her arms, letting Nicole out into the aisle so she can reach into the overhead and grab their carry-ons. Wordlessly, Waverly leads the way off the plane, every step seeming to fall heavier and heavier. She pauses at the border between plane and jetway, just long enough for Nicole to bump into her. She steadies herself with a hand on Waverly’s hip, leans close to whisper in her ear. “You can do this.”

It's enough to get Waverly moving again, one foot in front of the other, thudding hollow against the ramp as they enter the airport proper.

They follow the signs towards baggage claim and Waverly stops again, short of the sliding security doors. People flow around them, but Waverly ignores the dirty looks for obstructing traffic, Alice still clutched close even though she’s getting heavy these days. She stares at the doors, people streaming through, searching for happy reunions with their loved ones.

“Waves,” Nicole tries again. She shuffles around to stand in front of Waverly, a finger under her chin to tilt her gaze up. “You’re brave enough to do this.”

Waverly swallows, looking like she doesn’t even dare to breathe, but she nods all the same. It takes another moment for her to really pull herself together, and then she lets Alice lean back a little from her hip. “Baby girl, are you ready to meet Wynonna?”

Wynonna the wild woman of the west, the invincible, the triumphant, the mythological figure of so many bedtime stories. Her mother. Nicole isn’t sure Alice really understands what’s being asked of her. For her, Wynonna is more a character than a real person, just like the people in the books they read her. But Alice pulls two fingers from her mouth – a bad habit they normally would have already stopped – and says, “Yes.”

Waverly hefts Alice into a firmer grip; steel visibly climbing up her spine, and she marches forward through the security doors with Nicole by her side.

Wynonna is waiting for them, finding them so instantly she must have been staring at the doors just waiting for them to emerge. She looks older, more than the two years and change they were away. Older and tired with it, but standing there in the airport upright and whole in her boots and leather jacket. Her mouth drops open in silence as Waverly approaches, eyes transfixed on the little girl in Waverly’s arms until they’re just two feet apart.

Wynonna’s mouth works once, and then she croaks out a few words through the tears welling in her eyes. “Sorry I took so long, baby girl,” she says.

Waverly collapses into her, letting Wynonna crush her and Alice into a hug. It only takes a moment for Alice to squirm and Wynonna yanks away, one hand dashing away any hint of tears. “Sorry, sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Waverly says, even though Alice looks distinctly confused, with cranky not far off. Waverly finally sets Alice down, taking her hand when she’s sure Alice is steady on her feet. She looks down at Alice, and for a moment Nicole wonders if she’ll really be able to say the words out loud. But she breaks into a wobbly smile, not as successful as Wynonna at hiding her tears, and says, “Alice, this is Wynonna.”

Wynonna crouches down to eye level with Alice, offering her a tentative smile. “Hi Alice.”

Surrounded by so many new things, confronted with a complete stranger who just crushed her in a hug, Alice turns to the security of half-hiding behind Waverly’s leg. None of them can miss the way Wynonna’s face falls, even if just for an instant. “Alice,” Waverly says, gentle but still in a reprimand.

“No, it’s okay,” Wynonna says with a tight smile, and pushes herself briskly to her full height. “You guys just got off a plane and god knows I get cranky after barely an hour in the car. Come on, let’s go home and get some food and top shelf booze in you.” She finally seems to notice Nicole, still standing quietly by Waverly, watching all of them and waiting to see what’s needed. Wynonna grins unexpectedly. “Almost didn’t recognize you without that big ginger mop.”

Nicole rolls her eyes and pushes one of the suitcases forward so Wynonna can take it. “I missed you too, Wynonna.”

*

Waverly’s jeep is waiting for them in the parking garage, looking freshly washed. Wynonna pulls open the back door for Waverly, already starting to move so she can circle to the trunk to toss the bags in, but she catches how Waverly and Nicole both pause with Alice between them. “What’s up? I totally vacuumed all the crumbs out, I swear.”

Waverly can’t seem to get the words past her throat, so Nicole takes this one. “We’re still using a car seat for Alice,” she says, sheepish, trying not to embarrass Wynonna. This has all happened so fast, details were bound to slip through the cracks.

Wynonna’s face still falls. “Oh. Right.”

“It’s fine,” Nicole says, even though it makes her twitch inside not to have the right seat installed. “I’ll sit with her in the back and she can just use the lap part of the belt.”

“Yeah, sure,” Wynonna says, eyes on the ground, pulling open the rear door and piling the suitcases.

The car ride is mostly silent, though Nicole can’t help but notice how slowly and carefully Wynonna drives. In the front, Waverly keeps shooting worried sideways glances at Wynonna, but at least Alice is oblivious, her head craned back to stare at Calgary scrolling by. Nicole leans close, finger pointing at random things to help keep her occupied. She doesn’t seem to have realized yet that her life is about to change in a deeply fundamental way, instead regarding this as just another family vacation.

The ride out to Purgatory is longer than Nicole remembers, maybe because for once Wynonna isn’t riding hell for leather. But the city gives way to flat prairie, patched with stands of forest that get thicker and thicker the farther along they roll. Alice seems entranced by the wide-open grassy spaces after a life spent among the sunny seaside buildings of Nice. For Nicole, it feels a little bit like the world opening up again, so much sky all around them, land and trees as far as the eye cares to rove. When the instinct in the back of her mind reminds her to check for a tail, there is no one behind them, the road empty for miles and miles.

The homestead is just about as Nicole remembers it from the outside, still a bit ramshackle, but with some new steps up to the porch and a window that looks less weathered than its counterpart on the other side of the front door. Nearby, there is a very obvious person-sized hole in the side of the barn, hastily patched over with plywood.

“Home sweet home,” Wynonna says, swinging out of the jeep. Waverly steps out, hands clasped under her chin, head tilted up at her childhood home.

Nicole unbuckles Alice, taking a moment to smooth her hair back. “You okay?” she asks while they’re the only two left in the jeep.

Alice nods and patiently waits for Nicole to get out first before clambering over the seat and holding up her arms so Nicole can pick her up. Normally she’d want to be put down as soon as she’s out of the car, but now she clings to Nicole, unsure of herself in this strange new place. Nicole can feel a slight shiver run through her little body despite her light jacket; Alice is a warm-weather child, always happiest in the sun, accustomed to a more forgiving climate. She hugs Alice closer to share body heat and pretends not to notice Wynonna following them with hungry eyes.

“Hey,” Nicole says, joining Waverly, who continues to stare up at the house. “How’s it feel?”

“I don’t know,” Waverly says. She breathes, blinks, and snaps into the moment, eyes going to Alice. “You hungry, sweetie?”

Alice shakes her head, still not up to words.

“Come on, I got a shitload of snacks and coffee inside,” Wynonna says, then promptly winces at the profanity. “Sorry.” She clomps up the steps, wrestling with the suitcases until Waverly darts forward to help her, and kicks open the front door after unlocking it.

The first thing to hit Nicole is the smell, that warm homestead smell with woodsmoke curling all around it. The decorations are the same, the jacket hooks under the HOME sign and the throw pillows on the couch and the boot stand against the wall. The place looks like it’s been recently tidied, and Nicole stays in the living room while Wynonna and Waverly climb up the stairs to deposit their bags in Waverly’s old bedroom.

“Bobbie,” Alice says, the quietest little murmur against her neck where Alice has tucked her head.

This is the part that Nicole was really dreading – well, one of several. She sinks onto the couch, rearranging Alice onto her lap so that she can tilt her head and look her in the eye. “Alice,” she says, and Alice looks at her, perhaps expecting to be asked what kind of snack she wants. Nicole breathes in, another lungful of the homestead, and gathers some resolve. “Sweetie, when Emily and I lived here in Purgatory, we had different names. Do you think you could try using the names we like to use here?”

Never shy with her curiosity, Alice has the question ready. “Why?”

“Well,” Nicole begins. Such a small word to begin such a big story. “We had to leave Purgatory when you were a baby because some very mean people were mad at us, and if we had stayed, we would just be fighting all the time and someone could have gotten hurt. So we went to France and started calling each other new names. With our new names, those mean people couldn’t find us and bother us. And now the mean people have left Purgatory too, so we can use our old names, because we like those names a lot. Does that make sense?”

“What was old names?” Alice asks.

Nicole is aware of a creak on the steps, the same creak that used to give away that Waverly was finally awake and about to descend to search for coffee. But her focus stays on Alice. “My name here is Nicole. And Emily’s name here is Waverly. Can you try to say Nicole and Waverly?”

“Nicole and Wave…lee,” Alice says. She immediately seeks Nicole’s approval with those big, dark eyes of hers.

“Great job,” Nicole says, rewarding her with a squeeze and Alice beams. Nicole has teased Waverly so many times that Alice takes after her like that, the one kid who reminds the teacher that homework is due. The creak turns into proper steps, and Nicole knows they’ve been overheard. She rearranges Alice once more onto her hip and stands up. “Ready for that snack?”

“Please,” Alice says.

“Did someone say snacks?” Wynonna says, clapping her hands together and rubbing them briskly as she bounces into the living room, then the kitchen, banging open cabinets in her enthusiasm.

Waverly slinks up to Nicole, briefly pressing against her opposite Alice. Nicole grabs her hand. “Everything okay?” she asks, voice pitched low for Waverly’s hearing only.

“Mmhmm.” Waverly squeezes her hand. “For now.”

“Wave-lee,” Alice says, clearly expecting another rewarding reaction, and Waverly does not disappoint.

“Oh my goodness,” Waverly says, showing off where Alice got her own beaming smile. “Thank you for remembering that, Alice.”

For a moment the three of them stand in a happy unit in the middle of the living room, Alice basking in the attention from her two favorite people, until Wynonna clears her throat at the threshold to the kitchen. “If you guys are hungry, there’s. You know.” She jabs a thumb over her shoulder and turns away.

The smile slips off of Waverly’s face.

“It’s okay, baby,” Nicole says. She drops a kiss on Waverly’s temple. “It’s gonna take a while, but it’ll be okay.” And even though Waverly nods, Nicole can tell she doesn’t really believe it.

*

“Sorry it’s not, you know, a cool bed,” Wynonna says as Nicole puts Alice to bed in a little pull-out trundle.

“It’s fine. So long as it’s comfy,” Nicole says. She rubs Alice’s tummy. “You comfortable?”

Alice clutches her red plushy lizard, the one that guards her in her sleep and must travel with her no matter what. She latched onto it in the Prado’s gift shop when they visited a few months ago and has taken it everywhere with her since. “Uh-huh.”

“Which story would you like tonight?” Nicole asks.

“Animaux,” Alice says, already sleepy and reverting to French without thought.

It’s a lucky pick for Nicole that the book in question is one of the three they packed in Alice’s bag, and she digs it out from the foot of the bed.

Wynonna looks surprised by the full-size novel that appears in Nicole’s hands. “Wow. That’s a big book,” she says, as much to Nicole as to Alice.

Nicole flips through The Once and Future King to the right chapter, her fingers already familiar with where to stop within a few pages. “She likes the longer stories. Don’t you, my little bookworm.” Nicole says the last while squeezing Alice’s foot through the covers, earning her a ticklish giggle. Wynonna leans against the mantle, staring so hard at Alice that Nicole thinks she might burn a hole through the bed.

Nicole begins reading to Alice about the Wart and his education with all the beasts of the earth, but Alice is so tired from a long day that started an ocean away that she’s already nodded off before Nicole can even finish the part where Arthur learns to swim as a fish. She leaves the book on the floor by Alice’s bed, then eases herself to her feet and tip-toes out, hitting the light but leaving the door cracked. Out in the hallway, Wynonna stands with her arms folded tightly around her body, lips pressed into a thin line.

“Honestly, the bed is fine,” Nicole reassures her. “She’s so tired she’d probably be able to sleep in the barn.”

Wynonna bobs her head a few times but the line of her mouth doesn’t soften, and she’s silent as she turns to shuffle into the kitchen, where Waverly is waiting with three steaming mugs of tea. Nicole accepts hers gratefully, letting her hand linger a bit on Waverly’s forearm, before taking a seat and watching Wynonna do the same, so that they’re set all three equidistant around the table. Nicole’s instinct is always to scoot closer to Waverly, but she doesn’t want it to look like it’s the two of them on one side and Wynonna on the other.

For a moment they clutch their mugs in silence, the kind of utter silence Nicole had nearly forgotten after years of city living. No cars, no planes, no voices drifting up from the street. Just the occasional creak from shifting in their chairs, and their own breathing.

“This doesn’t seem real,” Wynonna says first, slumped in her chair, staring blankly at her mug.

“Wynonna, you did it,” Waverly says, low and intense and urgent. “You broke the curse. The curse. How?”

“Pretty simple. Shot seventy-seven revenants in the head,” Wynonna says, huffing a humorless laugh. She points a finger gun at Waverly and makes a mock pew sound, blowing imaginary smoke away from the tip afterwards.

“Yes but…how? In less than three years? Because Wynonna, that’s freaking amazing,” Waverly says, growing more animated. “And the Order? And Black Badge? How did you get them off your back?”

“Guess I finally found the right motivation,” Wynonna says. One breath shudders in and ends in a sniff before she looks away, as much the bruised, brooding loner that Nicole remembers.

“Wynonna,” Waverly says, her voice cracking, empathy pouring out as though she can’t stand to stay calm any longer. She rises from her chair to go to Wynonna, leaning down and hugging her from behind, arms wrapped around Wynonna’s shoulders and cheek laid on top of her head. Wynonna’s hands clutch at Waverly’s forearms and her body begins to shake, the sobs coming slow at first, and then in more frequent waves.

Nicole can’t help with this, doesn’t feel right intruding on Wynonna’s grief. She takes her mug of tea and slips back into Alice’s room, just across the hall from Waverly’s old bedroom. Alice is fast asleep in her bed, curled up around her toy. Nicole pulls the covers up to her shoulders and smooths back her hair once before settling on the floor, legs bent at the knee so she can lean sideways and pillow her head on her arms on the opposite end of the mattress. She watches Alice sleep with such intensity that she barely wants to close her eyes, even though she’s exhausted. Everything is going to change. Wynonna will want her daughter back. And Nicole has no claim to Alice, except that she raised her and loved her like her own for nearly three years. She can’t bear the thought of not seeing Alice’s sleepy little face every morning, reading her to sleep every night, receiving her scribbles as notes in her lunch and her hugs and kisses as greeting and goodbye.

She eventually falls asleep wishing selfishly that they had never left France, and once again hating herself for it.

*

At some point Waverly finds her and pulls her into the bedroom across the hall. Nicole is too tired to notice anything from flying west and staying up when her body clock is eight hours ahead, convinced she should’ve been in bed and already gotten a full sleep cycle by now. She wakes up groggily, unused to the bed and the quiet, suffused with stress. She’d slept in fits and starts, a few hours here, a couple there. Waverly is passed out next to her, finally succumbing to exhaustion. She frowns in her sleep, just as tired and stressed as Nicole.

Now with a little rest in her, she can smell that the room is a bit stale, as if it hasn’t been used in some time. The covers still have creases in them from being folded up and she can see fresh vacuum marks on the carpet by the bed. She wonders if Wynonna closed this room up and didn’t think about it for as long as Waverly was gone, locking away everything but the job, the task she had to finish for her daughter.

She swings her feet out from under the covers, slowly to let Waverly sleep. It’s colder than she remembered, her constitution gone soft in the Mediterranean warmth, and she shivers until she can find a hoodie to pull on over her long sleeve shirt.

Wynonna is in the hallway. Nicole isn’t surprised to see her there, lingering at Alice’s door, peering through the crack at her as she sleeps. She doesn’t look up as Nicole shuffles closer, arms folded against the chill.

“Were you here all night?” Nicole says, the last word cracking open on a yawn. She leans against the wall facing Wynonna, using it to support her still-sleepy frame.

“No. Just some of it. I couldn’t really sleep,” Wynonna says. The longing on her face is an open wound, still bleeding out the pain and loneliness of these past years. And yet she holds herself back, unable to reach out for Alice just yet.

“Me neither,” Nicole says.

Wynonna seems to hunch in on herself. “Does she usually sleep this late?”

“I think she’s tired. It was a long flight and…you know. A lot of new things to take in,” Nicole says carefully.

Wynonna clenches her jaw. “Yeah. Makes sense.” Abruptly she turns away, brushing past Nicole to make for the stairs. “I’m gonna make coffee, if you want some.” Nicole watches those curled-in shoulders disappear step by step, and then she peeks into Alice’s room.

Alice is already awake, staring back at her.

Nicole plasters on a smile and pushes in, taking a seat next to Alice and brushing the hair out of her face. “How long have you been awake, cheeky?”

“The lady watching me,” Alice whispers, voice uncertain. Her eyes slip towards the doorway, then back to Nicole.

“I’m sorry if that scared you, baby girl,” Nicole says, continuing to stroke Alice’s hair, comforting her. “She’s very nice, I promise you, and she didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable. You remember her name?”

Alice scrunches her face up. “Wy…Wyoma?”

“Wy-non-na,” Nicole says, emphasizing the syllables. “And Wynonna just cares about you very much. She cares about you just as much as me and Waverly care about you.”

“Waverly,” Alice repeats, once again trying out the foreign name. Her eyes focus. “Nicole.”

“Thank you for remembering,” Nicole says. She leans down, snuggling her face into Alice’s tummy, getting a happy wriggle in reply. When she pulls back, Alice seems to have relaxed, assured that Wynonna wasn’t a threat. “Are you hungry?”

Alice nods.

“Okay then, let’s go see what we can make in the kitchen.” Nicole lowers her voice conspiratorially. “You know, Wynonna used to not like cooking. But I bet if you ask nicely, she’ll make you pancakes.”

Alice perks up at the magic word and scoots out of her trundle bed, looking adorably rumpled in her footy pajamas with her hair sticking out here and there. But the house is still strange and new, and where in their apartment she would’ve run ahead into the kitchen, here she holds her arms up so Nicole can scoop her up and carry her downstairs.

Wynonna is at the kitchen table and Nicole catches her slipping a bottle of something dark into a drawer as they enter. Her face splits in a big smile as she spots Alice. “Good morning. Did you sleep okay?”

Alice nods, hands going around Nicole’s neck and tugging to keep her close, but not entirely closing herself off thanks to Nicole’s reassurances. Nicole bounces her once. “Do you want to ask?”

The request comes out in such a tiny voice that Nicole tilts herself towards Wynonna so she can hear it. “Pancakes?” Another bounce. “Please?”

Wynonna’s smile grows even bigger, if that’s possible. “Of course. Nothing would make me happier.” She begins gathering utensils and ingredients but pauses in front of the fridge. “Any special requests? I think we might have some chocolate chips around here.”

Nicole’s instinct is to say yes, this is a special occasion. But she doesn’t want Alice to feel like this is a vacation or like Wynonna is a guest in her life. Today is a regular day and Wynonna is someone who has to fit into the regular rhythms of Alice’s life. She ignores the way Alice perks up a little and says, “Maybe some fruit? Chocolate chips are a weekend food.”

“Um.” Wynonna opens the fridge and stares into its depths, although Nicole already knows the answer from the sheepish apology on her face. “I kind of haven’t had the chance to go grocery shopping yet.”

“It was all pretty short notice,” Nicole says sympathetically. She pulls a chair out with her foot and settles Alice in it. She’s too short to reach over the edge of the table by far and Nicole has to go fetch her a few cushions from the living room. “Plain is fine. We can go pick up stuff in town afterwards.”

Wynonna busies herself measuring out pre-made pancake mix along with eggs and milk while Nicole uses the rest of the eggs for a scramble. She also manages to find some maple syrup in one of the fridge shelves, a little crusty around the cap but still good. She tries to ignore that aside from the basics like eggs, butter, and milk, Wynonna’s fridge is nothing but pizza boxes and takeout cartons. “I’ll be right back,” she says, and darts upstairs to fetch Alice’s multivitamins out of her bag. She’s downstairs again in a flash, trying not to give away just how anxious she was leaving Alice alone with Wynonna, hand twisting off the cap and pulling out a bright green gummy, which Alice accepts as a matter of course and chews while she waits for her pancakes.

Nicole’s thumping up and down the stairs must have been enough to rouse Waverly, because she descends a few minutes later, still in her flannel pajama pants, a light sweater pulled over her sleep shirt. “Good morning,” she says, bending over Alice to kiss her on the top of her head.

Alice, still a little unsteady from waking up in a new place, lifts up her arms for a hug, allowing Waverly to pull her up and squeeze her body close. Wynonna watches the two of them, one hand gripping the pan handle so tightly Nicole can see her knuckles turning white and only stops when she catches the smell of something burning.

“Sorry,” Wynonna says, hastily flipping the pancake to reveal a slight char on the bottom. “I’ll eat this one.” She turns out another couple of pancakes to go with Nicole’s eggs and they sit down, Alice still in Waverly’s lap so she can reach the table.

“Guess we should get a booster seat in town too,” Wynonna says, pushing her food around on her plate. She alternates between focusing intensely on Alice and looking down at her plate when she realizes she’s making Alice uncomfortable. But then a few minutes later, when Alice has turned back to her food, Wynonna will stare again with an indescribable hunger that Nicole almost can’t bear in such close proximity.

“Alice,” Waverly says when she finally shakes her head at a bite of pancake. “Would it be okay if Wynonna helped us get cleaned up before we go out today?”

Nicole raises her eyebrows, wanting to object after Alice spent most of breakfast avoiding eye contact with Wynonna, but holds her tongue in the end. For her part, Alice hunches against Waverly’s stomach a bit, but says “okay” in a tiny voice.

The smile on Wynonna’s face doesn’t stop Nicole from seeing how she clenches her fork, but clearly she can tell how much Alice is put off by her. “You know what kid, I’m pretty hungry today so you’d be doing me a big favor if you let me keep eating down here while you go upstairs and get dressed.”

“Oh but it wouldn’t-”

“I’ll help Alice,” Nicole interrupts. “Why don’t you two finish breakfast and talk.” She’s already standing up, decision made, pulling Alice into her arms while this time Waverly bites her tongue. She makes her way upstairs, Alice wrapped silently around her.

*

It takes less time than usual to get Alice ready for the day. She perks up marginally when Nicole asks her to pick the outfit she wants, but accepts the first thing Nicole pulls out of her bag, and then lets Nicole tug on her pants and socks and sweater without any fuss. In the jeep, Alice stays withdrawn and still, Nicole and Alice once again in the back, Nicole’s forearm pressed across Alice’s belly like an additional restraint. She knows Wynonna is doing her best to drive safe and slow but she can’t help it, and she won’t apologize for worrying about Alice.

To Nicole’s mild surprise, Wynonna takes them all the way into Calgary instead of going into Purgatory itself.

“Not really feeling up to explaining everything just yet,” Wynonna says as they take the exit to get onto the highway towards the city. Her phone directs them to a baby supplies store across from a giant Costco – Nicole actually has missed Costco, a bit. There was a place that was kind of like it in Nice, but not quite, and her brain is already listing off all the bulk items they’ll find inside to stock up on. But first is the baby store.

Alice still wants to be carried instead of let down to walk hand-in-hand and so Nicole hefts Alice onto her hip and follows Waverly and Wynonna into the store. It’s cozier than a department store, obviously not a big chain, and the prices are definitely outside the range Nicole had assumed Wynonna would aim for.

“Uh, whatever we need,” Wynonna says, holding out both hands to gesture at the displays. “I’m buying.”

“Are you sure?” Waverly asks, darting a surreptitious glance at Nicole, clearly also having spotted the prices.

“I’ve been saving up,” Wynonna says, just this edge of curt.

“Why don’t you help us pick,” Nicole says, and Wynonna’s shoulders lose a fraction of their tension.

Wynonna sticks close to Nicole mostly, watching Alice when she thinks neither of them is looking. For Nicole, who spent the past couple of years honing her sense of being watched, it’s hard to keep the prickle off the back of her neck even though she knows it’s only Wynonna. Together they get a car seat, a booster seat for the kitchen table, more clothes, a proper toddler bed with just enough railing to keep her from rolling out, a new set of bedsheets with cheerful purple and green dinosaurs on them, a handful of books, a lightweight stroller, a stepstool for the toilet, probably too many new toys, and various toddler-proofing items. Wynonna seems torn between pride and nerves with every lock and gate they add to the cart.

“You’re a real explorer, aren’t you,” she says to Alice as Waverly dumps in a big pack of outlet covers.

Nicole cranes her head to look down at Alice, one hand tucked securely in her mouth. “Sweetie, do you want to tell Wynonna about why you always have to hold my hand or Em- I mean Waverly’s hand when we go to a store?” She adds a bounce and a smile, making sure Alice knows she’s not in trouble.

Alice smiles back, though she keeps her hand in her mouth, taking comfort in her bad habit.

“Do you wanna tell her?” Nicole says, her smile growing with her bounces, until she gets a giggle out of Alice.

“Someone,” Waverly says, now adding table corner guards to the cart, “Knocked over two displays in a row when we let her try walking by herself like a big girl.” Still, she drops a kiss on Alice’s cheek, one hand tracing its usual path along the small of Nicole’s back.

Alice giggles again, not seeming particularly repentant.

Wynonna looks stricken by the sight, Nicole with Alice in her arms, Waverly keeping them both close. She stammers a few times before she manages a painfully fake smile. “She’s an Earp all right.”

“What’s Earp?” Alice asks.

*

Waverly’s one adamant non-negotiable was that they would raise Alice knowing that she had another mother somewhere out there who loved her. They could change their names, their looks, their entire lives, but they would not take that one thing from Wynonna. If it came to it, one day, when Alice was old enough to understand the stakes, they would explain everything to her and let her choose for herself if she wanted to meet her biological mother. That was the theory.

In practice, Alice only knows Waverly and Nicole as her parents, and the name “Earp” does not come easily to her still-developing toddler palate. It’s not a name they could risk anyone hearing while they were in hiding.

They had packed up their purchases in silence, made a hurried and awkward rush through the Costco to grab groceries, and listened to the radio all the way back to the homestead. Nicole grabs Alice with one arm and a bag of groceries with the other to head inside, not wanting to turn around see the tension between the sisters. She can hear Wynonna’s boots clomping, plastic and paper rustling, and then has to wait for Wynonna to unlock the front door.

Inside, she’s quick to take Alice upstairs and settle her in her room, darting into hers and Waverly’s bedroom to find the tablet so she can put it in Alice’s hands and distract her with one of the dozens of colorful educational games. “Are you gonna be okay while I help Waverly and Wynonna unload the car?” she asks.

Alice is already absorbed in the game, giggling at the cartoon cats on the screen. Nicole closes the door behind her and steels herself to go back down.

Wynonna trudges through the living room, arms full. Waverly follows, and Nicole tries to catch her eye for any clue on how to read the room, but her head is resolutely down as she lugs the toddler-sized mattress to the foot of the stairs. So Nicole takes her turn to go to the jeep, pulling out the last of the bags and the stroller.

“Deputy Haught,” says a scratchy, familiar voice.

Nicole jumps a bit, but her brain knows that voice, and when she turns around she finds John Henry standing some distance away, hat in hand. “Doc,” she says, genuinely delighted to see him. She returns her load to the back of the jeep and strides over to hug him, noting that same old slightly musty smell of him, cut with fresh air and the slight tang of metal. He’s all bristles and whiskers, mustache crinkled up as he returns her greeting, then steps back. His hands circle the brim of his hat a few times.

“Wynonna asked all of us to stay away,” he says, head tilted wistfully. “So it wouldn’t be such a shock for little Alice to meet so many new people all at once.” His gaze transfers up to the homestead, the same longing as Wynonna’s plain on his face. He looks as though he’s trying to stare straight through the walls. “Still, to know that she was so near, I had to…I needed to know if she was okay.”

Nicole feels a sympathetic tug at her heart. “She is. She’s happy and healthy.” She digs her phone out of her back pocket and clicks it open, pulling up her photos. “Would you like to see some pictures?”

Doc’s hands go absolutely still, gripping hard enough Nicole can see he’s deforming the brim of his hat. “Yes,” he says very softly, then clears his throat. “I would consider it a great kindness.”

Nicole comes around so they can both look at the screen of her phone. She swipes past a few pictures to get to the last one she took of Alice, the day before Waverly found Wynonna’s recall listing online. Alice is asleep on her bed, passed out with a toy on top of her stomach and a book by her head. Nicole hadn’t been able to resist snapping a picture and now Doc stares at her somnolent face with wet eyes. Nicole swipes through more: Alice reading, eating at the table, drawing at the desk, staring at the ocean from the sandy beach, waving hello as Nicole picks her up from school.

“She looks happy,” Doc says thickly, then sniffs.

“She’s so happy. And loved. And smart,” Nicole says, a little thickly herself. “She’s so smart, she’s a year ahead of all the kids in her class. She’s going to get into all kinds of trouble one day. And so sweet. And stubborn. Extremely stubborn.”

Doc laughs, the motion shaking a few tears free. “The Earp line runs true through her.”

Nicole’s expression fades a little as she’s reminded again Alice is not hers by right or biology. But it’s hardly fair to lay that at Doc’s feet; Doc, who has been missing his daughter for nearly three years without so much as a single missive or even a picture to contemplate in his lonely hours. She lets him stare at her phone a while longer, remarking on how beautiful Alice is, laughing when she shows up with food or marker mess. Eventually they go far enough back that Alice is only a year old, and Doc pauses on a picture of her in Waverly’s arms, Waverly herself dozing on the couch with her head thrown back over the rest and her mouth hanging open.

“Delicate and dainty in blue,” he says, a rough finger hovering over the screen where Alice is curled up in blue footie pajamas. He clears his throat again and turns away, pretending he needs to affix his hat to his head in order to cover the surreptitious motion of his hand scrubbing across his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Nicole says, hand clutching her phone at her side.

Doc whirls back. “Never apologize to me, Deputy Haught,” he says, unexpectedly fierce. “You’ve done me a great service and I am in your debt for as long as I live.”

Nicole has to clench her jaw to prevent the tide of emotion surging up into her throat from spilling out. “You’re welcome, John Henry.”

He holds his hand out, and his callouses are rough against her palm as they shake.

Now it’s Nicole’s turn to let out a tight breath. “It’s a little too quiet in there,” she says, mostly managing a lighter tone. “I should go check in on them.”

Doc’s mustache tilts with his lopsided smile. “Wynonna has certainly missed Waverly something fierce.”

“Yeah. It’s, uh…it’s like we never left,” Nicole says, unconvincingly.

Doc can’t hold his smile. “No, Deputy Haught. We’ve all changed. If I could ask another favor from you, even though I have no right. Be patient with Wynonna. Please. She was a woman possessed these past few years and I fear she may not handle such a sudden transition well.”

“Wynonna? Not handling change well? She really is different,” Nicole says, and they both manage one last wry smile for each other before she returns to her baby goods and carries them inside.

*

The house is deathly quiet.

She leaves the stroller by the front door, the bags on the coffee table, and heads upstairs to check in on Alice, who is still engrossed with her tablet, although she’s now somehow managed to jam herself half under her bed, the top half of her body poking out. “You need anything, baby girl?” Nicole asks.

Alice shakes her head, so Nicole leaves her be.

Next on her list is Waverly, who is in the kitchen organizing groceries and pulling a few things for lunch. Nicole hovers in the doorway, watching how she sets things down just a little too carelessly, snatches things from shelves with too-sharp movements. “Where’s Wynonna?” she asks.

Waverly continues unwrapping a fresh loaf of bread. “She took a walk.”

“Oh.”

Plates coming down from cabinets, condiments for sandwiches. The tightness of Waverly’s jaw.

“Can I help?” Nicole asks.

Waverly pauses, knife in one hand, jar of mayonnaise in the other, and then her shoulders slump and she begins to cry.

Nicole pushes off the doorway towards Waverly, folding her up in her arms, chin resting on top of her head as she squeezes and gently rolls them side to side on the spot. “Oh baby. It’s gonna be okay.”

“I’m sorry,” Waverly says. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Nicole can’t figure if Waverly is saying it to her, or to Wynonna, or herself. She keeps rocking, trying not to think about how they could just get in the car and drive back to the airport, how they still have fully-formed lives in a place far away from here. She squeezes her eyes shut so tightly that she can only focus on the colors bursting against her eyelids instead of dangerous, traitorous urges. Waverly clutches at her waist, crying like she used to when they first arrived in France, until she manages to breathe without shuddering. Still, she clings to Nicole.

“Are you okay?” Waverly asks, concern showing plaint through the congestion.

Nicole smooths a hand over her hair, letting it cradle the back of Waverly’s neck. “I’m okay.”

“You don’t have to be. I know you always try to hold it together for the rest of us.”

Nicole gives her a quick squeeze, but doesn’t speak for a moment for fear the wrong thing might slip out.

“I feel like a bad person,” Waverly admits when Nicole doesn’t fill in the silence.

“You’re not-”

“I know I’m not,” Waverly says right away. “But every time Wynonna looks at us and she’s just so sad it’s like…” She sighs.

It’s right on the tip of Nicole’s tongue, the offer to go back. But Waverly would never accept, and Nicole would never forgive herself for offering in the first place. There’s no running away from this, not this time. “I can finish lunch if you want to go find Wynonna,” Nicole offers.

Another sigh, but this time Waverly releases Nicole and pulls back, running her hands through her hair. “No, she needs to blow off some steam.”

“Okay,” Nicole says, hearing the unspoken request that Waverly needs to decompress too. “I’m going to put away some of Alice’s stuff then.” She climbs back upstairs with the bags from the coffee table and finally manages to pull Alice’s attention from the tablet with the bag stuffed full of toys. Nicole knows she should get started on something – the bed, the safety gidgets, the clothes that need to be folded – but instead she leaves everything by the door and plays with Alice until Waverly calls them both down for lunch. She doesn’t want to admit it to herself just yet, but she wants to savor her private time with Alice before it comes to an end.

*

Wynonna wanders back to the house as Waverly is wiping off Alice’s face after lunch and Alice is squirming, trying to lick some mustard from the back of her hand. They hear her boots scrape and clunk out back and Nicole can’t miss how Waverly tenses, washcloth frozen on Alice’s cheek.

“I need some fresh air,” Nicole says, and waits until Waverly lowers her head and continues to wipe at Alice, a subtle go-ahead. Nicole scrapes back her chair, taking her plate to the sink on the way, and slips out to find Wynonna half-perched on the porch railing, a bottle of some brown liquor sloshing in her hand, the label half torn from her picking nails. The cap is still screwed on, though, and Wynonna isn’t even looking at the bottle, instead contemplating something in the far distance. The bottle simply dangles from her fingers, the liquid inside tilting gently back and forth.

“Nice walk?” Nicole asks.

Wynonna twitches one shoulder in a bare shrug and continues to stare.

Nicole takes up a position against the porch post opposite Wynonna, legs crossed at her ankles, arms loosely crossed. “You hungry?”

Another shrug, and that rhythmic swirling of the bottle.

If there was one thing Nicole learned from the early months of running with Waverly, it was how and when to wait out a silence. But she’s still jetlagged, and missing Nice, and scared, and all of her frustrations and fear push against the hard-earned wisdom of her patience. Her mouth opens, closes. Hands clench loosely before relaxing again.

Wynonna puts her out of her misery. “Just say what you wanna say and stop acting like you’re not ready to fight me on Waverly’s behalf.”

“I’m trying to be fair to you too Wynonna,” Nicole says, but too sharp, too short, tone giving some of the lie to the words.

Wynonna snorts. “What’s fair got to do with anything?”

“I don’t know what you guys argued about, but Waverly is really trying. She did everything for you. Everything,” Nicole says, her throat strangling itself around the word. She bites her lip, and continues in half a rush, caught between not wanting a fight and maybe needing one. “You were the one who asked Waverly to leave behind her entire life. And she did it, because she loves you. This is hard for all of us.”

Another snort, sarcastic and dismissive. “I’ll bet. She told me you guys shacked up in the south of France in your perfect little seaside town in your cute little French apartment. That must’ve been real hard.”

“Are you kidding me Wynonna,” Nicole hisses, head pushing forward, neck corded with the tension of her stiff anger. “Do you think she was able to truly ever enjoy any of it? Do you think she ever went to bed not thinking of you before she fell asleep? She was a ghost for so long, you have no idea what it took just for us to function normally again. She couldn’t go a day without crying for weeks. Months.

“Oh, don’t pretend like you didn’t get everything you ever wanted,” Wynonna says, pushing herself upright, somehow managing not to teeter off the railing. “The perfect little instant family where you never have to think about demons or Waverly’s fuckup sister.”

Nicole is speechless in her anger for a moment, emotion completely crowding out the ability to form a single retort. Then her teeth grit together, jaw clenching almost painfully.

“I wanted-” Nicole says. Her neck cords out, pushing down the frog in her throat. “I wanted to marry Waverly and give her a wedding with all her friends and family there to love her. And I i>wanted to start a family with her when the time was right. I never wanted to have to raise someone else’s daughter and love her like she’s my own knowing full well one day I’d have to give her back and watch Waverly get ripped in half all over again and feel fucking helpless to do a goddamn thing about it. So fuck you Wynonna, and fuck your sad little pity party too.”

Nicole’s temper has her moving before she can even think of a destination, stomping off around the side of the house and down the long driveway, not caring to look over her shoulder for Wynonna’s reaction. This little stunt of hers wouldn’t fly midwinter, coatless as she is, but the last frost of the season is almost all faded away, and late afternoon sun beats down on her as she keeps moving, knowing as soon as her anger subsides she’ll have to go back and try to make amends. But for now it feels too good to be angry, to stomp along trailing a tailwind of righteously frustrated words. She feels as though someone has finally hit the release valve on the pressure in her chest and let out something that has been slowly simmering for years.

She walks as long as her anger burns, which carries her past the edge of the Earp property, across the country road and into a shaggy meadow that catches at the legs of her jeans. She walks until the homestead is a little blob of brown, hunched under the big blue sky. She misses the ocean, the smells of the waterfront, the sounds of gulls calling to each other.

In the end it’s Alice that drives her back to the homestead, step by reluctant step. Alice is a perceptive child, and no matter how much she likes playing games on the tablet, eventually she’s bound to pick up on the simmering tension permeating the house. She doesn’t deserve to be scared and confused like that, and so Nicole retraces her steps, hauling herself up to the front door, pushing her way inside ready to apologize, or to at least declare a truce for a while.

The house is quiet.

“Waves?” Nicole calls out, still enjoying the way it feels to hear the old nickname floating from room to room.

“Upstairs,” she calls back, tugging Nicole up to the second floor and peeking into Alice’s room.

Waverly is seated on the bed, back propped against the wall, Alice in her lap and a book held in front of both of them.

“Hi baby,” Nicole says, her smile genuine. Just the sight of her two girls is enough to have her shoulders relaxing a little. “What are you reading?”

“One of our new books,” Waverly says. She closes it so the cover is facing Alice. “Can you sound it out?”

Nicole joins them on the bed, just about fitting next to Waverly, though both their sets of legs dangle out onto the floor. She wraps one arm around Waverly’s shoulders and waits patiently as Alice points to each letter on the cover and makes the corresponding sound. Waverly lets her puzzle it out, only speaking up when Alice gets the letter sound wrong.

A minute later, with some firm hints, Alice finally manages the “wrinkle” in “A Wrinkle In Time” and Waverly rewards her with enthusiastic praise. They manage the rest of the title a little more easily, and then Waverly opens the book again to where her finger was marking the page and resumes reading.

Alice begins to droop a chapter and a half later, and together Nicole and Waverly ease out of her bed and let her lie down for a nap. They tiptoe downstairs, Nicole leaving the door cracked just a bit in case she calls for them, and sink into the living room sofa, where Waverly tucks herself against Nicole’s side.

“I heard you and Wynonna fighting,” Waverly says, getting right to it. Perhaps she just wants to lance the boil, sick of slowly suffocating as the air has grown thicker and thicker with tense words and hunched shoulders.

“Oh,” is all Nicole can manage to that, any sense of peace from sitting with Alice flushed out of her system by shame and embarrassment. She doesn’t know what to say to Waverly, especially when she’s not entirely sorry for what she said. The anger Wynonna ignited is still flickering somewhere inside her, not ready to be smothered out.

“You know she didn’t mean it, right?”

Nicole is still tired. Tired of always being the reasonable one, the patient one, the person holding everyone else together. She pulls away from Waverly, leaning on her side of the sofa, arms folded. “Even if she didn’t, that doesn’t make it right for her to say it to me. Or to you.”

“Hey,” Waverly says, one hand soothing down Nicole’s arm from shoulder to elbow. “Of course not. It was awful and you deserve an apology. Just…I think it’s easier for us to be a little more patient right now.”

“Why?” Nicole challenges her, for once not responding to Waverly’s touch by calming down. She just wants to rip away, let her anger burn bright again. She motions with her finger circling in the air, encompassing the homestead. “We’re all three of us adults. We’re all responsible for Alice. Why shouldn’t Wynonna have to be as patient with us as we are with her?”

Waverly frowns. “Nicole-”

“And you know, I get that she maybe wasn’t the most prepared for this situation, but quite frankly that means we deserve a little leeway here. Just a little bit of her listening to us, because she sure as hell isn’t ready to take care of a little girl on her own just yet.”

Waverly has her arms folded up too now, the instinct to defend her sister jumping to the tip of her tongue. “That’s exactly why we have to be patient. She isn’t ready, and she doesn’t have our experience. We have to help her learn.”

“I don’t want to!” Nicole blurts out, just short of yelling, because for all that she’s angry as hell, she can never forget when Alice is nearby. “I don’t want to help her take Alice away from us. I know it’s selfish and it’s not right but god, it’s what I want.”

Waverly goes pale at the words, hands dropping to her lap, suddenly looking scared. Her voice drops to a whisper. “I don’t want to lose her either,” she says.

Nicole pauses in surprise. “Waves?” she asks delicately.

“I love Alice so much and she…she feels like she’s mine. Ours. Our daughter. I can’t help it,” Waverly says, a tremble working its way into her voice, tears brimming thickly. She bites her lip, as though struggling over some inner threshold. “She’s our daughter too.”

“Baby,” Nicole says, forgetting about the space between them and pulling Waverly into her arms for the second time that day. Waverly comes willingly, muffling her sob into Nicole’s shoulder, arms clutching around her waist. Nicole can’t help but spill a few tears of her own, letting them skim down her cheeks and drop off her chin. It feels better this way, what they really want out in the open. Not any easier, but at least clearer, more honest.

“I think,” Waverly says, and quietly hiccups on the last of her tears. “I think we have to tell Wynonna.”

“Me too,” Nicole says. She sighs, one hand combing through Waverly’s hair, making sure it’s pushed back from her tear-streaked face. “Families are complicated, but Wynonna is ours and we’re hers. We’ll figure it out.”

It seems to soothe Waverly, just enough to have her sighing too, the kind of breath that clears out a chest too tight with emotion. “Yeah. We’ll figure it out,” she says, but doesn’t move out of Nicole’s arms for a little while yet.

Chapter Text

Wynonna doesn’t return to the homestead until late – late enough that Waverly and Nicole both start to worry, although perhaps for different reasons. Waverly thinks Wynonna might have wandered into trouble, which honestly isn’t the worst guess, although at least now they can be sure it isn’t the revenant kind. Nicole can only think that this is a terrible example for Alice.

They both hover a little too much around Alice, trying to calm themselves and stay busy. Waverly lets her have a bubble bath, and Nicole reads her three stories at bedtime while Waverly sits nearby and listens in. And when Alice is finally down for the night, they stand at the foot of her bed for a moment, hands clasped tightly, trying to share the stress and anxiety between them.

Nicole wants to go to bed, but she knows Waverly will just lie awake with her worrying, and so they huddle together in the living room, clicking back through the town newspaper’s online archives and murmuring to each other over the stories.

Headlights flash through the front windows, followed by the faint crunch of tires, and the two of them are quick to get to the front door before anyone can knock and wake Alice up. Nicole pulls open the door and blinks in surprise, finding a large, solid body in the way. “Dolls,” she says, blinking a few times, hand still dangling off the door.

“Haught,” he says, and offers a small but reassuring smile. “Got a delivery.”

Wynonna lurks behind him on the porch, mercifully still upright and sober enough to be scuffing the boards with one boot with her hands jammed in her back pockets.

“Dolls!” Waverly says, brushing past Nicole to rush out and give him a hug. His smile widens, thick arms coming around to engulf Waverly. He doesn’t seem to smile any easier, to Nicole’s eye, but it’s warm and genuine and she didn’t realize how much she missed his quiet, competent presence.

Dolls releases Waverly and turns to one side so that he can gently push Wynonna forward. “I believe this is yours.”

Wynonna makes a sound halfway between a scoff and a snort, but doesn’t fight him, instead shouldering past Waverly and Nicole and into the house.

“Alice is asleep upstairs,” Nicole warns her before she can stomp around in her boots, and Wynonna gives no indication that she heard, but she does keep her steps to a soft shuffle as she heads for the kitchen.

“Thank you,” Waverly says.

“Hey, no problem,” Dolls says. His eyes track Wynonna for a moment before she disappears into the back of the house. “It’s been pretty rough, but she’s different now, so maybe-”

“I am not taking it easy on her when you had to drag her home at midnight,” Nicole says, perhaps still feeling a little of that afternoon’s fight still rattling around in her gut.

Dolls barely blinks. “I was gonna say, so maybe just tell her you’re mad she fucked up and she’ll probably listen.”

Nicole settles back on her heels. “Oh.”

Dolls checks again, though this time to make sure Wynonna isn’t within earshot. “Look, did she tell you how it all went down before she sent the all clear?”

Waverly wraps her arms around herself. “She hasn’t really said yet.”

Dolls makes a low humming sound deep in his throat, almost a growl, but thoughtful, not threatening. “It was rough. There was a moment…” He rubs the back of his head, folds his arms. “There was a moment where she thought she might not make it. And if I’m being honest with you, she was willing to go through with it even if it meant she’d never see Alice again. The only thing she’s cared about is making sure the curse isn’t passed on to her daughter. It’s gonna take her a little while to get back into a more civilian headspace again. I’m not saying not to hold her accountable, just, you know. We’ve kind of been at war these past three years. Maybe she’s not all the way back yet.”

Waverly hugs him again, but just as much for him as it is for Wynonna. “Thank you,” she whispers by his ear.

He smiles at them again, and maybe this time Nicole can just catch the undercurrent of stress and exhaustion in the clench of his jaw. There was no way Wynonna fought a war without Dolls by her side every step of the way, and if she’s in a state, then Dolls is feeling it too. She offers him her hand and he takes it, gripping it with reassuring strength. He snugs a baseball cap on his head before turning away and trudging back to his SUV.

Once he’s gone it’s just Waverly and Nicole on the porch, bracing themselves for the conversation that comes next.

“You ready?” Waverly asks. She laces their fingers together. Her hand is so much smaller than Dolls’, softer and uncalloused, but it feels like rock solid ground under Nicole’s feet.

“I’m ready,” she says, and waits for Waverly to go in first before closing the door behind them.

*

Wynonna has resumed her perch on the back porch railing. No bottle dangling from her fingers this time though, only a blank, tired look on her face as she stares at nothing.

Nicole lets Waverly approach her first, balancing gingerly on the railing just down from Wynonna, back braced against a post. Nicole leans up against the side of the house, arms folded. Waverly doesn’t say anything at first, the three of them silent in their own way. Waverly is open, sympathetic, but Nicole can see she’s ready to match wills with Wynonna. And eventually, Wynonna heaves a sigh and takes the next step.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“Sorry for what,” Waverly says evenly.

Another sigh, more aggravated this time but somehow also less antagonistic. Wynonna is frustrated at herself, not at them. “Sorry for, you know, being an ungrateful asshole. I didn’t mean what I said. I guess I’m just…” She shrugs in resignation. “I’m jealous.”

Nicole follows Waverly’s lead, her quiet encouragement letting Wynonna set the pace for her apology.

Wynonna’s hand grips the wood railing, hard enough to noticeably flex her arm. “It’s not your fault and I’m sorry I blamed you for doing exactly what I asked. I’m actually, uh, super grateful. Alice is so…” Her voice catches, eyebrows knitting as she tries to scrunch her face up to stave off the tears. “Alice is so smart and sweet. She’s so good, and that’s because of you guys. I know that.” The tears escape anyway, trickling one after the other down her cheeks. “I’m just so angry that couldn’t be me. It’s not fucking fair and I don’t know how to make it fair and I don’t know if it even can be fair again.”

Waverly yanks Wynonna to her, pulling her in a hug. Wynonna buries her head in the crook of Waverly’s neck, sobbing openly now, clutching at the back of Waverly’s shirt. Waverly runs a hand through her hair, murmuring the same sounds Nicole has heard her use to soothe Alice after a nightmare or a scraped knee.

Wynonna pulls away after a minute, half turning away while she scrubs at her face and messily uses the collar of her shirt to wipe under her nose a few times. “Sorry,” she says, red-eyed and congested from crying. She inhales a long, wet sniff and looks directly at Nicole, standing up straighter and shaking her head to toss a few curls out of her face. “I’m sorry, Nicole.”

Nicole sizes her up, still leaning against the house, the last embers of a grudge still fading out in her chest. Her natural inclination to forgive is pushing up against her protectiveness over her family, even if Wynonna is part of that family too. But Waverly is there, looking hopefully at her, and so she pushes off from the wall with her shoulder and unfolds her arms. “I’m sorry too,” she says, and feels just a little bit better.

“Now what,” Wynonna says.

“Let’s sit down and talk,” says Waverly.

The natural place would be the kitchen but Alice is still upstairs and Nicole won’t have her accidentally overhearing such a hard conversation. So they drag a few chairs outside around the firepit in the front yard, now more than just the bare spot they used to use when they wanted to burn something. Someone has built up a proper well of concrete blocks, and Nicole can see ash and the crumbled remains of a charred log inside. She and Waverly wait patiently while Wynonna lights tinder in the pit before adding a split log from the firewood pile. As the flames take to the dry wood, Wynonna plops heavily into the third chair, the heels of her boots dug into the dirt, hands slapping onto her thighs. “Let’s talk,” she says.

Nicole wants the reassuring feel of Waverly’s hand in hers again, but this can’t look like two against one. She knows Wynonna; repentant or not, she’ll bite if backed into a corner. So Nicole just leans forward a bit, elbows propped on her thighs and hands steepling in front of her. She licks her lips once, trying to find the right words, wanting this to come from her. She’s not a bystander in Waverly and Wynonna’s family drama; the three of them are in this mess together. “Alice is your daughter,” she says. She braces herself. “But she’s our daughter too.”

Wynonna stiffens in her chair but doesn’t respond.

“We all love Alice,” Nicole says. She clutches her hands together. “And Alice loves us. And we can’t…we can’t just give her up.”

“You’re not just taking my daughter-” Wynonna says sharply, and Waverly jumps in.

“We’re not, Wynonna,” she says. “She’s your daughter too. But I can’t imagine a life where I don’t get to see her every day and love her and help raise her.” It’s Waverly’s turn now to get choked up, huddled up into herself in front of the fire, her gaze consigned to the flames.

Wynonna sits there for a moment, looking between Waverly and Nicole, pushed back from both of them so she’s only partially lit by the fire. “So what are you saying? Some kind of…shared custody arrangement?”

“We don’t know,” Nicole says, picking up for Waverly while she wipes at her eyes. “We haven’t gotten that far. We just knew we had to tell you the truth about how we feel. The important thing is Alice. We all love her. We’ll find a way for all three of us to be there for her.”

The next silence between them stretches out into minutes, until finally Wynonna drags her chair closer to shove another log into the fire. “For Alice,” she mutters, using a stick to poke at the log and stoke up the embers at the bottom of the pit. Orange sparks leap up, quickly fading into the night. Abruptly, Wynonna pushes to her feet, brushing off her hands. “I’m going to bed.” She marches inside, but her clomping softens when she opens the front door, mindful of who’s sleeping upstairs.

Nicole shuffles her chair side by side with Waverly’s and touches her shoulder. “You okay?” she asks.

Tension leaks out of Waverly, like that touch has opened up a valve, and she leans into Nicole. “I think so. Let’s stay out here a while.”

Nicole wraps her arm around Waverly’s shoulder, keeping warm together in the cool night air until the fire slows to a warm orange glow.

*

A tenuous rhythm has developed since they landed in Purgatory. Nicole is usually up first, followed in a bit by Alice, who will jump on Waverly in bed or hover at Nicole’s knees while she makes breakfast. Being away from home – being in her new home – has her on edge, and so she wakes with the sun, still feeling the last of her jetlag telling her she should’ve been up long ago. To her very great surprise this morning, she’s not the first up in the house; Wynonna is already in the kitchen when Nicole feels her way down the steps, eyes still half shut while she yawns.

Wordlessly, Wynonna pours a mug of coffee from the full carafe and places it on the table for Nicole, next to a little jar of sugar and a carton of milk. She pours another for herself into a mug that has clearly already been filled at least once that morning and takes up a spot at the kitchen sink, staring through the window at nothing in particular. She doesn’t say a word about their discussion the night before.

Nicole considers the silence a gift, early as it is, and puts a kettle on to boil. Wynonna pulls down one of the boxes of tea they bought with their groceries and slides it along the countertop so Nicole can grab a bag and have it waiting to steep in a mug. It only takes a few minutes for the water to boil, although it’s probably too hot. Waverly liked their electric boiler in Nice because it had temperature settings, and she could get the water just before it hit scalding. Another item on the list of things they’ll need to re-adjust to Purgatory.

Nicole leaves Wynonna with her solitude and takes her coffee to go, returning up the stairs to Waverly and their bed. The steaming tea goes on Waverly’s nightstand before she rounds the bed and slides in as carefully as she can, propping herself up with her coffee in her hands.

Nicole is expecting at least another half hour to herself, but only a minute or two after settling against her pillows, the door creaks open an inch. “Alice?” she calls out softly.

The door opens just enough for Alice’s tiny body to slip through the crack. She stands there in her pajamas, rubbing her eyes and looking slightly lost.

“Come here,” Nicole says, patting the bed between her and Waverly, and Alice shuffles over and climbs on so she can crawl up and under the duvet, letting Nicole pull her snugly close with her free arm. “Everything okay?” Nicole asks, sweeping sleep-tousled hair out of Alice’s face.

Alice nods, but clings to Nicole anyway.

The coffee gets set aside so Nicole can slide down and have a proper snuggle with Alice. She wishes she could burrow them into the covers in the bed in their apartment in Nice like she did just a couple of weeks ago. Waverly had brought them breakfast in bed and all three of them had watched a movie together in their pajamas before a trip down to their favorite bookstore. And now – what? A small town life for Alice in Purgatory which might be revenant-free, but also has such a yen for the supernatural that it grew its own demon-hunting firefighting cult?

“You okay, peanut?” Nicole asks.

Alice nods again, but her little body is still tense.

“Did you sleep okay?”

This time Alice shakes her head and Nicole feels a swoop in her stomach, terrified that Alice overheard their conversation from last night. “What was it? You can tell me, if you want to.”

“Sounds funny,” Alice mumbles.

“It sounds funny? How does it sound?” Nicole asks gently.

“Not enough sounds.”

Nicole ponders that for a moment. “Is it too quiet? It doesn’t sound like it does at home?”

A final nod, and then Alice buries her head in Nicole’s arm.

Normally Alice is pretty energetic in the morning, at least on weekends, so when she drifts back to sleep Nicole realizes just how tired she must be. Her heart aches for her child, too young to understand what’s happening, although blissful ignorance is just as much a blessing at this point. The mattress shifts and Waverly turns over, now awake and instinctively running one hand up and down Alice’s back to make sure she stays asleep. She stares at Nicole, the worry and stress of trying to do what’s best for Alice bleeding through loud and clear.

Nicole holds on to Alice and lets her sleep as long as possible.

*

The smells wafting up from the kitchen are eventually too much to ignore. Nicole reluctantly wakes Alice up by stroking her hair and whispering her name; if she sleeps much longer she’ll never go to bed tonight, and if she got anything from Waverly it’s the direct relationship between her crankiness and her stubbornness. Nicole still indulges her, carrying Alice downstairs on her hip as they follow Waverly into the kitchen, where Wynonna is puttering around in front of the stove.

The toaster pops and Wynonna grabs for the bread immediately, letting out a loud “Shit!” when it burns her fingers.

Alice giggles while Waverly looks disapprovingly at her sister, who whips around with pure guilt on her face.

“I mean, uh, shoot,” Wynonna says, tossing the toast onto a plate already stacked with slices. She slides it onto the table next to a plate of bacon slowly oozing grease into a paper towel, then returns to the stove to turn out a panful of scrambled eggs. She holds up a finger and opens the oven, pulling out a single plate and delivering it before Waverly. “Tofu scramble and facon,” she announces.

“Facon?” Waverly repeats as she takes her seat.

“That fake bacon you bought when we went out? You know, facon,” Wynonna says.

“It’s seitan,” Waverly says, somewhat exasperated.

“Well in this house we reject seitan and all his works,” Wynonna says, winking at Alice before loading up three more plates from the non-vegetarian piles.

Alice lists a little in her new booster seat, obviously still tired, but definitely interested in the bacon slice that Nicole is cutting into little bites for her. She accepts her colorful plastic spoon and begins her usual uncoordinated but determined effort to feed herself. As soon as she could successfully maneuver a utensil from her plate to her mouth, she insisted on doing it herself, and both Nicole and Waverly have learned better than to interfere unless absolutely necessary when Alice determines that she must do something on her own.

Wynonna thumps a carton of orange juice on the table to complete the scene and plops down in her own seat, immediately forking a huge load of eggs into her mouth. “So what’s up for today,” she says through her full mouth.

More exasperation from Waverly as she tries to subtly cut her eyes from Wynonna to Alice and back.

Wynonna swallows – too quickly, if the painful wince and bulge in her throat is any indication – and tries again. “Big plans?”

“Not in particular. Did you have something in mind?” Nicole asks, trying her best to reach Wynonna halfway.

“Well.” Wynonna scrapes a bit at her plate with the tines of her fork. “Now that you’re back, we should probably go see Gus. She wanted to be here but, you know. Trying to take it easy on the kid with new people.”

“We should go right after breakfast,” Waverly says, eyes already shining in excitement.

“Who is Gus?” Alice asks, although she seems just as interested in getting bacon into her mouth without dropping it.

“Gus is the person who helped raise me and Wynonna,” Waverly says. She tilts her head. “I guess she’s kind of your grandma.”

Wynona hoots. “Don’t call her grandma to her face, she’ll probably get out the shotgun to show you how not grandma she is.” This time Wynonna manages to check herself before either Nicole or Waverly can hint to her to be a better example. “I mean, uh, you should just call her Aunt Gus. She’d like that. And uh, guns are dangerous and for adults only.”

Nicole volunteers to wash the dishes so Waverly can take Alice upstairs to get cleaned up, a hopeful Wynonna at their heels. Nicole’s instincts are all still urging her to wrap Alice up and shelter her from the stress of this new world, but she’s trying. She’s trying to give Wynonna a chance and she’s trying to accept that her life has permanently changed.

After everyone has bathed and Alice has been stuffed into a new clean outfit with only halfhearted resistance, they pile into the Jeep. Nicole once again sits in the back next to Alice, now snugly belted into her car seat, and Waverly rides up front with Wynonna, who drives them out to Gus’ place, the quiet croon of the radio filling the car for most of the ride.

Gus is waiting for them when they pull up; Wynonna must have texted her or called ahead. Her eyes glint tearily in the midday sun and she immediately opens up her arms so Waverly can burst from the jeep and gather her up in a hug. Gus rocks them both side to side, smiling through a few tears while Nicole discreetly gets Alice out of the jeep, setting her down and holding her hand as Waverly reunites with the rest of her family.

Alice watches, almost curious, but a little shy too with so much raw emotion on display.

Eventually Gus lets go of Waverly and scrubs a hand across her eyes. Her smile brightens up as she looks at Alice, just barely tucked behind Nicole’s right leg. “Well, who do we have here?” she says, open and friendly and warm. Nicole can see the kind of woman who would take in a pair of orphaned girls, how her kindheartedness immediately starts to fill in the gaps between them.

Nicole lets one hand rest at Alice’s back, not pushing her, but keeping her steady. “This is Alice. Alice, this is Gus.”

Gus approaches and crouches down, offering her hand to Alice to shake. “It’s very nice to meet you, Alice. You can call me Gus or Aunt Gus, whichever you like.”

Alice shakes her hand silently and remains close to Nicole. Gus doesn’t seem to mind at all, straightening up with a slight grunt of effort and brushing a bit of lint from her jeans. She squints appraisingly at Nicole. “Nicole Haught, you are a sight for sore eyes,” Gus says, and then turns around to lead them all into the house. “Come on, I’ve got lemonade and there’s a cake cooling in the kitchen.”

Nicole doesn’t have to look to know that Alice has perked up at the mention of cake, and she follows readily, her little hand in Nicole’s.

The kitchen is all set up for them, glasses out on the counter and cake on a proper stand, shining with glaze. It’s a lot of sugar, but then again, Gus raised Waverly and Wynonna, and Nicole isn’t particularly inclined to second-guess her. Let Alice eat cake and get to know another part of her family.

Gus serves them all at the kitchen table and asks pleasant enough questions, but Nicole can see how keenly she listens, how she seems to be digesting the least detail and reading between every line. Nicole feels a sudden wave of empathy between them, both of them responsible for children not bound to them by birth but just as much theirs by any other measure. Gus clearly missed Waverly something fierce, and whenever her eyes land on Alice, they take on a little of the same quiet longing Nicole sees in Wynonna.

“Did you enjoy the cake?” Gus asks Alice kindly.

Alice nods, and at a soft nudge from Waverly, says, “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, darlin’,” Gus says. “I’m happy to have you over for cake any time you want.”

“Do I get free cake whenever I want?” Wynonna asks.

“You could stand a little less cake and few more vegetables,” Gus says, sweeping away Wynonna’s plate even though she’s still dabbing her finger into the crumbs.

“Hey! Unfair,” Wynonna says.

Gus is unmoved. “Don’t you know the rules? I was responsible for you, so now I get to spoil Alice and you get to act responsible.” She stacks the plates in the sink. “Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to speak to Nicole and Waverly. Alice, honey, would you like to go upstairs and see if there’s any books you want to take home?”

Alice one again is alert at the mention of new books and looks to Waverly for permission.

“Of course,” Waverly says. “Wynonna will take you.”

Wynonna jumps to her feet. “Yup. Books. Love ‘em.” She hesitates a moment, then holds out her hand the way that Nicole holds out her hand for Alice, and Alice grasps it trustingly. Wynonna freezes at the contact, then begins leading Alice upstairs, stepping carefully around her.

Once their footsteps fade up the staircase, Gus sits on one side of the table and takes a long, long look at Waverly and Nicole. Her left hand slides across the surface, meeting Waverly’s halfway and clasping it tightly. “I’m glad you’re home,” she says. If Gus were the type of woman to cry more easily, she’d be doing it right now, but a woman who managed to raise two Earps is made of sterner stuff than that. All the same, her voice is tightly packed with emotion and she doesn’t let go of Waverly’s hand for a minute. When she does, she gives Waverly’s hand one last pat and sits back. “Now, tell me all about France.”

Sharp-eyed as she is, Gus doesn’t miss how Nicole glances after Wynonna and Alice after a few minutes of Waverly’s glowing descriptions of the south of France.

“I know she’s a little rough around the edges right now, but Alice’ll be fine with Wynonna,” Gus says.

Nicole promptly returns her gaze to Gus. “It’s not that, I was just…”

Gus isn’t fooled. “When Waverly first came to me, I didn’t like to let her out of my sight for more than a minute. I can’t imagine what it was like for the two of you, always looking over your shoulders. But I promise you, Wynonna can do this.”

“I really hope so,” Nicole says, voice soft but eyes firm. “For her sake as much as Alice’s.”

*

Coming up on a week in Purgatory, Nicole knows she and Waverly are going to have to make a decision. They left lives behind in Nice – lives that, for all they were meant to be temporary, were still very real. Nicole will need to formally resign so Quentin can replace her and Waverly still has her degree to finish. They had friends, neighbors, people who cared about them. They deserve explanations, even fabricated ones.

By now she trusts Wynonna to be able to spend a few hours on her own with Alice, and Alice doesn’t cringe away from Wynonna, and so she leaves them watching a movie in the living room while she and Waverly take a walk. The sun is warm enough now to cut easily through the faint morning chill and have everything golden by afternoon and Nicole remembers a little why she used to love Purgatory. The silence is peaceful like this, instead of ominous. But it’s also a little suffocating, omnipresent and unbreakable. On a day like this at home – it’s going to take a while for Nicole to shake the habit of calling Nice home – they would maybe go out to eat, or cook and throw the windows wide open so they could enjoy the evening air and hear the sounds of people coming home and settling down for the night. Nicole settles for bringing along a backback with a blanket, some tupperwares of food, and a canteen of water so they can set up on a small grassy hill within eyeshot of the homestead.

“I almost forgot how beautiful it is here,” Waverly says, and Nicole can’t deny it. The big Alberta sky is a clear blue as far as the eye can see, and they’re surrounded by soft grass and small flowers just starting to peek up out of the earth. Nicole lets her hand settle on top of Waverly’s where it lies, bracing her arm as she leans to one side with her legs folded under her.

“Waves,” Nicole says, hating to break the peace. But she has to for both of them, and for Alice too. “It’s time to figure out what to do about the apartment. And your degree. And I guess to see if Nedley will have me back.”

“I’m surprised he hasn’t come out to the homestead with a uniform and badge for you already,” Waverly says, but it doesn’t come out too convincingly. She tries again, still game. “You’d like that though, right? I know you liked the museum, but working security isn’t the same as being an actual deputy.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Nicole agrees. It’s the one thing, really, that she’d missed most. She believes in the good she can do with her policing, and she knows it’s rare to find someone who can really handle Purgatory’s unique challenges. She wondered, in their three years abroad, if Nedley had tried to recruit someone else to take over, or if he had resigned himself to just trying to hang on as long as possible. But she also thought of Chrissy, perpetually worried about her father, and then her stable, safe museum security job would switch from burden to gift. Her gift to Alice, who would never risk losing a childhood to supernatural violence, who would grow up with the world at her feet instead of trapped in the borders of the Ghost River Triangle.

“I’m not really sure I can transfer my degree,” Waverly admits. “Everything is registered under my Emily identity. Plus University of Calgary doesn’t have an equivalent program and some of the credits won’t transfer.”

“Does that mean you’ll have to start over?”

“God, another three years,” Waverly says, a sigh lacing through the words. She flops back onto the blanket, one hand resting on her stomach. “Maybe? I don’t know. We could ask Perry about it, or tell the university I got a name change for personal reasons. I could probably pick up some shifts at Shorty’s while I figure it out.”

“You shouldn’t have to do that,” Nicole says.

Waverly manages as much of a shrug as she can while lying down. “It’s just Shorty’s. Wynonna went through a lot worse.”

“That doesn’t mean you owe her your career,” Nicole says, trying not to argue but hating to see Waverly settle. “You deserve the future that you built. I know how much you’ve put into your degree.”

“It’s my choice,” Waverly says, stubborn and stiff, the Earp in her coming easily to the surface.

“It is your choice. So choose something that will help you move forward, not…” Nicole realizes she’s run into a verbal dead end too late to avoid it.

“Not keep me in some backwater nothing town,” Waverly finishes for her, sitting up again and frowning.

“You know I don’t think about Purgatory that way. I came here on my own because I wanted to work in a place exactly like this. But Waves, this place.” Nicole takes a breath. “This place has always been too small for you.”

“If you want to go back to Nice, just say so, but don’t make it about what I want,” Waverly says, pushing herself to her knees, and then standing up.

“Waves, come on,” Nicole says, but she’s already stalking off, leaving Nicole behind to pack up the food and try to catch up.

*

For once, Wynonna is the mediator in the house, carefully navigating the space between Nicole and Waverly with Alice in her arms or at her side. Now that they have some measure of familiarity, Alice’s natural curiosity is starting to emerge, and she asks a multiplying stream of questions that Wynonna answers with earnest adult seriousness.

Waverly takes Alice upstairs to bathe after dinner, leaving Wynonna and Nicole downstairs. “Here,” Wynonna says, thumping a glass with a finger of something golden amber inside on the kitchen table in front of Nicole.

She takes a whiff and catches the acrid scent of Wynonna’s usual cheap whiskey. It’s not enough to put her off taking a big gulp, though it costs her a lot of teary-eyed coughing.

“Got too used to used to wine over there in gay Pah-ree,” Wynonna says sarcastically, but with enough good humor not to come off nasty.

“Or you’ve always had shitty taste in alcohol,” Nicole says hoarsely, taking another, lighter sip.

“Hey, alcohol has shitty taste in me,” Wynonna says, then frowns, trying to parse her own comeback. “Whatever, just drink it.”

They sit in the kind of companionable silence Nicole remembers from the old days, when she and Wynonna were something like friends, until Wynonna once again makes the first move. “You wanna tell me why you and Waverly are playing the silent game?”

Nicole snorts into her tumbler. “You get one guess.”

“Look, I know I was a dingus about you wanting to go back before-”

“Asshole,” Nicole corrects.

“Asshole,” Wynonna repeats after a pause to accept the fairness of it. “But I’m not dumb. Waverly told me enough that I know you had lives over there. Jobs and friends and stuff. That’s…I get that it must be rough to have left all that so suddenly.”

Nicole isn’t so deep in her own feelings that she can’t hear the terror just under the surface of Wynonna’s words. All the bravado and posturing in the world can’t erase the fact that on paper, Nicole and Waverly are Alice’s legal guardians. They have every legal right to take Alice wherever they want and they all know it. “Waverly would never leave you, not again,” Nicole says, uncertain whether she’s reassuring Wynonna or resenting Waverly. Perhaps both.

“You think she should, though.” It’s only a little bit an accusation. The only person in the world who loves Waverly as much as Nicole, who knows Waverly as well as Nicole, understands that this is simply the truth.

“She was about to finish her master’s degree,” Nicole says wistfully. “She wanted to get a doctorate. Travel. We were planning a trip to Alexandria.”

“God, she used to yell at me about the library there,” Wynonna says, grinning momentarily at the memory. She imitates Waverly’s voice, the way it pitches higher when she’s particularly indignant. “Think about how much knowledge we lost to those, those hooligans!

Nicole can’t help but smile too at the impression, and it reminds her how much they both just want the best for their family. “What are we gonna do here, Wynonna? What kind of life are we gonna have?” She asks sincerely, not out of disdain, feeling lost and a little bit blurry from too much alcohol too fast.

Wynonna twists her glass on the tabletop a few times, clinking it up against the half-empty bottle. The trill of her cell phone interrupts before she can do much more than open her mouth. Frowning, she digs in her back pocket and holds it up to see who it is before accepting the call. “What?”

Nicole can’t hear the reply, but the way Wynonna’s mouth tightens tells her everything.

“Are you serious?” Wynonna asks, and then abruptly shoves her glass away. “Fine, I’ll be there soon.” She stabs at the disconnect button with her thumb and runs a hand through her hair before looking at Nicole.

“What is it?”

“Emergency in town. I gotta go,” Wynonna says.

Nicole feels a shiver of alarm run up her spine. “What kind of emergency? Revenants? You killed them all.”

Wynonna is on her feet, moving towards her bedroom, Nicole following. She reaches under one of the pillows on her bed and withdraws Peacemaker. Nicole’s eyes go wide. “You’ve been keeping Peacemaker there?” she asks, suddenly ashen and furious. “What if Alice had found it?”

“I don’t have time to explain to you why I needed to sleep with a gun under my pillow for three years. There’s an emergency. I have to go.” Wynonna steps around her, grabbing her gun belt from the coat rack on her way to the front door.

“You’re not going by yourself,” Nicole says, instinct kicking in and pushing her along in Wynonna’s wake.

“Uh uh. No way. You stay here, keep everyone here safe,” Wynonna says.

“What do you mean safe? Is there something out there that could try to attack the homestead?” Nicole asks, now wishing for a gun herself. But they hadn’t had the paperwork ready to bring a gun back into the country, and so her Smith & Wesson is still securely locked in its safe on a high shelf in her bedroom closet in Nice.

“No, it’s fine. It’s just the usual. Probably. I really have to go.” Wynonna yanks her leather jacket on and stomps out, headed for her truck.

Waverly comes to the top of the stairs, alert to the sounds of someone leaving the house. “What’s going on?”

Nicole looks up at her, somewhat helplessly. “She got a call and said she had to go into town for an emergency. She took Peacemaker with her.”

“Peacemaker,” Waverly repeats, mirroring Nicole’s alarm. She drops down a few steps in jerky, uncertain movements. “One of us has to go with her.”

Nicole makes up her mind the moment she can see Waverly about to dash the rest of the way down the stairs. “I’ve got it. I’ll call you from town,” she says, going to the table by the door and digging in the bowl there for the keys to the jeep. She dodges into the kitchen to grab her phone and runs outside, noting the fading red of Wynonna’s taillights already at the end of the drive.

Wynonna has to notice the jeep’s headlights in her rearview all the way into town, but she doesn’t stop until they’ve pulled up to the sheriff’s office. Nicole spots a familiar SUV parked outside before she cuts her engine and hurries to follow Wynonna, who’s already inside.

“Nicole!” says a very surprised Lonnie at the front desk. “What the-”

Nicole ignores him and darts over to the door to the Black Badge office, or what was the BB office when she was last here.

Dolls and Wynonna both look up when she opens the door, Wynonna rolling her eyes and Dolls unreadable. “Hey,” Nicole says, slightly out of breath.

“I thought I told you to come by yourself,” Dolls says.

“Yeah, I was just going to take the time to cuff her and Waverly to the staircase before I left,” Wynonna snarks back. She tilts her head grumpily at Nicole. “Go home, Haught shot. You’re not even an officer of the law anymore.”

“Technically, she’s been on sabbatical,” says a new voice behind all of them. Nicole whirls on her heel and finds Nedley and his mustache behind her, looking as grizzled and slightly tired as ever.

“For three years?” Wynonna asks in disbelief.

Nedley remains unruffled. “I never got a resignation letter.”

Dolls checks his Glock and snugs it in the holster at his hip. “We really don’t have time to discuss this. Haught, you’re coming or you’re not coming. Wynonna, let’s go.” Nicole doesn’t miss the slight nod Dolls tips towards her as he leaves, though.

Nedley heaves himself over to the gun safe, punching in the combination and pulling out a Smith & Wesson and a loaded magazine, the same model as Nicole’s old service weapon. “Ordered this just in case. I know you liked it,” Nedley says. He digs in a box next to the safe and comes up with a clip-on leather holster, handing them both to Nicole. “Go on. Be safe. And stop being a stranger.”

Nicole squeezes his shoulder before making sure the gun’s safety is on, loading it, and jamming it and the holster onto the waist of her jeans. She turns and runs out, just barely catching up to Dolls and Wynonna as they get into his SUV. “What’s the situation?” she asks.

“Disturbance reported off of Main Street,” Dolls says. “Sounds like at least one fatality, possibly more. Witness said they heard animal sounds.”

“Animals aren’t typically roaming the streets downtown at night, not even in Purgatory,” Wynonna says. She cranes around in her seat, looking at Nicole in the seat behind Dolls. “Sure you’re up for this?”

“No, but I told Waverly I’d look after you,” Nicole says. Hurriedly, she pulls out her cell phone and fires off a text to Waverly, keeping her updated. The phone rings almost immediately. “Waves?”

“Put me on speakerphone.”

Nicole obeys, holding the phone out so it’s between her, Wynonna, and Dolls. “You’re on speaker,” she says.

Wynonna. Earp. Whatever you’re doing, it had better not be dangerous,” Waverly says in a tone so sharp that if Nicole had been at the wheel she probably would have stomped on the brakes.

“Everything’s fine baby girl, just gonna take care of a noise disturbance,” Wynonna says back, too loudly.

“Bullshit you are! We’re supposed to be done with all this. You run off with Peacemaker and expect me to believe everything is fine?” Waverly barely pauses for a breath. “Dolls, I know you’re there. Pull over the car right now and let Wynonna out. She’s done enough killing for you.”

His jaw clenches, eyes on the road, hands gripping the steering wheel in rigid position. “This is the job, Waverly,” he says, and continues driving.

“Wynonna-”

“Sorry baby girl, we’re going through a tunnel, bye.” Wynonna taps at the red end call button before Nicole can pull the phone away, leaving her gaping.

“You know I’m the one who’s gonna get in trouble for that?” Nicole asks, remembering the last time Wynonna abruptly hung up on Waverly using her phone.

“Just tell her Aphrodite made you do it,” Wynonna says dismissively. “Now buckle up. I know it was all wine and cheese in France, but it’s still serious as shit here.”

*

The scene behind the bar is grisly. Nicole doesn’t recognize it; someone opened up a new watering hole about a block down from Shorty’s, and judging from the muted bass thump she can hear in the alley out back, it’s hopping even on a Wednesday night. There were a couple of other new storefronts when they rolled down Main, signs that life continued without them, even while Wynonna’s war against the curse raged.

The body is half hidden by a dumpster, already taped off and draped with a coroner’s white cloth. A few looky-loos linger at the end of the alley, but most of them seem to have drifted back into the bar. Just another night in Purgatory. Nicole hears Dolls telling the deputy on scene to just say suspected mugging gone wrong for now. She crouches down by the head of the body and gingerly uses two fingers to lift the cloth. The instincts, the training, it comes back to her in a slow roll, telling her what to look for, how to assess the damage to the body, how to index the scene around her. It is most definitely not a mugging gone wrong.

Wynonna crouches next to her, her phone out with the flashlight on. “Ugh,” she says as the light glints off of blood and exposed muscles and organs.

“What do you think?” Nicole asks, even though she’s wondering if maybe Waverly should have come after all, with her encyclopedic knowledge of supernatural baddies.

Before Wynonna can answer, there’s the sounds of multiple boots on pavement, followed by slightly raised voices at Dolls’ end of the alley. Nicole and Wynonna both get to their feet, re-draping the body and looking at this new commotion.

“Every time,” Wynonna mutters. She plasters a fake smile on her face and walks up next to Dolls. “Late again as usual, boys.”

Three men wearing the emblem of the Purgatory fire department on their dark shirts are right at the edge of the crime scene tape. One of them stands out in front, obviously the leader, and Nicole thinks he looks a bit familiar but she can’t quite call up his name. Maybe he was there the day they expelled Mikshun from Waverly, or more likely than not she met him during any one of several police and fire calls. He smirks at Wynonna before his eyes track to Nicole, widening slightly in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” Wynonna says, drifting just a bit so that her body is in between Nicole and the interlopers.

“Last I checked, you didn’t have exclusive rights to demon hunting in this town,” the leader says. His smirk twists into something far more grim. “And maybe we have a vested interest in this one.”

Nicole is expecting some kind of cutting remark, a quick double barrel blast of sarcasm, but instead Wynonna just stands aside and lifts the tape, allowing the leader to duck under. Wynonna still drops the tape between him and his boys and he holds up a forestalling hand, keeping them where they are, before slowly approaching the body. He kneels down just as Nicole did and lifts the sheet, taking a single, hard look at the face. When the sheet drops and he stands, his own face is emotionless. “That’s Kenneth. He’s one of ours.”

Wynonna’s mouth is a grimly sympathetic line. “Sorry.”

He tilts his head minutely, an acknowledgment of the sentiment, and then his jaw works a few times.

“I’ll send you copies of the coroner’s report,” Wynonna says. Nicole has so many questions but she’s far out of her depth, and so she just watches the exchange. He nods again and walks back to his boys, one of whom has his head down, hands in his pockets. The other claps him on the back, a comforting gesture, and after the leader ducks the tape again, the three of them disappear into the night.

“I thought we hated the Order,” Nicole says, her voice low just in case they’re still in earshot.

“We used to, but, uh, we ran a little thin on allies about a year back and since then we’ve come to an…understanding,” Wynonna says. “They’re a little more discerning about how they hunt, and we don’t shut them out entirely. And ever since Dolls flambéed most of their leadership, cooler heads have prevailed. So to speak.”

Nicole settles back on her heels a bit. “Wow.”

“Yeah. Broken curse isn’t the only thing different about Purgatory,” Wynonna says. She glances one last time at the body. “Whatever did this, it’s probably been scared off by now. We might as well just wait for the coroner’s report and Jeremy’s research.”

“I thought it was an emergency,” Nicole says.

“At the time Dolls called, it could have been,” Wynonna says, unapologetic.

Nicole can feel something tightening at her temples, a pull that wants to be a headache or a foul mood. But it’s the wrong place, wrong time, so she waits until they’re back at the station, Dolls dropping them off and leaving once Wynonna gives him a subtle nod. Nicole trudges along in Wynonna’s wake, ignoring Lonnie’s blatant staring as she follows Wynonna into the Black Badge office and shuts the door tightly. Her gun is unloaded, returned to its shelf in the safe, before she begins to choose her words.

“Wynonna,” Nicole says, watching her close up the safe and lock it.

“Sure you don’t wanna keep your gun?” Wynonna asks, interrupting. Perhaps sensing this conversation is headed for another argument.

“No, and I think you need a better place for Peacemaker too,” Nicole says.

“Not really a lot of time to unlock a safe when someone invades your home,” Wynonna says, a mix of earnestness and sarcasm making her voice pitch weirdly. She wants it to be a joke, Nicole can tell, but it’s too real, too serious. She can see how hard Wynonna is struggling to be Wynonna, the person they left behind three years ago, but the years have been too long and too hard and too lonesome. Confronted with someone in pain, Nicole’s heart can’t help but soften a little.

“Wynonna, I know you would have never sent us the all clear if you thought there was even a chance Alice would be in danger coming home. You don’t have to sleep with Peacemaker under your pillow anymore,” Nicole says.

Wynonna’s lips thin to a sharp line for a moment and a few breaths come and go. “I guess,” she starts slowly, fighting back whatever angry response came first to her tongue. “I guess I could requisition a safe.”

“There’s a lot of models you can open quickly,” Nicole says encouragingly. For a moment she could be back in one of the department-sponsored gun safety seminars, trying to encourage a bunch of reluctant wannabe cowboys not to shoot their own nuts off. “Biometrics. Fingerprint locks, that sort of thing.”

Wynonna grunts that she’s heard but doesn’t say another word on her way out of the station and back to her truck. Nicole allows herself a small sigh, relieved at least that Wynonna didn’t totally bite her head off, and fires off a text to Waverly that they’re both coming home.

*

Whatever peace Nicole had at the station evaporates as soon as she sets foot over the threshold of the homestead. She was only a couple of minutes behind Wynonna but already she and Waverly are in a heated discussion.

“-because the revenants are gone doesn’t mean my responsibility to the whole damn world ends!” Wynonna is saying loudly in the kitchen. Too loudly, because as soon as Nicole looks up, she can see Alice perched at the top of the steps, curled up in her pajamas with her face pressed to the slats of the railing. Nicole rushes up to Alice, one hand reaching out to smooth back her hair and trail down to her back. “Baby girl, what are you doing up so late?” she asks.

Alice just ducks her head as they both hear Waverly come back, fainter but just as fierce. “What was the point of it all if you’re just going to have to keep chasing after monsters?”

“Okay, I got you,” Nicole says, hooking both hands under Alice’s armpits to hoist her into a carry. Alice buries her head against Nicole’s shoulder, arms automatically wrapping loosely around her neck, and allows herself to be carried back to her bed. Nicole lays her down as gently as she’s ever done, the back of one finger caressing her cheek before pulling up the covers. “I’ll be right back, okay? I’m sorry it was too loud.” She keeps a reassuring smile on her face until she’s out of Alice’s room, and then she silently storms her way down to the kitchen.

Wynonna whirls around as she hears Nicole enter. “And I suppose you’ve got some tips on all the ways my life is too dangerous to be trusted around my daughter,” she snaps.

“I came down to suggest that if you just have to have this fight now, you take it out of the house,” Nicole whispers harshly. “You woke up Alice.”

Waverly appears immediately stricken and Wynonna looks up at the ceiling, as though she can peer through it and find Alice. “I-” Wynonna starts.

“Outside,” Nicole demands again, as stridently as she can while keeping her voice down. She waits until the door shuts behind both of them to return to Alice, now clutching her stuffed dragon and curled up with her back against the wall. It’s not that she and Waverly never argued in France, but they were scrupulous about not doing it in front of Alice. Waverly’s childhood had seen too many fights for her to ever be comfortable doing the same in front of her own child. But the sudden stress of tonight, Wynonna’s disappearing act – they’re all off balance.

“Hi,” Nicole says. “Still can’t sleep?”

Alice shakes her head, although she uncurls somewhat as Nicole sits down on the edge of her bed.

It takes four chapters of A Wrinkle in Time and a promise to take Alice to see some “horsies” before she manages to drop off again. Nicole creeps carefully downstairs, hypersensitive to any noise that could bother Alice, and makes her way out to the barn, where she knows both sisters will be.

Wynonna is flat on her back on the bed, legs dangling at the knee, while Waverly sits on the ground with her back propped against a haybale. A half-empty whiskey bottle rests not far from one of Wynonna’s hands.

“She okay?” Waverly asks.

“I got her to sleep again. But she negotiated a visit to a farm tomorrow,” Nicole says.

“Waverly’s horse phase started when she was five,” Wynonna says from her prone position.

Nicole lowers herself to the haybale next to Waverly, one hand squeezing her shoulder. Waverly reaches up, covering Nicole’s hand and squeezing back. They’ve all cooled off by now, leaving three tired people in a barn with a problem. There’s silence for a minute, just the muted sounds of a distant coyote bark drifting through the open door. Waverly’s head drifts, cheek resting on Nicole’s thigh.

Wynonna heaves herself into a sitting position. She holds up the bottle, sloshing it a few times to get Nicole’s attention, before chucking it underhand. Nicole cradles it in a catch and takes a good swig, eyes watering as she sets the bottle by Waverly’s head.

“I didn’t really catch your whole argument,” Nicole says, watching both sisters carefully. Maybe they got the yelling out of their system, but if she knows anything about Earp women, it’s that there’s always more yelling in the reservoir if they need it.

“Waverly thinks I shouldn’t go running off into danger every time Dolls is on the phone,” Wynonna says, sarcasm dulled by fatigue. She sounds as though she almost agrees, as if maybe she’s waiting to be talked out of it.

“You deserve to rest now,” Waverly says.

Wynonna snorts, eyes focused on the scratchy bedspread.

“You didn’t ask for the curse. You didn’t ask for any of this. You’ve done more than anyone had the right to ask of you,” Waverly insists.

“I could probably say the same for you,” Wynonna says through a suspiciously thick voice. “For the both of you.”

“Wynonna,” Nicole says, gentle but not too gentle. Wynonna has always been suspicious of the gentle treatment. “Do you want to keep dealing with…you know, with the kind of problems that happen in Purgatory?”

A full-bodied snort this time, shoulders rippling once. “If I don’t, who will? Those idiots in the Order?”

“That’s not really an answer,” Nicole says.

“Well it’s what I’ve got,” Wynonna says, some sharpness coming back to her voice, back beginning to stiffen.

“Hey,” Waverly says. She gets to her feet and sits next to Wynonna on the edge of the bed. “Just take a few days and think about this. Really think about this. I’m not asking you to go full frilly apron housewife, okay? I’m just saying there’s more to life than shooting and explosions and always worrying about the next fight. And you get to think about what you want now. Okay?”

“Yeah, okay. Whatever,” Wynonna says. But she slings an arm around Waverly’s shoulders anyway.

“We all need sleep,” Nicole says. Waverly and Wynonna walk ahead of her, Waverly holding on to the hand dangling over her shoulder, keeping them close. Inside, Waverly excuses herself to check on Alice while Nicole gets ready for bed, and when she finally slides under the covers and switches off the bedside lamp, she immediately settles into Nicole’s arms.

“I think she’s gonna be okay,” Nicole says, lips muffled against the crown of Waverly’s head. She doesn’t know if she entirely believes it yet, but it’s what they both need to hear right now.

*

Wynonna is quiet for the next couple of days. She remains idly affectionate with Alice, always ready with an encouraging pat or a high five, but she doesn’t say much. Alice herself is much revitalized by her visit to a ranch about a half hour away, happily feeding chickens, petting an enormous pig, and posing for pictures on top of a very patient, very still pony.

Nicole composes and deletes several resignation letters for Quentin. And Waverly – she doesn’t exactly brood. But if Wynonna is quiet, then Waverly is thoughtful. She’s bright and engaging around Alice and loving with Nicole, but on her own she seems to be contemplating a problem the rest of them can’t comprehend.

Nedley comes calling two days after their run-in at the station. He doffs his hat politely at the door, offering Waverly a whiskery smile before crouching to be at eye level with Alice, still somewhat hidden behind Waverly’s leg, but starting to adjust to new people in this town wanting to greet her. “Hello miss. I’m Sheriff Randy Nedley,” he says.

“I’m Alice,” she says, and they shake hands formally.

“Nicole,” Nedley says, straightening with an almost audible creaking of bones. “I was hoping I could speak to you in private for a moment.”

Nicole exchanges glances with Waverly and gets an encouraging nod, so she leads Nedley out to the barn. A quick visual check reassures her Wynonna isn’t in here being quiet with her bottle of whiskey before she gestures to Nedley to go first.

“No getting around it, so I’ll just come out and say it.” Nedley tucks his stetson firmly on his head. “I’d like you back at work again, if you’re staying.”

Nicole smiles wistfully. “If I knew we were staying, I’d say yes.”

“You don’t know yet,” Nedley says, more a confirming statement than a question.

“It’s…everything is still kind of confusing.”

Nedley’s hands go to his utility belt. “Well, I can’t say that I don’t understand. But you have a place in the department, if that’s what you want. I’ve been trying to train up another replacement, but quite frankly, he wouldn’t make as good a sheriff as you.”

Nicole has to look at the ground to try and control the swell of gratitude and guilt within her. “I’m-”

“You don’t have to be sorry. Not for doing what’s right,” Nedley says.

Nicole swallows and when she looks up at Nedley, his mouth is set with kindness. “Things chance when you have a child,” he says, the understanding of someone who found himself at the same crossroads as her once.

“Chrissy seems proud of you,” Nicole says.

It’s Nedley’s turn to go eyes to ground in embarassment. “Well, I don’t exactly know about that. But her old man tries his best.”

They stand there, sheriff and one-time apprentice, enjoying each other’s presence. “Was it bad?” Nicole asks, not wanting to break the good mood but needing to know. “The years we were gone. Was it that bad?”

Nedley rubs the back of his neck. “We survived,” he says.

“Randy.” She’s never used his given name to his face before and it feels strange coming out of her mouth but it’s all she has to plead with.

He nods once, chin tucked nearly to his chest. “Yeah. It was bad.” But then he looks up with a squint to his eyes and hopeful sort of twist to his mouth. “In my experience, family can help. I’m not saying Wynonna won’t have to do some work. But family helps.”

“Okay,” Nicole says. She offers Nedley her hand and they shake, not quite a promise, but definitely not a goodbye.

“What did Nedley want?” Waverly asks when Nicole returns to the house.

“Just to talk,” Nicole says vaguely, still wanting to think on his offer.

“Any update on the…” Waverly glances at Alice, reading on the couch, then back at Nicole. “Thing from the other night?”

“No, not yet. He just wanted to see how we’re getting along.”

They both know that Nicole isn’t telling Waverly the full truth, but Waverly is willing to let it slide so Nicole can have some mental space, at least for a little while. Waverly’s probably already guessed at it anyway. Nicole touches Waverly’s wrist, pulling her along into the kitchen, where she makes as if to get a pitcher of sweet tea out of the fridge and pour herself a glass. But she leaves the pitcher and empty glass on the table.

“What is it?” Waverly asks, still letting Nicole’s fingers wrap loosely around her wrist.

“Before…before everything. Before you knew about the curse for sure and Wynonna came back and you started handling Purgatory’s special problems, did you think about raising a family here?” Nicole asks.

Waverly looks at her softly, grasping her other hand as they stand face to face. “You know I dreamed about leaving every day.”

“You don’t think…” Nicole ducks her head. “Is it selfish to want to keep Alice away from all of this? To not have to talk in code around her and worry that one day one of us might not…”

Waverly pulls her a few inches closer. “No baby, I don’t think that’s selfish at all.”

Nicole lets her head drop all the way to Waverly’s shoulder, feeling a delicate hand slide into her hair from the nape of her neck. Waverly holds her and she holds Waverly until they’re both a little steadier. One hand cups her cheek, holding Nicole’s attention on Waverly’s face. “But if coming back here has reminded me of one thing, it’s that we can’t hide from the world forever,” Waverly says.

“It doesn’t have to be all one or the other, does it?” Nicole asks, half-hoping Waverly will have the answer already. She pulls away so she can slip into one of the kitchen chairs, not wanting to be on her feet for the moment. “There’s something between you-know-whats in Purgatory and living halfway around the world. You told Wynonna she’s done enough. Her life can be different now.”

Waverly eschews a chair and slides onto Nicole’s lap, arms going around her shoulders. “Maybe I overreacted a little bit.”

“A bit,” Nicole concedes, even though she also wants Waverly to agree that the demon-fighting lifestyle just doesn’t fit in their family anymore. “Nedley offered me my job back.”

Waverly doesn’t look the least surprised. “What’d you say?”

“Said I needed some time to think about it.”

Waverly lets strands of Nicole’s hair fall through her fingers a few times. “You’d be good for Purgatory.”

“Is Purgatory good for us anymore?” Nicole says. She can’t hide the slight tremor through her words, the deep uncertainty that has them both barely treading water.

“I don’t know,” Waverly admits. “You had a point when you said this place is too small for me. I saw myself growing old here before Wynonna came back, but it was always a tragedy in my mind, you know? Even after I met you, I still thought, man, one day we’re gonna have adventures all over the world.”

Nicole smiles, quietly delighted by the admission. “You thought about us having adventures together?”

“There might have been a lot of beaches involved,” Waverly says with just enough sass to paint a vivid picture for Nicole.

Nicole delivers a little pinch to Waverly’s hip, earning a squirm and a squeeze in return. It’s a little balm in the middle of their troubles, a reminder of who they are to each other. It’s not enough to be entirely reassuring, but at least they’re together. If she has to believe one thing, then she believes that will always be enough.