All was quiet.
As these things are, Nicole supposed.
The first of what may very well become many spring warblers twittered a bit as it sped past, nervous. Anxious to leave the clearing. Nicole thought maybe she should’ve been too. The last of the winter thaw was soaking into her pants with the pink tinge of slackened blood. She was okay, though. Bad welt on the back of her head, maybe, but...okay.
That’s what she was good at.
Nicole spared an absent look behind her from where the pink was crawling out under two crumpled bodies. Whoever - or whatever - they had been, they bled the way Nicole prefered them too. Normally. Without cult hoodoo or magical portals or undead demons. She scratched her nose a bit and looked away. After everything she’d been through in Purgatory, it didn’t particularly bother her that she’d killed them. You don’t live with the Earps and not develop a certain adoration for shoot first, ask questions later. And you don’t question the morals of waking up being dragged through the wilderness by strangers.
Important life lessons, and all that.
The cold had begun to burn her skin, though, in the deepest part of the snow, so she stood up and brushed what she could off. Dropped the hunting blade through her fingers, slippery with gore, back into the slush and took a slow pivot around.
It was more a copse of scrubby, winter-hardened trees than a clearing. Just an outcrop of peeled spruce trees so wracked by antler raking they looked one whistle of wind away from crumpling. But the wind did whistle, and they stood. Nicole locked her knees and turned back to her assailants.
It was too cold to have compunctions. And while Nicole spent a good deal of time in Purgatory trying to hold onto compunctions , it certainly wasn’t the time for it. Clinically, Nicole stripped the men of their thick, fur-lined jackets and waterproof boots and, grimly, a thick wool cap with a bullet hole blown out the top of it. Even redressed, the cold was biting. If she couldn’t generate her own body heat soon, well. That was a difficult, one-sided conversation for later.
From one of the inner lined pockets of her borrowed parka, she drew out a journal. It looked like any other mythical journal that had ever gotten her into trouble. It was full of runes and ghastly drawings and latin . Never trust anything in Latin. Quickly, Nicole closed it and tossed it carelessly at the slack face of the man she’d taken it from.
“None of that, thank you,” she murmured.
The man whose jugular she’d opened up generously surrendered a scoped rifle and a dozen rounds. The other, missing the top half of his skull, magnanimously provided a pistol with two clips, insulated gloves, and a multi-tool.
Just a lesbian against the wilds. Armed with a multi-tool. That was probably always how her parents anticipated things ending for her. Wynonna too, maybe.
As she shouldered the rifle and went to leave the copse, she paused briefly - considered searching for wallets and identification. Doing the proper thing as a member of law enforcement. But. Well. F them.
Nicole left them behind to be covered, lost under the mounting flurry of snow until spring released them for the scavengers, and made her way out onto the top of a very high, very desolate ripple in the landscape. She looked out into the foothills of...somewhere. Thumbing the multi-tool in her pocket, she stared out at the endless, harsh brush. It wasn’t green yet, but wasn’t smothered in snow. Spring was more than a hope by then - a promise, perhaps.
Outside of the clearing there were a few scattered slabs of stone, marshalled around rather drunkenly like maybe they’d been orderly some three-thousand years ago. They bore similar runes and symbols.
“None of that either, thank you.”
She stepped away from the inner circle and made to breach the hill heading east, judging by the slow rise of a hazy sun. “I’ve got to find my wife,” she said firmly, hiking her rifle up and trudging off for the slow descent.
Alaska was goddamn cold. Or wherever she was. It had that singular loneliness of the gorge her father had taken her moose hunting in when she was a teenager. It felt like she’d shrunk to the size of a quarter and been tossed in the bottom of an ocean.
Nicole’s teeth chattered as she sat, bundled in a pile of damp, dead leaves against a tree she could’ve sworn she could climb. It wasn’t that the climbing of the tree was necessary or even really all that helpful. It’s just when you’re lost in the wild and probably the only person within a thousand miles, sometimes a lesbian just has to try and climb a tree.
An early squirrel popped down from a neighboring spruce, twitching its ears and nose at her, chattering a bit.
Nicole chattered back. “It’s goddamn cold.”
The squirrel gave her a look like, that’s your goddamn problem .
“I need to get home to my wife,” she informed him, factually.
Well screw you for that too , he squeaked before dashing back up into his tree.
Nicole thought briefly about pulling the pistol off and shooting about a billion rounds, irresponsibly, up into the tree to try and get some quick and messy protein.
Nicole began remembering things. Just little thorns in her brain with flashes of memory, picked up like burrs as she trudged through the land forgotten by god himself. It probably wanted to be forgotten by god. The lands that god remembered weren’t doing so well.
She remembered some snappy argument in the kitchen. Waverly in her slippers. Remembered throwing her coat back on, the feel of her engine turning over in hands resting against the steering wheel, headlights pointing out over a dark gravel road, that tricky, blind turn onto old main toward the late-night pharmacy, Bob Dylan on the radio, the flicker of a fluorescent bulb at the register, oncoming headlights, bright gravel, swerve, impact, crunching metal, hanging upside down in her cruiser, fumbling with wet fingers for a seatbelt, hands fisted into the front of her uniform, ripping her through the shattered window of the truck, red, red, red, red eyes, red red red red hands, red hot pain in the back of her skull, red teeth, black.
These things came to her like loose puzzle pieces. The picture was frayed and broken. Like it remembered more than she did, her hand wandered inside the light coat she’d had on when she was taken and wrapped around a crinkled paper bag. She pulled it out, the pharmacy logo stamped by hand on the outside, and blinked.
“Oh,” she murmured. The squirrel dropped a twig on her head and Nicole looked up. “Waverly will be waiting up for this,” she explained. The squirrel threw something else, pointedly.
One cold night turned to three, melted into five, ten blurred into some indiscernible week as Nicole trudged. It had started as a very determined march, but was quickly becoming a trudge . Nicole was a trudge.
Her face was probably grimy, gaunt. Haunted, maybe. But Nicole Haught did not get haunted, thank you. In a sea of weird and unexplained she was reliably Nicole. Damn cold, but reliable.
If it had been even a week earlier, she truly might have starved to death. But the spring thaw brought some helpful greenery and a fatally curious fox one night. And whatever you might think about shooting perch with a goddamn pistol, she had some very mangled seafood. Two time Buck Weight Champion Mr. Haught rolled limply over in his grave, but Nicole ate.
Something bleated pitifully behind her and Nicole sighed. She picked at the fish bones in her teeth and shot a disgruntled look at her shadow. It had followed Nicole for days with those baleful eyes and tentative devotion. Never feed the strays, Nicole thought wryly, as she tossed the rest of her fish in the cub’s direction.
It was a small bear anyways. And if it somehow found a way to eat Nicole, then all the better. Waverly was going to kill her when she got home anyhow.
“I have to find my wife,” she explained to the tiny bear. “She sent me on an errand, see? I am horribly late home.”
The cub scarfed down her pistol-mangled leftovers and galloped right over to sit on Nicole’s feet. “Oi!” She groused, gesturing at the bear as though asking the great nothing around her if it could believe that shit. “I am not a bear! Go do bear things!”
The bear snuggled in further against her shins and...well. It was definitely warm.
The bear did not go do bear things.
Nicole did bear things, instead.
What was the harm, really? It wasn’t going to be a ten pound bear cub that did her in, anyhow. It was going to be the endless sprawl of mountain, boot-catching scrub, and rutting moose cracking their racks against distant - but not distant enough - trees. It was going to be the bear’s stupid mother, probably.
“If your mom kills me, I’m going to curse you,” she grumbled as the bears tiny ears tickled under her chin. It was zipped up in her jacket like a massive freeloader. A warm massive freeloader. “I got kidnapped for cult magic. Twice, apparently. Don’t underestimate my mojo.”
The cub bleated happily, severely underestimating her mojo.
She watched a great bull moose through the scope of her rifle for a day or two, tracking him as he meandered down the neighboring hillside, swiveling his head to catch the calls of cows betwixt the satellite of his five point antlers. It was an entertaining fantasy at first - shooting a moose. Eating a moose. God, she was hungry enough for it.
When the moose ended up heading her way over the course of a day and a half, Nicole found herself sighting it at two-hundred yards. Watching it turn. Watching her crosshairs tickle at the front of it’s torso just through the lungs. And then...it wandered off.
She breathed out heavily and shook her head. The cub gave her a skeptical, hungry look.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she grumbled. “Just because I can live out here, doesn’t mean I should.” She gently pulled out the increasingly thin paper packaging, worn from sweat and friction against her layers of coats. The pharmacy logo was almost completely faded away. “I need to find my wife,” she repeated to herself. Memorizing it.
They set out again at daybreak, still heading east.
“Do you think they’re looking for me?” She whispered, condensation swirling under nose and jaw chattering against the top of the cub’s head, fast asleep. It was just on the brink of sunset, darkening but not cast in oil paints across the sky yet. The moment before the wilds exhaled. “Do you think they have any clue where I am?” Even the wind was silent. “Do you think I even... am ?”
The bear swiveled around to lay flat against her chest, shoving its nose against her throat like, I do not care. For I am a bear.
“Yeah, well, lucky you,” Nicole grumbled. “I am not a bear.”
News to me, lady .
Nicole fingered the soft edges of the pharmacy bag and watched some distant bird wheel low like it spotted something, before changing its mind and moving onward. She listened to some billion blades of coarse grass whisper against each other in smooth waves that had never been touched by a human - never would be touched by a human - and wondered what the grace of being lost in such a place was when there was no such thing as being found.
“I’m afraid I’m terribly lost,” she said quietly to her dozing companion.
The moon felt closer there, like the face of a clock just across the room - like she might be able to reach out and run her fingers over it, swirl patterns in the dust, gently tip the minute hand forward. If she so desired.
“Dear Waverly,” Nicole whispered, trying her very best to clean a fish with the multi-tool. “I don’t think I notice the cold anymore. I’m sorry I’m not back from the pharmacy. Don’t let Wynonna eat my Captain Crunch. I love you, Nicole.”
“I told you I could climb a tree!” Nicole crowed, laughing downward as the cub circled the base of the tree in distress. She preened, alone, and unwitnessed. But triumphant.
“Dear Waverly,” she panted, catching her breath in the Y of the tree and staring out across the next in a never ending series of hills. “I told you I could climb a tree. I’ve named the cub Daisy. I hope I find my way out of maybe-Alaska before she gets big enough to realize I, too, am a tasty snack. I miss you more than sound. More than souls. More than comfort and warmth, and voices. I miss you more than I miss me. I don’t miss Wynonna all that much. I love you, Nicole.”
“Look,” Nicole declares proudly. A blister on her thumb had popped early and her hands were cramped and sore, but four perfect, joined initials were scratched deep into the body of a white spruce so unimaginably tall, she thought maybe he’d shook hands with god. Thought maybe god shook back.
Daisy looked skeptically at the ‘NH & WE’ she’d spent too many valuable hours perfecting. Awesome! It’s useless! She seemed to cheer, sardonically.
“ You’re useless,” Nicole muttered.
She gathered up their things and wandered down to follow the rapids for a bit, Daisy gallivanting happily at her heels, excited to be moving on. They were swollen with the spring melt off, slick and dangerous and unpredictable, but…
“Dear Waverly,” she grunted, hefting her rifle on one shoulder and the little napsack she’d fashioned from her own, lighter jacket a few days back. “I carved our names into a tree because I very much love you. Nobody will ever see it, but maybe that’s beautiful too. I wonder if nobody will ever see me again. Maybe that could be beautiful in a way. But I think it’s not nearly so much as you. Thank you for seeing me, Waverly Earp. I love you, Nicole.”
They catch up to her - whatever they are. Or find her. It’s so sudden, so deadly, that Nicole isn’t really sure which. It’s in the indescribably pitch of a star-masked night, thousands of miles from any man made light that she first hears footsteps. They sound massive. Monstrous. But she’d long since learned that even a squirrel or a small fox can sound like a moose when you can barely see your palm in front of you. When you’re so very small and alone.
She fought the instinct to run, sitting as still as possible against a tree and breathing shallow little puffs of condensation out in front of her. The steps stalked closer and multiplied. They paused. Like animals rooting around.
Nicole’s breath became so thin it whistled out to a thin stream and stopped all together. Whatever it was, there was two of it. They clicked at each other. Gargled something like their mouths were filled with loose teeth and blood.
Nicole has been ten yards from a seasoned black bear boar in spring, huffing and spoiling for a fight and hadn’t felt the fear she felt sitting against the back of the tree, Daisy alert and shaking on her knees. The wilderness seemed to choke, wretch on the poison crawling around the clearing. Hunting.
If you don’t surprise it, it surprises you, Nicole had come to learn.
“I have to get home to my wife,” she mouthed to herself, gripping the handle of her multi-tool three-inch blade in one hand and her two-round pistol in the other. When the slide began clicking against the barrel, Nicole clenched her knuckles harder. When the monsters came for her, her hands would shake but she would not go quietly into that night.
The scramble out from behind the tree was messy but when she closed the thirty yards to the hunched, crawling forms of two blue-skinned, wasted figures flashing bloody teeth at her - when she closed it in brave, unwavering steps, the ground she’d walked alone the last lifetime rose up to meet her.
A black, congealed hole in the back of one skull and the jagged pull of a hunting knife across the other’s jugular hadn’t done it the first time. When Nicole collided, she thought grimly,
I’ll kill them twice as hard this time.
Daisy nudged at Nicole’s shoulder, bleating in distress.
Couldn’t even let her die in peace.
She groaned as she extricated her arm out from under herself and flung her body over to rest on her back. The clouds had pushed on, opening up a barely waning moon that touched gently on it all. Touched the spruces outstretched arms. Touched Nicole’s limp hair. Touched gently on the corpses of people with heads so beat in they resembled trampled berry patches more than whatever humanoid they’d been before. Touched the pitch black pooling under Nicole’s lower back.
“I’m not dyin’,” Nicole grumbled, gently shoving Daisy’s wet nose away from her face. “Just havin’ a rest without all my blood.”
Daisy looked at her like, as a carnivore, we’ve got a word for that.
As though to prove a point, Nicole tried to push to her feet and take a few steps away from the carnage. Toward Waverly.
The knee Headshot had cracked in with a well aimed thrust of his bootless, gnarled toes gave out after a few pathetic steps and she smacked back against earth hardened by ruthless winters and meak springs. She spat out a bit of blood. Hoped maybe it was from a busted lip. Reached blindly back to touch the wet multi-tool lodged near her kidney. Prayed.
“D-dear Waverly,” she stumbled over chattering teeth. But she didn’t feel cold anymore. “Busted my knee again, just like college. But I’m pretty certain it’s against the Geneva Convention to kill a lesbian with a multi-tool, so I’ll be home soon. I ain’t cold, but I’m sure shivering. Daisy’s probably gonna try and eat me soon. I miss the way you pour milk before your cereal. It’s abominable and I love you. Heading east until home. I love you, Nicole Haught.”
Nicole passed out in some prairie grass like a stuck pig.
It felt like forty miles, but it was probably more like forty feet that Nicole managed to crawl into the next evening. Her back was on fire and visions of darkness wormed behind her eyelids while she sweated and shivered. Daisy brought her a rancid fish and Nicole threw up bile until she blacked out.
“Dear Wav’ly,” she mumbled into the dirt while some unknown predator grabbed her ‘round the ankles and begun slowly dragging her deeper into a grove of aspen. They rose up around her like ivory keys while the uneven ground bumped rhythmically against her head. “I’d like to report a war crime,” she slurred before passing out again.
Someone pried open one of Nicole’s eyelids. “You dead?”
“No. Only my wife’s allowed to kill me,” she groaned, weakly swatting away the hand.
“Well, you will be.”
Nicole didn’t like the irony that by devoting enough energy to rally against her commander, she’d unwittingly fulfilled the request. “Am I dead?” She asked wryly.
“Not yet.” A rather stern, deeply wrinkled face loomed close over Nicole’s own and harrumphed. “You’ve got stuff to live for, right? Sob story? Must use my yearly ration of everything important on your dumb ass?”
“Gotta get to my Wave - get to m’wife,” Nicole mumbled. “Promised.”
“Of course,” the woman grumbled, pushing roughly away from the bed.
When Nicole finally woke up, crudely patched and swaddled in a small Alaskan bush outpost, she was politely handed her bear, instructed to get the hell out, and had her nice, lightly stolen boots taken from her as payment. The crotchety Mrs. Erwin spent the next three days glaring at Nicole from the cockpit of her tiny bobcat plow and waiting for the unscheduled pilot she’d called to come retrieve Nicole. Take her back. Take her to Waverly .
Over cold sardines and stale Lipton tea, with a generous side helping of glares, Nicole cleared her throat. “Um. Do you want my coat too? I won’t be needing it.”
“Right.” She moved to shrug it off, then paused with her hand inside the jacket. The envelope from the pharmacy was so worn it was almost translucent, paper weathered to softness around the small package inside. Drawing it out, Nicole set it down on the little foldable table in front of them, then removed the coat and handed it over.
Mrs. Erwin directed her glare down at the pharmacy package. “Is that what was worth gettin’ your ass beat up here for?”
“A promise is a promise,” Nicole shrugged.
“What’s in your backpack?” The bush pilot drawled, directing a curious glance behind the tiny jumpseat Nicole was clinging to for dear life while trying very hard to look aloof and cool.
Nicole looked down and saw her backpack give a disconcerting wiggle. “Nothing.”
The rickety bush plane dropped her in a fishing town with about twelve residents, which saw her to a logger passing through from an encampment. He was good, quiet company for the length of the Alaska Highway, all the way from Delta Junction to Dawson Creek near the tip of British Columbia. The cheap shoes she’d bought fourth-hand from a fisherman’s wife carried her into Alberta while she thumbed deeper into the heart of a place she slowly began to recognize.
The twenty-three crumpled dollars in her threadbare pants bought her a one-way bus ticket from Calgary to a little nothing town too small for even local maps and she spent the whole ride with her temple bumping gently against the window. Too tired to sleep. It wasn’t sleep she needed.
She’d placed a quick, probably confusing payphone call to Wynonna somewhere near the British Columbia border, so wasn’t entirely surprised to see Waverly twisting her hands in the little shack Purgatory called a bus terminal. Waiting.
Waverly didn’t say anything when she plowed into Nicole’s sore body, squeezing like she meant to break her in half. After a long moment of it, she began to babble about spells and darkness and supernatural kidnappings, but Nicole stopped her.
“Dearest Waverly,” she shook her head fondly. “Just a wrench in the plans. Normal wife stuff.”
“I didn’t think we’d find you,” Waverly confided into the most hidden parts of Nicole’s chest. The ones only she was allowed to see. She pressed harder, then pulled back. “What’s in your jacket?” She murmured.
“Ah.” Nicole squeezed her arms between them to fish out the ragged pharmacy envelope and offer it up. “As requested,” she said quietly.
Waverly only teared up worse and took the package, dumping the contents into her palm. She turned the tube of toothpaste over in her hands. “It’s been months .” She laughed a watery laugh and reached out to run her hand down the front of Nicole’s jacket just because she could. “Why did you hold on to this? Wynonna said you’ve been lost in Alaska .”
“Promise is a promise,” Nicole breathed. She kissed Waverly’s temple and swayed them a bit, gently. After a beat, she turned Waverly to walk her back toward her car.
“What’s in the backpack?” Waverly sniffled.
“Oh, it’s a bear,” Nicole shrugged. She handed over the wiggling bag.
“A bear. Her name is Daisy.” When Waverly gaped at her, ‘ we are not keeping a goddamn bear in our house’ right on the tip of her tongue, Nicole shushed her. “We’ll talk about it.”