The seasons were changing. Nicole could feel it in the air. A cool, unrelenting breeze seeped into her boots and her jacket and her wool gloves. She shivered slightly, but didn’t move from her spot near the fire, the fire she had built hours before. There was nothing else to do in the strange stillness of the forest, nothing else to do but sit and feed the fire and brood.
“I should be there,” she said out loud, looking up at Randly Nedley who was equally bundled across from her. He shook himself awake, snorting softly, and frowned.
“Can’t disagree with you.”
“This is insane. It’s been hours and it’s my ring!” Nicole sprung up, facing the cave and its darkness.
Wynonna and Jeremy had disappeared at daybreak, but the sun had set hours before and Nicole was still waiting, still on the outside, still wishing she were included in the heroics taking place wherever the hell Wynonna was.
“But you know the rules, Nicole,” Nedley said, a raised eyebrow the only sign he felt any emotion at all, “we are the watchers, they are the doers.”
“No offence, Sheriff, but that’s bullshit.”
“Language!” Nedley smirked and it was enough to bring Nicole back to her seat on the log by the fire. She gazed darkly at the flames, pouting, wondering how it always came down to this.
“They’re going to bring Waverly home, Nicole. And we’re going to be here when they do.”
Nedley had a way of simplifying the complex. He chose his words carefully and his concise, calm voice made Nicole exhale. She knew he was right. She knew that wandering into an enchanted cave as a mortal was not the greatest idea, but every cell in her body was telling her to do it anyways, to take the risk, to do anything, to risk everything if it meant getting Waverly back.
“Listen, there’s a reason you end up in the hospital every six weeks. Get yourself in order, Nicole. She’s going to need you.”
The old man was right. But it didn’t stop the ache in Nicole’s chest. It didn’t stop the crippling anticipation.
*Six months ago*
The world smelled familiar when Nicole opened her eyes. She knew that she was lying down, flat on her back. She knew that she was covered in sweat and dried blood. And she also knew that she was far from Purgatory.
She raised herself on her elbows, looking from left to right, trying to remember the seconds before…where had she been? Where was she now?
The house was familiar, she knew she was lying on the lawn of her childhood home, but she had no clue how she had transported here. There had been a woman, tall and strong….and Jeremy and Robin….but then nothing, just…nothing, until she opened her eyes and found herself lying in the grass so far from the Ghost River Triangle.
She stood, brushing herself off, relieved that she was at least still clothed in the uniform of Purgatory’s finest. Purgatory was her town, Purgatory meant Waverly, and this place, the place where she’d been born, it meant nothing. She wanted to leave.
But her phone was gone, as was her wallet. With no ID, no passport, no driver’s license, Nicole wandered briefly through the streets. Her parents had long since moved away, not that she had any desire to track them down.. Her mother gave birth on the living room floor, a doula dutifully at her side, because hospitals were owned by the government and their medicines were poison, or so her father used to say. Nicole had been born with her umbilical cord twisted around her neck. It was her first close encounter with death. It would not be her last.
People glanced at her strangely as she wandered away from her suburban neighbourhood towards the beach. It was cold, she knew the water would be frigid, but she wanted to look at the ocean, at the Pacific. It had been so long.
When she reached the water, when she dragged her tired feet through the sand, she fell on her knees in the surf and ignored the freezing waves lapping at her thighs.
Because something was wrong. Something was so wrong. And Waverly wasn’t with her.
The ring in Nicole’s pocket was cold, a shard of ice against her chest.
When she finally found the strength to move, when her pathetic, straggled appearance was enough to convince a local drug store to let her use the phone, she dialled the one number she knew would never fail her.
“Sheriff,” she breathed into the phone, “I need help.”
The woods were too silent, even for the late hour. There was no rustle of little paws or mournful howls from the wolves that lived in the mountains. It was as if the world had stilled, as if every creature was waiting for whatever it was that could happen. As if the universe knew that maybe, just maybe, an angel would fall back to earth. Back home. And it all made Nicole’s skin crawl.
Nedley appeared to be sleeping, so Nicole tossed another log on the fire and nestled further into her coat. She glanced down at her sleeve and, as was now her habit, rolled it up, pushing her flannel shirt and jacket aside to reveal the ink on her pale wrist.
She traced the now-familiar outline, finding comfort in its permanence, and tried to count each exhale from her lungs. The air stung her exposed skin, but she didn’t dare cover it because the tattoo on her arm was a comfort. It made her heart beat steadier. She hoped Waverly would understand.
If she ever saw Waverly again…
It started small.
Nicole couldn’t wear Julian’s ring. It was prone to strange temperature fluctuations, although since Waverly’s disappearance, the stone had gone dull and grey. It fit her poorly and it was cumbersome and it seemed somehow pregnant with meaning and power and questions that Nicole wasn’t ready to answer. She kept the ring in her pocket, but she wanted more, a physical reminder of Waverly.
So she raided Waverly’s jewelry drawer.
She settled on a ring, another ring, something Waverly wore casually when she felt like it, small and gold and completely unremarkable. But Nicole liked to think of it on Waverly’s animated fingers and she could remember Waverly wearing it the first time they’d kissed, so Nicole threaded it through a gold chain and wore it everyday, around her neck.
Wynonna took to wearing one of Waverly’s necklaces too. And then another ring. Even Jeremy started sporting a dainty silver charm bracelet around his wrist. They all desperately wanted Waverly with them, a constant reminder as they researched and searched and eschewed sleep in favour of their quest.
And then Nicole almost lost the necklace.
She panicked, searching her car and her home, feeling her heart race uncontrollably because losing the necklace somehow meant losing Waverly again and she couldn’t live with that. The necklace was a talisman, it was a sign, and without it, Waverly was gone and she was never coming back. So when Nicole showed up to the Homestead in tears, Wynonna let her in, as she always did. And when Wynonna presented the lost necklace, tucked safely in her pocket since she’d found it on the floor of Waverly’s bedroom, Nicole knew what she had to do.
The next day Nicole made an appointment.
The artist asked if she’d prefer something from the binder of flash images set on the counter. But Nicole pulled out her phone and showed the woman with a trendy side-cut and friendly eyes exactly what she was looking for. She didn’t want something pre-made. She wanted Waverly. Forever.
That night, when she returned to the Homestead, Wynonna took one look at Nicole’s bandaged arm and pushed Purgatory’s sheriff hard against the wall.
“What the fuck did you do? We talked about this, Haught. No giving up. Not on her!”
“Wynonna, it’s not…”
“Seriously? What is she going to say when she gets back?”
“Earp,” Nicole pushed Wynonna’s shoulders, forcing the woman to take a step back.
“I didn’t hurt myself. It’s not what you think.”
Wynonna looked unconvinced, but raised an eyebrow in challenge at Nicole’s arm.
“Don’t get weird, okay? I mean, weirder…” Nicole said, carefully removing the wrappings from her wrist and forearm.
Angel wings marked Nicole’s pale skin. Permanent, forever, eternal, angel wings. Wynonna’s eyes looked like glass, shimmering with unshed tears.
“Like the ones in her room?” Wynonna asked, curving her fingers around Nicole’s wrist.
They didn’t discuss it again.
The tattoo had settled into her skin perfectly, its lines still crisp and delicate. She raised her arm to her mouth and pressed her lips over the ink.
We’re coming for you, Baby. Hold on. Just a little longer.
A log on the fire cracked and Nedley stirred, burrowing deeper into his jacket and scarf. Seconds later the alarm on his phone beeped, indicating that it was three in the morning. Nicole yawned.
“The devil’s hour,” Nedley mumbled and Nicole’s entire body froze.
“What did you…”
She couldn’t finish her thought as the ground started shaking. It was a low rumble, barely perceptible, and then the earth itself seemed to stretch and sigh and toss Nicole from her perch on the log. The flames of their bonfire died in an instant, extinguished by an unseen wind, and it was all Nicole could do to brace herself against the ground, her cheek flat against the cold earth, as rocks and grass and branches scattered over her and Nedley.
Hail fell from the sky, pelting Nicole’s back and legs and she cried out in pain and fear. She could hear Nedley too, yelping in shock, and then a sound unlike any sound on earth resounded in the woods, bouncing and repeating and echoing off the trees and the mountains. A trumpet blast, pure and horrible, deafening in its volume, and Nicole could feel it in the earth, she could feel its vibrations, as she raised her hands to her ears and screamed.
When the light came, the trumpet sounded once more, and then again, seven blasts of sound that pushed Nicole to the forest floor. She could taste blood, she could feel it trickling down from her nose into her mouth, but the light…
Fire burst from the mouth of the cave, cloaking everything in smoke and ash and Nicole’s eyes burned, she could hear Nedley yell again, and the light…the flashes of orange and amber forced her to turn away, to shield her face from the haze and the noise, except she could hear something new, something familiar, she could hear screams…
Wynonna’s voice carried over the cries of the earth. Her voice shaped around a name, and Nicole forced her eyes open, she forced herself up on all fours, willing her body to hold on, willing herself to stay conscious.
And then the fire was gone. And Nicole swayed on her knees at its absence.
Because in the mouth of the cave where the fire had been appeared four people in tableaux.
Doc rested on his knees. His once trimmed moustache had given way to a full beard. Beside him, at his shoulder, Jeremy stood, motionless, eyes wide and frightened. Wynonna knelt close by, on the other side, her mouth still whispering the name. That name.
And in Doc’s arms lay Waverly.