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Chapter Text

“You feeling okay?”

 

“I don’t know what you want me to say to that, Wynonna.”

 

“M’sorry, Waves. I wanted to be there.”

 

“I know. It’s fine, it’s not your fault. You would have hated it anyway. Everyone was there, even the stupid tomato patch looked sad , and Old Eleonora made me eat her potato salad.”

 

“Was Gus… you know. Was she… mad?”

 

“You know Gus.”

 

“Wesh’d… We should help her out this year. Be there for the summer.”

 

“… Wynonna, are you drunk right now?”

 

“God bless duty-free.”

 

***

 

The end of June came with a promise of warmer days being right around the corner; even with the wind blowing scattered clouds across the sky high up above, temperatures were climbing from day to day. For Waverly, the true beginning of summer came with the crunch of gravel beneath her tires, the feeling of her Camp Purgatory shirt on her skin, and a 2000s hit blasting from the speakers. She’d forgotten how much it felt like coming home.

 

It was almost noon when Camp Purgatory came into view, a village of tents surrounding a large wooden building labelled Homestead in bold black letters. It stood against the backdrop of the mountains in the distance, rising from the forest at their feet, imposing and beautiful with their white crests in the morning sun. The dark blue and orange Camp Purgatory flag was waving high atop the flagpole in front.

 

Waverly felt something in her chest loosen at the sight. This had been her summer home for sixteen years; twelve as a camper, then junior counselor, then counselor.

 

To the left of the camp was the lake, glistening and still except for where the wind drove little waves into its surface. A few rowing boats sat by the dock, bobbing slightly, and the sturdy masts for cable skiing stood where they always had, reminding Waverly of the masses of shrieking children that would soon populate the camp.

 

The entire place was buzzing with maintenance crews as they were assembling camp beds, dressing the skeleton cabins with white, washed-out canvas, and unloading truckloads of supply crates. Down on the sports grounds to the far right, a lone figure was running laps – Waverly briefly wondered who would have the leisure time to go jogging right now.

 

Amongst the assortment of cars parked outside, Waverly spotted a rusty blue truck: Wynonna’s. With a flourish, Waverly parked her Jeep next to it and honked the horn twice, like her sister used to do whenever she rolled up at Gus and Curtis’s house. She didn’t expect anyone to take notice, but by the time Waverly had hopped out of the car, pulled on a sweater jacket against the chill, and retrieved her bag from the passenger seat, Wynonna was already strolling towards her.

 

She looked better, was Waverly’s first thought. Maybe it was the fact that she was eating an apple, and Waverly wasn’t sure if she had ever seen her voluntarily consume vitamins, but she felt like Wynonna looked healthier. Less thin, less… ragged. At the same time, the lines of her face had grown sharper. The bags under her eyes were still there, and... well, maybe she looked a little more serious.

 

Pulling one hand from the pocket of her leather jacket to shield her eyes against the sun, Wynonna smirked. “Hey, sis,” she called, paused, and made a gesture with her hands. “You grew out your... hair!”

 

Yeah. Still the same. Laughing, Waverly rolled her eyes.

 

“It’s been three years , Wynonna, God. Is that all you have to say?”

 

Waverly pulled her into a hug, and didn’t let go even when Wynonna stiffened for a moment before returning the embrace. Her voice sounded a little off when she spoke.

 

“Jeez, baby girl. We have all summer. There’s plenty of time to get mushy later. Come on,” she added, pulling away a little awkwardly, “Gus is waiting. And I have a surprise for you.”

 

*

 

Nicole had been driving for an hour, and Jeremy had yet to stop talking. It was a little exhausting, but Nicole didn’t mind too much, because it meant that her other passenger, Rosita, was occupied discussing the science behind luminescent water bugs with him.

 

Rosita and Jeremy’s flights had been too late for the shuttle from Calgary to camp, and Gus had asked Nicole to pick them up on her way through town – in return for the giant exception Gus was making for her. It was a pretty good deal, because even if Jeremy couldn’t shut up to save his life, everything he had to say was actually pretty interesting, and Rosita had a gift for combining science talk with scathing humor or insightful wisdom.

 

Nicole herself didn’t feel much like talking, but with every passing kilometer, the pressure on her chest seemed to ease. Seven weeks of camp lay before her. She was going to work under the open sky all day, and sleep like a stone each night, far away from the city. Far away from any city.

 

“Hey, Nicole,” Rosita interrupted her thoughts from the passenger seat, “you’ve been a counselor at this camp before, right?”

 

She nodded. “Last year.”

 

“So you already know lots of people.”

 

Thinking back to last summer, Nicole suppressed a grimace. “I know some. I wasn’t in a great place last year, so I didn’t make a lot of friends.”

 

Rosita frowned, but thankfully, Jeremy jumped in before she had a chance to ask any further questions Nicole wouldn’t answer anyway.

 

“I saw they have a no screens rule that applies to counselors, too. How strict are they about that whole thing? Because going that long without the internet…”

 

Jeremy made a yikes face, and Nicole gave him a look through the rearview mirror.

 

“Very strict, I’m afraid. Sorry, bud.”

 

Pouting a little, Jeremy leaned back in his seat. “As strict as they are about pets not being allowed?”

 

Hunter, Nicole’s Border Collie, looked up from his space in between two seats in the back as if he could feel that he was being talked about.

 

Nicole shrugged. “Probably.”

 

*


Waverly inhaled deeply when she stepped over the threshold of the Homestead and into the gigantic mess hall.

 

There were some things from her childhood that Waverly never thought about until she encountered them again, like that one Daddy Yankee song, or glitter pens. The way the Homestead smelled was one of those things: like chlorinated water, citrus and pine, and freshly baked bread. Beyond the mess hall was the kitchen and the laundry room, and behind that, accessible from the other side of the house, the showers.

 

Wynonna took Waverly’s bag and let her lead the way between the chairs and tables towards where their aunt was standing. She was in deep conversation with John Henry, who had been the camp nurse for as long as Waverly could remember (and yet didn’t seem to look any different today than when Waverly was a kid), and Xavier, one of the other counselors. Xavier was three years older than Wynonna, and was well-known as one of the stricter authority figures around camp.

 

(Waverly had seen him with insecure or homesick children, and his cool demeanor didn’t fool her.)

 

Both men were practically family, but she hadn’t seen them in ages.

 

She was thrilled to see them, and flat-out ignored Xavier’s attempt to shake her hand in order to hug him; Doc slung one arm around her shoulders so hard she took an involuntary step forward. Gus took her by the jaw and looked her right in the eye as if she was giving her soul a once-over. She patted Waverly’s cheek a moment later, so her soul seemed to be fine.

 

“Glad to have you back on board, Waverly,” John Henry drawled, with a smile peeking out from under his moustache. “I thought the year before last was supposed to be your last ride on this carnival.”

 

Waverly shrugged. “Well, Doc, seems like I can’t stay away.”

 

“None of us can,” Wynonna added dryly. “It’s the Earp family curse.”

 

Gus snorted, and Waverly was about to comment on this when a voice behind her said: “Oh. You’re already here.”

 

Waverly’s blood ran cold.

 

She turned around; next to her, Wynonna was laughing quietly.

 

“Surprise!” she said, and then leaned forward to mumble into Waverly’s ear. “You should see your face right now. It’s priceless. Not as good as Gus, though. She dropped her beer when we got here last night.”

 

Waverly barely heard her.

 

In the doorway stood Willa. Older now -- not a gangly, angry teenager anymore -- but unmistakably the oldest Earp sister.

 

“Hey,” Waverly said, stupidly. “What are you doing here?”

 

Willa, clad in running clothes – so it had been her on the tracks earlier, Waverly’s brain supplied – crossed the room to retrieve a bottle of water from the lunch counter.

 

“The same as you. I’m going to be a camp counselor again.” She sauntered closer, and although she was smiling, there was an edge to her voice that Waverly remembered distinctly. “Are you not going to say hello?”

 

Feeling a little numb, Waverly took a step towards Willa, and looped an arm around her.

 

“Sorry,” she said, not feeling much of anything. “I’m just so… surprised. It’s been… a while.”

 

Hugging Willa was like embracing a metal pole. Her eldest sister pulled back quickly. “Just about. I’ve been away.”

 

Wynonna snorted. “Away as in, in jail . Didn’t call us once, can you believe that?”

 

“No,” Waverly replied flatly, but if Willa was uncomfortable with this being brought up, she didn’t let it show on her face.

 

Instead, she just clapped her hands together and pursed her lips. “Are we going to get something done today?”

 

For a moment, everyone was quiet, until Gus cleared her throat. “Wynonna, go help Shorty in the kitchen. Xavier, you’re coming to the office with me. I need to give you the lists. Waverly, go check with maintenance if they’re done with the units, and— Willa, you can go get changed and then distribute water bottles…”

 

*

 

By the time Nicole finally steered her Defender onto the gravel parking lot in front of the camp, the sun was high and beating down. Hunter jumped out of the car the second Jeremy cracked the door open, and immediately began chasing some flying bug as they unloaded the trunk. It wasn’t long until they made their way towards the main house, humidity rising out of the grass below their feet. The air smelled like grass, and a little bit like the canvas of the tents that had been packed away all year.

 

Someone had hung a sign on the door that said Welcome ♥, and Nicole didn’t think it had been there the year before. Nicole let Hunter drink from a faucet by the side of the house and made him wait in the shade.

 

“Well then, here’s to our summer adventure,” Rosita commented dryly when they walked in and saw the long line of people waiting to register.

 

The guy behind the makeshift counter – it was actually just the lunch table furthest away from the door – seemed faintly familiar to Nicole. He had a serious face and an efficient manner about him. Xander, his name was, if she remembered correctly. No, Xavier.

 

It took almost half an hour, but eventually, it was her turn.

 

“Name?”

 

“Nicole Haught.”

 

She watched his pen travel down the side of his clipboard. He flipped a page.

 

“Have you been a counselor here before, Nicole?” he asked conversationally, but didn’t wait for an answer. “Ah, here you are. You’re staying in unit—68.” He smiled a private smile when he saw the number, which confused Nicole, and handed her a map and a list of camp rules as well as a name tag. “Please don’t hesitate to address me if you have any questions. Orientation is in half an hour, dinner is at seven. Next!”

 

As she wandered away, Nicole checked her map.

 

She groaned. 68 was in the last row behind the house – pretty far away from everything. Maybe that’s why Xavier had smiled. What a dick.

 

“Hey, Nicole, you know who you are bunking with yet? Wait, can you help me figure out this map? You’ve been here before. I’d ask my tent-mate, but I’m sleeping with Xavier, and he’s busy right now. Oh man, of course I don’t mean sleeping with him. I just mean, we’re sharing a tent. Unit. Not that I’d mind. I mean, not that I want to, but he’s a very attractive guy, and—“

 

Nicole sighed, and laughed, and pulled the hood of Jeremy’s sweatshirt over his head, which thankfully cut off his rambling.

 

“Come on, I’ll show you.”

 

*

 

In the early evening, several buses had arrived and spat hundreds of children between the ages of seven and seventeen onto the camp grounds.

 

It had been madness as usual, and with the combined effort of counselors and more experienced campers, everyone had been herded into the mess hall, where sleeping arrangements, activity schedules, and all other formalities were taken care of.

 

Watching the crowd, Waverly had sat on the staircase at the back of the room. It led upstairs, where a conference room, storage, and the offices of the nurse and director were located.

 

There were a lot of familiar faces, and a lot she didn’t know. She knew she wasn’t supposed to have favorites, and she didn’t, technically, but there was one girl in particular she was glad to discover at a table to the right of the room: a lively girl in a mint green shirt. Her name was Madison, and she had been a new camper in Waverly’s second year as a counselor. Waverly remembered her being clever and eager for knowledge, but a little too glad to be away from home for seven weeks. When Madison discovered her, she gave a wide grin and waved with her whole arm. Waverly waved back.

 

Dinner was had, and eventually, the mess hall cleared out as everyone went to search for their units and explore the camp before curfew.

 

Waverly was on her way upstairs to get her bag from the office when, suddenly, someone shrieked . She turned around just in time to catch a solid body crashing into her.

 

You’re here! ” Chrissy Nedley all but screeched into her ear. She pulled back, only to swat Waverly across the torso. “I thought you’d be… backpacking in Europe right now, or something! Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” Chrissy was squeezing the life out of her again.

 

“Because I was really looking forward to you yelling and hitting me?” Waverly joked, but she hugged back gratefully. Chrissy had been one of her best friends for ages, but she hadn’t been in touch with her as often as she’d meant to over the past year.

 

They snuck off into the office together.

 

“I thought I saw Wynonna earlier. Is she here, too?” Chrissy wanted to know, dropping onto the old, worn-out leather couch in the corner. Waverly sunk into the chair behind the desk and let her fingers trail over the cracks in the arm rests.

 

“Yeah,” she replied, a little late and without looking at Chrissy. “It was her idea for us to come back after…”

 

“After Curtis died,” Chrissy finished for her, voice soft. “I’m so sorry, Waves. And I’m sorry I couldn’t make it, I was in the middle of exams when I heard… My dad said it was a beautiful ceremony. I don’t think he mentioned either of your sisters being there…”

 

Waverly shook her head absently. “Wynonna tried to come over from Athens, but she got stuck. There was a blizzard in Reykjavík, and they cancelled her connecting flight. We were talking on the phone, and we promised each other we’d come back here this summer. I didn’t think she’d actually do it, but... well,” she raised her shoulders and smiled, “here we are.”

 

Chrissy smiled back. “It’ll be just like old times, then.”

 

Looking around the office that had once been her uncle’s, Waverly let herself think about Curtis for the first time since her arrival. The office chair she was sitting in still smelled like his cologne; she didn’t know how Gus would bear it every day.

 

“Well,” she said loudly, swallowing past the lump in her throat. “Maybe not just like old times.”

 

When Chrissy’s face softened in sympathy, she added: “Wynonna brought Willa.”

 

That earned her a shocked look. “Excuse me? Could you repeat that, because I think I just heard you say that Willa is here.”

 

Waverly shrugged. “Yeah. Apparently she recently got out of jail. I think she was in for stealing something, which we didn’t even know about. and needed a job. She contacted Wynonna, and Wynonna talked Gus into letting her work here again.”

 

Letting out a slow breath, Chrissy sank back against the couch. “Phew. That’s going to be interesting.”

 

“Yeah.” Waverly got to her feet. “Come on, Nedley. Let’s go find our units. Maybe we’re bunking together? Just like old times?”

 

Her friend groaned, but got up, too. “Unfortunately, we’re not. I already know I got Steph . I’m telling you right now, Earp, never crush on the same guy as your tent-mate, because if you’re really unlucky, your tent-mate will be a bitch and make your life living hell forever.”

 

“Duly noted.”

 

*

 

Nicole had taken Hunter for a walk around the lake after dinner, and it had ended up being a longer trek than she had anticipated. By the time she got back, the tents in the last row were aglow with the orange light of the slowly setting sun, and Nicole could see someone moving inside unit 68 – her new tent-mate, presumably. She approached nervously; hopefully whoever it was would be okay with Hunter.

 

Nicole startled a little when a sharp hiss and a small scream came from inside the unit just as she pulled back the flap of canvas.

 

By the small table at the far end of the platform-tent stood a woman, bathed in the warm light of the late evening sun that made the waves of long hair flowing over her shoulders look soft and golden.

 

She was tiny, and pretty muscular, and she looked far too graceful for someone whose water bottle had evidently just exploded all over her.

 

“I didn’t know Purgatory had wet T-shirt competitions,” Nicole heard herself say, and immediately rolled her eyes at herself. Well done, Nicole . She moved quickly to her cot, reaching for her bag to get her tent-mate a towel, who accepted it gratefully before setting down the dripping water bottle on the floor.

 

“I keep telling Shorty to switch to still water. It tastes better, and doesn’t give you involuntary showers,” she muttered. She dried off her hand and held it out. “I’m Waverly. Hi.”

 

Nicole took it. “I’m Nicole. Nicole Haught.”

 

Maybe it was the light, or the effects of the swift walk she had just taken, but when they shook hands and Waverly smiled at her, Nicole suddenly felt warm.

 

“Hi,” Waverly said again.

 

A little too late, Nicole realized they were still shaking hands, and quickly stepped back to reveal her dog, who was currently sniffing the pocket of her bag where he knew she kept treats.

 

“Oh, and – this is Hunter. I had to bring him when the person who was supposed to take care of him cancelled pretty last minute; I’m afraid you’re sharing your tent with two others this year, I hope that’s alright… with… you…”

 

Nicole trailed off when she realized that Waverly was no longer listening, but instead solely focused on Hunter. She held out the hand that wasn’t holding Nicole’s towel to let him sniff it, and then, when he faintly wagged his tail, began to idly pet him.

 

“Of course it’s alright with me,” Waverly murmured, more to the dog than to Nicole. “Who wouldn’t be? Hm?”

 

Hunter, being his most charming self, dropped to the floor and let Waverly scratch his belly, his hind legs kicking slightly to keep from rolling over in either direction.

 

Nicole rolled her eyes at him fondly, and waited until Waverly, with a final pat to Hunter’s ribs, got up again.

 

She was standing a little closer than before, still clutching the towel to her chest.

 

“Hey, are you still thirsty?” Nicole asked, going for casual. “Because I saw some folks getting together by the fire pit. I was thinking about heading over there – I’m sure we could find you a still water, if you’d like to join me?”

 

“Oh, no,” Waverly said quickly, her cheeks reddening. She threw up one hand and gestured to herself. “I mean, God, look at me. I’m sopping wet. I’m gonna… get changed. But you go on ahead!”

 

She discarded the damp towel into Nicole’s hands and moved away. “Um, thanks for the towel. I’ll see you around, Nicole.”

 

She grabbed a few items from her bag as she spoke, and then she was gone.

 

Nicole stayed behind, confused.

Chapter Text

The familiar smell of her down camp pillow and the freshly starched linen of the pillowcase registered first.

 

When Waverly stirred slightly, she noticed that while the tip of her nose and the hand that wasn’t covered felt ice cold, the rest of her was comfortably warm and snug in her sleeping bag. Without opening her eyes, she rolled onto her side, burrowing deeper into her cocoon.

 

Around her, everything was quiet and still in a way that only ever occurred in the early morning and far away from the city life.

 

Waverly had missed it.

 

She loved early mornings at camp; loved taking her time to wake up slowly and still be the first one showered, dressed, and ready to seize the day.

 

Sleepily, her mind drifted back to one of her first summers, when Curtis had woken her up before six in the morning and they’d gone hiking together – or at least that’s how it had seemed to her short legs then, when in reality it had probably been more like a walk around the camp. Waverly remembered trudging across the dew-covered meadow next to her uncle, the ground fog swirling as the world brightened around them with every step.

 

Waverly frowned and swallowed. The comfortable feeling was suddenly gone.

 

Time to get up.

 

Careful so as not to wake her tent-mate, Waverly got out of bed, stretched – and paused.

 

She was alone. Nicole had neatly laid out her sleeping bag to let it air out, pushed her dog’s sheepskin bed under her cot, and neatly hung her damp towel on a makeshift clothesline that hadn’t been there the night before. There was even a pair of slightly muddy running shoes by the entrance, placed on a dirty rag in order to keep the wooden floor of the unit clean.

 

Apparently, Nicole had gone for a run, showered, tidied up, and left for breakfast all while Waverly had still been sound asleep. So much for being the first one up.

 

With a huff, Waverly grabbed her bag to get ready.

 

*

 

Randy Nedley gave her a friendly nod when Nicole joined him at the coffee table.

 

“Nicole. Milk, no sugar, if I remember correctly?”

 

She smiled widely at him, happy that he remembered. They’d already worked together the year before, and Nicole suspected that he was part of the reason why Gus had been so understanding about her situation with Hunter.

 

“That’s right. It’s good to see you again, sir.”

 

He handed her a mug and leaned against the table, giving her a gruff once-over. “Good to see you, too, kid. You look better.”

 

A little bashful, Nicole rubbed the back of her neck. “Thanks, I… I am better.”

 

And it was true; in fact, Nicole could not remember when she had last felt this good. She and Hunter had watched the day begin and color the mountainside in shades of orange and hot pink, and not once had she thought about money or paperwork or preemptive strikes.

 

“Good.” Nedley nodded. “You ready to work with me again this summer?”

 

Nicole reached behind him to snatch an apple from the bowl on the table. “Give me five minutes to finish breakfast, and I’ll be ready for anything.”

 

“I hope you plan on having more than that apple, or you won’t be much use to me after all.”

 

“I said finish breakfast – I’ve been up since five, I’ve already had two stacks of pancakes.”

 

She grinned at Nedley, and he rolled his eyes before walking off towards his own table, where Shorty was reading a newspaper and Gus was writing something down – a crossword puzzle, maybe.

 

Nicole threw her apple in the air and caught it again, reaching for the mug she had deposited on the table, when—

 

Wow , Wynonna.”

 

What , Stephanie. Misplaced your boyfriend again?”

 

“Very funny . It’s nothing; guess I’m not surprised seeing you load up your plate like this.”

 

Nicole looked around, trying to place the voices, and found Stephanie Jones standing next to a woman in an oversized Camp Purgatory sweatshirt that looked like it came straight from the nineties.

 

Now, Nicole didn’t make a habit of eavesdropping or butting into other people’s conversations, but here was the thing: she remembered Steph, and Steph was the worst . She had the uncanny ability of finding a person’s weak spot, and pressing down when they crossed her. And she was an easy person to cross – Nicole knew as much from Chrissy, Randy’s daughter, who had once been friends with Steph.

 

The woman – Wynonna – raised her eyebrows. “All these years, and the worst you’ve got is that I’m fat ? You’ve grown weak, Jones.” She continued down the line of the table.

 

Steph smiled gently, and Nicole tightened her jaw. “Oh, Wy no nna. You’re not fat, you’re haggard as always. Probably can’t afford to buy your own food. Makes sense then that you’d come here to take advantage of your aunt’s grie-“

 

Wynonna’s head whipped around at the same time as Nicole couldn’t bear it anymore.

 

“Stephanie,” she interrupted, forcing her features into an expression of pity, “how are you? Oh, how can I even ask that. Can I get you anything?”

 

Steph stared at her blankly. “What?”

 

“Oh,” Nicole bit her lip, “you must not have heard yet. Pretend I didn’t say anything.”

 

What ,” Steph repeated, her face turning red, and stormed off.

 

Wynonna stared past her before turning Nicole. “What happened?” she finally asked.

 

Nicole shrugged. “Nothing, actually. But wasn’t it fun to see her jump to conclusions?”

 

Very slowly, a grin spread on Wynonna’s face. She held out her hand. “Wynonna.”

 

“Nicole,” Nicole introduced herself, and shook it. “Steph’s mean.”

 

“That she is. Did you know that she told me to get a butt-lift once?”

 

“But your butt is top-shelf!”

 

“I know, right?”

 

*

 

When Waverly’s co-counselor, Ewan – not a bad guy at heart, but a little too in love with his own six-pack for Waverly’s taste – had taken off towards the shooting range with the more experienced campers, only about twenty kids were left; most of them first-time campers.

 

Waverly sighed inwardly when she saw the two boys at the back of the group. They seemed to be the only two who were a bit older than the others, and that did not bode well.

 

“Alright,” Waverly called and clapped her hands together. “Now, before we get you equipped, we first have to ascertain if you need a right-hand-bow or a left-hand-bow.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” one of the boys at the back – Carl , his nametag read – shouted, and grinned at her. “I’m ambidextrous. It’s very useful.” He elbowed his friend, who laughed.  

 

Waverly smiled back at him. “While I’m sure that comes in handy for you,” she shot back, “your dexterity has nothing to do with the kind of bow you need. Does anyone have an idea what it does have something to do with?”

 

She ignored Carl elbowing his friend again, this time to shut up his laughter, and instead pointed at a girl in the third row; Alana, according to her tag.

 

“If it’s nothing to do with the hands, maybe it’s something to do with the eyes? Maybe which eye we can keep closed easier without squinting with the other?”

 

Waverly beamed. “Very good, Alana. Almost. It does have something to do with the eyes – we’re going to test which one is more dominant.”

 

Carl opened his mouth to say something, but Waverly cut him short. “Carl, why don’t you come here so you can demonstrate how this works.”

 

While he made his way to the front, she took a piece of paper and punched a hole into it with her pencil.

 

“Now, what I want you to do is hold the paper at arm’s length, look through the hole in the paper, and focus on the target over there with both eyes. Got that? Now pull the paper all the way to your face swiftly, but without losing track of the target.”

 

Carl obeyed, and the class watched as he pulled it straight to his left eye. Waverly made him repeat the exercise twice more to be sure.

 

“See how that works? Carl here – skilled with his hands as he may be – needs a left-hand-bow.”

 

After she’d provided everyone with a bow that fit them, Waverly explained the importance of protective gear and how to use the bow stringer.  

 

*



Randy Nedley ran the woodshop, and Nicole loved it there. Something about the smell of sawdust, hot glue, and machine oil put her at ease. Most of the campers were quick to come up with ideas, and the shop was filled with an atmosphere of creativity and concentration.

 

Nicole let her gaze wander over the group as they were doodling and outlining and discussing their projects, and stopped at a cluster of three kids around the age of nine. They were arguing with enough intent and passion that Nicole briefly wondered if they were debating politics, or possibly the fate of the entire Northern Hemisphere.

 

“Everything alright?” she asked, approaching them.

 

They glanced up at her. Madison, apparently the girl in charge, shared a brief look with her companions. When Benny and Leo nodded at her, she slid a piece of paper over the table.

Nicole took it, and after regarding it for a moment, whistled quietly.

 

“Did you draw this?”

 

Madison yanked her thumb at Benny. “He did.”

 

Nicole gave him an impressed look. “Well done. But this is… guys, this is really elaborate. I’m not saying you can’t do it if you let us help you out a bit, but are you sure about all of the decorations?”

 

Leo nodded before she even finished. “They’re important.”

 

Rubbing the back of her neck, Nicole looked at the drawing again, and narrowed her eyes.

 

“Are those… tomatoes?”

 

“Yes,” Madison replied curtly, “they’re important, too. Are you going to help us?”

 

Nicole handed back the drawing and smiled at three expectant faces. “I’ll do my best.”

 

“There’s one more thing,” Benny said, scratching his head sheepishly. “It’s a surprise for someone. Could you not… tell anyone about it?”

 

Dear Diary, day one of summer camp: got roped into a secret woodworking project that is technically more suited for a carpenter than three children and a counselor . Nicole sighed.

 

“We might have to tell Mr. Nedley, and we’re not going to put up screens around your workbench or anything.”

 

Madison gave her a satisfied grin. “That’s okay. Just don’t tell anyone else.”

 

“Deal. Now, do you have an idea for how you want to make this part here work?”

 

Leo launched into an explanation, and for the rest of the morning, the four of them discussed their plan. Benny was indeed good at drawing, and Nicole helped him out where the technical parts were concerned. When it was time to go to lunch, they had filled several sheets with sketches and notes, and Nicole found herself touched by the idea the three had come up with, and excited to see how the project would turn out.

 

She took the long way to the Homestead, letting Hunter run for a bit after he’d spent all morning alternating between sunny and shady spots to doze in.

 

The meadows surrounding the camp were smelling of summer, and Nicole groaned when she saw swarms of mosquitoes dancing over the pasture. When she stood still for a moment, breathing in the sweet and earthy smell of drying grass, she could hear the meadow buzzing with insects. The sound of the crickets rubbing their wings together was almost deafening.

 

Before her, the sports grounds lay empty – even the slowest of campers had made it to the mess hall by now, and she had to hurry if she wanted something to eat.

 

She called for Hunter, who pretended not to hear her twice before raising his head in her direction as if to check if she was really serious about it. (She really was.)

 

Just as Nicole turned back towards the camp, she noticed something. The sports grounds were not entirely empty. Someone stood alone at the shooting range, bow in hand, re-adjusting her stance: Waverly Earp.

 

Her long hair was pulled to the back of her head in a messy bun, and she’d strapped a tight black chest guard over her turquoise yoga top. One foot on each side of the bright line on the ground, Waverly took an arrow out of the quiver that hung from her hip and loaded it onto her bow.

 

Nicole watched as she pulled a sling over her fingers, raised the bow, and drew the string back. She could see the muscles in her shoulders growing taut, the string of the bow cutting into her nose and chin. For a moment, nothing happened, and Nicole found herself holding her breath until Waverly released the string. The hand that had been drawing the string fell back to her shoulder as the bow itself tipped forward, and the arrow hit the target with an audible phlock .

 

Nicole flinched when something wet and cold touched her fingers – Hunter had caught up with her and was waiting for her to take them back to camp.

 

With one last look at Waverly, who was critically eyeing her target and adjusting her sight, she made her way back to the Homestead.

 

*



The first week of camp rushed past.

 

On Friday, Waverly let her tray of food drop onto the table with a little more noise than necessary, and fell into her chair next to Chrissy.

 

“Rough day?” Chrissy wanted to know.

 

Waverly just gave her a dark look. “I just spent an hour yelling at a sixteen-year-old idiot.”

 

“Ooh. Someone call ‘all clear’ before you again?”

 

“Nope,” Waverly stabbed a potato. “Carl Junger dry-fired his bow.”

 

Chrissy almost dropped her fork. “Fuck, is he okay?”

 

“Do you think I’d be sitting here so calmly if he wasn’t? He wasn’t drawing properly, so the bow didn’t snap, but of course I took him to Doc anyway; to scare him, if nothing else. I told him that if he ever so much as forgets to wear an arm guard again, he’s out of the class. Was that too harsh?”

 

“Was what too harsh?” Willa asked, as she and Wynonna sat down at their table.

 

“A kid in Waverly’s class dry-fired his bow, and because his own stupidity didn’t get him hurt, she told him he’s one mistake away from getting thrown out,” Chrissy filled the two of them in.

 

Willa snorted. “If that had happened in my class, the idiot would be waiting for his parents to pick him up right now.”

 

“That’s… not really my call to make,” Waverly frowned.

 

Willa rolled her eyes and opened her mouth, but Wynonna chose that moment to lean back into her chair and let out an ear-piercing whistle.

 

A few tables over, a girl hastily took her feet off the table and looked over at Wynonna sheepishly, who just raised an eyebrow and nodded.

 

“God, Earp, can you give people a warning before you do that?” Nicole, flanked by two of the new hires Waverly hadn’t had the chance to meet yet, balanced her tray in one hand and rubbed over her ear with the other.

 

Wynonna grinned up at her. “No fun in that. You guys wanna join us?”

 

“Are you sure?” Nicole looked at the other occupants of the table. Willa returned her gaze flatly, but Chrissy gave her an encouraging nod. When Nicole’s eyes fell to her, Waverly could feel her face twist into a small smile, and her fingers fluttered up from their spot on the table to wave at her.

 

Except for the few times they’d made small talk before going to bed, or greeted each other with their mouths full of toothpaste, she and Nicole hadn’t had much opportunity to talk yet. On Wednesday evening, they had both been at the fire pit; Nicole had let Doc teach her how to play Rocky Road to Dublin on the guitar while Waverly had sat just a few meters away, half-listening to Chrissy talk about her jewelry-making class.

 

“I’m Rosita,” one of Nicole’s companions introduced herself, giving an all-encompassing wave to the group before inclining her head towards her friend. “And this is Jeremy. Don’t ask him about millipedes unless you really wanna know.”

 

Chrissy laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

When the three had joined them at the table, Chrissy leaned over to Waverly.

 

“Nicole is your tent-mate, right?”

 

Waverly nodded, picking at her food while her sister joked around with the new arrivals.

 

“How are you getting along?”

 

“Nicole is fine,” Waverly shrugged. “She gets up earlier than I do, which is really annoying. But she brought the most adorable dog in the world, so that’s a plus. Why?”

 

“No reason.”

 

*

 

With the weekend came the first Camp Purgatory Hiking Excursion.

 

Most campers were not used to it yet.

 

“Alright, kids, come on, pick it up a little bit!”

 

“But, Wynonna, we’re tired…

 

“And you’re not even the ones responsible for a bunch of preadolescents. Put yourself in my shoes for a second, kiddo.”

 

“Can’t we at least sing a song or something?”

 

“As long as it’s not Justin Bieber, I’m not stopping you.”

 

“Wy no nna…” the girl whined.

 

“A lex a…” Wynonna whined right back.

 

“You’re supposed to sing a song with us.”

 

“Oh, am I? Well, I don’t know a lot of songs…”

 

“Please?”

 

“Alight, fine. I’ll sing a song with you. It’s super easy, you’ll catch on fast.” She raised her voice. “Ninety-nine bottles of—“ Gus turned around sharply, and Wynonna caught her glare just in time, “—juice on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of juice… Take one down, pass it around, ninety-eight bottles of juice on the wall…”

 

Nicole snorted as the flock of children around Wynonna joined in.

 

From behind her, a conversation mixed in with the heartfelt singing.

 

“But could it have been a wolf?” a boy asked.

 

Waverly’s clear voice answered him: “Nope, sorry, buddy. That paw print was most likely Hunter’s. A wolf print is a lot bigger than that.”

 

“Do wolves live in this forest?”

 

“Oh, yeah, definitely. We’ve got the Great Plains wolf up here, and the Canadian timber wolf. A lot of people hunt them for sport, which is terrible.”

 

“Have you ever seen one?”

 

“Oh, no. They’re pretty dangerous, and we do our best to stay out of their way. But I did see a few paw prints. My uncle and I once stumbled upon a little clearing where a pack must have hung out for a while. It’s not too far from here, actually. Hey, does anyone know how big a Canadian timber wolf is?”

 

The children erupted into wild guesses. Nicole smiled to herself and whistled for her dog.

 

*

 

As the shadows grew longer, Waverly let herself fall to the very back of the group.

“Madison!” she greeted, feigning surprise as she looked up at the girl. “You’ve grown so much since I last saw you!”

 

Madison giggled a little in response.

 

“Which is surprising, considering I last saw you half an hour ago at the picnic. How is the weather up there?”

 

“It’s nice, but the air is a bit thin.”

 

“Is it?” Waverly asked and winked at her as she leaned in to admit: “I wouldn’t know.”

 

Nicole, who was carrying Madison on her back, snorted out a laugh – and stopped when Waverly raised an eyebrow at her. “Don’t mind me,” she said dryly, “I’m just the carriage around here.”

 

“Uh-huh. That’s what I thought.” Waverly looked at Madison again. “Speaking of. You know you have your own two feet to walk on, right?”

 

Madison pulled a face and leaned her head against the back of Nicole’s neck, looking adorable. “My own two feet hurt .”

 

“And you don’t think Nicole’s feet might hurt, too?”

 

“No?”

 

“C’mon, kiddo. We’re almost at the quarry, it’s not that far anymore.”

 

Fine …” With a regretful sigh, Madison slid off Nicole’s back, squeezing her a little before letting go completely.

 

“Off you go,” Waverly said cheerily, and watched Madison scamper away to find her friends.

With a groan, Nicole bent backwards and rubbed at the small of her back. “I feel so light I think I might fly away.”

 

Waverly laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ll hold on to your shoelaces and pull you back to camp like a balloon. It’s your own fault for being such a pushover. You can’t let the little ones bully you like that.”

 

“I’m not a pushover, I’m nice . There’s a difference.”

 

“Mh, sure.”

 

They caught up to the rest of the group just as they reached the edge of the forest. Beyond laid the abandoned quarry Waverly had spoken of. The lazy slope of the mountainside suddenly dropped off into steep, man-made cliffs; the stone was rough and coarse where dynamite and drills had ripped into its surface some decades ago.

 

After spending all day in the airy embrace of the forest, there seemed to be an eerie quality to the vast expanse of the pit and the way the fractured mountain loomed around them.

 

“Wow,” Nicole murmured. “This place is…”

 

“Creepy?” Waverly offered.

 

“That, too,” Nicole admitted, “but I was going to say ‘amazing.’” She turned as she walked, her eyes wandering over the ragged edges of the stone. “What did they excavate here? Minerals?”

 

“Just stone.” Waverly let the pads of her fingers run over the bark of one of the scrawny birch trees that had grown in the valley of the quarry. “The camp is not far from here; I think our lake was probably once constructed for this quarry. I’ve always loved it here,” she added, thoughtful. “It’s one of my favorite places on earth.”

 

Ahead of them, Wynonna had climbed a spur and was now putting her hands to her mouth like a megaphone. “Echo!” she yelled, and a few of the campers winced in surprise when her shout was thrown off the opposite stone wall and bounced around in the pit.

 

Waverly grinned as they hurried to join her, a chorus of Echo s and Hello s filling the air.

 

“Wynonna mentioned that Gus is your aunt,” Nicole said. “Have you been coming here all your lives?”

 

Waverly shrugged. “Something like that. Our parents died when I was four. I got to stay with Gus and Curtis, but my sisters weren’t so lucky, so… summers at camp were the most time we ever got to spend together.” She interrupted herself, cheeks reddening, when she realized that she’d veered off topic and turned Nicole’s harmless small talk into a version of Previously On: The Earps . “Sorry, that’s not what you asked,” she mumbled.     

 

Nicole gently bumped her elbow against Waverly’s. “Doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear it.”

 

“Haught!” Wynonna called over. “Can you get your butt over here for a sec?”

 

With an apologetic smile, Nicole turned to Waverly. “I’ll see you later?”

 

“Yeah,” she agreed, and Nicole took up a light jog to catch up with Wynonna. Waverly watched her go.

 

And maybe accidentally checked out Nicole’s ass a little bit.

 

Goddamnit, Waverly.

Chapter Text

“What the fuck…”

 

“Have you seen this before?”

 

“Yeah, that’s the emblem of a local gang. They call themselves The Revenants or something.”

 

“Are we going to call the police?”

 

“No.” Gus squared her jaw and stepped forward. She started pulling down the red-and-black flag that was fluttering weakly above their heads; it showed a stylized skull. “This is nothing more than a dumb prank.”

 

“But, Gus—“

 

“That’s enough, Christine. I am not going to upset the kids by having the police show up for a stupid prank.”

 

The flag still clasped in her hand, Gus strode off towards the house. Chrissy, Nicole, Wynonna, Waverly, and Rosita all looked at each other.

 

“She seemed upset, though, right?” Rosita asked.

 

“Yeah.” With narrowed eyes, Wynonna stared at her aunt’s retreating back. “No idea what that’s about.”

 

Chrissy looked up the flagpole and then at Nicole, who had first discovered the fact that the Camp flag had been replaced while she’d been out for her morning run with Hunter. “Did you see anything else this morning?”

 

Nicole pulled up her shoulders. “I saw motorcycle tracks just outside, but otherwise…”

 

“Yeah, that fits the Revenants,” Waverly nodded grimly. “Gus is probably right. They just want to scandalize us.”

 

Wynonna hummed, still looking skeptical. “Probably.”

*

Despite Gus’s executive decision not to involve the police, Nicole only really felt like she could put the incident out of her head when Nedley agreed that it had most likely not been more than a prank.

 

“These local boys are bored out of their thick skulls,” he grumbled. “We’ve had trouble with them before. A reaction is all they’re after.”

 

By lunchtime, Nicole had thought enough about it to be convinced. It was a hot day, even for early July; only a few scattered clouds sat high in the sky. Nicole and Jeremy decided to take their food and join Hunter where the shadow of the large house fell over the grass.

 

“Hey, guys,” Wynonna greeted, stopping in front of them.

 

Nicole opened her mouth, and closed it again when Waverly and Chrissy dropped onto the grass next to them, too.

 

“Oooh, you still got some of the fries,” Waverly noticed happily, stealing one from Nicole’s plate. “They just ran out when we got there.”

 

Wynonna pulled a face. “Aw, what? Well, I’m just not gonna bother with lunch, then.”

 

“Where’s Willa?” Jeremy wanted to know.

 

“How would I know? I’m not her keeper.”

 

Waverly frowned. “But wasn’t she just with you when—“

 

“Wynonna,” Nicole interrupted, a little confused that nobody else had commented on the obvious, “why is this group of children following you? And why do they keep bowing?”

 

Wynonna looked skywards and sighed as though she was accursed to a life of hardship and unrecognized heroics. “One of the little idiots doubted my wakeboarding abilities, and after I showed off my epic skills, I may have said that they should be worshipping me…” To Nicole’s left, Chrissy snorted and started choking on her lemonade. “…And now they’re… actually… doing that.”

 

Waverly leaned back on her hands, smirking up at her sister without a hint of sympathy.

 

“Epic skills? As far as I remember, I absolutely kicked your ass at wakeboarding nine years ago.”

 

Wynonna gasped and narrowed her eyes at her sister. “How dare you bring that up. I was… feeling under the weather.

 

“You sneezed once .”

 

“That’s it. We’re settling this. Sunday, high noon. If you’ll excuse me, I have a wakeboard to wax.”

 

Wynonna strode away dramatically, a throng of giggling, bowing twelve-year-olds in tow.  

 

“That’s not gonna help you!” Waverly called after her, and then giggled when Nicole swatted at her hand for trying to steal another fry.

*

The platform was already packed with kids when Nicole got there on Sunday. Making her way past a group of teenage girls dancing to Happy blasting from the crappy speakers above their heads, she pushed through the crowd until she reached Jeremy, Chrissy, and Rosita, who were waiting for her at the front of the platform.

 

“Nicole!” Jeremy waved at her from where he was letting his bare feet dangle into the cool water. “We saved you some space!”

 

Nicole grinned. “Thanks, guys. I can’t believe you got front row tickets to what seems to be the event of the summer…”

 

With a snort, Rosita turned around and propped her elbows up on the metal railing. Nicole followed her line of sight and saw Doc leaned up against the shed where the skis and boards were kept, his hat so low on his face that only his smirk was visible. He was talking to Willa and Xavier, who were both standing with their arms crossed over their chests. When Nicole looked down, she saw that Jeremy was staring at Doc, too. She and Chrissy exchanged a look. Oh boy.

 

But before she could think about it any further, some of the kids started hooting, and the crowd parted to make way for the two younger Earp sisters, clad in charcoal wetsuits. Wynonna dramatically raised one fist into the air like a victorious champion or some kind of rock star, showering in the attention; Waverly followed, rolling her eyes at her sister’s antics with a smirk on her lips.

 

When she saw Nicole looking at her, the smirk turned into one of her bright, blinding smiles, and she headed over.

 

“You came!” she beamed at the group.

 

“Like we’d miss this,” Chrissy said, and pulled Waverly into a hug. Nodding, Nicole smiled and pulled herself up to sit on the railing.

 

“Not if there’s a chance that we’ll get to see either one of you take a bath in this lake,” Rosita added.

 

“Yeah, well,” Waverly’s high braid flopped as she moved her head, “let’s just hope it won’t be me.”

 

“It won’t be,” Jeremy said kindly.

 

“Although, I’m sure you could pull off the wetlook,” Nicole added in a murmur, faster than she could think better of it.

 

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wanted to let go of the railing she was sitting on, fall backwards into the lake, and preferably stay there forever. Apparently, she needed the cold water.

 

But Waverly just raised an amused eyebrow at her. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

 

With a final wink that Nicole told herself was meant for all of them, she skipped over to the starting dock, her shiny purple wakeboard under her arm.

*

In the end, neither Wynonna nor Waverly took an involuntary bath in the lake.

 

According to Xavier, Doc, Shorty, and Gus, who had agreed to act as judges, Wynonna won the competition by a hair’s breadth; but if Nicole was honest, she couldn’t really tell what could have possibly made that difference.

 

The Earp girls had grown up with summers at this camp, and it showed.

 

Wynonna let her body lean back so low that the tips of her hair, welling out from under her matte black helmet, dipped into the lake as she zipped across its surface, water spraying up from under her feet. Waverly took the same section standing upright, carving jerkily to pick up speed, hips swaying.

 

(Nicole was fine and had to swallow for no reason.)

 

Wynonna skidded over the slider backwards. Waverly jumped off the kicker in a series of twirls, changing her grip on the handle lightning-fast. They flipped and glided and somersaulted, sailed through the air, and crashed into the water so hard that Nicole was sure they’d capsize this time (they didn’t).

 

When it was over, they were both buzzing with adrenaline and euphoria, and it didn’t seem to matter who’d won anymore. There was laughter and high-fiving, and Waverly said something clever that resulted in Wynonna chasing her with an open bottle of Sprite.

 

Nicole was shaken out of her daze of amazement when Waverly came barreling towards them to hide behind her and Chrissy, laughing and leaving wet handprints on the shoulders of Nicole’s white cotton T-shirt. It was impossible not to laugh with her then, even as Wynonna threatened to douse them all with soda – Rosita and Jeremy moved into safety immediately, but Nicole wasn’t fast enough.

 

With Chrissy and Waverly giggling and squealing behind her, she did her best to grab and hold Wynonna’s wrist. For a second, a jerky movement behind Wynonna’s shoulder caught her eye, and she thought she saw Willa pushing away through the crowd.

 

Weird , Nicole thought, just as Wynonna squeezed the bottle.

*

Fucknuggets .

 

Waverly closed her eyes. Her heart was hammering so hard in her chest that she thought she could feel it vibrate in the cool glass that pressed against her skin.

 

How had she managed to get herself into this situation? Given that she was about to be in real trouble, her first instinct was to blame Wynonna, but if she was honest, that wasn’t entirely fair.

 

“Dude, that was awesome . We should celebrate or something,” Wynonna had said.

 

“I thought you already celebrated by showering me with Sprite? My ears still feel sticky, by the way.”

 

“First of all, you brought that on yourself, and second of all, I was thinking something more like… getting drunk by the fire pit.”

 

Willa had raised an eyebrow at that. “There’s no booze allowed on camp grounds. Did you sneak some in?”

 

Her voice had sounded almost admiring as she asked, but Wynonna had only shrugged and shaken her head. “Gus searched my bags the same as yours, Wil.”

 

“You’d think she’d get over that one time when we were seventeen at some point.”

 

“Yes. It’s like it was somehow a huge breach of her trust that you, a seventeen-year-old, and I, a fifteen-year-old, stole our uncle’s scotch and embarrassed them by getting drunk and passing out in the showers. How surprising.”

 

Willa had been about to retort something when Waverly had heard herself interrupt: “ I think I might have an idea.”

 

As Waverly could now see clear as day, it had been a very stupid idea.

 

But there’d been two bottles of whiskey in her car – technically , not on camp grounds – and at the time, it had seemed super easy to just… pop out and get one of them.

 

(She’d packed them reluctantly, trying not to think too hard about the kind of situation they might come in handy for. She hadn’t foreseen this . She’d just known that there was a chance Wynonna might show up, and that at some point, they might have to talk about Curtis. And so she’d stashed the two bottles in the trunk; Varmint for Wynonna, Ardbeg for herself.)

 

Except. I’ll just pop out and get it was far easier said than done.

 

Step one had gone over smoothly: Waverly had left her sisters to start the fire and snuck out to her Jeep.

 

Step two had immediately made her regret the lack of an actual plan : groping around for the bottle with the straight neck, Waverly had realized that she’d forgotten to bring something to hide the whiskey in.

 

This had made step three very difficult. Eventually, she’d just shoved the bottle under her crop top. Better than nothing, right? Right.

 

Wrong . Because here she was, halfway across camp, about to pass by the Homestead, and the door had just opened.

 

For a second, Waverly hoped that it would just be Doc, or maybe Xavier coming out of the house, but of course the universe wouldn’t let her off that easy – a moment later, the hushed voices of Gus and Randy Nedley wafted over.

 

Shit, shit, shit .

 

Right now, she was half-hidden in the shadows of one of the tents, but if the pair so much as glanced her way, they would definitely see her. Her, and the giant bulge in her crop top.

In hindsight, it would have been way smarter to just… carry the bottle in her hands, because it would have allowed her to hide it behind her back, or dump it behind the tent, but it was too late for that now.

 

Panicking, Waverly began to think of excuses, frantically searching for something that could soften the blow of Gus’s impending anger and disappointment.

 

I’m sorry, Gus, I was just going to bring this back to the car— no, she couldn’t lie, and also why would she hide the bottle under her shirt? I know there’s no excuse — she was literally trying to make excuses, that would only make things worse – Look, I’m an adult and we were going to be responsible about — God, no, that was not a good idea, she was doomed—

 

In that moment, a sharp whistle cut through the air, and then the tell-tale jangle of the pet tags on Hunter’s collar sounded from somewhere close by.

 

“Good evening,” Waverly heard Nicole say in a pleasant voice as she stepped into the light of the lamp hanging above the door. She said something else that Waverly couldn’t understand, but Gus and Nedley turned towards her, pulled into a conversation.

 

Waverly’s whole body slumped a little, relief flooding through her.

 

Thank God for small coincidences. Nicole had been at the right place at just the right time, and Waverly could safely sneak away behind the backs of her aunt and Chrissy’s dad.

 

She was almost in the clear when she looked back one last time to make sure they were still distracted – and Nicole noticed her. She looked her straight in the eye, smiling that warm smile of hers, and Waverly’s heart stopped.

 

Please don’t call me over now, please don’t say anything

 

But Nicole just winked almost unnoticeably, and then went back to her conversation with Nedley and Gus.

 

Well. Maybe it hadn’t been a coincidence after all.

 

Waverly still felt jumbled and warm by the time she reached the fire pit. Wynonna whooped and high-fived her again; Doc whistled softly. Shorty, who had joined them, too, raised an eyebrow at the bottle, but said nothing. (He’d always preferred to have them break the rules where he could keep an eye on them – Waverly had a sneaking suspicion that he’d had some kind of deal to that effect with Curtis.) Even Willa nodded in something like approval and moved to make space for Waverly next to her.

 

The evening passed into a blur of scattered moments, familiar yet strange.

 

Doc provided ambient guitar music, every once in a while slipping in some chords of an actual song just to see how long it would take them to notice – Waverly identified La Camisa Negra after two seconds, and almost half a minute into Californication , Wynonna threw a marshmallow at him. Nobody noticed In The Air Tonight until Xavier, approaching the light of the fire from behind Doc, started singing along.

 

When Waverly was well and truly buzzed already, Shorty came to sit next to her and asked how she was doing.

 

“I don’t know,” she told him, thinking about that abstract feeling in the pit of her stomach. “I really don’t. Isn’t that weird?”

 

Shorty looked at her briefly, and then back down at the unlit pipe he was turning in his hands, the corner of his mouth curling.

 

“It’s not weird.” After a moment, he added, “It’s nice that you girls all came back this year. Curtis would be real happy.”

 

Through the flames of the fire, Waverly watched as Wynonna plucked Doc’s hat off of him and pushed it onto Xavier’s head, until she felt like she could breathe a little easier.

 

*

Around midnight, Waverly stumbled back to the unit, feeling odd; helpless and excited, somehow, like the world was too big, but she wasn’t lost. Maybe , a voice in her heart whispered, maybe this was it. Maybe she had lost Curtis to gain back her sisters.

 

Maybe, after all this time, they would grow back together again.

 

Nicole was in bed, but still awake when Waverly pushed back the canvas.

 

“Hey,” she murmured under her breath. It was a small sound, but it didn’t get lost.

 

Waverly stood in the entryway, swaying slightly, the smoky taste of whiskey still in her mouth.

 

“Wanna go take a walk?" she whispered into the dark without saying hello.

 

It was quiet inside the tent for a moment, and Waverly couldn’t read the silence. But before she could take it back, the sleeping bag to her left rustled.

 

“Give me a minute.”

 

Hunter woke up and approached Waverly, sniffing her fingers and wagging his tail. She crouched down a little to ruffle the fur behind his ears.

 

“Are you coming with us, buddy? A little midnight walk? Are you excited?”

 

With every question, he seemed to get giddier, until the whole dog was wagging and trying to climb into her arms.

 

“Are you riling up my dog?” Nicole asked, quietly amused.

 

“He’s on camp grounds,” Waverly replied without looking up. “I am counseling him.”

 

She got back up, staggering only a tiny little bit. Nicole was zipping up a sleeveless sweater vest over her burgundy Henley, looking way too put-together for someone who had just gotten out of bed.

Her hair curled softly, sticking up from where she had pushed it behind her ears.

 

“Everything okay?” she asked.

 

“Yeah,” Waverly forced herself to look away from Nicole’s hands, which were fixing her hood. “Yes. Come on, let’s go.”

 

They strolled down the path together with Hunter trotting ahead. There was light in one of the tents, and Nicole snuck up to it and scared the kids inside into muffled screams and giggle-fits. “You better be fast asleep when I check in later,” Waverly heard her admonish them.

 

They talked about the upcoming lip sync evening, and refused to tell the other about the projects they had their kids rehearse.

 

“You may think you're tough shit, Haught,” Waverly teased, “but my rag-tag crew of eight-year-olds is going to beat your pre-teens into the dust. You should prepare them for disappointment. Maybe teach them a lesson about participation being everything.”

 

Nicole hummed.

 

“You talk a good game, Earp. Especially for someone who exclusively listens to music that was made before your rag-tag crew of eight year olds was even born.”

 

“Listen, lady…”

 

The sports grounds were dark and deserted, barely illuminated by the moon and the stars. Nicole produced a flashlight from the pocket of her pants.

 

“Feel like running some laps in the dark?” Waverly asked dryly when she steered them towards the tracks.

 

“Do you?”

 

Waverly, feeling wild and free and odd , pulled away. “Actually… yes.”

 

She heard Nicole inhale when she took off into the night. Hunter gave a surprised yap and ran after her, overtaking her easily.

 

Below her, Waverly’s legs were carrying her exactly as she asked them to, and she sped up a little.

 

Willa, laughing at her joke.

 

She felt warm.

 

Wynonna, reaching out to clap her shoulder.

 

Tugging at her scarf, she let it drop to the ground.

 

Shorty's words about Curtis; Doc and his guitar.

 

Her jacket followed.

 

(Nicole.)

 

She pulled her hair free.

 

With Hunter cantering easily beside her, Waverly ran and ran until she couldn't anymore, and then let herself collapse on the still-sunwarm Tartan track. Hunter came to investigate her heavy breathing, but when she brought up her hands to keep him from licking her forehead, he lost interest and slinked away.

 

Above her, the sky – peppered with a million tiny lights – was endless.

 

Nicole came into view, carrying Waverly’s things. “You alright?”

 

With the heat of the run still in her cheeks, Waverly grinned up at her.

 

“Never better.” She patted the ground next to her. “Care to join me?”

 

Nicole looked at her with a fond expression, then up at the sky, and back at her again, like she was considering the offer.

 

And here was the thing: at the back of her mind, Waverly knew that she was entering murky, flirtatious waters with this little expedition. But she flashed Nicole her most irresistible smile anyway. And sure enough, Nicole caved.

 

Once they had settled side by side, Waverly pointed up above them. “That’s Perseus. You know the story of Perseus?”

 

Nicole, still strangely quiet, shook her head. “Tell me,” she requested softly.

 

“He was a son of Zeus, but he grew up with his mother, the mortal Danaë, and her boyfriend, the fisher Dyctis. But Dyctis’s brother, King Polydectes, decided he wanted to be with Danaë, who didn't want him back. Perseus protected his mother, and his step-uncle made a plan to get rid of him: he held a banquet, invited Perseus, and requested that all his guests bring horses. Perseus had no horses to give, and to protect his honor, swore that he would fulfill any wish Polydectes might have. Polydectes sent him to retrieve the head of the Gorgon Medusa, whose gaze turned every living creature into stone.”

 

“Did he die?”

 

“Nope. Beheaded the Gorgon, and then saved the beautiful Aethiopian princess, Andromeda, from where she was chained to a rock.”

 

She moved her hand and indicated the constellation right next to Perseus.

 

“That’s her. She was the daughter of King Cepheus and his wife, Cassiopeia. They’re here, too, wait… Yeah, there they are. See that crooked W -shape? That’s Cassiopeia. She got her daughter in trouble by boasting of her beauty…”

 

She continued to recount the corresponding myths of the constellations, and didn’t notice that Nicole was not looking at the sky anymore.

 

*

 

When they walked back to the unit, Waverly was leaning heavily into Nicole’s side, humming under her breath like she didn’t even know she was doing it.

 

“Look, they’re asleep,” she murmured out of nowhere.

 

“Who’s asleep, Wave?” Nicole’s voice sounded small and soft to her own ears, and it seemed fitting, too: beneath the star-studded canopy of the night, she felt little and lost, tethered only by the warmth of the arm that was now slung around her middle.

 

Waverly was almost asleep on her feet herself. “The kids,” she said, not clarifying much at all, until Nicole realized that they were about to pass the tent whose inhabitants she had reprimanded earlier.

 

“Of course they are,” Nicole replied, bowing her head a little bit to whisper in Waverly’s ear. “I am a very serious authority figure.”

 

With Hunter trotting beside them, Waverly giggled sleepily and nestled closer until Nicole was all but carrying her.

 

As Nicole lay on her cot later, she could hear her tent-mate breathing softly and deeply in her sleep, and felt the ghost of her hands against her arms, her shoulders, her stomach.

 

Well. Fuck.

Chapter Text

Waverly was eating her Froot Loops by color. Orange first, then yellow, then green, until only shades of blue, pink, and purple were left.

Nicole didn’t think she was entirely aware of doing this, as her attention seemed focused on the animated discussion she was having with Rosita – something about veganism and its ethical pitfalls; Nicole wasn’t sure. She used her spoon to gesture a lot, like a firm grip on the cutlery would underscore her point (it kind of did – Nicole was definitely convinced, and she wasn’t even really listening), and making very slow progress on her breakfast.

It was equal parts adorable and excruciating to watch.

 

Maybe don’t stare at her, then.

 

Nicole flinched and sat upright in her chair when she realized that was exactly what she’d been doing. Willing herself not to blush, she quickly checked if anyone had caught her, but a hasty glance around the table told her that she was in the clear: Xavier was reading yesterday’s newspaper, Jeremy was listening in on the discussion, and Wynonna looked like she was barely conscious at all.

Nicole shoveled the rest of her breakfast down and stood. “I gotta go feed Hunter, I’ll see you guys later.”

The group hummed their acknowledgement; Waverly looked up to smile at her. Nicole got out of there before she could do something really stupid, like melt at the sight of it.

 

Ten minutes later, she sat down in the back of her Defender and pulled her knees up to her chin as she watched Hunter dig into his food.

It’d been two days since she’d lain on the track, listening to Waverly tell her about the stars, her scratchy from booze. Somehow, it kept haunting her: the feeling of the balmy night air against her skin and knowing that the universe was looming above her, the way Waverly’s hair had smelled like smoke and strawberry shampoo.

 

With no one else around, Nicole admitted: “I think I’m crushing on my tent-mate.”

 

Hunter’s ears perked up a little at the sound of her voice, but otherwise, he showed no signs of being scandalized – or interested, for that matter.

 

“With everything that’s going on right now… this isn’t really a good time for a crush. Right?”

 

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

 

“But maybe that’s why this is happening. Maybe it’s just… part of getting over it.”

 

Hunter began to lick the empty bowl with devotion, like his life depended on catching every last morsel of food. Nicole ran both hands through her hair and then clasped them in front of her face.

 

“What am I supposed to do about this, buddy?”

 

Satisfied with his breakfast, her dog trotted a few feet away and dramatically let his whole body drop to the ground to roll around in the damp grass.

 

“Right.” With a sigh, Nicole untangled her limbs to get up and collect his bowl. “Come on, boy. Time for work.”

 

*

 

Waverly slid her thumbs over the fastenings of her bow case, relishing the familiar click , and flipped it open. She didn’t notice anything different about it until she had attached the limbs to her metallic green riser and let the bow string run through her fingers.

Frowning, she set the bow aside and had a closer look at the strands of polyester. It was unraveling slightly at one end, which was odd.

 

“Everything okay?”

 

One of the standard bows the campers used to shoot in one hand, and her kick stand in the other, Chrissy made her way over to the shooting line.

 

“Yeah,” Waverly replied absently, “this is just… weird.” She held up her bow string. “I just replaced this two weeks ago, and now it looks like… I don’t know, like it’s a little burned on one side?”

 

“What? Let me see.”

 

Chrissy inspected the damage and furrowed her brow at the darkened ends of the strands that had come undone.

 

“Do you think someone did this on purpose?”

 

“I really wouldn’t know how, I keep my case locked in the shed at all times. Why would anybody expertly pick the lock to get inside, only to leave everything as it is and burn my bowstring a little bit? I mean, I can just replace this.”

 

Chrissy shrugged. “No clue. Maybe Ewan was having a secret smoke out here last time you were shooting together?”

 

Given Ewan’s my body is a temple approach to health, Waverly doubted this, but she pulled up her shoulders anyway. “Maybe. I think I can still shoot with it today; I’ll put on a new one tomorrow.”

After making sure no campers were around to see her, Waverly quickly stringed her bow by hand, then assembled the rest of it while Chrissy shot two arrows to calibrate her sight.

They were standing back to back now, both feet planted firmly on each side of the line of cobble stones that cut through the grass. Waverly checked her stance and nocked an arrow onto the string.

 

“Ready?” she asked, once Chrissy had done the same.

 

“Ready.”

 

With a smirk, Waverly leaned back a little bit and knocked against her friend’s shoulders, making her stumble.

 

“Hey!” Chrissy protested. “What was that?”

 

“Just testing your body tension. And your body tension sucks.”

 

Grumbling, Chrissy went back into position. This time, when Waverly shoved her a little, she stood firm.

 

Phlock .

 

Few things in the world made Waverly feel grounded the way archery did. There were a hundred small things to remember, to go through one by one until she had aligned her body perfectly – and then: to hold that position as she drew the small button on her bowstring to her lips, aimed, pulled the kisser all the way to the corner of her mouth, and let go.

 

Phlock.

 

Even with the weight of the bow and the tension of her string that now – after such a long time of not shooting at all – felt like a little more than she could handle, it was relaxing. Cathartic. Perfectly mind-clearing.

 

Well, almost.

 

Phlock.

 

Waverly was supposed to be in more or less complete control of her body. And she was – with the exception of that giddy, fluttering feeling just below her sternum; the one that made her breathe in, and in, and in, until she forgot what she was doing.

 

Phlock.

 

Waverly mis-shot; the arrow landed too far to the right and ruined her cluster. She groaned and decided to keep her last two arrows for the next round; she’d gotten enough to readjust her sight anyway.

 

“All clear?” she asked, more out of habit than anything else, given that all six of Chrissy’s arrows were planted firmly in the straw of her target.

 

As they walked the thirty meter distance together, Waverly took a deep breath.

 

“So, Chrissy. What’s new with you?”

 

It was a clumsy conversation starter, and her friend caught it immediately. Chrissy gave her a look .

 

“Not much is ‘new’ with me, but I’ve known you long enough to know that there is definitely something new with you , if you ask me like that.”

 

Waverly’s cheeks were burning. She turned her face towards the slight wind and pretended not to notice. “What? No. I just want to know what’s going on in your life; you know, we haven’t really talked in a wh—“

 

“Yeah, you’re not fooling me. Out with it, Waverly Earp.”

 

They’d reached their targets, and Waverly stalled for a moment by unclasping her arrow puller from the quiver at her hip.

 

“Remember when you said not to be into the same guy as your tent-mate?”

 

“Oh, Waves. Tell me you didn’t,” Chrissy said with sympathy, wrestling with one of her arrows.

 

Waverly winced. “Not… quite.”

 

Chrissy dropped her hands altogether. “Oh. Waves . You didn’t.

 

With a groan, Waverly leaned her hot face against the cool tarp of the target. “We may have had… a moment. Sunday evening.”

 

“I thought you got shitfaced with your sisters on Sunday evening! I swear, I leave you alone for one night…” She shook her head, then grinned. “Tell me everything.”

 

“Nothing actually happened,” Waverly hurried to say. “We just went for a walk together.”

 

“Ooh, a romantic walk beneath the stars,” Chrissy teased. When Waverly couldn’t help but squirm a little under her gaze, she narrowed her eyes. “What else aren’t you telling me?”

 

“There may also have been… some star-gazing.”

 

Chrissy gasped.

 

“But I don’t know if it was all that romantic, because I completely geeked out and told her like, every single Greek myth I could remember,” Waverly added hastily. She threw Chrissy her arrow puller when she noticed her struggling with her last arrow.

 

Chrissy caught it with ease. “Oh, please,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Have you seen the way she looks at you? She probably thought it was cute .”

 

With an audible noise, she pulled her arrow free and tossed back the tool. She sobered for a moment. “Waves… not that I’m not one hundred percent rooting for you here, but are you sure you want to get involved with someone at camp? And your tent-mate, no less?”

Involuntarily, Waverly flashed back to the hum of Nicole’s voice by her ear, making her shudder.

 

“I don’t know,” she sighed. “But I mean, I was pretty drunk. There’s a good chance I hallucinated the whole vibe and she was just humoring her tent-mate because she’s a sweet person. To make sure I wouldn’t spontaneously decide to take a bath in the lake and drown, or something. You would have done the same thing.”

 

Chrissy snorted. “Sure, Waverly. Okay. Just to be clear, if you had woken me up in the middle of the night to go on a drunken adventure with you, I would have dragged your butt to that shower that only dispenses cold water.”

 

*

 

Wednesday evening found Nicole sitting on the bench by the fire pit with Hunter at her feet. She barely looked up from what she was doing when Doc and Waverly dropped down on either side of her. 

It wasn’t dark yet, but twilight had taken hold of the camp; a damp chill in the air promised that soon it would be cold enough to light a fire.

 

“Nicole, are you attempting to perform surgery on yourself? I do hope you know that I am the physician on site here.”

 

Nicole groaned and held up her right hand. A nasty gash ran over the heel of her palm. She was trying to cover it up with a Band-Aid, but the ointment she’d applied before kept the adhesive from sticking properly, and her left hand was clumsy.

 

“Help me, then,” she muttered, frustrated.

 

Before Doc could do anything, Waverly had caught her wrist and pulled her hand into her lap.

 

“Ouch,” she said, and pulled a sympathetic grimace. “Woodwork?”

 

Nicole nodded.

The secret project was a difficult undertaking.

If it hadn’t been more than just a wild idea the kids had had, Nicole would have considered telling them that maybe they’d bitten off more than they could chew and to come up with something else – but as it was, Nicole found their plan incredibly touching, and had decided to do everything in her power to ensure that they would get to finish it.

It meant that Madison, Leo, and Benny had to accept that a lot of the work had to be done by Nicole, but she always did her best to include them on the things she couldn’t let them do.

 

“You’re the architects, I’m the construction worker,” she liked to remind them.

 

“Exactly,” had Benny’s response been one time, “you’re just the brawns, but we’re the brains.”

 

At that, Nicole had pulled an exaggerated face, but at least there had been no discussion about whether or not they could handle a miter saw.

They had been especially respectful of the tools this morning, when Nicole had tried to fix a problem with brute force and a carving chisel – and slipped.

It had hurt like a motherfucker .

But weirdly, right now, all she could feel were the pads of Waverly’s fingers, carefully wiping at the ointment residue. Nicole’s open palm was resting in her other hand, and with her eyes cast down to watch what she was doing, Nicole could see how fine and long her lashes were.

It was odd, how soft and intimate it felt to have Waverly touch her hand like this.

Waverly was still talking to her, Nicole realized, and she hadn’t been listening to a word she was saying – when she looked up, she saw that Wynonna and Willa had joined them, too.

 

“…did that even happen?”

 

“Um,” Nicole murmured, coming back to herself slowly. Heat crawled up her spine, spreading over her neck and cheeks. “My hand slipped, and I rammed the heel into the edge of the chisel I was working with.”

 

Waverly hissed a little, like she could feel the pain just thinking about it. She reached up to brush a strand of hair behind her ear – Nicole’s eyes were helplessly drawn toward the movement – and then fished a new Band-Aid out of the box in Nicole’s lap.

Suddenly, Nicole felt very bare, as though the way her heart was fluttering in her chest was visible to everyone – as if all Waverly needed to do was raise her eyes and see it written all over her face – and she had to fight the urge to pull her hand back.

She’d already spent way too much time just looking at Waverly; she needed a distraction, and quick.

 

“What are you even working on that requires a chisel , anyway?” Willa didn’t sound too interested, but Nicole jumped at the chance to divert her attention elsewhere.

 

She caught Willa’s eye and winked. “Well,” she drawled, “I’d love to tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

 

Next to Willa, Wynonna snorted and inhaled a big portion of the water she was currently drinking, resulting in a horrible coughing fit. With a confused frown shot in Nicole’s direction, Willa turned to give her sister a half-hearted pat on the back.

Nicole winced; Waverly had applied the Band-Aid with a little too much pressure.

 

“And you’re done,” she said, dropping the wrappers in Nicole’s open hand. “Try not to stab yourself with any more chisels.”

 

She sounded a little clipped, and Nicole briefly wondered if she was annoyed at her for making a secret out of the project. But a promise was a promise, and at least nobody had seemed to notice the way she’d been staring at Waverly – again.

Maybe that was it, she thought as she got up to throw the wrappers in the nearest trash can. All she had to do to hide her ill-timed little crush was to spread out her attention evenly. Piece of cake . Worst case scenario, people would think her a little peculiar; that was better than the alternative –God, if Wynonna noticed, she would never let her or Waverly hear the end of it.

When she returned, Jeremy was in her seat, happily letting Doc teach him a few chords on his guitar. Instead of sitting down, Nicole began to start a fire, mentally congratulating herself on having found a solution to her delicate situation.

 

*

 

When you took a bunch of kids and put them in one place for weeks on end, they eventually developed a lot of little games and inside jokes. That had not been different when Nicole had been a camper – granted, they had not referred to them as memes yet, but otherwise, not much had changed. Some of the games were new (by now, Nicole had learned not to worry about it when a group of kids suddenly yelled Get down, Mr. President! and then proceeded to tackle the poor child who hadn’t noticed that everyone around them had touched a finger to one ear).

But others were old enough for Nicole to remember them fondly.

Which was why she did not miss a beat when someone behind her called “ Floor is lava!” – some long-forgotten instinct just clicked into place, and she got her feet off the ground as quickly as possible, in the first way she could think of.

In this case, that meant jumping up and holding her body between the walls of two storage sheds. It was… quite a stretch, but at least her feet found purchase on the rough brick.

She, Rosita, Waverly, and Xavier had been on their way back from a short sketch the theater kids had performed – rehearsed under the careful direction of Chrissy Nedley – when they were interrupted.

Interrupted by Marvin, as Nicole could see now, a twelve-year-old whom she knew from the soccer games she sometimes helped Gus referee. Clever as he was, he had brought a folding chair to stand on, thinking he could best four of his counselors.

 

He’d been wrong.

 

Nicole had thought fast; but not as fast as Waverly, who had simply turned around, spotted Marvin and his folding chair, and joined him on there. (When their eyes met, Waverly smirked and raised her eyebrows a little bit, and Nicole almost lost her balance.)

Xavier was hanging from the doorframe of the storage shed by his fingertips, his arms shaking.

 

“Is it safe to come down yet?” he grunted.

 

“Nope,” Marvin replied. “Rosita, the floor is lava . I hope you know you’re burning to a crisp right now.”

 

Rosita, who was leaning against the wall without a care in the world, met his gaze with a smug, lazy smile. She let her eyes flash, and for a second, Nicole could have sworn that they were glowing red.

 

“Oh, don’t worry about me, buddy. Fire cannot kill a dragon.”

 

Marvin gasped in delight, and Waverly threw her head back and laughed like a silver bell.

This time, Nicole really did slide off the walls, but at least she landed on her feet, so her dignity stayed more or less intact.

 

“Look out, guys,” she said dryly, “we’ve got a hot one over here.”

 

Rosita snorted and swatted at her; Nicole dodged her hands, grinning, and didn’t notice that Waverly wasn’t laughing anymore.

 

*

 

“Well, don’t you look clean and fresh?”

 

“Shut up, Earp. I just chased a bunch of fifteen-year-olds around a soccer field for two hours. I get to be a little gross.”

 

“Boo. Just stand at the sidelines and yell instructions; that always seemed to work out well for my gym teacher.”

 

“Do you want me to give you a hug?”

 

“I’m quiet, I’m quiet.” Wynonna raised her hands in defeat and took a few steps back, scrunching up her nose.

 

Nicole let her arms sink down again. “Mhm, that’s what I thought.” She took the bottle of water Wynonna offered her with a grateful grin. “Thanks. Walk me to the showers?”

 

They spent almost the whole way across camp bickering, and Nicole felt herself relax gradually. It had been exhausting to keep track of who she paid what kind of attention to over the past couple of days. Talking to Wynonna now, just the two of them, she didn’t have to monitor anything, she could just let herself get caught up in the back and forth of their playful squabbles.

 

“Hey,” Wynonna said suddenly, when they’d almost reached the back of the Homestead. “Wanna drive to town with me tomorrow? I was going to offer a bike trip on the weekend, but some of the old bikes look like the maintenance crew just shoved them all into a closet and kicked the door closed last fall. Which isn’t all that unlikely, if you think about airheads like Champ Hardy. Anyway, I got Gus to spring for five new ones, and I could use a hand to load them up.”

 

Nicole raised an eyebrow. “And you’re not going to ask one of your suitors?”

 

“Ugh, never mind, I’m asking Jeremy.”

 

Laughing, Nicole gave Wynonna’s arm a tug. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Of course I’ll help. But if you go on Sunday, you shouldn’t stay out for too long; I think I heard something about a storm.”

 

Wynonna shook her head. “No, we’re going on Saturday. I read about that storm in Xavier’s newspaper.”

 

“I bet you did,” Nicole murmured, and immediately danced out of Wynonna’s reach.

 

They both heard Waverly’s name being mentioned nearby, or at least Nicole later figured that was what must have happened, because they suddenly stopped messing around and listened.

 

“—I mean, she’s hot and all. But she’s really not a great counselor.”

 

The voice came from inside one of the units.

 

“You think?” someone else replied.

 

“I don’t know why they let her teach Eco Skills twice a week. Willa said she hasn’t even finished her degree yet.”

 

Really .”

 

“Yeah, really. Willa is her older sister, and she says Waverly’s always been overeager, but essentially not as smart as everyone makes her out to be. She said she wouldn’t take her seriously if she were me. And honestly? If I get in trouble for not going to that class anymore, I don’t think my parents will blame me if I tell them that.”

 

“Understandable. If I tell my mom about this, she will complain—“

 

Nicole had heard enough; she could feel her pulse hammering in her neck. In a few strides, she had rounded the tent and was at the entrance to the unit; the two campers – maybe sixteen or seventeen – looked up at her, startled. She was ready to tear open the heavens and have righteous fury rain upon them, but before Nicole could open her mouth, Wynonna was pulling her back by her elbow.

 

“You listen to me now, children.” Something about the way she enunciated her words made everything goofy about her fall away. She was towering over the two boys, her extended index finger stabbing the air. “I don’t know what you think you heard Willa say, and quite frankly, I don’t give a shit, because she most definitely did not say any of this.”

 

One of them opened his mouth, and immediately let it snap shut again when he caught Nicole’s eye.

 

“Waverly is qualified to teach colloquia at college level; I’d say what’s good enough for them is good enough for you. My sister has been a part of this camp for longer than almost anyone else. I better not hear you talk shit about her again, or I’ll give your parents something to complain about.”

 

She let her finger sink down slowly, still staring down the two campers, wide-eyed.

 

“You got anything you wanna say to me?”

 

“No, ma’am,” one of them said, at the same time as the other one, the one who had spoken in the first place, murmured: “Sorry, Wynonna.”

 

“Don’t sorry me, Frederick. You better be extra nice to Waverly when you show up to her class tomorrow.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

Wynonna gave him a curt nod, and strode away, leaving Nicole behind. She was just about to jog and catch up with her when, in her jeans pocket, her secret phone started buzzing.

 

*

 

Waverly was fuming .

Her day had started out with Nicole having gotten up before her yet again .

Then she’d had a lovely morning holding a very intense speech about the fact that a bow is a weapon and should be handled with the appropriate respect, and that pretending to shoot at a person was absolutely unacceptable behavior. Come to think of it, it had been less of a speech and more of a lecture. A loud lecture.

 

Lunch had been better, at first. Jeremy had told her about his class, shown her pictures of a Columbia spotted frog sitting patiently on dirty little palms. (Waverly loved frogs.) Nicole had generously gifted Waverly her dessert, which had been nice, and then she’d rubbed Mattie’s shoulder for no reason whatsoever, which had been considerably less nice.

 

On her afternoon off, Waverly had tried to find Chrissy, because quite frankly, she needed to talk to someone about this sudden change in Nicole’s behavior. Because seriously, this was new, right? Except she hadn’t found Chrissy, and instead she’d had to listen to Steph complain about how her boyfriend wouldn’t propose to her for fifteen minutes.

 

At least you know whether or not he’s interested in you at all , Waverly thought to herself on her way back to her own unit. She was going to talk to Nicole.

She had to confront her.

Right? That was the best course of action.

Except… what was she supposed to say? Hey, did I freak you out? You’re acting kind of strange. Or maybe I’m just jealous of everyone you’re friendly with. That’s also a possibility, because apparently you bring out the jealousy in me. Who knows at this point ?

No, she couldn’t say anything. This whole thing could easily just be in her head. Plus, Chrissy had probably been right; it was a bad idea to get involved with her tent-mate. Not that there was any indication that she was getting involved with her, she was just…

God, she hated this. Waverly reached the tent and threw back the flap, exasperated.

Inside, only Hunter blinked back at her – Nicole wasn’t there.

“Hey, buddy.” Waverly kneeled down next to him. “Since when does your mom go anywhere without you?”

Hunter, being a dog, did not reply, and instead rolled over on his back.

Thoughtful, Waverly scratched his belly.

 

*

 

“Where were you?”

The moment Nicole entered the tent, Waverly got to her feet, and Hunter, who’d been perched on her cot next to her, sat up, too.

For a moment, Nicole just stared back at them. Then she moved to her own bed, reaching for her bag. “I was just out for a bit. Sorry if Hunter bothered you. Won’t happen again.”

Waverly’s stern demeanor melted off of her like butter, and her hands fell away from her hips.

 

“Hey…” she said. Her voice was soft. “Hey, is everything okay?”

 

Nicole gave up on her pretense of rummaging around in her bag for something she wasn’t looking for, and sank down on the cot. She rubbed at her face with both hands.

 

“No,” she finally admitted with a tired sigh. “Not really.”

 

Hunter hopped off the other cot and approached her with a wagging tail. Nicole gave him a tired smile and ran her fingers through his silky fur. God, she was glad he could be here.

Very carefully, Waverly sat down next to her. Her pinkie finger brushed Nicole’s where she placed it on the edge of the bed.

 

“Do you feel like raiding the kitchens with me?”

 

*

 

“We have Ben & Jerry’s here?”

 

“Not ‘we.’ Shorty . This is his personal stash.”

 

“…And he… won’t notice that we stole from him if it’s just one pint?”

 

“Oh, no, he absolutely will.”

 

“…But?”

 

“But he will definitely blame Wynonna.”

 

Nicole laughed and bumped her shoulder against Waverly’s. They were perched on the counter together, their feet dangling. Every once in a while, their spoons clanked together as they dug into the cookie dough ice cream.

 

“I got a phone call today,” Nicole finally said.

 

Waverly looked at her, surprised.

 

“And, yes. Gus knows I have my phone with me. She allowed it, because…” She let her head drop back. The hand holding the spoon sank to her knee. “Because I’m getting divorced.”

 

Nicole knew that she must have said these words out loud before, but she couldn’t remember when. It felt like the first time truly admitting it – to someone else, and to herself.

 

“I’m sorry.” It sounded honest, but her voice was without pity, which Nicole was very grateful for. “That’s why you got to bring Hunter, too, right?”

 

Nicole nodded. “My—my wife was supposed to look after him this summer, but—well. She doesn’t have the time.” It wasn’t the only thing Shae hadn’t had time for. “We separated last spring. That’s how I got here, actually. We broke up, and I just… I really needed a place to go, you know? I don’t speak to my parents, and all my friends were also her friends. When I was a kid, I got sent away to camp a lot, and all I really wanted last year was to go back to that feeling of freedom you get when you’re away from everything.”

 

Waverly nodded. “I get that. Last year was the first summer away from camp that I can remember, and I missed it like crazy. So then… you looked for a position as a counselor?”

 

“Pretty much. At first, I thought I’d made a really stupid mistake. I left Hunter with Shae, and I knew no one around here. But Nedley was… it’s not like we talked much about it, but he was there for me.”

 

She thought back to last summer; how she’d never said more than ten words to Greta, her tent-mate; how she’d spent her off-time just sitting on the bench outside the woodshop; how Nedley had sat down next to her and carved figures out of logs. For hours, he’d just let her be, but not alone.

 

"My wife is leaving me,” she’d rasped out one day. “Or maybe I’m leaving her.”

“Alright,” was has all he’d said, and after a moment, he’d placed a heavy hand on her knee.

 

Waverly smiled. “I can imagine. Randy is the best.”

 

“He really is.” Nicole dragged her spoon across the rim of the tub, collecting some of the ice cream that had melted from the warmth of Waverly’s fingers.

 

“Was it your wife, earlier? On the phone?”

 

Nicole snorted. “Nope. My lawyer. It’s better if Shae and I don’t talk at the moment.”

 

“I see.” Waverly said it so gently.

 

For a while, they were both quiet. Nicole thought back to the conversation she’d had with Marcus, her lawyer, and how with every time she heard the words divorce application , she cared less and less about the money, or their house, or any of their shared possessions except for Hunter.

 

“So.” Waverly finally broke the silence, stealing a piece of cookie dough that Nicole had just dug free. “Are you ever going to tell me what it is that you do in real life?”

 

*

 

They talked about Nicole’s ambitions to become a Park Ranger and Waverly’s studies, about Hunter, and for some reason, about their respective opinions on pineapple on pizza (Waverly loved it, Nicole thought it was a culinary faux-pas). They talked and talked, and the ice cream slowly diminished, until the pint was empty and they both felt vaguely ill.

The whole time, there was a question sitting on Waverly’s tongue like a pill that refused to go down.

 

“Do you—“ She stopped herself and did her best to swallow down the feelings that kept welling up in her chest, hot and confusing, closing up her throat. (She’d gotten good at that over the past half year.)

 

Nicole inclined her head. “Do I what? You can ask whatever you want.”

 

Waverly pressed on without meeting her eyes. “Do you miss your wife?”

 

With a sigh, Nicole leaned back against the cupboards. “No. Not anymore. I missed her so much last year that I thought I would go out of my mind, but now…” She shrugged. “I wish we could talk to each other without snapping, and I really hope we will one day. Shae isn’t a bad person, we just… aren’t right for each other.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Waverly said again, without really knowing if she was.

 

“Don’t be.” Nicole’s smile was tired, but genuine. “Things end. This particular thing has been ending for so long, at this point I can’t wait for it to be finally over.”

 

At that moment, Waverly didn’t care what was appropriate or not; she set aside her spoon and wrapped her arms around Nicole’s shoulders. Nicole returned the hug immediately, and Waverly couldn’t stop herself from burrowing her nose into the collar of her jacket. It felt achingly perfect, and she immediately gave herself a mental slap for that thought. Not the time for pining.

 

She pulled back.

 

“Hey, listen…” Nicole gave her a measured look. “There’s something else I have to tell you.”

 

Waverly’s heart kicked into overdrive. “What is it?”

 

“Wynonna and I overheard a couple of the older campers today. They said that Willa—well, I’m not sure if Willa actually said anything, but they made it sound like Willa hasn’t been speaking too highly of you.”

 

She looked at her, her eyes big and full of worry. Waverly frowned. “’Not too highly of me’?”

 

“According to one of them, Willa said that you’re not a good counselor and… not to take you seriously.”

 

When Waverly didn’t say anything, Nicole put a hand on her arm. “She probably didn’t really say that. In fact, Wynonna was sure that she didn’t, that it must have been Steph instead. I just wanted you to know that this kind of talk is out there. Your sister completely busted their chops, by the way. She tore into them so quickly I didn’t even have time to open my mouth.”

 

Waverly smiled at the thought. “Thanks for telling me.”

 

“Of course.”

 

There was a pause, and Waverly felt herself wandering down a familiar path. Would Willa really do this? She remembered the evening by the fire. (But she remembered other things, too.)

 

Waverly took a deep breath. “Hey, Nicole?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Don’t you have to take Hunter for a walk or something?”

 

“Eventually, yes… why?”

 

She grimaced. “Because I ate way too much, and I really need to walk it off.”

 

Nicole slid off the counter with a grin and held out her hand. “Let’s go, then.”

Chapter Text

“Morning, Shorty!”

Waverly went up on her tiptoes to kiss Shorty’s scratchy cheek in passing, and opened one of the commercial refrigerators. Shorty smirked when he saw her shiver at the cold breeze it emitted.

“Morning. Can I ask what you’re doing in my kitchen? And this early on a Sunday morning, no less?”

“Sure!” Waverly braved the cold and reached one gooseflesh-covered arm into the fridge to rummage around in it. “It’s my day off and I’m going on a hike.”

As always , she didn’t say, but Shorty’s face softened anyway. Waverly ignored it.

“Can I take this?” She held up a pair of prepackaged sandwiches.

Shorty nodded. “Left over from the biking trip, anyway. There’s some granola bars over there, too.”

Throwing him a grateful smile, Waverly went over to the indicated cupboard. “Ooh, Nature Valley Sweet & Salty !” she squealed happily.   

“Got time to have a coffee with me before you take off?” Shorty asked, and Waverly heard the tell-tale noise of one of the coffee pots being taken out of the machine. In the background, the refrigerators were humming a low note in tune with the tiredness that was still sitting in her bones.

“Nope, sorry. I want to be out of here before the sun comes up all the way. The weather is supposed to change this afternoon. Carpe Diem , as they say!”

She swiped a couple of other things and dropped all of it into her backpack, rounding the counter to kiss Shorty’s other cheek.

“Tomorrow, though?” she asked, already on her way out.

“Sure,” Shorty said, and then called after her: “And when you see Wynonna, tell her to stay out of my freezer!”

When Waverly stepped out of the house, the cool, damp morning air immediately reached for her; it tugged at her thermal running tights and the tips of her ears; tried to crawl under the funnel neck and the extended sleeves of her pink fleece jacket. She exhaled through her mouth to see if her breath would curl into a white little cloud, but it wasn’t cold enough.

With determined strides, she crossed through the sleeping camp.

It had been the first time in three weeks that she’d woken up so early that both Nicole and Hunter had still been asleep. Hunter had been curled up in his dog bed, his nose covered with the end of his tail, and all she could see of Nicole had been a shock of red hair against her pillow and one foot sticking out of her sleeping bag. (Waverly had been careful not to wake either of them, but there’d been the peculiar urge to tuck in that foot. Who left their feet unprotected, anyway?)

“Get up early, and the whole world is yours for the taking,” Curtis had once told her. Waverly had been thirteen at the time, and her reply had been a grumbled, “ You can have it, I’ll just take whatever is left of it once I wake up in time for lunch .” But it had stuck with her, and as the sun started rising above the treeline behind the sports grounds, it felt true: one by one, the light touched every blade of grass, making tiny drops of dew glisten and twinkle, and warmed every pebble.

By the time Waverly reached the edge of the forest, the birdsong was almost deafening. She had forgotten about that, hadn’t thought of this detail once since the last time she’d done this, and it gave her a sudden stab of guilt. Like she’d betrayed the forest and all its creatures; cheated on all of it with her dry biology textbooks.

Waverly grasped the straps of her backpack a little tighter, determined to commit everything about this hike to her memory.

 

*

 

“Nicole! Just the person I wanted to see.”

Xavier fell into step with her, and she smiled at him warmly. They’d had a bit of a rocky start when she thought that he’d taken joy in giving her one of the last-row units, but Nicole had eventually figured out that he’d only smiled because he’d known 68 to be Waverly’s unit, too.

“What can I do for you, Dolls?”

“You down for a last-minute planning session for Parent Visit Day on Wednesday?”

Nicole had signed up to help with the organization of Parent Visit Day for one reason: as a camper, she would have hated Parent Visit Day, and she’d wanted to make sure that there would be plenty of activities that wouldn’t suck if your parents didn’t show up. As it had turned out, everyone was very concerned with making the day a good one for everybody, so she need not have worried, but the planning was fun, anyway.

“Sure,” Nicole nodded. “I’m helping Gus with the soccer kids until five, but I’m assuming you won’t start without her, anyway, so that should work out fine.”

Xavier held open the door to the mess hall for her, and they both ducked inside.  

“Great, then I’ll see you—“

“Oh, no,” Nicole interrupted him, without really meaning to.

“What?” Xavier followed her gaze to their usual table.

Doc and Wynonna were having one of their bickering matches across the table, the corners of Doc’s eyes crinkling as he spoke. Jeremy was stuffing his face with green beans. His eyes were bouncing between the two of them, and his shoulders were tense. Next to Wynonna, Rosita was pointedly not paying attention, instead sawing through her schnitzel with a blank face that made her look downright murderous .

With a snort, Xavier clapped his hand on Nicole’s shoulder. “Well,” he said, “have fun with that.”

“Nooo,” Nicole whispered to him, “don’t go, don’t leave me with them…”

“Sorry!” He was already walking away from her, both palms turned up next to his face, the very image of not my problem. “I promised I would fix Gus’s Ethernet problems during lunch!”

With that, he finally turned around and jogged up the stairs. Nicole had half a mind to just go with him and pretend like she knew anything about computers.

She sighed.

Waverly had left her a note saying Finally beat you to it! Going on a hike today. so she was out.

Nedley had mentioned something about having lunch with Chrissy, so she was out, too.

And who even knew where the hell Willa was. Probably starting rumors about her little sister , a grim, angry voice muttered in her chest, but she immediately shoved the thought away.

With a groan, Nicole took a tray and resigned herself to her fate of the most awkward lunch ever.

 

*

 

Waverly’s feet found their way through the forest practically on their own. She followed the path until it curved sharply to the left by an old oak, then found the little trail that she and Curtis used to take. It had all but vanished underneath a field of stinging-nettle that she had to navigate through very carefully, but Waverly knew it was there.

Briefly, she wondered if her and her uncle’s feet had been the last to follow the narrow strip of earth that led through this part of the forest. (Had he known, then? Had he taken this last walk with her knowing it might be the last, leaving her in the dark a little longer?)

She’d decided to go on this hike because she knew that, eventually, she’d have to think about Curtis.

About the fact that he was gone; that there would be an empty place in her life forever.

When he’d first told her that there was a problem with his health, she’d cried into his shoulder for hours. It had been selfish; he must’ve been scared, too, but Waverly hadn’t been able to stop. She remembered how a wet stain had blossomed on his patterned shirt, and how he’d just curled his arm around her, mumbling, “ It’s okay. You’ll be okay, kiddo,” under his breath every so often.

She’d cried and she’d cried, and she’d been absolutely terrified of the prospect of a world that didn’t have Curtis McCready in it.

But life had gone on, and Curtis hadn’t left by saying goodbye and getting on a train, never to be seen again. He’d left slowly.

At first, nothing much had changed, and Waverly had come home from school every weekend, doing her best not to fall apart whenever she thought about him.

Gus had never said a single word about any of it.

Then the summer had come; the summer that had been supposed to be her first year out in the world. But then the hospital visits had started. The oxygen tank had appeared by his side. Curtis had lost weight.

Waverly had spent her summer working at a coffee shop, and each time she’d spoken to her uncle, he’d told her to go on all the trips she’d planned. “I’ll go next year,” she’d promised him. “I’ll have my big adventure next year, and I’ll send you postcards from everywhere I go.”

Waverly’s feet carried her uphill, and the trees around her became scarcer the closer she got to the little clearing where she would take her first break on the big stone, where they’d always taken their first break. Had it always been this mossy?

Gus had called on a Friday, at half past six in the morning.

Waverly had known as soon as she’d seen the picture of her and Curtis light up her screen. She hadn’t cried. She’d just gotten dressed very slowly, and driven her Jeep to the hospital.

She hadn’t cried when she’d seen her uncle’s dead body, and she hadn’t cried when Gus had refused to stop hugging her so Waverly wouldn’t see her tears. She hadn’t cried at the funeral, either.

Waverly resumed her hike; across little creeks and over stone formations, up the stony side of the mountain and down its grass-covered back. If it had been a sunnier day, she might have taken a nap in one of the flowery meadows that led her back into the forest. Eventually, she began to wish that she could listen to some music, but immediately scolded herself.

This trip wasn’t supposed to be a distraction, she was supposed to think , she was supposed to process . It was the healthy thing to do.

It wasn’t like she’d been avoiding it. Or was it?

Thinking about Curtis felt like aiming for gold and missing the target altogether – like trying to cut through stone, and sliding off over and over again.

If Curtis had been there, he would have said just one thing. Waverly didn’t know what, but she was sure that he would have said one simple thing, and it would have tugged at just the right string of her heart, and she would have unraveled. Maybe she had lost her ability to cry right along with him.

Waverly kept sliding, and kept trying, determined to face her grief head-on and deal with it like she was supposed to.

She didn’t notice the clouds gathering above the crowns of the trees overhead.

 

*

 

“So, Jeremy,” Rosita said loudly, the moment Doc opened his mouth to say something to her. Jeremy looked up from the applesauce he was spooning up, eyes wide, the very image of a deer in the headlights. “How far along are the larvae you’re studying with your kids?”

With an exaggerated look of disgust, Wynonna dropped her fork into her food. “Dude. Come on.”

She had been excruciatingly oblivious to the tension at the table all through lunch. Nicole hunched her shoulders and ate faster.

“You—you want me to talk about the larvae?” Poor Jeremy repeated, sounding both hopeful and suspicious.

“No,” Wynonna said with gusto, at the same time as Rosita firmly stated: “Yes.”

Jeremy looked nervously at Doc, who smiled kindly at him. “Well, don’t look at me. I would barely understand a thing you’re talking about.”

Nicole resisted the urge to drown herself in her own applesauce, and was just contemplating a way to get out of this situation when she spotted Gus approaching their table with a frown etched into her face.

She sat up straighter.

“Good; you’re done,” Gus said instead of a greeting, completely ignoring the fact that the only person who had finished eating was Doc. “There’s been a severe weather warning for the storm tonight, so we’re going to have everyone sleep in the house for safety reasons. Afternoon classes are cancelled. We need to prepare.”

Nicole turned to have a look out the window; at some point in the past half hour, it had started to pour. Waverly , she thought with a jolt of worry. Next to her, Wynonna groaned.

“You want us to start moving the tables now ? They’re all still eating!”

But Gus wasn’t in the mood to argue with her niece. “Where are your sisters? We’re going to need all the help we can get.”

“Willa is asleep,” Wynonna said. “And Waverly…” She turned to Nicole.

“On a hike,” Nicole filled in. “I think I’m gonna drive out to the quarry to see if she’s there, if that’s alright with you?” The last part she directed at Gus, who nodded and waved her away.

Nicole got up and out of there before Gus could change her mind, making a beeline for the table where the Nedleys were sitting.

“Sorry to interrupt.” Chrissy and Randy looked up. “I’m going out to see if I can find Waverly and save her a trip through the rain, but Hunter is still in our unit.” Nicole turned to Chrissy, a little sheepishly. “Could you maybe bring him back here and keep an eye on him while I’m gone?”

Chrissy leaned back in her chair, looking her up and down. She raised an eyebrow, and Nicole could feel herself getting red in the face without really knowing why. “Sure,” Chrissy said, glancing at her nails now. “If it’s Waverly you’re going out to look for…”

Nicole decided not to get into whatever that meant, and stooped down to very quickly kiss her friend on the cheek. “Thanks, you’re the best. I owe you one!”

And with that, she jogged off towards the kitchen.

 

*

 

The very first raindrop had hit Waverly square in the forehead, and she’d very suddenly remembered the weather forecast. She’d looked at her wristwatch – it had been much later than she’d anticipated – and then a second drop had fallen onto her hand. The noise of water hitting leaves had begun to sound all around her, and in a matter of moments, it had been raining in earnest.

Swearing loudly, Waverly had started to run, trying to hoist her backpack over her head for protection, but it hadn’t done her much good.

Eventually, she’d reached the quarry and found shelter under a rusty, ribbed roof that had most likely once served to protect heavy machinery.

She was absolutely soaked. Her fleece jacket had done its best to repel the water for a while, but eventually, the fabric had given up and greedily swallowed up the rain, until the jacket hung from Waverly’s shoulders heavily. Drops of water were tickling on her scalp as they ran down her head, over her face, down the length of her nose.

Waverly shuddered; the run had kept her warm, but now that she was standing still, the wind turned her wet clothes into ice. Or at least it felt that way.

She had to get back to the camp before it got any worse. Underneath a tin roof in a quarry near the forest was not the ideal place to be in a thunderstorm. Waverly contemplated what her chances were that the rain would let up for a little bit, at least enough for her to really see where she was going. Not for the first time, she cursed the no phones rule.

She was just about to give up and make a run for it when a pair of strong headlights cut through the heavy rain, swinging a little when the car drove over a bump.

Curtis , Waverly thought for a long, wild moment.

He’d come to pick her up with the truck, like he’d come to pick her up a thousand times – from school, from parties gone wrong, from science excursions, from parties gone right. In a minute, she’d be inside the cab, where country music would be playing at a low volume, and it would smell of old leather, smoke, and the sharp scent of his cologne…

And then she swallowed, and the moment was over.

The blue Land Rover was headed towards her now, and Waverly realized that she must stand out in her pink jacket. Waverly began to worry that it might be someone who would tell her that she wasn’t supposed to be out here – she briefly wondered if she had any money in the backpack that she could offer in exchange for a ride back to the camp.

The car came to a halt in front of her, and after a moment, the passenger door was pushed open. Through the rainy haze, Waverly finally recognized red hair and that blue flannel—

“Are you coming, or what?” Nicole shouted over the constant noise of the rain hitting the puddles, the stone, her car, the tin roof.

She didn’t have to ask twice.

 

*

 

Nicole flicked on the heating and directed all the vents at Waverly. They were parked outside the camp so that Waverly could warm up a little; her teeth were chattering so much that she could barely hold onto her styro cup full of hot tea, but she drank deeply from it anyway.

“God.” Waverly leaned back against the passenger door, pulling up her feet under the blanket that Nicole had brought. “Thanks. You’re definitely my favorite person right about now.”

“Remind me to rescue you more often, then,” Nicole joked, but her heart was swelling a little. Her gaze fell to Waverly, disheveled and beautiful.

“I’m sorry you had to rescue me in the first place. I knew the storm was coming, and I was going to be back before it hit, but I just…” Waverly trailed off, tracing the lid of the cup with her fingertips. “Forgot.”

Nicole gave her a small smile, encouraging her to go on. “You forgot?”

Waverly let her head bump against the window, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “My Uncle Curtis…”

Nicole’s heart clenched with sympathy, but she swallowed the words of condolence that were already gathering in her throat when she saw Waverly’s distant expression. She remembered Camp Director Curtis; had met him last year on the handful of occasions that he’d been there. She’d known him to be a warm and kind-hearted man, and she’d been very sorry to hear about his passing from Nedley.

“He and I were very close, and I just…” Waverly fell silent again. “We used to go on walks together. We’d get up before everyone else, pack some food, and just hike around the area the whole day. We did that so often, and yet I…” One of her hands came up in a weak gesture, and fell back to where she was holding the cup against her chest with the other. Carelessly, she wiped at one of her eyes, but there were no tears, and her voice was firm. “This morning I realized—I couldn’t remember a single thing that we talked about on our last hike. Isn’t that weird? I know exactly which paths we took, where we stopped, where I took pictures… And so I thought, maybe, if I went back…” She trailed off and looked back at Nicole with a shy, embarrassed smile. “You know.”

“And did you?” Nicole kept the way her chest ached for Waverly so badly to herself.

Waverly shook her head. The tendons in her temples stuck out when she gritted her teeth, a flash of frustration crossing her features for a moment.

“I’m sorry,” Nicole said softly. “And I’m sorry the rain cut your day short.”

Waverly smiled at her. “It’s okay. Thanks for coming to get me. And with this, no less.” She raised her cup. “How do you know how I like my tea?”

Nicole shrugged and gave her a soft look. Wouldn’t you like to know?

(The truth was—she knew because everything about Waverly seemed to stick with her, from the way she gathered her hair in one hand and let it fall again while she was reading, to the fact that she let her tea steep for too long and added too much sugar.)

A stray strand of hair clung to Waverly’s cheek.

It was such a cliché temptation, Nicole could barely keep from laughing at the fact that this was her life. She knew she shouldn’t, except – why again?

It was just one touch. Friends touched each other. It would be weird if she started to avoid touching Waverly altogether. Right? People would notice. Waverly would notice.

Still, she really shouldn’t.

Nicole reached out. She was fully prepared to lean back again; she wasn’t some animal, she could control herself. She wouldn’t do anything stupid. One touch didn’t have to lead to… anything.

Even if time did seem to slow when she touched Waverly’s cheek, cold and wet beneath her fingers, even if it was suddenly so quiet in the car that she could hear Waverly’s breathing hitch, and even if all she wanted out of life right now was to—

No.

Gently, Nicole smoothed the strand of hair away. Easy. Friends.

But before she could pull her fingers back, Waverly’s hand wrapped around her own, gentle with her injured palm.

They looked at each other. Waverly’s gaze dropped to her mouth for a second, and fuck , wasn’t this past the borders of friendship? Was she imagining this? Nicole tried desperately to hold on to her sense of time, to remember how long this moment had been going on for, if this meant anything, but her heart was racing and all she knew was that Waverly Earp was looking at her like that and—

Very carefully, Waverly set her tea down on the dashboard.

For a split-second, Nicole was sure that the moment had passed, her blood rushing with both relief and disappointment, and then she didn’t think anything at all anymore.

Because Waverly sat up, wound her fingers into the soft fabric of Nicole’s flannel, and pulled her close.

The kiss was soft, and determined, and so, so good.

Waverly’s skin was cold and damp from the rain where Nicole cradled her face in both her hands, but her mouth – her mouth – was hot and sweet from the tea, and she was kissing her like nothing else mattered. Nicole could have gone out of her mind then and there when Waverly moved her tongue against her own; her hands that had somehow moved into Waverly’s hair tightened for a moment, and Waverly gasped against her lips, tugging her closer.

In a corner of her brain, a weak electric sizzle gave out the information that Nicole had never been kissed first before. The thought raced through her veins, burning like fire.

Waverly ran a hand up Nicole’s right arm, the other flat against her chest where her heart was beating wildly; she shivered when Nicole’s thumb traced a curve from her ear to her chin to tilt it up a bit.

If the kiss had never ended, it would have been too soon, but eventually, they slowed.

For a few seconds, Waverly just regarded her out of warm eyes, her fingers still stroking the nape of Nicole’s neck.

And then, suddenly, she seemed to remember herself, and pulled her hands away. Nicole opened her mouth to say something, anything , but before she could get her brain to cooperate, the car door clicked and Waverly was gone, leaving the blanket behind.

Nicole watched her sprint through the rain towards the entrance of the camp with her shoes untied, keeping her head down.

She leaned back against her seat and shakily blew out a breath. The tips of her fingers were still tingling from the lack of oxygen.

She was such a goner.

 

*

 

The preparations for the storm were sheer chaos .

Tables and chairs of the mess hall had to be pushed to the walls or moved into the storage as the Homestead was slowly transformed into a gigantic dormitory; sleeping bags and camping mats were hauled through the rain; kids chased each other through the puddles and slipped in the wet grass.

In the midst of all of that, Waverly made the executive decision to take a long, hot shower.

She knew the water at camp never ran as hot as she liked it, but now it felt almost scalding to her frozen fingers and toes.

Waverly stayed under the warm spray of water until not a millimeter of her felt cold anymore, until her muscles relaxed and exhaustion seeped through her skin.

At one point, the door of the shower room banged open and several pairs of feet shuffled in. Someone – Willa – yelled at a couple of campers for what must have been an actual game of mud-slinging. Judging by the way their voices were still laced with elation when they promised not to do it again, Waverly figured that it must have been fun.

She took care with toweling herself off, making sure that even the spaces between her toes were as dry as she could get them before she slipped into Uggs, yoga pants, and an old Camp Purgatory sweatshirt she’d stolen from Wynonna. She blow-dried her hair until it was soft and only slightly damp at the nape of her neck, and pulled it into a messy braid.

By the time she was done, the sky behind the windows high under the ceiling was dark with clouds.

She didn’t allow herself to think about what had happened in the car until she was safe and by herself in the tiled employee hallway behind the kitchen. But even clean and warm and with her heart rate closer to normal, her lips were still tingling with Nicole’s kiss, and the memory of her fingers on her neck made her knees buckle.

For each flash of memories she pushed away, another pressed close: The way Nicole had put her hand on the back of Waverly’s headrest to turn her massive car around. The way her mouth had tasted.

Pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes, Waverly leaned against the wall. How was she supposed to face Nicole now, in a room full of people and with this useless, restless heart in her chest?

“Waverly! Are you okay? Did Nicole find you in time?”

Waverly jumped. To her left, Wynonna was wrestling the door closed behind herself, looking like a drowned rat in a rain jacket. The wind howled as she shut it out, and Waverly shivered in the draft.

“I feel like I should be asking you that,” Waverly answered. She approached her sister, holding out one arm.

Wynonna shook her head, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “You don’t wanna hug me, I am somehow both sweaty and soaked in ice-cold rain. I just went to check on all the units, and they’re all zipped up and should be fine.”

She peeled out of her raincoat, raindrops flying everywhere. Waverly took a step back. “Careful!”

Wynonna was just about to retort something, but got distracted by something behind her sister. She leaned to the side and raised an eyebrow.

“And what do you think you’re doing?” she asked, in full counselor-mode.

Waverly swiveled around to see two startled children looking back at them, clearly caught in the middle of sneaking out behind their counselors’ backs: Leo and Madison.

Waverly drew herself up to her full height of 5’4” and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Well?”

“Uhm,” Leo said. “We forgot something?”

Waverly raised her eyebrows.

“Well, looks like you got this covered. I’m gonna go take a shower,” Wynonna murmured behind her, and off she was, leaving Waverly and the two campers alone in their impromptu staring match.

( One of them had grown up with Wynonna and Willa Earp for big sisters, and could play this game forever, Waverly thought grimly.)

“What is so important that you think you need to sneak out during a thunderstorm to get it?” Waverly demanded.

Madison and Leo exchanged a glance.

“Uhm,” Madison said, nervously chewing her lower lip. “My… uh…”

“Scarf,” Leo finished quickly. “Her scarf.”

“Yeah. My throat is feeling kind of scratchy.”

“That’s not good, Maddie. You need a scarf for that.”

“I know, right? So we should go right now and—“

Madison took a step towards the door, and Waverly reached out to hook one finger in the hood of her sweater. “Oh, I don’t think so, young lady.”

With a sigh, she crouched down to be on the same eye level, looking from Leo to Madison and back.

“What’s going on here?”

For a long moment, both kids were quiet, and Waverly could hear the cacophony of a hundred voices talking and laughing behind the wall to her right.

Finally, Leo rolled his eyes and threw his hands up. “We were just trying to get something for Benny. But he doesn’t want anyone to know, so we can’t tell you what it is. Trust us, it’s important, okay?”

Waverly sighed and rubbed at her forehead. “Well, I can’t let you go outside anymore, and all the units are all closed up anyway. Can you at least tell me what’s wrong?”

“He… doesn’t like the storm,” Madison mumbled, kicking at the ground a little. Then she looked up at Waverly sharply. “But we’re telling you that in secret, okay?”

Oh.

Waverly thought of Benny, the soft-hearted boy with the dark eyes and the talent for art. Her heart warmed at the thought of Leo and Madison braving the storm to get whatever it was that would bring their friend some comfort – whether it was a stuffed animal or one of his mom’s old T-shirts. They were good kids.

Waverly fidgeted with the end of her braid.

“I understand,” she finally told them. “Look, I still can’t let you go, but I might know something that could help anyway.”

She sighed again.

So much for avoiding Nicole for a bit.

 

*

 

“Hey.”

Nicole looked up from where she was unrolling her sleeping bag, and there she was.

If she hadn’t been thinking about anything other than kissing Waverly for the past two hours, it was definitely impossible to think of anything else now. She looked fresh and comfortable, and achingly beautiful.

Nicole cleared her throat and stood up. “Hey,” she said carefully.

Waverly glanced away, the muscles in her jaw standing out briefly as she swallowed, before looking back again as if to check whether Nicole was still looking at her.

And she was – at this moment, she couldn’t have looked at anyone else to save her life.

“I need to borrow your dog,” Waverly blurted out, and, when Nicole frowned in confusion, hastily added: “I mean – if it’s okay with you. One of the campers—I think he could use some… canine company. Can Hunter sit with him for a bit?”

A blush had crept up from below the neckline of her oversized sweater and onto her face, and Waverly rubbed at her forehead nervously. Her sleeves, haphazardly folded back over her slim wrists, were slipping down her arms. Nicole wanted to reach out and quiet her, find some way to say It’s okay, I understand.

(She wanted to step in close and wrap her arms around Waverly, lean her mouth against her temple and breathe her in.)

Instead, she smiled, a little belatedly. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, of course.”

Waverly smiled back. She opened her mouth as if to say something else, but seemed to change her mind, and then she was gone again.

Nicole sighed inwardly. She watched as Hunter jumped across four rows of sleeping bags when Waverly called for him. Waverly bent down to pet him and ruffle the fur behind his ears, then led him to the corner beneath the stairs, where Benny was sitting on his sleeping bag, back against the wall. Leo was sitting with him, and Madison was standing in front of them as if to shield her friends.

They exchanged a few words, and Waverly made a flat hand. Hunter licked his snout and sank to the ground obediently, his eyes trained on her.

Nicole saw Benny reach out a tentative hand for Hunter and smiled to herself when her dog immediately took the opportunity to lick his fingers. Benny looked at Waverly, crouched beside him, and smiled a little when she said something.

“Nicole! Are you planning on striking roots over there?”

The first flash of lightning painted the whole room in sharp, white light for a second; a few campers screeched, and Nicole almost jumped out of her skin.

 

*

 

Dinner had been a complicated affair, but eventually, they’d gotten everyone settled with some sandwiches. Tea, water, and orange juice had been passed around in carafes – only one sleeping bag had wound up soaked in the process when a clap of thunder had made someone drop their glass. Doc and Rosita had sung a few campfire songs with some of the kids in one corner of the room, another corner had been declared The Reading Island, and a group of children had piled together in a quiet heap of blankets, bodies, and flashlights.

Around half past ten, Gus had finally declared that it was lights-out time. Some of the counselors had decided to stay up for another bit and talk in the kitchen, but Waverly could barely keep her eyes open as it was. She was exhausted.

She’d crawled into her sleeping bag first, but then she’d heard Nicole slip into hers about ten minutes ago – so naturally, she was lying wide awake, staring up at the ceiling and keeping one ear out for the storm that was rattling the windows and whistling in every crack of the old house, hyperaware of the quiet presence by her side. She felt hot.  

Just breathe, she told herself. You’re both adults, everything is fine.

And maybe she could have been successful in calming herself down, but—

“Waverly,” Nicole whispered in the dark, so soft and so close, and Waverly just wanted her.

She felt hot and cold all over with it, could barely breathe through the tug in her stomach that was pulling her towards where Nicole was curled up next to her. She’d been trying so hard to keep this under control; stashed it in a box and labeled it fun crush, but this didn’t feel exactly fun.

God, she wanted her.

“Waverly, are you awake?”

The air between them felt so thick with her desire to be closer that Waverly could hardly trust herself to speak. But this was Nicole, she reminded herself – lovely, beautiful, smart-mouthed Nicole – who was going through a divorce. Who hadn’t said anything about what happened in the car. Who was probably just flirtatious with everyone.

(But she kissed me back, something in her chest murmured, and Waverly felt like she was burning.)

“No,” she whispered back, voice rough.

Nicole laughed silently. “Okay then. Just checking.”

Waverly could hear her stupid fond grin turning up the corners of her mouth as she spoke, and – oh, no, she couldn’t be thinking about Nicole’s mouth; but it was too late.

“What is it,” she murmured, in an attempt to think of anything other than the way Nicole smelled like rain and toothpaste and fabric softener. They were facing each other in the dark now; there was a part of Waverly that wanted to reach out to feel how close they were.

Thunder rumbled in the distance.

“I just wanted to say that you’re really good at this. Counseling. You handled that whole situation with Benny incredibly well.”

It was a nice sentiment, but Waverly was currently on fire, and hearing Nicole whisper compliments in her ear was just too much.

“Thanks,” she croaked. She shifted and turned onto her back.

Just breathe. In, and out. She could do this. Above her, the rain pelted the roof, just like it had this afternoon. A few rows of isolation mats down, someone giggled loudly, and Gus’s shushing followed suit.

Next to Waverly, the sleeping bag rustled when Nicole rolled onto her back, too.

Good.

And then Nicole’s hand found hers, quietly linking their fingers.

Waverly closed her eyes, heart hammering.

Chapter Text

“Waverly.”

 

The first time Waverly had woken up, she’d been shivering violently, and the storm had been pushing and groping at the Homestead. Waverly had worried about the camp; worried the wind might tear at the canvas of the tents or knock over trees. Too tired to stay awake, too cold and concerned to truly rest, she’d fallen back into an uneasy sleep.

 

This was much better.

 

“Waverly!”

 

It wasn’t cold anymore. The storm must have stopped. She felt good, and heavy, and ready to let sleep pull her under into a comfortable haze again—

 

“Waves, wake up , for fuck’s sake.”

 

—except someone was hissing in her ear.

 

“What is it?” she murmured, snuggling back against the solid warmth of Nicole—

 

Oh crap .

 

Very abruptly, she sat up. Wynonna was crouched next to her mat, regarding her anxiously. With heat rising in her cheeks, Waverly checked to make sure Nicole hadn’t noticed anything, but she seemed sound asleep.

 

“Willa is gone.”

 

“Gone,” Waverly echoed, confused.

 

God, she hadn’t been awake for one minute, and there were already too many things on her plate. Shit, she’d sleep-cuddled Nicole. Or had Nicole sleep-spooned her? She rubbed at her face. “What do you mean, she’s gone?”

 

Wynonna was casting her eyes around the room, looking harried and concerned.

 

“I mean,” she hissed, “she’s gone. Gus asked where she is, and I said she went to the bathroom, but she was already not here anymore when I woke up.”

 

“So?” Waverly reached up to twist her hair into a knot, and secured it with a tie that had pressed a red circle around her wrist overnight. She hissed when her fingers got caught in a kink. “Maybe she went for a walk or something—“

 

“I’ve been awake since five,” her sister interrupted her.

 

That woke Waverly up.

 

What? ” she whisper-shouted back, scrambling to get up. “And you didn’t say anything? Wynonna, she could be anywhere! With the storm, she could be hurt !”

 

Angrily, she rammed her feet into her Uggs and dragged Wynonna with her in the direction of the kitchen.

 

“She vanishes all the time!” Wynonna defended herself. “She said she just needs to get out of here sometimes! I don’t know where she goes, exactly, but as long as she is back by morning, I told her I don’t care if she goes to live it up in the nearest bar or whatever. If she wants to blow all her money on taxis and beer, who am I to judge?”

 

“Jesus.” Waverly ushered her sister into the employee hallway, where they grabbed their jackets, Wynonna’s movements jerky and hurried.

 

“She’s always back in the morning, and usually, she tells me when she leaves, but this time...“

 

Fantastic, Waverly thought bitterly as she zipped up her jacket. Nothing has changed.

When Waverly had been ten years old, Willa had borrowed Curtis’s ATV—without asking, of course.

 

Don’t piss your pants, ” she’d told Waverly, “ we’ll be back before they know it. Now are you coming or not?

 

Waverly had shaken her head, and Willa’s gaze had fallen to Wynonna without further ado.

 

But I get to drive this thing, ” she’d said after a beat, and she’d thrown Waverly a look as she’d climbed on the vehicle with Willa. It hadn’t exactly been apologetic, but Waverly had always remembered that look. It had been the reason why she had faked an emergency when Curtis had gone near the shed.

 

“We’re gonna look for her,” Waverly said.

 

“And where the hell are we supposed to start? The roads?”

 

Feeling a little grim from her trip to the past, Waverly couldn’t help but be pleased that for once, Wynonna got to be on this side of the situation, too.

 

“Do you have a better idea? And just to be clear, if we haven’t found her in an hour, we’re telling Gus.”

 

“What are you telling Gus?” a sharp voice said from behind the door Waverly had just swung open. Willa was looking back at them flatly.

 

Fuck , Willa.”

 

For a moment, it looked like Wynonna was going to hug their older sister, then she pressed the heels of her palms to her forehead instead. A moment later, she doubled over to prop herself up on her knees, letting out a slow breath of relief.

 

Waverly’s brow furrowed. “Where have you been?”

 

Willa threw her an irritated look and pushed past her into the Homestead. “I went to check on the cars.”

 

“You went to check on the cars,” Waverly repeated, her frown deepening. Somehow, Willa’s unfazed expression and the way she raised her eyebrows ever so minutely was infuriating. Waverly felt ten again.

 

“Yeah. I’m sorry, should I have checked with you first? Made sure you know where I am at all times? Should I maybe wear an ankle monitor?”

 

She made a show of furiously kicking off her sneakers, her eyes trained on Waverly.

Waverly opened her mouth to say something, but Wynonna was faster.

 

“What are you talking about? I’ve been up for hours, you weren’t checking on any cars.” She sounded confused. “C’mon, Wil, it’s us. You don’t have to lie. We’ve been worried, where have you been?”

 

It only seemed to infuriate Willa even further. “Oh, nice. You’re spying on me, too. That’s perfect.” She almost spat out that last word. “If you two want to stand here and continue to accuse me of whatever it is that you’re accusing me of, be my fucking guests.”

 

She left them standing there, her hair flying in a perfect halo as she whipped around.

Waverly and Wynonna exchanged a glance, and Wynonna pulled up her shoulders perplexedly.

 

*

 

Nicole trudged across the wet grass and whistled sharply when Hunter, a few meters ahead, became a little too interested in a muddy puddle. The storm and the rain had cleaned the air and knocked down the temperature by a couple of degrees, but the sun was already on its way to climbing back in its midday place behind a thin layer of clouds.

 

Still, Nicole shivered in the slight breeze.

 

Hunter came bounding back towards her, threatening to get his dirty paws on her jeans, and she side-stepped him.

 

“Dude, no, you’re all—“

 

Something at the far end of the path caught her eye, a movement.

 

A man was moving around there, wearing a long coat with a thick fur collar that seemed too warm for the season, even with the chilly morning air. He decidedly did not belong on camp grounds. Something about the way he carried himself reminded Nicole of a well-fed cat; lazy, confident, and up to no good.

 

She furrowed her brow. “Hunter, heel .”

 

Her dog, who had noticed the stranger, too, and begun to approach him, circled back to her side immediately.

 

Nicole picked up her pace, but the man did not notice her until she was only about three meters away. “Excuse me,” Nicole said as soon as she was close enough, “can I help you with something?”

 

She knew that this conversation was not going to go over easily as soon as he turned around. He looked at her out of watery blue eyes, almost amused to see her there. Instead of a reply, he gave her a slow, uncomfortable once-over.

 

“Sir, you can’t be here,” Nicole told him. “This is private property.”

 

“Oh, is it?” the man feigned surprise, a threat in his demeanor. There was something about his voice that Nicole couldn’t quite place, and she didn’t like it.

 

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” Nicole said again, more sternly this time.

 

Very slowly, the stranger sauntered over to where the mountain bikes were chained together. “Are these private property, too?” he asked casually. He ran a palm over the frame of one of the new bikes, the ones Nicole and Wynonna had picked up just earlier this week.

 

She said nothing, just tracked his movements with caution. This guy clearly wasn’t taking her seriously, and he didn’t seem like the type who would allow her to physically drag him away, or respond well to the mention of cops. She sighed.

 

“Sir, if I could just—“

 

But she didn’t get to finish her sentence. The man raised one foot and delivered a powerful kick against the bike he’d stroked just a moment ago, and the impact of his heavy-duty boot made it crash into the next bike. With a horrific noise, the whole row collapsed to the ground, and Nicole could see the spokes on one of them bend like a paperclip. Hunter barked, alarmed.

 

“Hey!” With a few steps, Nicole had crossed he distance and was reaching for the man’s elbow. “What the hell are you doing —“

 

There was a dull, very loud noise, and pain exploded all over the right side of her face as her head snapped to the side.

 

Nicole stumbled.

 

The man had backhanded her.

 

Tears sprang to her eyes and her right ear was ringing, ringing —Nicole’s foot caught on something, and she fell into the heap of mountain bikes, one knee painfully connecting with a wheel.

 

“Don’t. Touch ,” the stranger enunciated clearly, and his voice was so calm it was as if he was just having a normal conversation with her. Somewhere close by, Hunter was still barking up a storm, and Nicole worried that the man’s temper might erupt again and he’d kick him. Hunter, go , she wanted to say, but her entire head was pulsating with pain, and her body wasn’t cooperating.

 

The man stepped into her field of vision.

 

With great effort, Nicole managed to push herself up into a half-sitting position and tried to think, think , she needed to de-escalate this situation somehow, his boots were so close—

 

“Step away from the girl, Bobo.”

 

Nicole wasn’t sure if she’d ever been so relieved to hear someone’s voice. The man – Bobo, apparently – swiveled around, and Nicole could see Randy Nedley behind him.

 

In his hand, short but well-honed and curving into a sharp point, was his wood-carving knife. His fingers were relaxed around the handle of it, not a threat – the knife was just there, almost innocently present.

 

“You’re trespassing,” he said in a low voice. “And I just saw you physically assault a camp counselor. You should know this, because the police are on their way. You’re welcome to stay and wait for them, but… between you and me, Bobo, I think the smart thing for you to do would be to get the hell out of here.”

 

Hunter, now pressed against Nedley’s leg, had finally quieted, but his hackles were still raised.

 

“You’re bluffing, old man,” Bobo huffed.

 

Nedley didn’t miss a beat. “Stay here and find out, son.”

 

For a long moment, Nicole thought Bobo would attack Nedley, and feverishly, she wondered if she had it in her to kick the stranger’s legs away—but then Bobo spat on the ground, growled something like, “You’ll pay for this,” and left.

 

Nicole sank back against the stack of bikes beneath her. The sky was sickeningly bright, and she was grateful when Nedley’s shadow fell over her. With the tension slowly easing away, the throbbing only seemed to intensify.

 

“C’mon, kid,” Nedley murmured, reaching for her shoulder. “Let’s get you inside.”

 

*

 

“Waverly, can I have a second packet of jam?”

 

“That depends, are you planning on eating it with bread?”

 

“…Yes?”

 

“I don’t know, Chris, you seem an awful lot like you’re lying to me right now. You’re not getting more jam just so you can squeeze it directly into your mouth.”

 

“Dang it!” The fourth-grader with the wide gap between his front teeth snapped his fingers and then moved down the line to receive an apple with his breakfast.

 

Waverly laughed and packed another tray: roll of bread, butter, jam. She handed it to the kid next in line.

 

When she reached for the next packet of butter, she had to fumble around in the box for a bit before she found one – her supply was almost empty. With a sigh, she called for Jeremy and asked him to take over while she went into the kitchen to get a new crate.

 

Waverly hadn’t realized how loud it was in the mess hall until she pulled open the door to the kitchen, and gave an automatic sigh of relief at the decrease in volume. A group of people was clustered around the far end of the kitchen; Waverly caught Wynonna’s gaze mid-conversation, and Nicole seemed to reside on the kitchen island, leaned back on one arm.

 

Something about the way her sleeves were rolled up struck Waverly, and the feeling was immediately followed by an irrational wave of mild annoyance. It wasn’t Nicole’s fault that Waverly didn’t know how to feel about her, of course.

 

But it also kind of was.

 

Waverly got a new box of butter packets from one of the shelves, and was just getting ready to make a remark along the lines of Don’t you people have anything better to do than sit around and gossip when she saw the look on Doc’s face, and the ice pack in his hand, and—

 

Something was wrong with Nicole.

 

“What happened?” Her breakfast duties forgotten, she dropped the box on the counter and rounded the kitchen island, fingers shaking.

 

“We got a visit from Bobo del Rey,” Wynonna filled her in. “Nicole here asked him to leave and he decked her.”

 

Nicole —pale, and with an ice pack covering half of her face— gave a weak grin and waved her fingers. It tugged at Waverly. She felt helpless. A part of her wanted to touch Nicole, reach out and run her fingertips over her face, like she could make sure she was okay that way.

 

Another part was ready to get a canister of gas and set fire to everything this godforsaken Bobo held dear.

 

“What time of the day is it?” Doc asked in a quiet voice.

 

“Morning,” Nicole answered obediently.

 

“What month are we in?”

 

“July.”

 

“What did you do last weekend?”

 

“Went to a dairy farm with some of the kids.”

 

“Very good, and what are you doing this weekend?”

 

“It’s Parent Visit Day.”

 

“What are the words I asked you to remember earlier?”

 

“Uhm… cat, pen, shoe, car. No, wait: shoe, book , car.”

 

“Alright.” Doc seemed satisfied for now.

 

He handed her two pills and a glass of water, and Nicole moved the ice pack away to take both. The right side of her face was swelling angrily, and shining red where something had impacted low on her cheekbone.

 

Waverly cursed under her breath, her heart beating in her mouth.

 

“How are you feeling?” She touched Nicole’s leg, fingers running over the rough denim.

 

“Like someone hit me in the face and I fell into a stack of bikes?” Nicole said with a grimace, and then flinched, because Waverly’s fingers had tightened. Murmuring an apology, she quickly pulled her hand back. The shape of Nicole’s knee cap seemed to linger on the pads of her fingers, and she brushed her thumb over them.

 

“I should have thrown that no-good idiot on his ass with my own two hands,” Nedley seethed to her right. Even Wynonna had her eyebrows knitted together, her mouth in a thin, straight line.

 

“I’m afraid he would sooner have given you a shiner to match this one.” Doc went to apply ointment to the swollen skin, and Nicole hissed softly. “Your little bluff there was risky enough. Does Gus know about this yet?”

 

Nedley grumbled. “I’ll go and tell her.” He pushed off the counter he’d been leaning against, and patted Nicole’s shoulder in passing. “Hang in there, kid.”

 

“I’ll be good as new by noon,” Nicole promised with determination.

 

Doc pointed at her in warning. “No. You’re out of commission until further notice.”

 

“It’s really not that bad—“

 

“I figured you’d be one of those types, but this is not up for debate.”

 

“But I can—“

 

“Nicole,” Waverly interrupted mildly, and waited until their eyes met. “If you don’t listen to every single thing Doc says, I will personally drive you to the nearest emergency room.”

 

A little puzzled, Nicole opened her mouth again, but Wynonna was quicker.

 

“You don’t want to test my sister,” she advised. “And when it comes down to it, I’ll help her wrestle you into the car. So, what else does the doctor prescribe?”

 

Doc looked at his patient. “I want you under closer supervision for the next eighteen hours.”

 

Nicole groaned.

 

Wynonna perked up immediately. “Ooh, babysitting instead of working. Sweet! I’ll do it.” She winked.

 

“Oh?” Doc smirked at her. “You’ll wake her up every hour tonight to make sure she doesn’t have a concussion? That’s unusually dedicated and selfless of you.”

 

“Um,” Wynonna said, “maybe I’ll just take first shift.”

 

“Thanks, Wynonna,” Nicole drawled, rolling her eyes.

 

There was a knock on the door, and Jeremy stuck his head in. “Wave? I’m out of butter, can you…“

 

“Be right there,” Waverly told him. She turned to Nicole. “I’ll wake you up. I have to go help out with the breakfast line now, but I’ll be back to check on you soon, okay?”

 

“It’s not a big deal,” Nicole said. Her voice was soft, and Waverly felt it again, that closeness that Nicole could evoke without even trying. “I can wake myself up, I have—“

 

“I’ll wake you up,” Waverly repeated firmly, and went up on her tiptoes to pull her into a short hug. Their cheeks brushed accidentally (Nicole smelled like Neosporin and her shampoo), and Waverly let go quickly.

 

*

 

The storm had risen up dust and dirt from between the floorboards of the camp units, had ripped some of the cords holding down the canvasses and blown rain into a tent or two. Water had collected on every surface, and the kids liked to hit the tarp of their tents from inside so the puddles would splash people standing outside.

 

The atmosphere on the camp grounds was erratic: with the memories of yesterday’s mud fights fresh in their minds and the giddy sense of a night out of the ordinary still in their bones, the campers were not feeling particularly cooperative. Members of the maintenance crew did their best to sweep the units and get everything back to functional before lunch, but kept getting interrupted by hordes of over-energized children, chased by exasperated counselors. Some of the maintenance staff were better at dealing with the chaos than others; laughter was just as likely to be heard as angry snapping, sometimes followed by the wailing of a more delicate camper.

 

Most morning classes had been cancelled so that everyone could move their beddings and belongings from the Homestead back to their tents – which, of course, resulted in two sleeping bags, five pillows, and a stuffed rabbit landing in the dirty sludge that the grass had become. The industrial washing machine was turned on, and under the watchful eyes of a tear-stained first-grader, Shorty washed the stuffed rabbit by hand.

 

By the time noon rolled around, the campers were keyed up and on edge, most of them overtired, and the adults were exhausted, but too busy to notice.

 

Wynonna had regretted her choice to keep an eye on Nicole several times throughout the morning. “Looking after you is like herding a bag of fleas,” she grumbled at one point. “Can’t you just sit down and enjoy your Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card?”

 

“I’d love a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card,” Nicole complained in return, “but instead, I’m tied down here with you while we’re clearly short on everything.”

 

With a groan, Wynonna let her head drop back. “You’re such an overachiever. I can’t believe we’re friends.”

 

“Don’t you want to help out?”

 

A nine-year-old completely covered in mud shot past them, giggling like a maniac. On her heels followed Jeremy, shouting for her to stop dragging dirt into the house.

 

Wynonna pursed her lips and moved her head from side to side slowly. “Eh,” she said, “I think I’m good.”

 

“Well, that makes one of us,” Nicole replied miserably. She was much faster than Jeremy. She would have caught that girl quicker than she could have said But, Nicole . Instead, she was stuck here with her hand slowly turning blue from holding up an ice pack at all times.

 

She flinched when Wynonna knocked on the table between them. “Hey! Stop sulking and eat your food, hotshot.”

 

You eat your food.” It was childish, but what could Nicole say—Wynonna brought it out in her.

 

Her friend rolled her eyes. “If you could stop pining for work for a second, you’d notice that I have, in fact, already finished my food. You, on the other hand, have barely touched yours. Get some sustenance in your stomach, or I’ll rat you out to Doc.”

 

Nicole shot her a sinister glare. “Chewing hurts.”

 

“Suck on it, then.”

 

“That’s what she—“

 

“Nicole!” Gus had approached their table.

 

Nicole snapped her mouth shut and felt the blush creep up on her face. “Yes?”

 

The camp director pulled up a chair and sat down next to them. She looked tired, but her eyes were smart and alert as always, scrutinizing Nicole closely. “How are you feeling? Any signs of a concussion?”

 

The last part was directed at Wynonna, who shook her head. “She’s well enough to complain about not getting to work and not wanting to eat her food.”

 

Tattletale , Nicole mouthed at her while Gus’s head was turned, and then said aloud: “I’m fine, really.”

 

“Huh,” Gus said ambiguously, but her brow was furrowed with suspicion. “Well, I reported this to the police, and they’re coming here to talk to you and Randy. Do you feel up for that?”

 

“Oh,” Nicole shifted her ice pack from her face to her left knee—Gus didn’t flinch, but her eyebrows moved together at the sight of the bruise on her face. “Well, if they want to talk to me…”

 

Wynonna was just about to say something when her gaze was drawn by something behind Nicole, and her face first relaxed, then looked questioning. Nicole turned around with her whole torso; her neck hurt from where her head had jerked around.

 

Xavier was moving towards them swiftly, a frown on his face. His eyes were trained on Gus.

“Hey, Dolls,” Wynonna greeted languidly, “how’s it goin’?”

 

He spared her a glance, then looked back at Gus. “Hey,” he said curtly, and then continued: “There’s a problem.” Nicole sat up straighter, and so did Gus. “Have you called the police already?”

 

“Yes,” Gus said slowly, sounding confused, “they’re on their way here. What happened, Xavier?”

 

“There’s something they should take a look at. Maintenance noticed that something was wrong with the tow mechanism, and at first we thought it was storm damage, but… I went to have a look at it myself, and those wires were cut, not ripped.” Xavier had let his gaze swing from one of them to the other, and now finally settled on Gus, who stood up. “Someone sabotaged the cable ski system.”

 

“Bobo,” Wynonna spat immediately, and Xavier nodded.

 

“That’s what we thought, too.”

 

Nicole was horrified. If they hadn’t noticed the faulty wires, children could have been seriously injured. What on earth was this Bobo guy’s problem ?

 

Gus, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care much what his problem was. “That boy has tangled with the wrong people,” she promised in a low, dangerous voice. “Nicole, please be in my office at two.”

*

When Waverly’s wristwatch began to beep incessantly for the first time, it was eleven at night. She found herself immediately and unfortunately wide awake, like she’d just taken a power nap. In the very dim light of the ancient camping lantern Wynonna had left for them, she looked over to Nicole’s cot: her tent-mate was still asleep, like she’d been when Waverly had finally found her way back to her unit and relieved Wynonna of her duty.

 

With a sigh, Waverly slipped out from under the covers and shuffled over the planks of the tent floor; she couldn’t help but try to be quiet, even though she was about to wake Nicole anyway.

 

Except… how? Was she supposed to grab her shoulder and shake her?

 

Tentatively, Waverly reached out a hand.

 

And pulled it back.

 

Curling her fingers, she rubbed her thumb over her knuckles, unable to bring herself to touch Nicole. Maybe shaking her would hurt her head? (Maybe feeling her skin burn through the material of her navy-blue sleep shirt would loosen something in Waverly’s chest, or detangle something in her mind, or—)

 

She worried her lip between her teeth and regarded Nicole. A bruise had spread over the right side of her face, and even though the swelling had gone down a little, Waverly doubted that she’d be able to open her eye all the way.

 

God, she could have killed that Bobo. Entering her home, breaking their equipment, hurting her friend… If she ever saw that man, she’d—

 

She sighed. “Nicole,” she whispered, then cleared her throat in a nervous habit. “Nicole, wake up.”

 

It took a few moments, but eventually, Nicole stirred in her sleeping bag; slow, sleepy movements until she had managed to sit up. She groaned and slowly let her head roll.

 

“Okay. I’m awake,” she murmured, “thanks.”

 

Waverly watched her like a hawk as she reached for her water bottle and unscrewed the top. “Are you okay? Do you feel sick?”

 

“I’m fine. Just a crick in my neck.”

 

Remembering the paper that she’d gotten from Doc’s office earlier, Waverly got up and retrieved it from the small table at the back of the tent. Sport Concussion Assessment Tool , it read in black letters across the top.

 

Against the unusual quiet surrounding them, Waverly cleared her throat again. “Are you feeling drowsy at all?”

 

Nicole gave her a look. “I literally just woke up, Waves.”

 

“Oh. Right. Well…” She scanned the sheet of paper and flipped it over. “Can you repeat the following digits backwards for me? Six, two, nine, four.”

 

“Four, nine, two, six,” Nicole dutifully recounted.

 

“Eight, three, two, seven, nine.”

 

“Nine, seven, two, three, eight – you do realize that this is the assessment for right after an incident, right?”

 

There was a hint of a smirk on her face that didn’t falter even when Waverly glared at her.

 

“Walk across the unit so I can see that your balance is fine,” she ordered, and then, a little softer, she added: “Humor me?”

 

With a good-natured eye-roll – she could indeed not open her right eye completely – Nicole got up and crossed the tent, setting one foot in front of the other like she was walking a tightrope.

 

“Happy?” she asked, once she had returned to her bed.

 

“Very,” Waverly shot back, and set a new timer.

 

*

 

“I’m already awake,” Nicole said before Waverly had time to even turn off her alarm.

 

The second round of Ibuprofen Doc had granted her after dinner had worn off around half an hour ago, and her face was throbbing .

 

“Alright,” Waverly’s voice, thick with sleep, came from the other side of the tent. There was some shuffling around, and the rustling of paper. “Can you tell me the names of the months in reverse—“

 

“Waverly, those questions are for the immediate assessment,” Nicole reminded her. She knew it wasn’t a particularly warm night, but the air felt stifling anyway. She wistfully thought back to the way she had barely felt injured during the day; now that she was lying down and her ice pack was no longer cool, everything hurt .

 

For a moment, there was silence. “Sorry,” Waverly said in a small voice. “How are you feeling, then?”

 

Sensing the shift of atmosphere from quiet to conversation , Hunter got up from his spot. His claws clicked on the planks as he stretched and yawned. Nicole groaned. “No, buddy, lie down again. It’s not morning yet. Hunter, down . I’m fine,” she added.

 

Her dog obediently sank down in the middle of the tent, ears pricked up and eyes trained on her, clearly waiting for her to do something.

 

“Are you sure?” Waverly wanted to know. “You sound a little annoyed. Are you in pain?”

 

Hunter whined softly. Nicole hadn’t been able to go on their usual daily walks with him, had only asked Rosita and Jeremy to take him to the forest for a bit so he could relieve himself. Did he really need to go out, or was he just not sufficiently tuckered out?

 

“Nicole?”

 

“Yes, Waverly,” she said, a bit more impatient than necessary. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes against the sickly glow of the camping lantern. “Sorry,” she amended. “Yes, I’m in a bit of pain, but not more than I would expect.”

 

More rustling; Waverly was sitting up. “Do you need anything?”

 

Hunter yipped the world’s tiniest bark, and Nicole really just wanted to sleep.

 

“Could you—“ But no, this wasn’t fair. She wasn’t an invalid, and it was the middle of night for Waverly, too. “Never mind.”

 

“No,” Waverly said quickly, a little too loud. “No, I’ll do it. What do you need?”

 

With a sigh, Nicole sank back against her pillow. “Could you go out with Hunter for five minutes? Maybe he needs to pee, and I’m—“

 

“Not a problem.” Waverly was already on her feet, sliding into her soft boots and reaching for a sweater to pull over her pajama top.

 

She was back fifteen minutes later, bringing in a soothing breeze, a calmer dog, and an ice pack Nicole hadn’t thought to ask for.

 

*

 

The tiny glowing rectangle on her wrist told Waverly that it was half past one in the morning, and it also told her that she needed to be awake.

 

She did not want to be awake.

 

“Nicole,” she rasped into the darkness. She’d turned off the lamp before she’d gone back to bed, and now she wondered if that had been a mistake. Maybe the weak light had kept her from falling in too deep a sleep before? She felt like she had been hit by a truck.

 

“Yeah,” came a sigh from the other end of the tent. “Yeah, I’m awake.“ A yawn. “Let’s see. No sickness, no unusual headache, we’re at Camp Purgatory, your name is Waverly, and the prime numbers counted down from a hundred are, uh… 97, 89… 83—“

 

“Alright, alright.”

 

Waverly could tell by her tone that Nicole was just joking, maybe trying to lighten the mood, but she felt weirdly awkward and bare in the dark. They were quiet for a moment.

 

“Do you feel better?” Waverly asked eventually. “Do you need more ice?”

 

“No. No, thank you, this is good.”

 

Her voice was gentle again, and there it was once more: that feeling that was so unplaceable, perilous and intimate like a soft wind rising all around her, and so close . Waverly’s breath lurched in her lungs, and when she inhaled, it sounded like the sharp noise of folding paper.

 

More to herself than to Nicole, she said: “Okay… So…” She trailed off. She couldn’t concentrate. Great. This did not help with the awkwardness.

 

Nicole saved her. “So what do you want to do? When you’re done with your studies?”

 

“Uhm.” The question caught her off-guard. She tried to drag herself out of the dark, quiet camp where she was drowsy and vulnerable, and into the bright and clean rooms of her university library. “I kind of want to… never be done with my studies. Stay in academia. There’s more to learn and find out than I could ever do in my lifetime. So the plan is to just… keep on doing research. Maybe, hopefully, they’ll eventually pay me for it.”

 

Nicole laughed softly. “They should. You’re brilliant. But you have three subjects at the moment, right? Forestry, Biology, and Earth Science? Do you think you’ll focus on one of them, eventually?”

 

With a fake gasp, Waverly gave Nicole a look, even though she knew she couldn’t see her. “You mean choose between them ? How dare you.”

 

“Oh, no, sorry,” Nicole snickered, “what was I thinking?”

 

“No, but seriously… I mean, Biology is my major for a reason. So the plan is that one day, I’ll get my PhD in that.”

 

There was a moment of quiet, and Waverly figured that Nicole was nodding now. “That makes sense. Dr. Earp,” she added, and it made Waverly giggle nervously, but Nicole didn’t laugh.

 

“Sleep?” Waverly offered quietly.

 

“Yeah,” Nicole whispered back. “I’ll talk to you in a bit.”

 

*

 

“Awake, and still feeling fine,” Nicole said as soon as she was roused for the fourth time. She was getting used to it, but the night was also beginning to feel endless. “Or as fine as one feels at… what time is it?”

 

“Two-forty,” Waverly said, sounding every bit as exhausted. “Are you sitting up? Just to check for any dizziness?”

 

With a groan, Nicole fought to bring herself into an upright position. Her head wasn’t swimming, but her face still hurt, and her ribs and left knee ached where she had connected with the row of bikes.

 

“Sitting,” she informed Waverly. “No dizziness.”

 

“Okay, that’s good. But we still can’t go to sleep yet, so… tell me why you want to be a Park Ranger?”

 

Nicole shrugged, and then remembered that Waverly couldn’t see her.

 

“I don’t know,” she said. “I already told you that I spent a lot of time at camp when I was a kid. That was probably where I started to love… well, it sounds really trite if I say that I love nature, but—“

 

“Not to me,” Waverly interrupted, and Nicole closed her eyes.

 

A part of her was embarrassed, because of course Waverly Natural Sciences Nerd Earp didn’t think it sounded trite. But the rest of her felt like her heart was skipping in her chest. She played with the zipper of her sleeping bag.

 

“Right,” she agreed. “Well, I do love nature. It’s not like I hate the city, or even industry. I’m well aware that I rely on it in many aspects of my life. But when I’m in a park, it’s different. A whole world on its own where I’m a guest, and I can’t help but want to help keep that world alive.”

 

She shrugged again, suddenly feeling self-conscious. “I just really like visiting parks, so I figured… why not work there, too? Especially because I don’t really mind extreme weather conditions and seasonal work.”

 

“Do you know what kind of Park Ranger you want to be?”

 

Waverly had hit the nail on its head with that question, and Nicole grimaced a little. “Yes. No. Yes? I mean, I have the background for law enforcement services, so probably that. But I’ve spent a lot of time leading hikes and helping out with grounds maintenance now, and I like that, too. But I’m also really enjoying working with kids at the moment? So education could also be cool…”

 

“Well, whatever path you take, you’ll be a great Park Ranger,” Waverly murmured. By the tone of her voice, Nicole could tell that she was barely holding on to consciousness. “You’re really great.”

 

Into the darkness, she smiled. “Goodnight, Wave.”

 

*

 

Waverly felt sluggish and vaguely sick, but she adjusted the timer on her watch anyway and sat up.

 

“Alright, Nicole, time to wake up again,” she said, and felt around on the floor next to her cot for her water. Maybe a refreshment would bring her back to this plane of reality.

 

“Hey,” she repeated after taking a sip, when Nicole still hadn’t moved. “Nicole.”

 

No reaction.

 

Panic surged up and spilled over swiftly, like opening a bottle of Coke that had rolled around in the backseat for a week. Waverly was on her feet immediately and switched Wynonna’s camping lantern back on – Nicole was curled up in a heap on her cot.

 

Feeling hot all over, Waverly cursed herself. She should have made her answer the questions, she shouldn’t have relied on just the conversation, what if she’d missed something and now Nicole was going to slip into a coma or have brain damage or something—

 

“Nicole,” Waverly repeated insistently, her bare knees on the wooden floor where she knelt down next to her tent-mate. When she grabbed Nicole’s arm, maybe a little too hard, it was warm to the touch, and the relief of that scared her even more. “Nicole, wake up . Come on, please—“

 

Finally, finally, Nicole stirred. Waverly didn’t notice immediately, the movement might as well have come from shaking her, but when Nicole opened her eyes and blinked in the low light, she froze.

 

“Nicole?”

 

“Wave? What’s going on?”

 

Waverly sagged back on her heels and took in a surge of air, the sudden ease making her want to laugh and cry at the same time. She sobbed dryly. “Oh, God.”

 

“Hey…” Nicole propped herself up on one elbow and reached for her shoulder. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

 

She laughed and ran her shaky hands through her hair. “ Please don’t do that again. You weren’t waking up, and I thought—“

 

“Oh,” Nicole said, and made a face. “Oh, shit. You thought it was a concussion thing. Sorry, I should have warned you—once I’m in a deep sleep phase, I’m a very heavy sleeper…”

 

Nicole was still rubbing her shoulder, and through the waves of relief that were still flooding through her, Waverly registered how rough her voice sounded. She briefly wondered if this was what she always sounded like in the mornings, and realized that they had never gotten up at the same time.

 

Breathing out slowly, she grabbed the side of Nicole’s cot and let her forehead sink against her hands. “Oh, man,” she told the floor. “This is so… God. You’re really giving me trouble sometimes, you know that?”

 

Nicole laughed a self-deprecating laugh. “Yeah, well, the feeling is mutual.”

 

Waverly’s stomach fluttered a little bit at that, but she decided not to ask how Nicole had meant it.

 

(Maybe she’d meant it in exactly the way Waverly had meant it. Maybe she was just a terrible tent-mate. Maybe Nicole was talking about what had happened in the car—but, no. They didn’t talk about that.)

 

Instead, she turned to sit down properly, leaning back against Nicole’s bed. Her feet felt a little cold. She worked them under Hunter’s belly – he looked up briefly, then went back to sleep.

 

“You sure you’re feeling okay?”

 

“Absolutely sure.”

 

There was a pleasant tug on her scalp, and Waverly realized with at start that Nicole was playing with a strand of her hair. She closed her eyes.

 

“Are you?” Nicole asked.

 

“Yeah,” she breathed back, eyes still closed. She didn’t know if that was the truth. “Tell me more about parks. How… how many parks have you been to?”

 

“Hmm… fourteen, I think. If we’re counting small parks.”

 

“Fourteen! That’s a bogus number. You made that up. List those parks.”

 

Nicole laughed again, and Waverly kept her eyes closed while she listened as Nicole enumerated park after park, in that husky, sleepy voice of hers that Waverly had never heard before.

 

They talked about parks, wildlife, and the dangers of littering. Waverly told Nicole about a dissection seminar she’d been forced to take, and Hunter eventually left the comfort of his dog bed to come and put his head in Waverly’s lap so that Waverly could play with the soft ends of his ears. Nicole braided Waverly’s hair into a perfect fishtail that Waverly couldn’t help but keep touching.

 

Their voices sounded different in the dead of night. Maybe it was because the exhaustion influenced Waverly’s hearing, or their vocal cords were growing tired, too—or maybe there was something special about the air and the darkness and the fact that they were the only ones still awake, a quality that made everything they said feel like the sharing of a secret.

 

Waverly’s alarm beeped again, and they agreed that they should really go back to sleep, but—“Wait, finish that story about the rock climbing first,” Waverly said, and that was that.

 

She told Nicole about Curtis, and their hiking days. She told her about the funeral. When she got too cold on the floor with Hunter, she snuck back into her own sleeping bag, and listened to Nicole talk about her parents. “There are some hardships in life,” she said, and made it sound so easy even though they both knew it really wasn’t, “that you just have to decide to let go of if you want to be happy.” Privately, Waverly swore to remember that.

 

Around five in the morning, they noticed that the darkness was beginning to yield to the first signs of dawn. The night was ending, as impossible as it had felt a few hours ago.

 

“Hey, Waverly?” Nicole asked, in that soft tone that she had.

 

Waverly smiled at the tent ceiling. “Yeah?”

 

“I’m really glad I met you.”

 

They fell asleep to birdsong, their fingers and noses cold with exhaustion.

Chapter Text

The police sent a specialist to look at the broken cable ski system, but other than a confirmation that the wires had been cut on purpose, nothing was found. Gus was informed that they had picked up Bobo del Rey at the trailer park where he and his gang resided. Apparently, he had denied everything and posted bail to wait for his court date in the relative comfort of his bedraggled mobile home.

 

Doc had given Nicole a tube with an arnica-based cream, which helped a lot with the swelling and the pain. On the flip side, however, it made the bruise on her cheekbone spread broadly: on Thursday morning, the hematoma had collected darkly in the hollow of her eye socket, and run down the side of her cheek in an unhealthy, yellowish fade (“You look like The Scream ,” Wynonna commented during breakfast, wheezing).

 

At least the cut on her hand had healed enough for her to not to need any more Band-Aids.

 

When Nicole, happy to be cleared to work again, showed up at the woodshop, the littlest camper in the class was startled so badly at the sight of her that she wouldn’t stop crying. Any attempt made by Nicole to comfort her only made things worse; the little girl stayed close to Nedley for the rest of the day and Nicole had to work in a different corner. When she told the others about this incident over lunch, Rosita stole a pirate’s eyepatch from Chrissy’s theater shed for her— still feeling distraught and vaguely guilty over making a little kid cry, Nicole proceeded to wear it for the rest of the day and some of Friday morning.

 

It made Waverly laugh, and the sound filled Nicole with a feeling like a flock of birds ascending inside her ribcage. All in all, they’d barely talked after they’d fallen asleep in the first light of day. And even though she had her hands full with helping to plan Parent Visit Day and they didn’t see each other a lot, Nicole couldn’t help but feel like Waverly was still avoiding her.

 

She carried that feeling around with her without touching it as long as she could, and on Friday evening, she took Hunter on their walk around the lake. She knew most of the paths by now, had followed them and built a little map of them in her mind, complete with little facts of what she knew about them: how far away from the camp they would lead her, where they crossed, where she had to keep Hunter close to her side so he wouldn’t disturb the wildlife.

With the lake twinkling through the embankment to her left, and the arms of the forest reaching for her from the right, she felt calm and at ease—and ready to think about the past week.

 

Here was the truth, plain and simple: Nicole had feelings for Waverly Earp.

 

It was very hard not to like her. There was, of course, all the obvious stuff—how knowledgeable and clever she was, how caring and sweet. Funny. Beautiful . But those were all things Shae had been, too; even if her softer sides had seemed to fade more and more the deeper into the mud their marriage had driven itself.

 

But there was something else about Waverly, and maybe it was too closely intertwined with who she was as a person for Nicole to put her finger on it, but she could feel it: over and over, it was like Waverly struck a chord within her that she’d been trying to find.

 

Or maybe one that had been there all along. One that nobody had bothered to listen to before. When Nicole had told Shae that she wanted to become a Park Ranger, Shae had gotten a soft look in her eye and called her sweet, but eventually, it became clear that she hadn’t taken her seriously.

 

(“ Get a real job, Nicole, and then we can talk about my attitude, ” was a sentence that was still very fresh in Nicole’s mind, even if she was beginning to begrudgingly understand that Shae had been up for 53 hours at the time, and maybe not entirely herself.)  

 

But Waverly had asked questions . Waverly had gotten it.

 

Or was this how people were supposed to react? Was she confusing intermediate decency with real connection? Was she just projecting the loss of a permanent relationship onto the first person she’d developed a crush on?

 

No , her heart said. No, crush or not, she and Waverly were on the same wavelength.

 

Grinning to herself a little at the accidental pun, Nicole let her open palms run over the leaves of the bushes that lined her path. The day was coming to a close, the light dimming slowly as if to give her a gentle warning to get home already.

 

Almost a week had passed since Waverly had kissed her. The memory alone was enough to make her knees go weak. It had been so good, and so new . Had settled into her muscles and bones and stayed with her ever since, like a sunrise permanently burned into her vision. But the point was—Waverly had kissed her . So whatever it was that Nicole was feeling – confused, excited, smitten – chances were that Waverly was feeling it, too.

 

Nicole had noticed the glances, the smiles, and if she thought about it, maybe there had been a moment or two when Waverly had seemed… a little jealous. No, no, she wasn’t in this alone. And yet…

 

And yet they weren’t talking about it. And Waverly was avoiding her.

 

From where Nicole was now, she could glance over the lake and Camp Purgatory lay just opposite her, the Homestead with its flag pole towering over the sea of bright canvas. Wild and free it looked, like a pirate fort, and for a moment, Nicole wondered how many games of Go Fish were currently being played there.

 

In the middle of the lake sat one of the rowing boats, tethered to one of the cable-ski posts. Three figures were in it, one big – Nicole recognized Xavier by the broad line of his shoulders – and two smaller ones. They were fishing.

 

Maybe, Nicole thought as she made her way back to her own tent, maybe Waverly felt the same way. But if she did, something was holding her back. And what if it was the same thing that was holding her back, too?  

 

Could Nicole really blame her for not wanting to get tangled up in a divorce, however remotely? It was a lot to put on a potential fledgling relationship. It was a lot, period.

 

Nicole called Hunter over. He trotted back to her with some reluctance, but there he was, to her left as usual. When she stretched her hands a little, she could feel his silky fur under her fingertips. It grounded her.

 

If Waverly was intimidated by the complications Nicole brought with her, she understood all too well. After all—if she could leave them behind herself, she would. She was trying to. Nicole had no desire to make this more difficult for either of them. Waverly didn’t have to explain.

 

If what had happened in the car needed to be just a kiss, then just a kiss it would be.

 

*

 

For the first time in the month that they’d lived together, Waverly was woken up by Nicole’s alarm.

 

She checked her own watch: it was five in the morning. And a good thing that was, too, because today was Parent Visit Day— when emotions ran high, good behavior ran low, and the counselors needed to be up and ready before the first camper swung their legs out of bed.

 

“Morning,” Nicole said from where she’d sat up on her cot, hair sticking up in a serious cowlick on one side. She really did sound a little rough in the mornings.

 

Right.

 

Waverly felt like she had two choices here: she could start the day with the urge to scream into a pillow, because honestly, who was this cute first thing in the morning?  

 

Or she could swallow that urge and pretend like nothing happened or was happening, and Nicole was just her (sweet, attractive, emotionally unavailable) co-worker. A friend, maybe.

 

(Definitely.)  

 

Waverly hopped out of bed. There wouldn’t be any time for pining today.

 

“Good morning,” she replied with as much cheer as she could muster—and she’d been on the pep squad, so there was virtually no limit to the amount of cheer she could put on.

 

And really, once she’d decided to put aside the sulky feelings that had been plaguing her for days, everything was easier. They had a playful conversation about Waverly’s morning stretches (Nicole was impressed with her ability to reach her toes with her fingertips; Waverly responded by trying a little harder and placing both her hands flat on the ground), Nicole told her about last year’s Parent Visit Day (where a father had threatened to sue them for offering vegetarian barbecue options), and together, they made their way to the showers, while the world was still dipped in the blue haze just before dawn.

 

When Nicole pushed open the door, they were greeted with quiet chatter, the sound of water running, and a lot of pale faces—all the counselors were getting ready for the staff meeting at six. The meeting was tradition, and Waverly liked it. (Mostly because, besides the regular coffee, Shorty always made a pot of vanilla-flavored coffee that tasted amazing.) Curtis—well, no. Gus would hold a speech, and then the madness of Parent Visit Day would begin.

 

Pushing aside all thoughts of her uncle, Waverly found a free sink next to her sisters.

 

“Hey,” she said, joining them, “ready for today?”

 

Willa groaned loudly and leaned her head against the tiled wall. Through a mouthful of foaming toothpaste, she mumbled: “Can jou jusd shud up?”

 

Wynonna caught Waverly’s gaze. She shrugged, and spit. “Don’t mind her. She’s been overly dramatic all morning.”

 

She ignored the middle finger that was enthusiastically extended her way with grace, and began to rinse out her toothbrush. Over her shoulder, Waverly’s eyes tracked Nicole, who had stopped to chat with Rosita for a moment, and was now heading towards the shower stalls.

 

Yep, she thought with an unwelcome, hopelessly excited thrill, everything is easier.

 

*


The parents weren’t scheduled to arrive until noon, and while the influx of people on camp grounds was certainly going to be a challenge (especially for the grass – but luckily, the sun had all but dried out the ground again), the real issue was keeping a pack of overly excited, anxious, or even disappointed campers in line while they waited.

 

The Parent Visit Day preparation team had hotly debated whether to keep classes going on as usual, or to offer different activities. While offering a familiar routine had seemed beneficial to Nicole, Xavier had been right when he’d suggested that maybe letting children in that particular state of mind handle woodworking tools, arrows, flintstones, or hockey sticks did not seem like the best idea.

 

And so Nicole had spent her morning trotting through the woods with Nedley, Wynonna, the Perley sisters, and approximately forty children bursting with energy. Their mission: gathering brushwood for the fire they were going to light at the cookout later.

 

They’d been at it for all but fifteen minutes when Nedley had been forced to make Madison walk next to him at all times to keep her from climbing trees. It had worked, but instead, Maddie, Leo, and Benny had then chased each other in circles around him, which Nedley had pretended not to notice.

 

Meanwhile, Wynonna had been stuck listening to Ramona, a twelve-year-old known for her ability to never stop talking . (“Okay, Mona, let me hit pause here for a second,” Nicole had heard Wynonna say, “because I have an important life lesson to bestow upon you. When telling a story, it’s very important that, every once in a while, you take a break to make sure that your audience is still alive.”)

 

Mattie and Greta had been busy keeping the group together, herding the children like sheep, and that had meant that the job of pulling the cart with the collected wood had fallen to Nicole.

 

Which had somehow led to her being responsible for the fire.

 

Which was why she was currently in a tank top, splitting logs in the blazing midday sun.

Her day was not going according to plan.

 

Take care of the fire, Nicole ,” she grumbled under her breath, swinging her axe over her head. “ You’re experienced with making fire, Nicole. Like Mattie-Actual-Blacksmith-Perley doesn’t know how to make a damn fire.”

 

With a satisfying crack , the dried log splintered and split, and Nicole stacked it around the heap of tinder they’d gathered in the woods.

 

It wasn’t that she had a problem with manual labor. But right now, Gus was welcoming the parents and introducing the activities and there’d be lunch, and she’d helped organize this day. Was it too much to ask to have lunch with her friends and then maybe try to have a conversation with Waverly?

 

They’d gotten along so well this morning. She could have walked her to her open-for-all Eco Skills class. Maybe she could have stayed, watch her be clever. Thwack .

 

But no. Fire-building.

 

“Hey, Haught!”

 

Nicole straightened her back and put a hand over her eyes to shield them. Rosita and Chrissy were regarding her from the pathway, with Hunter panting happily between them.

 

“Hey,” Nicole called back to them. “On your way to the mess hall?”

 

Rosita nodded. “Want anything? You look like you’re hard at work. A Sprite from the freezer, maybe?”

 

Just the thought of a can of soda – ice-cold, with perspiration trickling down the side of it – made her groan. “I could kiss you. Please bring me one.”

 

Rosita fingergunned and winked at her, and pulled Chrissy towards the Homestead. Nicole waved after them, but got no reaction.

 

With a sigh, she went back to work.

 

Thwack.


*

 

“Ahem, Waverly, Code Blue?” Chrissy was scratching her neck and giving Waverly a meaningful look.

 

They hadn't used their codes in about six years, and Waverly found herself a little rusty – was Code Blue the one about Champ from Maintenance doing shirtless work outside, or the one about Steph stealing Chrissy's clothes? Neither seemed all that relevant today.

 

(Especially not Champ , ew. She'd first made out with him when she'd been eighteen, and it had felt like kissing a washing machine. “What? I was doing the whirl!” he'd called after her when she'd left. In hindsight, he probably shouldn't have been kissing her at all, given that he was six years older.)

 

With one last look at Shorty's fantastic vegetarian casserole, Waverly got up.

 

“What is it? I don't remember what Code Blue was for, but–”

 

“Doesn't matter,” Chrissy interrupted her, shoving something cold and wet into her hands. Waverly flinched a little. “Listen, I think you might want to take this can to the fire pit, and quick.”

 

“What?” Confused, Waverly looked down at the Canada Dry Ginger Ale in her fingers. “Why?”

 

“Because someone is chopping wood out there, and Rosita just promised to bring her a Sprite. But I’m pretty sure Nicole likes Ginger Ale better, and I’m also pretty sure that she likes you better, too.”

 

A small cloud gathered over Waverly’s head. “I see.”

It wasn't like she was jealous, per se. But the aluminum under her fingers did pop a little bit.

 

Her gaze swung around the room until her eyes found Rosita, in an animated conversation with Doc – and, oh, really ? Gesturing with a cold can of Sprite in one hand, then laughing and shoving at Doc’s chest with the other.

 

“Go,” Chrissy said somewhere far away, and then she was being pushed into the direction of the door.

 

It was an unbelievably hot day outside, and because children as well as parents were crammed into the air-conditioned mess hall, it was also mostly quiet. Under the loose supervision of Xavier, a few children whose parents hadn’t come were playing ball in the shadow of the Homestead, their lunches discarded on the rickety tables. Hunter was going crazy running from camper to camper, trying to catch the ball. Every time he jumped – and he could reach impressive heights – the children shrieked with delight.

 

Through the buzz and hum of thousands of insects in the air and the grass, Waverly could hear the thwack of an axe nearby, and followed the sound without thinking.

 

Okay, so maybe she was acting a bit ridiculous.

 

It wasn’t like bringing Nicole a refreshment while she had to work was a crime, or even particularly flirtatious. Or like Waverly had any room to complain even if it was flirtatious. Should she turn back? Tell Chrissy that she’d gotten the wrong idea, and that she didn’t want to interfere?

 

The fire pit came into view, and oh, maybe this hadn’t been such a bad idea after all. Waverly was suddenly very aware of the dry, sweet-smelling heat reflected by the grass beneath her bare feet.

 

Nicole hadn’t noticed her yet, and was currently lifting her axe with the half-split log and bringing it down on the tree stump she was working on. The log cracked, and she pulled out the axe. After a moment of inspection, she seemed to realize that the log had not split all the way through, and ripped apart the two halves with her hands.

 

Waverly was fine. She was fine with it.

 

As she approached, Nicole dropped the split logs onto the structure she had built, and then looked up when she registered the movement.

 

Her face lit up. “Waverly, hey,” she said, wiping at her face with her arm.

 

Hey yourself, Waverly tried to say, but instead just made a face that she hoped looked like a friendly grin. She held out her hand with the cold can of Ginger Ale. “Thirsty?” she managed.

 

Nicole made grabby hands and accompanied the gesture with a relieved noise. Waverly wondered what hell was like.

 

“Thank you,” Nicole sighed, and held the unopened can to her cheeks, and then her forehead. “It’s so hot.”

 

“I know,” Waverly supplied, because boy, did she know. Then, so as not to be incredibly obvious, she added: “But it will cool off as soon as the sun starts to go down, so it's a good thing we'll have a fire.”

 

Her laughter sounded shrill and awkward, and she feverishly tried to remember how she got into this situation. Chrissy. This was Chrissy's fault.

 

Nicole tapped the top of her can a few times with her fingernail, then cracked it open. Her hairline was dark with sweat, and her tank top looked disheveled, somehow. The bruise on her face had faded almost completely; all that was left of it was a curve under her eye that made her look a little roguish.

 

Chrissy would pay for this, Waverly decided as she watched Nicole take long, deep swallows from the soda. A drop of water ran down the length of her forearm.

 

She took a deep breath and hooked a thumb over her shoulder. “I… gotta go.”

 

Nicole's face seemed to cloud a little, and she swallowed a mouthful of ice-cold Ginger Ale.

 

“You do?” she asked, then had to wait out the apparent brain freeze for a second before she continued: “I mean... yeah. Okay. See you later?”

 

“Sure. I’ll see you around.” Why did she feel like she’d been in this situation before?

 

Ten minutes later, Chrissy found Waverly leaning against the wall of the Homestead, watching the kids kick their ball around. Hunter had given up the chase and was lapping up the water that Xavier was trying to feed him from his bottle.

 

“Wave! How did it go? Wait. Don't you have to be teaching Eco Skills in like, two minutes? Woah. Hey now. What are you looking at me like that for?”


*

 

After her late lunch, Nicole had headed over to the soccer field, where she’d helped Gus referee the Parent-Camper-Game.

 

“Adults against children? That’s not exactly fair, though, is it?” a concerned mother had asked, her brow furrowed.

 

Nicole had smiled back sweetly. “Oh, I don’t know. I think you’ll find the children have gotten very good at soccer in the past few weeks.”

 

And, as Nicole had suspected, the kids had wiped the floor with their parents, who were not as quick for one thing, and not as firm on the rules for another. Nicole had blown her whistle time and time again, and by the end of it, everyone was sweaty and the children were ecstatic.

 

Panting, one father bent over to prop himself up on his knees. “I can’t believe we lost ,” he sighed.

 

Nicole grinned at him. “Well, you made a valiant effort.”

 

He straightened, ran one hand through his hair and extended the other. Nicole shook it.

 

“I’m Nicole.”

 

“Perry, hi. I’m Leo’s dad. He tells me that you work at the woodshop as well?”

 

“Yes, actually. I help Leo, Benny, and Madison with their project. It’s been quite the endeavor, but it’s turning out nicely.”

 

Perry held up both hands. “I’m told that not a soul is allowed to know about it until it’s done. I hope I can catch a glimpse of it when I come to pick him up after the summer.”

 

Nicole laughed. “Yeah, they’re pretty serious about this Top Secret thing. But I’m sure Leo will be excited for you to see it once it’s ready.”

 

They exchanged goodbyes, and Nicole headed for the Homestead to take her second shower of the day. Afterwards, she swapped her tank top and cargo shorts for black linen pants and a soft button up, sleeves rolled up to her elbows.

 

She’d most likely already missed the first half of the Lip Sync Battle – after the event a few weeks back had been a rousing success, the campers had wished for a Battle between counselors, and most of them had happily obliged – but if she was lucky, she’d still catch the finale.


*

 

Flop.

 

“Thirteen-sixteen.”

 

“Ha. Told you I’d catch up.” Waverly grinned and winked at Madison, who snatched up the battered water bottle and rolled her eyes.

 

“We’ll see about that.”

 

She threw the bottle with a flick of her hand, it somersaulted through the air in a perfect circle, and landed on its bottom. Flop.

 

“Thirteen-seventeen,” she announced smugly.

 

They were waiting for the finale of the Counselor Lip Sync Battle to begin – the last two contestants were Rosita (not so surprising) and Doc (very surprising). So far, Rosita had mostly gotten the votes of the kids by performing songs by popular boy bands, and Doc… well, Doc had chosen country music, and it had fit his entire appearance so well that people had just kept cheering for him.

 

“Hey, Waverly?”

 

Flop.

 

“Hey, Maddie?” Waverly echoed, and gave the girl a smile.

 

“Fourteen-Seventeen. Why didn't you participate in the Battle?”

 

Waverly shrugged. “Because I’m awesome and would have totally won, and then I wouldn't have had time to sit here and play Flip The Bottle with you.”

 

The bottle made a flop sound, but landed unsteadily and rolled off the bench that Waverly and Madison were sitting on together, astride and facing each other.

 

For a moment, all Waverly could see of the girl was the perfectly straight parting of her hair on the crown of her head as she bent over to retrieve the bottle. When Madison reappeared, her dark cheeks were flushed with red, and she mumbled: “Fourteen-Seventeen.”

 

It was rare, seeing her so bashful. Waverly made sure to keep her voice light and casual as she continued.

 

“And to be honest, I think I’m having way more fun this way.” Flop. “Ooh, fifteen-seventeen! Look out, Maddie, I might still reach twenty before you…”

 

At that moment, Xavier announced the final round of the Battle of the Counselors, and they both looked up.

 

“...Ladies, Gentlemen, Folks – please give it up for Mister John Henry Holliday.”

 

They clapped dutifully, and Xavier left the stage to reveal Doc, standing in the center of it with one hand on his hat, his face invisible.

 

Drums rang out softly, and then a guitar sounded. After the first few chords, Maddie groaned and buried her face in her hands.

 

“What?” Waverly didn't recognize the song. “What is it?”

 

“It’s a cover, but Leo still isn't going to stop singing this for the next week, ” Maddie whined. “ Why, Doc?”

 

We're no strangers to love…”

 

Several people laughed out loud, and Waverly did, too. Doc was mouthing the lyrics with a serious expression, reaching out one hand into nowhere, and the other curled expertly around the microphone.

 

You know the rules, and so do I…”

 

By the time he got to the bridge, he had made his way to the front of the stage, and half the crowd was singing along. Just in time for the chorus, Doc dropped to his knees and dug his fingers into his chest. Waverly, taken by surprise with his talents, was howling and cheering, and even Madison seemed resigned to her fate.

 

As his song faded out, a very different beat became audible, and Waverly knew what it was immediately.

 

Her mouth fell open. She gasped, turning to look at Madison– who looked back at her with a blank expression.

 

Disco fog hissed and filled up the stage, and just as Doc was about to get up and make his exit, Rosita emerged from the mist, wrapping one hand around his bicep.

 

Someone in the crowd whistled.

 

Rosita, wearing low-slung jeans and a very tight denim vest, plucked the microphone from the hands of a very puzzled Doc and sauntered over to put it back on its stand. She’d chosen her outfit with great attention to detail; Waverly recognized the hoop earrings and the way her hair fell curly and loose over her shoulders.

 

Just in time for the lyrics to set in, Rosita threw a look at the crowd and then looked back at Doc, her expression grim.

 

It’s after midnight and she’s on your phone, saying ‘come over’, ‘cause she’s all alone…”

 

“Is this some sort of oldie or something?” Maddie wanted to know, thoroughly unimpressed. Waverly, who had climbed onto the bench and was singing along like she’d been born to do it (which, in all honesty, she had ), gave her a dark look.

 

Madison pulled up her shoulders. “What? It’s true! I’ve never heard this song!”

 

With a pained expression, Waverly threw her hands up and continued to sing along.

 

I could tell it was your ex by your tone… why is she calling now, after so long?”

 

Onstage, Rosita had circled Doc slowly, one hand on his chest as he turned with her. He was doing a great job of playing along, making a show of looking dumbfounded and a little pained.

 

As Rosita began to reenact the music video of Case of the Ex with the microphone stand, some of the younger parents, campers with older siblings, and most of the counselors started clapping – and Waverly was having the time of her life.

 

... and you told me that she turned trick when y’all broke up in ‘96…”

 

(“ Ninety-six ?!” Maddie repeated, laughing, “And you gave me a look for calling this an oldie?”)

 

“How you gonna act? How you gonna handle that? What you gonna do when she wants you back?

 

A gasp went through the audience when Rosita broke the stand over her knee and tossed the remains at Doc’s chest, who threw up his hands and stared after her as she pranced away through the fog.

One moment later, Rosita was back, grinning from ear to ear. Doc held out his hand, and the two of them high-fived. Waverly, still standing on her bench, let out an ear-piercing whistle.

 

Madison grumbled and pretended to rub at her ear. “Alright, Grandma. Sit down.”

 

*

 

Nicole held open her arms, and Rosita, squealing, and still a little out of breath from her performance, launched herself into them.

 

“It went so well! ” Nicole cheered, and Rosita wiggled in her arms before pulling back a little.

 

“Yes! It did, didn’t it? I mean, Doc still won, but honestly, he deserves it. I only told him to stay onstage and just roll with whatever I do, and he knocked it out of the park!”

 

Nicole was impressed. “You didn’t rehearse that? At all? Not even the bit where he helped you with that turn?”

 

“We didn’t! Oh, and your prop.” Rosita’s face sobered. “I was so scared that the stand would be too fragile and not survive the performance, or that I would make a fool out of myself trying to break it, or that it would splinter and hurt Doc–”

 

“Nah.” Nicole waved her concerns away. “You told me what you needed, and I know what I’m doing.” A pause. “Okay, I know what I’m doing and I asked Nedley for advice with the type of wood I used. But it looked pretty real, right?”

 

“It totally did! Thank you so much!”

 

With a kiss to Nicole’s cheek, Rosita was off, skipping over to Doc and slinging an arm around his middle as she joined his conversation. Nicole saw him look up in surprise, then his face broke into a smile.

 

From her left came a deep sigh, and when Nicole turned, there was Jeremy, staring wistfully at Doc’s and Rosita’s backs.

 

Oh, no .

 

“Jeremy,” she said gently. “Hey. Let’s go see if we can help Shorty with the barbecue, hm?”

 

“Sure,” Jeremy mumbled, his eyes still fixed on Doc.

 

Nicole pulled him away. “Come on.”

 

The cookout had begun, and they briefly stopped to watch as Gus lit the fire Nicole had built earlier in the day. She couldn’t help but feel a little proud of herself as she watched the tinder catch immediately under the structure of logs. The flames began to lick at the dry wood, and she knew that it wouldn’t be long until the fire would be flaring.

 

She’d made sure to stack a few logs in reserve a couple of meters away, right next to the fire extinguisher and the two buckets of water she’d hauled over from the Homestead. She made a mental note to check on everything later.

 

As far as the food went, Shorty had gone all out.

 

For the special occasion of the Parent Visit Day Cookout, he’d offered the catering services of his Calgary restaurant that he ran during the rest of the year. His employees had closed its doors for the day, and driven over to Camp Purgatory, bringing grills, meat, vegetables, baskets with dough for campfire breadsticks, industrial sized bags of marshmallows, and even a food truck.

 

The grills had been assembled and filled up, charcoal dust dancing in the summer air, and Nicole didn’t think she’d ever seen Shorty so stressed, or so happy. He was dancing between grills while his employees were dishing out hot dogs, fries, coleslaw, and whatever else they’d magically conjured up in the depths of their food truck. Nicole’s stomach grumbled hungrily.

 

She slapped a hand on Jeremy’s back and peered into his face. “What are you in the mood for? Stuffed mushrooms? I know you like those.”

 

Uncertain, Jeremy pulled up his shoulders. “I don’t know…”

 

Nicole rolled her eyes. “Wait here for a minute. Okay? Don’t go anywhere. I’ll get us something to eat, we’ll find a place to sit, and then at least you can pout with a full stomach.”   

 

He made a face, but seemed to brighten up a little, and so off she went. After she’d found paper plates, she got stuffed champignons and slabs of grilled eggplant for Jeremy, and a sizzling hot sausage for herself. All she needed now was some ketchup and–

 

Waverly Earp was standing at one of the charcoal grills, wearing a light, flowery summer dress. Her hair, piled up in a little pompadour in the front, fell in soft waves over her back, sliding over the exposed skin of her shoulder blades, where her yoga tops had left thin tan lines. and the corners of her eyes crinkled when she laughed, elbowing Shorty in the side lightly. To her left, Madison was leaning heavily into her side, and Waverly slung an arm around her shoulders as she bent down a little to listen to her.

 

Nicole remained rooted to the spot as she watched Waverly poke a meat thermometer into one of the steaks on the grill before her. She shook her head a little, handed the thermometer back to Madison, and reached for a pair of metal tongs. Nicole didn’t know why, but her heart fluttered and warmed a little when Waverly clattered the tongs in Maddie’s direction, pretending to pinch her belly with them. Madison squealed and laughed and twisted out from under Waverly’s arm, only to return a moment later to observe with curious eyes as Waverly turned over the steaks with practiced ease.

 

Nicole might have made a fool out of herself by standing there for hours, if not for a whispered “ Hunter! Come here, boy! Look what I got!” that sounded behind her. All of a sudden, the sound rushed back into the space around Nicole, like someone had turned up the volume.

 

She turned around, only to see Wynonna holding up a sausage between thumb and index finger with one hand, and motioning for Hunter to sit with the other. Hunter immediately sat down, eyes trained on the sausage. His pink tongue darted out to lick over the side of his snout.

 

“Wynonna!” Nicole said sharply.

 

Wynonna froze for a second, the sausage dangling from her fingers comically. “Yes?”

 

“You weren’t planning on giving that to my dog, were you?”

 

In one fluid motion, Wynonna straightened, turned around, and hid the sausage behind her back. Hunter swallowed visibly, the desired food now much closer.

 

“Give what to whom?”

 

If Nicole’s hands hadn’t been full with hers and Jeremy’s plates, she would have put her hands on her hips, but instead, she had to settle for raising one eyebrow. “This isn’t dog food, Wynonna. He doesn’t need all that hot grease and salt. It’s not good for him.”

 

Giving up her pretense now that she’d been busted, Wynonna rolled her eyes. “ One sausage is not gonna kill him, jeez, Nicole. Let the poor guy live a little. The dry food you give him isn’t exactly perfect, either. You know they put grains in there, right?”

 

“Well–”

 

Nicole’s gaze fell to Hunter, who was staring at the sausage with big, shining eyes, and gave a soft whine. She sighed.

 

“Okay, fine. One sausage. But don’t let anyone feed him scraps, okay?”

 

“You got it, boss.” Wynonna gave a sloppy salute, and as Nicole continued her way back to Jeremy, she heard her continue: “Alright, Hunter. Who’s a good boy? You are! Who waited patiently for his mom to get her head out of her ass? You did! Catch!”

 

Snap , went the familiar sound of Hunter’s teeth clacking together. Nicole smiled.

 

Jeremy was still standing exactly where she’d left him, looking a little forlorn. She handed him his plate, and he gave her a grateful smile. “Thanks. I think the evening is going well, don’t you? For the kids, I mean. You guys did a good job organizing this, with the classes and the activities. Did you have a chance to go see the play Chrissy’s kids performed?”

 

Nicole shook her head. “No, I–”

 

“Jeremy! Nicole!”

 

When they both looked up, Leo was making his way over to them, dragging his father over by his wrist. Mr. Crofte – Perry, Nicole remembered – stumbled after his son, and ran his hand through his hair as soon as Leo released it.

 

“Guys, this is my dad.”

 

“We’ve met,” Nicole supplied with an amused smile, reaching out to shake Perry’s hand again anyway.

 

Jeremy followed suit. “Hey, I’m Jeremy. Your son is in my afternoon class.”

 

“Yeah, I’ve… I’ve heard. Only good things, of course. Leo tells me you caught a newt together?”

 

“A salamander, actually – a Long-toed Salamander, to be exact. They’re pretty rare here, they’re more commonly found in BC–”

 

Nicole quietly dipped her sausage in mustard, and listened to Jeremy ramble on about Alberta wildlife. Interestingly, Perry Crofte didn’t get that look of mild discomfort or annoyance that people usually displayed when Jeremy went off on one of his science rants. Hmm.

 

Leo Crofte, on the other hand, wasn’t as entertained. “Dad, I’m bored. I’m gonna go find Maddie, okay?”

 

“Sure, bud, go ahead– and do you keep the animals you catch?”

 

“Oh, no, of course not, we just take a picture of them and write down a description, and then–”


*

 

Around seven, someone had turned up the music that was still coming from the speakers onstage. At first, only the kids had danced and jumped around like baby goats – Waverly, tired from the day, had wondered how they could still be so full of energy – but eventually, some of the adults had been moved by the party spirit as well.

 

Wynonna had been one of the first to do the robot, and when she’d pulled Xavier into the tangle of moving people, he’d looked at Waverly with desperation and dug his heels in half-heartedly. She’d just shrugged and laughed, and soon he’d been dancing, too.

 

Madison had taken off with Leo earlier, presumably to find Benny and his siblings. Mr. and Mrs. Ouédraogo had brought their three-year-old twins, Trey and Carrie, who were still too young for summers at camp. Her favorite trio had taken turns in giving piggyback rides to the little ones, leaving Waverly behind.

 

She’d had a fun time talking to Rosita and Doc for a bit (Chrissy owed her three desserts; Waverly had known that they’d get together before the summer was over), but after a while, she’d found herself on her own again.

 

Slowly, softly, melancholia took hold of her.

 

It was almost nine when she wandered off towards the lake, and the sun was hanging low in the west. The light was still warm and golden, but the air had cooled down significantly, especially by the water. It was a welcome sensation, especially after having spent all day sweating, and breathing in the thick, rich heat.

 

Waverly decided to stay. She settled down on the far end of the dock, her bare legs dangling over the edge. The lake below her was dark and smooth like black glass, and she had to fight the irrational fear of what might lurk beneath the surface before sticking her toes into the cold, silky water.

 

Sitting here, with the mosquitos battling the layers of insect repellent on her bare legs and the music blasting where the party was still going strong, Waverly wasn’t sure how she’d ever stayed away.

 

(Then again: for a moment, her thoughts flashed to Curtis, laughing and slapping his thigh, and she swallowed hard, wondering how she was supposed to come back next summer.)

 

But no– now wasn’t the time. She couldn’t think about it now.

 

Not when her soul felt peculiar and wind-swept, like she was longing for something she couldn’t name, like the ache of an unexpected chord in a song she knew too well. Not when she was alone and feeling vulnerable already. She wondered if Wynonna got like this, too, and Willa… well. She’d never known how Willa felt or what she thought.

 

Soft footsteps sounded behind her, measured steps of bare feet across the planks. Nicole , her heart sang, and she didn’t dare turn around in case she was wrong.

 

But she wasn’t wrong.

 

“Hey, you.”

 

And despite all the nervousness, the awkward moments, and the way her heart squeezed when she didn’t want it to, something seemed to right itself. Like something in Waverly’s chest eased.

 

Nicole truly meant something to her, Waverly realized. In the sense that, even if nothing ever happened between them, Waverly just wanted to have Nicole around. In her life. It wasn’t often that one met a person one felt so at home with, and once Waverly got over her, she and Nicole would have an amazing friendship. A life-changing one.

 

(Or maybe her life had already been changed by Nicole, she thought. But who could tell with everything that had changed this year?)

 

She leaned back on her hands and smiled up at Nicole. “Hey. Come sit?”

 

Nicole’s expression relaxed into a smile that seemed to take up her whole face. She did as she was asked. Carefully, she set aside her flip flops and rolled up her pant legs before plunging her feet into the water.

 

“This is nice,” Waverly commented, reaching over to touch the linen.

 

“Thanks. I got it at a small boutique in Toronto.”

 

Waverly, who had never left Alberta, sighed. “Of course you did.” She lifted her left foot a little, splashing cold lake water against Nicole’s bare calf. “What else is new?”

 

Nicole splashed back and laughed. “What’s that supposed to mean? Oh– but– speaking of news. I have some.” She lowered her voice, giving Waverly a secretive look. “Guess.”

 

Is the secret how badly I want to kiss you?

 

“Tell me.”

 

But Nicole wouldn’t budge. “Nope. You have to guess.”

 

“Oh, jeez.” Waverly rolled her eyes. “Let’s see. It’s not Doc and Rosita, is it? Because I saw that one coming a mile away. Actually, let’s make that two miles.”

 

“Please. Like that would be news. Guess again.”

 

Did your divorce go through and everything is settled and

 

Waverly forced herself to snap out of it.

 

“Hmm. Did Shorty dance the Macarena? Because he does that sometimes. It’s a disturbing sight, but honestly, it’s also kind of adorable.”

 

Nicole laughed, short and sweet. “No! You’re terrible at this. You’ll never guess right. I’ll just tell you… on my way here, I saw Jeremy dancing with Leo’s dad. And I mean, dancing real close.”

 

Waverly’s eyes widened. “Jeremy is dancing with Perry Crofte?!”

 

A few hundred meters away at the party, a charts song was currently playing. It was loud enough for her to make out the words, but just barely; the crickets in the bank slope almost drowned it out.

 

“Yes! I was there when they met, and Perry was positively smitten with Jeremy. He listened to him blabber about salamanders for at least twenty minutes.”

 

“I don’t believe this!”

 

“But I’m telling you.”

 

“Nope.” Waverly found herself unable to stop grinning and giggling at just the thought of it, but shook her head anyway. “You’re making this up.”

 

Nicole threw one arm around her shoulder and looked deep into her eyes. It was clearly for dramatic effect, but Waverly’s heart apparently hadn’t gotten the memo.

 

It stopped anyway.

 

“Waverly.” Nicole placed her other hand on her own chest with a flourish. “Would I lie to you?”

 

In the distance, the music had changed to a remix of Tico Tico.  

 

There was a script here. Something Waverly was supposed to say. But she’d forgotten what it was, and when she raised her eyes from where she’d been inappropriately staring at Nicole’s mouth to meet her gaze, it seemed like Nicole wasn’t really in the scene anymore, either. Her arm slipped off Waverly’s shoulders.

 

“Nicole…” Waverly began.

 

What are you doing? she wanted to ask.

 

Kiss me, a part of her yearned to say.

 

Nicole, her heart echoed, and echoed, and echoed.

 

Nicole’s mouth twitched like she wanted to say something, but she stayed silent. The moment pressed around them heavily. The sun was getting ready to set, sink back behind her mountain and leave the two of them in the dark, alone with all those unspoken things between them.

 

Waverly felt as though time was supposed to slow, just for a little while, just so she could gather her thoughts– but the music, muffled and out of place, kept on going.

 

...but if I’m late, woo-woo, the one my heart is gone to may not want to wait, wait, wait...

 

Waverly looked out over the surface of the lake as it faintly reflected the pastel colors of the fading evening sky. She took a deep breath.

 

“I think we need to stop doing this. And don’t ask what this is, because I know that you know. Don’t make me spell it out.”

 

“I won’t,” Nicole said gently, and Waverly hurried to continue before she could lose her nerve. She kept her eyes fixed on the scenery around them, her heartbeat pounding.

 

“It’s not that it’s not fun, or that I don’t like you. That’s… kind of the problem, actually. I really like you. And I’m not judging, or… telling you how to live your life, you can flirt with whoever you like; I know things are different for you. But I’m… I don’t know what we’re doing here, and I like knowing what I’m doing. I like plans. I’m a planner.” She’d gotten off-track. Reeling, she took a deep breath, trying to focus. “I just…. don’t want to get my hopes up.”

 

And there it was. She’d said it. Beside her, Nicole was silent, and Waverly knew that she had just let go of any possibility that what had happened in the car could ever happen again. Something big and uncomfortable swelled up in her throat, and she closed her eyes. God, she couldn’t cry now. Not now.

 

“Waverly.”

 

There it was again, that thing Nicole did. With her voice, with her face. It was there even in the way she said her name, Wa-ver-ly, like each syllable was important.

 

Waverly opened her eyes, and saw Nicole’s outstretched hand.

 

“Can you look at me?”

 

She wanted to say no. But instead, she found not only that she could, but that she couldn't not– as if by reflex, Waverly took her hand and looked up.

 

“So... funny story,” Nicole said, and her voice shook a little. “There’s a reason why I’ve been flirting with other people. And the reason is that I thought I’d be putting less pressure on you.”

 

Waverly looked back at her blankly.

 

With a squeeze of her hand, Nicole tried for a smile. “Because I like you, Waverly. More than I probably should at this point.”

 

The world blended together around them. Waverly was dizzy. Not enough oxygen, her brain supplied randomly. She wanted to say something, express how her heart was leaping in her chest and her pulse hammering, but nothing was coming out of her mouth, and so she just let herself fall.

 

Nicole caught her in her arms with a quiet laugh, and Jesus Rollerblading Christ, they fit together well. She was shivering now, with relief or adrenaline wearing off, she wasn’t sure, but laughter was bubbling up in her chest.

 

“Sorry,” she murmured into Nicole’s shoulder, sniveling a little.

 

“What for?” She could feel her mouth move against her hair.

 

“You said you liked me, too, and I gave you a hug.

 

Nicole laughed again, and for a moment, they just held each other and giggled. “I like the hug.”

 

“Yeah, well,” Waverly pulled back and wiped at her eyes, “I hope you like this, too.”

 

Kissing Nicole still felt like free-falling from the top of a mountain.

 

It was like she’d been waiting for this; Nicole’s mouth sliding against her own, noses bumping together for a second, breathing in the scent of her moisturizer. (God, they were close.)

 

Waverly sank backwards, feeling boneless and relieved, like her heart was ready to soar out of her body, and Nicole went with her without breaking their kiss.

 

One of them sighed, their tongues met, and Waverly’s insides turned to cotton candy. Something about Nicole's hands on her felt like a word that it was way too soon for – on her ribs, on her neck – but right at this moment, Waverly couldn’t care to censor herself.

 

She just felt in love, and above them, the sky darkened like the day was pulling the curtains closed.

Chapter Text

“That is so gross,” Leo whispered with reverent delight as he watched the thin, long-legged spider wander over Waverly’s hands. It was so light that Waverly could barely feel it.

“It’s not gross,” she objected. “This little fellow helps manage the bug population in this forest. That’s a very important job.”

She watched the faces of the campers that surrounded her, and got stuck on a familiar shock of color behind the row of children.

Nicole was leaning up against the pillar that supported the shed’s awning. When she caught Waverly looking, she smirked and waved.

“Alright,” Waverly said, breaking eye contact with her, “I think it's time for lunch.”

Releasing the spider back into the grass where no feet would crush her, Waverly got up from her crouched position. Nicole let the wave of children pass her. Out of the corner of her eye, Waverly saw her high five one of them, and then there she was.

“Hey.”

“Hey, yourself,” Waverly replied, and pretended to be busy straightening the array of pH test strips and boxes with magnifying lids on the table. For just a moment longer, she wanted to resist; stay in this electrified bubble of knowing that she could reach out and run a hand along Nicole’s collar.

But her disinterested demeanor slipped easily, and the smile tugging at her lips gave her away.

Nicole stepped in closer. “So, spiders. They’re important?”

With great care, Waverly closed the lid on the terrarium with locusts that she was keeping for a few days, nudging a wayward leg out of the way.

“Keeping the population of insects in check is very important,” she responded without looking at Nicole. “But you already know that, don't you, Miss Park Ranger?”

Warm fingertips ran over the inside of her wrist, and she closed her eyes, suddenly agravic.

“Maybe,” Nicole admitted. “But it's so nice to hear you talk about it.”

Waverly turned a little, leaning into the touch. “You should totally come to one of my classes, then. I talk about this kind of thing all the time.”

Nicole’s hands were now climbing up her bare arm, making her elbow twitch. “Oh, I bet you do.”

Waverly was done resisting. After a quick glance around, she tugged Nicole behind the corner of the shed and wound her fingers through her hair.

It wasn't the first time they’d snuck away to make out in the shadows, or steal a moment between classes. It had been almost a week of this, and Waverly… well, Waverly had had a really good couple of days.

“Wynonna asked for our help,” Nicole murmured against her lips now, running her thumbs over Waverly’s hip bones, exposed where her shirt had ridden up.

Waverly drew in air sharply. “Is she currently on fire?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Mh…” Waverly pushed herself up on the cool metal of the shed the better to reach Nicole's face. “Then she doesn't really need our help.”

Nicole grinned into the kiss, making her feel featherlight. “But she will come and look for us if we don't show up.”

“Five more minutes,” Waverly mumbled, and then she didn't say anything at all for a while.

There wasn't a rule against fraternization between counselors as such , but Waverly wasn't exactly keen on finding out whether Gus would approve – especially not since she and Nicole were sharing a tent. And then there was this dark, velvet flutter below her sternum that enjoyed this secrecy.

Kissing in the unlit employee hallway behind the showers with their sighs echoing softly, or touching their knees together under the lunch table. Having Nicole press her body against the wooden panels of the Homestead when everyone else was inside at lunch. Staring at her through the flames of the camp fire until Nicole gave up and excused herself so they could meet at the unit. It was exhilarating.

No, Waverly wasn't ready for anyone to know yet. She wasn’t ready to be teased, to let people in on this delicious, golden moment they were in.

“Babe,” Nicole sang, and Waverly’s knees went so weak that she couldn’t keep herself up on her tiptoes anymore, “we have to get going.”

A little out of breath, and with her cheeks warm, Waverly nodded. “Help me pack up here?”

“Of course.”

They walked over to the lake side by side, close enough for their pinky fingers to brush.

The cable ski wires had been replaced on Tuesday, but because the damage had been inflicted purposefully, every last bit of equipment had to be checked before it could be declared safe for use again.

Wynonna, who had spent the days since the storm teaching her class basic self-defense techniques, was eager to get back on the water, and had asked them to assist her in the tedious task of inspecting everything. And Waverly liked being helpful, really – but when they arrived at the dock, where her sister had already spread out skis, hooks, wires, boards, and all kinds of other parts, there were so many other things she wanted to do with her afternoon.

(The dock looked so different in broad daylight, and the lake twinkled as if to promise that their secret was safe. And yet– for a moment, Waverly swore she heard muted trumpets.)

“Where have you been ?” Wynonna said instead of a greeting.

“I had to make sure Xavier and Nedley were still fine with taking Hunter along on their excursion,” Nicole lied flawlessly and without missing a beat. Waverly sent her a surprised look, but Nicole just grinned, and winked as soon as Wynonna’s head was turned.

“Well, get over here. All this crap needs to be checked until dinner. I promised the kids I’d have it ready by tomorrow.” Waverly opened her mouth, but Wynonna pointed a finger at her sharply. “ Don't say I shouldn't have promised, because you didn't have to explain the meaning of defense to Carl Junger.”

“Stupid Carl,” Waverly muttered gravely, and Wynonna nodded.

“Hey, now. I don't think you're supposed to say that about a camper,” Nicole admonished gently.

The Earp sisters looked at each other, then at Nicole, then back at each other.

“Just wait until you've been a counselor for a few years,” Waverly finally said, and reached out to pat Nicole's shoulder.

They got to work, sharing stories and a bottle of orange soda. Waverly felt happy . This was the feeling she came back for each year, the one she spent the rest of the year chasing.

Except maybe this was special– because Wynonna was here again, and Nicole… well. Nicole was something new entirely.

“Hey, where's Willa?” Nicole wanted to know. “Doesn't she teach cable ski classes, too?”

Wynonna shrugged. “Yeah, but she's not as keen on getting back to it. I think she's hanging out with some of the maintenance people.”

“Huh.”

Well, so maybe Willa hadn't changed all that much; still avoiding unpleasant work wherever she could. But she was here, too, and that counted for something– and there was time. It would have been asking for too much to get it all back in one summer, right?

 

*

 

“Okay, Nicole. You know how much is at stake. Don’t blow this.”

“Don’t pressure her. She’ll blow it if you pressure her!”

“I’m not pressuring her, I’m just saying–”

“Oh, shush! You’re doing great, Nicole. We believe in you.”

Nicole sighed. “Thanks, Benny. I know this is important to you guys, but it’s important to me, too, okay? I promise I’ll be careful. And if I blow it, I’ll pull all-nighters for as long as I have to to fix it. It’s gonna be fine.”

She looked into her campers’ faces, holding eye contact with each of them for a few seconds. Benny gave her an encouraging smile (Nicole’s heart melted a little); Leo and Madison nodded.

Nicole ran a careful hand over the lines Benny had drawn on the plank, and then selected a fine gouge and went to work.

(The truth was that she wouldn't have been so confident if she hadn't spent her lunch break practicing, with Waverly sitting on the adjustable workbenches, eating fruit.

Every once in a while, she'd thrown a grape at Nicole's request, and Nicole had caught all but one of them in her mouth.

The Secret Project had remained hidden under a cloth.)

With the end of summer inching closer, so was the deadline on the secret project. The trio had begun to worry if they'd be able to get it done in time, and because Nicole agreed that it would be a close call, she'd offered to work on it after dinner.

She should have known that Huey, Dewey, and Louie wouldn't agree unless they were allowed to be present.

“You're good at this,” Benny commented. “How come you're so good at this?”

Nicole thought about this while she worked, carving a curve into the soft wood with great care. “I don't know. I’ve had some practice. Or maybe it’s because I like doing it.”

“Hm.” Benny sounded thoughtful, and a little unconvinced.

“Why do you ask?”

A pause. “I guess because… it’s a boy’s thing.”

Nicole set down the gouge. “Excuse me?” she said, at the same time as Madison barked: “What?”

The boy seemed to shrink in on himself, and Nicole gave Maddie a placating look. Bending down a little to be on eye level with where the three kids were perched on a workbench, she searched Benny’s face. “Why do you think woodworking is a boy’s thing?”

He pulled up his shoulders. “My uncle says it is. He said drawing and stuff is for girls, and that I should pick something manly for camp. Like this.”

Oh, boy. Without wanting to, Nicole’s fingers were coming up to her forehead, but she disguised the gesture by running them through her hair. She exhaled slowly. Tread lightly, now .

“Well, many people think so. But that doesn’t mean it has to be true.”

“It’s bullshit is what it is,” Maddie muttered, kicking her legs, and then immediately rolled her eyes. “Language; yes, I know. Sorry.”

Nicole sighed. “As you can see, people’s opinions on this differ.” She leaned against the workbench next to Benny and bumped her shoulder into his. “Wanna know what I think?”

He looked up at her expectantly and raised one eyebrow.

“I think that if you’re a boy, everything you do is something boys do, by design. And if you’re a girl, everything that you do is something girls do. And as long as what you do doesn’t hurt anyone, or break the law, you’re pretty much fine.”

(Nicole really hoped that her logic was airtight.)

Leo, who had been quiet so far, bumped Benny’s other shoulder. “Can’t argue with that,” he said, and Nicole couldn’t help the burst of pride she felt at his gentle tone.

But Benny shrugged. “What about my uncle?”

“What about him?” Maddie replied, only a little defensive.

“I think the things I like doing hurt him .”

Oooh, boy. But before Nicole could say something, Leo spoke. “But that’s his own fault, isn’t it? You’re not doing anything. You’re just being yourself, liking the things that you like. So it’s not really you who’s hurting him. He’s hurting himself.”

“Hurting you, too,” Madison added darkly.

From experience, Nicole knew that things were more complicated than that sometimes, and that it was hard to tell what kind of person Benny’s uncle was from afar. She knew that the situation could go many ways, and that one day, it might not be fixable with just a few words.

She worried about what that day might bring for Benny, and for a moment, she wanted to give him her phone number, in case he ever needed it… but it didn't seem appropriate for the situation.

All she could do for now was try to give him a little more confidence. And when she'd spoken with them on Saturday, Mr. and Mrs. Ouédraogo had seemed very proud of Benny’s knack for art, so here was to hoping that they didn't agree with Benny's uncle.

“You can't always help what people will think,” she finally said. “But it's extremely important that you always know what you think, and how you feel. Alright?”

Benny nodded, avoiding her gaze.

“So what do you think?”

With a shrug, the boy pushed his glasses up by their bridge, and finally looked up. “I think woodworking is fine, I’m just better at that stage where I get to draw the plan.”

Nicole gave him a wide smile. “See?” She picked up her gouge again and wagged it a little bit. “And I’m better at this.”

“I’m best at the part where I get to use a drill,” Maddie said proudly.

“You're alright, I guess,” Leo replied, “but I’m the drill master here.”

“Ha! Is that why we had to redo the whole–”

“Shut up, Madison–”

“Ooh, great comeback, Crofte, real strong–”

Benny and Nicole shared a long-suffering look, and then Nicole went back to work.

 

*

 

Three hours later, Nicole found herself exhausted, longing for sleep, and buzzing with energy.

It had been almost nine when Nicole had made the triumvirate sweep the floor while she put away her tools. After locking up the woodshop, she’d made sure they brushed their teeth, and walked them back to their tent– just in case Leo was tempted to suggest a little night walk to the others.

By the time she’d gotten back to unit 68, she’d been perfectly ready to never move again. Except…

“Hey, stranger,” Waverly had greeted happily from her cot. She’d been lying on her stomach, with Hunter curled up with her on the tiny camp bed, reading a book in the dim light of the lantern. Her hair had been done up messily, held in place with a pen.

Nicole had felt the tension drain from her shoulders. “Hi,” she’d breathed.

Waverly had watched her cross the tent with glittering eyes and leaned up for a kiss– and really, that had been their first mistake.

Their second mistake had been to think that turning off the light and lying down in their separate beds would help them sleep.

Instead, here Nicole was, listening to Waverly’s uneven breathing in the dark, torturing herself with thoughts of how it would feel just to take her hand. If they moved their cots just a little closer together, just maybe two feet on each side… She sighed and let one arm dangle towards the floor.

Hunter licked her fingers. Suppressing a groan, Nicole wiped them on his fur.

Okay, so maybe no hand-holding. But she was so close , and yet…

Ridiculous , she scolded herself. They’d been sleeping within seven feet of each other for weeks, and now suddenly it was a problem?

“Can’t sleep either?” Waverly broke the silence.

Nicole’s heart danced. “No,” she whispered back.

“Me, neither,” Waverly sighed. “You’re way too far away.”

For a moment, Nicole had to squeeze her eyes shut and grin into the darkness because God, she was cute. Cute and right.

“Maybe if we move our camp beds closer together, we could–”

But Waverly interrupted her. “I’ve got a better idea.”

Nicole heard the rustling of a sleeping bag and then the sound of bare feet on wood. The light of the lantern came on, and she sat up. “What are you doing?”

Waverly reached under her bed and pulled out the woolen blanket everyone got in case the temperatures dropped. With a flourish, she shook it out and spread it over the floor between their cots.

Nicole's heart rate sped up.

“Can I have yours, too?” Waverly asked, holding out her hand.

Nicole obeyed, and watched quietly as Waverly laid the second blanket atop the first, took both of their pillows and placed them side by side at one end. Next, she reached for their sleeping bags; Nicole had to scramble out of her own.

“We used to do this when I was still a camper,” Waverly explained, fumbling with a zipper. There was a faraway smile on her face, cresting in the corners of her eyes. “Chrissy and I, I mean. We said we were having sleepovers, but really she was just trying to get away from Steph when she was being mean.”

The zipper squealed, and their sleeping bags whizzed together.

Ah, a blanket, Nicole thought. But instead: screek , and suddenly there was–

“A bigger sleeping bag,” Nicole said dumbly, and Waverly grinned at her.

“Yeah.” Suddenly, her face fell and her eyes widened. “Unless you don’t like it?” Her fingers were slipping on the zipper. “Sorry, I should have asked, we can–”

Nicole was up in a second, stilling her hands. “Waverly.”

Very slowly, Waverly looked up at her through her lashes. Something in Nicole’s stomach whirred and came to rest. Under her fingers, Waverly’s knuckles felt smooth, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Nicole smiled. “I love it.”

“You do?”

Waverly’s whole face lit up, shy and hopeful. It made Nicole’s heart ache.

“I do.” She leaned down to kiss her. “C’mon. Let’s go to bed.”

Together, they crawled into their sleeping bag; pink and turquoise on one side, red and black on the other. The thin, cool nylon slid against their skin, and Waverly buried her nose in Nicole’s sleep shirt as their legs tangled together.

“Goodnight,” she sighed, her breath warm.

With her treacherous heart still beating way too fast, Nicole wrapped her arms around Waverly’s shoulders. There was no way she’d ever fall asleep while they were this close.

“Goodnight.”

She was out within moments.

 

*

 

Chrissy set her bowl of cereal down on the table so hard that it made the milk brim over.

“You and I have to talk.”

Waverly raised an expectant eyebrow and continued to slurp her orange juice through a pink straw. “Well, good morning to you, too. What do we have to talk about?”

With anyone else, Waverly might have been nervous, but she’d known Chrissy for long enough to know that when she was truly upset, she became quiet and stone-like. No; this was faux-upset, and Waverly was curious as to how she’d prompted this.

Chrissy gave her a dark look and whipped out a spoon. “Nicole.”

The mention of Nicole’s name made Waverly shiver, but she had the presence of mind to suppress the soft grin that came with it.

“What about her?” she asked casually, like her mind hadn’t immediately wandered to an hour ago, when she’d woken up with Nicole’s arms around her waist and her mouth against the back of her neck.

“I gave you some time to feel it out and get lost in your shiny little bubble, but it’s been a week.” Chrissy said sternly. “You can’t just tell me that you kissed and then not talk to me about it for a whole week , Waves. What do you think I’m made of? Stone?”

“Steel,” Waverly gave back sweetly, “what with you being Superwoman and all.”

With a snort, Chrissy pointed her spoon at her. “Don’t try to flatter your way out of this one, Earp.” Her expression sobered. “Unless you really don’t want to talk about it? Is everything okay?”

Waverly couldn’t help it anymore; she beamed down at her scrambled eggs. “Everything is great ,” she said quietly, with a feeling like tightrope walking.

Chrissy squealed and slid her bowl closer to Waverly’s plate, making their knees and elbows press together.

She lowered her voice conspiratorially like they were fifteen again. “Tell me everything.”

And so Waverly threw her hair back over her shoulders, moved in closer, and started talking.

She told Chrissy about Monday, when Nicole had accompanied her to her archery class in the morning, and how she hadn’t be able to concentrate on anything all day. She told her about the way Nicole held open doors and tent flaps for her; how she would let Waverly ramble and really listen ; how Waverly had seen her do pull-ups on the monkey bars over by the jungle gym for fun (and had somehow lived to tell the tale).

Chrissy swooned and sighed in all the right places, but…

Something was different than it had used to be when they were teenagers.

There were things that Waverly couldn’t tell her; things that felt… too soft and too sacred to divulge over breakfast like it was gossip.

(The way Nicole kissed her like the whole world was new. The way Waverly’s breath stilled in her lungs sometimes, for no particular reason. The way something about this whole thing felt like they’d known each other before.)

Maybe some other time, when the time felt right, she’d be able to tell her friend about all of that, too. Until then, she’d take her bold heart and all its dreamy feelings and keep them to herself for a while.

“Oh, Waves, I don’t know if I’m more happy for you or more sorry for myself,” Chrissy was sighing now. “Probably both. Yeah, both is good. Like, I love you, but right now I also kind of hate you.”

Waverly stole an orange Froot Loop out of Chrissy’s bowl and giggled.

“Seriously, though. Not to burst your bubble here, but have you talked about what you’re going to do when camp is over? Because that’s in less than two weeks. You know that, right?”

Waverly stopped laughing. Chrissy, who was stretching across the table to fish for the coffee pot, didn’t notice. With a victorious grin, she got hold of the handle and pulled the pot over.

“Yeah,” Waverly said. “Of course I know that.”

“So?” Chrissy poured herself a mug, then went to refill Waverly’s, but she put her palm over it to signify that she’d had enough.

“We haven’t really talked about it yet,” Waverly admitted, brow furrowed. “But there’s still time, right?”

The thought sat uncomfortably in her chest, a tight little knot. She swallowed it away; she didn’t want to dwell on this now.

Chrissy shrugged. “Sure. It’s not like you have to get married or anything. I guess the question is: are you just having fun or do you think this could be the start of something more serious?”

And what a million dollar question it was.

Absentmindedly, Waverly dragged a piece of scrambled egg through her ketchup. Her thoughts wandered briefly to the End Of Camp evening they’d have in a little more than a week, and to the chaos of buses and tears and packing that would follow.

She sighed. “I’ll think about it. Now, enough about me– did you get into Gus’s computer the other night? Did the guy from school write back to you?”

Chapter Text

“Shit,” Waverly murmured, pulling Nicole in by the front of her shirt, close enough to press the breath from her lungs. “I'm so… gay.”

Nicole laughed, breathless and bright, and splayed her hands over Waverly’s abdomen, making her gasp.

“Stop,” Waverly breathed out, “stop, stop.”

Nicole brought space between them so fast Waverly groaned at the loss and reached out to pull her closer again.

“God, no, don't stop that much. I just... if we don't–  I want–”

“Oh,” Nicole breathed.

“Yes,” Waverly said, biting her lip.

Nicole looked to the ceiling, with her fingers hooking into the belt loops of Waverly's cut-off shorts. Deep breaths , she told herself, and she might have even succeeded in calming herself down, if Waverly hadn’t chosen to lean forward and put her mouth to Nicole’s neck.

“Oh– Wave, that’s...” Her eyes were drifting closed, and her grasp on what she’d been about to say began to slip. Was this what being electrified felt like? “Wha-What happened to stopping,” she managed, but it sounded less like a question than she’d intended.

Somewhere close by, there was a creak, and then a hum at the nape of her neck. It vibrated through her blood, and—

Nicole froze and pulled back. “Someone’s coming.”

Waverly’s eyes widened, and shit , her lips were definitely swollen and her hair was mussed, and who knew what Nicole herself must look like—

“Hey,” Willa said from the doorway.

“Hm? Oh, hey,” Waverly said, cheeks pink, from where she was sitting on one of the storage crates, crossing her legs. Oh, God . Nicole felt like there might as well have been red-hot handprints all over them. She busied herself by opening one of crates and peering inside; it was full of ceramic coffee cups.

Willa leaned up against the doorframe and crossed her arms. “What are you two doing up here?” She sounded suspicious, and Nicole’s heart sank into her stomach. She didn’t trust Willa, and she wasn’t sure if the oldest Earp sister knew about Waverly liking girls, but if she didn’t, she sure as hell didn’t want this to be the way she found out.

Nicole turned around, shutting the crate with a definitive clank . “I need some extra forks the kids can use for an art project, and Waverly said I might find some here. Wanna help us look?”

She pulled up an innocent smile. It was a bit of a gamble, but Nicole was ready to rely on the fact that Willa had no interest in helping her—or anyone, she thought sourly, remembering the day they’d sorted out the cable ski equipment.

“Sorry, no time,” Willa said, uncrossing her arms again, and Nicole almost snorted at her predictability. “I’m just looking for Gus.”

“Haven’t seen her.” Waverly still sounded a little too breezy, but her sister didn’t seem to notice.

With an annoyed huff, she vanished, and they both could hear her yell her aunt’s name like a sullen teenager while rumbling back down the stairs.

Nicole sagged against the stack of crates, and Waverly let out a slow breath.

“Phew. That... was close.”

Way too close.”

They grinned at each other nervously.

“Hey, you don’t happen to know where Gus keeps the key for that door, do you?”

 

*

 

Waverly pulled her arm back and threw the tennis ball as far as she could.

 

It sailed through the air in a wide arc, and below it, Hunter hopped after it in significantly smaller arcs, looking a bit like bouncing ball himself. Before the yellow ball could descend too far, he jumped high and caught it five feet above the ground. Falling back on his feet, he pressed close to the ground and rushed back towards Waverly.

 

She already had the next tennis ball in hand, throwing it as soon as the old one – covered in drool, ew – landed by her feet.

 

Hunter shot away through the grass, dark green beneath this paws.

 

When she’d gotten here, it had looked so much brighter, cleaner, like it had just been made by God himself. It had looked like spring.

 

But now summer was nearing its end, and Waverly wasn’t ready.

 

Hunter caught the ball, and Waverly cheered, which only made him run back faster.

 

She made him wait this time, catch his breath for a moment, even if he was looking up at her with so much excitement and his tongue lolling out. Could dogs overexert themselves? She wasn’t sure, but felt it was better to err on the side of caution. Nicole would never forgive her if something happened to Hunter.

 

Or rather, Waverly corrected herself with an inward groan, she probably would. She would probably be really understanding about it and then blame herself for not giving Waverly a TEDtalk in dog care.

 

But what would she say if Waverly asked her about the end of summer?

 

I’ve had a really good time with you, Wave. We should stay in touch.

 

Her stomach twisted uncomfortably at the imagination, Nicole’s voice sounding cheerful and earnest in her head.

 

She wiped the ball on the ground and threw it for Hunter with all her might.

 

He jumped up from the spot where he’d sat down to wait for this very moment, but her throw had been off, too low and too far; he was never going to make it. The ball landed somewhere in the high grass, and Waverly watched as Hunter sniffed around trying to find it.

 

They had about ten days until the end of camp. Maybe that was all she needed to figure this out. Maybe this feeling – this ache, this bloom – would run its course.

 

(It was a familiar thought. Familiar, and unconvincing.)

 

The dog had found the ball and triumphantly carried it back to her, and Waverly bent over to pet him until he dropped down on his back to let her scratch his belly.

 

There was another option, she thought, with her hands on his warm fur and the sun heating the skin of her back. Self-indulgent, she let herself slip into the thought, like sinking into the cool water of a swimming pool.  

 

Just because the summer is ending doesn’t mean that we have to be. We could see each other on weekends. I could help you study…

 

Imaginary Nicole made a compelling argument; one that made real-life Waverly blush and get up hastily to throw another tennis ball.



*



“You're quiet tonight,” Nicole said. She slid an arm over Waverly’s shoulders. “Everything alright?”

 

She felt Waverly’s own arm wrap around her middle. “Yeah. Just a bit tired.”

 

“You didn't have to go with me. I can do the rounds by myself if you wanna–”

 

But Waverly squeezed her with determination. “No.”

 

Nicole smiled into the dark, breathing in the night air. “Okay.”

 

It was nice, just walking together. Every once in a while, they paused and kept an ear out for any telltale signs of campers out of bed – insistent shushing, helpless giggling, the sound of hands brushing over tent canvas.

 

But all was quiet. The camp was asleep, except for the two of them. Nicole knew that all she was supposed to do was make sure that no one was sneaking around where they shouldn't, but just for herself, she pretended they were keeping watch. Guarding their little village, ready to protect it if need be.

 

“Can I ask you something?”

 

Nicole hummed. “Sure.”

 

But Waverly didn't continue immediately, and for a moment, Nicole felt her stiffen.

 

“I, uhm…” She swallowed, cleared her throat. “I was wondering if…”

 

Nicole stopped walking to peer down her, worried. “Hey. What is it? You can ask me whatever you want.”

 

There was something about her face that made Waverly look withdrawn, cornered, like looking at her through bars. A decision was being made, but Nicole couldn't tell which way it went. Waverly looked away, eyes wandering, before meeting her gaze again.

 

“I was wondering if you’d tell me a little about Shae.”

 

Relieved, Nicole sighed deeply before she could think better of it. She could handle talking about Shae. In fact, she was glad Waverly wanted to know rather than keeping all her questions and reservations inside where they could fester into resentment—

 

Well, before whatever they had could turn into whatever had happened with her and Shae.

 

Waverly still looked small and shy somehow, and Nicole pulled her closer as she resumed walking. For a split-second, it felt odd and alien, to be holding someone other than her wife like this, but then reality shifted back into place and someone other than Shae turned back into Waverly Earp .

 

“Of course, Wave. Just tell me what you want to know.”

 

“Alright. So… how did you propose? Or did she propose?”

 

Nicole thought back to the jumble of events, walking home in the early hours of the morning, jacket slung over her shoulder, tie undone and Shae next to her, barefoot.

 

Who had said it first? Or had they not said anything then, just yet?

 

“I… can’t remember,” she said, and Waverly gave her a look .

 

“You’re full of shit.”

 

Nicole couldn’t help but laugh at the stern little crinkle between her eyes. “I’m not. I don’t know who said it first anymore, it just kind of… okay, look. There were a number of things that led to us getting married. We’d been together for about a year, and we had this little inside joke, a kind of hey, you wanna get married today?

 

Her face felt hot, and she ran a hand over it. Waverly said nothing.

 

“And that day… We’d just been to a mutual friend’s wedding the night before, and we’d passed by city hall on our way home, and I don’t know who made the joke again, but suddenly we were thinking… why not? We could actually do this. Let’s get married today .”

 

Despite everything that had happened between her and Shae, this was still a good memory. A fond memory. A bright moment, exciting and certain like spring: they’d woken up around noon, still disheveled and a little exhausted, and had had breakfast in bed.

 

Do you want to get married today? Do you ?

 

“It was a spur of the moment thing, then?” Waverly wanted to know.

 

“No,” Nicole admitted, “we didn’t get married that day. We were kind of hungover, and by the time we arrived at city hall, we had decided that we wanted a big party, just like the one we’d been to the night before.” Looking at herself through Waverly’s eyes, it sounded… cheap. Nicole sighed. “That sounds bad.”

 

Waverly pushed her head against Nicole’s shoulder. “Of course it doesn’t. So you didn’t get married?”

 

Of course it doesn’t , Nicole’s heart repeated slowly, and warmed. Her mouth said: “No. We scheduled an appointment for three months later, and then we had a small ceremony with our friends and Shae’s family.”

 

“Not a big party?”

 

“Maybe a medium-sized party.”

 

For a few moments, they just walked. Nicole wondered if she had said too much, if it was too much to put on a new relationship. Was this what this was? A relationship? Her arm fell away from Waverly’s shoulders.

 

She could hear the small intake of breath when Waverly opened her mouth to say something, but before she could, something else happened.

 

“Guys!” someone hissed, and a moment later, there was the unmistakable sound of someone having a really bad night.

 

Nicole swallowed the rising nausea and stepped forward into the dark, reaching for the flashlight in her vest pocket. “Who’s there?”

 

“It’s me,” came the immediate response from between the row of units to their left. The flashlight clicked on and the narrow cone of light caught on a bare elbow and swung upward.

 

“Jeez, Nicole!” Wynonna covered her eyes, cursing. Hastily, Nicole lowered the light.

 

When her eyes adjusted to the brightness, she saw that Wynonna was holding someone up – or rather, doing her best to keep them from falling over. The person hanging from her arms convulsed and retched again, and Nicole had to fight the urge to walk very far away immediately. By her side, Waverly gasped and hurried forward.

 

“Oh, shitballs, Shawn?”

 

Wynonna shifted her weight and freed one arm to snap her fingers. “Shawn! That’s the name. Come on, Shawn, let’s keep moving...”

 

Shawn, who Nicole could now see was maybe sixteen years old, just whined and unsuccessfully tried to take a step forward. Nicole remembered him now. He'd been the one who had questioned Waverly’s ability to teach Eco Skills.

 

Waverly grabbed his arm, and the sisters began to hoist him up. “What’s wrong here? Is he sick?”

 

“He’s sick, alright,” Wynonna said gravely. “He’s sick because he’s drunk off his ass. I don’t know how he got the booze, but I found him lying in front of my unit.”

 

“Is Willa on her way to get Doc?” Nicole asked, frowning down at the moaning teenager. Her mind circled around the one glaring question.

 

“I don’t fucking know where Willa is,” Wynonna hissed. “I’m just trying to get this boy to the showers.”

 

“Then I’m getting Doc,” Nicole decided, and handed Waverly her flashlight. “We’ll meet you there.”

 

Still feeling queasy, she took off into the dark, avoiding tent pegs as she hurried through the lines of units, and with every step, the question grew louder: where had one of the campers gotten alcohol, let alone enough alcohol to get this drunk?

 

*

 

“...should search everyone right now.”

 

The office smelled like old leather and, very faintly, pipe smoke. It helped, but Waverly still felt queasy.

 

“But where did he even get it?”

 

They had helped Shawn wash up as best they could, and the stench of vomit and chlorine was still uncomfortably present in Waverly’s mind. Shawn had cried and apologized, but when they’d asked him questions, his answers hadn’t made much sense, his words slurred and random.

 

“I’m guessing Frederick will be able to tell us in a bit.”

 

Doc had come and carried him to the sick room while Nicole went to wake up the rest of the senior team. After a brief, hushed discussion in front of the Homestead, they’d all gone up to the office, and Xavier had left to find Shawn’s tent-mate, in the hopes that he wasn’t doing just as badly.

 

“God, this is a disaster . Curtis would have–”

 

They all looked up when the door opened. Doc gave them all a look and let himself fall next to Waverly onto the Chesterfield couch with a deep sigh.

 

“The kid will be fine. I hooked him up to an IV and I’ll keep checking on him until morning.”

 

Gus let out a deep sigh. Taking off her glasses, she went to rub the bridge of her nose.

 

Nedley put his hand on her shoulder. “Should I call his parents?”

 

“No,” Gus decided. “No, I’ll do it myself in the morning. Shawn isn’t in any immediate danger, so they might as well get a full night’s rest.”

 

“Unlike us.” Wynonna’s jaw cracked as she yawned. “Whoever is responsible for this is gonna fucking pay.”

 

“Yes, but who ?”

 

Not for the first time that evening, Waverly thought of the bottle of Whiskey under the passenger seat of her car.

 

But it couldn’t be. Nobody knew it was there. And her car was locked .

 

“I mean, I have an idea...” Nicole murmured. Waverly looked up. It seemed like she hadn’t meant to say it out loud; when she realized that everyone had paused to turn to her, Nicole looked almost stricken.

 

Shorty furrowed his brow. “Who do you have in mind?”

 

Nicole opened her mouth and hesitated, uncomfortable, her gaze shifting from Shorty to Wynonna to Waverly.

 

Slowly, she sat on the armrest of the couch. “I don’t know if I should say.”

 

Waverly’s heart rate sped up. Was she thinking of the evening of the race, when she’d helped Waverly smuggle in the booze? But her car was locked, it was locked , and if someone had broken in, there was no way the alarm wouldn’t have–

 

“Nicole, if you know anything –”

 

“–just spit it out, Haught shot–”

 

“–that mean you think it’s one of us–”

 

Nicole sighed. “I think it’s Willa.”

 

Everyone was quiet.

 

“That,” Gus said calmly, “is a very serious allegation. Do you have any evidence?”

 

Willa .

 

The leg Waverly had pulled snug against her torso slid off the couch.

 

Willa is gone , Wynonna was hissing in the back of her mind. She vanishes all the time.

 

I don’t fucking know where Willa is .

 

Willa is hanging out with some of the maintenance people.

 

Willa hasn’t been speaking too highly of you.

 

Waverly flinched when Nicole threw up her hands and let them clap against her thighs in frustration. “No, of course I don’t. If I had evidence , I would have come to you immediately. But she’s been spreading rumors among some of the campers, and half the time, she’s nowhere to be found. She isn’t exactly taking any of this seriously.”

 

“What does that have to do with anything?” Wynonna snapped, incredulous. “That’s all you’ve got on her, that she isn’t taking things seriously ? I never take anything seriously, either! Would I have been your next guess? And she hasn’t been spreading rumors, just because two pimply teenagers–”

 

“Nowhere to be found?”

 

“That’s not the same and you know it,” Nicole shot back. “While you were sitting on the dock, checking the equipment, where was Willa? Hell, where is she right now ?”

 

“What do you mean, she’s nowhere to be found ?” Gus interrupted sharply.

 

Nobody answered her. Wynonna was still angrily staring at Nicole, who held her gaze.

 

“What’s going on here?” Nedley demanded to know, and was ignored, too.

 

Very slowly, Waverly rose to her feet. “Wynonna,” she said gently.

 

It could be true. It wouldn’t even have been the first time Willa had given alcohol to a minor, even if it had felt different when that minor had been Wynonna. It was possible.

 

If Waverly could see that, Wynonna could, too.

 

Gus breathed in with a hiss, tipping her head back. “Someone,” she said to the ceiling, “had better tell me what on God’s green earth is going on here, and fast.”

 

Okay? Waverly tried to say with her eyes. Okay? Wynonna just looked back at her. If there was an answer, she couldn’t read it.

 

She sighed. “Willa has been sneaking out at night. We didn’t think it was a big deal if she went to blow off some steam in the next village as long as she was back by morning; we thought it would make her more… sociable. We didn’t think she’d be bringing stuff back in, but...”

 

With a groan, Shorty rounded the table and sat down in the chair behind it.

 

“And is she blowing off steam right now?” Gus’s voice told them that her patience was wearing very, very thin.

 

“We don’t know where she is.”

 

Gus put one hand over her eyes and began to massage her temples with her thumb and middle finger.

 

“But how is she even getting away?” Doc asked. “To my knowledge, she is not in possession of a car. And if she’s not here, then how did she get young Mr. Shawn intoxicated?”

 

That was a very good point. Waverly had imagined Willa hanging out with the older campers, those who were most interested in juvenile delinquency, passing around a bottle and amusing herself by telling half-true stories meant to impress them. But if that was the case, then where was she now? And where had she been the night after–

 

“Bobo.”

 

Wynonna looked past all of them, out the window, where there was nothing to see behind their own reflections.

 

“Willa was gone the night of the thunderstorm, too, and in the morning, Bobo was there.”

 

Out of the corner of her eye, Waverly saw Nicole raise a hand to rub at her cheekbone. Something in her chest tightened.

 

“And before, with the flag, they must have–”

 

The door swung open again, and Gus took her hand away from her face. “Xavier,” she said, in what Waverly had once christened her headache-voice, “you haven’t seen Willa on your way here, by any chance?”

 

Xavier, half-way through the door, paused for a moment. “No,” he said slowly, “but funny you should mention her.”

 

Behind him trailed an ashen-faced, miserable-looking boy, swaying only slightly. He didn’t have any classes with Waverly, but she’d seen him around. With their growling voices and towering heights, sixteen-year-old boys so easily seemed older than they were, especially among the younger campers. But here, in the middle of the night and under the harsh lights of Gus’s office, he didn’t look almost grown. He looked scared and remorseful, like a kid who wanted his mommy to come and fix things.

 

“Frederick, why don’t you tell Camp Director Gus what you told me?”

Chapter Text

Gravity was stronger than usual, Nicole was pretty sure of it. Her body longed to be lying on the ground, preferably somewhere dark, cool, and quiet. Instead, she was sitting on one of the orange mess hall chairs, leaning heavily on the backrest, cradling a cup of black coffee.

 

(It was definitely a black coffee kind of day.)

 

To her right, Waverly and Xavier weren’t faring much better. To her left, Rosita, Jeremy, and Chrissy had just taken their seats. The room around them was already buzzing with anxious energy and a hunger for gossip.

 

Nicole could see Steph cast around curious, searching looks.

 

A few of the kids had woken up early, whether it was due to the instinctive feeling that something was different, or from the sound of the engine of the police car that had parked out front at first light. Or maybe they had been awoken even earlier than that, and had overheard Willa yelling across the very room they were sitting in.

 

“What on earth happened last night?” Chrissy hissed. “I heard someone saw a police officer in the parking lot?”

 

“Yeah.” Xavier ran both hands over the top of his head and down his face, but the exhaustion seemed to stick to him like glue. “Deputy Shapiro was here to take Willa in.”

 

Nicole and Xavier had done their best to shepherd the campers towards the washrooms when they began to come out of their units. But, of course, they hadn’t been able to prevent them from noticing that something was amiss, what with the police car leaving the parking lot and most of the senior team standing on the steps of the Homestead with serious faces.

 

Jeremy choked on his cocoa, hard. While Rosita patted his back and shoved a handful of napkins in his face, she barked “ What?! ” at the same time as Chrissy yelped: “ Excuse me?

 

But before any of them could explain, there was a high whine of acoustic feedback – Nicole winced – that directed the attention of the entire mess hall towards the far end of the room, where Gus was climbing the stairs with a microphone in hand.

 

“Good morning, everyone,” she said. “If I could have your attention for a minute.”

 

I would call it many things, but good isn’t one of them , Nicole thought.

 

“As I’m sure some of you have noticed already, we had a bit of a situation this morning. One of our counselors, Willa Earp, had to be taken in for questioning by the police.”

 

Deputy Shapiro had entered the Homestead in the middle of Willa’s tirade.

 

“... next you’re gonna tell me that Uncle Curtis would have been disappointed in me? I’m not a child anymore, Augusta , you can’t bully me with this shit. All you’ve ever done is tell me what I’ve done wrong; just judge, judge, judge, like you’ve got half a fucking clue what it’s been like, and – oh, what, Wynonna? You got something to say? Fucking say it! Come back to camp with me, Willa! It’s gonna be so much fun, Willa! It’ll be just like it used to be, Willa! And instead all you’ve done is crawl up Waverly’s ass–”

 

Good morning. Eliza Shapiro, Ghost River County Sheriff’s Department. Is there a problem here?”

 

Willa had been so furious that, for a moment, Nicole had been sure that she would physically attack the deputy.

 

In the here and now, the mess hall was so quiet that one could have heard a pin drop in the pauses between Gus’s words. Nicole would have expected scandalized whispers, but the children and counselors all just sat in silence, taking in the news.

 

She moved her knee slightly to touch it against Waverly’s, and felt a small bloom of warmth in her chest when Waverly pressed back.

 

“Unfortunately, it seems that Willa has given alcohol to two of our campers. They’re both going to be okay, but... make no mistake, this was by no means certain.”

 

Frederick, after telling his story, had been asleep by the time Willa had stumbled into the Homestead. They'd heard her crash against chairs and tables on her way to the kitchen for a snack, and confronted her with what the boy had just told them: that they'd seen Willa leave with the Revenants, that they'd wanted to come, too, and that Willa had given them a bottle of Jack in exchange for the promise that they'd keep her excursion to themselves. Apparently, Bobo had even promised that if they’d finished the bottle by morning, they could ride with the Revenants themselves.

 

“If they hadn't been found by some of our other counselors, their health might have been in very serious danger,” Gus was saying in a grave voice, and she was right. Who knew what could have happened?

 

Willa herself, of course, had seen this differently when Deputy Shapiro had tried to take her statement.

 

“Ma’am, please calm yourself, or I’m going to have to detain you. Can you confirm or deny that you’ve given alcohol to two minors?”

 

Willa had been breathing heavily, eyes casting around from person to person like a caged animal.

 

“So what if I have?” she’d finally snapped. “It’s not like I forced it down their fucking throats! You’re acting like I poisoned the kid!”

 

Gus looked around the room, seemingly making eye contact with each camper. “I know that there is a certain temptation in breaking the rules, but I want you to remember – whether you're here at camp or anywhere else – that a lot of the time, rules are there to protect you. Each and every one of you has a good head on your shoulders. You have common sense. Remember to use it.”

 

Neither Waverly nor Wynonna had said a single word to Willa, and that had seemed to aggravate her even more. When Deputy Shapiro had informed her that she was only being taken in for questioning, but would definitely be arrested if she made any trouble, she’d calmed down enough to look like an angry teenager herself. Pissed and withdrawn, she had allowed the deputy to lead her towards the parking lot, and Nicole had almost been relieved that the situation had ended so easily.

 

Almost.

 

But, of course, she couldn’t go down without a fight, or without getting herself deeper into trouble; and so Willa had lashed out like a scared dog in a fight.

 

As they had trudged down the tent-lined path, she’d raised her voice and called back: “Hope you’re happy, Augusta! I know you always wanted to see me get dealt with by someone who wasn’t you. Bravo! I bet your husband would be real proud of you.”

 

Nicole felt intrusive just remembering that moment. From the corner of her eye, there had been a jerky movement, and when she had turned her head, Gus’s knuckles were white where her hand was curled around Wynonna’s arm. “Stay, girl,” she’d muttered, and that had been the end of it.

 

Gus sat down on one of the steps now, still high enough for everyone to see. “There will be no classes today, but I need everyone to stay in shouting distance of their own units. Over the course of the day, I will call and inform all of your families, and we need to be able to find you in case they want to speak to you. Does anyone have any questions for me right now?”

 

Nicole was sure that at least eighty percent of the kids were bursting with questions, but none of them seemed to think that asking Gus for details was a good idea at this time. Privately, she applauded their wisdom.

 

Gus waited another moment, then nodded. “That would be all for now. Enjoy the rest of your breakfast.”

 

“Where is Wynonna?” was the first thing Chrissy wanted to know as soon as the lingering silence in the mess hall had turned into reverent whispering.

 

“Asleep,” Xavier said. “She will be driving Frederick to the station later, and Shawn, too, if he's up for it. They’re the two campers Willa gave whiskey to. The police still have to take their statements.”

 

Jeremy exchanged a look with Rosita. “Wynonna? Is that… a good idea?”

 

Xavier shrugged. “She asked to go.”

 

“Wave?”

 

Nicole followed Chrissy’s line of sight to where Waverly was stirring her tea. She had barely said a word all night, and had kept her face carefully blank. Everything about her body language said to leave her be, and so Nicole had kept a short distance – intent not to crowd her, but to be by her side in case she was needed.

 

“Can I talk to you outside?”

 

Waverly looked up. “Sure,” she said, nonchalant. Almost unnoticeably, she ran a hand up the back of Nicole’s arm as she got up. “I’ll see you later.”

 

“I’ll be around,” Nicole promised, keeping her tone equally light.

 

Her coffee tasted like crap.

 

*

 

At some point, between Frederick begging Gus not to tell his mom that he’d gotten drunk, and Willa making snide remarks about her like she wasn’t there, Waverly had slipped underwater. That’s what it felt like, anyway. She was so tired of things being difficult.

 

She was just tired in general.

 

Chrissy held open the door for her, and they stepped out into the morning. The sky above them was white and cloud-covered, but Waverly knew that they would soon vanish, fading more and more until the firmament was blue and blinding again.

 

“Hey, are you okay?” Chrissy was searching her face with a grim kind of concern. The last thing Waverly would have wanted was pity, and Chrissy knew her too well for that.

 

But that didn’t mean that there was any part of Waverly that wanted to have this conversation. At all.

 

Waverly’s gaze found the mountain range in the distance; the white cover of the peaks had shrunk under the unrelenting glare of the July sun. It was like the mountains had put on their lighter summer outfits. Waverly wondered what it would be like to hike there in the early morning, race the sun to the top. There was probably a way to calculate when one would have to get started in order to reach the highest platform at the same time as the first sun rays.

 

To Chrissy, she said: “Yes, I’m fine.” She rolled her eyes a little bit to prove it. “Willa being a crook and an asshole did not exactly come as a shock to me.”

 

Her friend hummed, unconvinced. “I didn’t surprise me, either. But that doesn’t mean I’m not a little shocked that the police had to come and get her.”

 

Waverly shrugged. “She’s been to jail before. Really, Chrissy, I’m fine. Okay? I’m just really tired. It’s been a long night.” And before Chrissy could think of anything else to say, she put a had on her arm. “Thanks for checking on me. I’m gonna go take a shower.”

 

The exhaustion rose again like the tide. Her feet walked, tents passed. Her plan to take a shower that might wake her up washed away.

 

With the image of the mountain range fresh in her mind, she slept.

 

In her dreams, something always pressed close, something she feared, something she yearned for. A flash of Willa, faceless, and Waverly threw a ball. Something she missed, something slipping away. Waverly threw. Xavier. His voice was grating.

 

Falling towards water.

 

Blue and red.

 

Something slipping away.

 

The tent around her expanded and shrank, as though she was lying in Hunter’s chest. A child shrieked, and someone's name was called. Waverly was so tired. Her limbs felt sick. The tent shrank, and shrank…

 

As Waverly dreamed, the camp around her came alive with children; kicking dirty balls in the pathways between tent rows, playing catch or cards, reading, singing along to tinny music from portable radios that must have once belonged to parents or elder siblings.

 

The sky cleared up just as she had predicted, and the air warmed.

 

A group of young campers ambitiously took on the jobs of messengers, waiting outside Gus’s office to go fetch whichever kid a parent wanted to speak to. Someone fell over a tent peg and scraped their knee; Doc placed a gigantic Band-Aid over it.

 

Lunch time came and went.

 

By the time Waverly woke up, feeling groggy and removed, it was well into the afternoon.



*

 

“Nicole, can we play with Hunter?”

 

“Nicole, Jo kicked the ball onto the roof of the shed, can you get it?”

 

“Nicole, how long until lunch?”

 

“Nicole, the older boys took my game of Twister…”

 

If Camp Purgatory had once reminded Nicole of a pirate fort, then the sailors had caught the worst and most dangerous of all ailments: boredom.

 

With classes cancelled and everyone more or less confined to the vicinity of their tents, Nicole had figured that she would have some time to herself, but wherever she went, she was needed. During lunch, Shorty asked her to help hand out food, and right after, Nedley needed assistance with creating a spreadsheet on the computer, and after that, a group of campers who had already talked to their parents wanted to know if they could take a hike, and if she’d come along.

 

In general, Nicole was happy to help, really. It was just that she hadn't slept in 35 hours, and her fingers were sweaty and shaky from all of the coffee, and her skull was beginning to hum with a headache.

 

Maximizing her efforts to be as stealthy as she could, she scurried to the employee entry in a quiet moment, and hoisted open the heavy metal door. The hallway beyond greeted her with cool darkness, and she slid inside.

 

A sigh of relief escaped her.

 

Finally quiet.

 

And then something rustled.

 

Nicole opened her eyes. “Is someone there?”

 

From the other end of the room, a sardonic voice replied: “No.”

 

In the dim light that fell in through a vent, Nicole finally recognized Wynonna’s slumped form on the ground.

 

And now that she'd gotten closer, Nicole noticed something else. Her empty stomach growled at the smell of it.

 

“Is that… a Happy Meal?”

 

Wynonna sighed. “Yes. You can have two Chicken McNuggets if you promise to make it through this conversation without saying my name. If I never hear someone go Wynonnnaaa ever again, it will be too fucking soon.”

 

Boy, could Nicole relate. “Deal.” She plopped down on the floor next to Wynonna – it was blessedly cold – and was offered a french fry.

 

“You’re a true friend. Where did you get this?”

 

“Arby’s.”

 

Nicole groaned.

 

“Well, where did you think I got a fucking Happy Meal? I took the two hungover idiots to McDonald’s after we left the station.”

 

Dipping her fry into a small packet of BBQ sauce, Nicole said nothing. If she was honest, she didn't see how their stupidity deserved to be rewarded with McDonald's, but she figured that if she was quiet for long enough, Wynonna would fill the silence with an explanation. That was how it usually worked with her.

 

She was right.

 

“I know Gus told them the whole spiel about how rules are important, blah blah blah, what were they thinking, blah blah blah, wasn’t it obvious that if a counselor is trying to shut them up, something fishy is going on, blah blah blah… but that’s bullshit. Of course they knew it was a shitty idea, that was precisely the point.”

 

The chicken nuggets were lukewarm, but greasy and delicious. Nicole didn’t particularly like McDonald’s, but she was just human, and there were some times when one had to put aside one’s ethical reservations and take what one could get.

 

Wynonna kept going through a mouthful of fries. “You should have seen their faces when I pulled into the parking lot. They were terrified. By the time we got inside, they were sweating. It was hilarious.” She chuckled.

 

“So what happened then?” Nicole made sure not to sound too interested.

 

“I told them they could have whatever they wanted, if they promised not to tell anyone.”

 

Letting her chicken nugget sink down, Nicole gave her an incredulous look. “And they said yes ?”

 

Wynonna’s laughter echoed in the tiled hallway. “Are you insane? They declined my super generous offer. Three times . But look, this whole bullshit about being forthright or whatever? It’s gonna stick while they’re scared. I give it four weeks, max. Maybe a little more for Shawn, but even he is gonna forget about it. In six months, he’s gonna think it’s a hilarious story to tell among his buddies who weren’t there to see how he almost pissed himself because he was too wasted to take a step on his own. It’s what I would have done at sixteen.”

Nicole wondered how Waverly had felt about that at the time. If she’d been angry at her sister, or if she’d only seen her as a cool rebel… Or maybe it had been more complicated than that.

 

“There’s a fine line between breaking the rules, and being a fucking dumbass. If a counselor takes you to McDonald’s and offers you a cheeseburger if you can manage not to tattle, that’s different than trying to down a bottle of Jack because some random loser might clap you on the shoulder for it. Getting drunk is one thing, getting alcohol poisoning is another. The way I see it, it’s just about choices. Some choices aren’t great, but they’re not the worst, either. And others…” Wynonna trailed off, and Nicole was beginning to think that maybe she was talking about something else now.

 

“Anyway. There’s consequences for your actions. I told them, ‘You know why you’re having a McRib or whatever right now? It’s because I’m an adult with a job, and I’ve managed to keep my dumb decisions to a level that doesn’t land my ass in jail or the hospital. That’s why’.”

 

There was a long pause.

 

“Willa never really got that thing about the fine line, either.”

 

Nicole imagined sitting hungover and embarrassed at McDonald’s with Wynonna, eating cheeseburgers and splitting a milkshake, between giving a statement to the police and getting picked up by furious parents. All in all, it was a pretty good deal. Maybe even good enough to get a teenager to listen.

 

To hell with Wynonna’s wild card act. She was a damned good counselor.

 

But she couldn’t tell her that, of course. At least not now, when she had no intention of fleeing immediately after. And so all Nicole did was nudge Wynonna’s elbow with her own.

 

“What’s the toy?”

 

Wynonna made an offended sound. “Some tiny heart-eyes plushie from the Emoji movie. Is it me, or are Happy Meal toys just not what they used to be?”

 

“They’ve always been garbage, but this is a new level.” Nicole nodded.

 

They toasted to their agreement with the last two french fries, and Wynonna let Nicole have all the juice because, “Honestly, I’m feeling sick enough already.”

 

If it had been up to her, Nicole could have stayed in that hallway for hours, even if her mind kept wandering back to Waverly, and she hoped that she was still asleep, getting rest. Eventually, Shorty found them and wanted to draft them as kitchen helpers for their infidelity to his cooking; Nicole pulled her head out of the sling by mentioning that she had to go walk her dog.

 

This was true. She found Hunter panting and excited where she’d left him: with a group of fourth-graders who had played frisbee with him for an hour before even they’d gotten bored of throwing a drool-covered disk. He would have a good night’s sleep, Nicole was sure. At least he got enough exercise, despite the fact that she hadn’t taken him on a run today.

 

But there were some things a dog could not do on camp grounds, and so she took him away from the tent village and into the meadow that separated the camp from the tree line. Hunter, with an energy that Nicole envied deeply, sprinted away. She could barely make him out in the tall grass, with the light just beginning to wane.

 

Nicole let him be.

 

She wandered along the edge of the meadow. Here, surrounded by swaying grass and barley, she had a clear view of the mountain range, tinted golden. But it couldn’t entice her today. The day, long as it had been, clung to her every step, and she couldn’t wait to get back to her tent. Tomorrow, she would skip her morning jog, and maybe even skip breakfast; sleep in a little until her woodworking class started. If she didn’t show up for breakfast, there was a good chance Nedley might grab a roll for her. Madison, Benny, and Leo would frown upon her eating while she was supposed to be helping them finish their project, but they were just going to have to deal with it.

 

*

 

Pre-packaged sandwiches weren’t ideal.

But in all honesty, the thought of dealing with other people in general, and children in particular, was the worst right now, so shrink-wrapped turkey ham it was.

When Nicole had gotten back from her walk, she’d left Hunter in front of unit 68, with a smelly abomination of a dog snack that he loved with single-minded determination, so he’d be busy for a while. She had thankfully found the kitchen empty, with everyone else having dinner on the other side of the door – and so she could just sit here on the cool steel counter, having a sandwich.

The hum of the industrial refrigerators was lulling her in. She could have gone to sleep right there on the spot.

Which was why she almost toppled over when the door to the mess hall suddenly swung open.

“Oh,” Waverly said, closing the door behind her. “Here you are. I’ve been looking for you.”

 

Nicole weakly raised a hand in greeting. “Sorry, I wasn’t in the mood for a lot of people. Are you feeling better?”

 

Nodding, Waverly made her way over to the kitchen island. With the heels of her hands braced against the counter, she hopped on. They were facing each other now, a good meter and a half of space between them. “Yeah, although I well and truly messed up my sleep schedule.”

 

“You’ll get back on track soon,” Nicole promised.

 

Waverly’s legs were swinging, kicking.

 

“Listen,” she said, “there’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.”

 

Stuffing the last of her turkey ham sandwich (which tasted like nothing, with a bit of salt) into her mouth, Nicole sighed and leaned sideways against the fridge.

 

She closed her eyes. “Shoot.”

 

A moment passed before Waverly spoke again. “Summer is almost over.”

 

Nicole’s eyes flew open again.

 

Of all the things she’d expected Waverly to say, this sentence hit her like a freight train. It wasn’t that she hadn’t thought about it herself, flipped and reversed the idea of it over and over in her mind, rehearsed speeches and dismissed them.

 

But this wasn’t a good time to talk about it, she was too tired. Weren’t they both too tired to have this conversation? Couldn’t they talk about this later?

 

But Waverly was already continuing to speak. “You’ll go back to Saskatchewan soon, and I’ll go back to my studies. And it’s… it’s going to suck.” She laughed a little, and Nicole knew where this was going by how wrong it sounded.

 

The swinging of her legs had stopped. Nicole’s hands tightened on the wrapper of her sandwich.

 

“I like you. I like you so m–” Waverly’s voice suddenly vanished, like she had stalled her engine. She swallowed. “I think if we end it now, it’s going to hurt, but it’s only going to hurt more later. I don’t want this to just fizzle out over the phone, I want…” She breathed.

 

“Waverly,” Nicole tried.

 

“I don’t want us to come back next year and be weird around each other. I want to always know you, and… if nothing else, I want us to be friends. What do you think?”

 

What was there to say, really?

 

Waverly was right. She was in the middle of her studies, and Nicole was divorcing her wife. They didn’t exactly have tons of spare time.

 

The thought of ending things felt like a large stone in her chest, dragging her down; a stone, or maybe a sack with wet sand. But what else was there to do?

 

God. She was exhausted.

 

“Sure, Waverly.” She slid off the counter. “Whatever you want.”

 

*

 

Waverly put off going to bed for as long as possible, but eventually, every last corner of the Eco Skills shed was clean, every drawer organized, and every important list she’d made memorized.

 

She’d locked herself in, or locked the world out; found some work that needed to be done. Cleaning helped.

 

Maybe if she started with the Eco Skills shed, she’d thought, she could continue with the Archery shed, really clean everything up, and eventually, she’d–

 

But exhaustion had crept in again.

 

Waverly felt like she was in a different dimension. Like maybe things weren’t even real. She needed to sleep, and maybe everything would make sense in the morning. That was what Curtis would have said, right? Everything will look different in the morning .

 

Outside it was dark, and she nodded at Valdez, who was doing her rounds. She was grateful that it wasn’t Jeremy, or someone equally talkative, or maybe even—

 

She couldn’t go back to unit 68. The very idea of it made her stomach drop. (A nasty little voice told her that she’d had this coming for getting involved with her tent-mate, but it was too late for that now.)

 

And so she went to the only place she could think of—the place where she’d gone the night her parents hadn’t come home, or that time Curtis had been upset with her for losing his timepiece.

 

“Hey,” Wynonna said, looking up from where she was untying her boots. Tears started pushing at Waverly’s throat, and she immediately regretted her decision to come here. But there was nowhere else to go. “Are you—“

 

“Can I sleep here? Thanks.”

 

Waverly didn’t wait for a reply, and just laid down on the free cot, facing the tent wall. The pillow smelled like Willa’s too-sweet shampoo, and a little like cigarette smoke. She flipped it.

 

Behind her, Wynonna was quiet for a beat. “Waves…”

 

“I’m really tired, Wynonna. I think I’ll sleep now. Goodnight.”

 

A sigh. “Waverly. You’re still wearing your shoes and everything.”

 

Waverly kicked them off. She would not reply. She’d just wait, and eventually, Wynonna would give up, and eventually, the night would be over, and maybe, eventually, she would stop feeling like this.

 

All she had to do was wait. All she had to do was keep her mouth shut, and wait. Everything will look different in the morning .

 

Wynonna was quiet now, and Waverly wondered how much time had already passed. Was it ten minutes? Five? Maybe this was what five minutes felt like now; so much longer than the five minutes between teaching her class about spiders and holding hands on the way to the lake. How many five-minutes until dawn?

 

There was a soft rustle, and then the weight of her sister’s hand on her side.

 

“Hey,” Wynonna said gently. “Wanna tell me why you’re crying?”

 

Waverly swallowed a mouthful of pain. “I’m not.”

 

“Oh, baby girl.” Her sister pulled at her, and Waverly’s body turned without her really wanting to. She did her best to hide her face, her nose bumping painfully into the rough denim of Wynonna’s black jeans.

 

“Is this about Willa?” Wynonna tried, a little hesitant.

 

Eliza’s hand on the top of Willa’s head, Willa catching her gaze with a glare of glass.

 

Gus turning her red nose against the harsh winter wind, angling her face away from the sad tomato patch, away from where Waverly could see her eyes.

 

Quiet and uncomprehending, Nicole’s eyebrows drawing together.

 

It all washed over her like waves of dirty dish water. Around Waverly, the ground seemed to vanish, leaving her suspended in nothingness with dawn nowhere in sight. Her throat constricted.

 

Wynonna’s fingers tightened on her shoulders, and it was all Waverly could do to shake her head.

 

It was ironic, Waverly thought in a quiet, emotionless corner of her mind as she sobbed into Wynonna’s knees. There had been times in her life when she would have given anything to have her sister be there for her like this. Times when she’d lain awake and wondered if Wynonna would care for her if a time of need ever came; when she’d dreamed up self-indulgent scenarios of Wynonna rushing to her side to comfort her. In her imagination, her sister had always been an even gruffer version of her teenaged self.

 

It turned out that Wynonna was a lot more affectionate than she’d thought, her fingers stroking her hair much more gently than she’d dreamed. At one point, she even started humming a melody, and it took a while until Waverly recognized it.

 

“Someone’s rocking my dreamboat… someone’s invading my dream…”

 

It was an old song; a soft song. And one that Curtis used to sing. Waverly didn’t know if the thought of Wynonna reaching for their uncle in this moment was more soothing or more painful, in much the same way that one couldn’t always tell right away if water was very hot or very cold.

 

Wynonna only asked what had happened twice more, but each time, Waverly stayed silent, Nicole’s name like a marble in her mouth, hard and inevitable.

 

At one point, she pretended to fall asleep so that Wynonna could crawl back into her own sleeping bag. But she just curled up around Waverly, and together, they waited through the sixty-one five-minutes until dawn.

Chapter Text

Hunter pressed through the door gap nose-first as soon as Nicole opened up the shed. She almost tripped over him in his haste to get past her, and she quietly cursed, rolling her eyes.

 

It was early; Nicole had skipped breakfast. Or rather, she'd stopped by the kitchen and stolen a granola bar. That counted as breakfast, right?

 

As Hunter hurried along the work benches, sniffing, and, inevitably, sneezing at the sawdust, Nicole opened up the blinds to let in the morning sun. The air inside the shed was stale, and so she left the door open.

 

In the very far corner stood the secret project, nearly finished. She regarded it with a warm ache in her heart. At this point, it was hers as much as it was the kids’, and she couldn't help but feel proud of it, its curves and angles all sawed and sanded with loving care. Her mind wandered to the big reveal they’d planned; it was only a few days away now. Beyond the campers and counselors who worked at the woodshop, no one had laid eyes on the project yet – to Nicole’s surprise, everyone had been extremely good at keeping the secret. All the greater the surprise would be, or so they hoped.

 

And although Nicole had really thought that occupying herself with the project would be the perfect thing to distract herself, her mind drifted to Waverly. If she would like it. If her eyes would widen in surprise and amazement, if she’d grin and–

 

“I don’t want this to fizzle out over the phone. I want...”

 

Nicole’s stomach turned.

 

No . She was not going to think about this now. The day had only just begun.

 

Determined, she grabbed a piece of fine sandpaper. There were some splinters here somewhere, and she would smooth them down. She just had to think of something else.

 

The capital of Alberta is Edmonton. The capital of BC is Victoria. Manitoba… Winnipeg. New Brunswick…

 

When she’d run out of provinces to name capitals for, she continued to list the states of the U.S. in her head, and when she was done with that, she tried to remember which countries were part of the U.N., but she had no way of checking whether or not her guesses were right.

 

“I thought I might find you here.”

 

Nicole, in the middle of making sure all of the screws were tight, almost dropped her screwdriver. A glance at the calculator watch on her wrist told her that it wasn’t time for class yet.

 

She turned around.

 

Chrissy leaned on the door frame, arms crossed.

 

“Good morning.” Nicole tried to make herself sound normal. “What can I do for you?”

 

“I know about you and Waverly.”

 

Oh.

 

“Or rather, I know some of it. What I don't know is why Waverly is crying into her oatmeal and Wynonna is glaring at everyone who tries to talk to her. Care to clear that one up for me?”

 

Wynonna. Of course that was were Waverly had spent the night. Nicole had waited several hours in the tent, hoping that Waverly would come back and they could talk about this, but eventually, she had just passed out.

 

In the morning, she'd felt sore inside and out, and Waverly had never come.

 

She tightened her jaw. “Not really, no.”

 

“Listen, Haught–”

 

“I mean it, Chrissy. I don't want to talk about it.”

 

“That's too bad,” said Chrissy sharply, “because Waverly is one of my best friends, and if you broke her heart, I’m going to–”

 

“I didn't.” With a loud clatter, Nicole dropped the screwdriver into the tool box. It was passive-aggressive, but she didn't have the energy to care. All she had wanted was some time to herself in the woodshop, to lick her wounds in peace before putting a brave face for the rest of the day.

 

Chrissy was unfazed. “Oh, really? Because she looked heartbroken to me. She may have everyone else fooled pretending like this is just about Willa, but I know it's not, so there is really only one conclusion here.”

 

Nicole threw her hands up. “And what might that be?”

 

“You!” One index finger was extended her way. “She's crying about you. So what happened? Did you guys have a fight?”

 

Under Chrissy’s unrelenting scrutiny and no-nonsense tone, Nicole felt something in her chest coil tighter and tighter.

 

She leaned back against one of the workbenches; the sound of Hunter's jangling tags moving away and the subsequent huff as he let himself fall into his favorite spot just outside the woodshop registered distantly.

 

With all the patience she had left, Nicole said: “I know you're just trying to be a supportive friend to Waverly, and I appreciate that. But this is none of your business, and I’m asking you to please let it go.”

 

She closed her eyes and prayed that the next thing she would hear would be Chrissy's footsteps, because the tension within her, she realized with a start, was tears threatening to come out. And she really did not need to start this day by falling apart in front of Chrissy Nedley.

 

Alas, she had no such luck.

 

“Nicole…” Chrissy began, much softer, but still in argument mode, and that was it.

 

“Waverly left me , okay?”

 

It had come out way too loud and way too hysterical. Drawing in a deep breath, Nicole ran both her hands through her hair. She didn't look at Chrissy.

 

“I mean, no. That's not… Waverly made a valid point. She says that the summer will be over soon, and that long distance is hard, and that she'd rather end things now, on a good note, than break up later. It's the adult thing to do, but that doesn't mean it's easy for either of us. So please, leave it.”

 

Before anything else could be said, there was a short, happy yap from Hunter, and the shuffle of feet. Randy Nedley stood in the door.

 

“Nicole, are you here already? I’ve told you before, you're no use to me without breakfast. Where were– what's going on here?”

 

“Nothing,” Nicole replied, quickly smiling at him. “Chrissy just wanted to give me a speech about missing breakfast, too. Won't happen again.”

 

“I hope so,” Chrissy said. When she caught Nicole's eye, her expression was soft, and for a moment, it looked like she was going to go for a hug, but then thought better of it.

 

On her way out, she gave her father a kiss on the cheek, and then Nicole and Nedley were alone.

 

“You’re not going to lose yourself again, are you?” Nedley asked, strict.

 

Swallowing past the fist-sized lump in her throat, Nicole shook her head. “No, sir.”

 

But the truth was that she was already lost.



*

 

“Waverly, can you help me adjust my sight?”

 

“Sure, Lenn.” Waverly stepped closer, glancing at the arrow-riddled target that Lenn shared with Amalia. “Which arrows are yours?”

 

“The ones with the yellow fletchings.”

 

Waverly checked, and gave Lenn a wide smile. She was grateful for Wynonna’s too-big aviator sunglasses that covered half of her face, hiding her eyes. When Wynonna had been seventeen, she’d barely taken them off, which had made her look perpetually hungover.

 

“Nice cluster! Good job. Go up to 5.5 and see if it works. If that still hits too high, try 5, but I don’t think you’ll need more than that.”

 

She continued to walk along the shooting line, letting the smile slide away. Forty-five minutes until lunch. The heat was already sweltering, even in the shadow of the canvas they had put up on the canopy above the shooting range.

 

Someone groaned. “Come on , Alana…”

 

“I’m concentrating,” Alana hissed back.

 

Waverly turned. Almost everyone was out of arrows, except for Alana, whose right arm was shaking with the effort of keeping the bow drawn.

 

“Set the bow down, please,” Waverly said, intervening.

 

After a second of hesitation, Alana obeyed, relaxing the string with some disappointment.

 

“You’re already taking too much time to think about this. Check your stance, take a breath. Draw the string up to your chin, aim, and when you’ve got it, then pull it the rest of the way. You can correct your aim for a short moment, but then you’ve got to let it go. You’re not going to get a better result holding the tension for too long. If your arm is already shaking, you’ve waited too long. Go ahead, we’ll wait,” she added pointely, with a sharp glance at the other campers.

 

Nervous about being put on the spot, Alana did as she was told, and her arrow zipped away. It hit the third ring, close to her other arrows, completing a narrow cluster.

 

“Well done!” Waverly praised, and then stepped over the arrow line to address everyone. “I didn’t say all clear yet,” she reminded Carl, who sheepishly took a step back from where he’d been about to cross the line.

 

“Quick reminder: archery is a dangerous sport that takes patience and precision. We don’t rush someone with a drawn bow in hand, we don’t shoot hastily, and we definitely don’t step on the field before I allow it. Got that?”

 

Low mumbling. Waverly raised an eyebrow and put her hand behind her ear. The campers hurried to give a chorus of yes s and yes, ma’am s. She nodded. “ All clear , then. And remember to drink something before you get ready for the next round! Dehydration does not improve performance.”

 

As the kids scampered off to retrieve their arrows, Waverly ducked back into the shadow, and saw someone leaning against a pillar of the canopy at the far end of the shooting range.

 

It was Chrissy, and as soon as she realized that Waverly had noticed her, she approached.

 

Waverly sighed shakily, and pulled herself together a little tighter. By the time Chrissy reached her, she was smiling. Well, at least the half of her face that wasn’t protected by sunglasses was.

 

“What are you doing here? Don’t you have a class to teach?”

 

Chrissy shook her head. “Asked Beth to fill in for me.”

 

“Yikes.”

 

“I know. But…” She made a face. “I think I messed up a little.”

 

Relieved to be talking about someone else’s mess rather than her own, Waverly raised an eyebrow. “Sounds intriguing. Let’s hear it.”

 

With a sigh, Chrissy traced the wood of one of the pillars with her fingernail. “You’re not going to like it. Just try to remember that I’m your friend and you love me, okay?”

 

Please , sixteen-year-old Willa drawled in Waverly’s mind , what are you gonna do, call the cops on me? I’m your sister. She gave herself a shake. This was completely different, whatever it was.

 

“Just tell me, Chris.”

 

“I… may have gone to kick Nicole’s ass this morning.”

 

“You– what?” Waverly pushed her glasses up into her hair. “Oh, for the love of…”

 

Chrissy winced. “Turns out her ass doesn’t need kicking, and I’m a no-good busybody.”

 

Perfect . Exactly what Waverly needed. Her head hurt. She rubbed at her face, her eyes, skipping right past the Oh shit, am I wearing makeup? moment to Screw it, I’m wearing sunglasses today .

 

“You looked so sad at breakfast, and I thought she’d hurt you. I’m sorry, Waves. I should have asked.”

 

“Yes, you should have,” Waverly gave back with more intensity than she had planned. She slid down the glasses again. She was beginning to see why teenage-Wynonna had liked them so much.

 

Well, maybe she had been perpetually hungover. That was a definite possibility.

 

She could go for a drink right about now, that was for sure.

 

Chrissy was still looking appropriately guilty, and Waverly sighed. “I’ll forgive you later. Take over my class for me, I have to go talk to Nicole.”

 

*

 

Woodworking class had begun an hour ago, and they were yet to make any progress on the project, because Maddie, Ben, and Leo were having artistic differences.

 

This meant that they were sitting on the floor in front of their piece of art, surrounded by paint cans and brushes, their first sketches, and color catalogues.

 

“Do you want this project to look like something a child made with their kindergarten teacher? Because it's going to look like that if we paint it in full colors.”

 

“We are children, Maddie,” Leo pointed out, ironically sounding very reasonable and adult as he said it. “And how are they gonna get that they're tomatoes if we don't paint them red?”

 

“Um, hello?” Maddie gestured wildly to the tomatoes they had carved into the wood (with help from Nicole). “Not to be dramatic, but if they can't see that those are tomatoes, I’m gonna send them pictures of tomatoes every day for as long as I live.”

 

Leo shrugged. “Or we could just paint the tomatoes red and the leaves green and the rest blue and everything would be clear.”

 

“That would completely ruin it!”

 

Nicole, who was absolutely not feeling up to the task of managing a discussion completely based on subjective opinions, had left them to it for a while. She had tidied up the raw materials, helped a kid with last-minute adjustments to the small chair he had built, and carefully avoided talking to Nedley instead, but when she came by to check on them again, they hadn't gotten anywhere.

 

Nicole sighed. “Benny, what's your take on this?”

 

Benny dropped the catalogue he'd been looking at, and pushed his glasses up. “I think maybe we should find a shade of green that’s sort of… low-key. You know, the kind that looks good when it's a little weathered. And then we can paint the tomatoes red, and everything else can be green.”

 

Raising her eyebrows, Nicole looked at the other two, who were eyeing each other indecisively.

 

She rolled her eyes. “Seriously? It's been an hour, and you didn't once think to ask Benny for his opinion? Come on , guys. And you,” she pointed at Benny, “have to start not taking their shit for so long.” (“Language,” Leo whispered automatically.) “This is basic communication stuff. You have a disagreement? You listen to all positions, and see if you can find some middle ground. You don't sit around for ages just repeating some of the existing possibilities back and forth at each other while completely ignoring another. This is not rocket science.”

 

“Jeez, okay,” Maddie mumbled, with a disapproving frown. “Keep your shirt on.”

 

“Seriously,” Leo agreed under his breath.

 

Okay, so maybe that hadn't been Nicole's finest hour as a counselor. She sighed again.

 

“Sorry. You’re right, I didn't need to be so harsh about it, but really, you’re old enough to do better. Okay. Moving on. How do you guys feel about Benny’s idea?”

 

Leo shrugged. “It’s okay with me. I don’t need the blue. I just want the tomatoes to really stand out.”

 

He looked at Maddie, who rolled her eyes. “Yeah, okay.” She reached for the nearest can of green paint.

 

“Not so fast!” Nicole warned. The three of them looked up at her, and she knelt down to be on their eye level, fishing a piece of leftover wood from under their project. “Paint sometimes looks a little different once it has dried, and the layer of finish you’ll want to put on might change the way it looks, too. So I suggest that you make this a test board. Remember to write down which color is which, and add the finish once the paint is dry.”

 

“Oh, good idea. Thanks, Nicole.”

 

No problem , Nicole was about to say as she got up from the floor, but was interrupted by Nedley.

 

“Nicole! You have a visitor.”

 

If this is Chrissy, I swear to God I will–

 

But it wasn’t Chrissy.

 

Waverly was standing in the middle of her woodshop, her hair done up in a messy, uneven bun at the back of her head. She looked tired, and like she’d rather have been doused with honey and thrown on an anthill than stand where she did, but Nicole’s heart lurched anyway.

 

(Lurched, and flashed to a different time when they’d been here together, when Waverly’s hair had been falling in waves down her back, when she’d pulled Nicole in by her belt loops, and–)

 

“Hey, what’s up?” she asked, as casually as possible, dusting off her hands as she went.

 

Maybe she’s changed her mind , hope fluttered in the back of her mind, but one look at Waverly’s face, tight and unhappy, extinguished the thought.

 

Waverly rubbed the back of her hand. “Can we talk outside for a minute?”

 

“Sure.”

 

Nicole led them outside, far enough away from the shed to be out of earshot, where she turned to look at Waverly, who shoved her hands in the back pockets of her cut-off jeans.

 

“Chrissy told me she came to see you, and I just wanted to make sure… anyway, I didn’t know she was going to come and question you when I wouldn’t tell her anything, so I’m sorry about that.”

 

It was pathetic, how happy she was just to talk to Waverly, even though it just made her more miserable at this moment.

 

Nicole made a weird gesture, something between waving her off and holding up her hand. “It’s fine. She’s protective, I get it. It’s okay.”

 

“It’s not, though,” Waverly insisted. “I don’t need to be protected, especially not from–” She seemed to cut herself off when she realized how intimate that sounded. She cleared her throat. “Anyway. I just wanted to say sorry.”

 

“Yeah. Like I said, it’s no problem.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Desperate to keep the conversation going, Nicole wracked her brain for something to say, but she was just too tired.

 

Waverly rocked onto her toes and back to her heels a couple of time. “You okay?” she asked eventually.

 

No , Nicole didn’t say. And neither are you.

 

“I will be. You?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

When Waverly smiled, Nicole almost threw her cards on the table, almost moved forward to take her face into both hands and kiss her like they were in some movie where everything could be right again if only there was the dramatic swell of the string music drowning out everything else.

 

Instead, she just stood there. “Good. I’ll see you–” tonight , she’d wanted to say, but swallowed the word, “–around.”

 

Waverly spared them both the embarrassment of echoing her words, and just gave her a half-hearted wave.

 

Maybe, Nicole decided as she watched her go, maybe it was better if she stayed out here for a moment.

 

*

 

Waverly had gone all out on the whiskey; a peaty, twelve-year-old drink, the scent of which filled up the interior of her car the moment she pulled out the cork. It tasted like withered fields of barley, like a well-worn saddle or the backseat of an old Chevy, like fire and smoke.

 

It was way too expensive to drink straight out of the bottle, but Waverly didn’t have a glass at hand, so Wynonna-style had to do.

 

She’d come back to camp to feel home again. To feel safe.

 

(To stop feeling like if she only looked in the right places, there Curtis would be again.)

 

And instead, her sister had been arrested.

 

The camp could get in legal trouble.

 

She was lovesick, plain and simple.

 

And she still couldn’t cry about her uncle, no matter how hard she tried.

 

Everything freaking sucked, and the whiskey was way too intense and expensive to drink the way they had downed the Varmint, so she couldn’t even get drunk properly. What kind of Earp couldn’t even get drunk?

Waverly let out a dry, frustrated sob and kicked against the paneling under the steering wheel. She was just stuck , and–

 

There was a knock on her window, and Waverly startled so badly she spilled booze on herself as she let out a sharp yelp and almost fell over.

 

“Jesus, what the shit!

 

Wynonna, standing outside her Jeep, raised both eyebrows and crossed her arms.

 

“Drinking without me, are you?” she asked once the door was open.

 

Waverly threw up her free hand. “Well, to be honest, I was planning on giving this getting drunk and feeling sorry for myself thing a try, since you made it look so appealing when we were younger.”

 

“Ouch,” Wynonna commented, unimpressed. “You’re doing it wrong, though. Follow me.”

 

Without waiting to see if her sister would follow, she walked away through the parking lot.

 

Waverly groaned.

 

She considered just closing the door again, but after a moment, she slid out of the driver’s seat.

 

“If you’re going to drink your feelings, you might as well do it in style,” Wynonna wisely told her, once Waverly had caught up with her. “Also, in case you ralph and/or pass out, you should never do it somewhere where Gus can stumble upon you in the morning. Or, you know, children might see you. Whichever scares you more.”

 

Waverly let herself be led to Wynonna’s truck, and five minutes later, Wynonna stopped the vehicle in the middle of Echo Valley, the sound of her ancient brakes resonating between the walls of the quarry.

 

The sky above was a band of pastel colors, soft hues of pink and blue dotted with white where the stars poked through. Crickets chirped rhythmically, and the stone walls around them were radiating with the heat they’d taken up during the day.

 

Waverly had not said a word during the drive. Now, she put her bottle of whiskey down on the banged-up bed of Wynonna’s truck to clamber up behind it.

 

“So,” Wynonna said, once they were both settled against the cab. “Turns out Willa is an irredeemable asshole.”

 

“Yeah, well. Some of us already knew that,” Waverly muttered, and then protested when Wynonna plucked the bottle right out of her fingers.

 

“Ugh. What the hell kind of whiskey is this?” Wynonna made a face. “This tastes like I just licked a charred log.”

 

“It’s expensive , you’re supposed to sip it from a fancy glass full of frozen marble cubes, not– oh, give me that.” She snatched back the bottle and replaced the cork. “Willa is a dick. This is not news.”

 

A sigh. “No, it’s not.”

 

At the far end of the quarry, something moved. A lizard, maybe. There were lots of lizards here; Waverly had spent a lot of time trying to catch one. She’d never succeeded.

 

“I just… didn’t think she would go this far.”

 

“As to give alcohol to campers?”

 

“As to drag Curtis into this.”

 

I bet your husband would be real proud of you, Willa spat in Waverly’s memory, eyes wild.

 

She pulled the cork again and took a big swig; swallowed it down with the rising bitterness. Even though she hated to admit it to herself, there was a part of her that had seen Willa go off the rails and felt gratified . This was the Willa no one had ever really seen but her: cruel, erratic, and abysmal. This was the Willa that had made her blood run cold when she’d seen her again after all these years of radio silence.

 

She had tried so hard to believe that she wasn’t like that anymore, that if she only looked away in the right moments and took all the right steps, the three of them could be sisters .

 

A unit.

 

She had imagined a future in which they got along, and Wynonna didn’t have to divide herself up between her sisters. One where they could have done things, like go to Europe, or just to the movies; one where they stuck together.

 

One where Waverly could see in Willa what Wynonna had seen.

 

Whatever that was.

 

“Hey.” She bumped their shoulders together. Her next sentence felt sticky in her mouth, hard to get out. “I’m sorry about Willa.”

 

For a moment, Wynonna didn’t react.

 

Then she bumped back. “I’m sorry, too.”

 

And Waverly knew what she meant.

 

They sat in silence as the light faded: the pastel colors of the sky grew darker, and the humidity in the air began to feel wet and cool against their faces. Waverly untied her sweater jacket from her hips, and Wynonna whistled the X-Files intro, loud enough for it to reverberate around the quarry in exactly the right way. They shared some more of the whiskey, even though it was still too rich, too broad in their mouths.

 

“So how much do I have to drink until I feel better?” Waverly wanted to know.

 

She was lying with her back flat against the surface of the bed of the truck, her legs hanging off the end of it, kicking her feet.

 

Wynonna shrugged. “In this melancholy setting? A lot more. If we were in a bar or a casino, I’d say you’d be all set, but this place is kind of depressing. Not as depressing as your car, though. You’re welcome, by the way...”

 

Only half-listening as Wynonna went on, Waverly looked up at the sky, and Cassiopeia looked back at her ungraciously. When she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine that Nicole was lying next to her, that all she had to do was move her hand to find her fingers.

 

It was the twelfth of August, she suddenly realized, night of the annual Perseid meteor shower, named for the constellation of Perseus. She’d told Nicole about this, all those nights ago on the warm Tartan track.

 

“...not that I’m not happy to sit around in complete fucking darkness with you, but is there a reason you’re not drinking with... I don’t know. Chrissy? I thought you guys had girls’ nights, or whatever. Which I was strangely never invited to, even though I’m a girl, too, you know.”

 

Waverly took a deep breath, willing the regret away. “We’re mad at Chrissy at the moment.”

 

She realized her mistake at the same time as Wynonna asked: “Why?”

 

With a groan, she rolled onto her side, facing away from her sister. “Nothing important. She meddled with things she shouldn’t have meddled with. We’ll be fine tomorrow.”

 

Wynonna didn’t respond immediately, but when she did, her voice was careful.

 

“Does… it have anything to do with what happened last night?”

 

I’ll see you… around , Nicole had said this afternoon, and looked at her with this strange expression that had made Waverly feel like she was going to cry right there and then. She’d expected Nicole to be at least mildly annoyed with her, as she should have been, for finding a stupid reason to come and talk to her. Instead, she’d just been… Nicole. Respectful and understanding, if a bit formal, and wearing that black polo shirt, and her hands–

 

“I’ve done something really stupid,” Waverly whispered into the darkness of the quarry without turning around. She wasn’t even sure Wynonna had heard her, when–

 

“Can’t be much more stupid than anything I’ve done.”

 

All the things she could say next unspooled in front of her.

 

I made out with my tent-mate. Oh, she was so beyond that being the problem.

 

I started seeing someone. Had that been the stupid part, or had it been more stupid to end things?

 

I’m falling for Nicole.

 

Waverly’s heart hammered hard against her ribs; her whiskey buzz felt uncomfortable now.

 

It was too early to be falling in love. And how would she know what love was, anyway? The most serious romantic relationship of her life had been with Champ from maintenance , for crying out loud – but then again, it had never felt like this. Not quite. Not like…

 

“Shit, what am I doing,” she whispered, more to herself than to her surroundings, let alone her sister, who had scooted down the length of the loading area to sit next to her.

 

“Getting drunk with your sister at camp,” Wynonna answered dryly, but her tone was still soft. She was letting her off the hook. “Luckily for you, it’s the slightly less shitty one. I hope.”

 

“Oh, shut up.” Waverly sat up.

 

“Isn’t this the part where you say, oh no, Wynonna, you’re a great sister and I love you ?”

 

“You know, for the lone wolf, you’re awfully needy sometimes.” With her heart still racing and her mind still reeling, Waverly grabbed the bottle again. Not to drink; she’d had enough. Just to have something to turn in her hands.

 

Wynonna snorted. “ Lone wolf ?”

 

“Isn’t that what you were going for, with the all black everything and the sardonic humor?”

 

“You’re mean today. I like it.”

 

She sighed. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Don’t be.” Wynonna bumped her with her elbow. “Being a little mean gets me loads of drinks. Dudes dig it.”

 

And there it was.

 

The in love part was one thing, but there was another reason why she couldn’t figure out how to say this.

 

After she’d broken up with Champ, she had told Curtis that maybe men weren’t for her. And she had allowed him to tell Gus.

 

But Wynonna had been somewhere in Argentina, and Waverly had forgotten to come out to her sister.

 

Well, maybe not forgotten. Just… kept postponing it. The next time they texted. The next call. Maybe better via Skype. Maybe when they saw each other in person.

 

And then Curtis got sick, and the next time they saw each other in person had been almost two months ago.

 

Waverly took a deep breath. “Do chicks?”

 

In the weak light of the moon and the stars, it was very, very hard to read Wynonna’s face. Waverly’s hand curled around the neck of the bottle so hard that she distantly worried she might break it, her pulse still hammering away, and Wynonna had been silent for an eternity.

 

“I… guess that depends, do you want them t–”

 

“I’m in love with Nicole.” It all came out quick, like the answer to a timed question.

 

“Oh.” Wynonna took a moment with that. “Does she… know this?”

 

Waverly flashed back to hands on her hips and her neck and a kiss to her temple. “You smell nice.” “I must smell like dirt and sweat.” “Well, you smell nice to me.

 

She swallowed, and quietly said: “Yes. She knows.”

 

Another beat. “Do I need to kick her ass?”

 

With a dry laugh, Waverly put her face in her hands. “Please don’t. Why does everyone want to do that?”

 

Wynonna threw up her hands. “Well, I’m a little out of my depth here, it’s not like I’m Miss Successful Relationship 2017! But if she hurt you, I’m definitely going to kick her ass, I can tell you that.”

 

“She didn’t,” Waverly hurried to say, “she wouldn’t. It’s not anything that she did. I… We broke up last night. Because we’re all going home soon. And it’s better now than…”

 

She didn’t finish her sentence. She had told it to herself so many times now, she was getting really tired of hearing it.

 

“Oh. Shit.”

 

“Yeah. I know.”

 

Wynonna sighed and put an arm around Waverly’s shoulders, allowing her to snuggle closer. Above them, a meteoroid burned up brightly in the upper levels of the atmosphere.   

 

“I wish Curtis was here.”

 

“I know, baby girl. Me, too.”

Chapter Text

It wasn't that Waverly was hungover.

 

It was just that her entire body felt like garbage, and schooling her facial muscles into any kind of expression seemed like an insurmountable effort, and listening to people talk was honestly the worst.

 

But that could be anything. Probably just came from messing up her sleep schedule so badly.

 

As tempting as it was, Waverly had promised herself not to lie down in the shade somewhere and take a nap, because it was time to go back to sleeping at night .

 

(Or so she told herself, when the true reason was: whenever she allowed her mind to be idle, her thoughts wandered. And whenever she let her body be still, it felt restless.)

 

“Hey, you.” Waverly lightly poked Chrissy’s naked foot with her own toe where she found her lounging in the sun just before lunch – or, well, breakfast, for Waverly. “All your evildoing will be forgotten if you find me some distraction.”

 

Chrissy, who was lying on a towel wearing a bikini, shielded her eyes against the sun. “We could go wakeboarding? That's always fun.”

 

Waverly groaned at the thought. “Let me rephrase. All your evildoing will be forgotten if you find me something to do that doesn't involve moving too much.” She flashed her a crooked grin.

 

Chrissy pursed her lips. “Gotcha. Tall order, in a place like this.”

 

“Well, if it was easy, I’d come up with something myself…”

 

“Fair point.” With a sigh, she got up. “Let's see what we got.”

 

And here was a reason why Chrissy Nedley was one of the best friends Waverly had ever had: without further questions, she leapt into a story about the guy from her Science and Literature class, the one with the excellent hair who kept starting arguments with her.

 

She allowed Waverly to fall in step next to her while they strolled through the tent village to Chrissy’s tent, kept her engaged while she changed clothes. Without letting the conversation waver for a moment, Chrissy led them all the way around the camp to the theater shed, carefully avoiding the woodshop, the Homestead, and unit 68.

 

Waverly was grateful. Her mind kept slipping, but her friend always brought her back, and for a while, the things that haunted her went out of focus: still there, just less stark in her thoughts.

 

It wasn’t until they were both sitting cross-legged in a sea of costumes that needed mending that Chrissy let silence to take over for a moment.

 

“Hey.” Her voice was careful when she spoke up again. “You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to, but… can I ask a question?”

 

Waverly’s first instinct was to say no, because there was nothing to be done, and talking about it was just bound to make everything worse. But something within her uncurled at the question, like she’d been waiting for it, like a part of her craved sharing everything with her best friend.

 

She let herself fall back onto the cool floor of the shed with a huff. “Ask away.”

 

“Are you…. sure that this is better than the alternative?”

 

No .

 

Thinking about it felt like wading upstream, constantly being sucked back by the desire to find Nicole and just hug her for the entirety of the remaining six days of camp.

 

“I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?”

 

Above Waverly, the ceiling panels blurred. She swallowed against the burning in her throat.

 

“You’re already feeling awful. So you might as well take a shot at the chance of not feeling awful, right?”

 

The static crackling of silence on the line.

 

Nicole’s smile turning polite, but empty.

 

A vague feeling of emptiness, a hovering abyss.

 

Shae.

 

A door, closing, because Nicole would never slam it.  

 

“Or,” Waverly replied after a sharp inhale, sitting up again, “maybe I just have to have a couple of bad days now to save me a really bad time later, and so she and I can still be friends next year.”

 

She wiped at her eyes – and seriously? I can constantly cry for this but not at my uncle’s funeral? – and gave Chrissy a face that was supposed to convey the end of that conversation.

 

Chrissy regarded her, unperturbed and unconvinced.

 

“Friends next year,” she repeated. “Well, it’s a goal.”


*

 

On Sunday afternoon, Nicole and Hunter decided to accompany Xavier and his campers on an overnight excursion.

 

Xavier taught survival skills, and Nicole had learned that during the rest of the year, he was a Park Ranger at the Ghost River National Park. Nothing about the way he taught his subject was rooted in some kind of over-the-top display of masculinity: with patience and tranquility, he let the campers come up with ways to improvise, and stressed the importance of both safety and respect for their surroundings.

 

Excursions required more than one counselor, so her presence was welcome, but Nicole soon found herself feeling like a student herself. There were many little things to be learned from Xavier Dolls, and listening to his even voice explain chemical processes and physical effects behind the things they were doing put her at ease, somehow.

 

She stuck to the end of the group as they hiked, making sure no one trailed too far behind, and kept to herself when they ate their dinner, warmed up over the small campfire they had made.  

 

“You doing okay?” Xavier asked her after they had sent the children off to their bedrolls.

 

Without taking her eyes away from their fire, she honestly responded: “Not really, no.”

 

Xavier nodded. “Alright. If there’s anything you need, you know where to find me.”

 

“Thanks,” she said, and then added: “That means a lot.”

 

“Sure. Want to hear my favorite story about being a Park Ranger? It involves a wolf.”

 

Nicole gave a shaky laugh. “Desperately.”

 

When they returned early on Monday morning, Nicole felt a little bit wilder, and strangely in tune with nature, like they had made friends with some of the trees and rocks during their stay. But the rest of the day passed as the weekend had: mostly uneventful, and with the small physical impossibility of a black hole burning in the pit of Nicole’s stomach.

 

She only ran into Waverly twice.

 

Once in the bathroom: Nicole was on her way to take a shower to warm up where her limbs had gone stiff from sleeping under the open sky, and Waverly was brushing her teeth at the row of sinks. Apart from Greta singing softly to herself in one of the shower stalls, they were alone for a moment. Waverly tracked her movement through the mirror without turning around, and when Nicole noticed, she raised her hand in greeting. She gave a small smile around the toothbrush in her mouth.

 

Nicole lifted her own hand, waving back.

 

The other time barely even counted, but the moment was committed to Nicole’s memory just the same as everything else that involved Waverly Earp.

 

She’d been at the woodshop – class had been over already, but with the big reveal being only a day away now, she and the triumvirate were working overtime. Tomatoes were painted, edges smoothed, final touches made. Some time in the afternoon, Nicole had ushered the three kids out into the sunshine. There was only so much they could do before the paint just had to dry, after all, and Maddie, Benny, and Leo had desperately needed to go for a run or something.

 

With thoughts on the orchestration of the reveal in her head, she returned to unit 68, lost in thought, but the moment she stepped into the tent, she stopped dead in her tracks. The air smelled sweet and a little minty, and Nicole knew that scent so well that her knees felt weak for a moment. Her chest ached.

 

Without thinking, she moved outside again, and yes – from just a bit further away, Waverly's voice wafted over in the slight breeze. She was saying something in a sharp tone, like maybe some kid had kicked a ball at someone's face again.

 

She must have been in the tent just moments ago, maybe to get something from her bag, which she had yet to take out of the tent, even though she was still sleeping in Wynonna’s unit, as far as Nicole could tell.

 

But she’d been here. She’d left the bag on purpose.

 

There was nothing Nicole could do with this information now that she had it, and so she just stood and listened for another moment before heading inside to get her book.

 

*

 

Tuesday arrived with a low hum, a buzz of energy that seemed to hover over the camp as soon as the sun went up. It was the day of the annual End Of Camp Party, and the excitement of the campers sparked and hissed in the air.  

 

At least forty percent of that excitement was emanating from Madison.

 

When Waverly had stepped out of her sister’s tent that morning, the very first thing she'd seen had been Madison shooting past her, sliding to a halt in front of the unit Benny and Leo slept in.

 

Party Day!” she'd yelled, ripping open the Velcro of the tent flap.

 

Before Waverly could gently reprimand her with words like privacy and sleep , there had been a bang like knees on wood. From inside, two voices had answered “ Yes!”  and “ Motherhecking Party Day!” sounding barely awake.

 

Party Day!”

 

It hadn't taken long for the spark to jump over to Waverly, too. A little slow to catch, at first, but this day was one of her favorites, firmly in third place right after Christmas and Halloween.

 

(Parent Visit Day was a tie with her birthday on place four, but she was doing her best not to think too hard about either at the moment.)

 

Maintenance had carried tables and chairs from the mess hall to form two long rows down the main path, and Shorty’s angels, as they had come to call them, pulled into the parking lot just as campers and counselors were beginning to poke their heads out of their tents.

 

Tablecloths were put on, old and mismatched, but eventually, the two gigantic makeshift breakfast tables was covered. Dishes, glasses, mugs, and cutlery were brought out as Shorty’s staff set hot plates down in regular intervals, filling the space in between with bowls, carafes, boxes, and bottles.

 

The air was clean and cool, as though it had rained a little overnight, but the ground barely felt damp; fall was inching closer. Nevertheless, maintenance brought out a couple of parasols.

 

Some first-timers at Camp Purgatory – including Jeremy – watched with open mouths as all kinds of breakfast foods were decked out before them, right in the middle of the encampment. (“Oh, my god, are those fresh strawberries ?” Waverly heard Rosita ask, in a voice that sounded like she was ready to sell a small child for some fresh fruit.)

 

When enough of a crowd of surprised, still-sleepy campers had gathered, Gus stood up on a chair and clapped her hands.

 

“Good morning, campers!” she called to them, the hint of a smile curling on her cheeks. “Because our time together is coming to an end soon, we are going to have a little party tonight. Bedtime will be raised to midnight, and tomorrow’s morning classes will start a little later than usual! That alright with everyone?”

 

Immediate cheers answered her.

 

“Very nice, I’m glad there are no objections. Now, in order to have a memorable party tonight, we’re going to need everyone’s help with preparations during the day. And to make sure that we’re all properly fortified for that, we’ll be needing a proper breakfast, which is why I asked Shorty to bring in some reinforcements. Let’s give them a warm thanks for all their efforts!”

 

Everyone clapped, including Gus, until her chair wobbled and Nedley had to reach out to steady her.

 

Waverly wound up sitting between Jeremy and Marvin – the former gleefully insisted on showing her pictures of toads, and the latter leaned in to whisper “Here comes dat boii …” into her ear, both of which made her laugh.

 

Shorty and his crew had gone all out on the breakfast. There were baked beans, bacon, and blueberry pancakes, strawberries with whipped cream (Wynonna generously allowed a few of her campers to aim the nozzle of the bottle into her mouth and fill her up), several variations of eggs, tiny breakfast burgers, bowls with yoghurt, boxes with granola and different types of cereal, several cakes, fruit salads, rolls, breads, toast, and a variety of spreads and cold cuts. There was coffee, cocoa, milk, and six kinds of juice.

 

At one point, Ewan, who instructed the other archery class, had to flee from a wasp, but Rosita conjured up some incense sticks from somewhere to keep the insects at bay. It was different, eating together like this instead of clustering in cliques and groups, and even Steph, a couple of seats down from where Waverly was seated, seemed mostly friendly and relaxed, for once.

 

Somewhere, Maddie laughed, sudden and bright like light reflecting off a shiny surface. Waverly turned her head automatically, and at the other row of tables, Benny was currently throwing berries at Nicole, which she caught with her mouth. “Enough, enough,” her voice drifted over. She was sitting in between two spots of shade offered by the parasols, and the sunlight set her hair aglow.

 

Waverly flinched when Jeremy groaned loudly.

 

“What?”

 

Jeremy pointed at Marvin, still looking exasperated. “He asked me to stop talking about mitosis because it’s such a divisive issue .”

 

Cackling, Marvin dabbed.

 

*

 

As it turned out, Gus’s request for help with the evening celebrations had been mostly a clever way of making her actual design sound better: preparations for the end of camp.

 

Over the course of the day, tons of laundry were washed, dried, folded, and distributed. All campers’ units had to be cleaned up – this included sweeping the floors and a preliminary packing of bags. Gus had also specifically asked everyone to give back whatever items had been borrowed from other campers, from counselors, or some of the sheds.

 

“Is this really necessary already?” Nicole had asked, after Gus had had to separate two fourteen-year-olds who had been fighting over the true ownership of a baseball cap.

 

Gus had adjusted the baseball cap on her head. “Oh, trust me, girl. You don't want all of this to be crammed into the evening before they all get picked up again. This way, I have the time to make these two headstrong fools believe that I actually want this cap – until one of them decides to tell me the truth about who it belongs to.”

 

Nicole had been skeptical. “And that's gonna work?”

 

Gus had shrugged. “Always did for my husband.”

 

And so Nicole had overseen the handing in of borrowed soccer balls, whistles, gloves, and knee pads until it was time for a snack around lunch time – where she encountered a minor emergency.

 

While the children had busied themselves with cleaning, tidying, and haggling over what belonged to whom, the maintenance crew had put up speakers, and were currently testing the equipment.

 

“I can't,” Leo insisted, just as Nicole had joined the trio, pale and shaking his head.

 

Benny put a hand on his shoulder. “Of course you can. You've been excited about this part the whole time.”

 

“I didn't know I would have to use a microphone. I thought I could just… explain our idea. I didn't know everyone would be watching. Can't we do it tomorrow? With just Gus there?”

 

Benny and Maddie exchanged a glance.

 

“Hey,” Nicole cut in. “Care to fill me in on what's happening?”

 

Madison sighed. “We wanted to make a plan for tonight. The idea was to make the reveal part of the evening program, but Leo doesn't like talking into a microphone. “

 

“Can you do it?” Leo sounded close to tears. “I wanted to do it, but…”

 

Nicole was just about to say something, worried that Madison, practical as she was, would just agree and move on, but the girl was quicker than her – as usual.

 

“Tell you what,” she said, catching Leo’s eye with a smile. “We do it together. If you want, I can do all the talking, but if you're up there and decide to say something, too, all you'll have to do is take the mic from me. Okay?”

 

Benny nodded in agreement, and poor Leo looked from one to the other and then away, hiding his face in his arms until only his ears were visible, glowing red under his black hair.

 

Maddie groaned a little. “Oh, dude.” She put an arm around him. “There, there.”

 

Nicole had to hurry to hide a proud smirk, and that was that.

 

The day progressed quickly, and before they all knew it, they were gathered at the tables again. The sun had sunken down low enough for it to still be bright out, but no longer scorching.

 

Where in the morning, the parasols had been driven into the earth, poles were now holding up strings of fairylights, running together somewhere in between the rows of tables. Paper lanterns hung from the chains of lights here and there.

 

Shorty and his angels were grilling meat and vegetables, but there were already large bowls with all kinds of salads – Nicole saw tomato salad with mozzarella, couscous salad, potato salad, pasta salad, and what she considered normal freaking salad – chips, plates with nachos and cheese, and baskets with bread. (The counselors had been encouraged to make sure that the campers would eat at least some vegetables.)

 

The benches and chairs filled slowly; a line started up at the grill and ebbed away again. The light changed, and with the mellow sounds of Doc’s guitar coming from the speakers, a heavy, fond feeling settled over Nicole’s shoulders.

 

“Nicole.” Benny pulled at the sleeve of the shirt she had ironed in the laundry room, specifically for this evening. “It's our turn soon.”

 

“Got it. You guys get ready, I’ll grab Mr. Nedley.”

 

Leo nodded, looking a bit queasy. She couldn't blame him; even she could feel the excitement now, expanding in her chest.

 

Nicole gave him a wide grin. “They're gonna love it.”

 

It was time to go get the Secret Project.

 

*

 

“The biggest mindfuck of a book I’ve ever read was The Beach, hands down.”

 

Waverly rolled her eyes. “I hated that book.”

 

“What? Why?”

 

“Well, first of all–”

 

“Hey,” Madison interrupted. “Got a minute?”

 

“Depends; have you read The Beach ?”

 

Waverly gave her sister a warning look before turning to Maddie. “Is something wrong?”

 

With her face kept purposefully smooth, Madison shook her head no. She was fidgeting with the zipper of her blue sweater jacket.

 

“Me and my friends are giving Gus a present in a minute. And I just wanted to let you know that it's also kind of for you guys.”

 

“A present, huh?” Wynonna’s eyebrows quirked up.

 

“It's no big deal,“ Madison said quickly, but couldn't quite sell it. She was clearly going for nonchalant teenager, but the blush high in her cheeks gave her away. She wasn’t a teenager just yet.

 

“Hey.” Waverly stopped her just as she was about to turn away again. “You don't have to give us presents. But I am super excited for this one, and I know we're going to love it. Okay?”

 

Maddie nodded.

 

Waverly had a pretty good idea what this present could be, and when she looked around and couldn't find Nicole anywhere, she was sure: whatever top secret thing they had been working on was about to be revealed.

 

Maybe it was a statue. Or something for the dock? What did Wynonna and Waverly have in common at camp besides cable skiing?

 

“If I could have everyone’s attention for a moment.” Xavier’s voice came through the speakers, and everyone turned and craned their necks to look at him where he was standing on the top of the steps leading up to the Homestead. Madison, Leo, and Benny were standing next to him. “Let’s give a round of applause to Doc for keeping us nice and serenaded for the last hour, and then we have a special announcement from Madison, Benjamin, and Leo.”

 

Everyone clapped politely, Rosita gave a sharp whistle, and up on the makeshift stage, Benny rolled his eyes at his full name.

 

Looking a little nervous, Maddie took the microphone from Xavier, who seemed to explain something to her. Waverly saw her nod, and then press a button.

 

“Hello?” her voice boomed, and she flinched a little, holding it further away from her mouth. “Sorry about that. Hi.”

 

A few people chuckled, and someone called: “Hello!”

 

“This summer isn’t the first time the three of us have come to Camp Purgatory,” Maddie began. “But it is the first time without Camp Director Curtis.”

 

Waverly felt the breath leave her lungs.

 

“We’ve missed him a lot this summer. He always had an open ear for everyone, he was very nice, and–” Madison stumbled a bit, looking up as if trying to remember the exact words she’d obviously learned by heart for this speech. “He was very nice to all of us, and he could always make you laugh. When people got into fights, he would always sit them down on the steps right here and make them talk about it.” She paused, watching the crowd, and lifted the microphone a little. “That part was terrible.”

 

Everyone laughed, and Waverly heard herself give a a breathless giggle, too, but she was still feeling caught off-guard. How was it that they were talking about Curtis being gone, and yet it just felt like Curtis was sitting among them, roaring with laughter?

 

She couldn’t help it, she had to look around, search for his face in the rows of campers and counselors. His nose would be a little sunburned.

 

“But no matter how bad the fight was, he always managed to break… um, broker peace and make everyone feel okay again.”

 

It was true. Waverly remembered sitting on those same steps with her uncle, Wynonna on his other side, her arms crossed. She couldn’t recall a single specific situation, but she remembered the feeling of dissolving anger in her chest; of stubbornly trying to hold onto it, but in vain.

 

“We wanted to give something to the camp to remember him by.”

 

The word remember was said with the kind of inflection that told of a secret code word, and a moment later, Nicole and Randy rounded the corner, carrying a large object, covered with an old blanket.

 

Leo took over the microphone. “Camp Director Gus, this is… this is our present, from us to you.” He very quickly handed it back, and Waverly noted with a rush of affection that Maddie was smiling at him encouragingly.

 

More applause surged up, and a few meters away, Gus got up. She was clapping and smiling, too, but Waverly could clearly see how affected she was.

 

“C’mon,” Wynonna murmured into her ear. “Let’s go stand with her so she’s not feeling too alone.”

 

In a gesture that was entirely out of character, Gus grabbed both of their hands as soon as they joined her. She was gripping them so tightly it hurt, but Waverly squeezed right back.

 

“Will you do the honors?” Maddie asked Gus, off-mic.

 

“Sure I will, girl.” Her voice was shaking only a little.

 

Letting go of her nieces, she took up a corner of the large blanket, looked at the three campers one by one – and pulled it away with a flourish.

 

Underneath it was a bench.

 

And what a bench it was. It offered enough space for three grown people. The seating was not just a flat board, but made up of rows of curved pieces of wood, and its arm rests came sloping down in elegant arcs, making the whole thing look inviting and comfortable.

 

“We made it so it can stand next to the steps, and people can sit on it when they’re fighting and figure it out, or… they can just sit,” Leo’s voice came through the speakers breathlessly.

 

People at the tables reacted with the appropriate ooohs and aaahs and good-natured applause, but Waverly wasn’t done looking yet.

 

They had painted the bench in a soft, dark green tone, thin enough to let the figure of the wood show through, but here and there, a spot of bright red stood out. Waverly didn’t immediately understand what she was seeing, but it registered the same moment as Gus breathed: “ Tomatoes .”

 

And they were: the backrest was made up of an intricate pattern of leaves, stalks, and tomatoes, some red, some still a bright green, carved deeply into the wood. Chiseled into the thick parts of the armrests where the hands would come to lie were wooden tomatoes, and now that Waverly was taking a closer look, she could see that the whole bench was made to look like one big tomato plant; with stems running up the sides of the armrests to reunite with the back, and even the feet of the bench had lines and curves cut into them that looked like roots disappearing into the ground.

 

Maddie shrugged. “We weren’t sure what else he liked, so…”

 

There was something slightly off-balance about the whole thing that made it look courageous, like only something a child could have dared to come up with, because there was no strife for perfect elegance or even kitsch visible in the design. It looked honest and perfect, and yet it was made with enough carpenter-ly know-how to make it seem solid and dependable.  

 

Wynonna was the first to react; she dropped down to squat on eye-level with the campers and harshly pointed towards the bench. “You made that?”

 

A little unsettled by her tone, the three exchanged glances. “Nicole helped a lot,” Benny finally mumbled.

 

But Wynonna didn’t look any less impressed. “You three, with only some help from this one–” she hooked her thumb in Nicole’s direction, “–made this ?”

 

“...Yes?”

 

Wynonna pursed her lips and looked at Gus, who was now running her fingers over the painted wood in amazement, then back again. “I’m not gonna lie to you, guys, this is fucking incredible.”

 

“She’s right,” Waverly agreed, not bothering to scold Wynonna for her language. “This is absolutely beautiful. Thank you so, so much.”

 

Benny, Madison, and Leo were beaming , looking up at Nicole, who stood behind them, nodding in reassurance.

 

Waverly hugged the three of them, one after the other, and there was a brief moment when she almost hugged Nicole, too. Instead, she just stepped back to let Gus have her turn, and their eyes met over the bustle of the situation.

 

(Did time slow?)

 

Waverly smiled. You did so, so good , she tried to convey.

 

Nicole smiled back. She held her gaze – Waverly breathed in, and in, and in – until Gus stood up, blocking their eye contact to roughly pull her into a gruff embrace.

 

With a small storm gathering between her ribs, Waverly ran her hand over the top of the backrest. Something glinted in the waning light.

 

Her heart twinged.

 

Peacemaker , it said on a small bronze plate, drilled to the head of the backrest. The letters had been inscribed by hand, looking a little shaky and uneven, but written in the finest cursive that could be done with an engraver pen.

 

*

 

It was perfect.

 

Everything had gone exactly like Nicole had imagined it would. Gus had been over the moon – in fact, Nicole had seen her wipe at her eyes at least twice – and her favorite trio were pleased with themselves, and rightly so.

 

(Waverly Earp had smiled at her, making her heart plummet.)

 

She and Nedley had placed the bench in its forever spot under their watchful eyes (“A little more to the left,” Leo had said at least eight times, always followed by, “Hmm, no, that’s too much.”), and over the course of the evening, people had come to test it out, praise their work and congratulate them, and, on occasion, Nicole.

 

Doc had taken up his guitar again, and had even agreed to try his hand at any requests that might come in (although he responded to every request of Justin Bieber by playing Wonderwall .)

 

The air was mild and getting colder, and above them, the sky was darkening, letting all the twinkling lights of the party stand out all the more. Laughter and conversation buzzed everywhere. Nicole sat on the steps, right next to the bench they had worked on for weeks, regarding the scene.

 

Melancholy had caught her, and was holding her firmly in its grip.

 

It was a good night; it really was.

 

It had been a good summer, too, all in all.

 

Nicole tried to imagine getting into her car on Friday, driving away and leaving all of this behind for a year. Not coming to the woodshop in the morning, not having lunch with her friends, not…

 

(Seeing Waverly again.)

 

She didn’t allow herself to finish that thought. Leaving this place in order to return to the world of paperwork and divorce mediators, to her empty apartment, and to a city where everything reminded her of Shae was not going to be easy.

 

But she had three days left, and after that, she would just have to take it one day at a time. And, Nicole decided at that moment, she would move away from that town. It was time for a fresh start, and who knew? Maybe this was the year she would finally become a certified Park Ranger.

 

She would spend the year working hard, and next summer, she would be here again.

 

(See Waverly again.)

 

Nicole let her head drop back, sighing deeply. And there they were: Perseus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Orion…

 

Absently, she wondered if she was going to be able to see them from her apartment, too.

 

She wasn’t sure what to wish for.

 

*

 

While the soft sounds of Doc’s guitar still spilled down from the direction of the Homestead, Waverly was sitting on the steps of the archery shed, working a metal jig. She’d slipped away quietly, strolled down to where the last of the warm air of the day had gathered underneath the canopy, let herself into the shed, and found herself something to do.

 

She had really needed something to do.

 

Flies and mosquitos were dancing in the yellowish light of the small lamp that hung over the door, and there was a slight whisper in the grass and the trees as a soft breeze went through them.

 

Waverly shivered. Maybe later, when everyone else had gone to bed, she could have a moment to herself to sit on that bench.

 

Carefully, Waverly chose new fletchings, applied glue, slid the carbon shaft into place.

 

She’d just clamped up the jig with practiced ease when suddenly Hunter was next to her, tail wagging. Waverly hadn’t heard him coming; neither him nor…

 

“Hey, you,” Nicole’s voice said softly.

 

Waverly’s fingers stilled. Her heart dipped.

 

She reached out to pet Hunter’s silky fur, and he let it happen for a moment before following an invisible track, sniffing.

 

Only then did Waverly look up. “Hi,” she replied just as quietly. “Taking a break from the party?”

 

It was impossible.

 

She’d known Nicole for all but seven weeks, and yet everything about her felt so familiar and safe, and all Waverly really wanted was to run her fingers along the row of buttons on Nicole’s crisp blue shirt, down the length of her nose, up her arms.  

 

She felt miserable, and she’d tried discussing it with Wynonna, and Chrissy, but the only person she really wanted to talk to about it was Nicole Haught. Who was currently leaning up against the pillar of the canopy, hair tousled and her hands in her pockets.

 

Nicole smiled. “Yeah. What are you doing out here?”

 

Her gaze trailed over the bottle of glue, the box with multi-colored pieces of plastic, Waverly’s quiver.

 

Waverly released the clamps of her jig. “I just needed a moment to… fix up my arrows.”

 

She took out the arrow she’d been working on and regarded her handiwork, testing the fletchings carefully with her fingertips. Good as new. She placed it in the quiver with the others and reached for the next one, feeling Nicole’s gaze on her.

 

They were silent for a few moments.

 

Waverly couldn’t bear to look at Nicole any longer.

 

She was stuck: on the one side, Nicole’s presence cut through her like she was made out of paper. It was still too fresh, she missed her too much. On the other, Waverly hadn’t felt this calm since—well. Since before. Maybe if she just sat still, if she didn’t say anything and didn’t allow herself to let her eyes trail over Nicole’s hands where they were now playing with the buttons on her sleeve, and remember how they had felt on her body, maybe she could just keep this moment going indefinitely.

 

But of course it couldn’t.

 

“Well. I’ll leave you to it, then,” Nicole said. Even now, she sounded gentle, made her feel this Nicole kind of way. It was like she emanated this warmth, like a less aggressive furnace, and just being near her made everything better.

 

“Wait—“

 

Nicole turned around immediately, and it pulled Waverly in every direction at once.

 

“I— I wish—“

 

But she faltered.

 

With just a few strides, Nicole was next to her, sinking down on the steps of the shed. Waverly was quiet, breathing through the sudden, debilitating urge to cry again. She couldn’t cry now. Was it really too much to ask to want to keep a little shred of her dignity?  

 

Nicole just sat with her. Waverly didn’t know if she was politely giving her a moment, or needing one for herself, but she was grateful for the reprieve.

 

“Waverly,” Nicole began after a few moments. “Can I say something?”

 

She nodded. What else could she do?

 

“I should have said this the other day, but… I know a thing or two about painful break-ups. Actually, I’ve learned a lot about them in the past year. One of the things I’ve learned is to not get married out of situational enthusiasm.” She laughed, a little off-key. “But… just because I’m getting a divorce doesn’t mean that I’d take back the whole relationship if I could.”

 

Waverly leaned back against the door of the shed. Exhausted, she closed her eyes. Thoughts of Nicole and her still-wife were swirling through her head.

 

“Why are you telling me this.” She didn’t dare make it sound like a question, for fear of what the answer could be.

 

“Because… you were right about what you said. We haven’t known each other for long, and long distance can be really tough, and if we broke up down the line, it would most likely be more painful than it is now.”

 

There was a touch at her hand, and Waverly looked down to see Nicole running her index finger along her knuckles; up, down, up, down.

 

A deep breath, and then Nicole continued: “But I don’t want to not see you, or talk to you, for a whole year. It might go sideways, but as far as I’m concerned… I’d still rather have every moment I can have with you.”

 

It was a very good line. Too good.

 

Waverly tried her best to be reasonable, to remember why she had made this decision in the first place, but it was like she’d lost her conviction somewhere between getting drunk with Wynonna and watching Gus pull Nicole into a rare hug, and now all she was left with was this sliver of hope.

 

Slowly, slowly, she moved in closer. She reached out and took Nicole’s hand resting in her lap, Nicole’s eyes drifting shut as their foreheads came to rest together.

 

The ground tilted. For a second, Waverly was genuinely afraid that she might faint.

 

Nicole kissed her; slow and deep.

 

There was a whimper in her mouth, and she didn’t know who it belonged to, her whole soul soaring with relief at being so close again; finally, finally, finally.

 

The jig and the arrows forgotten, Waverly shivered at the sensation of Nicole’s soft skin under her palms, her heartbeat, the smooth fabric of her blue shirt.

 

Three days, she thought wildly underneath this whirling feeling, three whole days of this, wasted.

 

Nicole pulled her into her lap easily, both her hands resting on Waverly’s thighs one moment, her fingers dancing underneath the hem of her shirt the next; oh

 

A gust of wind combed through the tall, dry grass on the hills just beyond the target line, making the canvas above their heads crack, growling where it raced through the forest a bit further away. They both looked up as though the moving air was a solid thing they could see; a few of the loose fletchings Waverly had been working with spilled down the steps and onto the pathway.

 

Waverly shivered when the breeze abated, and as it took up again, it felt as though she might be in danger of flying away with it (too free, too exposed) and be carried up into the clouds, spinning and whirling— but the moment passed, and here she was: with Nicole’s arms looped loosely around her waist; warm and tethered and safe.

Chapter Text

“Nicole.”

 

She felt a smile bloom on her face.

 

“Yes?”

 

A finger trailed from her chin down her neck, into the dip between her collarbones.

 

“Are you going straight back home on Friday?”

 

“Mmh,” Nicole hummed. “I’m never going anywhere straight .”

 

Waverly pinched her for that, and she suppressed a squeal, burrowing deeper into the sleeping bag.

 

“Ow! No need to harass me when it's nothing but the truth!”   

 

“You deserved that,” Waverly whispered back through the darkness. “Now answer me.”

 

Nicole rolled back into her spot, allowing Waverly to settle her head in the crook of her arm.

 

“I don’t have to. Wynonna said that some of the counselors are gonna hang around for another night and maybe just hang out by the lake on Saturday.”

 

“Would you like to stay for that?”

 

“Depends. Are you staying for that?”

 

“I’ll stay if you stay.”

 

Nicole grinned into the crown of Waverly’s head. “Then we stay.”

 

But still there was a restless energy radiating off Waverly, and after a beat, she said: “So… theoretically… do you need to be anywhere on Sunday?”

 

“Theoretically, no.” Her cheeks were beginning to hurt. She could feel Waverly squirm and search for the right words, and she couldn’t help but tease her a little. “So, theoretically, I might get a hotel room in Calgary. It’s a five hour drive home, for me. It might be nice to get a good night’s sleep in a real bed before I hit the road.”

 

“A hotel room.”

 

“Yeah. Or, you know, a hostel. That’s cheaper.”

 

“I suppose that’s true.”

 

“Or maybe I’ll just get going on Saturday…” Nicole started, drawing out the sentence until Waverly interrupted her:

 

“Or you could stay with me.”

 

Sleepless and silent, they lay next to each other.

 

They had gone to bed hours ago, pulled each other towards their unit by hands and mouths, unable to let go even for a moment. Waverly had put her up against one of the posts that held up her tent, hard enough to make Nicole wonder briefly if the whole thing would come down, and if she would care (probably not). They’d kissed and kissed, and Waverly’s fingers had worked the buttons of her shirt, until–

 

“Camp,” Nicole had gasped, stilling her hands and moving away a little, “camp. We’re still at…”

 

“Camp. Shitballs.” Dissolving into breathless giggles, Waverly had fallen against her, and she’d caught her with ease. Her eyes had glittered up at her in the low light.

 

“So do you think you would like–” Waverly started, at the same time as Nicole said: “If you’re sure you want to–”

 

“–Of course I’m– ” “– I would love to–”

 

Exhaustion was pulling at Nicole’s bones, but how could she go to sleep when Waverly was laughing like this? She reached into the darkness and pulled her in for a kiss; soft and sweet.

 

“I don’t have anything to eat at my place,” Waverly thought out loud, “so we would have to stop somewhere for food. And I have to warn you, it’s nothing fancy, just a studio apartment, and my bathroom is tiny , but I do have a double bed…”

 

Nicole cut off her rambling with another kiss. “Or how about this: for the first night after camp, I treat us to a hotel room, after all. The fanciest place in Calgary that allows dogs. With lots of space, and nothing to take care of for one night.”

 

Oh, to lie in a real bed, in starched, expensive sheets, without the constant rustle of a sleeping bag… with Waverly Earp beside her. An electric thrill went through her, her breath twisting sharply in her lungs: a whole future lay before them, glittering demurely with a vague promise of excitement and true happiness. Right now, they barely knew each other, but they had time to find out everything from their favorite cartoons they had watched as kids to the names of their childhood pets. Suddenly Nicole felt her skin burning with a thousand little things she had yet to discover.

 

(How Waverly’s voice sounded over the phone. What she got late night cravings for. If she would shiver and gasp when…)

 

Waverly sighed next to her.

 

“Sounds heavenly.”

 

Ah, here was a thing Nicole already knew: the way Waverly’s words felt a little heavier than their actual weight when there was something else on her mind.

 

She smiled into the dark. “But...?”

 

“What makes you think there’s a but ?” Waverly sounded a little indignant, which was how Nicole knew she was right.

 

“I’m blessed with investigative talent. What’s up?”

 

Waverly’s fingertips started tracing a pattern on the neckline of her T-shirt.

 

“I also kind of want to show you where I live. I want to see what…” Her sentence fizzled out like a light, and Nicole waited patiently until it sparked up again. “I want to see what it’s going to be like, to be together in real life , or… you know what I mean.”

 

Nicole melted . She was almost grateful that Waverly couldn’t see her. The image of herself pulling into the parking lot of an apartment complex flashed up in her mind, Waverly skipping down the steps towards her…

 

“Yes,” she replied once she’d gotten herself together again, “I know what you mean. What if… we could do both?”

 

Waverly’s head lifted off of her arm. “Can we?”

 

“I have another week off before I get re-hired for the new season.”

 

Waverly pinched her again. “And you’re,” a tickle, “just,” Nicole twisted away, giggling, “telling,” squealing, “me,” tickling, “this,” Nicole caught Waverly’s hands, “now?!”

 

“I didn’t want to impose or make assumptions!”

 

Waverly huffed. A little out of breath, and still snickering, Nicole kissed her fingers.

 

“How about this, then: on Friday, we stay here with the others. Saturday evening, I take you to the fanciest hotel I can find, and while you run yourself a bath, I order some room service.”

 

There was a hum from where Waverly had cuddled up to her chest again. “I love baths.”

 

Nicole kissed the top of her head. “And on Sunday, we buy some groceries and you show me your place. And then you can get out your calendar and we can make a plan, with highlighters and gel pens, like I know you want to. Because you’re a planner .”

 

Waverly gripped her a little tighter, and was quiet for just a beat.

 

“That sounds like we can actually do this.”

 

“That’s because we can.” She paused. “Hey, what was your favorite cartoon when you were little?”


*


Something was going on in the field; a group of kids was walking around slowly, with their heads down, probing at the grass carefully with their feet.

 

Waverly sighed.

 

“Waverly.” A young boy named Eddie came running towards her. “Waverly, I lost–”

 

“No running with a bow in hand,” she interrupted him sternly, and he sheepishly put his weapon down on its stand.

 

“I lost an arrow. We’ve looked everywhere, but we can’t find it…”

 

Waverly smirked. “Well, that happens sometimes. We have something for that.”

 

Eddie looked delighted. “Do the arrows have GPS?”

 

GPS . With a groan, Waverly opened the door to the shed. “Not quite as high-tech as that, I’m afraid.”

 

She opened up one of the cabinets and pulled out a long instrument, bent where the handle was, and ending in something that was vaguely shaped like a dinner plate.

 

Brandishing her tool, she reappeared in the doorframe.

 

“Say hello to my little friend!”

 

The reference was lost on Eddie (as it should have been, given that he was about ten years old), but his eyes lit up anyway. “A metal detector! That’s so cool! Can I use it?”

 

The metal detector was a good deal too big to be comfortably wielded by Eddie, but Waverly showed him how to do it anyway. He ended up having to hold it with both hands in order to keep the balance, but he swung the detector over the tips of the grass blades expertly. A group of other campers had gathered around them; some of them intrigued by Eddie’s new toy, others just anxious to go on with practice.

 

The detector beeped slightly.

 

Eddie almost dropped it. “It beeped!”

 

Waverly laughed. “It’ll do that sometimes. Maybe there was a nail in the ground or something. But it’ll be much louder when you find the arrow.”

 

Off he went, taking a small group of kids with him.

 

Waverly sat down in the shade. The last few days of camp had graced them with extremely high temperatures again, like summer had decided to give one last hurrah before allowing fall to take over.

 

How strange, Waverly thought to herself, to sit outside and feel as fond of the grass and trees and the sky as she felt for Gus and Curtis’s living room. This was home, too.

 

She’d shot her first arrow at this very range, she’d tried out her first own bow. She’d hidden away from Willa here, she’d helped build that shed when the old one had become too shabby.

 

(It had been an incredibly hot day in spring, and everyone had tried to sideline her because she was small and a teenaged girl. But Waverly had been in the best shape of her life back then, at the apex of her cheerleading career, and when she’d picked up one of the steel beams without breaking eye contact with Doc or breaking a sweat, they’d finally let her help.)

 

She’d been here a hundred times; she’d even come here just to shoot a few arrows when the camp had been deserted. Just last night, she’d embarked on a relationship here.

 

When she closed her eyes, she could see time go faster: the sun moving high up and sinking down again, up and down, up and down; people moving across camp as though running on invisible tracks; the tents reverting back to their skeleton structures in record time. Fall rolling in; grass growing. Withering, fading. Snowfall, heaping heavy hats onto the roofs of the sheds and the Homestead, covering the mountain range. Melting down the sides of the buildings, leaving thick puddles. First hints of green poking through…  

 

Over time, maybe they would have to renovate the Homestead, have it re-roofed, or paint the facade. New canvas would have to be bought for all the tents, and Wynonna would surely suggest buying black canvas for aesthetic reasons, which Gus would shut down because it would be too hot. One day, they might sit down on their Peacemaker bench, then weather-beaten and on its third coat of paint, stroke the wood and remember this summer.

 

There was a commotion on the field; Waverly saw the metal detector get passed on to some other kid. Eddie got down on his knees, no doubt to dig his treasure out from where it had drilled itself into the rootmat of the grass. A few seconds later, there were cheers and whoops, and Eddie lifted his fist, lost arrow in hand.

 

Waverly winced a little, because that had definitely been one of the carbon arrows she’d just fixed.

 

She just hoped nobody had stepped on it before they’d found it.

 

*

 

“So, Nicole.”

 

A good third of her conversations with Nedley started this way, but there was something different about the way he had said it just now.

 

Nicole’s hands stilled for a moment, then she continued to roll up the extension cord they had used today.

 

“That would be me,” she said evenly, expecting some sort of dry retort to her snark, but when Nedley didn’t immediately say anything, she turned around.

 

Nedley wasn’t looking at her. He was meticulously wiping down one of the workbenches, brushing wood rasp into a garbage can.

 

“You did a good job with that bench there,” he said.

 

Elation swelled in her chest, and Nicole hurried to turn back around. She opened a drawer, placing the cable inside. “It wasn’t my project. The kids had one hell of a plan, and pulled through.”

 

A hum, and the sound of a hand brush clanking against metal. “Wasn’t the campers who snuck up to Gus’s office to do research on types of woods and the like.”

 

Her ears felt a little warm. “No, sir, I guess not.”

 

“Well,” Nedley huffed, “well done, is all I wanted to say.”

 

“Thank you, sir.”

 

They continued to work in silence. Nicole’s blood was singing with equal parts pride and embarrassment, leaving her feeling giddy and hectic.

 

But she breathed as slowly as the woodshop seemed to demand it, and carefully placed each item she found back where it belonged; rubbed oil over wooden countertops and swept the floor.

 

“See you at lunch?” she asked when she was done, already keeping one ear out for the jangling of Hunter’s tags.

 

Nedley wiped grease from one of the drills off his fingers and approached her. One of his heavy hands landed on her shoulder.

 

“There’s one more thing I got to say. You weren’t doing well when I met you last year, but I could always tell that you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. I’m glad to see I wasn’t wrong.” He seemed to wrestle with himself for a moment, then murmured: “‘M proud of you, kid. See you at lunch.”

 

With one last clap of his paw to her shoulder, Nedley pushed past her, leaving Nicole to blush and grin and bury her face in her hands in the privacy of the shed.  

 

*

 

There was a phase right after lunch that Curtis had liked to refer to as Munch Coma : when everyone's stomach was full, and the sun was at its highest point, and there were still three-quarters of an hour left until afternoon courses began. Children and grown-ups alike felt sluggish and tired, slinking off to find their tents, or at least a spot in the shade.

 

Even Hunter was tired; he was lying in the wet spot underneath the water faucet on the side of the Homestead that was overshadowed by the house.

 

Nicole had been persuaded to join Jeremy, Rosita, Xavier, and Wynonna in their efforts to cool down in the lake (nobody had listened to Waverly’s insistence that you weren't supposed to swim right after eating).

 

And so Waverly found herself alone when she stepped out of the air-conditioned mess hall and into the white-hot daylight.

 

“Hey, Waverly.”

 

Or maybe not so alone.

 

Madison was sitting on the bench; someone had rammed one of the parasols into the earth right next to it.

 

“Hey, you. Mind if I sit?”

 

Maddie shook her head.

 

The wood was warm from the sun, but not so hot as to burn Waverly’s bare thighs where her shorts ended. From where they sat, they could see straight down the main path, lined by units, ending in the parking lot. Music was playing in one of the tents, and the tell-tale noises of hands slapping onto something and someone groaning in frustration – probably a made-up card game. Birds chirped.

 

A faint screech was coming from the lake, and Waverly quietly bet herself a fiver that Rosita had been foolish enough to wear a bikini with a simple knot in the vicinity of Wynonna.

 

They were sitting at the heart of Camp Purgatory.

 

“My uncle would have loved this,” Waverly said quietly. “This bench would have been his favorite thing.”

 

Madison pulled up her shoulders. “Good.”

 

Waverly looked over at her. With her quick wit and brazen exterior, it was so easy to regard her as a teenager, with just a handful of years between her and adulthood. But right now, all Waverly could see was a nine-year-old girl with soft features and warm eyes. Warm, and a little sad.

 

“So, wanna tell me what you’re doing out here all by yourself?” Waverly made sure to keep her voice light, but she didn’t take her eyes off Madison, who shrugged.

 

“Camp’s over soon.”

 

Don’t I know it , Waverly thought to herself. She bit the inside of her cheek. Careful. Careful, now.

 

“Not looking forward to going home?”

 

Maddie shrugged again. “Not particularly.”

 

They’d been here before: Maddie saying something more or less ambiguous, and Waverly being left to think about what her life away from camp was like. She’d been wondering what Madison went home to since the summer she’d first showed up in Waverly’s Eco Skills class, quiet and serious at the back of the group, and never keen for summer to end.

 

Waverly had never dared to ask before, but… She worried at her lip. “Anything you feel like telling me about?”

 

With a deep sigh, Maddie leaned against the backrest and pulled her naked feet up onto the bench. The brown skin of her feet was dirtied with dust and earth, like she’d been running around in the grass, and Waverly was overcome with a sudden bout of affection for Madison. No favorites , she reminded herself, but if she was being honest, it was ridiculous to be expected to spend so much time with these children and not get attached to some of them.

 

“I just don’t have so many friends at home,” Madison said. “And I hate my school.”

 

This was something Waverly could not relate to. She had always loved school; she had loved most of the teachers, had excelled in class, and although it had not always been easy with the other kids, she’d never really found herself on her own, either. Briefly, she wondered if what little second-hand experience of hating school she’d gotten from Wynonna would be enough to be of use in this situation.

 

“Why do you hate it?”

 

Madison looked uncomfortable. “It’s this private school my parents want me to go to. I just… I don’t belong there. Everyone is so… rich,” she said, but it sounded like she might have wanted to say something else.

 

A small bird landed a few feet away, hopping over the trampled grass in its search for food. Together, they watched its erratic little movements as it pecked at the soil.

 

Waverly leaned back, too. She wanted to cross her arms in front of her chest, but she’d read somewhere that that could convey defensiveness, and so she didn’t. As far as real advice was concerned, she was out of her depth here, but she was still a counselor.

 

“Do they treat you badly?”

 

Madison shrugged. “I guess not. I’m not being bullied or anything. I just… don’t really have any friends.” When Waverly didn’t answer immediately, she added: “My parents work a lot, and I don’t have any siblings, either. Everything is just so boring when I’m not at camp.”

 

“Hm.” The bird had unearthed something that Waverly couldn’t make out, and took off into the air again. “So you’re lonely.”

 

Another shrug. “I guess.”

 

This, Waverly could relate to. For a moment, she was sitting on her windowsill back at the McCready house, glancing through her open door, across the hall, and into the room that Gus and Curtis kept for Wynonna and Willa. Often, she’d closed her eyes and imagined music coming out of that room, or the sounds of a computer game, or maybe snoring.

 

The part of her that felt and cared for Madison wanted to reach out and pull her into a hug. But you’re not alone, she wanted to say, or something more solidly reassuring than that, and she wanted to find a pencil and write all her contact info down for this kid. Maybe call up her parents to discuss other school options.

 

But she was Maddie’s camp counselor, not her big sister, and all of that would have been wildly inappropriate.

 

Waverly sighed. “I know what that’s like,” she finally told her. “And it sucks. I’m sorry. But you made friends here, haven’t you? Are you guys staying in touch?”

 

Madison grimaced at her. “ Well ,” she pointedly said, “we would love to, but some people didn’t allow us to bring our phones so we could exchange numbers .”

 

She dragged some of the words out with such dramatic attitude that Waverly couldn’t help but laugh, which made Maddie grin a little bit.

 

“Don’t take that tone with me , young lady, I don’t make the rules here. But if you go round up your friends, I’ll go up to Gus’s office with you. We can call your parents, I’m sure they know your phone numbers.”

 

Maddie’s face first brightened, then dimmed. “I don’t think we’ll be able to reach my parents right now. They’ll be at work.”

 

“That’s okay,” Waverly assured her. “We can do it tonight when they’re off. When do they come home?”

 

The girl rolled her eyes. “My mom is the mayor ,” she said with so much importance that Waverly couldn’t tell if she genuinely proud, or mocking someone else’s tone, “and my dad is a lawyer. They come home, like, super late.”

 

“The mayor !” Waverly repeated, impressed. “Well, we can try. Worst case, you’ll only get the numbers of the others, and it’ll be up to you to get in touch with them .”

 

“Hmm. Alright.” The thought seemed to please Madison, and they grinned at each other. “I’ll go find the boys, then.” She flexed her legs to jump off the bench.

 

Waverly protested. “Careful with this bench, it was a very meaningful present!”

 

Already a little ways off, Madison turned around to stick out her tongue. The heavy mood she’d just been in a few minutes ago had dissipated almost completely. Such were the joys of childhood, Waverly guessed.

 

Sobering, she called her back. “Hey, Madison. Think about telling your parents what you just told me, okay? About feeling lonely. It’s okay to discuss these things.”

 

Maddie hesitated for a moment, then nodded. And then she took off down the main path, taking a right between the rows of tents a few meters down.

 

With the sun still burning down relentlessly on the encampment full of sluggish people in Munch Coma, Waverly stayed behind on the bench, with an empty space beside her.

 

*

 

Thursday came and went, and with it, the last full day of camp.

 

For the last time that summer, Nicole had coffee with Nedley before they opened up the woodshop, and for the last time, she made her way down to the soccer field in the afternoon.

 

The kids could clearly feel it, too, because they ran, kicked, and maneuvered like their young lives depended on it; as the match came to an end, a few campers even resorted to foul play.

 

On any other day, they would have been in very serious trouble for this, but this time, Gus just interfered with calm determination. The frustration of the losing side was palpable, and understandable, too; everyone wanted to end the summer with a victory.

 

In the end, their training ran twenty minutes longer than usual, because Gus had decided to wait until they had at least scored a goal.

 

Red-faced and sweaty, the kids marched off the field, chanting and laughing, or dragging their feet. The goalie who had allowed the winning score sat down hard and cried tears of exhaustion and disappointment, and while Gus shepherded the other players towards the showers, Nicole sat with him until he was ready to leave the field.

 

(Her phone buzzed twice; her lawyer was sending her files to look over “at her earliest convenience.” Nicole decided that it was not convenient for at least another three days.)

 

Her own heart ached whenever her gaze fell to the mountain rage, and swelled as she let her eyes wander over the mass of kids sitting on orange plastic chairs as they ate their last supper. She wasn’t ready for summer to be over, either, but there was always the promise of tomorrow tickling her ribs from the inside, and under the table, Waverly was touching their knees together.

 

Nicole slept like a stone that night, heavy and content, and with her feet entangled with Waverly’s.

 

*

 

On Friday, they woke to absolute pandemonium.

 

“Hm,” Waverly said when she stuck her head outside the tent at six in the morning.

 

Nicole followed a moment later, bathroom bag in hand. Just as she stepped out, a boy shot past her, shrieking delightedly, with a towel fluttering behind him.

 

A stark naked camper was hard on his heels, who, to Nicole’s only very faint surprise, seemed equally delighted.

 

“Oh,” she said.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Someone should probably do something about that.”

 

A rear guard of three or four other kids followed, barely able to run, they were laughing so hard.

 

Waverly yawned and ran a hand through her hair. She looked irresistible when she did that, but that was neither here nor there.

 

“That someone would probably be us.”

 

Before Nicole could say anything further, Waverly had bumped her face against her cheek in a sleepy kiss, and was shuffling off in the direction of the streaker.

 

“Alright, Cody Schneider!” she heard her call down the length of the tent rows, most likely waking up every person in the vicinity. “Time to put some friggin’ pants on!”

 

Well , Nicole thought to herself, shrugging, that might as well be how the day starts.


*

 

“Oh, my God, ” Chrissy said, as soon as Waverly entered the employee hallway. “Oh, my God, oh, my God.”

 

“What?” Waverly looked behind her, but there was nothing there, and she closed the door. “What’s going on?”

 

Breakfast had ended an hour ago, and the first round of buses was scheduled to arrive at noon – there were about a million things to do, and despite everyone’s best efforts, there were still some campers who hadn’t finished packing.

 

The ones who had finished were running around in giddy anticipation for their upcoming voyage home, overtired from having stayed up whispering to each other half the night, and with their heads filled with mischief.

 

Waverly had already had to persuade a naked seven-year-old to not tackle his friend and instead get dressed, please .

 

She had caught two kids trying to smuggle out their favorite brand of cereals in a backpack (“They don’t sell them where we live!”) - and, subsequently, she’d had to figure out what to do with four liters worth of cereal that just been poured into a backpack.

 

Nicole had spent at least an hour limping around camp with Leo Crofte stuck to her leg.

 

Just a few minutes ago, Waverly had passed Rosita, who had been yelling at a group of kids for trying to sneak off into the woods – to hide, so they could stay at camp.

 

The whole reason why Waverly was on her way to the laundry room was that some kid had spilled apple juice all over the mess hall floor, and she needed a mop.

 

But for some reason, Chrissy had time to stand here with wide, shocked eyes, and an expression on her face that Waverly knew all too well.

 

Whatever gossip she had, it had better be good.

 

“Dish,” she commanded, her hands on her hips.

 

Chrissy gripped her biceps. “ Oh, my God, ” she reiterated, and pointed back at the door of the laundry room.

 

With an exaggerated eye-roll, Waverly shook off her fingers and moved past her friend.

 

Wriggling her fingers a little bit, she reached for the door knob, and turned it.

 

She opened the door.

 

Seated on one of the washing machines was her sister – topless.

 

Desperately, messily making out with Xavier .

 

Who was equally topless.

 

Waverly closed the door again, facing Chrissy.

 

“Oh, my God !”

 

“I know!”

 

“Wynonna!”

 

“I know!”

 

“With Xavier !”

 

I know !”

 

*

 

The air-conditioning of the bus was running, all the luggage was stowed away, and every last seat was taken.

 

Nicole pulled the sheet of paper Xavier had given her earlier that morning from her back pocket, leaning up against the driver’s cabin.

 

“Alright, head count, please!” she called over the ambient chatter of the passengers.

 

“Abayev, Alana!”

 

An arm shot up a few meters away. “Here!”

 

Nicole quickly made eye contact with her, then continued further down the list. Abdel, Sarah was next, then Babcock, Thomas , and there was only a short moment of confusion when it took Cookson, Sonny a minute to realize that his name had been called.

 

Dehaven, Madison was sitting with Ouédraogo, Benjamin , and Nicole winked at the two of them when she passed their names; they grinned back at her – a little too widely, perhaps.

 

Sighing deeply, Nicole went through her list until she’d called the very last name – Vanderzee, Joanie, right in front of her, gave a sloppy salute – and let the paper sink down.

 

“Now,” she started, “please don’t get off the bus until you’re at the right stop, please stay in your seats, and don’t be too much trouble for Mrs. Mellie here, alright?” She let her gaze wander over the faces of the children. It amazed her that there were still some that she had barely seen all summer. The faces of the campers she had gotten to know the best , however, definitely told her that they were up to no good. “I hope everyone had as good a time here at Camp Purgatory as I did, and that I’ll see you all again next year. Until then, take care of yourselves! Thanks for a fantastic summer!”

 

The children clapped, and she gave the applause right back – they deserved it.

 

Pushing off the driver’s cabin, she hopped down the steps towards the ground, but on the very last one, she hesitated.

 

“Oh, yeah,” she said casually, like she had just thought of it. “And if Leo Crofte could get out from under his friends’ seats before I have to pull him out by his nose, that would be great.”

 

She raised a sharp eyebrow in Maddie’s and Benny’s direction, and the two of them dissolved into hysterical giggles. Leo crawled out from their leg space. His grin was wide and cheeky, but Nicole could see his ears grow pink.

 

“Out with you,” she admonished, and then gave the bus at large a good-natured eye-roll and a grin. “Bye, guys!” she called, and with a final wave, jumped back onto the parking lot.

 

Leo had scurried off to stand with Chrissy, who looped an arm around his shoulder, and the two of them, Nicole, Waverly, and Doc waved as the bus drove off.

 

It moved like a big, benevolent animal, bouncing a little as it merged onto the road, leaving a trail of dust clouds where it wheeled towards the city.

 

“Aw, man,” Chrissy sighed. “I hope they all come back next year.” Her gaze fell to Leo, who was playing with her fingers by bending them into a claw shape. “And now for you, young man! You can’t just smuggle yourself on the bus! What were you thinking? What would we tell your dad if he got here and you were already gone?”

 

She steered the boy back towards the camp, and the other three fell in step behind her.

 

“Actually,” Doc murmured, “as little Leo very well knows, his father arrived an hour ago.”

 

Waverly looked up. “He did?”

 

A small smirk curled under Doc’s moustache. “He did.”

 

Please tell me he’s flirting with Jeremy,” Nicole implored, lifting her hand with two fingers crossed. Beside her, Waverly gasped, jubilant.

 

Doc adjusted his hat, pulling the brim of it low onto his forehead, but failed to hide his grin.

 

“This information is not mine to divulge,” he drawled with dignity. “But I did see Mr. Crofte hand our friend a folded little piece of paper – so I suppose y’all can make of that what you will.”  

 

Nicole and Waverly high-fived.

 

*

 

The day ended.

 

It felt like it had gone from a long, busy morning straight into twilight, and the late summer’s farewell gift to the remaining counselors was one last perfect evening: with crickets chirping in the high grass on the hills, a soft warmth in the air, and everything being submerged in golden light. Finally, all was calm.

 

Tire tracks furrowed the nearly empty parking lot. Only a handful of cars, dust-covered as their owners, were left: Wynonna’s truck, Waverly’s Jeep, Nicole’s Defender. The old GMC Curtis had been driving since the late eighties. A pink oldtimer, a black SUV, a Volvo Stationwagon. A white van with Shorty’s embossed on it.

 

Maintenance had already begun stripping the units of their canvas and beddings, and it was as quiet in the encampment as it had not been in two months.

 

As she passed through the rows, freshly showered and dressed in her favorite pair of overalls, Waverly felt wistful: Camp Purgatory was settling in, ready to go to sleep for the better part of another year.

 

The canvas flaps of unit 68 were tied back like curtains, and sitting on the wooden floor boards, leaned back on one of her hands and holding a book with the other, was Nicole; Hunter lay at her feet.

 

Waverly’s even step faltered for a moment.

 

Girlfriend , her heart whispered. That's my girlfriend.

 

The word buzzed in her mind. It tickled in her mouth when she tried to say it.

 

When she noticed her approaching, Nicole quickly reached for her bookmark. “Hi, you.”

 

She was leaning forward, propped up on her knees and smiling brilliantly, and Waverly’s breath fluttered. “Hey, yourself.”

 

She leaned down to kiss her, and this was new, too: no grand, inevitable gesture, no heated making out under pressure of time, just a kiss hello after a long day of being too busy to even talk much. A tiny spark of domesticity, warm and glowing.

 

“You ready?”

 

Waverly nodded. “All clean and ready to go.”

 

There was no laughter and no squealing where they walked along the rows and rows of deserted and partially deconstructed tents, and yet the encampment was not lifeless: Waverly was now more aware than she had been in weeks of the birdsong, the sound of the wind browsing through the forest, their own feet shuffling the grass… and, the closer they got to the fire pit, the low chat of grown-ups talking.

 

Next to her, Nicole sighed contentedly. “Smell that? Shorty is grilling fish . I love fish.”

 

They could see the group now. Doc was poking around in the fledgling fire, in animated conversation with Xavier, who tried to fan the embers with Doc’s hat – meanwhile, Rosita was eyeing their combined handiwork critically with her hands on her hips.

 

Chrissy was explaining something to Gus, who nodded, punctuating her agreement by gesturing with a bottle of beer, which seemed to have come from a tub of ice. Bottlenecks poking out from it, the tub stood at her feet, and at the end of a long, stressful, hot day, it may as well have been a treasure chest.

 

A few feet away, Shorty had put up one of his grills, and yes: about eight fish were sizzling in their rack. Wynonna and Randy Nedley were keeping the cook company.

 

Waverly and Nicole grinned at each other when they spotted Jeremy off to the side, stretched out on one of the benches. He had his phone in his hands and was typing away with a goofy grin on his face.

 

Just before they got into earshot, Nicole tried to let go of Waverly’s hand.

 

But Waverly held fast.

 

Puzzled, Nicole looked down at their locked fingers, then up at her. “Are you sure?”

 

Come on , Waverly, a voice echoed in Waverly’s head in stark contrast, and it was hard to tell if it was Willa’s, or Champ’s, or someone else’s, but it didn’t matter at all.

 

She tightened her grip, swallowing against the racing of her heart. “Yeah. I don’t want to hide anything.” The air was thin where she was standing with her head in the clouds, which must be why she felt a little dizzy saying the next part out loud. “And… I like you.”

 

Slowly, Nicole beamed back at her. “I like you, too.”

 

They walked the rest of the way together, and Waverly did not miss the way Wynonna’s eyes darted to their joined hands, the corners of her mouth twitching up. But she said nothing, and Waverly was grateful for that.

 

As the sun retreated further and further, they had dinner together under the open sky: grilled fish and vegetables, with fries. Bottles clinked together.  

 

At an advanced hour, Rosita, Wynonna, and Nicole began to sing a drinking song together –  much to the amusement of Gus, Shorty, and Randy, who attempted to sing one that had gone out of fashion, but could unfortunately barely remember the words to. Jeremy came to their aid by googling it, and soon, the three of them were singing the lyrics off his smartphone. Doc did his best to accompany them on his guitar.

 

Wynonna was lying with her head in Xavier’s lap. No one acknowledged this, least of all the two of them, but Waverly saw him run the tips of his fingers up and down the length of her arm. It had scandalized her at first – they had known Xavier for ages . To Waverly, he was like an older cousin, someone she had always looked up to, but then again… clearly, Wynonna felt different. Good-different. The best kind of different, judging by the way she smirked up at him when she thought no one was looking.

 

(Nicole, on the other hand, had not been surprised in the least. “Really?” she’d said. “How have you not noticed this?”)

 

At some point, Shorty asked Doc if he could play. It took a little while, and Doc fished a capo from his guitar case for him, but soon enough, Shorty was serenading them; soft sounds at first, but bolder soon.

 

She didn’t know all of the songs he played, but Waverly recognized Leavin’ On A Jet Plane when Shorty began to sing along to it. After a moment, Jeremy joined in. Surprisingly, his sweet tenor nicely matched Shorty’s voice, scratchy and warm like a well-worn knit pullover.

 

Doc got up. His hat pressed to his chest, he bowed slightly, and extended a hand towards Rosita. She made a show of taking it, grinning widely. As they turned together, Waverly wolf-whistled along with Chrissy and Wynonna, but a few moments later, she was on her feet, too, pulling Nicole along with her.

 

“Waves…” Nicole tried to protest half-heartedly, but got up anyway. Nedley, who was swaying back and forth with the music where he sat, took her beer for safe-keeping, and that was that. They stumbled a little ways away from the fire, hands joined.

 

“So kiss me, and smile for me…”

 

The air had gotten cool and a little damp, but the fire was keeping them warm enough. In the morning, they would all smell like smoke.

 

When Nicole lifted her hand and spun her around, catching her with ease just a moment later, something in Waverly felt like it was jumping and rising up through the air like sparks from the fire.

 

“Hey, there,” Nicole whispered in her ear.

 

Waverly slung both arms around her neck.

 

“Hey, yourself,” she whispered back. The world around them began to swim pleasantly.

 

If she let her eyes drift shut, Waverly could pretend like Curtis was sitting here with them. In her mind, he and Randy were lighting their pipes and tapping their feet a little to the beat, his hand resting on Gus’s knee while she and Xavier talked about something boring…

 

She wondered what he would have said about her and Nicole. Would he have just winked and smiled at her through the smoke, like Gus had, or would he have pretended to give Nicole a hard time until he couldn’t manage to keep from laughing any longer? Or would Gus have called his bluff before then? Maybe it would not have been news to him at all. He’d known so much about her before she’d realized it herself.

 

Something twisted in her throat, hot and sharp, and Waverly took a deep breath. Not now.

 

Steering her thoughts away from cliffs that were rough and steep, Waverly turned her mind’s eye towards the future.

 

Tomorrow, they would take the picnic blankets and towels to the bank of the lake, dressed in bikinis and and one-pieces and swimming trunks (Waverly looked forward to Rosita seeing Doc’s 1920s-style swimsuit almost as much as she was looking forward to seeing Nicole in her swimwear of choice).

 

Someone was sure to complain about the water being too cold – probably Chrissy – and Wynonna was just as sure to maneuver her in anyway. Waverly was going to try and see if jumping off the highest floating ramp was still as much fun as it had always been. She remembered so well the feeling of the lake swallowing her whole for a couple of seconds…

 

Wynonna would race Doc and Xavier to the other side of the lake, and they would all come back exhausted, with cold skin and heated faces, their chests rising and falling where they would stretch out on their towels.

 

They would have sandwiches for lunch. Maybe Shorty would even bring them some ice cream, if he wasn't going to join Gus and Randy on the hike they had planned. Rosita was going to finish that book she'd been complaining about not having time for.

 

They’d doze in the sun.

 

Waverly would make Nicole move the towel with her whenever the earth would turn too far, leaving her half of the blanket in the shade. She would kiss her in the water, lips cool and slippery.

 

Jeremy would play music from his phone. Maybe he had even brought a Bluetooth speaker. Maybe he'd spend the whole day texting Perry like he was now, and then they would tease him mercilessly.

 

Nicole's skin would smell like lake water and sunscreen, and Waverly would trace the shadows of the leaves on her arms and shoulders. (Clumsily, her heart sagged and then soared at the thought; in its function as an internal organ, it was thoroughly unaccustomed to flying, but fly it did.)

 

Once they were all pleasantly worn out, they would pack up their cars and say goodbye in the parking lot: Waverly would grip her sister tightly and threaten her with death if she let another three years go by – but she swore to herself that she wouldn't cry.

 

They would leave Purgatory behind one by one. They would dust up the road like everyone else had today, while the camp would get deconstructed behind them.

 

Summer would really, finally, definitely be over.

 

And Nicole and Waverly were going to head in the same direction.

 

But all of that was for tomorrow. For now, there was just the crackling of the fire, their song, even the occasional chirping of bats on hunt.

 

For now, Nicole was drawing her in a little closer, close enough to make her pulse quicken, and this was it: her last night at Camp Purgatory for this year, with her favorite people, in her favorite place. The log construction caved in, sending a spray of sparks up towards the sky. Jeremy changed his intonation to a harmony for the last couple of lines. Waverly shivered.

 

This was it: home.

 

“But I’m leavin’ on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again…”

 

For just a little longer, they were keeping summer up past its bedtime, with only their campfire against the encroaching darkness of the night, swaying and singing and laughing.

 

Oh, babe... I hate to go.”