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for the price of seven good cows

Chapter Text

 

She showed up there in her Sunday best, clothes as immaculate as could be expected after the journey. And it had been. A journey, that is.

 

A ship, rude hosts, awful smells, wagons, the loss of her meager savings.

 

The loss of her dignity, perhaps?

 

That remained to be seen, she supposed. But standing on the dusty porch of a handsome ranch out in the plains of budding California, shoes chafing delightfully at her bleeding ankles, she could at least say that she had made it .

 

She had escaped.

 

She had followed the tiny scrap of a telegram in response to a rather forward advertisement she’d placed in the Matrimonial News and two other papers like it was a lifeline. That lifeline pulled taught right from her caged little heart to whatever rough, mysterious stranger had snapped the bars. And while she’d had nearly two months to think on it - to agonize on the possibility of falling wearily into the arms of her mystery man at the end of the day only to look up and realize she’s been lured by a slug - Waverly Earp was also no coward.

 

And if Waverly Earp had to kiss a slug to escape the dark hole of her father’s household, then so be it .

 

Waverly plastered a determined smile on her face and reached up to place two polite knocks on the front door of the ranch house. And then, just to be on the safe side, she took a step back, dusted her dress from the cloying earthy salt of the air out there, and struck what she hope was a pose that screamed please marry me .

 

Whatever that looked like.

 

The door jerked open and Waverly offered a confused smile.

 

Well, it wasn’t a slug. What it was was an intimidatingly tall woman, mens ranch vest open and boots unlaced like she was moments from falling out of her clothes when Waverly came calling. Her hat was in her hand and a pistol was held tensely at her thigh like she was expecting a much worse kind of houseguest. Her hair was pushed back like it might’ve once held pomade long before a day fighting against the chaffing slap of whipping winds. Waverly had never seen a woman look like... that .

 

Waverly tried to take a surreptitious look behind the woman. Tried to figure out how she had spent two months and every penny she had only to end up at the wrong ranch. She was no slouch with a map. “Hello, I’m Waverly Earp. Does Mr. Haught live here?”

 

The woman’s face went flat for a moment, then she sighed. “I suppose I’m Mr. Haught.”

 

Waverly gave the woman another once-over. “You look more like a Miss Haught.”

 

“Well I’m her too,” the woman shrugged. “I’m the only Haught.”

 

Dropping the desperately hopeful wife look, Waverly placed a hand on her hip stubbornly - most unlike a lady , she’d been told enough times to safely assume she was beyond hope - and gave the woman a much more careful perusal. “You own this ranch?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Waverly blinked at her. “You’re N. Haught?”

 

“Nicole, yes.”

 

Waverly felt an amused smile pull slowly at the corner of her lips. Her hip cocked a little less ladylike and she grinned. “And...you responded to my advertisement for a husband, did you, N. Haught ?”

 

Nicole’s wrist went limp and the chamber of her revolver clacked as it slung limply in her hand against her thigh. Delightfully, the woman’s face turned a remarkable shade of red, almost making her hair look dull in comparison. Waverly’s grin grew while Nicole’s eyes took a long turn around everything in their known universe that wasn’t the woman on her porch. She stuttered a bit, hand coming up to rub at the choppy length of her hair, cut haphazardly around her jaw like she’d done it herself. Judging by the scarcity of her neighbors, Waverly supposed she probably had. Finally, she found words.

 

“I - no. I was answering - I didn’t - that’s-”

 

Well, she had found some words.

 

“Is there another N. Haught here I should know about?” Waverly teased, fluttering her eyelashes just a bit because it was rather fun.

 

Nicole somehow found a way to blush harder. “That’s - I didn’t answer an ad - I didn’t order a wife ,” she spluttered.

 

“Is this your telegram?” Waverly asked, offering out the travel-worn slip she’d received the day she’d earned her freedom, along with a handsome cut of money.

 

Nicole snatched the crudely written letter and held it close to her face while she squinted against the grit from the pastures still rubbed into her eyes. “Well of course it is, but I was responding to an advertisement for healthy young cows!”

 

“No,” Waverly drawled, producing another piece of damning evidence seamlessly from her dress as though she knew she’d have to defend her right to marry a stranger who’d asked her to make the damned journey. “You responded to this ad,” Waverly said smugly, waving it a bit under her nose.

 

Nicole snatched the paper, read very slowly, then looked up with a look of horror. “The ads were...right next to each other,” she said faintly. “I can’t see too well,” she continued, almost in a stupor.

 

There was something undeniably attractive about besting a woman built like that . Waverly allowed Nicole the space to come to terms with the changes she’d unwittingly brought upon her household.

 

Because changes there would be.

 

Because as Waverly Earp took in the fine details on her cowhide vest, the gentle way she held Waverly’s letter between polite, clean hands, the fresh smell of her and the beauty of the land she lorded over, the open skies and planes  -

 

Yes , she thought.

 

Yes, that would do quite nicely.

 

“My bags are just there at the gate up the road. Near the charming little sign. Would you be a dear and get them?” Waverly asked sweetly, reaching up to wipe a smudge of dust from Nicole’s cheek. “They’re quite heavy,” she said conspiratorially, leaning even closer while Nicole’s eyes widened and she tripped backwards into the door. Waverly followed, running a hand down one side of her open vest to admire the leather. “But you look very capable .”

 

Having secured her future, despite a rather large wrench in the plans, Waverly patted Nicole’s chest and let herself into the ranch house to make herself at home.



+++



Nicole appeared sometime later, lumbering along with an irresponsible amount of luggage while Waverly was spread out comfortably on a wide bed with soft pelts and woven cotton sheets,. And Waverly knew first hand how heavy her luggage was - it contained, primarily, hundreds of books. Again: not very ladylike.

 

But Nicole was in no position to judge Waverly Earp for a few well-worn, unladylike habits. Her and her steel-toed boots, worn mens trousers, and muscle .

 

Yes, Waverly thought again, and not for the last time. That would do quite nicely.

 

Nicole took one look at Waverly spread-eagled on her bed and tripped bodily over a large trunk she was shuffling indoors with her feet. Waverly laughed quietly to herself while Nicole struggled to right herself. “I’m sorry,” she said quickly, smoothing her wayward hair back and tucking it helplessly under her handsome hat. “There wasn’t nothin’ fragile in there was there? I’m awful sorry.”

 

“That’s alright,” Waverly said, sighing out comfortably while she sank deeper into the bedding. “It’s mostly books. Thank you for your help. You’re very strong.”

 

“I’m-” Nicole made some strangled noise then turned her back to the scene in front of her, like Waverly was entirely too inappropriate for her to deal with. Waverly supposed that was what happened when you spent your whole life in the company of livestock. “You...read books?” She asked the bedroom wall.

 

Waverly hummed happily. “I do. As often as I can.” She turned on her side and propped her head on one hand to study the strong shape of her benefactor’s back. “Do you?”

 

“I’m not much good at it. But I try and trade for one when strangers come through. And I make my way through it in my own time,” she explained, almost embarrassed. Her hands flitted nervously between resting in her pockets, patting at the seam of her vest, and twisting in the middle.

 

“We all get to the same place in the end, though, don’t we?” Waverly encouraged, rolling over to swing her feet back over the side and smooth out the skirt of her dress. “Your bed is very comfortable.”

 

“You can have it!” Nicole blurted, hands snapping down to her sides. Her neck ticked like she wanted to look back at Waverly, but couldn’t bring herself to find out what was happening behind her. “I’ve got a - uh, a chair. I’ll sleep there.”

 

“You won’t sleep here with me?” Waverly wondered. “I’m to be your wife, you know.”

 

“I - that’s -”

 

“You’re not so good at words, are you dear?”

 

“Waverly,” she scolded, sending a thrill of excitement up Waverly’s spine. “You don’t have to be anyone’s wife. I’m sorry for the misunderstanding and you’re welcome as a guest in my home, but you’re also welcome to go back wherever you came from.”

 

“Well, thank you.”

 

“For what?!”

 

“For welcoming me to stay.”

 

Nicole threw her hands up in the air while Waverly brushed past her to begin making dinner, with the hopeful assumption that her stoic cowboy had more than canned beans and an outdoor fire pit. She was still a lady, after all.

 

While she pillaged the hand-made cabinets, Nicole followed around behind her, flapping her long, useless arms and searching for more intelligent words. Waverly found some canned vegetables and dried spices. Nicole found nothing.

 

“You have more cigarettes than food,” Waverly mused as she opened a drawer. “That’s not healthy, you know. You need a woman’s touch.”

 

“I am a woman, thank you very much.”

 

“Then start touching things.”

 

Nicole breathed hard through her nose while Waverly made her a lovely home-cooked meal. Her mother had always said she was going to get herself into trouble, right before she ran off, became pregnant by the town’s most prominent Minister and then ran off with an outlaw who’d killed two big-town sheriffs. Waverly had big shoes to fill.

 

“I touch plenty ‘a things,” Nicole pouted to herself while Waverly sat her firmly at her own table with a gentle push down on her shoulders. When Nicole began to make a wild gesture with her hand, Waverly placed a full coffee cup in it, nice and strong the way her father had always taken it. Nicole gave it a glare, but took a sip anyways.

 

Waverly smiled. “Then I have a lot to look forward to.”

 

Nicole spat the rich brew right across the table.

 

What a waste.



+++

 

Waverly sat in front of the fire reading distractedly through a Dickens serialization she’d bought off a hopeful miner upon reaching the shore. Distracted, because Nicole was sitting in her kitchen chair, nursing another cup of coffee and staring baldly at her. Distracted, because she’d already read the thing thirty times over, could practically recite it from memory. Distracted, because Nicole looked like she was making decisions in that cowboy brain of hers. Distracted, because she was cute when she was brooding.

 

“Do you go into town much?” Waverly asked, licking her thumb to flip her page.

 

Nicole grunted. “No. Not much.”

 

“Why not? I thought it was rather charming.”

 

Nicole took a long moment, holding the coffee mug to her chin while the steam curled under her nose. She stared thoughtfully into the flickering flames of the fireplace, furrowed brow casting a darker shadow over eyes against the dim glow it cast. When she answered, it was like she’d rubbed the grit from her throat and let the persona she wore like a heavy duster coat fall around her feet. “I’m better off alone. I ain’t like those neat little pieces on the chess board. The folks in town would never understand me - accept me. So why go on the board at all.”

 

“Have you ever even played chess?” Waverly hummed doubtfully.

 

Nicole started from her brooding, brow smoothing so the shadows lifted from over her eyes. They looked almost black in the low light. Black like good coffee. “What?” She asked quietly.

 

“Have you ever played? If you haven’t, then what do you know of it, really?” Waverly shrugged, flipping another page. “Don’t disparage things you know nothing of. And don’t claim to know a stranger’s heart or what they would or wouldn’t accept.”

 

Nicole’s features pinched for a minute, head in the beginning gesture of a disparaging shake. But she paused, relaxed, then nodded along in vague consternation. She took another thoughtful sip of coffee, still nodding in a lost sort of way.

 

Like a wild bear who’s woken up in a zoo , Waverly thought with a small smile to herself.



+++



Nicole fell asleep in her lambskin chair, chin tipped onto her dusty shirt and empty coffee mug precariously loose in her slackened fingers. She fell asleep and Waverly stood, brushed her skirts, and fetched a blanket from the bed to drape over her lap. The coffee cup was rescued and returned to the table too before Waverly smothered the oil lamp and retreated to Nicole’s bed. When she settled down into the sheets in nothing but her underthings and the foreign smell of bedding that wasn’t hers, she felt a huge grin split her face in the dark. What a strange trick she’d pulled on her own fate.



+++



Nicole stared twice as hard the next morning, hair stuck up adorably at the back of her head and shirt undone rather scandalously. Waverly had put another cup of coffee in her hands and sat across from her while they dined on old biscuits.

 

“What’s wrong?” Waverly asked brightly, cradling her own coffee under her nose.

 

Nicole blinked a bit and looked down at her hand, surprised to find the clay mug there. Surprised, but not too proud to resist bringing it up for a long, luxurious sip. She sighed out mournful afterward, like she was truly dismayed by how good it was. “I kind of thought I’d imagined you yesterday,” Nicole admitted. Her voice was airy in the morning, rough but breathy in a surprisingly feminine way.

 

“Have you imagined someone like me before?” Waverly grinned.

 

Nicole’s cheeks flared up, predictably. Waverly knew she was deriving too much enjoyment from it, but it was just so easy . “I’ve...not really. I mean, not you specifically. Er, not anyone specifically. Not that I’ve - it’s not like I’m…” She stared off into middle distance, smoldering slowly in her own mortification.

 

“Am I prettier than you imagined?”

 

Nicole’s eyes snapped to hers. “N-no. I-”

 

“Uglier?” Waverly nodded sympathetically.

 

“No! You're the prettiest girl I ever seen! Not that I’ve seen many girls.”

 

Waverly preened, smoothing out her hair and giggling. “The prettiest ? You know what to say to a girl.”

 

“Doesn’t feel like it,” Nicole muttered into her coffee.

 

Waverly shook her head fondly. This terribly bashful cowboy was growing on her rapidly. And to think she’d left home hoping for a bigger cage. She hadn’t imagined being free . She beamed at Nicole across the table, Nicole just shaking her head slowly while she made her way to the bottom of her cup. When she’d finished, she stood, smoothing her hat back over her mussed hair and beginning to do up the buttons on her high rancher vest. When she moved toward the door, Waverly pushed her own cup away and followed along.

 

“Where are you going?”

 

Nicole slung her pistol around her waist and threw the front door open to a bashful morning, still pink in its infancy but with a warm nip to the air that hinted at the perfect kind of day. She breathed deep and let it out with a confident huff. “Gotta feed the animals. Do the chores. Make the world go ‘round.” She spared one halting look back at Waverly, then shrugged. “You can...do whatever it is you do.” Shrugging to herself, she clomped out the door in her boots.

 

Waverly barely spared a moment before she was pulling her own shoes on and skipping out to join her with a warm shawl around her shoulders.



+++



“They’re darlings,” Waverly gushed.

 

“They’re goats.”

 

“I’m in love.”

 

Nicole frowned, but left her to be in love with the goats. And while the little bleating, hopping darlings were quite cute, Waverly’s favorite part was watching Nicole gently navigate the bustling pen, excusing herself politely when she got in their way, treading carefully in her steel-toed boots. When a kid stumbled over her shoe in energetic haste, Nicole reached down and carefully righted it. Then she squatted down and began passing the feed out of her little pail while the goats tripped around her.

 

Waverly sighed like a lovesick fool. The west was charmingly rugged and romantic. The fresh air, all those goats. The west had very pretty hair too.

 

“Come on,” Nicole said quietly, standing and brushing the dust from her pants while she emptied the dregs of her pail into a tangle of overeager goat. “Let’s milk the cows and check on the chickens.”

 

“You have chickens? ” Waverly gushed, stars in her eyes.



+++

 

 

“Teach me,” Waverly said firmly, peering intensely over the high wall of the cow pen.

 

Nicole looked up from the gentle rhythm of milking a cow she’d introduced proudly as Kate. “Teach you...what?”

 

“All of it,” Waverly burned with her determination. “Teach me all of it.”



+++



“They won’t bite me will they?” Waverly asked, looking up at Nicole who was calmly rummaging around under a grumpy hen on a higher shelf of nests.

 

Nicole looked down at her and pulled her hand back with a perfect brown egg. “Bite you?”

 

“Yeah, you’re just reaching under them. And - can they bite?”

 

“Oh, yeah,” Nicole nodded. “Real bad. Chickens have a nasty bite. They’ll take your finger clean off.” When Waverly snatched her fingers close to her chest and shot Nicole an alarmed look, Nicole regarded her seriously a moment. Then she winked and reached under another chicken that clucked a little irritably. But made no moves to clip her fingers off.

 

Waverly huffed. “You’re making fun of me.”

 

“Give me your hand,” Nicole beckoned.

 

Slowly, Waverly relinquished her hand, which was accepted in a calloused, warm hand, dry from the dust of the plains. Nicole led her forward, pressing her close to a sleeping hen with her free hand on the small of her back. It was all very thrilling. But even until the moment when Waverly jerked backward with another perfect brown egg in her hand, straight into the cradle of Nicole’s chest with her prize, she was still partially certain she was going to lose a finger.

 

“Very brave,” Nicole chuckled, resonating into Waverly’s own chest from where she shrunk against her.

 

Waverly relaxed into the shadow behind her and inspected the egg. “They don’t really bite, do they?”

 

“Not if you’re gentle,” Nicole murmured, running her hand almost absently along the underside of Waverly’s arm before she stepped back and returned to her seamless routine, like water slipping down the path of least resistance.

 

Waverly clutched the egg to her chest, smiling.



+++




Nicole dozed in front of the fire, boots by the front door and vest undone again. Her hands were folded over her belly, which Waverly had made sure was full of a better dinner than she suspected Nicole had had in a long while. Just one of the few perks of being trained for a life of matrimonial servitude: Waverly made exceptional dinners. The afterglow of a good meal looked good on her. Waverly quite liked it like that. She quite liked the look of her all around, really.

 

“Did you get enough to eat?” Waverly asked, only partially fishing for the compliments Nicole dropped behind her like breadcrumbs. And for someone starved of affection their whole life, she was mostly powerless not to follow.

 

Nicole hummed happily and patted at her stomach. “More’n that,” she assured. “I ain’t ever ate that good.”

 

“I’m glad you liked it,” Waverly said smugly. “I’m very good.”

 

“You’re very confident,” Nicole smiled as her eyes slipped closed in contentment. “But yes. You’re real good.”

 

Waverly nodded in agreement and tried to return to her book. But - despite the best efforts of her governesses and her mother, for however brief a time, and her disappointed father, and the ladies of their community - Waverly’s mind wandered. It wandered to what her life might look like on the plains teaming with strange bird calls, long rolling leagues of clouds and the gentle turn of free earth under a freer sky. It wandered to the gentle snuffle of grazing cows, home-cooked meals in a little ranch that smelled like fresh oak. Then it wandered to the strange woman dozing in her armchair and humming the disjointed chorus of a barely remembered miners’ song under her breath. The anchor at the end of a line that’d pulled her from the rainy little nothing town she’d been leashed to across an ocean, a gold rush, a dozen tumbleweed towns, and a quaint little farm. Pulled her right to that door. Right to that woman.

 

All from an ad in a silly newspaper.

 

Waverly smiled wryly to herself. Life was funny that way. The queer cowboy at the end of the line was more blessing than curse, though. If there was one thing Waverly Earp would never lament the loss of it was men .

 

Nicole Haught was the best possible anchor. Even if she wouldn’t acknowledge it.

 

“We should go to bed,” Waverly announced, snapping her book shut.

 

Nicole shook herself a little, peering out from under a droopy eyelid. “We?”

 

“Yes, we . In the bed. Together.”

 

And then Nicole was wide awake. “No, no. You’re my guest. I won’t - it wouldn’t be proper .”

 

“Well, we’re both women,” Waverly pointed out. “No risk of impropriety there.”

 

Nicole let out a long breath, wide-eyed and rosy around the cheeks. “I’m - Waverly. I’m not like other women. I’m not - like you . I just...you wouldn’t understand.”

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t understand, hm? And what do you know of me , Nicole Haught? What do you know of what I’m like ? You think because I cook like a wife and wear dresses and read books and can’t milk a cow you know anything about Waverly Earp?” She snapped. “Well I’ll have you know, I broke a man’s hand once for getting frisky, I’ve shot more guns than you, and I kissed Maryann Breyer behind the bandstand in primary school, so you can take your sanctimonious chivalry and put it right up your pretty-”

 

“Waverly!” Nicole held her hands up. “Sorry! I'm sorry.” While Waverly caught her breath, Nicole ran one stressed hand through her hair over and over, pushing it back along the crown of her head while she blinked. “Sorry. I just - I feel it isn’t honest of me to not be forward in our...arrangement. Whatever that may be.”

 

“Because of impropriety,” Waverly pointed out, skeptical.

 

“Yes. Because you’re very beautiful and I’m very...different.”

 

“And you plan on doing improper things to me.”

 

Nicole reeled back. “What? No!”

 

“Then whatever is the problem?” Waverly sighed, tiring quickly of the conversation. It was growing late and Waverly had touched about a dozen goats. It had been a very long day.

 

“Waverly, I’ve lived alone a very long time,” she began, picking her words carefully in that low, soft drawl that strung her words together like thick molasses. “I don’t know how to sleep next to a person. I don’t know how to say the right words to a pretty girl. You are welcomed in my home for however long this is where you want to be, but you can’t unlearn this life from me overnight.” When she paused to gather more words, Waverly waited patiently in the quiet and crackle from the fire. “Please take the bed. My honor ain't make exceptions just because you got a smart tongue and nice hair.”

 

That, at least, got a laugh out of Waverly. “Alright, cowboy,” she sighed. “I wouldn’t wish to impune your honor .” She stood and made her way to the kitchen to clear the table, stopping to sweep up Nicole’s tumbled-over boots and right them closer to the door. Nicole watched her move around like she’d lived there her whole life. When she’d gathered her book and placed a folded blanket on Nicole’s lap, she bid her goodnight with a soft squeeze of her shoulder.

 

“Goodnight, Nicole.”

 

“G’night, Waverly.”

 

Before she retired to the little bedroom built off the east side of the ranch like an afterthought, Waverly turned to give her one last barb. “We’d better not be having this argument when we’re married.”

 

Nicole’s protests barely reached her through her own laughter and the quickly shut door.



+++



Chapter Text

 

+++


As excited as Waverly was, the trip into town on a rickety wagon attached to a grey-muzzled horse was treated by Nicole as the walk to her appointment at the gallows. But if Waverly was walking to the gallows, she really couldn’t have asked for better weather.

 

“What a lovely day,” she pointed out, trying to bring Nicole out of her grumpy cloud.

 

Nicole emerged from her grumpy cloud to give a grunt. And returned promptly.

 

Waverly supposed she was going to have to try harder to make Nicole understand how very pleasant their day was going to be. She would be damned if she put on her nicest dress and did her hair in cute curls only for her host to huff her way through their first day in town together. They were going to have a dreamy day, god damn them.

 

“Have you ever seen the sun so bright?” She asked wistfully, flipping her hair over her shoulder for effect.

 

“Hurts my eyes,” Nicole grumbled.

 

“Have you ever seen clouds so white and magnificent?”

 

“Probably means rain’s on the way.”

 

“Look how pretty your horse is.”

 

“Stanley’s a stallion.”

 

“Look how handsome your stallion is.”

 

“He has arthritis.”

 

“Well look how beautiful I am,” Waverly snapped.

 

Finally, Nicole turned to give her a slow, thorough look. She started at her polished shoes, up her nice stockings, past her expertly arranged skirts, paused a little too long on her bosom, then stared at her hair a bit. “You do look beautiful.”

 

“Yes I do,” Waverly agreed. “And so do you.”

 

Nicole’s mouth twisted in the corner and she faced forwards again. “Um. Thank you,” she finally said. “I don’t think anyone’s ever called me beautiful.”

 

Waverly turned to her, affronted. “Well, why not?” She demanded.

 

Nicole let out a shocked laugh, genuine amusement lighting up her eyes. The sun was so bright her eyes almost looked  golden. “Look at me. I’ve been mistaken for handsome. Never beautiful.” At Waverly’s doubtful look, Nicole laughed a bit more. “I wear men’s clothes, Waverly. I tend animals for a living.”

 

“You wear your clothes and you’re pretty in them,” Waverly declared, effectively ending the conversation.

 

Nicole continued staring at the side of her head, though. “I don’t think I ever met anyone like you, Waverly Earp.”

 

“Well of course you haven’t,” Waverly sniffed. “You won’t ever leave your ranch.”

 

Nicole let out a low laugh and settled back into her seat, adjusting the reigns to sit more comfortably around the curl of her wrists. “I reckon that wouldn’t’a made a difference if I did.”


+++


They arrived in the little town without fanfare, just a few listless, but well-timed tumbleweeds bouncing across the street. It was probably too early for fanfare. In the city, Waverly had been taught not to expect fanfare until at least half-ten. Waverly did enjoy life on Nicole’s ranch, but the rancher had a frustrating habit of needing to beat the sun to everything. As though the sun wasn’t of such an ancient age that it couldn’t possibly be bothered at the competition of the thing. But Waverly was but a student to farm life, so what did she know.

 

“We need to stop at the general store,” Nicole sighed, pulling on the reigns to get Stanley to branch off toward the back of the buildings lining the single dirt road through what could have almost been called a town. If Waverly hadn’t lived in a real town before, she might’ve been convinced this was one. But she had and she wasn’t.

 

“What do we need?” Waverly wondered. Besides, of course, to enjoy themselves. Which she had perhaps led herself to believe was the purpose of their journey. She’d imagined more far-fetched things for herself, certainly.

 

“More feed for the goats, more feed for the humans. Since you insist on eating,” Nicole added with a small grin. It would’ve been funny if Waverly didn’t, in fact, have to insist most nights that Nicole do more than smoke and pick at some biscuits in her armchair.  “And anything else you’d like for your stay here, I suppose,” Nicole listed off, tugging Stanley to a creaking halt around the back of a quaint little shop, proclaiming its purpose in gold tinted lettering. It had a neat little painting of a white horse on the back door and invited them to “ Enter” .

 

Don’t mind if I do , Waverly thought. She gauged the distance to the dirt road from atop the wagon, gearing for a long jump, when Nicole came up next to her and held her hand up. “Might I give you a hand?” She asked with a hopeful smile.

 

She could give her any number of hands.

 

“Please,” she smiled, gaining a strong lift down so she was safely on her feet, fingers still caught up in Nicole’s own. They held on loosely for a few moments, before Nicole came back to herself and gestured for her to lead the way into the shop.

 

It was quaint, but clean and well-organized, lent perhaps by a feminine hand. Cute, really.

 

“Welcome!”

 

“G’mornin’ Jeremy.”

 

Nicole waved a brief gesture over her shoulder, heading over to the catalogue on the counter. Waverly was admiring the tin of some imported British cigarettes advertised boldly at the front of the store, but looked up to greet the man. “Good morning,” she smiled.

 

“Oh! Who’s this?”

 

“She’s…” Nicole turned back from the catalogue and squinted her eyes at Waverly. “I don’t know how to explain this. You deal with it.”

 

Waverly rolled her eyes. “She bought me from an advertisement to be her wife.”

 

“Waverly!”

 

“You said explain it!”

 

Jeremy looked rapidly between the two of them, head snapping back and forth a comical amount of times, before he awkwardly slapped his salesman smile right on top of that expression like a goat in a wig. “Can I interest you in Royal Crown Pomade!?” He blurted in a voice higher than either of the women in his company.

 

Waverly picked up a shiny red cigarette tin reading “Lambert and Butler” and gave it a curious little shake. She’d seen one of the tins in a drawer in Nicole’s home. During her many and varied snoopings, of course. Ultimately fruitless, because Nicole was about as mysterious as a tin of stewed tomatoes. Of which she had many.

 

“You should consider it, Nicole. Your hair looks nice slicked back.” She delicately placed the cigarette tin back in its pyramid stack and gave Nicole a stern look. “How do you expect me to marry you if you look like an outlaw?”

 

Jeremy dropped the tin on the ground with a clattering racket while Nicole rolled her eyes. “Get a hold of yourself, Jeremy,” she muttered, ripping the top page of an order receipt off the book at the register and making her way over to where he stood tensed up and frozen. She tucked the receipt in his front shirt pocket and patted it down. “Order these,” she instructed while he gaped. “I’m gonna load the feed and you’re gonna stop staring at her like that. Agreed?”

 

Jeremy nodded rapidly, then scrambled to pick up the pomade tin from his feet, clutching it to his chest. When Nicole gave it an unimpressed look, he shoved it in her hands. “On the house!” He squeaked.

 

“Much obliged,” Nicole muttered, shoving the tin carelessly into her pocket. “Waverly, get whatever you need, I’ll start loading the feed.”

 

“The finest jewels, Jeremy,” Waverly declared pompously.

 

Nicole hauled two bags of feed up onto her shoulders with a huff while Waverly watched just keenly enough not to make a spectacle of herself. Only Nicole.

 

If Nicole didn’t want to be a spectacle she should stop doing things like that.

 

“No jewels,” she grunted while she pushed back through the rear door toward their small wagon.

 

Waverly laughed to herself and gave Jeremy a disarming smile. “Only groceries, then, I’m afraid.” When she received only a wide-eyed stare, she shook her head sympathetically. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to unsettle you.”

 

“N-no,” Jeremy swallowed past his stutter and moved to grab an empty burlap sack for victuals. “I just - wow. You’re...marryin’ Nicole?”

 

“We’ll see, won’t we?” Waverly hummed. “She asked me here for that purpose. Whether she meant to or not,” Waverly added under her breath.

 

“But you’re both ladies,” he pointed out. Waverly went to send him a tired look, but he seemed more fascinated than judgmental. Curious and... eager , even.

 

Waverly shrugged. “I don’t look at her and think about it much. I just think about her, really. And I’m a woman of my word. I came here to marry the person who paid my passage away from my family and I intend to.”

 

“That’s very brave,” Jeremy said quietly, turning a can of corn absently in his hands. “I don’t imagine I -” He swallowed and set the can of corn in the burlap sack. “Well, I don’t imagine many people could ever live that freely.”

 

“Jeremy,” Waverly said seriously. “If you can’t live freely out here in the middle of nowhere, then where the hell can you?”

 

Nicole came back in, checking her cheap bronze pocket watch as though they had anywhere to be or anyone to answer to. “Ready?” She asked briskly.

 

“I don’t know, Jeremy are we?” She asked with a little wink that finally managed a smile from him. A genuine one, anyways.

 

“Yeah,” he nodded, stuffing some potatoes in the sack and tying it off. “Here you go, ma’am. It was a pleasure to meet you.”

 

“Likewise,” Waverly assured him before she was whisked out of the store with a polite, but firm hand on her back. The door clapped shut with a bit of unnecessary clatter with the backward kick of Nicole’s boot.


+++


“He seemed nice,” Waverly mused as they perused a catalogue in the clothing store next door. Nicole was admiring a pair of boots, but kept flipping over the price tag and wincing. Obviously Nicole could afford seven cows in full payment - or one wife, whatever happened to show up with the post - but she agonized over the boots like she was purchasing her own colony. And judging by the fact the storekeep had abandoned them the moment Nicole walked in, Waverly guessed Nicole wasn’t a particularly valued customer. Or profitable.

 

Nicole sighed and put the boot back on its display with finality, only sparing it one last longing look before she turned away. “I think you broke him. Please don’t advertise my strangeness here. I rather like minding my own business.”

 

“What, he’s never heard of a lady buying another lady in the sunday paper?”

 

“I didn’t buy you,” Nicole huffed, coming up behind Waverly, just a little too close while she looked over her shoulder at the catalogue. It was an absent perusal, though - barely lingering on a page long enough to pay any one article enough attention.

 

Waverly smiled to herself at the proximity, leaning back until they brushed together. “Well you certainly didn’t rent me .”

 

“Waverly, honestly.”

 

“I mean it kindly,” she teased, pressing her elbow back gently into Nicole’s stomach. “Nobody’s ever paid money for my company. It makes me feel like…”

 

“A lady of the night?”

 

“- a valuable item ,” she amended. “Like I’m worth something.”

 

Nicole scoffed. “You’re a human being, Waverly. Can’t buy that. No matter how much money you throw at it.” Nicole reached out to stop Waverly’s hand before she flipped the page on a pretty dress and she could feel the thoughtful tick of her head even behind her. “And if you could, you’d be worth much more than the price of seven good cows.”

 

Waverly spun in her arms, leaning back against the counter and smiling up at her. “And how much is that?”

 

“A lot.”

 

“No, no, Nicole. I’m a beautiful girl and I need an exact number here.”

 

Nicole smiled back, shaking her head. “Waverly. I’m not putting a price on you. You’re priceless,” she assured her and just walked away .

 

Like she was allowed to say that to a girl and walk away.

 

Waverly sighed dramatically, sagging against the counter.


+++


The end of their day found them in the back corner of a sleepy saloon. It was too early to be drinking really, but in Waverly’s experience, that didn’t stop much of anyone. And it didn’t stop the handful of gentlemen sprawled out at tables, quiet while they puffed on cigars and passed sleepy card games between them. Or just sat in silence watching condensation run down their fingers while the sun creeped higher. The idea that so many people full of so much history could sit in a little bar and pretend they were all cut from the same molds was...comforting. Nobody was anybody there. Even them.

 

“Is your drink alright?” Nicole asked, giving her glass a suspicious look. “I can get you another if you don’t like it.”

 

Waverly smiled and lifted her glass to take a small drink and assuage the endearingly anxious expression on Nicole’s face. “Very refreshing,” she lied. It tasted like an old rag.

 

“Really? Mine tastes like an old rag,” Nicole grunbled, staring into her glass with one eye pinched shut.

 

“I enjoy you, Nicole Haught,” Waverly chuckled.

 

Nicole looked up from her glass. “You enjoy me?”

 

“I enjoy you.” She pushed her drink aside and leaned forward. “So tell me, Nicole Haught. When are we to be married?”

 

Nicole’s elbow slipped out from under her and sent her glass crashing to the floor. A few sleepy heads popped up to silently chastise them for breaking the spell, but it all settled back like dust motes as long as they kept their heads down. “You keep sayin’ that,” Nicole pointed out.

 

“Yes, it’s getting annoying repeating myself.”

 

“You aren’t serious.”

 

“I’m very serious. I came here to be married to a rancher and I intend to be,” Waverly said seriously. “Whatever inaccuracies may have clouded our agreement, it was an agreement. I’m here. Hundreds of miles from home with no prize except being your wife.”

 

“You’re right, that’s no prize.”

 

“It is a prize. To me, it’s a prize,” Waverly hissed.

 

Nicole leaned closer across the table. “You realize how insane you sound, right?”

 

“Me? You’re insane! You bought me at seven-cow-price and now you sleep in a chair every night!”

 

“It’s a good chair!”

 

“I’d be a good wife!”

 

Nicole scrubbed irritably at her face, then stood abruptly with a constipated kind of look on her face. “I-” she ground her teeth together for a moment. “I’ll get new drinks,” she huffed, turning and stomping away through the dust motes toward the bar. Waverly watched her go, grinding her own teeth together.

 

It was not ideal.

 

If Nicole wouldn’t marry her, then what the hell was she supposed to do with herself? She wasn’t worth anything except what Nicole had already paid for her so-

 

So-

 

Waverly swallowed hard against the lump in her throat and clenched her fists against her skirts. She would not cry, damn it all. Waverly Earp had been through too much to pay this latest tragedy any tears.

 

“Y’alright, ma’am?” A man passing by with a cigar bobbing between his lips and a deck of cards in his hand looked down at her from over his bushy mustache. When Waverly tried to blink away the lingering emotion on her eyelashes, he produced a shockingly clean handkerchief and held it out.

 

“I’m not crying,” she sniffled.

 

His mustache shifted with his hidden smile. “Well I ain’t either. So what good’s this do me?”

 

That earned a little laugh and Waverly took the handkerchief to hastily dab at her eyes. He stood patiently, shuffling the cards again and again, so smoothly they barely made a ruffle of sound. When she’d breathed through her fit, she handed his handkerchief back with a quiet thank you.

 

“Y’know Haught?” He asked, watching Nicole stand stiffly at the bar with two drinks in front of her, not drinking from either.

 

Waverly laughed humorlessly. “Yes and no.”

 

“Yes, I suppose we never really know a person, hm? Least of all someone like Nicole Haught,” he chuckled under his breath. At Waverly’s look of confusion, the man shrugged and tapped a thoughtful finger against the back side of his deck. “It’s not easy livin’ life only for yourself. Nicole’s careful about who she lets see her that way - who she lets see her at all, really. It’s funny how many enemies you can make just bein’ a way people don’t expect of you.”

 

As though that explained much of anything. Waverly groaned and stared glumly at the side of her unsavory drink. “Yes, well. I don’t expect her to be anything.”

 

“What do you expect of her?” He asked curiously. “I’ve not seen you before.”

 

“Nicole tried to purchase cows, but accidentally purchased a wife instead, I’m afraid,” Waverly said plainly while the stranger abruptly stopped halfway through shuffling his cards so they skewed out awkwardly between his fingers. “And now she won’t marry me. I’m far from home with nothing and nobody.”

 

The man unfroze after a moment, nodding to himself and slowly, deliberately righting his cards into a neat stack again. “Wait, you can just buy a wife in the paper? Well what the hell am I doin’ then?” He chortled.


Waverly gave him a miserable look and he demurred.

 

“That is...quite a conundrum,” he murmured. “But,” he said, drawing out the word thoughtfully, “For all she’s had to make herself to live this life, Nicole is honorable, Waverly. I swear it, though don’t ask me how I know. I would not assume so easily that you have no one out here.”

 

“Doc,” Nicole interrupted stiffly, drawing Waverly’s attention to where she was standing behind her with drinks in both hands.

 

The man tipped his hat respectfully and shot Waverly a harmless little wink on the side. “John Henry Holliday. I’ll see you around, ma’am.”

 

“Waverly.”

 

“Well, I’ll see you around Waverly.” He cut a wide berth as he went back to his game, calling out for another round. “Dolls, I saw you try and slip that card up your sleeve. Don’t you make me kill you on a Sunday.”

 

Nicole dropped one of the drinks unceremoniously in front of Waverly and stood over her grimly instead of taking the other seat. But after a moment of dreary silence, Waverly pushed the glass away from her and looked down at her feet. “I think I’d just like to go back now.”


+++



If at all possible, the ride back started even more sullen than the ride there had been. Waverly was still not married and Nicole was even more stoic than before. Not for the first time, Waverly wondered exactly how many people Nicole even saw in a year, let alone spoke to. She estimated it in the low nothings.

 

Though the journey bobbing along to Stanley’s excruciating pace was almost worse than walking all the way back, and though Waverly wasn’t normally so dedicated to frosty silences, she tried her best. Things caught her interest along the way - a burned out barn in the distance, a stagecoach that looked ten years abandoned on the side of the road, a peculiar little creature with black and white stripes that ran across their path - Waverly kept her nose upturned and her lips sealed shut. Desperately, she wanted to discuss these things.

 

It would have been much more satisfying if Nicole didn’t seem perfectly content to be ignored.


+++


Dinner was, with a large amount of effort on Waverly’s part, equally silent.

 

And though it was still quite good, it wasn’t Waverly’s best cooking. Because she was upset. But not so upset that she was willing to sacrifice her pride. Whatever perceived, lessened degree of quality the food, though, Nicole certainly didn’t seem to notice. She still tucked in with admirable voracity then stood quietly to clean up the table and restore her kitchen to utilitarian efficiency. A place for everything and everything in its place. Suddenly, it pissed Waverly off how neat everything was. How bland.

 

But then, Waverly was astute enough to know that in her mood, Nicole’s particular brand of breathing would have likely pissed her off.

 

As always, like there wasn’t a suffocating, foul cloud of bad mood over their evening, Nicole went to her arm chair and stretched out in her usual recline, patting her stomach with a quiet huff of contentment.

 

Waverly came over and stood in front of her so the tips of their toes were touching and she was looming over the rancher. It was satisfying being able to see the top of her head for once and not just her strong chin.

 

Nicole looked up full of innocent misunderstanding. If that look could be weaponized, Waverly knew she would be in trouble. But it couldn’t and she wasn’t.

 

Waverly propped her hands on her hips and glared down at her. “So that’s it, huh? You’ve said all you’re going to say to me?”

 

“I imagine not,” Nicole said honestly, raising one baffled eyebrow. “We’re talkin’ right now.”

 

“And you won’t marry me?”

 

Nicole groaned, slouching further into her chair and closing her eyes as though gathering the last of her patience. If she had some to spare, then of the two of them, Nicole was likely going to lose the argument. Because Waverly had none and she didn’t plan on finding any in the near future.

 

“Waverly, I ain’t going to - christ, think of what you’re asking me. Think of what you’re asking of yourself . This ain’t a kind world to queer kinda folks. I’ve got nothing to offer a partner except some farm animals and a life on a frontier so empty it feels like it’s slipped right off god’s green earth. I go weeks at a time wondering if it hasn’t. Wondering if I haven’t. That’s my life out here Waverly.”

 

She stood up, removing Waverly’s advantage so she was forced to look up at her black eyes in the dark of the flickering fire. “I get that your life wasn’t exciting. I get that I must be such a disappointment. I get that you traveled hundreds of miles to be swept off your feet by a rancher, shoot guns and ride into sunsets. I can see how this must be difficult to fit into your mold, but this is what you sold yourself to sweetheart . So no. I’m not going to fix whatever’s got you in such a pout , because I don’t know how . I got real problems around here and I’m going to worry about those first. You are free to come or go as you please. It’s a free damn country. Alright?”

 

Traitorously, horrendously , Waverly felt tears well in her eyes. But we don’t always choose where our passion comes from or how it bursts forth, so she leaned into it, gritting her teeth and shoving back at Nicole’s chest for some space. “I didn’t come here for romance , Nicole Haught. I came here because where I’m from, the idea that I might be worth seven cows is as high a compliment as some bastard, fatherless woman like myself can earn. That’s what my life is worth, Nicole. Because you might’ve lived out here for so long you forgot it, but they won’t ever let me forget that no matter how far I run, I’m never free . I don’t care that I’ve slipped off god’s green earth, because even dying of starvation on a dirt farm off the side of the world with some asshole rancher is better than the cage you bought me from . And I’m sorry I’m not seven cows , and I’m sorry you don’t want to marry me, but I won’t be made to feel silly when you’re the one who couldn’t read a damn newspaper advertisement correctly!” She snapped, snatching up her book from her own chair and storming off toward the bedroom.

 

She turned back once with her hand on the door to Nicole’s bedroom, foolish and embarrassed tears running down her flaming cheeks. Nicole was wound tight, eyes wide, and mouth hanging just a little bit open. She looked devastated, though by what Waverly could only guess. “I liked you. I don’t care you’re a woman and I thought maybe I could be worth something to you anyways. I won’t make that mistake again.” Waverly couldn’t stand to be there and let someone see her cry over it all, so she closed the door just shy of slamming and hurled herself into bed.

 

Sleep eluded her most of the night, and so she could hear the dozen times Nicole walked to the bedroom door and stood there just at the threshold for long, long minutes before sighing and pacing away. The pattern repeated through the first glance of sunrise when Waverly finally fell into a sniffly sleep.


+++


Waverly hadn’t woken to a high sun in a long, long while. Not since she’d been hundreds of miles away in her father’s crumbling estate. It was disorienting, but eventually the previous day came crashing back in full, merciless detail. And while she didn’t regret the things she had said - not at all, really - she did regret letting Nicole see the little broken parts of her. The part that made her cry when she let it. It was tempting just to roll over and let the sun swing lazily overhead until it sank back in the west and rolled underneath them. Until it was night again and she couldn’t see herself cry.

 

But she’d done quite enough of that and she couldn’t very well barricade herself in a bedroom that wasn’t hers in a home the size of a modest stable. Nicole would not be a problem that went away. Technically, Waverly was the problem on that land.

 

She sighed and swung her legs out of bed, figuring the longer she put off their treatise the worse it would be. While brave, she wasn’t brave enough to throw open the door. Instead, she took the time to push it open slowly, peering out through the crack to try and ground herself before facing the day. The relief at finding the rest of the home empty was palpable.


+++


The discomfort of finding the stables and the pens and the garden and the front road empty as well was more palpable. Normally, Nicole would’ve been deep in chores by that hour, but she was nowhere to be found. When Waverly walked the routes she’d been shown and the patterns she’d been taught, it seemed as though the daily, mandatory activities had been completed.

 

So she hadn’t killed Nicole with her outburst the previous night. Which was a relief to some vague panic in the corner of her worried heart. The morning had brought her some clarity and with it came the rationality that she couldn’t force Nicole to marry her. Her purchase had been an honest mistake and, while cold, she had been hospitable. Waverly could become a farmhand, perhaps. Maybe she could make her own small house and her own small life. Maybe she could find some freedom there.

 

The wagon was gone - as was Stanley. Waverly stared at the empty stall and allowed herself to be properly unsettled. There was no way Nicole had willingly sought out human beings. So she wasn’t in town.

 

She wouldn’t have run off, would she have?

 

It seemed silly, but the idea that Nicole might up and abandon her entire ranch with nothing but her shoes and an old horse rather than deal with a mildly hysterical woman who’d taken up residence in her house wasn’t the least likely scenario Waverly could imagine.

 

Without any other ideas, Waverly returned to the house and made some tea. That was what civilized women did when without proper course of action, she supposed. After dusting a bit, Waverly ran out of things to do and sat herself in Nicole’s large armchair to sip absently at her cup. The fire was smoldering out in little puffs of smoke and winking coals, but she wasn’t too certain on how to fix that.

 

The sun was swingy low, orange just starting to ring the clouds holding it up when she heard the thump of boots on the front stoop. Before Waverly could feel more than a moment of panic, the door swung open and Nicole walked back inside, sighing out in that way she did every time she came in from chores and pried her toes from her boots. Waverly watched her back, guarded by a heavy duster from the whipping winds of the day as Nicole shuffled around a bit. Any greeting stuck in Waverly's throat.

 

When Nicole finally turned and saw her sitting there, she paused and looked guiltily down at her feet. “Um. Hello, Waverly,” she said quietly, hoisting a square, brown-wrapped package under the crook of her arm a little higher to hook her fingers better underneath it.

 

“Where have you been?” Waverly breathed, shakier than she anticipated.

 

Nicole’s eyes widened. “Oh! Sorry. Went into town an’ - I should’a told you. I’m...not used to that.” A small, deprecating smile pulled up the corner of her mouth. “Obviously.”

 

“That’s okay,” Waverly said carefully. It felt like they were suspended above opposite cliffs. Only a thin, rope and plank bridge connected them and Waverly wasn’t sure who’d be brave enough to cross. “I was just worried.”

 

“Sorry,” Nicole repeated, looking appropriately apologetic. “I wanted to get something in town.” Oddly, Nicole’s cheeks flushed at that and she reached up with her free hand to remove her hat and scratch it along the back of her head.

 

Waverly eyed the package curiously. “We were just there yesterday, though.”

 

“Well, in light of, um. Last night,” she near-whispered. Confusion must have been plain on Waverly’s face, because Nicole cleared her throat. “I wanted to get somethin’ in town, uh. For you.” She stumbled forward a little too quickly and shoved the package into Waverly’s lap a little too hard. “That’s for you. From me. Um, for you.” She looked down at her shoes and muttered to herself, “already said that.”

 

Waverly looked down at the package in her lap with a baffled expression, then back up to where Nicole was trying to look like she wasn’t stealing looks. The package was rather heavy and smooth under the burlap when she ran her fingers over it. She stared at it for a long while, then remembered Nicole was still there and looked up to find her vibrating with hopeful anticipation.

 

Putting them both out of their miseries, Waverly shuffled the sack down over a handsome, highly polished chess board. A smaller, soft linen bag with gold lettering was at the bottom of the sack. As she pulled the drawstrings open, a little contingent of gleaming hand-carved chess men greeted her. Automatically, she reached in for the intricate rook castle and twisted it around in the low light of the dying fire to take in the detail. It was the silence that snapped her out of her slow perusal, like Nicole wasn’t breathing at all.

 

She did look a little blue, when Waverly finally looked up. Nicole appeared to be in anticipatory agnony. “Is it okay?” She asked in a quavering voice.

 

“It’s...really beautiful,” Waverly said honestly, dropping the rook back into its elegant bag. “This has to have cost a lot. I’m afraid I don’t understand,” she continued. “What is this for?”

 

“For you,” Nicole repeated.

 

Waverly looked between the expensive gift and Nicole’s hopeful face. “Why?”

 

“B-because I hurt your feelings so bad last night,” Nicole said, looking ashamed and squirming in place. “I’m bad at sayin’ things. I was hopin’ this said some stuff for me.”

 

Waverly laughed wetly, surprised at the feeling of warm tears rolling down her cheeks. Honestly, could she do nothing without blubbering in front of her? She sighed and wiped briskly at them. “Words are much less expensive, Nicole.”

 

“Not for me.”

 

“So you’re a rich rancher, are you?” Waverly sniffed.

 

Nicole shook her head and came to kneel next to her by the arm of the chair. “No, ma’am. But I don’t know many words.”

 

“You know how to say ‘I’m sorry’ don’t you?” She teased.

 

Nicole smiled apologetically. “I’m tryin’ to learn.”

 

“This is a good start,” Waverly admitted, running her hands over the spotless shine on the surface of the board. “But it wasn’t all you. I’m sorry too, you know? I realize this isn’t what you wanted from your life. And I’ve been demanding where I perhaps had no right to be. I know I’ve been a surprise...houseguest.”

 

“A big surprise,” Nicole agreed kindly. She reached out to touch the chess board too and admire its shine. Her chin propped on the arm of the chair. “I’m not disappointed you’re here, Waverly. I’m just so lost. When all the boys in California started heading north with gold in their hearts and not much else, I ran the other way. I came out here to nowhere and nothing and then out of the blue I struck gold? I weren’t even looking,” she teased. “I was tryin’ to get away from it.”

 

Waverly blushed despite herself and she rolled her eyes. “Alright, showoff.” She reached out and rubbed the dust that persistently gathered on Nicole’s cheekbones. “You win.” She sniffed pompously and clutched the chess board to her chest. “You’re lucky you bought such a materialistic lady.”

 

“I’m very lucky,” Nicole agreed.

 

Waverly stood up with purpose, surreptitiously swiping at her eyes again when her back was turned as she headed toward the kitchen. “If you wanted dinner all you had to do was ask,” she tutted. “And I thought we were only going to be playing checkers in this household. I thought you weren’t like those shiny little chess pieces on the board, hm?”

 

Nicole came up behind her while Waverly rustled around in a drawer and lowered another small bag in front of her by its drawstring. “Well I bought checkers too.”

 

+++


For someone who hadn’t ever played checkers, Nicole sure was difficult to defeat. Waverly managed of course, but it was frustratingly more difficult than she anticipated it being considering Nicole claimed she’d never played.

 

Waverly kept her suspicions to herself.

 

When the night got too deep and Nicole’s eyelids began drooping, Waverly swept the pieces back into their bag and tucked the board away. Determinedly, she reached down for Nicole’s hand against the armrest and began tugging her to her feet.

 

Nicole allowed it, eyes clearing a bit from the beginnings of sleep. As Waverly pulled her toward the bedroom, Nicole dug her heels in. She shot Waverly a worried look, but Waverly patted her hand and gave her a warm smile.

 

“It’s a big bed, Nicole. And it gets very cold at night alone.”

 

Her brow furrowed as she seemed to consider the proposition very seriously.

 

“Please,” Waverly added. “It doesn’t have to mean anything.”

 

After a minute, the tension drained from Nicole’s face and she nodded wordlessly. The resistance left her and Waverly was able to pull her along into the bedroom. Their outer-clothes were shed in the dark of the night, only a few whining coyotes breaking the quiet on the distant prairie. And despite the polite distance between them when they crawled under the blankets, Waverly felt closer than she’d ever been to her.


+++


Chapter Text

+++



Things were different after that.

 

From the moment Waverly had arrived on Nicole’s porch, apparently uninvited, she’d been itching with curiosity, burning with that primal fire in her that needed to take apart and see . She needed to pull the essential parts of a thing apart and figure out the way they came together like the parts of her dear father’s watch. Waverly had needed to know. And she’d been switched something awful for that, but try explaining to a man that there’s a thing in your dainty head that screams to dig your delicate fingers into the mud and turn the earth over just to see what might shake out. And unlike her father’s very expensive watch, Waverly planned to put Nicole right back together when she was done. She quite liked the whole.

 

But Nicole Haught was a locked box. Two inch steel, fine-crafted with a reinforced padlock without a key. She was an impenetrable shell. She was the underside of the world and Waverly had to know what was inside.

 

Of course, she had never suspected it was just softness.

 

She never suspected it was quiet geniality and a shy kind of eagerness to please her that was nothing short of confounding to a girl who’d spent her whole life being gamely assured that the world couldn’t give two shakes what she wanted or how she felt. What Waverly wanted and what Waverly felt seemed to be the only things Nicole cared about.

 

It was as vexing as it had been when it was all locked in a box, Waverly thought. Even after so many weeks, she still sifted around in there, so certain she might find some cog or piece that could further explain a person like that. Nothing had turned up.

 

“Waverly!” Nicole called for her near the outer wall of the hen house. It only got louder as she rounded the entry and peered inside, eyes bright with the kind of vigor that always accompanied the kinds of never ending farm tasks that Nicole delighted in. Waverly had never seen a person shovel animal dung with the kind of exhilaration that Nicole Haught managed.

 

Waverly turned from where she had been collecting eggs from the coop - she was a veritable expert by then - and was met with Nicole’s eager expression. Swiftly jerking the contents of her fist behind her back before Waverly could get a look, Nicole gave her one of the most poorly concealed secretive looks Waverly had ever seen.She seemed to be holding her breath when Waverly raised an eyebrow. “What?”

 

Nicole held out a handful of wild daisies she’d weeded out of the back fence, face alight with innocent hopefulness. Waverly sighed, shaking her head fondly and reached out for them. “What’s this for?” She wondered aloud, studying the rag-tag bouquet.

 

Nicole took her hat off and held it against her chest. “They reminded me of you.”

 

“Hm?” Waverly gave her a sly smile. “Pretty and useless?”

 

“Yes,” Nicole said hastily. Her face screwed up a moment later and she balked. “I mean, no!”

 

Waverly pressed the bouquet to her chest and sighed dramatically. “You wound me.”

 

“I meant no!” Nicole worried, squeezing her hat out of shape in her hand.

 

And Waverly could really only let her fret for a moment, before the agonized look on Nicole’s earnest face affected her too terribly. She brought the flowers under her nose and took a deep breath, though they didn’t smell like much of anything. For Nicole’s trouble, she offered her a sweet smile and quiet “thank you.”

 

Nicole stiffened, crushing her hat flat against her chest.



+++



“What are you looking at?” Waverly teased, flipping a page in the book Nicole had presented her with proudly that morning. It was rather dry, but she’d placed it in her hands so carefully, with so much gravity, that she’d read it a thousand times if it meant Nicole walked around all puffed up and satisfied. Even if it felt like the alley cat that used to bring her dead rats with the kind of pride Waverly could only ever hope to replicate in any part of her life.

 

It was a rather terrible book, though.

 

“Do you like it?” Nicole asked seriously.

 

Waverly smothered her smile and nodded solemnly. “Yes. One of the best I’ve read, really.” Nicole sank back smugly into her arm chair like she’d won something. A smirk pulled at the corner of Waverly’s lips and she closed the book. “However can I repay you?” She said in her best approximation of a seductive voice. She’d seen other women do it. How difficult could it possibly be?

 

Nicole just smiled innocently and closed her eyes, content after a long day’s work. “You don’t have to repay me for anything,” she said and-

 

Okay, so it was difficult. Waverly frowned.



+++



Waverly would like to have been able to claim that she was no ingenue, but the last few days had proven that she may very well have been just that.

 

She’d tried everything.

 

Looks she thought were flirty, slow, lingering touches to Nicole’s shoulders, extravagant meals apropos of nothing, compliments to her general person.

 

Was this not romance?

 

Waverly had read many books on the subject.

 

She’d done a lot of lingering and a lot of pining .

 

So what was taking so long, she wondered.

 

Laying in bed, looking up at the ceiling, she stewed in her frustrations while Nicole slept peacefully beside her. Waverly supposed blissful ignorance must have made for good sleeping conditions. Of course, it could just as easily have been the gentle wind, warm from the sun-beat grasses to the east, ebbing and flowing through the bedroom window. It could have been the frankly irresponsibly large meal Waverly had fed them. And it could have been the drive Nicole had gotten back from. But still.

 

Simmering there in her underclothes next to an equally undressed cowboy in her bed , Waverly became irritated. None of this was her fault! If Nicole hadn’t put marriage in Waverly’s head, dragged her halfway across the world, then been so perfectly charming and agreeable -

 

But she had. The right bastard that she was.

 

Irritation gave way to determination. As it often did for Waverly.

 

She scooted closer to where Nicole was turned away from her, back rising and falling in slow gentle exhales. And while it was perhaps entirely too inappropriate, there is always less blame in the dark. Less fear. Less identity.

 

Waverly burrowed one arm under Nicole’s side so she could squeeze her around the middle and pull their bodies together. Already sleep-warm, Nicole’s waist had more give than Waverly would have guessed. She was soft around the middle, easy to wrap around. Holding her breath, she tucked her face into Nicole’s back and waited for the fallout.

 

Minutes went by and Waverly thought maybe she’d gotten away with it, then Nicole snuffled a bit and one of her arms came up to rub at her face. Carefully, like she didn’t want to disturb Waverly, she turned over in her grasp and gave her a sleepy look. Waverly glared back, a challenge.

 

Nicole just smiled. “You’re cold?” She murmured.

 

No , Waverly wanted to say, I’m…

 

frustrated.

 

But Nicole just smoothly slipped out of Waverly’s arms and headed to an old chest in the corner. From the chest she produced two more heavy blankets with a flourish. She shuffled over on sleepy feet and began winding them around Waverly until she was cocooned in much to many blankets for the warm night. Nicole smiled sleepily in the dark while Waverly glared out from the mountain she’d been buried in. And then Nicole returned to her side of the bed and promptly fell asleep.

 

Waverly continued to simmer under the greenhouse of her blankets long until the night critters had quieted and the birds had begun to wake.



+++



The simmering didn’t get much better, but as a true woman of her time, Waverly was nothing if not well versed in suppressing any kind of agency or desire until it killed her.

 

Except that she wasn’t!

 

Except that Nicole did ridiculous things like splitting endless logs at a stump in plain view of the porch. The sight alone was entirely inappropriate - the sweat running off her temples that curled her hair about her ears, the grunt of exertion on the downswing, the - Waverly couldn’t tear her eyes away.

 

Waverly was entirely inappropriate.

 

And she couldn’t decide if it was made better or worse by how utterly oblivious Nicole was to it all. She’d give her a friendly wave or ask politely if Waverly would like to try. She might be brash, but she couldn’t exactly force herself to return, bluntly, exactly what she’d like to try instead. It was like they were shouting at each other from different planets. Or speaking through tin cans tied by string.

 

But then, Waverly had little to base the effectiveness of her more forward intentions on. Waverly had been led to believe - based on her sexual education of blushing adult women who’d placed a complete moratorium on anything that eked a sexual fact or tip and would apparently rather have died than discuss a genital - that sex very well may have been just the carnal act of Waverly bringing too many conspicuous glasses of fancy drinks while Nicole wore a sweat-soaked thing that barely constituted a shirt.

 

If that was sex, then Waverly was doing splendidly.

 

If not, which she suspected it wasn’t, then Waverly was doing quite poorly.

 

“Thank y’kindly,” Nicole smiled, full of non-sexual warmth while she brought the fourth glass of water to her lips that day. At the very least, she should have become suspicious by the over-dedication Waverly paid towards hydrating her.

 

Waverly sighed mournfully. She could’ve sworn she could see the water slide down Nicole’s throat and briefly considered jumping in after it. “You’re welcome,” she gritted out.



+++



Waverly steeled her resolve that night and decided if god hadn’t wanted her to become a complete charlatan, god wouldn’t have put her in that ranch in front of that cowboy. It was god’s fault, really.

 

Minutes after Nicole’s final satisfied bite of her dinner, at her most defenseless, Waverly put her plan in motion. A plan that would have shocked her father. But perhaps made her wayward mother quite proud.

 

Casually, Waverly came up behind Nicole’s chair and reached over her shoulder as though to collect her plate - a thing she never really did, as Nicole insisted on cleaning up after them. But she used the opportunity to brush against her shoulder and let out an overly dramatic sound of dismay.


“Your shoulders are so tense!” She pointed out. An actor she was not.

 

Nicole was thankfully lost in post-meal haze and just hummed in a neutral kind of way. It was enough permission for Waverly to change course from Nicole’s plate to drag her hands luxuriously up from Nicole’s arms to rest on her shoulders. She gave an experimental squeeze.

 

Perhaps this was sex, she thought wryly.

 

Nicole made an inappropriate noise that at least led Waverly to believe they were getting closer. When she didn’t pull away, Waverly let her hands slip under Nicole’s undone vest and gently nudge it off her shoulders. She held her breath a moment, hands resting on Nicole’s partially bared shoulders. After a beat of uneventful silence, Waverly resumed digging her fingers into the tense rope of muscle there.

 

Miraculously, Nicole let it all happen. Her shoulders sagged, her back slumped into the hard back of her chair, and her hands came up to fold over her stomach the way they did when she was falling asleep in front of the fire. Waverly couldn’t help but lean in closer, covertly taking in the way she always smelt of wood smoke and dry hay.

 

She supposed it was a good time to throw herself into Nicole’s lap and finish what she’d started. But before she could do anything so wild, Nicole reached up and captured one of Waverly’s hands in her own. She smiled sleepily up at her, eyes shining with genuine thanks. “You’re gonna put me to sleep,” she chuckled. Then she stood up, still holding Waverly’s hand, and turned to regard her. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “Don’t know what I’d do without you here.” Almost unconsciously, Nicole reached up to lightly pull a loose tendril of Waverly’s hair through her fingers until it slipped out.

 

She squeezed her hand one more time, then went about clearing the dishes.

 

Waverly pressed both of her hands against her burning cheeks and spun quickly so her back was to Nicole while she whistled through some light cleanup. She smiled dumbly to herself and scurried away to poke at the fire for a bit more warmth.

 

As she sat in front of the fire, shooting little looks to Nicole’s sleepy face as often as she could bare it, Waverly thought to herself,

 

I can wait .

 

(but not too long.)



+++



“She’s just…” Waverly sighed dramatically, incapable of articulating just what Nicole was. She sagged against the stable door and struck an appropriately melancholy pose.

 

“Is it me, Daisy? Am I not enough? Am I not doing enough?”

 

She propped her chin in her hand and leaned against the use-worn stable door. “We’re getting along so well, but she’s very willfully ignorant about how very inappropriate I wish to be with her.” Waverly nodded to herself. “I’ve embarrassed myself heartily. For weeks.” Waverly nodded some more. “It’s been very fun. But winning is more fun.”

 

Waverly looked at her company and shrugged helplessly. “Should I just show up naked to bed one night? Is that too far?”

 

Daisy gave her a doleful look.

 

“You’re right, that’s too far. Nicole is a human, not a dog. And I am a lady, not a steak.”

 

Daisy snorted quietly as though to say, not from where I’m standing .

 

“What do you know? You’re a cow.”

 

Stanley pushed his velvet lips directly into Waverly’s ear from the neighboring stall, startling her so she jumped and smacked her head on a low beam. “Son of a bitch ,” Waverly cursed, rubbing at her poor head while Stanley nibbled on her ear. She shoved gently at his muzzle with a pout and turned to scold him when she spotted Nicole lingering near the door, hauling a hay bale with two hay hooks punched into each side.

 

She’d frozen there. Cheeks burning.

 

Waverly’s own went white.

 

And they stared.

 

But as she stood there waiting for the roof to crash down upon them, with the weight of all the strangeness Waverly had brought to that lonely household - and there had, indeed, been a lot of it - wondering just how much Nicole had heard, assumed she heard all of it judging by the color of her face -

 

Well, it dawned on her that it might not be all that bad. As a lady of certain - albeit disgraced - upbringings, Waverly was programmed rather efficiently in the steadfast belief that true intimate honesty was the root of all sin. But again, Waverly had been assured by her kindhearted town that she was the root of all sin, so damn coyness and damn niceties and damn being coy about her feelings.

 

“You...” Nicole turned abruptly and went to finish her task, hauling her hay bale toward the neat little pyramid stack in the back corner. Waverly watched her line the bale up with overly precise movements, deliberate to an obnoxious fault. It was the way Nicole behaved when she was considering her next move: scrubbing a pan to a near perfect shine over a half hour before she stutteringly asked Waverly to wear the yellow dress sometime that they’d bought in town. Or perhaps rearranging a geometrically perfect teepee of logs in the fireplace over an entire evening before telling Waverly she wanted to sleep without her pants and belt on every night. As endearing as that was - and not nearly as strange as sitting in bed all night wondering how someone slept with a fist-sized belt buckle digging into their stomach.

 

Waverly let Nicole build up to her latest earth-shattering honesty while she agonized over the hay bale arrangement.

 

Eventually, “I - you - uh, that was some kind of language .”

 

Waverly took a physical step back. “What?”

 

“N-nothin’ I just-” Nicole rubbed at the back of her neck. “Hearin’ you speak like that. Those words .”

 

After a moment of stretched out silence, thin like stretched dough, Waverly blinked into awareness. Added up the blushing, the wide eyes, the cursing, the-

 

Waverly’s grin pulled wide.

 

Very interesting.

 

“What, you’ve never heard a lady curse? That’s not very progressive of you Ms. Haught.”

 

Nicole spun from the world’s most aesthetically pleasing pyramid of hay bales and balked. “I mean - I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. I just- I’ve never heard somethin’ so - out of your mouth no less!” She glared down at her gesticulating hand. “Not like you’re not allowed to. It was just…” Her glared turned befuddled.

 

Waverly giggled. “It was just what , Nicole?”

 

Nicole breathed out and shook her head, face open and confused. “Just somethin’ else, I guess.”

 

“You have odd taste, you know?” She teased.

 

Nicole spun back to her hay bales, still shaking her head. “I guess I must,” she agreed quietly, more to herself than anything. “You’re an odd one, Waverly Earp.”

 

“Would you like me to curse more often? I can you know. I’m full of them, really,” she said, rubbing at Stanley’s nose when he pushed into her space again.

 

Nicole snorted softly and wiped at her forehead with an old handkerchief. “You do what you want, Waverly.” She offered her a fond look on the way out, cheeks still mostly flushed.

 

“Well there’s something to be said for what you want,” Waverly murmured to herself as Stanley’s breath snorted against her temple.



+++



“I think he likes you more’n he ever liked me,” Nicole mused from where she was leaning against the pasture fence.

 

Waverly felt quite big from her spot in Stanley’s saddle - and not just because she was up four feet off the ground. She felt powerful, worldly, independent, rugged. And yes, tall. In a literal sense.

 

Though her inner thighs and buttocks ached terribly after the hour she’d spent trotting around the perimeter of the property, she refused to let it show or voice her discomfort. Nicole was so very impressed, see.

 

“Well, I’m so very likeable.”

 

“You are,” Nicole agreed. “And look at ya! You’re a natural.”

 

Waverly pulled up next to Nicole while Stanley stomped in the dirt and chomped at the bit. She patted a hand down his twitching neck, shooing some flies away that caused him discomfort. And then because he was a great, spoiled beast, Nicole came up to covertly feed him some apples from their pantry. Waverly had been saving those.

 

But she let it go. She let it go because the winds were warm that day without being stifling and the clouds blocked just enough sun to keep the haze of thick prairie heat off the bridge of her nose and the glare of her cheeks. The kind of perfect day that didn’t come along often enough to warrant the destruction of it bickering over five cent apples with a spoiled horse.

 

Instead, Waverly rolled her eyes good-naturedly and shifted around in the saddle as though there might be a way to relieve the tension from her back and thighs. “I must confess: I’m rather sore. Perhaps not a complete natural,” she admitted, rubbing into a knot in the meat of her thigh.

 

“Nah, that’s normal,” Nicole assured her. She reached up to hold both of Waverly’s hands and guide her when she hauled herself around in the saddle and dropped her weight into the cradle of her arms. The weight didn’t seem to faze Nicole as she practically carried her away from Stanley before righting her on the ground, hands lingering . Always between them, an element of lingering . “A natural if ever I saw one,” Nicole declared.

 

And Waverly did not have the luxury of declining the compliments paid her in life, so she accepted it. Embelished it perhaps. Bragged a little while they brushed Stanley down and tidied the barn, Nicole agreeing to it all like Waverly’s success excited her more than it did Waverly herself. It might have. Nicole was like that .

 

Once Stanley was returned to his stable and they were back in the ranch house, Waverly was beginning to feel the distinct bow-legged strain of her muscles as she waddled back toward her chair. The idea of standing in the kitchen and cooking anything was a bleak prospect, but she melted into the back of the chair and willed her motivation to return to her.

 

She was doing pretty poorly when a clay mug of tea appeared in front of her. Nicole smiled down at her and held it out. “Hurts, right? I remember my first horse ride,” she chuckled.

 

Waverly smiled wearily and accepted the tea with a long, contented sigh. “I know you’re of delicate sensibilities, but my ass is killing me.”

 

Nicole let out a surprised bark of a laugh. “Yeah, that won’t be going away for a few days. I’m sorry about your - uh, bottom. Mine was sore for near a year when I started riding! That was probably because we was out on - well. I was doin’ stuff.”

 

“My thighs are killing me too,” she griped. “Truthfully, I always pictured getting these injuries not from riding, but being ridden.”

 

“Waverly!” Nicole laughed, smiling despite the mortified hands that came up to press against her cheeks. “Honestly!”

 

Waverly laughed loudly and the steam curling under her nose billowed outward. “I’m sorry. I’ve never been very ladylike, I’m afraid. Our neighbor Mrs. Wellington said she believed I was the cursed bastard child of my mother and the town Minister.”

 

“Well that ain’t very nice.”

 

“Oh no. That part was true. She thought it made me cursed. Accused me of bringing great violence upon the boys of the town and leading the girls astray. Stealing. Cursing.”

 

“That’s awful!” Nicole said crowed, outraged.

 

“No, those things were true too.”

 

Nicole eyed her. “Well you ain’t brought no violence down here. Ain’t led me astray.”

 

“Oh yes,” Waverly hummed into her tea. “There’s time for that yet.”

 

Thoughtful, Nicole sank into her own chair and considered her. “You have cursed a lot, though. More’n any woman I ever met.”

 

“With many more to come,” Waverly assured her.

 

Nicole’s head cocked to the side. “You haven’t stolen nothin’ have you?”

 

“Just your heart,” Waverly said gravely, sipping from her mug.

 

Nicole stiffened, staring down at her for a long moment, then hurried off toward the kitchen. “I’ll make dinner!” She called back in a choked voice.

 

Waverly rolled her eyes. “You can’t cook!”




+++



It was with great confusion and a head thick with the deepest part of her sleep, that Waverly was jostled awake in the thick of the night. She brushed off the first few shakes to her shoulder, but the persistence defeated her in the long run. When she turned over and glared up, mouth open with a sleepy rebuke, Nicole’s solemn face gave her pause.

 

“Someone’s at the door,” Nicole said lowly. Her revolver was already in her hand, a lantern in the other and her trousers back on.

 

Waverly nodded slowly, then pushed the blankets down to swing her feet out of bed. “I’ll take care of this,” she said grumpily.

 

Nicole repositioned to bodily block her from going any further. “No,” she said, a note of panic in her voice. “What are you going to do? Charm them to death?”

 

“If I must,” Waverly said gravely.

 

Despite the situation, Nicole managed a small smile. She briefly touched a finger to the corner of the determined set of Waverly’s jaw. “My hero,” she assured her. “Please stay here. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

 

Waverly agreed to stay put with a nod. A lie, you see.

 

“Thank you,” Nicole said. A fool, you see.

 

“Of course,” Waverly said sweetly, already putting her feet in her slippers when Nicole’s back was turned. By the time she’d gotten to the door, Waverly was already slipping surreptitiously out of the bedroom to stand a covert distance back and watch. Even someone so adept needed backup sometimes, Waverly figured.

 

Nicole opened the door slowly, sticking one eye in the crack, before letting out a loud breath and opening the door wider. “Sheriff Nedley…?” she said in greeting, more question than nicety.

 

“Haught,” a voice roughened by decades of strong cigars returned. If Nicole would open the door wider, Waverly would’ve been able to see their visitors, but had to content herself with listening from the dark of the smoldering fireplace.

 

“Xavier. Doc,” Nicole continued. “What brings you ‘round at this hour?”

 

“I don’t suppose it’d be anything good, hm?” The sheriff returned in resigned agreement.

 

“I don’t suppose,” Nichole echoed.

 

“Big train robbery, down by where the tracks touch Robert Redford’s property,” Nedley sighed while Nicole let the door hang more loosely open. Waverly was treated to the partial profile of the Sheriff and a handful of men behind him. “They’re in the wind, but I rallied everyone I could to search for ‘em. Nobody really cares for the idea of them showin’ up at their farms to hide - seein’ as they killed near twenty men. Women too, as I hear it.”

 

“So what, you want to search my barn?” Nicole sighed.

 

The sheriff sighed again, like it was his job. “Well…”

 

Waverly heard the man she’d met in the bar a few weeks past pipe up from behind the door. “We’d ask your help, actually,” he said. “We’d ask you to ride with us.”

 

At that, Nicole looked over her shoulder toward the bedroom, but her eyes detoured when she spotted Waverly hiding out in the kitchen. Waverly offered her a sheepish smile, but Nicole just shook her head minutely. A request to be quiet, Waverly figured.

 

“Who are you looking at?” The Sheriff asked suspiciously. He pulled his own revolver from his holster and held it tense at his side. “Who’s in there?” He called gruffly.

 

“It’s nobody,” Nicole assured him. “Nobody’s here.”

 

The sheriff removed Nicole from the doorway with a stiff forearm across her chest, taking one stern step inward before catching Waverly in her immodest night clothes. Waverly offered him a wry smile. “No, please. Make yourself at home,” she muttered.

 

The sheriff blinked at her for a long moment, took a slow gander at Nicole’s face, then back at Waverly. “Not to be rude,” Waverly gathered herself, “but if you’re going to insist on staring at me, I’d love the opportunity to put clothes on.”

 

Finally, the sheriff staggered back, ripping his hat from the top of his head to twist in his hands. “Sorry! Sorry, uh, miss. I just...wasn’t expecting…?”

 

One day, Waverly would meet someone who was expecting her in some capacity. Or so she could only hope.

 

“That’s my...er, the - Waverly,” Nicole finished with an elegant cough.

 

“I’m the Waverly,” Waverly confirmed, tiring of the whole thing. “Nicole, would you come back to bed?”

 

When Nicole’s head turned slowly to make eye contact with the sheriff again, they were both, remarkably, the exact same hue of red. “Um!” Nicole said loudly in his face.

 

“Right!” The sheriff agreed.

 

Waverly sighed and went to put tea on, as she suspected none of it was going to be over with shortly. “Tea, sheriff?” She asked wearily.

 

“No, miss. Um. Ma’am. We’ll be along.” The sheriff cleared his throat and hitched his hands on the strain of his wide belt. “Would you ride with us?” He asked Nicole. “I know you don’t…well. I know it’s behind you, but we could really use someone with your skillset. We could really use you, Haught.”

 

Nicole blew out a long breath and sagged slightly against the door frame. “Sorry, Nedley. It’s really better if I don’t. I don’t live that life no more. You understand?”

 

“I understand. I just don’t like it,” he said with a weak laugh. “Sorry for disturbin’ you and your...Waverly.”

 

Waverly offered him a tired little wave from the kitchen.

 

“Let me at least take you around the property,” Nicole grumbled as she stepped hastily into her boots and pulled her duster around her shoulders against the cold of the night prairie. “I’ll be back,” Nicole directed toward her, before ushering the posse off of their porch under the wane light of their house lamp. Waverly settled into Nicole’s chair with some tea and waited.



+++



“What did the sheriff mean?” Waverly asked the moment Nicole came back in.

 

Cold rolled off of her as she let her coat fall on the back of a kitchen chair and made toward the hot water. Nicole hummed in question while she puttered around.

 

“What did the sheriff mean when he said he could use someone with your skillset?”

 

The pause her question elicited was but a brief hiccup, but Waverly was not in the practice of missing much. Nicole shrugged with her back to Waverly’s curious gaze and reached into the cabinet for tea leaves. “He just meant my gun. Me and the boys in town helped out a few times with little groups of rustlers and whatnot. I ain’t much of a fighter, though,” Nicole laughed. “Raisin’ goats don’t teach you much about killin’ a man, I’m afraid. Even the ones that need killin’.”

 

Waverly hummed neutrally, billowing steam out from her cup. “He had guns. It sounded like he needed something more .”

 

Nicole just shrugged again and came to half-sit on the arm of the chair. “Well, I can’t think of nothing else. Maybe he needed you to charm them to death.”

 

The small laugh she let out was a concession to the late hour and the circles under Nicole’s eyes. But if there was one thing Waverly was not willing to let go of forever, it was literally anything.

 

She filed away the incident in her mental catalogue of Nicole mysteries while they sipped their tea in silence.



+++



It wasn’t that Waverly didn’t enjoy the hard work and honest sweat equity of the ranch tasks she shared with Nicole, because she did. But what Nicole failed to realize, was that chopping wood was not as interesting as Waverly’s longing stares led Nicole to conclude. Standing there by the thick chopping log with an axe in her own hand, Nicole looking on with a studious examination of her form, was not the point. It removed the whole point of the interest. It removed the voyeuristic nature of the thing. It removed Waverly’s single outlet for frustration. The only inappropriate thing shared between them thus far.

 

Waverly sighed and hefted the axe on her shoulder. She had brought this upon herself, really. “And what if I miss and chop my foot off, hm? Can you sew a foot back on, Nicole Haught? This all seems very ill-advised.”

 

Nicole smiled encouragingly. “I promise, it ain’t that hard. The axe is heavy, so you’ll have more help on the downswing than you think. Just take a whack.”

 

Well, Waverly had certainly failed at worse things than taking a whack .

 

Grimly, Waverly raised the axe above her head, then let it fall while she leaned into the force. Helped it a long a bit, but -

 

“Shit.”

 

Not enough, apparently. The axe lodged into the top of the log before stilling abruptly so the aftershocks traveled painfully up her elbow and into her shoulder. Waverly pouted at it, releasing the axe handle and giving Nicole an accusatory look.

 

“Almost!” Nicole crowed, genuinely impressed and happy for her. The prick.

 

“Maybe I just need to see you do it one more time,” Waverly said morosely, with a quick flick of her eyes toward Nicole’s eager face.

 

“Right,” Nicole agreed. “I’ll do another for you, then maybe we do one together?”

 

Why only one? Why stop there? Waverly wondered, imagining the way she would be bracketed by Nicole’s arms during the swing. The pornography of it, really.

 

Nicole chopped two more logs cleanly, her mouth moving in helpful words and phrases as though Waverly was listening at all. When they moved on to the part where Waverly was sandwiched in between Nicole’s biceps with their hands gripping the shaft so tightly she could feel Nicole’s pulse in her left thumb and right pinkie finger, Waverly made sure to lead Nicole through a thorough and highly unnecessary series of questions on the precise science of wood cutting. It lasted far too long. Waverly grinned through the whole thing. She honestly didn’t even recall if they managed to split the log or not.

 

“Do you get it now?” Nicole asked, pulling the axe from Waverly’s hands, but keeping her there in the cradle of her body to await her answer.

 

Waverly was very inclined to never give it, so long as it prolonged the moment. But after very, very careful deliberation, she eventually she nodded and laughed. “Oh, yes. I think I get it.”



+++



Sharing in half of the chores - minus the log splitting, which Waverly preferred to spectate - meant that Waverly was entitled to half of the demands. That’s the way she figured it.

 

That’s what made sense while she was laying in bed and staring at some point on Nicole’s forehead, furrowed in what must have been a perplexing dream. In that way, Waverly didn’t feel all that bad about reaching out and poking at her upper arm above where it curled under her pillow. How someone slept on their stomach all night, Waverly would never know.

 

When her jab didn’t do the trick, Waverly reached out and poked at Nicole’s nose. Did it a few times for good, but impolite measure. A twitch and a bit of snuffling was all Waverly received in response. Put out, Waverly flicked at Nicole’s cheek then tapped lightly against her eyelids - briefly considered plugging her nose.

 

Whut ?” Nicole finally grunted, snaking her hand out from under her pillow to rub at her nose. She cracked an eye open and looked at Waverly hazily. For a moment they stared at each other, then Nicole rolled over and sat bolt upright, drawing her pistol from under her pillow and aiming it in the vague direction of the bedroom door. “What’s - who’s - what’s happening?!”

 

“I have a question,” Waverly said from beside her, giving the blind trajectory of her pistol a disapproving look.

 

Nicole’s gun lowered a fraction and she stared through the darkness at Waverly’s determined gaze. “You...have a question?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Nicole’s pistol fell gently to rest against her blanketed knees and she glanced over to her brass pocket watch on the bedside table. “At two o’clock in the mornin’?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Nicole breathed out a long, shaky breath of relief before falling back into her pillow with a grunt. “Jesus. Well, shoot.”

 

Waverly curled closer to Nicole’s side. “Would you like to sleep with me?”

 

NIcole shot her a look. “That’s what we done were doin’ before you woke me up.”

 

Waverly nodded. “Let me clarify: would you like to have sex with me?”

 

“What, right now ?” Nicole asked, with a rather rude amount of alarm. As though it was that horrifying. The nerve.

 

“No, just in general. Theoretically,” Waverly shrugged under the blankets and gave her a thoughtful look. “Does that interest you?”

 

So long passed between the two of them that Waverly began to think maybe they’d both fallen asleep again. Maybe she’d been asleep the whole time?

 

Oh no. Maybe she’d broken her sensitive cowboy.

 

Waverly was beginning to feel guilty when Nicole cleared her throat and opened her mouth. Nothing came out of it for a little while longer, just cricket noise from the prairie and the soothing, soft roar of prairie grass shifting restlessly against itself. Nicole cleared her throat and tried again. “That wouldn’t be very proper. An unmarried lady like yourself.”

 

“Well that wouldn’t be a problem if you married me,” Waverly pointed out with a pout.

 

Nicole smiled ruefully and reached out a tentative hand like she meant to put the backs of her fingers to Waverly’s cheek. She stopped though, just a breath away, then withdrew her hand. “You’ll understand why I can’t,” she whispered. “Eventually.”

 

Waverly turned away from Nicole to face the foot of their bed, propping her cheek against a hand held up against her knees. She could feel her own frown digging into her hand while she stared blindly into the dark. “You’re gonna break my heart, Nicole Haught. I can already tell.”

 

“I don’t think you’re so breakable,” Nicole grunted, rolling over to tuck her pistol back under her pillow, despite Waverly’s many past attempts to get her to store it somewhere less likely to accidentally blow her head off. “You’ll understand someday,” she said cryptically.

 

And after her father and her tutors and her naysayers, Waverly was really tired of being told that at some undisclosed date and time, sense would magically be bestowed upon her. Waverly had sense . When it was convenient for her. What she needed was answers . “There’s not much I don’t understand, Nicole,” she grumbled, tiring rapidly of wearing her heart on her sleeve and having it turned inside out.

 

Nicole sighed. “Is this really what you wanted to ask me at this awful hour?”

 

“No,” Waverly conceded. “I wanted to ask to go into town again.”

 

“So instead you asked if I wanted to...?” And here Nicole made some truly unfortunate hand gestures.

 

Waverly rolled her eyes and threw her hands up. “I don’t know,” she groused, “It just came out of my mouth. I think about it a lot.”

 

“Waverly!” Nicole laughed, flipping back around so she was on her stomach, the revolver under her temple again. Which seemed ill advised, but Waverly herself was neither rootin’ nor tootin’, so what the hell did she know. Nicole laughed into her pillow and regarded Waverly as fondly as she always did. “That’s mighty improper of you.”

 

“So I’ve been told.” Waverly flopped backward into her pillow, then curled to the side so she could regard Nicole face to face. “You know, for a cowboy, you’re awful proper . I thought you’d be a lot more foul.”

 

“Like you?”

 

Waverly glared. “Yes, like me.”

 

“Well I’m not a boy.”

 

“Fine, then you’re just a cow. I still thought you’d be more...rough, I suppose.”

 

Nicole nuzzled her nose almost absently along the fabric of her pillow. She was a soft kind of person in the light of day, but softer still when covered by darkness. It worried Waverly sometimes. No person should leave themselves that soft and open, should leave themselves so vulnerable .

 

“Well, I got manners ,” Nicole said, dragging out the word between them. “And I always been this way since I ran off.”

 

“Ran off?”

 

Nicole’s sleepy movements came to an abrupt end and her eyes were wide, ringed stark white with moonlight from the window. “From home,” she said slowly. “Ancient history.”

 

Waverly blinked back a moment before giving Nicole the space of broken eye contact. She studied her own balled up hands intently, the sheet bunched between her fingers. “To where?”

 

“Wherever,” Nicole hedged. “Not home. Don’t matter. I’m here now.”

 

“Yes you are,” Waverly agreed with a little smile. “And I love that about you.”

 

The corner of Nicole’s mouth ticked up. “That I’m here?”

 

“It’s more than anyone else in my life has ever been,” she shrugged. And she could have left the pleased little smile on Nicole’s lips alone, let it go gentle into that night. But they were more than the little burials their parents made of those parts of themselves. They would build themselves shrines of it if Waverly had anything to do with it. And they would be beautiful.

 

“You know,” Waverly said slowly. “I’d like to know those parts of you.”

 

“What parts?”

 

“All of them,” Waverly said with conviction. “The ones you think I shouldn’t know. The ones that make you afraid. And everything in between.” She reached out to tether herself - her own gentle fingers in the hem of Nicole’s sleep shirt. “I’m going to know you.”





+++



Chapter Text

+++

part iv

+++

 

Upon waking, Waverly went through the normal stages of grief that accompanied the shining of a dawn’s light on bad decisions made in the dark. Decisions like engaging in frank sexual discussion with a person, terribly against what was expected of a lady such as herself. Discussions that exposed herself in a way more intimate than if she’d just shown up naked to bed.

 

But then, who cared really.

 

Waverly came quickly to that catharsis while she watched Nicole slumber, face down with her head inches from the barrel end of a revolver, as always. Her hair had bunched up from behind her ears, wild and curled up under her nose. For near an hour, Waverly watched one wayward piece blow up and down comically with the whuffing of her deep sleep breathing. Eventually, Waverly reached out and tucked the piece back behind Nicole’s ear where it belonged. And if she lingered a little longer, traced down Nicole’s nose and arranged a few more errant tendrils of hair - well. How’s that any of your business.

 

It was unusual for Waverly to beat Nicole to rise, so she wasn’t entirely certain what to do with herself. But Waverly understood that she had been exceedingly exhausting company the previous night, so she slipped out of bed without jostling her and tiptoed toward her shawl. Wrapped up tight, she walked the quiet distance to the kitchen.

 

After putting water on to boil, Waverly looked out the eastward window just for the pleasure of the low slant of an early sunlit morning. And it was a brilliant morning - the warmth of it hitting Waverly’s cheeks and nose while she basked. It was the exact motivation she needed to pull her shoes on and resolve to fetch fresh eggs for breakfast.

 

Invigorated by her own autonomy - still a refreshing realization every morning she woke up a free, even many weeks later - Waverly threw the front door open and stopped cold. Her eyes widened, breath stoppered in her chest, and-

 

Waverly pursed her lips and shut the door, turning abruptly toward the bedroom.

 

“Nicole!” She called, business-like. “Nicole, wake up.”

 

She did. A flutter, then snap of her eyelids as she sat up, instantly groping under her pillow. “What? What’s wrong?” She asked as though she hadn’t been sleeping moments before.

 

Waverly shrugged and jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “I’m afraid there’s a decapitated head on your doorstep.”

 

“There’s - what?” Nicole’s hand stilled under the pillow.

 

Waverly shrugged again, pulling her shawl tighter around her shoulders. “A head. Without the body. Or anything else it needs, I’m afraid.”

 

“On...the doorstep?”

 

“Yes, it’s really ruining my breakfast plans,” Waverly assured her.

 

Nicole leapt from the bed, dragging her revolver out as she went and pushing past Waverly toward the front door. Waverly watched her go, clad in nothing but her underclothes and a poorly tamed case of bed-head.

 

Waverly came up behind her while Nicole was staring into the milky eyes of the poor stranger on their doorstep. A fly crawled grossly around his swollen tongue where it lolled out, then made its way up the man’s nose while Waverly wrinkled her own.

 

“See?” She pointed out redundantly.

 

“What in Sam Hill?” Nicole breathed.

 

Waverly had to look away from the grotesque way the man’s face had been frozen in death, hard and twisted in a manner most unnatural. She glanced at Nicole instead, which was much better. “You don’t know him, do you?”

 

Nicole swallowed visibly, then shook her head. “No, I can’t say I do. But then, I don’t reckon he came here for a visit.”

 

“Not without the rest of him, no.” 

 

While Nicole approached the skull, Waverly took a long look around the property. As far as mornings that featured a decapitated man on one’s front porch go, everything was shockingly normal. There was little blood trail - just a few drops stained into the small wood stoop, already brown and chalky from the hot sun. Whoever had brought the head there surely had brought it from a body nowhere close by. Waverly wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. It was probably bad if someone had taken the care to bring them a gift from such great distances.

 

Meanwhile, Nicole was staring into the glass of the man’s eyes with a grim, if not expectant look on her face. Waverly wondered what she saw in there exactly.

 

Finally, Nicole stood and turned to Waverly, jumping a bit as though she might have forgotten Waverly was there. “I’m sorry, this ain’t nothin’ you should have to see,” Nicole fretted, ushering Waverly back inside and toward her chair in front of the fireplace. She sat Waverly down and knelt at the arm of the chair with sympathetic eyes. “Are you alright?”

 

“I’m definitely curious,” Waverly said, raising an eyebrow at Nicole’s guilty expression. “Are you going to explain to me why there’s a man missing his body on your front stoop or am I just going to have to guess?”

 

“Your guess is probably better’n mine,” Nicole said, her big pleading eyes staring up at her. And Waverly would’ve dared anyone to find doubt there, let alone have the fortitude to voice it. Instead, she just sighed.

 

“Well alright. What are we going to do about it, then?”

 

Nicole seemed relieved at the call to action - a relief Waverly couldn’t help but find suspicious. But Waverly Earp didn’t need anyone to be honest with her. The only honesty she needed was the truths she hunted like the bloodhounds her daddy kept for hunting. The only difference being that bloodhounds could be called off by an authoritative voice. Waverly would not be so deterred - had not been deterred a day in her life. Didn’t know the meaning, really. There was no mystery, no lie so well conceived that it was without loose threads. And Waverly had never been much of a seamstress as a girl, but she knew how to pull .

 

Nicole stood with a determined set to her eyebrows. “I think I need to have a sit down with Sheriff Nedley,” she said gravely. Or, as gravely as a person can say in their underclothes.

 

“You may want to put on trousers first,” Waverly said helpfully.

 

Nicole nodded, still serious. “I may.”

 

+++

 

What Waverly did not realize, was that the second Nicole had put her trousers on, she was going to be whisked away into the face of a distant bunch of swollen clouds before they’d even broken their fast.

 

“I haven’t fed us yet,” Waverly griped while Nicole saddled Stanley. “And why are you saddling him?”

 

“We don’t have time to take the wagon,” Nicole said briskly, pulling the strap under Stanley’s belly so abruptly tight that he snorted and danced in place. But when Nicole made a few firm clicks with her tongue and a short cattle call, he transformed so suddenly into a stern work horse, Waverly thought it was a different beast entirely. “And we certainly don’t have time for breakfast.”

 

Waverly sighed, but didn’t pursue the matter. If she pointed out the way Nicole’s stomach grumbled while she tacked her horse, she was afraid Nicole would make a few clicks and magic her into some obedient beast as well. Although, where Waverly was concerned, it seemed unlikely any magic could accomplish that.

 

All she could really do was cross her arms and watch Nicole run around in a tornado of efficiency. Compared to their slow little plodding lives on the farm, it was a blinding pace. With the air of a task that might have been a thing agonized over and otherwise undecided, Nicole eventually flung the canvas sheets off of a dusty wheel barrow in the barn and stood hunched over its contents thoughtfully. Waverly watched, wholly unconcerned until the moment Nicole emerged with a rifle and two wicked looking shotguns.

 

“Mary and Joseph!” Waverly cursed, watching Nicole while she briskly loaded them up under inconspicuous saddle bags at Stanley’s sides. “What the hell do you need those for?”

 

Nicole chewed at her bottom lip and fiddled with the straps longer than was probably necessary before looking back at Waverly’s bewildered expression. “I just...don’t know. In case?”

 

In case?!” Waverly echoed. “In case twenty armed men ride up on us and try to murder a few farmers?”

 

“Yes, in case ,” Nicole agreed primly.

 

And then she went back and fetched a second revolver from her sinister wheelbarrow and loaded that long too. Waverly shook her head. “Jesus, Nicole. Why do you have so many guns? Were you a lawman or something?”

 

Nicole froze with her back to Waverly, then gave herself a little shake. “No, Waverly,” she grumbled. “I wasn’t anything , alright? I wasn’t no lawman . I’m just a farmer.”


Of course, Waverly could very easily have said something along the lines of, and I’m not a naturally suspicious person , but it felt like the wrong place and the wrong time for jokes. The air was a stifling kind of still that made her nervous and she realized belatedly that the sunny day she’d woken up to was being run down from the west.

 

“You’re not worried about that storm front?” Waverly asked quietly, feeling quite out of place in the sudden bluster and business of the day.

 

Nicole didn’t look at her as she shook her head, checking her saddle bags. “Doesn’t really matter what I’m worried about right now. I don’t think this can wait.”

 

“What if the storm catches up to us?” She asked even quieter.

 

So quietly, Nicole didn’t appear to have heard her at all. Which was just as well, because the part of Waverly that craved independence was subtly mortified by the frozen little thing in her chest that seized up during the first rumbles of a storm. Made her feel six years old again, crawling into bed with her sister because Ward thought the best cure for tears was the back of his hand. She could never seem to make that part of her fit into the mechanism of the rest of her. It was a spare part rattling around while the other cogs turned in perfect synchrony.

 

Waverly did not mention the storm again.

 

When Stanley was ready and Nicole had mounted him with one hand outstretched expectantly, Waverly felt she had no real choice but to reach out and take it. Whatever was in the air, be it the sharp static and heavy saturation of the air from the fast-moving front or the way Nicole had hardened behind her, she felt a certain sense of foreboding steal upon her. When she took a stiff seat in the saddle in front of Nicole, Nicole hesitated. The tense clench of her stomach softened at Waverly’s back and she brought her arms in closer, her mouth at Waverly’s ear. It was bolder than she’d ever been and it only made Waverly more tense.

 

“I’m sorry,” Nicole said.

 

Waverly shivered.

 

Because there was any number of things Nicole could have been sorry for and Waverly was afraid of knowing which ones she meant. But then Nicole was pulling Waverly back into the cradle of her hips, much closer than they’d ever been - firm and authoritative in a way that made Waverly want to look back to make sure she was on the right horse with the right cowboy. But then Nicole was kicking lightly at Stanley’s flank and they were speeding off toward the front gate of the property.

 

As they crossed the length of it, Waverly tracked the dead stare of the skull on their porch - watched him watching them as they rode. His eyes seemed to follow them until they melted into obscurity.

 

+++

 

The storm didn’t catch them, as it was perhaps slower-moving than Waverly’s anxious mind made it out to be. But it was still there, roiling toward them from the west at a sluggish, menacing pace. Waverly determined that she simply would not look west.

 

By the time they stopped from a near sprint in a cloud of dust, Stanley’s flank heaving beneath them, they were directly in front of a door with a gold star emblazoned on the front. Nicole slid down first and moved to tie Stanley’s reigns to the hitching post out front while Waverly shifted uncomfortably. The hard ride had worn on her, even with the little things Nicole tried to whisper next to her ear under the roaring current of wind swept up by their pace. Waverly was too winded to hear or heed any of it - the regret for which she felt keenly in her thighs and bottom.

 

When Stanley was tied off, Nicole reached up and hoisted Waverly down without so much as offering her a hand or giving her the time of day. Waverly was less than amused, but a man was dead and she could appreciate the urgency of the thing.

 

What she did not appreciate, was what followed.

 

“Sheriff,” Nicole called, stomping up the two steps that led to the porch. Before she reached the top, Sheriff Nedley was walking out eyeing her from under stern, bushy eyebrows.

 

“Haught,” he said cautiously. One of his hands rested on his holster. “What can I do you for?”

 

Nicole gave Waverly a quick look over her shoulder, then lowered her voice. “We need to talk. In private.”

 

“In private?” Waverly scoffed.

 

“In private,” Nicole repeated, more firm. “Waverly, wait right here on the porch.”

 

If Waverly was expecting an opportunity to defend herself, it was dashed when the sheriff gave a firm nod and ushered Nicole inside, closing the door behind him. He might as well have slammed it in Waverly’s face.

 

Whether Nicole realized it or not: she was in so much trouble.

 

+++

 

Waverly would absolutely not be relegated to waiting on the porch. She was not a horse that could be hitched to a post. She was a horse that would kick a man in the teeth should he try to...mount her.

 

Hm. Well.

 

She was a pain in the ass was what she was.

 

And she had a reputation to uphold.

 

Pointedly, Waverly departed the porch in direct conflict with her orders and set off down the street, determined to do as many things as possible as long as they were forbidden to her. And while the storm clouds were held at bay by the sluggishness of a dry western wind, Waverly was safe. Aside from the general store, the tailor’s shop, and the bar, though, she was rather lost. However, as her mother used to say: lost is only a lack of purpose. So long as Waverly was filled with the purpose of disobedience, she would not be lost.

 

The tailor’s shop windows were shuttered and dark with a little sign bidding her Come Again Later!” so she meandered past toward a row of adjacent buildings she hardly recognized. Before that, though, she passed in front of a narrow alleyway, too tight to walk through with arms outstretched. As she crossed paths with it, a voice called to her from the shadows.

 

“Hey girlie. Come here. Let me show you something,” it bade her, oily and slick like lamp oil.

 

Waverly paused and turned to eye the man critically. He was poised purposefully with his back to the dark edge of the wall, slouched but refined. His arms were crossed in a way that bulged the great fur coat that swallowed him whole up around his ears. Only his head was tilted in Waverly’s direction. Careless. But calculating.

 

Two could play at that game.

 

“Show me what?” She asked warily, fully aware she was likely inviting something truly heinous upon herself. She was foolish, but never naive.

 

A slow, sly smile slithered onto his face and Waverly began to wonder how many women he’d propositioned that day before having any success. “Art unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” he promised darkly.

 

“Where is it?” Waverly asked with a shrug.

 

He delighted further, pushing off from the wall and folding his hands at his chest with an eager gleam in his eyes. “Follow me to my lair and you’ll find out.”

 

She was then forced to consider that following a suspicious man to his “ lair ” to view his “ art ” was about as advisable as crawling into a bear’s mouth to keep warm. A brief image of Nicole’s horrified face flashed across her vision and Waverly pursed her lips.

 

“Yeah, alright,” she agreed. “Lead the way.”

 

+++

 

Waverly stood in front of the large print, head cocked thoughtfully to the side as she took it in. It was one of hundreds lining the walls of the dungeon they’d found themselves - deep in a cellar somewhere on the far west side of town. Robert Svane, as he’d introduced himself, stood at her side mirroring the thoughtfulness of her expression. Together, they studied the photograph.

 

“I must admit, I didn’t expect to actually be shown art,” Waverly said slowly. “I kind of thought you were luring me.

 

Robert glanced her way, one eyebrow raised. “That is highly inappropriate, Waverly Earp.”

 

“Yes, I get that a lot.”

 

She focused back on the photograph. In the vast gallery of photographs, that particular one had pulled her attention first even from across the room. It was taken head-on at the center of a massive grizzly bear’s attention while it appeared to glower into the camera. One of its eyes was milky white and scarred deeply and its teeth were bared in what Waverly could guess was a terrifying bellow. The camera lense had been steady through the whole ordeal. Only a light glare and slight blur about the bear’s face betrayed any swaying movements.

 

“You took this?” She asked, reaching out mindlessly to touch it.

 

Robert snatched her wrist before she made contact, firm but not painful. He tisked at her, but let her jerk her hand away with a scowl. “I took all of these,” he said mildly. “It was a miracle I could take it at all. A miracle that my quarry stood long minutes like this, staring me down right into my very soul. Though I did not perhaps pay for any photograph the way I paid for this one.”

 

“You weren’t attacked?” Waverly marveled, eyes flickering between the terrifying visage of the grizzly and Robert’s own aloof expression.

 

He hummed and gestured along the length of his jaw where his beard patched pure white over hidden scars. “The skin grew back, but I’m afraid real art always takes a piece of you. It must be…” he hummed thoughtfully, “ borrowed.”

 

“Wow.” Waverly nodded to herself. “That’s actually...poetic.” Robert grew nearly two sizes in puffed up satisfaction, preening while Waverly studied the photograph with even more wonder. “How did you survive?”

 

“My art saved me,” he declared, flipping his coat dramatically about his ankles as he turned toward the furnace he’d set a teapot to. 

 

Waverly rolled her eyes at his back and moved to follow him. “Your art saved you from a grizzly attack?” She asked dubiously.

 

“Well,” he paused with his hands on the teapot and tilted his head to the side in that odd way he had. “And a passing group of... do-gooders . With guns. But I’m sure it was my art that inspired such grace.”

 

“Sure,” Waverly muttered, turning to wander along the walls of his dark gallery. Nature featured heavily in his collection, though few other photographs contained live animals. The exposure time was simply too long, Robert had explained. People were featured in a few as well: a baby sleeping in a pretty young woman’s arms, a group of serious looking men lounging on bar stools, a man leaning against a dead buffalo, and a group of sleeping cowboys folded in on themselves around a campfire, hats pulled low and others dozing flat on the ground. Waverly smiled at that, thinking of her own cowboy. How soft she looked in sleep. How…

 

Waverly narrowed her eyes and leaned in to study the one with their chin tipped over on their shoulder, arms folded contentedly across their belly while the fire cast strange shadows on their face. By the time her nose was nearly touching the photograph in her study, she was convinced.

 

“Hey! Who are these people?” She asked, calling over her shoulder.

 

Robert looked up from his puttering and abandoned it shortly when he saw the focus Waverly had on his photographs - his art . He slunk over - as was the only way he could walk, apparently - and admired his photograph from over Waverly’s shoulder. “Ah. The... do-gooders I mentioned. I took this the night of my rescue around their fire.”

 

Waverly pointed out her cowboy and gave Robert an incredulous look. “I know this one!”

 

“Hm?”

 

“This one’s mine!” She blurted excitedly.

 

Robert frowned, then leaned in to study the figure Waverly’d swear was Nicole, no matter the money on it. Whatever his feelings or thoughts, he remained quiet. But he didn’t appear confused, just...without anything to say on the matter.

 

“You’ve met Nicole,” Waverly said slowly.

 

Whether feigned or not, Robert simply shrugged with apparent disinterest. “It was a long time ago. I’d been mauled by a bear, you know.”

 

“And they saved your life,” Waverly finished, staring at a younger version of the woman she lived with. Leaner, hair shorter. It was odd to imagine a time Nicole wasn’t holed up alone on her solitary mission, just an island in the desert with nothing but her small ranch house and some farm animals. A time she spent sharing rations around a fire with folks she trusted enough to sleep next to. “Who are they?”

 

“They’re not around anymore,” Robert said cryptically. “ Randy is the sheriff now and what’s past is past. This is a nice place to live now.”

 

“That’s the most tantalizingly mysterious thing you could say to me right now!” Waverly complained, following close on Robert’s heels as he walked back toward his absurdly floral tea set. He ignored her while he fixed their tea with an inordinate amount of sugar in each. Then he turned, dainty tea set on a small tray in his hands and nodded pointedly toward the small table in the corner. Waverly huffed and puffed, but marched over and sat herself down. She crossed her arms and glared while Robert poured their tea into tiny, ridiculous cups. Then he leaned back and sipped at his. The cup was practically swallowed by his thick knuckles, but the whole ceremony was so serious, Waverly felt it inappropriate to laugh.

 

“Sometimes,” he finally said after Waverly had drained her cup in one swallow, “knowing that things ain’t like that no more, is enough.”

 

“We have very different philosophies on knowing things, Robert.”

 

“Nicole Haught, was it?” He pondered, blowing gently on his tea. “Red hair, tall and rugged, overdeveloped sense of morals?”

 

Waverly nodded eagerly.

 

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” he shrugged.

 

Waverly scowled. “You’re just like her,” she muttered. “Keep your secrets then. I figured out sex on my own, I can figure this out too.”

 

Robert pursed his lips over his tea, then shook his head in amusement. “I wouldn’t bet against you, Waverly Earp. Please give Nicole my regards, hm? And the sheriff as well.”

 

“I won’t be saying anything to the sheriff,” Waverly promised darkly. “And Nicole’s on thin ice.”

 

“Hm? Shame, really,” Robert said airily. “If anyone knows the Nicole Haught to which you’ve referred, I imagine it would be Randy.”

 

Waverly fell silent, stewing over the day thus far, grinding her teeth into it while Robert sipped at his tea. Eventually, with a faraway look in his eyes, he said as though from a great distance, “You know, someday pictures will move . Just like real life.”

 

Waverly set her empty cup in its saucer. “You’re a nut, Robert.”

 

“Just image,” he murmured to himself. “Pictures that move!”

 

+++

 

After tea, Waverly was politely shunted out of Robert’s door with the foreboding knowledge that he needed to “commune with his art” for the next few hours. For the second time that day, a door was essentially slammed in her face. But Robert had done so only moments after informing Waverly he’d be seeing her next week, same time, for tea, so she supposed she hadn’t been banished so much as rescheduled. Vaguely, she wondered how Nicole would take the news that the town freak and her had a standing date every week for the foreseeable future. In his lair .

 

But then she remembered she was cross with Nicole, so who cared.

 

As she mosied along the thoroughfare trying to rub the grit of sugar from the back of her teeth with her tongue, she paused outside a dusty little ramshackle storefront proclaiming Local History and Fresh Tomatoes!  

 

Waverly had never felt so perfectly catered to.

 

Without a second thought, she tiptoed up the creaking steps and pushed at the heavy, uneven door where it stuck in its jamb. When she’d shoved it open with a grunt, she wandered inside past the towering stacks of mouse-eaten book covers and piles of loose, yellowed papers. Odd trinkets lined the walls with a few photographs and bounty posters scattered in the limited empty space. One of the shelves appeared to hold thousands of newspapers and periodicals dating decades back! Waverly changed her mind. This was sex.

 

Nay.

 

Better than.

 

Her hand reached out quite of its own volition for the first in a long line of New York Harold Tribune papers, but came up short at the disruption of a loud thump behind her. Waverly spun, clutching her hand guiltily to her chest, but was met only with a grimacing man rubbing at a spot on the back of his head. He was stooped over, standing from his position behind a work desk.

 

“Ouch,” he grumbled, patting around his pockets and shirt as though in search of something. Waverly wondered if it wasn’t for the spectacles perched on top of his head.

 

“Um, hello,” she offered with a quiet wave.

 

“Oh!” The man squinted in her direction and then his face lit up. “Well good day to you! Miss…”

 

“Waverly,” she said quickly, sidling her way through the haphazard stacks to join him at the workbench. “Waverly Earp.”

 

“A good day to you, Miss Waverly Earp.” His eyes crinkled kindly in the corners and he clasped his hands together in front of his chest politely. “Can I help you?”

 

Waverly shrugged. “I read your sign.”

 

“Ah,” the man nodded. “And was it the local history or the tomatoes that brought you inside?”

 

Another shrug. “Both?”

 

“Yes, we’ll both get along quite splendidly I imagine.”

 

Waverly smiled.

 

+++

 

Over a plate of biscuits the size of her face with the most generous slices of deep red tomato she’d ever seen, Waverly came to know Curtis McCready. She came to know his wanderlust and his long, tangential drawl through history like he was towing a line at sea. She came to know his tomato garden and his collections and even his wife Gus, who he took every opportunity to mention. It made Waverly ache for a time when she might have someone do the same about her. A time when she wasn’t considering putting toads in Nicole’s shoes while she slept.

 

“And those are just the releases they made in Boston,” he chortled.

 

Waverly forced herself to blink, her eyes watering from the toll of her rapt attention. She rolled her neck a bit and leaned back with a sigh. “Mr. McCready-”

 

“-Curtis, please.”

 

“Mr. Curtis McCready, do you know anything about Nicole Haught?” She asked, warm and comfortable enough in the man’s presence.

 

Like the screech of horsehair as a violin bow scraped suddenly off the strings, Curtis sat upright and sobered. “Haught?”

 

Waverly nodded, less sure about it in light of his serious expression.

 

“What’s it to you?” He asked quietly.

 

Waverly fidgeted, twisting her fingers up together before she took the time to smooth them out against her knees. “I’ve taken up residence with her, through some...twist of fate. She’s a very difficult person to come to know.”

 

Curtis barked out an abrupt peal of laughter, then quieted at Waverly’s pinched expression. “Yes, I’d imagine she is,” he chuckled. “Well, I don’t much get into that kind of thing,” he hedged, stroking at the stubble on his chin. “But let’s just say, Randy Nedley hasn’t always been the sheriff in this town. When he came up from down south, there was an exchange of power, you see? Ever since, we don’t see much of Nicole Haught.”

 

At Waverly’s perturbed expression, Curtis pulled himself to his feet with a grunt and began rummaging around in a creaky desk drawer. Eventually he emerged with a grainy photograph, which he slid toward Waverly. It was yellowed, though Waverly suspected it had never been of great quality. In the photograph, she could make out Nicole’s serious expression. A long, lightly curled poster was held up in her right hand, but she had no hope of making out its image.

 

“What’s this?”

 

“Robert took that a number of years ago. I believe that’s Haught with her first bounty. Worth quite a lot, it was. A point of pride for young Haught.”

 

Waverly stared down at the picture for a few more long minutes while Curtis sat back down and set into another biscuit. “Wow,” she finally breathed. “Her life must have been dangerous.”

 

“Ho! Yes, it must have,” Curtis chuckled. “Since Sheriff Nedley took over, though, she appears to be rather happy in her retirement. Happy not to be dead, I’d imagine! That’s how most people retire out west, you see. You can keep that if you want.”

 

Waverly shook her head in wonder. “I had no idea.”

 

“Yes, you wouldn’t guess it now, I suppose,” Curtis agreed. “But you don’t stay in that business long. You either die young or live long enough to wish you had.”

 

“Hm,” Waverly hummed into her tea. “Well. I’ll marry her either way,” she finally settled.

 

Curtis spewed his mouthful of tea right in her face.

 

+++

 

Try explaining to a man born before the turn of the century that you were going to hitch your wagon to another lady. An hour of assuring him she had not been kidnapped, enlisted, duped, enslaved, fooled, captured, tricked, or otherwise bamboozled left Curtis shaking his head slowly until it morphed into a bewildered nodding. A baffled acceptance.

 

Which was all Waverly had ever wanted, really.

 

He may have inconspicuously brushed the back of his hand against her forehead for fever as he went to fetch something for her, but it was well-meaning, she was certain.

 

She was certain because he came back with a basket full of absurdly large tomatoes, a book he thought she might like to take with her about notably wild and daring outlaws of the past few decades, and a second crinkled photograph.

 

Then she was wrapped in a warmer jacket and ushered out the door with explicit instructions to go to the saloon, find ‘Shorty’, and drop Curtis’s name for a free drink. Standing outside of the tomato-and-local-history shop, she felt as though she’d been caught in a tornado and spit out on the other side with more than when she’d been snatched.

 

She hitched the loose drape of the soft, worn deerskin coat higher on her shoulders where it was trying to slip off, and curled her arm around the handle of the basket. As she descended the steps of the porch, she pulled the second photograph from between two intimidating tomatoes and held it up to the dwindling light with squinted eyes. Against the contrast of the approaching front, she could make out a person’s bowed back, hunched on a bench in front of a row of tall, iron cell bars. On the other side, opposite the perspective of the camera, contained by the cell bars, was none other than-

 

“John Henry Holliday,” Waverly murmured. "Doc." She turned the photograph a few different ways, brought it close to her nose, and as far back as she could hold it, but no matter how she shifted the grainy image, it was a rather unmistakable likeness. 

 

As her focus drifted, she studied the back of the man hunched on the bench, mere feet from the camera, in front of the bars that contained John Henry-

 

“That’s Nicole!” She crowed, disbelieving. Or at the very least, someone with the same, unmistakable hair and duster. Chuckling to herself, Waverly turned the photograph over to study the handwritten inscription on the back.

 

Robert Svane, 1842, Purgatory

 

Waverly narrowed her eyes and considered marching right back to Robert’s gallery. She was almost pointed in that direction, too, when the sudden unbidden image of his disaffected shrug came to mind. If he had wanted Waverly to have that information, he would have told her, she supposed.

 

Had...Nicole arrested Doc? Had Nicole been the sheriff once upon a time?

 

So good of Nicole to lie to her like that. If Waverly wanted that, she would have gone and married a man.

 

Waverly tucked the photograph back amongst the tomatoes and began the short walk to the saloon Nicole had taken her to a few months back. In a town with little to boast of, the saloon was, by far, the easiest thing to find. It was like all roads and signs of life led to one place - one eternal resting place for all souls. At least for a little while, anyways.

 

Waverly could use a resting place, she thought.

 

As she passed the Sheriff’s office, she watched Sheriff Nedley puff on a cigar clamped too tight between his back molars. He chewed on it a bit, eyes past middle distance as he watched the storm roll in. His office door was open, but Nicole was nowhere to be found.

 

It would have been polite of her to hail the Sheriff, or so much as spit in his direction, but she was cross and fully dedicated to the pursuit thereof. With her nose not upturned at all, but held at a respectful height indeed, she walked past without making any acknowledgement in his direction. She’d almost passed him by completely when he called her.

 

“Miss Waverly,” he said, authoritative enough to get her to pause.

 

She looked over her shoulder at him, but said nothing.

 

“Haught’s worried. Been looking for you.”

 

And right to his face, Waverly said, “Let her look, then.” And kept walking.

 

But as fate would have it, Nicole was not so difficult to find. In the clothing store that Nicole had agonized over reasonably priced boots at more times than Waverly cared to recount, she saw her there in the hazy windows, thrown open to the cool westerlies. She was speaking with the store clerk, who seemed infinitely more interested than he’d ever been before.

 

“I know it ain’t the most...proper request,” Nicole’s voice filtered through the open window. “But I was hoping-”

 

“Your money is as good here as anyone else’s,” the clerk said dismissively, scribbling in his ledger. Waverly could practically see the little dollar signs flashing in his pupils. “Just the riding pants and the shoes?”

 

“Yes. Well...gloves too maybe?”

 

“Which ones,” the clerk asked, jabbing exasperatedly at the catalogue between them.

 

Nicole looked down at the catalogue nervously, then shook her head and looked back up. “Whatever’s the best, I guess? And anything else she might need?”

 

At the clerk’s suspicious look, Nicole pulled out a shocking wad of bills from inside her jacket. “I’ve got enough, I think.”

 

The clerk’s eyes practically turned green, and a slick smile full of intentions pulled at his previously irritable expression. “But of course, ma’am. Only the best for you. You know we only sell the best here.”

 

“Oh! Uh, they’re not for me,” Nicole said, drumming her fingers on the counter. “They’re for the lady I had you take measurements for a few weeks back for the skirts, you remember? Make sure you use her measurements, not mine.”

 

“But of course,” he said again, practically bowing at her feet to kiss her worn boots as he whisked the catalogue away toward the back room. “To be delivered or picked up?” He called through the swinging doors as he departed.

 

Nicole shrugged. “Picked up, I suppose.”

 

“Any special occasion?” The clerk chatted, suddenly very interested in what Nicole’s wallet had to say. The change seemed to confuse Nicole, who checked behind her briefly, like she expected some other high roller to be standing behind her. Waverly giggled to herself, but had to duck when Nicole’s sweep came dangerously close to the window.

 

“Uh, no occasion,” Nicole said quietly. “I just done pissed her off again. And she can’t be ridin’ in her fancy clothes like that. I’d like her to have everything she needs.” She twisted her hat in her hand ernestly, even though Waverly could tell the clerk’s attention was firmly on the wad of money in Nicole’s hand. “I’d like to do everything for her.”

 

Waverly smiled wider and shook her head. She was feeling more charitable than she had before, but not charitable enough to end her exploration. Instead, she gave Nicole one last fond look through the window, then slipped off toward the saloon. Her steps soon turned to a skip, then a light jog as the first rumblings of a front about to breach the town limits nipped at her heels. It sent a nervous flutter in her stomach, but she felt like if she could at least surround herself with four walls and a few companionable strangers, she’d be able to weather the worst of it. And then when she’d had enough, she was sure Nicole would come for her. She always had before. Even when she had been some few hundred miles away and they didn’t know each other yet.

 

And while she didn’t know much about that kind of thing, if love was anything - it had to have been that.

 

+++

 

Waverly was surprised at the crowd in the saloon when she pushed through the doors. It wasn’t the sleepy scattered groupings and lone thinkers from their last visit in the morning of a tired sunday. Rather, the bar was full up and bustling with laughing men, some arguing heatedly over glasses of whiskey and others too many drinks deep to care. It was a little intimidating, but Waverly slipped on through and squeezed herself in the last chair at the bar, shielded by the hunched form of a man sleeping peacefully on the bar countertop. The basket of tomatoes was set in the back corner under the sleeping man’s chair and she tucked the two photographs into her shirt. She settled in and smiled expectantly at the barkeep.

 

His roving gaze passed over her the first time, but as he glazed past her, his head jerked back to regard her with wide eyes. Waverly smiled back and waited for him to come over.

 

“What’s a cute thing like you doin’ in a shithole like this?” He asked kindly. “Didn’t ya hear? All the young ones are headed north!”

 

“Not this young one,” she said, placing her hands flat against the bar. “Could I get a whiskey please? Curtis told me to come by and introduce myself to someone named Shorty. I’m Waverly.”

 

“Waverly,” he agreed, reaching out to shake her hand in an overly gentle hold. “I’m Shorty. I own this dump. Though I take no responsibility for the people here,” he assured her with a wink. “Let me grab you a drink,” he said, surprising her when he reached under the counter and produced a nicer bottle than the ones lining the back counter. He unstoppered it and poured her a glass that was so generous as to be dangerous. “On the house.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

Shorty’s smile turned to a scowl as he looked over Waverly’s shoulder. “One second, I’ll be back. Carl! Get off that pool table or i’ll make you eat your cue whole. Shit matches, you will,” he griped, chasing after a few uproariously drunk young men.

 

Waverly turned to watch Carl slip off the far end of the table with a miscalculated hand, crashing hard on his nose. She pressed her laugh back into her throat with a polite hand over her mouth and made to turn back to the bar. Before she could, though, the beginning arpeggios of fingers warming up on a piano pulled her head back around. She was drawn toward where a man she recognized from the sheriff’s hunting party was hunched over a small, rickety piano. But as he fiddled around in meaningless practice, she perked up when the notes took familiar shape. Her smile grew wide and, quite unintentionally, she began to wander over with her sweating glass clasped between two hands too small for a drink so ambitious.

 

When she reached the piano, Waverly sat quietly beside its player, scooting down the wide bench until she was at the man’s elbow. She set her drink on the mantle, in the impression of a thousand drinks before it over a thousand nights like that one. His head swiveled a fraction to eye her out of the very corner of dark eyes and he pursed his lips. He did not stop, though.

 

Why don’t the men propose ,” Waverly said quietly. “Thomas Haynes Bayly. I love that song.”

 

The man raised an eyebrow, face still unreadable. After a moment of steady eye contact, the man lifted his right hand from the keys and placed it against his thigh. His left hand kept plodding through the bass line and he gave the unoccupied keys a purposeful look. Waverly smiled and reached out with her right hand to pick up the melody. The chorus played through once, twice - a little off, a little out of synch. And then-

 

Perfection.

 

Waverly smiled at him and the corner of his mouth ticked up. And then he did something that not many people could do: he surprised her.

 

“Why don’t the men propose, Mama?” He sang deep and low, heedless of the words but quite mindful of the way Waverly brightened. “Why don’t the men propose.”

 

“Each seems just comin’ to the point,” Waverly chimed in.

 

“-And then away he goes!” They sang together.

 

Waverly had never heard a grown man giggle, but she’d swear her partner let out just a tiny one while Waverly finished the chorus. Despite their hands carrying on without them, Waverly let the lyrics go unsung over the accompaniment and sighed happily. “You’re very good,” she said.

 

He shrugged. “Twenty years worth,” he said, not immodest.

 

“Wow,” Waverly studied his profile while he studied their hands. “The ladies at church taught me when I was a girl. They thought it would make me less wild.”

 

He hummed a barely-there laugh. “Did it?”

 

“What do you think?”

 

Another deep chuckle. “I think you’re alone in a bar, in a town with a history. I think you just sat down next to a man you don’t know, just because you liked a song.”

 

“Well, it’s a piano. Not a miracle-worker,” Waverly rolled her eyes.

 

The man fell silent as they rounded out another three plodding rounds of chorus, to the point that Waverly thought they were done speaking. And then, “A man’s wife taught me to play out east. Her husband’s favorite music was the Beethoven sonatas and I used to play it while he ate whole roast pigs and my family was locked in his basement I was born in. I killed him with a shovel the day I turned sixteen,” he said matter-of-fact.

 

Waverly chewed on that information as they danced around another verse. A thing Nicole had said to her suddenly made a whole lot more sense than it had in her small little world. She made sure he was looking at her before she said, “some people just need killin’.”

 

He smiled. “I’ve tried to win by languishing, and dressing like a blue ,” he crooned.

 

Waverly let the moment pass them by and joined in. “I’ve bought big books and talk’d of them, as if I’d read them through!” And she had, really, but music waits for no man. “With hair cropped like a man I’ve felt, the heads of all the beaux; But Spurzheim could not touch their hearts, and oh! They won’t propose!”

 

Waverly lifted her hand to allow him to take them out with a ridiculous closing riff while she sat back and sipped at her drink. As he closed out, Waverly sat her drink back on the mantle and opened her mouth to compliment him.

 

Before she could, a hand with square, uncut fingernails reached over her shoulder and picked up her glass from the piano with slow, deliberate movements. She watched tensely as her glass disappeared over her shoulder and waited a calm, collecting moment before she turned around to give the thief a cold look. 

 

He was a wraith of a man - coat buttoned up to his chin like a big hulking raven and a gnarled knot of a scar twisted into the darkness of his face. While Waverly glared, he drained the entire glass slowly, one eye swiveled to gauge her reaction until he tipped the last drop down his slimy throat. When he lowered the glass with a small sigh of satisfaction, he leaned in to loom over Waverly from her spot on the bench.

 

“Sorry, girl. I saw it, I wanted it-” his eyes took an unwelcome trip down her chest and back up. “And I took it.”

 

Something about the man punctured the hot air that carried her through most of her life, but she fought the instinct to curl in on herself. She wouldn’t give him everything he wanted. “I was drinking that,” she said icily, only the slightest waver in her voice.

 

“Dolls, aren’t you going to introduce us?” The man ignored her, but kept his empty, glassy stare right on her own.

 

Dolls leaned his arm just slightly into Waverly’s own and remained steady. The look he gave the man was darker than any she’d seen from him. “I don’t believe I owe you that.”

 

“Oh, there are many things you still owe me, Xavier ,” he chuckled darkly. “You will never be free of that. Of us.”

 

Dolls hand came around the back of the piano bench, just behind where Waverly was sat as though to barricade her. “I will always be free.”

 

“Leave us be,” the man said quietly, flicking his wrist in Dolls’ direction like he was a bug to be swatted from a piece of meat. “I’ll have the pleasure of your company now, girl.” When one of his hands reached out again, Waverly shrank back, but not enough so that he couldn’t run his long, dirty fingernails through the hair resting at her shoulder.

 

Smoothly, Dolls pivoted around the outside of his seat and stood, pushing the bench Waverly was still seated at further into the piano and out of reach. Nose to nose, Dolls said quietly, “Actually, you’ll have the pleasure of mine, Bondicus.”

 

Waverly let out a small, involuntary shriek of horror when, in one lightning fast draw, he had the barrel of a revolver pressed to Dolls’ heart. For his part, Dolls didn’t even look down - didn’t flinch or pull back or even blink. “I guess I should know better than to think there’s any honor among thieves,” Dolls said evenly.

 

“I guess you should,” Bondicus agreed. “Least of all, thieves who abandon the gang .”

 

“It abandoned me ,” Dolls snarled, a chink in the perfection of his armor.

 

“She’ll get the same, too you know,” he said darkly. And Waverly had the distinct impression they were no longer speaking about her. “We’re stronger without her and we’re definitely stronger without you. But Bulshar grows restless knowing she’s still out there. Knowing she’s betrayed us.”

 

Waverly looked wildly between the two as a particular growl of thunder shook the window panes in the bar, dragging on until most conversations dulled to let it pass. As the genial cloud of background noise faded, slowly, attention shifted to the two men stood tensely by the piano. And if there was one thing a town recognized on sight, it was a drawn gun.

 

The saloon fell silent after that.

 

“Are you going to shoot me, or am I going to have to stand here all day?” Dolls growled and-

 

Men , Waverly thought wryly.

 

Always they jump off cliffs on the chance another man might try to push them first.

 

Nicole would never do this to her. Men were dumb.

 

“Gentlemen.” John Henry’s voice broke through the tension as he laid careful hands on each of their shoulders. He gave them an embarrassed smile as he eased them apart slightly. “Surely, a woman has never been worth dying over?”

 

Waverly tamped down the part of her that was, irrationally, and quite against the intelligence of the species, offended by that notion.

 

“What? Are you going to run to the sheriff , Doc? Or are you going to do it yourself?” Bondicus sneered, but he backed up a pace. “Old habits die hard, I suppose.”

 

“Not that hard,” Doc chuckled. “I’d just like to have another drink, play some cards, and not worry about getting accidentally shot in the back of the head. A quiet night. That’s what I want.”

 

And maybe his words didn’t affect Bondicus the way he wanted, or maybe they did. Either way, Bondicus looked down briefly to where Henry’s hand was rested on his own revolver and it seemed to settle something for him. He holstered his weapon and then held both palms up as though everyone else was the one overreacting.

 

“Just having a bit of fun, right Dolls?”

 

Dolls stayed quiet while Bondicus looked over Dolls’ shoulder to give Waverly a chilling smile. “I’m confident we’ll become acquainted soon, girl. Not a lot of fresh meat in this town.”

 

Oh goody.

 

John Henry let out a long sigh while Bondicus walked back to the far corner of the saloon and sat himself at a table of equally unsavory looking men, all with hands of cards held to eye level but focused intently on what had been occurring at the piano. Waverly had to look away, lest they mistake her interest for... interest .

 

“Waverly, I do support your interest in meeting the locals, but please -  I implore you - choose better company next time,” Doc said tiredly, lifting his hat to smooth his hair back before replacing it.

 

Waverly glared at him. “I didn’t choose anything! He just came over and decided we were going to be... acquainted . Like I’d asked to join his poker game or something!”

 

“I do not believe he was trying to get you to join a poker game,” Dolls scoffed, tucking a cigar between his lips and shaking his head at Waverly’s naivety.

 

But Waverly knew things - she wasn’t an imbecile. And what she knew was that, more and more, she just missed Nicole. She was tired and her pulse was jumping, thrilling along her nerves like a whipped rope, and she just wanted to go home .

 

Waverly deflated. “Have you seen Nicole?” She asked miserably. The ghost of the man’s nails running dully along her hair made her squirm.

 

“Nicole?” Dolls blinked in surprise.

 

“I don’t see Nicole unless she wants me to see her,” Doc chuckled. “Nobody does, really. But least of all me.”

 

“Because she put you in jail,” Waverly snarked.

 

Doc's face scrunched up in confusion and he gave Waverly a confused look. “She - what?”

 

“Doc!” Dolls said sternly. “Enough. We’ll find Nicole for you.”

 

Doc puffed at his cigar, grumbling around it, “I ain’t ever been put in jail . Least of all by - ha!

 

Dolls ignored him and ushered Waverly off the piano bench with a hand hovering behind her. “Stay at the bar with Shorty. We’ll be back,” he promised.

 

And Waverly believed him, but she very much did not wish to be alone anymore. It was still dry outside - dusty and forlorn as always - but it had taken on the dark quality of a suffocating storm rolling overhead. The sky groaned and heaved enough where several of the patrons gathered their things, put their hats on, and left out to ride their nervous steeds back to safety. All she could do, though, was nod and accept the offer.

 

“Okay, thank you,” she murmured. “Thank you Dolls,” she added, reaching out to squeeze his hand while he looked down at the gesture in surprise. 

 

After a moment, his other hand came up to engulf Waverly’s own and he gave her a subtle wink before separating them and nudging Doc out the door. Feeling smaller than she had before, Waverly snuck between the men hanging around, dodging and weaving until she’d reached the sanctuary of the bar. Shorty was nowhere to be found, though, and Waverly was forced to fold herself into a small corner where she hoped she wouldn’t be noticed.

 

+++

 

She was able to pass a comfortable eight minutes there before a young man, unsteady on his feet and tugging at the bandana around his neck slid into her personal space and gave her a sloppy grin.

 

“Well hello there, sweetheart. I’d love to make your acquaintance,” he flirted, curling his arm across the bar behind her. “Name’s Champ.”

 

“Nope. Nope.” Waverly shook her head. “Nope. We’re not doing this again. Nope.” She promptly pushed away from the bar, escaped the circle of his drunken arm and marched determinedly toward the back exit. She’d seen Shorty disappear out that way earlier and anything was better than being propositioned for her “acquaintance” for the twelfth, dangerous time. Every touch made her want to scream. She was very much done with men for the foreseeable forever. And then some.

 

The air was thick and charged when she pushed out the back door and stumbled into a dingy alleyway between buildings. She could taste the oncoming storm on the back of her tongue like wet dirt and lightning, but she felt caught between the rabble of the bar and the incoming storm. Standing in the alleyway watching the clouds clamber over each other as they trampled toward the town limits, Waverly froze. She felt very alone.

 

The little bit of light left at the end of the alleyway called to her - just a small window in the distance, and she gathered her nerves to walk towards it. A sharp grip at her shoulder, and a pointed shove, though, had her face first in the gravely wall of the neighboring building, cheek bruising into the surface.

 

Her hands flailed against her assailant, but they were pinned uselessly while the hard plane of a man’s body crushed into hers. A nose slipped into her hair, just at the back of her ear and inhaled deeply. Where confusion and fear had her blank and malleable, the sudden breath at her ear and threatening laugh exploded a blind panic in her head. It fell across her vision like a white veil and she began jerking and flailing in an attempt to escape. Her breath came faster while Bondicus laughed harder.

 

“I never said I needed your help to become acquainted,” he crooned.

 

And Waverly had felt the back of a man’s hand, but she’d never felt the true fear of being caged by a person she knew, without a doubt, she could not stop. She could no more stop the hand creeping around her middle than she could the first tentative raindrops scouting ahead of the storm at their doorstops. No matter how she raged, these things would come to pass.

 

Waverly wondered if she was even making any noise at all.

 

She thought she might be yelling, but it was all so white. So blank.

 

The dark wall stared back at her; two neat horizontal brick spackled lines and one transecting them was all her world narrowed to. Just one window of three lines while he crushed her ribs against a building and nobody would know.

 

And then-

 

Sweet relief as Bondicus was ripped off her back in a brutal, blind jerk. Instantly, Waverly sagged against the wall, letting her cheek scrape along the brick while she fell back into her own body. There was a scuffle at her back and talking - back and forth volley of deadly words - but they bounced around her brain like the clacking of horse shoes. Survival instincts kicked in - of which she had plenty, as a slight woman of great maladjustment - and Waverly turned against the wall to face her attacker on shaking knees.

 

Bondicus cut an imposing figure, but none more so than the one with a revolver at his throat and her other hand casually shaking out the gray ash of the imported cigarettes they kept in the kitchen drawers. Her savior hummed as she exhaled a large cloud of smoke in his face and pressed harder against his adams apple.

 

“Open your mouth, Bondicus,” she said politely.

 

A fat bead of sweat ran down his face, but Bondicus attempted a smirk while his throat bobbed. “You’re not the boss of me anymore, Haught . Clootie holds my leash, not you. Not since you turned yellow and ran .”

 

Nicole laughed around her cigarette, an eerily cheerful thing and flicked it out against the wall. “I won’t ask you twice, you know,” she offered diplomatically. “I’ve never asked twice. You remember that.” The tenor of her voice made Waverly press back against the wall and stay small.

 

“Why don’t you suck my-”

 

The first shot in her chamber exploded out the top of his foot so quick, Waverly barely registered the movement until after Bondicus had already opened his mouth to holler in agony. The noise was choked out and muddled by the still smoking barrel of Nicole’s revolver as it settled between Bondicus’s yellowed teeth. It clacked loudly while Bondicus howled around the shaft of it, but he could only make so much nose when Nicole gagged him with it.

 

Waverly stared at the top of the man’s foot where the leather was blown out and leaking red from the stitches in the heel of his ruined new boots. Then she looked up and watched Nicole tilt her head to the side, almost regretful.

 

“Bondicus,” she chided gently. One of her hands came up to tap lightly at his cheek while he blubbered and choked. “You know I ain’t have to ask at all, right? That was me bein’ nice.”

 

He groaned into the barrel of her gun and Nicole pushed him back against the opposite wall with the force against the back of his throat. Spit ran down the corners of his mouth and he clawed at the wall behind him. “If I’d known you’d ever touch her, i would’ve blown your limp cock off five years ago. You’ve done something,” she hummed, “Something very unforgivable, old friend. You’ve touched something that doesn’t belong to you. You’ve hurt her.” She stared into his agonized face for a few moments, letting him appreciate the gravity of what he’d done.

 

“And I didn’t run, you shit,” Nicole whispered to him. “Y’all always know right where to find me these days.”

 

And whatever sound she may have made before, Waverly knew she didn’t make a single whisper when Nicole blew the back of his brains out against the wall of Shorty’s. She didn’t so much as exhale when teeth and clumps of fleshy blood flew out of his mangled mouth against Nicole’s calm exterior and he slunk off the end of her revolver with a slick shlunk of gore. His jaw hung at a wide angle in the dirt and his eyes rolled glassy to rest in the back of his head while the blood pooled warm in the dirt.

 

Waverly didn’t make a damn sound.

 

Almost light-headed by the squeeze in her lungs, Waverly watched through uneven vision while Nicole turned to face her slowly. Their eyes didn’t meet, as Nicole was looking mournfully down at her ruined shirt. She took the time to pull her hat off and swipe a fruitless hand across her bloodied cheeks. It smeared a brilliant red against her pale skin and up into the red of her hairline. Then she placed her hat back on and finally met Waverly’s eyes.

 

She sighed and her eyes filled up with whatever had drained out of her with her barrel against a man’s molars and her finger already made up on the trigger. They filled back with whatever Waverly thought she’d known was in her heart and regarded her mournfully. It was Nicole’s eyes, sweet and concerned, but Waverly could no more stop the involuntary thrill of animalistic terror that whistled up her spine than she could have guessed at what that gun she kept under their pillows could do.

 

Had done.

 

Nicole holstered her revolver and let the hand she’d been extending toward Waverly drop at her side with one slow blink of longing. Whatever was on Waverly’s face - whatever fresh horror - had Nicole keeping her distance. She sighed again and stuck another cigarette in the corner of her mouth. “I told you I weren’t no lawman , Waverly.”



+++

Chapter Text

+++




Waverly watched the disappointment fall thick across Nicole’s face, the sad pinch of her eyes when Waverly shrank back from her. It was a barely there flinch - a thrill of visible fear - and it was enough. Nicole stepped back and looked away as though ashamed. She took a long, sullen moment to look at her shirt again in apparent disgust. And then she pivoted so that Waverly had a very clear and very open escape path toward the mouth of the alleyway. Nicole gave the route a pointed look, then pivoted further to open it wider for her.

 

Nicole puffed on her cigarette and waited for Waverly to flee with nothing but sad resignation on her face.

 

And Waverly…

 

Well, Waverly didn’t know what to feel. She felt like all her bones had gone soft and the thrills of nerves pinging around between her stomach and her throat were making her seasick. What she wanted most was to be in a quiet, soft room, with a big lock on it and nobody around. She wanted to be safe and alone.

 

Nicole looked down at her hands, still sticky and red from the blow back and pulled a handkerchief from her back pocket to try and scrub them clean. She swiped between her fingers until the blood dried and pilled, flaking off in gummy pieces that still left her hands pink. Then she cleaned the barrel of her revolver, though Waverly knew the chamber would need closer detailing to cleanse the pieces of the man’s gums and tongue from each crevice. Waverly shivered while Nicole holstered her weapon again - careless.

 

Careless like she’d done the whole process too many times for it to really be more than a bother.

 

One of Waverly’s hands pried itself from the wall behind her that she’d been clawing at for support and made its way to clutch shakily at the front of her dress. It felt like if she didn’t hold herself in, it might all come spilling out.

 

“I’m sorry that I-” Nicole’s mouth twisted down in the corner and she stared at her boots. “I’m sorry.” Her fingers rubbed together absently, slow with the friction from the sticky mess while she chewed at her lip. The dark mantel of what had happened moments before hung heavy on her shoulders, but it clashed horribly with the sad little look on her face. It was a hard thing to reconcile. “Did he - are you okay?” She asked, eyes flicking everywhere over Waverly’s body, but never quite reaching her eyes.

 

Waverly’s tongue was too dry when she tried to say something - anything. She wasn’t sure. She didn’t know. Yes? No? Would she ever be?

 

Quite without her permission, her head shook slowly side to side. So no. She supposed she wasn’t okay.

 

Nicole met her eyes and-

 

Devastation.

 

That, at least, shook some warmth into her cold fingers and spread the feeling back out into her legs. It was so very Nicole, you see. Always the end of the world stopped and started at the quality of Waverly’s life. She let out her breath in a shaky woosh and pushed away from the wall on newborn legs and a turning stomach. But they held and so did she.

 

“I’ll -” Waverly cleared her throat and swallowed a few times to rid the dryness from her tongue. “I’ll be okay, I think.” And it was a relief to hear, even from herself. Perhaps if she could say it, she could be it.

 

Nicole nodded, eager and desperate on the breathy admission like she’d been baptized in it. And by the look of open salvation on her face, Wavelry wondered if maybe she hadn’t.

 

Even after the horror of the moment - Bondicus still pooling blood under his mangled face not ten paces away - Waverly entertained the notion that maybe what she wanted most wasn’t to run toward that light at the end of the alleyway and escape what had happened there, but rather, maybe what she wanted was to crash into Nicole, fold herself up in her and never leave. It was all very confusing.

 

She was saved the trauma of the decision by the breathless arrival of John Henry Holliday with Dolls so close on his heels, they were practically sharing shoes. John Henry opened his mouth in a rush, but swallowed it all just as quick when he screeched to a halt. His eyes were wide on the corpse at their feet until Dolls thumped into his back, nearly toppling the both of them. Nicole’s expression shuttered closed as she stepped back and eyed Doc warily. Waverly would swear she could have read an entire conversation betwixt their eyes if only she were proficient in the language.

 

“What happened?” Doc asked with a steel in his voice Waverly hadn’t yet heard.

 

Nicole chewed on the stump end of her cigarette and jerked her head toward the corpse. “To him? Nothin’. He’s just taking a rest.”

 

“Haught, I swear to whatever god you hold dear,” Doc said lowly, his hand falling threateningly to the top of his holstered revolver.

 

For a brief, uncomfortable moment, Waverly realized she was terribly afraid of what Nicole might do to him. But Nicole’s eyes merely flicked for a brief, uninterested moment toward Doc’s hand, then returned to his eyes. “Don’t pretend you’re sad to see him dead,” Nicole grumbled. And then, in what Waverly imagined was a rather disrespectful acknowledgement of the threat Doc posed to her, Nicole turned her back on him and bent to rifle through the pockets of Bondicus’s long coat.

 

Doc let out a hiss of irritation, but took his hand from his holster. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” He snapped. “I’m not sheriff anymore, you god damned fool. I can’t stop whatever comes of this and I certainly can’t keep your old pals from raining the devil’s unholy fire down upon that sad little goat farm you’ve retired to. You are woefully alone in this.”

 

Nicole only grunted while she tucked Bondicus’s revolver in the back of her belt and yanked a fat, gold ring from off his limp finger. She stood then, giving Doc a flat look. “Well if you’re not sheriff anymore,” she said mockingly, “then who’s gonna be the wiser? Bondicus slipped,” she shrugged. “Very tragic.”

 

“Your gang ,” he spat, “will not be so easily convinced. Bulshar will come for you.”

 

“I bet he’ll slip too,” Ncole growled.

 

Doc’s face reddened in his anger, but before he could explode, Dolls put a hand over his shoulder. To Waverly’s surprise, he turned his attention to her with a sympathetic look. “Are you alright, Waverly?” Dolls asked.

 

Doc’s head snapped toward her like he hadn’t quite realized she’d been there the whole time. And then he looked back toward Nicole with narrowed eyes. “Really?” He seethed. “In front of the girl?”

 

Nicole glowered, but seemed appropriately cowed. Rather than respond, she chewed twice as hard on her cigarette. Only Dolls remained calm, pushing forward to speak with her. “Waverly, did he hurt you?”

 

It was harder than she thought it might be to choke out, “He tried.”

 

At last, the fire seemed to deflate from Doc as he shook his head sympathetically. Nicole’s big sad eyes were back, focused on Waverly with so much guilt she could barely stand to return the look. Doc sighed. “We need to get out of here,” he said quietly.

 

And then they were all looking at her.

 

“What?” She asked timidly.

 

Nicole looked away.

 

“I realize this has been an ordeal for you,” Doc said carefully. “And I would be remiss if I did not offer an alternative accommodation for you. In light of the days’...events. If you no longer feel safe...”

 

Nicole’s eyebrows furrowed and her mouth twisted into a scowl at the idea, but another guilty look at the corpse already attracting a lazy buzz of flies kept her deathly quiet.

 

“Alternative accommodations?” Waverly repeated, trying to catch Nicole’s eyes and failing.

 

Doc hummed and approached her slowly. “If you wish to sleep somewhere else tonight, you may stay in my room above the saloon. Nobody - not even me - will disturb you there,” he promised. “It’s safe. I can protect you there.”

 

Dolls scoffed quietly behind him, but it was enough for Henry to round on him. “What?” Doc demanded. “I was sheriff of this town before and I can still protect my own, Xavier. I do not need your condemnation or your disrespect.”

 

Dolls scoffed harder. “You were a drunkard, not a sheriff. You let us run wild.”

 

“Well I caught the highest bounty two-hundred miles in any direction,” he snapped. “I caught her ,” he hissed, jabbing a finger in the direction of a sulking Nicole.

 

Dolls rolled his eyes. “She let you catch her. If Robert hadn’t needed help, you never would’ve seen so much as her footprint. Only Randy stopped her.”

 

And on it went.

 

But Waverly recoiled, because it most certainly did not sound safe. It sounded far away from everything she’d come to call safe . It was so very far from her farmhouse and the smell of dry hay and Stanley’s soft whickering, and the gentle roil of Nicole’s cast iron kettle and -

 

So very far from Nicole.

 

Waverly was shaking her head moments later. “No, I - I don’t need that,” she said quietly. “I just want to go home.”

 

Nicole looked up briefly at that, wounded like a kicked dog, but schooled it under a hard curtain of iron. “I’ll pay your way,” she said resolutely, shooting Doc a look. “Can you get her to the station? I can’t be seen there. You know I’m good for it.”

 

“Wait!” Waverly held her hands up, feeling panic rise up in her gut again, hot and tight. “N-not there!” She stuttered. “I want…” she trailed off, suddenly embarrassed by all the eyes on her. It was like she could feel them on her skin and she fought the urge to try and brush them off. The last thing she wanted was to be touched.

 

Nicole gave her a pained look, taking a hesitant step forward. Her shoulders curled inward like she could make herself small and nonthreatening. Like that was possible after she’d blown a man’s brains against the wall with nothing more than a snide comment. Like blood wasn’t still twining the ends of her hair together in sticky knots.

 

“You want to go back to the farm?” She asked, confused. Hopeful? As though she wouldn’t dream it.

 

But Waverly nodded quickly. “Home,” she repeated dumbly.

 

Nicole nodded too, face full of an out-of-place innocence that twisted up something in Waverly’s chest. Doc and Dolls remained quiet, though they gave each other heavy looks that Waverly had neither the energy nor the capacity to understand.

 

Nicole seemed to snap out of her reverie as she cleared her throat and turned to push past the two exchanging looks. “I’ll go get Stanley.” When she’d drawn even with them, Nicole turned and gave Doc a look that Waverly would have quaked to receive. “Watch her,” Nicole said darkly, full of threat and promise. Doc only tipped his chin in acknowledgement, but it was enough to send Nicole stalking off toward the end of the alleyway.

 

Waverly found herself fighting the urge to run after her and trail at the hem of her duster. Whatever Nicole had done, her body seized in fear at her absence. Even with Dolls’ reassuring smile and Doc’s vigilance, Waverly felt very alone again.

 

“She won’t hurt you,” Doc finally said in the ensuing silence. “Whatever you think you don’t know about her…” he hummed to himself and ticked his head to the side. “Well. Nicole Haught is many things, but I think first and foremost, she is a friend to you.” Doc gave her a covert wink. “And though very few and far between, there aren’t many things safer than a friend of Nicole Haught.”

 

And that must have been true, because when the kicked up dust and snuffle of her steed announced Nicole’s return, Waverly felt an encompassing relief slip through her blood and wrap around her chest. She breathed out gratefully and tried not to walk too fast toward where Nicole waited for her. Stanley danced irritably in place, upset by the deep dark of the clouds swelling heavy above them. But they waited there while Waverly rushed toward them.

 

When she got close, Nicole dismounted and shucked her coat off, dropping it heavily onto Waverly’s shoulders. The waxy coating on the outside was stiff, but inside was soft and warm where her palms came up short against the inside of the coat, swimming in the bulk of it. If Waverly covertly pushed her nose into the front of the collar, she could smell home.

 

Nicole cleared her throat and held a hesitant hand out toward her. And Waverly hesitated too, hand outstretched, but timid. But it was only for a moment and then she slipped her fingers into Nicole’s bloody ones, feeling the rough grit of her hands against her own softer ones. Nicole waited until Waverly took a firmer grip of it before tightening her own hold and drawing her closer. Gently, Waverly was lifted up so she could swing into the front of the saddle. Nicole hesitated again and looked up at her worriedly.

 

“Are you going to be alright riding with me?” She asked softly.

 

All Waverly could manage was a mute nod. Nicole weighed it for a few moments, then took a firm hold of the tack at Stanley’s neck to swing herself up and settle close behind Waverly in the saddle. It was awkward at first, but only because Nicole seemed deathly afraid of touching her - even more than she’d been when Waverly first showed up at the farm and demanded Nicole marry her. If at all possible.

 

It was like Nicole was terribly afraid to break her - ruin her like she’d ruined the man in the alleyway.

 

But for Waverly, it was all a surprising wave of relief. Having Nicole at her back, touching her, however hesitant, felt like a warm blanket. For the first time since Bondicus had pushed her up against a wall and held her there like a child, she felt tears well up in her eyes and stick in her dusty eyelashes. She collapsed back into the cradle of Nicole’s chest and vowed to stay there. For as long as it felt safe, she would stay.

 

After a stunned beat of stiffness, Nicole relaxed behind her and her arms came up to pull Stanley’s reigns close. She gathered them up in the center so her arms squeezed together and bundled Waverly closer to her body. Waverly melted into it and thought if she fell asleep right there and didn’t wake up for a week, then it would all be very well deserved. And she suspected Nicole might’ve just sat there and waited if she did.

 

When thunder rumbled menacingly into the loose panes of glass in the store fronts, Nicole took a firmer hold of her and kicked her heels into Stanley’s flank, sending them galloping off toward the heart of the storm.



+++



The storm opened up before they reached the ranch. Even from a great distance, Waverly could see the smear of rain swept down like a smudge in an oil painting from the great rolling clouds in the west down to the dry earth below. As they got closer, it became less clear, but in the moments before it was upon them, Waverly could see the front of it. She just hiked Nicole’s jacket up over her head and huddled back into her before they crashed into it like a waterfall.

 

True to Nicole’s word, the coat held its dryness even in god’s great onslaught. She could hear the loud slap of Stanely’s pounding hooves against fat, muddy puddles and feel the flex of Nicole’s body as she hunched over her to protect them from the downpour, but remained otherwise shielded to where they were going or what was happening. Whenever the thunder clapped overhead and split the sky, Nicole gave her a small squeeze. That was enough to get them home.

 

Waverly was so sheltered in the bulk of Nicole’s coat, that she was surprised to find they’d arrived at the ranch by the sudden jerk on Stanley’s reigns and a quick halt. Before she could consider much of anything, Nicole had guided her from the saddle and taken her the four steps into their home. Waverly emerged from inside Nicole’s coat and found that while she had been kept quite dry, Nicole had not been so lucky.

 

Her hair ran red from the sticky gore sliding down her cheeks, like the color was bleeding right out of her hair. It stuck flat to her skull and her undershirt shown translucent under the sopping weight of her vest. Nicole seemed unbothered by it, reaching out briefly like she meant to touch Waverly’s cheek, but stopping at the last moment and letting her hand drop, scolded. She stepped backward out of the puddle forming at their door, inching back towards the storm with a lost kind of look on her face.

 

“I’ve got to settle Stanley,” she murmured. And when she turned to leave back into the gale, Waverly wasn’t certain if she meant to return.



+++

 

The time dragged on while Waverly flitted around like a ghost, surprised to see that her hands had put on the kettle to boil and set out mugs for them. Her mind was neither here nor there, really. She imagined it was lost somewhere out on the trail, dribbled into the muddy lakes the horses’ footfalls had made of it, strewn out and watered down to nothing. It certainly wasn’t with her any longer.

 

As the storm raged outside and the seconds ticked on loudly off Nicole’s pocket watch that had been left in her coat, Waverly grew antsy. She considered the state of her benefactor and as a woman of certain upbringings, determined that a bath was in order. She, herself, was quite dry and only her shoes had suffered, but Nicole had looked something of a fright.

 

If Waverly hadn’t been enamored of Nicole at the start, she certainly became so when Nicole had revealed the luxurious tin bathtub she kept in the adjacent shed around the back of the house. It was a pretty thing - stripes of ornament painted around the sculpted rim. And again, Waverly had been forced to puzzle through just how lucrative a goat farmer could have possibly been. That thought soured, though, in light of new information. Who knew how many people Nicole had robbed or murdered for her treasure.

 

Waverly sighed, but tucked the thought away for a less distressing time. They used the tub infrequently, but frequently enough for Waverly to be familiar with the way Nicole would pump water up from the spigot by the shed and fill it with bucket after bucket of cold ground water until it came up high enough to partially submerge a person. It was a tedious process, but the pump was roofed beside the shed, so she really only had to run from the house under the cover of Nicole’s jacket before she was in safe territory again for the remainder of her task. As her tired arms threw bucket after bucket of cold water into the basin, she couldn’t help but wish bathing was considered a sport best enjoyed warm. No matter how she presented that notion to her father growing up, he scoffed and huffed and waxed poetic about the health ills and the absolute unacceptability of it. Waverly hadn’t been trying to make a point - a rare thing for her, really - but had merely been suggesting that the practice of dumping cold water on your head was brutish and unpleasant. 

 

So it goes, though. If Waverly had based her self-worth on how often she was listened to , she would have listed herself for the price of a tin cup, not seven healthy cows.

 

As she neared an acceptable level in the tub - or rather a limit to the strength left in her arms - the shed door creaked open on its hinges to reveal a haggard-looking Nicole. She seemed relieved to see Waverly. Perhaps she thought Waverly had ran off - might still think that, really. A small part of Nicole Haught probably deserved that after all she’d hidden from her, but a much larger part had saved her life. Waverly knew that. She did. But the day had been a mule kick in the teeth and Waverly was not quite ready to forgive a frightened beast, no matter how charming .

 

“You need a bath, I’m afraid,” she said briskly.

 

Nicole hummed, equally tired, and pushed her limp hair back against her skull where it ran in small rivers down her nose and rolled across her temples. “I feel as though I’ve already had one.”

 

Waverly pursed her lips and shook her head. “No, darling. You need soap.”

 

Nicole blushed at that, hand still hooked over the back of her neck while she looked down at her muddy boots. “Alright,” she agreed. “I’ll fill the tub.”

 

“I already did.”

 

Nicole looked up from her shoes, blinking in pleasant surprise. “Oh. Thank you, Waverly,” she said quietly. Waverly nodded back pleasantly and they were left standing there while Nicole dripped on the floor and was stared at.

 

Eventually Nicole cleared her throat and made an awkward gesture toward the tub. “I’ve kinda got to...take my clothes off now.”

 

“Right!” Waverly nodded too vigorously. “Of course! You...do that. I’ll just...” She grabbed Nicole’s coat and hefted it up over the top of her head before dashing through the small patch of raging storm and into the house. When she’d slammed the door closed behind her and leaned against it, it was a mighty feat that she blocked any thoughts of Nicole undressing and instead returned chastely to the task of fixing tea.

 

But the task was as listeless as it was when she’d first gotten home and the same creeping unease crawled up and down the notches in her spine, leaving her feeling like something foul was breathing down the back of her neck. Not something. Someone.

 

Waverly shivered while the window panes at the front of the house rattled in their frames and the sky wept roaring against the roof. Finally, Waverly abandoned her attempt at normalcy and wandered back toward the fire. She picked Nicole’s coat back up from where she’d draped it over her chair and swung it back up around her shoulders. It was a heavy thing, the bottom seams worn into a lighter color from years of brushing at horse’s flanks and Nicole’s knees. And god only knew what else. Waverly certainly didn’t.

 

Waverly certainly didn’t know much of anything about where Nicole had been or what she’d done. It was a strange thing to feel as though you knew a person’s heart like a trail well-traveled, but to never have stepped foot on it. Odd to know someone without knowing their world.

 

Waverly sat in Nicole’s chair with the heavy jacket bunched around her ears and shoulders spilling broad almost to her elbows. It hung large on Nicole, but was positively ridiculous on her. Most of the things in her life had always been ridiculous on her. She was a person highly prone to ridiculousness. But then so were all silly girls with silly dreams.

 

Even surrounded as she was by the grounding weight of Nicole’s jacket and the smell of pomade, she still felt such a breakable thing. It wasn’t a feeling she wore well. Wasn’t a feeling she wore often .

 

Feeling just the slightest bit ashamed, Waverly stood from the chair and braved the storm back toward the shed. Back toward the only person she knew she could feel .

 

As she burst back into the shed under the cover of Nicole’s jacket, she was quite abruptly reminded of why she had left in the first place.

 

Nicole turned with a small start from where she was seated in the tub, bearing a rather generous view of her shoulders and collarbones and-

 

“Sorry!” Waverly’s hands shot up to cover her mortified face. “I’m sorry! I’m just...”

 

And it occurred to her, quite suddenly, that she wasn’t sure just what she was. Or how to convey it to a person she enjoyed and craved the respect of. Because Waverly Earp was not afraid . But in that moment, under the pitch of a violent storm and with the ghost of a man’s reeking breath and bruising hands along her back - well, that was exactly what she was.

 

A long drawn, painful silence stretched out between them and Waverly could hardly bear to remove her hands from over her eyes. To her great relief, Nicole finally cleared her throat and made a soft, entreating noise.

 

“That’s alright,” she murmured. “I was just thinking that I’d hate to be alone right now.”

 

Waverly laughed a weak, miserable thing. “No you weren’t. You’re never thinking that.”

 

Nicole laughed too, but it was much kinder. “I do sometimes. But I was really just thinkin’ that I wasn’t so sure you were ever gonna speak to me again. It appears my luck ain’t run out yet.” After a thoughtful moment, Nicole continued hesitantly, “That’s all someone like me is, really. We’re a good hand at poker, you know? You can cheat some of the time. But ain’t nobody wins all of the time. You either quit or you lose.”

 

“You mean outlaws.”

 

“I mean...yes.”

 

Curious, Waverly peaked out from her hands to find that Nicole was facing forwards again, away from her. Only the wet hair at the back of her head and the tops of her shoulders were visible. She let her hands fall to her sides but wasn’t sure what to do with them after that. Nicole talked so little of herself or her life, it felt like maybe she was being offered something. Something at a great price.

 

“Stay, Waverly,” Nicole told her gently. “Stay so I can tell you a story.”

 

Waverly nodded, though Nicole couldn’t see her, and walked slowly toward the tub. A deep pull in her gut tugged her forward - beseeched that she should touch Nicole in some way. But Waverly was not so bold. Instead, she pushed a small box over to the rim of the tub and sat on it so that her back was to Nicole’s and she stared at the opposite wall.

 

The water sloshed behind Waverly as Nicole moved around, the distinct sound of her running a rough washcloth up her arms and down. Waverly imagined the water turning pink around her as the sticky trails of blood bled out at last.

 

“I was a sad child, Waverly,” Nicole said after a while. “And it made me hard. I killed my Pa when I was so young I barely remember it. For all I know, he might still be sitting at the kitchen table in his little shack down south in the middle of nowhere. Might be a skeleton sat up at the table with the top of his skull blown off. Might still have his hand bones wrapped ‘round a bottle. Wouldn’t know. I never went back.”

 

“When you’re alone in the world out west, you either find people who don’t mind how you ended up that way…” Nicole paused for a moment, then resumed the soft lather of her skin, “Or you die.” The washcloth clapped softly against the side of the tub as it was swung up to rest there. “So I found some of those kinds of people. And those kinds of people had a lot of the same reasons as me. You understand, Waverly? We were all hard people with skeleton families and sad little child hearts.”

 

Waverly thought about Dolls and a rich white man in the south eating roast pig every night while Dolls played Beethoven until his hands seized and his back bowed under the posture. She thought about his mother locked in a basement and how difficult it must be to kill a full-grown man dead with a shovel. She stayed quiet.

 

“We did things. I did things. It seems you know that now, though I would have happily kept that from you until I was dead and gone. I don’t think it’s right, but I can’t help but want it even now,” she mused. “I wanted so bad to be the person you treat me like. So bad I kept it all from you.”

 

Quietly, Waverly asked, “What kinds of things?”

 

“Well, bad things of course,” Nicole chuckled sadly. “We killed people with money, power - anything we didn’t have. We robbed trains, stagecoaches, anything. Hunted other outlaws.We took things from the people who grew up happy and soft. We took it because they had more than they could’ve ever used and we had less than we could’ve ever survived. We got fat and rich off the fat and rich.” Water sloshed around as Nicole doused herself in the quiet buzz of the storm overhead. “ And we got good at it .” Nicole paused and Waverly could hear her turn to face the back of Waverly’s head. Though blind, she could feel Nicole’s arms come up to cross over the back of the tub while she studied her. “That’s who I am, Waverly. That’s what I was before this farm and before you. Ain’t what I do anymore, but I can’t say it ain’t who I am.

 

Gathering her courage, Waverly turned her head to the side to watch Nicole set her chin on her folded arms and regard her openly over the lip of the tub. She looked a lot smaller without her coat and her vest and the armor she wrapped herself in. Waverly leaned in closer, studying her. “Did you do good things too?” Waverly found herself asking.

 

Nicole’s brows furrowed and she seemed to ponder the question seriously. “Well. I’d like to think we did those things too sometimes. Nothin’ more refined than a hurt kid’s sense of fairness . We made a lot of things fair.”

 

“You saved Robert,” Waverly pointed out.

 

Nicole gave her a small smile. “I’m still not so sure that was a good thing.”

“No, I like him,” Waverly declared. “We’re having tea next Sunday.”

 

Nicole rolled her eyes fondly and let out a little sigh. “Always friend to the strange and wholly unwanted, Waverly Earp.”

 

“Always friend to my kin ,” Waverly teased back. Her eyes were drawn to the ends of Nicole’s hair, still clumped together from the congealed blood. “Let me wash your hair,” came tumbling out of her mouth before she could stop herself.

 

And whatever surprise that request elicited, it was nothing compared to when Nicole simply nodded, turning her back and retrieving the washcloth to pass over her shoulder into Waverly’s shaking hands.

 

And what a mess to get oneself into.

 

But prior to the events of the day, Waverly would have given just about anything to have Nicole there, bared to her in so many ways she hadn’t been before. Best not to look a gift horse in the mouth, as her father used to say.

 

Waverly steeled herself and turned fully so her legs bracketed the head of the tub. Only trembling a little, Waverly reached out and carefully dragged the cloth through Nicole’s hair from the ridge of her hairline into the back of the choppy strands. She repeated this motion a few times, gaining boldness as Nicole let out a small sigh of contentment. She rolled up her sleeves, encouraged, and began chafing the ends of her hair between the towl to try and rub the gore out. When she looked sufficiently scrubbed, Waverly retrieved the cup from the side of the tub and filled it from the bucket beside the tub. Carefully, Waverly rinsed out Nicole’s hair with a hand pressed tight to her forehead to dam the flow and force it backwards, keeping it from Nicole’s face.

 

It was a strangely therapeutic, peaceful passage of time. As she felt the soap run clear through her fingers and neared the end of her task, Waverly paused. “You saved me too, you know,” she offered quietly.

 

“I terrified you,” Nicole corrected even quieter.

 

“Yes,” Waverly agreed hesitantly. “But not as much as he did. It was... a lot ,” she said. Her expression turned thoughtful as she ran her hands absently through the wet strands of Nicole’s hair. She’d never had the opportunity to touch her with such a casual intimacy and though she was mostly done with her task, it hurt neither of them to linger. “But when I say you saved me, I didn’t just mean outside the saloon.”

 

“Are you afraid of me?” Nicole asked. Having her there seated so low and vulnerable made Waverly wonder if Nicole was afraid of her sometimes. It was a sobering thought. It hadn’t occurred to her before what it might cost a person so hard to stay so soft with her.

 

“I’m not afraid of you,” Waverly said firmly. And she wasn’t, she realized. “You make me feel safe.”

 

“I’m not sure I should,” Nicole confessed.

 

Feeling bolder, Waverly slipped her hand around to Nicole’s chin to pull her head around and look her in the eyes. What she found there was the same she’d always seen, just translated neatly on the page. Wholly understood. “I said I wanted to know you and I meant it.”

 

“That’s what scares me,” Nicole confessed.

 

Waverly smoothed her hand over Nicole’s damp cheek and smiled. It was all fun and games, though, until Nicole glanced down pointedly at the curve of her smile, eyes wide and helpless. In a brief moment of the kind of insanity she’d been assured was a symptom of her heritage, Waverly entertained the idea that if she leaned in a breadth, Nicole would have let her. She would have let her twist her fingers into her wet hair and figure out what she tasted like. But between the two of them, Waverly wasn’t so sure she was the one cracked open and bleeding anymore. Nicole’s past was a pile of bones at their feet and Waverly didn’t have the heart to step on graves. “I know, love,” she breathed out against Nicole’s mouth. Then she sat back and shook her head at her own antics. “Come on, you’re getting cold,” she diverted. “Let’s get you inside.”

 

Nicole nodded dumbly, some indecipherable, raw look on her face while Waverly stood to retrieve a dry cloth and the clothes she’d brought out from inside the house for her. She turned her back politely again, only a little bit aware of how naked Nicole was behind her while she rustled around. Waverly just watched the puddles grow outside the shed, too tired to be afraid of the rumbling overhead anymore. A soft tug at her elbow drew her attention behind her where Nicole was dressed in unbelted trousers and an undershirt, running a towel through her messy hair. She smiled shyly and offered the cover of her long coat, held above her own head like a roof.

 

Waverly accepted the cover, wrapping one arm around Nicole’s waist before they set off toward the house pressed close together under the cover.

 

And Waverly resolved that when they returned to the house, she would finally have quieted enough of her demons to finish making the damn tea.



+++



As the storm pushed on into the night, still tapping at the window panes and scaring shadows out from under their chairs, Waverly realized that even her lingering fear would not be able to keep her awake any longer. All of the fear and energy from the day had fled and only then was it apparent what it had cost her to house it there. Left behind was nothing but cold space and weariness.

 

“You should go to bed,” Nicole suggested.

 

Wavelry looked up from a book she’d been crawling through line by agonizing line for the last hour to find that Nicole had been staring at her. Reluctantly, Waverly nodded and closed her book into her lap. “Will you be coming to bed too?”

 

“I think I should stay out here,” Nicole said apologetically. “You should...have some space.”

 

“Space?”

 

“From me. You invited me into your bed under a certain set of circumstances,” Nicole explained haltingly. “And - those weren’t...necessarily the case.”

 

Waverly sighed. “What are you talking about?”

 

“I just think you should be more sure of who I am before you sleep next to me again.” She looked up guiltily, hands clenched around the arms of her chair. “We can talk about it tomorrow. But for now, you take the bed.”

 

And really, the prospect of laying with Nicole again was a little daunting. She felt she was balanced on a thin, thin line walking between the Nicole who pressed wildflowers in the backs of Waverly’s favorite books and held a mirror up for her to do her hair in the morning and the Nicole who fed a man his own gun for touching her. It was...confusing.

 

Confusing and much too late to bicker over it. “Okay,” Waverly said wearily. She collected up her book with leaden arms and gave Nicole one last lingering look. Before she could change her mind, Waverly reached out and ran the pads of her fingers from Nicole’s temple and around to the base of her chin. Just to feel her there and - whatever her conflict on the matter might have been - try and impart some sense of thanks. 

 

Nicole just stared back up at her, more reverent than anyone had any right to be, really. It was awful unfair of someone to be able to look at a person like that and mean it. Waverly sighed because, well, what a thing to find herself in the middle of. She couldn’t have loved a banker? Or a thatcher? It had to be the outlaw with violent hands that somehow managed to hold her softly?

 

She supposed it did. What other grand, karmic fate could possibly await an Earp.

 

“Goodnight, Nicole,” she said quietly as she retired into the bedroom.

 

Even after spending all but a month of her life sleeping alone, she still lay awake through her exhaustion, thinking about how odd it was to sleep in a space with only the sounds of her own breathing.



+++



Whatever rest she managed was fitful and stifled by the quiet. The sound of rain against the roof shingles faded into obscurity after a while and she missed the small sounds of a partner sleeping beside her. She missed the ability to reach out and touch Nicole’s forearm or her back just to be sure she wasn’t alone. The bed was cold.

 

Sometime in the early morning hours, Waverly pulled two blankets around her shoulders and walked quietly out of the bedroom. Nicole was right where she left her, fingers steepled over her stomach and chin tipped heavily toward her chest while it rose and fell in long, tidal motions. Waverly smiled because, stripped of everything else, that was the Nicole she knew best.

 

Carefully, Waverly shed one of her blankets and laid it across Nicole’s lap. Nicole’s nose scrunched up, but relaxed after a moment, allowing Waverly to slowly pull the blanket up to her chin. She laughed softly to herself when Nicole mumbled something unintelligible and let out a happy, sleepy sigh. One of her hands slipped out from under the blanket to hang off the side of the chair.

 

It was still far too early to do much of anything and while the storm appeared to have settled, a steady tail of rain clouds whispered against the window. Waverly lowered herself onto the rug, still wrapped in her remaining blanket, and leaned against the side of Nicole’s chair. She took her hand gently, pressing her thumb to the sluggish thrum of Nicole’s pulse, and smiled contentedly. It beat a familiar tempo against her skin. Still Nicole , she thought warmly to herself as she dozed against the side of the chair.



+++



Nicole woke before Waverly did, because she roused to the feeling of Nicole’s hand on the top of her head, then against her cheek.

 

“Waverly,” she said, breaking through her fog until Waverly was blinking up at her sleepily. “What are you doing out here?” She asked, amused.

 

“I missed you,” Wavelry said - far too honest. This was why she always made a point not to speak to Nicole so early in the mornings. Enough from the overly complete and heavily annotated serialization of everything out of Waverly’s mouth. Enough!

 

Nicole’s eyes widened and she drew her hand back, shooting it a brief, scandalized look like, how dare you . “I was right here?” She pointed out innocently.

 

“I couldn’t sleep without you,” Waverly admitted. “And I’m sure you didn’t think it possible that I could be any sillier.”

 

For a brief moment, Waverly really believed Nicole was about to assure her she would never assume something like that, but Nicole wasn’t as easy to trap as she used to be. “You’re not silly,” she said kindly. “I thought you’d like me not takin’ up the whole bed.”

 

“I think I missed that too,” Waverly laughed while Nicole pulled her to her feet and straightened the blanket on her shoulders to bunch under her chin. The naked adoration on her face was even stranger to her after dipping her finger into the vast, bottomless lake of Nicole’s harried past. Odd to touch the soft rounded edges of a person supposedly cut from broken glass and metal. Odd to be gentled by her.

 

“How are you feeling?” Nicole asked her with a worried twist to her mouth, eyes sweeping from the top of her disheveled hair to her cold feet. “Do you feel better this morning?”

 

“I feel…” Waverly hummed to herself, studying Nicole right back. And she found much of the same as she always had. Some new. But nothing that had been there before yesterday was absent. That steeled her. “I feel like we need to talk.”

 

“O-okay,” Nicole said shakily, hands drifting to Waverly’s shoulders where she chuffed them lightly against the morning chill. “Whatever you want,” she said and meant it . She remained the only person to ever promise such a thing to Waverly. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

 

“Thank you,” Waverly said sincerely. “I know this is hard for you.”

 

“Harder still to be lied to all this time,” Nicole frowned.

 

Waverly sighed. “I wasn’t lied to. I was... omitted to.”

 

“Waverly I’m wanted in seven territories.”

 

“Well, as long as it’s not eight. That’s where I draw the line,” Waverly said, brushing past Nicole toward the kitchen.

 

Nicole worried around the kitchen like it was an actionable verb while Waverly calmly made them a simple breakfast from their stores. By the time they both sat at the table, Nicole had worried herself near to snapping her hands at her clenched knuckles. That wasn’t the way Waverly wanted them to open to each other, so she reached out sternly and pulled Nicole’s fingers apart so she could fold them into her own.

 

“Why are you so scared, Nicole?”

 

Nicole looked down at some point on the table and said quietly, “because I’m very bad.”

 

“You’re very bad?” Waverly asked, unable to mask her amusement.

 

“Very.”

 

“Well, you’re very nice to me,” Waverly pointed out.

 

Nicole’s voice dropped so low, Waverly had to lean across their hands to hear it. “I’m very bad and I’m very scared you’re going to leave me.”

 

“Why would I leave you?”

 

“Because you’re so good! You’re just…” she swallowed so hard she almost choked on it. “You’re perfect,” she said, strangled. “You’re everything . And I didn’t expect to, but I’ve gotten real used to having you here.”

 

Waverly blushed and withdrew one of her hands to press to her burning cheek. “Stop it! We’re having a talk!”

 

“S-stop what?” Nicole’s eyes widened and she tried, unsuccessfully, to remove her hand from Waverly’s. She would not escape so easily.

 

“Stop that ! Stop making me want to kiss you when we have things to do. Serious, not-kissing things, especially when I know you won’t do it anyways, you coward.”

 

“You want to kiss me?” Nicole asked dumbly. Like an idiot.

 

“God, you are absolutely hopeless. I hope we both die before anyone finds out how terrible we both are,” she said. “I hope nobody ever knows. I couldn’t stand it. Now focus.”

 

Nicole nodded obediently, though it looked like she was reeling her mind back in from far off, distant places to be present with her at that table in that ranch house on that farm. “I’m focused,” she said defensively.

 

Waverly ignored her. “I need to know what kind of danger we’re in here,” Waverly said sternly. “I’m willing to bet you’ve upset some people. You were rather rude yesterday.”

 

“When I blew that bastard’s ugly head clean off,” Nicole said darkly.

 

“Yes, it was a little rude.”

 

Nicole narrowed her eyes. “I’d do it again too. He done deserved it.”

 

“Well, yes. But I think we could have gone about it differently. Maybe a way that doesn’t piss off a gang of dangerous men who know everything about you.”

 

“I’m the most dangerous,” Nicole fairly pouted. Dangerously.

 

Waverly rolled her eyes and gave Nicole’s hand a pointed squeeze. “Please focus. Who is Bulshar, Nicole?”

 

“He was kind of my second when I ran with my group. He tried to call us the Revenants . I didn’t want to be called much of anything, but he ran his mouth all over the damn country. I ain’t ever really trusted him, but he was a steady shot and popular with some of the men. Some of the women too,” Nicole muttered irritably. “I think he took three wives in the time I knew him. When I...retired…” Nicole said delicately, “I told everyone to get lost. Told ‘em we weren’t a gang no more. But you can’t tell a gang of stray dogs they can’t roam together no more. I left, Bulshar became me, and they’re still out there. Meaner than ever. Some of ‘em didn’t like the way he ran things and people broke off. They’re small, but only the worst are still ridin’ with him.”

 

Waverly nodded along, trying to look like this was all normal to her. “Why did you retire?”

 

“The same reason anyone retires, I imagine,” Nicole shrugged, staring down at Wavelry’s hand in her own. “I got tired. Tired of bein’ so hard all the time. There was a girl, too,” she hedged, squeezing Waverly’s hand so hard it almost hurt. “I think we were almost somethin’ to each other, but…” Nicole blew out a long breath. “But there ain’t much of me left to love I’m afraid. She couldn’t find enough there to love me back anymore. I just got tired, Waverly. I got tired and I came out here to be alone.”

 

Waverly had a hard time believing there wasn’t enough of Nicole Haught to love. Sometimes, she felt there was a little too much. The kettle began to whistle so she released Nicole’s hand and stood to fix tea. Increasingly, she began to realize that the motions of fixing tea was a flex of the hereditary and societal madness bestowed and afflicted upon young ladies of a certain class in society. A puppetshow of the inferiority of the middle class in the face of pretty much every struggle. A bizarre theatre production of normalcy.

 

Tea, indeed.

 

Either way, Waverly had no idea how to cope with anything in her life without steeping it, unfortunately. If Nicole didn’t already hate tea, she would come to despise it in the many miserably lovely years they would have together, Waverly was sure.

 

“Does it feel like I’m always making tea?” Waverly mused.

 

Nicole adopted a thoughtful look while Waverly set a cup of tea into her hand over her shoulder. “Is that why I keep ending up with a cup of tea in my hand?”

 

“Afraid so, dear.” 

 

“You ain’t said much about…” Nicole made some confusing gesture at herself, twirling her fingers around and running her hand through her hair.

 

Waverly laughed. “What?”

 

“Me. You ain’t said much about how you feel about all this. You ain’t really let me have it yet. Or told me when you’re leaving or what’s gonna happen,” Nicole said nervously. She kept taking her hat off and putting it back on, unable to get comfortable.

 

“When I’m leaving?” Waverly puzzled.

 

Nicole gave her a miserable look. “Well I don’t much imagine you’ll want anything to do with me now. I imagine you’ll be heading home when it’s safe. And I’ll give you the money - I’ll get you home comfortable I swear it’s not-”

 

Waverly stopped her as she went to put her hat back on for the twelfth time in under a minute, trapping it there against the table and entreating her to meet her eyes. “Nicole, you are my home.” Nicole’s eyes were comically large and her hand hung limply in the air when Waverly pulled the hat out from under it and kept it in front of herself to stop the nervous habit. “I told you I mean to marry you. And whatever you might mean in return, I’ll live with that. But it’s for better or for worse. I can accept that you led a hard life before this and did things you’d rather forget. And I can accept that you’re kind and loyal and generous and make me feel very safe. I can accept both of these things and I can accept you. Okay?”

 

“You don’t have to…”

 

“I know I don’t have to! Nicole, please. I’m not your prisoner. I’m in love with you,” Waverly exasperated. And that was Waverly Earp’s courage: never the passion and eloquence rapped into her knuckles by refined ladies, but messy frustration and ill-timed honesty. Her love was flowering weeds, never trimmed roses in a courtyard.

 

Nicole flushed severely, but it certainly quieted her protests. She was pretty like that - quiet and twirling a lock of her hair between nervous fingers while she looked out the window. And to think nobody had ever called her beautiful before Waverly Earp.

 

“You love me?” Nicole asked wistfully.

 

Who gave her the goddamn right to look like that, really.

 

“Yes, I thought I’d mentioned,” Waverly smiled into her tea.

 

Nicole nodded, still staring out the window, the barest hint of a smile at the corner of her lips. “Well how ‘bout that,” she said quietly.

 

Waverly nodded too, watching the gentle remnant of the storm patter into the puddles outside the chicken coop. “How ‘bout that,” she agreed.



+++



Chapter Text

+++



They came at the tail-end of a breakfast of soft cheese and biscuits, interrupting the quiet emotional hangover of their morning with their brutish, frantic knocking. Nicole drew her revolver grimly and stood to murder them, probably.

 

“No!” Waverly scolded, standing too with her hands on her hips. “You put that away!”

 

Nicole rolled her eyes and gestured with the muzzle toward their front door. “What if it’s someone who wants to kill me?”

 

“Yeah? And how often is that the case?” Waverly asked skeptically, staring down a woman a head taller than herself.

 

Nicole threw her hands up. “Pretty often!”

 

“You sit and drink your tea and don’t kill anyone,” Waverly demanded, snapping a dish towel in Nicole’s direction. “I can see John Henry and Xavier at the door.”

 

Nicole sat down hard, giving Waverly a childish glare and wrapping her hand around her tea cup with disdain. Waverly leveled a threatening finger in her direction and Nicole scowled harder. But she stayed.

 

Waverly tried not to look too smug when she answered the door, but that was a thing not natural to her. Doc removed his hat when the door swung open and offered her a little wink. “Miss Earp,” he nodded.

 

“John Henry. You’re not here to kill us are you?”

 

Doc raised an eyebrow. “No?”

 

“Do you hear that, Nicole? They’re not here to kill us.”

 

Nicole scoffed from the kitchen and took a grumpy sip of her tea. Waverly abandoned her effort not to look smug, as it was pointless and stupid. She smiled at the two men and stood aside. “Come in, please. Can I get you some breakfast?”

 

“Breakfast?” Doc asked, like he’d never heard of the word.

 

“Yes. Food you eat in the morning,” Waverly explained, just in case.

 

Doc stared openly at Nicole while she had a hostile cup of morning tea. “How much did you pay for her?”

 

“Too much,” Nicole said darkly.

 

“Not enough,” Waverly corrected. “Can I get you boys some food?”

 

Dolls pushed past Doc and took a seat at the table, spreading a napkin politely over his lap. “Yes please, Waverly.”

 

“Yes, but you’ll have to drink tea ,” Nicole warned, narrowing her eyes over the top of her mug while it steamed under her nose.

 

And then two murderous, retired outlaws and an ex-sheriff sat around the tiny dinner table sipping tea while Waverly made them a pleasant breakfast. All according to plan.

 

Only when they had been fed and watered did Waverly allow any talk of death and violence. Doc took the lead. “Thank you, Waverly. I haven’t eaten anything like that in a month of Sundays.” He picked at his teeth for a bit and sighed. “I hate to spoil good food with bad news, but Bulshar’s been... active .” He cringed at his own words. “Obviously nobody can get close without getting their face blasted off, but there’s been a lot of dust around the camp he set up twenty miles outside of town. And when his boys are in town it’s even worse. Robert said Bulshar himself came asking after you just this morning. I tell you, word travels fast doesn’t it?”

 

“Too fast,” Nicole said suspiciously.

 

Waverly placed her hand over Nicole’s and gave it a soft pat until she deflated - a big gust of murderous rage. They’d work on that.

 

“Do you think Bulshar knows what happened?” Waverly asked.

 

Doc puffed out from under his mustache and shrugged as he leaned back in his chair, tipping it onto its rear legs. “There’s not much he doesn’t know. And I know some of his boys were in the saloon that night and saw some of your disagreement. Everyone thinks Waverly is your live-in whore, so it isn’t much of a leap to put together who blew his brains against the back wall in the alleyway.”

 

“Hey!” Waverly protested.

 

Doc looked properly contrite. “It’s just what people think . I know it isn’t...true?” He shot a quick look at Nicole’s mortified face. “It’s not true,” he said more resolutely. “Sorry. Folks talk.”

 

“I’m not a whore!” Waverly found herself defending, not for the first time in her life. “I am a married woman.”

 

“We’re not married,” Nicole pointed out.

 

“I am a soon to be married woman,” Waverly corrected, begrudgingly.

 

“...that was paid for,” Doc clarified.

 

Waverly shot Nicole a scandalized look like, you fix this right now .

 

Nicole seemed to snap out of her lethargic consideration of the situation and gave Doc a hard glare. “Knock it off, Doc. I paid her passage out here. Waverly’s a lady and I ain’t done nothing to her.”

 

A sad truth, but a truth nonetheless.

 

Doc held up his hands apologetically. “Again: people talk. I’m sorry, Waverly.”

 

Dolls punched Doc hard in the shoulder. “We’re guests ,” he reminded him sternly. “And their business is their own.” He took a polite sip of his tea, raising his eyebrows at Doc over the rim of his cup. “Tell them about the other thing.”

 

“Right,” Doc said slowly. He scratched a nail slowly along the felt brim of his hat, a reluctant expression pulling at his mouth. After a few moments of procrastination, he cleared his throat. “We followed one of Bulshar’s riders out to the postmaster, ridin’ like hell. We only caught up to him as he was leaving. I had some... words with the postmaster, but all I could ascertain from the gentleman was that he’d received a letter postmarked for San Jose.”

 

“Yes, that is menacing,” Nicole said wryly while she picked at the remnants of her biscuit.

 

Doc pushed his hat to the side and regarded Nicole more seriously. “You need to spend more time listening , Haught. Because everyone else has heard that the Marshals are setting up shop there of late.”

 

“Marshals?” Waverly paused. “As in, U.S. Marshals? As in federal enforcers?”

 

“As in, the first whispers of federal gunmen coming out to clean up the west, yes those Marshals, Waverly,” Doc said darkly, though his eyes never left Nicole’s. “And this isn’t the first letter to leave town headed that way. They could already be well on their way.”

 

Waverly followed his gaze, glacing worriedly at Nicole’s very best poker face. It was only after such great acts of violence that she was learning to recognize that stubborn pride and fearlessness that would have made a fearsome outlaw in her day. But if Nicole wouldn’t be raddled by a healthy fear of the law, then Waverly would have to do it for the both of them she supposed.

 

“Marshals, Nicole,” she fretted, patting Nicole’s hand to get her attention. It worked, because then Nicole was giving her an apologetic look and releasing that hard-earned tension in her shoulders, slipping back into a body Waverly recognized.

 

“We’ll be alright,” she soothed. “You stay quiet long enough, they forget all about you.”

 

“Yes, if you ever stayed quiet long enough to test that theory, I would certainly love to hear about it,” Dolls said sarcastically, swirling his tea in apparent disgust.

 

“They don’t know that was me,” Nicole rolled her eyes, taking Waverly’s fingers gently in her own where they sat on the table. It was a loose hold - probably not even conscious, but Waverly smiled to herself. “And from what I’ve heard, they’re all rich boys bought on a judge’s commission. They fine people. They’re government bankers, Doc.”

 

“Not the way I heard it these days,” he said darkly. “They’re comin’ over armed . They’re bounty hunters on government dime and resources. I think it pays to be wary, no matter who you used to be.”

 

“Who I still am ,” Nicole corrected. “I can take care of us.”

 

The us was not lost upon her, but it was hard to focus through her worrying. An unconquerable need to anguish over the unchangeable details of fate and consequence had plagued her since birth. It was one of her more charming characteristics.

 

“What if they come here? For you?” Waverly wondered, quite helpless to it, really.

 

“I’ll handle it.”

 

“You will not!” Waverly scolded. “I’ve seen how you handle things and I still haven’t washed it out of your clothes!”

 

Nicole rolled her eyes petulantly, but made no argument.

 

“A wife looks good on you,” Doc teased.

 

Nicole glowered. “She’s not my wife,” she protested weakly, still holding Waverly’s hand. “And it’s just talk right now. Let’s not lose our heads over a bit of talk and dark rumor. There’ll be plenty of time for that later. My bounty’s old and there’s plenty bad men out killin’ as we speak. Don’t worry yourself, Waverly.”

 

Oh, to have any other hobby!

 

“Well I’ll keep my ear to the ground,” Dolls promised, gently setting his teacup aside. “But in the meantime: please keep your head down. Bulshar’s encampment has been strangely active since last night. I’m sure some of this has reached him by now. Mind your back, Haught.”

 

“I thought that was your job,” Nicole said good-naturedly.

 

Dolls spared only a single huff of humor. “Was,” he agreed.

 

“A lot has changed.”

 

A small smile pulled at the corner of his mouth for a brief moment. “And yet…”

 

Nicole hummed her amusement while one of her fingers rubbed at Waverly’s knuckles. The thoughtful silence that blanketed them chaffed horribly at whatever John Henry Holliday was made out of. He pushed to his feet in a mild bluster, draining the tea he clearly hated, and propping his hands on his belt. “Well, ladies, we will leave you to your day,” he decided, giving Dolls a pointed look.

 

Dolls sighed, but grabbed the last crumb from his plate and folded the napkin from his lap on the table. “Thank you for breakfast, Waverly,” he said gravely as though she’d raised him from perdition and not his mild hunger. “We’ll check back in if anything changes,” he promised Nicole.

 

Doc gave a little noncommittal huff, but Waverly suspected she’d see him too if it came to it. She didn’t suppose she knew much of what a former sheriff did with his time, anyhow.

 

Nicole saw them out the door while Waverly tidied up and tried to bring her brain back to whatever mundane, peaceful space it had existed in the past few weeks.

 

They had chores to do.



+++



The farm never really stopped around them, but maybe they had simply sped up. Slowing down long enough to sit with the animals and see to their small tasks felt like pushing against the rotation of the Earth, digging their heels in and demanding an extra few minutes from the day. Watching Nicole sit with a goat in her lap in light of all the blood she had shed was a strange sort of meditation. But meditation nonetheless. Waverly was not in such a position that she could be picky about the sources of peace in her life. Especially not as it currently stood.

 

Marshals and outlaws and murder and such. Honestly.

 

She’d never complain about the lack of adventure in her life again.

 

One of the smallest goats marched right up to Nicole and bleated once in obstinance, right in her face. Nicole just blinked and reached out to cup the kid’s head while it butted gently against her palm. It’s little hooves kicked up dust while they skidden back against the dirt as it tried to push Nicole with its small skull. Waverly giggled, drawing a surprised look from Nicole. She grinned back shyly and nudged the goat on its way.

 

“You should have kids,” Waverly said nonchalantly.

 

Nicole looked back up quickly, mouth slightly open while a goat slipped its head into her jacket pocket and made off with an apple. “You...want kids?”

 

“I…” Waverly colored dramatically, she was sure. “I meant baby goats! You should get more baby goats! Not...human children. Unless you want that?!”

 

“Oh! Right!” Nicole went an even more dramatic shade of red and walked quickly away, babbling about corn feed or something.

 

The lengths to which Waverly’s own ridiculousness extended was surely an unhealthy strain upon her health. A ranch a hundred miles from the nearest doctor was a bad place and time to rupture something.

 

Blowing out a long breath and shaking her head, Waverly couldn’t help but smile ruefully to herself. If they wouldn’t have each other, surely nobody else would.

 

In light of Nicole’s abrupt departure, her smallish quarry came to fight Waverly instead, bopping his head against her shin while she watched Nicole fret about the outside of the barn. She picked up a hay bale, carried it around a little lost, then dropped it right where it had been. And then she picked it up a second time and did the whole thing over again. It was like she’d been blindfolded, spun eight times, then told to find the nearest available wife.

 

And Waverly would have been perfectly content to watch her for the next few years, blissful and quietly frustrated, but the goats had been fed, the chickens tended to, and the garden watered. The cows wouldn’t milk themselves and if Waverly gave Nicole any longer, they’d grow ornery and trample them when they tried. She sighed to herself, stood and dusted her dress, then took a slow walk toward the barn to give Nicole enough time to pick up the hay bale for the third time and wander around pointlessly. What did she know. Maybe it helped.

 

Nicole was just mildly pink by the time she got there - whether from the strain of the directionless hay or her own cripply, mortal fear of intimate conversation - and Waverly touched her hand to the back of Nicole’s arm with a kind smile waiting for her. “Cows wait for no master, Nicole,” she said seriously with an undercurrent of tease. “Come on, I’ve gotten very good at it,” she preened, grabbing Nicole’s elbow and tugging her along into the barn.

 

When she’d set up under Buttercup with a clean pail and clean hands, settled into the tiny stoop of a stool they used to take the pressure from their thighs and backs, she was surprised to find Nicole was just watching her thoughtfully from the neighboring stall.

 

“Enjoying the view?” Waverly asked lightly as she reached out to begin the rhythmic process, mind numbing and quiet.

 

Nicole nodded earnestly and propped her head on her hand where she leaned against the wooden gate. They carried on that way in much the same warm quietude that characterized their lives there on that little farm, the only sound the distant tinny sound of milk hitting the bottom of the pail.

 

Eventually, Nicole asked, “You really love me?”

 

Waverly shot her a small smile before focusing back on her work. “I did say that, didn’t I?”

 

“You did,” Nicole said thoughtfully. Out of the corner of her eye, Waverly watched her take the hat from her head and rest it on the post of the stall so she could curl her finger absently in the growing length of hair that tickled the underside of her chin. “It’s an odd thing, that.”

 

“Love?”

 

“Us,” Nicole clarified.

 

“Odd? We are. Yes.”

 

Nicole breathed out a wistful laugh, so beautiful and delicate it made her heart hurt something grand. “Why do you love me ?” She wondered aloud.

 

Waverly hummed, pursing her lips and perusing the long, ever-expanding catalogue of reasons why she might, could, and should be in love with Nicole Haught. But that could have taken a very long time, indeed. “Because you bathe,” Waverly settled on, cheekily.

 

Nicole laughed - an even harder thump to Waverly’s bleeding heart. “That’s it?” She asked, although she didn’t seem entirely bothered by it.

 

“No, that’s not it,” Waverly chuckled. She tried to think of a larger, grander way to describe the way Nicole Haught had taken residence in rooms she wasn’t even aware existed within her - the way she filled that space and built homes for them there. Why did I love you have to be only three words? How cheap!

 

“You just...well...” She furrowed her brow and considered Buttercup’s flank while it rose and fell in slow, sleepy exhalations. “You make space for me.”

 

“Space?” Nicole repeated, hanging on Waverly’s words with an eagerness nobody ever really had.

 

“Space.”

 

Nicole rolled the word around in her mouth backwards and forwards, but Waverly could tell that she didn’t understand.

 

Waverly nodded. “Space in your home. Space in your life. Space to be me. Space to grow and learn and become myself. Space you can - and have - filled more than generously with yourself before I came out of nowhere with nothing to give. You give so much of yourself without taking anything in return. Even the things you’ve paid for.”

 

Nicole blushed prettily, bashful while she stared out the grimy little window above Buttercup’s stall at the broad shoulders of a day standing tall at its zenith. She grinned, tried to smother it, then failed beautifully. “I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten nothing in return.”

 

“Hm,” Waverly hummed mischievously. “Yes, your farm has benefited from how absurdly talented and gorgeous I am.”

 

Nicole was useless, because she just nodded along in complete harmony with what she considered to be an irrevocable truth. Honestly it wasn’t even fun sometimes.

 

(It was always fun.)

 

“Well, I owe you a great deal,” Waverly pressed on, more genuine. The flow of milk slowed and she brushed her hands off on her skirts, turning to give Nicole her full attention over the full pail of milk between her ankles. “You are fiercely kind and beautiful. You’re my home. And anything I have in my power to give you, is yours. Anything you want.”

 

“I don’t think I’ve done enough to deserve what I want,” Nicole confessed, staring down into the hay at their feet.

 

Waverly stood slowly from the stool, cracking the notches of her spine where they’d crowded each other and stretching her sore legs before coming over to lean against the stall across from Nicole. She smiled sweetly up at her and waited for her to dare and look her in the eyes. “I don’t know what a person deserves. But I think maybe we can deserve each other,” she said, reaching out to run a few of her fingers along the edge of Nicole’s jaw. She imagined the pads of her fingers were rougher than when she’d arrived months ago - worn by work and the new life breathed into her. Nicole’s were still rougher when they came up to capture her hand and hold it there. She almost seemed like she was leaning in toward her like the draw of moths to oil lamps and then-

 

“Stanley!” Nicole griped, jerking back as Stanley’s lips tugged and fussed with the hair at the top of Nicole’s head.

 

Waverly giggled and collapsed against her folded arms on the ridge of the stall. Her warm cheek fell against her forearm as she watched Nicole argue with a horse that didn’t speak english, pushing at his nose when he tried to take another nibble at her shirt.

 

What did a person deserve, anyhow?

 

A girl might spend her whole life trying to define a currency and balance the books on equations of self-worth and shoulds and should-nots, but if good things happen and good love grows between two people, then what value is there in math anyhow? What’s the point in deserving a thing we can’t buy or sell. What’s the point in that?

 

Up to that moment, Waverly hadn’t been very concerned with things that didn’t have a point. She was a lady of her time, after all, and couldn’t be so hypocritical as to condemn things without point .

 

But Nicole Haught felt a whole lot like purpose and fate and other such things she might come to value out there on a little ranch in the middle of nowhere.



+++



Nicole had more questions.

 

“How do you know you love me?” Nicole asked curiously while they mucked out the stalls.

 

Waverly had a quip about the perseverance of her feelings in the face of how much cow shit Nicole was covered in, but swallowed it down. Even covered in shit, Nicole still looked hopeful and lovely.

 

Damnit, but if they could bottle that, they could sell it.

 

“Because I feel the distance between us like an ache. Because when I think about my life, the only thing I can’t replace or lose is you.” She pushed gently at Nicole’s chest where she leaned against an upright shovel, hanging on her words. Nicole swayed and Waverly giggled. “Because you’re very dear to me and I enjoy your face.”

 

“Golly,” Nicole breathed.

 

Waverly rolled her eyes and resumed shoveling.



+++



Nicole had yet more questions.

 

“Doesn’t it bother you that I’m a woman?” She asked after a particularly breathtaking stroke of her log-splitting axe and the satisfying crack of a divided log.

 

Waverly looked up from her knitting. “Doesn’t it bother you that I’m a woman?” She retorted.

 

Nicole blinked at her, hefting the axe onto her shoulder. “No, because I prefer women. I’m odd that way.”

 

“Yes, me too,” Waverly said slowly, raising one eyebrow at Nicole’s logic.

 

Nicole’s head tipped to the side, expression puzzled as she worked through it all. “Oh,” she finally said, still deep in thought while she propped another log onto the stump for slaughter.



+++



Waverly had never been asked so many questions by Nicole in their entire acquaintance.

 

“Wouldn’t your family disapprove?” She asked, supplying a helpful finger at her own self at Waverly’s confused expression. “Of me. And you. Love. Marriage. And stuff.”

 

Waverly’s brain helpfully supplied the fact that Nicole had killed many men in her life and walked with the timeless violence of a new world god on her shoulders. But was otherwise insecure in the fact that a girl loved her. A helpful reminder.

 

“Some of them, maybe,” Waverly said honestly. “Daddy was a hard man - rigid in everything a lady ought to be, but less concerned with what a man ought to be. But Momma was...less so. She was a wild child and not much tamer as she got older. I’m still not sure where she ran off to, but I’m sure me marrying a retired female outlaw doesn’t even come close to Momma’s best day. Willa married a banker and moved far east. My sister Wynonna was…” Waverly laughed to herself. “Well, she was a lot like Momma. Wilder, maybe. Would you believe I’m the good daughter?”

 

Nicole grinned. “If I ain’t known you to be honest, maybe not.”

 

“I was close with Wynonna until she grew too big for our town and too big for what people thought she ought to be. I always admired that. I also admired that she once shot a boy in the leg when he told her she wasn’t wife material.”

 

Nicole nodded, pulling an impressed face. “You make a little more sense, now.”

 

“Oh, not too much sense, surely,” Waverly teased.

 

“Where did Wynonna end up?”

 

Wavelry snorted and thumbed at the worn, eared page of her book. “Oh, gosh. Dead, probably. I haven’t heard from her in years. I think at one point she was riding with a gang protecting train cars for pay or something equally dangerous. I do miss her terribly, though,” Waverly realized. “She was unconventional, but there for me . More than I can say of the others.”

 

Nicole smiled warmly from her place cleaning their dinner dishes. “She sounds lovely. I bet we’d get along. Wish I could’ve met her.”

 

“Yes, but I don’t imagine either of us will ever be meeting any family.” Waverly closed her book and watched the quiet strength of Nicole’s shoulders, heavy with a dark past, but otherwise occupied by the domestic little motions of washing out bowls. Waverly would never tire of the soft and terrible things her cowboy was capable of.

 

Nicole hummed her agreement and went to dry the bowls and place them back in their cabinets. After a few minutes, her hands stilled and set softly on the counter with her back still to Waverly’s chair. “I wish I had more to give you. More family. More safety. More of a life out here.”

 

Waverly closed her book with a soft puff of dry pages and placed it back onto her chair as she stood. It always occurred to her in these rare moments, that she still hadn’t figured out how much she was allowed to take. From a young age, touch and comfort were a thing she was always made to feel like she had to take but wasn’t welcome to. Surely nobody would ever give . But in the moment she wrapped her arms around Nicole from behind, pressing her cheek to the flat plane of her back and squeezing around her middle, it felt more like giving than taking. Nicole stayed propped up against the counter below the kitchen window, but she relaxed back into the hold.

 

“To me, this is more,” Waverly said simply.

 

Nicole’s lungs expanded against her cheek in thoughtful silence while she did the math in her head. By her own words, she’d never been much good at it. But Waverly didn’t think it was so complicated an equation - thought maybe they’d end up in the same place. Nicole was a lot smarter than she gave herself credit for.

 

“I…” Nicole trailed off, hanging sweetly on whatever she was trying to say. But then the moment was broken, as she straightened up and leaned closer toward the window. “The hell is that?” She muttered darkly.

 

Waverly popped up on the tips of her toes to peer over Nicole’s shoulder, through the kitchen window. Her chin hooked on Nicole’s shoulder while she searched the property for what had so rudely interrupted them. Down by the little arched wooden gateway Nicole had built to fence the entrance of the property, a quarter mile out and small to the eye, were a handful of shadowy figures sitting tall on horses. A few held oil lamps, casting them in an eerie glow. Were it not for the lamps, Waverly suspected they might not have noticed them at all out there. Like ominous wraiths, they simply sat high atop their saddles beyond the gate of the farm.

 

Waiting.

 

A cold dread touched at her lower back and slithered upward, wrapping one icey hand around the back of her neck. She shivered involuntarily against Nicole’s back and pressed closer. “Who are they?” She asked quietly.

 

Nicole leaned in closer to the window and though Waverly couldn’t see it, she could imagine the dark cloud over Nicole’s normally kind face - could feel her slip into a place that Waverly couldn’t follow. But when Nicole turned against her, brow furrowed and hand already loosening the revolver at her waist, she reached one gentle hand out to tap her under the chin.

 

“Wait here,” she instructed, brushing carefully past toward the front door.

 

If there was one thing Waverly Earp would not do it was wait there . “Hey!” She scoffed, bustling after Nicole and catching the front door before it slammed in her face. “You can’t fight seven men alone!” She called. It was annoying how she had to take two hurried skips to every one of Nicole’s long, determined strides but she would not be deterred.

 

Nicole stopped abruptly, thirty paces from the entrance gate. So abruptly, in fact, that Waverly’s two skips to every stride led her right into Nicole’s back with an “Oof!”

 

It was like walking into a barn door. Of which Waverly had done.

 

Nicole didn’t budge, just raised her revolver, leveled it straight at the left flank of the group of seven men lined up at her gate and fired.

 

Waverly let out a tiny, embarrassing shriek at the abruptness of it - watched the man on the left fall backward from the shot. His foot caught up in the stirrup as he toppled and his horse reared up, dancing a bit while he was dragged awkward and limp along the ground. The other riders’ horses snorted and stomped at the dirt, canting sideways in their nervousness until they were reigned into submission. The riders didn’t falter, though. Didn’t so much as glance at the corpse of their comrade bleeding in the dirt outside their ranch.

 

Nicole cocked her revolver again, leveling it at the second rider from the left. Her point must have been well-taken, because the riders all pulled large bags from their saddles and dropped them to the dirt outside the gate. Their wrapped packages hit the dirt with loud thumps and then they were turning tail and galloping away as mysteriously as they had appeared. Nicole remained rigid, gun leveled without the slightest shake to its barrel until the riders were just clouds of dust melting into a thick night.

 

When the nervous choir of crickets began picking up around them again, testing the tense night against what had happened there, Waverly sighed out and patted at Nicole’s back.

 

“What was that?” She asked, worrying Nicole’s thick coat in her sweating hands. “You...you just killed him! And then - what did they drop?”

 

Finally, Nicole lowered her revolver to her side, though she made no move to put it away. When she turned back to look at Waverly, her expression softened into concerned surprise. “What are you doing out here?”

 

“You thought I’d wait inside?! Everytime I leave you alone you kill somebody!” Waverly said, just a little south of hysterical.

 

Nicole pursed her lips and looked off to the left. “Well. To be fair, you were here and I still killed somebody.”

 

“Unbelievable!” Waverly scoffed. “You are in trouble!”

 

Nicole turned petulant, cocking her hip and gesturing irritably with her revolver toward the gate. “Me? What about the seven horsemen of the apocalypse out there!”

 

“There were only four horsemen, Nicole.”

 

“I can count!”

 

“No - no, I meant actual horsemen of the- nevermind.”

 

Nicole shoved her revolver back in its holster and grunted. “Well ‘round here there ain’t much of a jury for trespassing . We skip right to judgement.”

 

Waverly sighed. “Yes, I see that. Did you know them?”

“I recognized two of ‘em,” Nicole confirmed as she headed off toward the gate.

 

After a moment of hesitation, Waverly scrambled to catch up with her. The larger part of her was horrified at the prospect of having to see another dead man so soon, but she supposed she might just have to start getting used to that. “Wait!” She called, catching up at Nicole’s side and feeling all the safer for it. “What if they’re still out there?”

 

Nicole didn’t answer her, just stopped abreast the still form of the man she’d shot and rolled him over with the heel of her boot. He was a haggard looking man with a patchy beard and yellowed, unseeing eyes. Waverly suspected the man could have been any age and she wouldn’t have been able to guess it - such was the wear a place and a time like that did to a man. A red hole stained the shirt dead over his heart. It was a surprising lack of blood, but then Waverly realized grimly that he must’ve been dead before he even slipped his saddle.

 

Wordlessly, Nicole abandoned the body and moved to empty one of the seven large sacks rolled and scattered about the hoof prints at their feet. So busy was she staring into those glassy eyes that she missed the unveiling and subsequent noise of disgust Nicole let out. When Waverly finally broke away, she made a similar noise.

 

“God! Is that…?”

 

Nicole hummed her confirmation. To be sure she rolled out the contents of a another sack to similar, gory results. “Shit.”

 

“Oh, the poor dears,” Waverly lamented, flinching away from the dull, balck marble eyes gathering grit and flies in the warm evening air. Each sack contained a brutally slaughtered cow’s head. They’d coagulated and dried out - at least several hours since they’d been on the shoulders of anything. “Who would…? What does it mean? I mean, why…?” Waverly looked helplessly up at Nicole while she studied the scene.

 

“Why would Bulshar’s gang leave a bunch of decapitated cows at the gate of my property?” Nicole asked rhetorically. “Gee, I don’t know.”

 

“Nicole!”

 

“What?!”

Waverly fisted her hands in her skirts. “I don’t know, I’m just freaked out!”

 

With a long gust of a sigh, the tension leaked from Nicole’s shoulders and she tucked her revolver back into its holster. Then she took Waverly’s hand and gave it a small squeeze to get her attention. She hadn’t even realized how untethered she felt until she was anchored once more. “C’mon, Waverly,” she said, the kindness creeping back into her voice. “Let’s go inside. Ain’t none of this gonna sort itself tonight.”

 

It was a blank sort of walk back to the house - Waverly’s legs felt like they’d come loose at the knees and her feet fell numb in the dust each time she expected to feel their press and release. But Nicole led her with a quiet confidence that pulled her along and delivered her safely back to the front door and the warmth of the fireplace. Before she could think too hard about it - a quick reflex indeed - Nicole had sat her in her chair by the fire and draped one of the worn wool blankets she liked best about her shoulders.

 

“I told you to stay inside,” Nicole said, but it was apologetic rather than accusing.

 

Waverly cinched the blanket under her chin and regarded Nicole stubbornly over the top of it. “I want to be your wife, Nicole Haught, but I don’t wish to be your house wife .”

 

“I know that,” Nicole chuckled, shaking her head. “Nor would I want that.” She sat heavily in her own chair and gripped it hard about the arm rests so she could scoot it loudly along the floor and face her more directly in it. When she stilled and settled, her face smoothed into something more somber. “It’s not weakness I see in you, Waverly. But you know me as more than my violence and I’d like to keep it that way.”

 

“You don’t need to hide yourself from me,” Waverly countered, narrowing her eyes. “I’m your partner . Cowboy,” she added.

 

Nicole smiled, a warm twinkle from the fireplace like a low burning ember in the dark depths of her eyes. “Well. Okay then. Partner,” she said with a wink so slight she would’ve thought she imagined it.

 

Damn her. Damn her to hell.

 

Waverly studiously redirected those feelings back to the dangerous and violent business at hand. “And as partners , I need to know what just happened out there. I recognize a threat when I see one. What’s happening, Nicole? What’s going on?”

 

Nicole slumped back in her chair while the logs shifted and chafed against each other in the fireplace, crackling and spitting as they jockeyed for position. Her fingers steepled in front of her chin and her gaze turned distant while she considered it all. “I’m afraid I don’t know. But Bulshar wasn’t born - he was created. And I was there when each piece was put together and each joint welded and each evil thought put in his head. I know how he fits together because I helped put him together.”

 

Nicole paused as she considered the dying licks of flame against soft, ash logs. “I don’t fear him, Waverly. I created him. If the worst thing he does is come to our gates and try to scare me with empty threats and blood, then so be it. I won’t go to him.”

 

“You’re not afraid?” Waverly asked, just a little doubtful even after she’d seen a man eat Nicole’s gun for the price of an insult. “Even in the dark, alone on a farm miles out from town?

 

A slow, confident smirk pulled at the corners of Nicole’s normally modest mouth. “I’m not afraid of the dark, Waverly. The dark is afraid of me .”

 

There was nothing in the expression on Nicole’s face that led Waverly to doubt her.



+++



After her normal fussing and obfuscating and demurring and frustrating gentlewomanly insistence, Waverly had managed to convince Nicole to join her in their bed again. Mysterious pasts be damned.

 

When Nicole trudged in through the dark, lifting a lamp against the crushing dark of the bedroom, her eyes were nervous and her expression soft. She was in her underclothes, just the same as the way they’d shared a bed when Waverly thought her no more than a gentle cowherd. How very far away that seemed.

 

But she looked the same - pale in the lantern light and much more slight than the thick layers of her work clothes let on. She rubbed a tired hand messily against her eye as she came and plopped down on her side of the bed. The lantern was snuffed on the little table beside them and Waverly was left to let her eyes strain and pull against the rich velvet of country darkness. But she’d been in the dark long before Nicole and she was certain her eyes found Nicole’s outline first.

 

Nicole always fell asleep laying still and polite on her back, though Waverly also knew that she’d end up on her stomach shortly thereafter, one hand splayed under their pillows, always seeking a cooler spot. Whatever she did, she would not cross that invisible barrier between them.

 

But Waverly Earp had learned well and learned often that if she wanted something in her life, she had to reach out and dig her nails into it and not let go.

 

Bravely, Waverly rolled to face Nicole. Then, deliberately, in a manner obvious enough for Nicole to avoid if she so chose, Waverly propped up on her elbows and shuffled across that barrier. Even without the clear definition of the room or the bed or the body, she could make out Nicole’s wide, curious eyes. She didn’t retreat - the core of her outlaw probably didn’t know the meaning - but she would not meet Waverly either.

 

That was a journey she had to make alone.

 

Waverly was no outlaw, but she had once ridden a bull for three full minutes on the bet of her sister, three glasses of whiskey deep and only fourteen years old. So yes. She knew a thing or two about dumb, blind bravery.

 

She settled herself on Nicole’s chest, cheek to her heart and tucked under her chin, one hand sneaking around Nicole’s ribcage to pull her closer. To her honest surprise, Nicole was only stiff a moment and then she relaxed into it. A barely there touch ghosted against her back - tugged softly against her hair - and she realized Nicole was running her hand absently through her long hair.

 

“Is this okay?” Waverly ventured, a grating whisper against the normal chorus of the prairie.

 

She could feel the answering hum like a deep roll of thunder in the chamber of Nicole’s chest. It was awfully comforting to someone who’d spent so long afraid of storms. Falling in love with one can change a lot of things, she supposed.

 

And other such sentimental nonsense she’d only found the footing to feel in the past several months.

 

Waverly’s last thoughts that night were of how nice it was that she ran cold and Nicole ran hot.



+++



The next morning brought them something stranger than the heads of a bunch of poor, decapitated cows at their front gate. Waverly was standing at the sink thinking about how pleasant it had been to wake up and have Nicole reach for her when-

 

Waverly narrowed her eyes and stared blankly out the window there. “Why is Robert Svane sitting on our front porch?” She puzzled.

 

A few moments later, she remembered to stop Nicole from murdering another neighbor and intercepted her at the front door, pushing up at the butt of her revolver to aim it toward the ceiling. “No! Robert’s my friend!” she scolded.

 

“Well forgive me for not trusting any of our visitors anymore,” Nicole muttered, but let herself be pushed back while Waverly answered the door much more kindly.

 

“Robert!” Waverly called, swinging the door open and smiling at Robert’s serene face where he tipped back in one of their porch chairs.

 

One of his eyes opened and swiveled to fix on her. “Oh, good morning, Waverly.”

 

“Why are you on our porch?” Waverly asked politely. “Why haven’t you knocked?”

 

Robert’s eyes slipped closed again and he gave an appropriately dramatic pause to his storytelling. “Well. I would have knocked.” He made some flamboyant gesture with his hand and pointed in the general direction of their front gate. “But there were many dead things and people. I felt it best not to disturb. You’ve clearly had a...ah, long night.”

 

“Robert, why are you on my porch before the sun’s up?” Nicole asked dryly from behind Waverly. “I thought we both agreed we’d seen enough of each other to last from this life well into the next. Thought we called it a day.”

 

Robert’s eyes rolled open again and he gave Nicole a sardonic smile over the top of Waverly’s head. “Are we really friends until I’ve seen you in your underclothes, though?”

 

“We’ve been in three different jail cells together and almost got killed by the same bear. Surely we’ve had enough friendship to kill the both of us,” she muttered.

 

Robert grinned widely. “Well, happy reunions aside. I’m here for my dear friend, Waverly. Not everything is about you, Haught.”

 

Nicole scoffed and retreated back into the house, leaving Waverly to deal with their house guest. If that wasn’t a ringing endorsement of the lack of threat Robert posed to them, Waverly wasn’t certain what would have been. “Would you like to come in? I’ll make some tea and put on some breakfast.”

 

“Civilization in the West,” Robert said humbly, sweeping to his feet gracefully and coming to stand in front of Waverly with a little bow. “You are a true lady married to a scoundrel.”

 

“I am aren’t I?” Waverly teased, leading him inside while Nicole pouted in her armchair by the fire, pufing angrily on a cigarette. “She saved your life, though, did she not?”

 

“She did,” Robert confirmed, making himself at home at their dining table. He set the leather portfolio that had been tucked under his arm on top of the countertop and smoothed his hands over it. “It was an ungraceful job of it, but quite heroic. Legendary, even.”

 

“Oh yeah?” Nicole strained to glare around the back of her chair, cigarette hanging limply between her lips. “And how would you have gracefully fought an angry male bear on his own territory, hm? I’m accepting recommendations at this time.”

 

Robert’s grin grew wider as he ignored Nicole. “She’s good fun, isn’t she?”

 

“Yes,” Waverly agreed, setting a cup of tea in front of Robert and settling across from him. “Did you travel with her gang?”

 

“Oh yes. For a little while, at least,” he nodded, sipping politely at his tea. “What is art without adventure? What is art without risk?”

 

“Palatable!” Nicole grouched from across the room.

 

They ignored her. “My best pieces are from my wilder days. But I cultivate a softer art now. One that is less likely to kill me. The lust for danger fades fast, my dear.”

 

Waverly wasn’t so sure about that. She still felt a considerable lust for the danger she was living with.

 

“What’s in the portfolio?” Waverly asked, diverting from the tragedy of her complicated and murder-fraught love life. “Photographs?”

 

“Ah,” Robert snapped his fingers and pushed the leather wrapped portfolio across the table to sit in front of Waverly’s tea. “My newest piece: for you.”

 

Waverly set her tea down and glanced in pleased surprise between the worn leather case and Robert’s expectant expression. “For me?” She echoed.

 

He held his palm out and gestured humbly. “For you.”

 

She tried not to get too excited as she loosened the wrapped string, tied up in toggles and knotted in a way she was sure Robert had been doing for years. It took her a lot longer than it probably would have taken him, but that could have just been her excitement. Before Nicole, nobody had really given her gifts. Wynonna had once ‘gifted’ her an angry porcupine for her ninth birthday, but Waverly didn’t care to count or remember that.

 

When she finally loosened it and flipped one of the soft leather flaps up to slide a hard-mounted photograph gently out of the casing, she froze with it out flat on the table.

 

Even in black and white it was a gruesome sight. The damage Nicole had wrought was fascinating in that removed kind of way. Clinical but artistic. The low, unnatural hang of Bondicus’s jaw and the black tint of the pool of blood he expired in. The spray back on the wall behind his corpse. The glaze of his dull eyes.

 

Waverly swallowed heavily a few times, then looked up slowly to meet Robert’s keen gaze. “This is...provocative,” she said quietly.

 

“It’s horrible,” Robert corrected. His gaze was intense as he peered deeper into Waverly than she’d have liked, but he eventually broke it to beckon her attention back to the photograph. “Look harder, Waverly. I know what he did to you - what he tried to do to you,” he corrected, blunt but not without forgiveness. “This is how he will be immortalized for that,” he promised.

 

Waverly forced herself to look again at the ghastly photograph. The longer she looked, the more she came to swallow it down. Perhaps she could appreciate that there was a certain comfort in the end wrought upon a man like that. She wouldn’t feel his breath on her neck again or the hard dig of his hips into hers. The surprising comfort of the photograph distracted her such that she hadn’t even realized Nicole had come up behind her and leaned down to take a look.

 

“Oi! Robert, what the hell?” She snapped.

 

Robert tipped back in the chair and dug a disinterested finer around in the shell of his ear. “Relax, Haught,” he waved her off.

 

“What do you think you’re doing, showing her a thing like that?” She demanded.

 

Waverly reached blindly back and patted at Nicole’s stomach. “Relax, Nicole. He thinks he’s helping.”

 

“This photograph is horrible!”

 

Shrugging, Waverly gestured at it before regarding Nicole over her shoulder. “It’s quite good, actually. Look at the quality.”

 

Robert rolled his wrist and took a mock bow from his chair. “Thank you, Waverly.”

 

“You’re both insane.”

 

The look Robert bestowed upon Nicole over a frilly china set she had bought for her very insane, very indulged wife on land watered with violence and paid for by theft begged Nicole to appreciate the irony of the situation.

 

“Be nice, Nicole,” Waverly said dismissively. “It makes me feel...well, weirdly it’s kind of comforting.”

 

“You are positively demented,” Robert complimented with a kind smile and salute of his tea cup.

 

Nicole sat heavily in one of the remaining chairs at the table with a long suffering sigh. She reached out gently, suddenly much more reverent of the photograph when she pulled it by one corner to rest in front of her on the table. One of her hands massaged at her temple while the other framed the photograph as she studied it. It must have been odd for her to see her handprint like that - clinical, black and white, days old but raw .

 

Whatever her feelings on the matter, Nicole looked up into Waverly’s eyes with gentle indulgence. “This makes you feel better?” At Waverly’s small, honest nod, Nicole steeled herself and wrapped her arms protectively around the image. “We’ll take it. I’ll have it framed.”

 

Robert offered what Waverly was sure he thought was a charming grin but looked more like a wicked grimace. “Oh,” he crooned, “I like this new Nicole Haught.”

 

“You won’t,” Nicole promised darkly.

 

It was so nice having friends for tea.



+++



“And then, she leapt on the Grizzly’s back with naught but a six-inch hunting knife and a war cry the likes of an ancient viking warship! I admit even I was afraid, but she clung there, battered and whipped about while it roared and tried to buck her. It was the size of a small barge, I’d swear it!”

 

Nicole rolled her brave, viking eyes so hard they must have grazed the ceiling. “It was a black bear and it wasn’t full grown.”

 

“And just when I thought the monstrous, court-house sized Grizzly bear was about to get its horrible claws into Nicole and bite her noble head off…” Robert trailed off with one flagrant hand raised in dramatic gesture.

 

Waverly gasped, covering her mouth with one hand. “Not her noble head! I love her noble head!”

 

“Oh, brother,” Nicole muttered.

 

Robert’s hand fell like the dropping of an axe. “...she wrestled the bear into a chokehold! She damn near snapped a Grizzly bear’s neck with naught but the strain of her muscle and the steel in her heart!”

 

Nicole looked over her shoulder from where she was smoking irritably in front of the fire. “Are you saying I choked out a bear?”

 

“I was there, Haught! Don’t interrupt your bard.”

 

“I didn’t hire you,” Nicole grumbled , puffing like a chimney.

 

Waverly leaned in, rapt. “Did she die?”

 

“Nearly!” Robert leaned in too so they were almost nose to nose. “After wrestling that monster to the ground, Nicole raised her knife above her head and delivered the final blow - a heroic and well-aimed swing of her knife...right into the beast’s heart!”

 

Waverly had never been so aroused in her entire life.

 

And she suspected, neither had Robert.

 

“And I knew…” Robert sat back as he closed his eyes and raised his hands in supplication. “I knew I had found my captain that day. My queen.”

 

“And I knew I had made the worst charitable donation of my life,” Nicole added.

 

Even hours later, Waverly still shot Robert a keen look. “Tell me another story about Nicole,” she demanded for what had to have been about the tenth time that afternoon.

 

And Robert seemed inclined to indulge her, but he paused with his mouth open and glanced out the window. His mouth closed and his expression turned regretful. “Ah, but how the day has escaped us.”

 

Indeed, Waverly was surprised to see how the sun had slipped away and sunk deep and red in the western foothills. The barn and fields were cast in a rusty glow which poured into the kitchen and seeped into the floorboards. “I hadn’t realized,” she said. “Can’t you stay the night?”

 

“Nope. Nope. Nope,” Nicole stood from her chair and came out to the kitchen. Both of her hands came down on Waverly’s shoulders, almost possessive as she stood over her. Waverly tried not to look too smug about it. She didn’t try that hard , but she did try.

 

Waverly glanced up at Nicole’s sardonic smile. “It’s been a real... time . Having you here, Bobo. But you should really get goin’ before it gets dark. We’ve been having all sorts of unwelcome visitors lately and none so mild-mannered as yourself.”

 

She might have pouted a little bit, but otherwise kept her protests to herself. Robert didn’t object either, just held his hands up in surrender and took the napkin from his lap to discard on the table. “You’re right. I wouldn’t want to disrupt your...nighttime activities.” He raised one eyebrow over Waverly’s head.

 

Where Waverly expected blustering denial and burning embarrassment, Nicole only tightened her soft grip on Waverly’s shoulders. “No, I don't imagine you would,” she said. Salaciously.

 

Since when was Nicole Haught salacious ?

Waverly turned to look up at her, but Nicole didn’t retreat. Robert nodded with his eyes closed, a slow, ponderous motion. Before he stood to go, though, he beckoned them closer with one hand. “I’m afraid I must leave you with some news.”

 

“You never manage to leave me with anything good, do you?” Nicole asked wearily.

 

“Now what fun would that be?” Robert’s expression shuttered and he loomed closer, propped up on tense elbows while the slanting shadows of the evening drew dark over his eyes. “You are about to be trapped between a very large rock and a very hard place, Nicole Haught.” He eyed her with one ominously raised eyebrow. “Here is the rock: Bulshar is restless . He’s plotting and he’s moving and I think you might know why.”

 

Nicole’s hands twitched against her shoulders.

 

“If Bulshar has sent you any messages, I think you would do well to heed them. You should know more than anyone that Bulshar keeps his promises.” Robert’s eyes tracked down from Nicole’s to meet Waverly’s with a brief, heavy look before returning upwards. “And you should know that Bulshar does not take kindly to being deprived of the things he believes are his . The things he believes he’s purchased .”

 

Point made, Robert tapped one finger against the table for emphasis, then stood and flicked the tails of his coat out behind him. “But I do know you , Haught,” he added. “And when you’re ready to ride again - and I mean really ride the way you did when the west knew and feared your name - then you come find me. Because I will be there when you pull Bulshar’s heart out of his throat. I’ll be there for the blood. You can count on that.”

 

Robert turned to leave, almost making it out the door before Nicole called after him.

 

“Robert, wait,” Nicole commanded. “What’s the ‘ hard place ’ then?”

 

Robert’s chin tipped over his shoulder, the door flung open for his exit. “As of this morning there’s a Marshal in town.”



+++



When Robert was long gone with the last of the daylight and the only light in the house was a dim glow of the last flickering embers in the fireplace, Waverly watched Nicole where she stood hunched and brooding over the kitchen countertop. Her arms were splayed wide to hold up overworked shoulders, head hanging a little low on her neck.

 

Long ago, Waverly had set aside her distractions and took to watching the light die and Nicole fold into shadow. Her brooding took up space in the house - space they didn’t really have with their quaint little two-room farmhouse. It edged out their furniture and pushed into the crevices Waverly saved for their quiet evenings and pleasant indulgences.

 

Nicole had been that way ever since Robert had left.

 

Occasionally, Nicole’s fingers tapped a dull rhythm against the wood grain where they rested. And occasionally it felt like the skipped tempo of her own pulse.

 

The fire wouldn’t last, though. And if Nicole didn’t come to bed or stoke the fire, they’d be plunged into a darkness Waverly still wasn’t acclimated to - still couldn’t settle in from her life in a City that never quite slept. She stood quietly and made her way over to Nicole’s side, reaching out tentatively to draw Nicole from whatever had drawn her brow into such sternness.

 

Just for a moment, when Waverly touched Nicole’s tense forearm and Nicole’s head whipped toward her in the dark - Waverly saw it there in the black of her eyes.

 

Real darkness.

 

A moment, and it was gone. Nicole gave her a tired smile and turned to prop her hip against the counter facing Waverly. “Sorry. I’m distracted.”

 

“I can tell,” Waverly said sympathetically. She reached out again to feel the warmth of Nicole’s skin and ward against the cold she’d seen. “Are you okay?” She asked.

 

“I’m...concerned,” Nicole settled on. To Waverly’s surprise, Nicole took the hand that had touched at her arm and held it loosely in her own.

 

“Is this about the Marshal?”

 

Nicole’s smile turned wry. “No. I can handle the law .” As her expression began to retreat into something sinister, Waverly’s other hand came up to hold onto her and reel her back in.

 

“Then what has you so bothered? You’ve looked so…”

 

“So what?”

 

Dark.

 

Waverly let it dangle, squeezing her hand. “Lost,” she settled on. “What are you thinking about?” The crickets took up the space in their conversation in little swelling symphonies while Nicole chewed on her words and worried Waverly’s fingers between her own.

 

“If I…” her eyes widened, pleading as she looked down into Waverly’s face. “If I do what Robert told me to do…” One breath in and her eyes slipped closed. “If I leave here and track down Bulshar - if I go out and kill him dead. If I rip him apart, would you still think kindly of me?” She finished, eyes slipping back open to regard her.

 

Waverly blinked, her head tilting to the side curiously. “I thought he didn’t scare you? You said you wouldn’t go after him. You said you created him . Did Robert really scare you that much?”

 

“I think I might have miscalculated,” Nicole said quietly. Her eyes searched Waverly’s face for something Waverly was powerless to find for her. She didn’t know what Nicole wanted, but she would have done a lot to give it to her. “I need to end him. I’d leave tonight if you’d let me.”

 

“You’re acting strangely,” Waverly pointed out. Her eyes narrowed and she tugged at Nicole’s hands. “What aren’t you telling me?”

 

Nicole looked guiltily away.

 

“You tell me right now, Nicole Haught. If I’m going to have to sit here and watch you walk out that door to kill a man, I deserve to know why!” She said fiercely. “I deserve to know what’s changed in the last few hours and I deserve to know what kind of danger you’re in.”

 

“It’s not-!” Nicole let out a groan and grabbed at her temple with her free hand. “It’s not about me, alright?”

 

“Well gee, then who’s it about?” Waverly asked sarcastically. “If you keep going out looking for trouble, that Marshal is going to find you . They’ll take you to prison, Nicole.”

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t be sent to prison, Waverly. I’d be hanged,” Nicole said reasonably.

 

Waverly let out some horrified noise and ripped her hands out of Nicole’s. “Can you not be so horrible all the time?! Can we just milk a cow without you murdering someone? Can I knit you a fucking scarf without worrying you’re going to use it to garrote a man who looks at me sideways!?”

 

Nicole stepped back in a quick jerk like Waverly had slapped her across the face. The hard shutter she tried to slam over her hurt expression barely worked. “I won’t apologize for what I’ve been made to do,” she said lowly, wrapping a tense white-knuckled grip around the edge of the counter.

 

“I love you, Nicole Haught, but if you can’t be honest with me and if you can’t control that thing that’s grown inside you, then I - I…”

 

Well. She didn’t know what.

 

“You’ll what?” Nicole demanded.

 

Waverly threw her hands up and spun on her heel, stalking off toward the bedroom. “I’m going to bed!”




+++




Waverly sat on the edge of the bed for an hour or more, simmering gently into a roilling boil before stagnating into lukewarm disappointment. It ebbed into nothing but raw hurt feelings the longer she sat there swinging her legs alone on the edge of a bed too big for her. Waverly Earp was very good at lighting a fuse, but she wasn’t as good at picking up the pieces afterwards.

 

It wasn’t that Nicole wore the cold violent delights of that lawless land like a tailored vest. It wasn’t even that she killed.

 

It was that Waverly was afraid that one day, Nicole would leave with all the parts of herself that Waverly loved and come back with only half.

 

Or maybe none at all.

 

The door creaked open in the dark of the room and Waverly spared the figure a glance to make sure it matched that of Nicole. It was dark, of course, but only Nicole hung on the doorframe every night they spent together like she couldn’t quite believe Waverly was there. Always the same reverence, nevermind the quarrel.

 

Nicole’s hands eventually slipped from the frame and she plodded over slowly to stand with her toes nearly touching Waverly’s, looming over her. As a person of unassuming, travel proportions, Wavelry did not typically appreciate looming . But with Nicole it always felt more like a shelter than a spectre.

 

When Waverly didn’t look up at her, Nicole squatted down under Waverly’s eyeline and placed her hands gently on her knees to look up at her.

 

And goddamn that look she could give.

 

“I’m sorry I’m so horrible all the time,” Nicole said seriously.

 

Waverly couldn’t help the wet laugh that bubbled up her throat even if she had wanted to. “You’re only horrible some of the time,” she sniffed, placing her hands over the ones on her knees. She searched the dull, earnest reflection of Nicole’s eyes trying to measure their depths without light enough to see to the bottom. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

 

“You did a little,” Nicole said kindly. “I want you to understand that...I’d never touch a gun again - never think another bad thought again - if I thought you were safe here.”

 

“I’m not safe here?” Waverly asked quietly.

 

Nicole hung her head wearily. “No,” she admitted, at what Waverly was sure was great cost to her honor. “Not yet.” She looked up with a determined pinch to her brows. “Not until Bulshar is dead.”

 

“Why, though?” Waverly turned her palms up into Nicole’s and held onto her wrists gently, imploring her to be honest with her. “Why now? Why do you have to go off into danger and death? Why do you have to go somewhere I can’t protect you?”

 

“Protect me?” Nicole chuckled. “I don’t need you to protect me.”

 

“Yes you do,” Waverly said sternly. “I need to protect the good parts of you.”

 

“The good parts,” Nicole echoed doubtfully.

 

“The parts that don’t kill people and take things that don’t belong to you.”

 

Nicole gave her a hard look. It could easily have been the creeping presence of autumn, crawling up through the floorboards and slipping under the sheets up Waverly’s skin as the season turned - but Waverly suspected it was more the look Nicole gave her that made her shiver. Nobody had ever trusted her with much of anything, but when Nicole nodded and whispered, “Okay,” she felt she had just inherited a grave responsibility.

 

“You keep those parts safe.” She smiled up at Waverly from the darkness. “And I’ll keep you safe.”

 

Nicole’s hands on her knees only served to draw attention to the chill working its way into the room - into Waverly. It was easier to blame that for the way she swayed forward as though moved by a particular breeze, until her forehead rested softly against Nicole’s. Whatever the cause - be it a dying summer, the cloud over their heads, or the way Nicole looked at her - Waverly shivered.

 

Nicole breathed out against her mouth while both of their eyes slipped closed. “Are you scared, Waverly?”

 

“Should I be?”

 

Nicole’s eyes focused back on her own with a burning intensity Waverly was unaccustomed to seeing there. “I think we all live longer when we’re afraid.”

 

Before she could stop herself, Waverly found herself wondering in a small voice, “Are you a good person, Nicole?”

 

The shadow passed like clouds rolling out and Nicole gave her a small smile, as soft around the edges as she’d ever been. “I don’t know,” she answered honestly. As she looked into Waverly’s face with a rare kind of openness, the smile became an ache in her throat. “But whatever you may feel or whatever I might do, please know that I will do anything to protect you. You are safe with me,” she promised, sworn on as many graves as she’d dug. Would dig.

 

“You can’t even imagine the things I’d do to keep you safe,” she said as though from a great distance.

 

That was the problem, though, wasn’t it? Waverly knew exactly the kinds of things Nicole would do to keep her safe.

 

She started a bit when Nicole’s hands came up to frame her face, smoothing stray hairs back behind her ear and tracing the line of her jaw. And though Waverly had almost no experience to base it upon, her intuition told her she was about to be kissed.

 

There, with Nicole kneeling in a cold, dark floor and the betrayal of the frantic fluttering of Nicole’s pulse against Waverly’s cheek, she…

 

Couldn’t.

 

She couldn’t let Nicole kiss her under the heel of violence and fear. Couldn’t let darkness drive them together.

 

Not when they were so much more.

 

Gently, Waverly brought her hands to Nicole’s and pulled them from her face. She leaned back, breaking their connection, and offered the confused, hazy disappointment in Nicole’s blown pupils an apologetic smile. “Not now,” She whispered. “Not in the dark.”

 

Maybe what Nicole wasn’t banking on were the things Waverly would do to keep her whole.

 


+++

Chapter Text

+++


Nicole was subdued in the morning, quiet and pensive while she made them coffee. Between tasks, she’d drift off into her own head, pausing with her hand on something or a mug lifted in the air while she fell out of her body for a few moments. She always came back after a while, a little startled and blinking like she’d been shaken awake.

 

It was relatively harmless, Waverly figured.

 

Thinking .

 

Although, her father had always believed it to be one of the more dangerous preoccupations for a young woman, Waverly hadn’t found it to be so. Look at her: she had turned out completely normal.

 

But it did bring to mind the distance she’d put between them the previous night. Nicole had been a breath away from leaning in and kissing her - what she’d been trying to conspicuously encourage for the last few months - what she’d been waiting for - and then…

 

Waverly sighed to herself while Nicole’s eyes slipped out of focus with her hand hovering above a cabinet door. As a low, howling wind whistled and split against the house, Waverly snuggled further into the blanket around her shoulders and pondered .

 

Another thing she’d been discouraged from inflicting upon her poor, fragile female brain.

 

A small part of her worried that she’d squandered her only chance at bringing Nicole that close to her. Maybe Nicole was upset with her?

 

But last night hadn’t been right .

 

Nicole fell back into herself again with a little start and resumed the motion of opening the cabinet to muddle around for something to eat. Waverly had woken up shivering in the surprising cold of the morning and had thus lost her fire and passion for running her long, grueling campaign to completely steal Nicole’s kitchen out from under her.

 

Well.

 

Her campaign was on hold, at the very least.

 

She watched Nicole scrounge for their breakfast thinking, menacingly:

 

Soon.

 

Nicole eventually came back with boiled eggs and stale biscuits with a small, innocent smile. Completely unsuspecting of the guerilla campaign Waverly was running against her. All according to plan.

 

“Thank you,” Waverly said, twisting her hands up in the blanket so only her cold fingers stuck out to manipulate her breakfast. Nicole tipped her chin in polite acknowledgement and tucked into her own plate in much the same quiet, ponderous melancholy that had absorbed them since they awoke.

 

Outside the window, a cold morning fog was lifting from the farm, chased off by a hazy sun climbing over the barn. Everything looked clearer when the temperature burned off. Cold had a habit of making everything more vivid. More poignant.

 

“I’m sorry,” Nicole finally said, looking around with wide eyes like she was just a bit lost in her own living room. “I shouldn’t have…” She swallowed what looked like a painful lump in her throat. “Well. I’m sorry we fought.”

 

“We’re going to fight sometimes,” Waverly said simply.

 

Nicole let them fall into an awkward quiet while she stared down at her plate and picked a biscuit into shreds. Waverly waited her out while her fingers got colder and colder.

 

“You...um. Did you, uh, not want to kiss me last night?” She finally managed, with only minimal choking. “I’m sorry. I did that. I just…”

 

“Nicole,” Waverly cut her off. “I’ve wanted nothing more than to kiss you for a very, very long and frankly embarrassing amount of time. But last night we had things to say.” Hunching her shoulders, she was able to bunch the blanket more warmly around her ears.

 

“Right.” Nicole nodded stiffly. “You’re right. We’ll just...do that...some other time.”

 

Waverly really couldn’t have been expected to stifle the small snort of laughter that came out. At the very least, it got Nicole to finally look at her with a small embarrassed smile. “I think,” Waverly said slowly, “there’s gonna come a moment when we don’t have things that need to be said anymore. There’s going to be a moment when that’s all we need to say.”

 

“I look forward to that moment,” Nicole said with a grin.

 

“You should. I have basically no experience, I’m bossy, and I’m very nervous. I’ve been assured these are all desirable qualities in a woman,” Waverly laughed.

 

In only a moment, Nicole’s face hardened as her eyes caught something over Waverly’s shoulder. She stood in one fluid motion and stalked off toward the window with Waverly hot on her heels.

 

“I really wish nobody would ever visit us again,” Nicole sighed.

 

Waverly was relieved, of course, to see John Henry at the head of a small group of men riding up through the gate toward their house. The relief was short-lived, though, when she saw the rifles and shotguns slung over backs and tucked into riding bags. Sheriff Nedley was at John Henry’s right and every yard that carried them closer to the house brought sharper clarity to the grave expressions on their faces. As they drew up to the house, a cold fear settled into Waverly’s joints.

 

What if they were there for Nicole?

 

If Nicole shared those fears, she didn’t let them show. She just pulled her coat on and checked the chamber of her revolver. Grimly, she set her hand on the front door and paused. “I’d tell you to stay inside, but I know it’s worthless.”

 

“Well, you are learning,” Waverly agreed, trading her blanket for her own coat to join Nicole outside.

 

Nicole jerked the door open, revolver held loose at the side of her thigh. “Sheriff,” she greeted, nodding once to him. “Doc, Dolls. Gentlemen.”

 

Studying their faces, Waverly found that many of the men that she didn’t recognize had no love for Nicole. Theirs was a distrustful truce, fingers dancing cautiously along holsters and reins like they’d just as soon fight or flee than have a conversation with her. It certainly didn’t do anything to put her at ease.

 

To Nicole’s credit, she ignored them and focused only on the Sheriff. Like a dozen trigger-itching men on her doorstep didn’t scare her. Maybe it didn’t. “What can I do you for?” She asked, shooting a brief, suspicious glance behind her that Waverly didn’t know how to interpret.

 

Sheriff Nedley stayed atop his horse and nodded briefly at Waverly in a show of respect. “Bulshar’s left his camp - took almost all his men with him and started riding northwest. Hard. They’ve got at least half a day on us.” He sketched a vague gesture with his hand pointing north and a small curve and swoop of two fingers. “He’s done this before when there was a banking train passing through up in Calico. I’m sure he means to take the train.”

 

“That does sound like him,” Nicole said slowly, regarding Nedley like she couldn’t quite figure how that concerned her.

 

The Sheriff sighed out wearily and pulled the hat from his head to wipe his forearm across his forehead. They must’ve been riding hard out to the farm for him to sweat like that in the morning chill. “Haught -” He let the hand holding his hat rest against the pommel of his saddle and gave her an earnest and open look. “Nicole. The last train he hit, he killed all of ‘em. Slaughtered them in their seats - unarmed men, women, and kids.”

 

All Waverly could see of Nicole was the way her spine straightened, her shoulders pushing back stiffly.

 

“I know you don’t...I know you don’t live like that no more. But we need some of what you used to be,” he said and anybody present could read how much it cost him to admit it.

 

Nicole studied the Sheriff for a long few moments. “Heard there was a Marshal in town. Take him.”

 

Sheriff Nedley let out an abrupt bark of laughter. “Right. Well. The Marshall’s already ridden ahead - left us in the dust an hour ago and didn’t see much point picking up a hermit farmer for the posse.”

 

“You didn’t tell him who I was?”

 

“Didn’t ask,” the Sheriff said evasively. “A farmer nearly two hours out from my town isn’t my concern,” he explained, leaning forward in his saddle with one pointed eyebrow raised. “Until she is . You understand, kid?”

 

Nicole gave him a single nod of acknowledgement. “The Marshal would recognize me from my bounties, no?”

 

“Make sure you’re not so recognizable, then.” The sheriff sat up straighter in his saddle and gathered his reins. “Are you comin’ or are you hidin’?”

 

Waverly realized in the heat of it that most of the men had turned to look at her. Probably because that was the first thing Nicole had done: turn to her.

 

She stared back, quite unsure what she was meant to say, if anything. Luckily she was saved the embarrassment of that decision when Nicole turned back to the Sheriff and motioned toward the barn. “Water your horses around back - you’ll have my answer shortly.”

 

Nedley demurred, tipping his hat and making a roundup motion for his group to follow him toward the barn, horses stomping restlessly in the dirt while they took a slow pace away. Only Dolls remained, atop a heavily spotted white and black mare that swayed with his every twitch, so perfectly attuned it was like their joints were pulled on the same puppet strings. He offered Waverly a small wink out of the corner of his eye.

 

“You’re not riding for them, are you?” Nicole asked, deflating a bit as she cocked one hand against her hip. Her expression was doubtful, which only served to draw a slight smile to Dolls’ face.

 

“I don’t ride for anyone,” Dolls promised. “You and I both know that.”

 

“Good,” Nicole said simply. “Came for the tea, did you? Wives aren’t that expensive, Dolls.”

 

He laughed mildly and swung down from his patient mare, patting her on her nose while she chewed at her bit. “I came,” he said slowly, “for you.”

 

“Me?” Nicole seemed skeptical.

 

“I don’t ride for anyone. But I do ride with you,” he said seriously. “If you’re going off to play hero, I’m going too.”

 

Nicole snorted. “Yeah, I’m not much good at playing.” She came to stand beside Waverly on the porch, one of her hands going to Waverly’s lower back gently. “I wouldn’t see you do anything for me neither.”

 

With you,” Dolls corrected. “We don’t ride together because I feel I’m in your service,” he said sternly. “We ride together because we’re loyal to each other. Don’t presume to know better than I do how best to be a free man.”

 

Nicole sighed, but gave up whatever objects may have been on her tongue. Instead she pressed more firmly against Waverly’s lower back and turned back toward the house. “Well. Nobody rides unless I get permission.”

 

Waverly only realized Nicole meant her permission when she was being led back into the house. Dolls called after them good-naturedly, “I’m glad we both lived long enough to see you need permission to do anything.”

 

When she’d been ushered back inside, Nicole turned and looked down into her eyes. “What are you thinking, Waverly?”

 

“What am I thinking? What are you thinking?” Waverly countered.

 

“I’m thinking I want to know what you’re thinking,” Nicole teased.

 

Waverly let out a long-suffering sigh but couldn’t stay mad at the fond expression Nicole was giving her. “Fine. I’m thinking that I want to be very selfish right now.”

 

“Waverly Earp? Selfish? Well I never.”

 

Reaching out for the sake of reaching out, Waverly grabbed hold of Nicole’s gun belt and stared down at it while her fingertips touched into the warm shirt tucked in at Nicole’s waist. “I don’t want you to go. That Marshal might be here for you. But I can’t sleep at night knowing I stopped you.”

 

Nicole hummed thoughtfully and reached out to sift a long tendril of Waverly’s hair through loose fingers. “More and more it feels like Bulshar is... inevitable .”

 

“What would you do if I wasn’t here? Would you ride with them? Would you save those people on the train?” She continued, speaking to Nicole’s waist.

 

Nicole laughed, drawing Waverly’s eyes upward in surprise. “That’s not a fair question. I’m not the same person as I was without you.” She shrugged and sighed dramatically. “My first thought when he said they needed me to save some women and children was, goddamnit but I’m gonna have to ride out with them or I ain’t ever gonna deserve her .”

 

Waverly blinked back tears because she knew, deep down, that she was going to have to let Nicole go or she would never deserve her either. “Damnit,” she cursed, pounding one fist gently against Nicole’s belly while she held her there by the belt. “You be good out there, you hear me? Remember those parts of yourself. Don’t lose yourself.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“And you come back.”

 

“Yes, Ma’am.”

 

“Or I will kill you.”

 

“Naturally.”

 

All she could manage was a frustrated sigh, swallowing hard so she didn’t cry again as she pushed Nicole away and released her. “Go. Before I change my mind.” She turned her back pointedly, unable to watch her back as she headed out and closed a door between them. Her arms came up to cross against her chest, holding herself together there and waiting to be left alone.

 

Nicole didn’t move for a long moment. So long that Waverly wondered if she hadn’t changed her mind about going. But then Nicole’s hand touched gently to her shoulder and her lips pressed against the crown of her head. When her footsteps finally retreated toward the door and it creaked open and closed, Waverly allowed herself to reach up and swipe the beginnings of tears she wouldn’t allow from her lashes.


+++


A knock on the door ten minutes later startled her out of her morose knitting. It wasn’t going well anyways, but she was still annoyed. Perhaps Nicole had forgotten something.

 

She pulled the front door open to find Xavier standing with his hat in his hands. Waverly blinked at him, quite forgetting her manners and neglecting to invite him inside.

 

“If it makes you feel better,” he sighed, rubbing a tired hand through his short cropped hair, “I’m being left behind too.”

 

Waverly’s brow furrowed and she leaned against the doorframe. “Left behind? I thought you were going with Nicole.”

 

Xavier smiled apologetically for a long, long moment until it clicked-

 

“She asked you to stay with me. To watch over me,” Waverly said flatly.

 

Xavier tilted his head side to side, weighing the accusation. “Yes and no. She’s probably just worried you’re going to grab a gun and join in. Haught hates being upstaged, you see.”

 

Waverly rolled her eyes and stood aside, gesturing inside to let him in. He came in, but seemed surprised about the offer. “Many people would think poorly of an unwed woman inviting a strange, unattached man into their home,” he pointed out.

 

Waverly rolled her eyes harder. “Many people would do well to mind their own damn business.”

 

Dolls chuckled and took a seat at the kitchen table while Waverly puttered around putting on some coffee. When she opened one of the drawers searching for a clean towel, she accidentally opened the drawer where Nicole kept all of her cigarettes. Quickly, she shut it. It wouldn’t do to dwell.

 

“Nicole can take care of herself,” Xavier offered without prompt. His hands were folded in front of him and he gave her a reassuring smile. “She’ll come back.”

 

Waverly remained quiet, continuing in her menial task if for no other reason to keep her hands occupied. She could hear the scratch of dry skin on stubble as Xavier rubbed at his chin.

 

“But if I could give you only one piece of advice about living out here on this godforsaken prairie,” Xavier continued in the ensuing silence, “It would be to leave nothing unsaid.”

 

Waverly turned to look at him.

 

“Leave nothing unsaid,” he repeated, dark eyes boring into hers.

 

Waverly set her towel on the counter, pulled her coat on and left out the door at a brisk walk.

 

She brushed past the Sheriff, smoking near their porch; didn’t so much as glance at the posse gathered around the front gate checking their ammunition and patting down their panting horses; didn’t even pause as she flew out toward the barn and flung the door open. She was relieved to see Nicole still there, rummaging around in the wheelbarrow in the corner filled with a concerning amount of guns and ammunition. Already, Nicole had a Springfield rifle strapped across her back, two extra pistols in her belt, and a short, blunt shotgun dangling from the hand hanging loose at her side. None of it stopped Waverly from beelining toward her and pulling her to turn around and look at her.

 

Nicole seemed surprised to see her, blinking down a moment before sheepishly holding her shotgun behind her thigh as though maybe Waverly wouldn’t see it.

 

Waverly didn’t care.

 

“I couldn’t let you go without saying everything I want to say.”

 

“Oh.” Nicole nodded dutifully and hunched in that way that she did like she wished they were on eye level - wished she didn’t tower over Waverly. Though Waverly would be dead and in the ground before she ever admitted it, she enjoyed being towered over. “What is it? I thought we’d said everything.”

 

“We did.”

 

Nicole frowned, confused, and opened her mouth - probably to say so. But she’d never get the chance.

 

Waverly pushed up on her toes, wrapping her cold hands around Nicole’s cheeks, and kissed her the best way she knew how. Their noses clunked together on first impact, but what Waverly lacked in maturity, she hoped she made up for in sincerity. And maybe it wasn’t the kind of kiss that girls twittered about in her sunday school or swooned about in the serialized fiction they bartered and swapped around like secret treasures, but Waverly thought it was a crime that there weren’t any poets out there writing ballads about theirs.

 

Theirs was theirs and there wasn’t any better way to credit it.

 

Nicole wasn’t the easiest reach, though, and she eventually sagged back onto her toes from the strain, a little disappointed Nicole didn’t follow.

 

Her eyes blinked open and that disappointment was very short lived indeed. She’d never seen quite an expression on another person’s face. Waverly wondered if anyone had.

 

Nicole’s hat had been bumped up high on her forehead, just shy of tipping off, and her eyes were so full Waverly could’ve spent all day trying to sift out the parts of her. God willing, she’d have more than a day. But she’d been reminded day in and day out that out in the violent, unpredictable wilds of the west, god didn’t have much of a will and a day was its own universe. If Waverly had to live in just one, she’d have chosen the one right then.

 

A sudden burst of determination flashed across Nicole’s face and she whipped her teetering hat off her head before bringing that arm around the small of Waverly’s waist and pressing the flat of her hat to her back. She used that arm to dip Waverly backwards, sending a small thrill of unbalance and fear up her throat before she realized she would not be allowed to fall. With her hands coming up to grip at the leather at Nicole’s shoulders and the hard kiss grounding her there in the hazy light of the barn, Waverly was able to center herself.

 

Maybe she should’ve expected a woman who made her life on bets stacked against and violent grudges held over her to be skilled at so grandly terrifying an act as kissing another person. Damn her. Damn her to hell, really.

 

The building breathlessness between them - the way Waverly reeled her closer and closer until her fingers were knotted in the back of Nicole’s hair - the way Nicole’s mouth opened against her - 

 

Well-

 

It was probably for the best that the barn door swung open with a low groan and clap of wood. Nicole pulled away, leaving Waverly suspended for a moment on unbalanced heels, before sweeping her back upright with the hat pressed hard into her lower back. She felt even more dizzy back on her feet, though.

 

“They’re leaving,” Xavier announced flatly.

 

Nicole’s face turned amazing quickly from smoldering hero to put-upon villain. Easy come, easy go, Waverly figured.

 

“Damnit Dolls.”

 

Dolls’ expression was unamused, but he shot Waverly a barely-there wink before gesturing out toward the distant gate. “Ladies. And Haught.”

 

I’m a lady,” Nicole grumbled, pulling her hat from behind Waverly’s back to stuff back on her head.

 

Dolls rolled his eyes and turned to walk back toward the house. “You’re a scoundrel,” he corrected with little malice.

 

Waverly’s breathing was still labored when Nicole looked back at her, a bit contrite. As though she hadn’t just literally swept Waverly off her feet. “I’ve got to go,” she repeated needlessly.

 

Waverly really needed to stop endorsing such things. “Damnit,” she said instead.

 

“We’ll...do that again later?” Nicole offered sheepishly.

 

Damn her to hell and back .

 

“Death will be kind compared to what I’ll do to you if you don’t come back,” Waverly swore darkly.

 

Unfortunately, it only seemed to delight her. “I swear it,” she grinned - a rare, full show of teeth. “The only reason you’re not coming with is we ain’t got the horses for it.”

 

“A blessing for Bulshar, really,” Waverly sniffed. “Next time, I’m coming with you.”

 

Nicole nodded sincerely and propped the barrel of her shotgun on her shoulder, giving Waverly a fond look. “I’ll be back near dawn. Wait for me?”

 

“Longer than I’d care to admit,” Waverly sighed. Despite her long suffering, she tilted her cheek up to accept the quick kiss Nicole put there before heading out the barn door to swing up into Stanley’s saddle. It honestly pissed Waverly off the way the clean autum light backlit her like some fucking golden legend against the rusting autumn prarie.

 

And then they were gone and the only sign they’d ever been there were outlines of horseshoes in the dirt.


+++


Dinner was a quiet affair. She could barely convince Xavier to come in and sit at the table for it. Embarrassingly, it was the frustration and rawness of the day that built up in tears when he turned her down that eventually quieted his protests. Some days she wished her frustration showed itself in the form of manslaughter like Nicole’s did. Tears were almost worse.

 

But Dolls didn’t mention it - just sat himself down and tucked into a rather lackluster affair in the somber quiet of the evening. How were two people meant to dine and pretend that there wasn’t some heaving violence splitting the night a hundred miles north of them. But if humans couldn’t avail themselves of the impermanence of an object not in view, how were they meant to survive the tidal wave of tragedies sweeping shores just past the extent of their sight? How were they meant to be whole if they knew every sadness they didn’t see?

 

Waverly sighed and ate some more potatoes.

 

That’s how, she supposed. Just don’t think about it and eat some more potatoes.

 

Xavier must have agreed, because he tucked into his as though he’d been cooked for rather than just kind of limply cooked at.

 

Sad cooking was never particularly tasty cooking.

 

When he’d finished - a rather noble feet considering the spread - he set his napkin aside and stood. “Can I help you clean up?”

 

Waverly waved dismissively at him with the hand that wasn’t currently propping up her head while she pretended to be interested in the mostly full plate in front of her. “No thank you. I’d rather just have something to do, if you don’t mind.”

 

Like with everything else that had happened since Waverly had almost cried, he was quite agreeable. “Alright. Thank you for dinner, Waverly. I’ll be off now.”

 

Waverly perked up, a little nervous when Xavier reached for his jacket on the hooks by the front door and settled his hat back on his head. “Where are you going?” She asked with a hint of panic. “You’re leaving?”

 

It was dark out by then - made darker still by the void Nicole’s absence had left. The idea of being left in the middle of nowhere with nothing but coyote calls and the deceitful language of prairie grass was not a comforting prospect. Her anxiety could make a field mouse sound like a dragon in the whispers of the autumn wind.

 

“I’m not leaving,” Xavier assured her, though his hand reached for the front door. “There’s a small bed in the loft of the barn.” She must have failed to look appropriately relieved, because he removed his hand from the door and turned to face her. “I’ll sweep the property hourly and keep a sharp ear open,” he explained patiently.

 

Waverly was being ridiculous, she knew. But some moons rise bad and some nights fold foreboding. She’d learned at a young age to trust those feelings, however little articulable sense they made. They’d predicted her mother’s attack and her father’s death. They’d predicted Wynonna’s disappearance. It was a bad night to ignore such premonitions, but…

 

Always she would be concerned with appearing a silly, frightened girl.

 

“Alright,” she acquiesced hesitantly.

 

Xavier gave her a small, reassuring smile and reached for the door again. “Call out for me if you need me.”

 

She nodded and watched him go while a cold sweat broke out on the back of her neck.


+++


Sleep never quite came for her. Despite retiring early to try and put the night as far behind her as possible, she was left staring up at the dark ceiling for hours while her brain invented wild explanations for every rustle and slight of noise outside the house. The dread in her stomach had worked itself into unpleasant, nauseous knots the longer she lied there. While she’d done a fairly good job of bartering and debating with every fanciful dread her brain could conjure up, the sudden rumble of hoofbeats against the ground could not - would not be so easily explained away.

 

Waverly sat bolt upright, digging for relief at the sound. Surely it would just be Nicole and the other men returning early, right? Although riding that far out and immediately turning back wouldn’t even have brought her back so soon.

 

That thought alone drove Waverly from the bed, scrambling to throw her clothes back on and pull one of Nicole’s thick flannels up around her shoulders to ward against the cold night. She crept to the front window and peeked out around the curtain out toward the front of the property.

 

Instantly, her eyes were drawn out toward the gate where disembodied orbs of lamp light floated in a group. As her eyes acclimated to the dark, she was able to make out the outline, and eventually the faces of the men perched tall and ominous on dark mounts. Some foolish thrill of hope caught in her throat in a brief moment of confusion - because who else would it be but Nicole and the Sheriff and the townsmen?

 

It was brief, of course.

 

Waverly had to swallow a sharp gasp, physically clamping a hand over her mouth, when two men walked past the window she was peering through, coming to stand so close that, were the window open, she could have reached out and touched their backs.

 

They were smoking fat cigars, staring out toward where their men had stayed at the gate, hands resting on revolvers like they were surveying their kingdom.

 

They spoke in quiet, gruff muffled voices between them for a minute. Or maybe more.

 

Waverly wouldn’t know. She had survived on her gut that long and ten strange men on Nicole’s property in the dead of night was certainly not going to prove an omen tipping toward favorable.

 

Waverly ducked below the window, her heart drilling a concentrated hole through the front of her chest while she crawled under the line of the windows toward the back of the house. Whatever rationality hadn’t been strangled by her fear knew the backdoor might have already been covered, but then, it was an unassuming thing in a strange corner - almost a secret if you didn’t already know about it.

 

She waited at the back door as long as she could possibly stand in the thundering of her own pulse - waited for any noise or whispers or giveaway. When she was met with nothing telling, Waverly gently pushed against the back door until it swung outward in blessed, covert silence. As she creeped out slowly into the night, she was thrown into panic by the sound of the front door smashing inward, the unmistakable, sharp snap of bullets on iron locks before it was driven inward. A moment passed where she was frozen halfway out of the back door and all fell quiet except for two slow boot steps against the wooden floor in the front room. She was unseen that far back in the house, behind a partition and a door, but-

 

The intruder began whistling a slow, happy tune into the silence of the house and Waverly was forced to consider that maybe she had gone her entire life, thus far, without experiencing true fear. Until that moment.

 

Waverly wasn’t even breathing when she forced her feet all the way out the back door and swung it closed as quickly as was possible while still maintaining her secrecy. Even the complete darkness that enveloped her outside the back of the house felt safer than the cheery light and soulless song of the man coming to…

 

Waverly stayed low to the ground as she hastened toward the shed next door. Briefly, she entertained going into the shed, but that seemed hardly any safer. And a room with one exit seemed a terrifying prospect in the face of the danger she faced.

 

Waverly’s carefully deliberate sneaking went out the window at the sound of furniture being smashed back in the house. She fairly flew around the back of the shed, pressing herself so hard against the wall it almost hurt.

 

When the back door of the house that she had fled out of was finally thrown open, clattering against the wall several times before settling, Waverly feared there might have been some truth to all of the fanficully hilarious ways men imagined women might perish in stories. She very well might have simply dropped dead from fear.

 

“She’s not hear,” one voice called darkly. “We’re wasting our time.”

 

After a long beat of uncomfortable silence spent trying to breath as little as possible, another man’s voice chuckled, slippery like oil. “She’s heeere ,” he sang quietly.

 

Waverly’s lungs almost collapsed inwards while she held both hands over her mouth.

 

“No she ain’t,” the first voice pointed out.

 

“Why leave a guard dog when there’s nothing to guard?” The snake hissed, delighting in the hunt of it. To only know a man’s voice and already be certain of the death in his footsteps was a chilling revelation indeed. “Turn everything over twice. Look under the rocks if you have to,” he suggested airily. “I don’t mind a girl who likes games.”

 

Waverly had fairly turned to stone there, pressed into the back of the shed. In the moment, her mind was a blank static of fear. If she had the wherewithal to think at all, she might have considered the merits of fleeing versus staying put. But the awful truth of the matter was that she was frozen there in the darkness, incapable of thought or reason.

 

The shockwave of the shed door slamming open rattled in her spine. And though it was equally terrifying knowing they were searching in the shed she’d hid behind, the rattle of the building’s frame had the unintended consequence of shaking her from her stupor.

 

Summoning whatever bravery a young woman of rather inconsequential upbringing might have stored in her bones, Waverly dropped to the ground and began crawling on her elbows out toward the thickets grown tall around the back fence of the property. Every few seconds, her head swiveled back to make sure the snake hadn’t come upon her yet.

 

It was a slow, agonizing process, but she could barely feel the cold through her exertion. Only the thick sleeves of Nicole’s shirt protected against the rough scrub and dirt as she dragged her body out toward headier darkness. For once in her life, that cold void felt like a welcomed thing. She wondered if that was how Nicole felt when she slipped inside herself and drew blood.

 

Somehow, some goddamn way, she reached the fence after what felt like an hour of ignoring the jeers and howls and crack of wooden furniture while they called out to each other and wrecked the life Nicole built there. She reached that fence and felt like she’d made it . She knew the direction of town and dammit, but if she had to run 30 miles out, she’d do it. Waverly Earp was no housewife, she was a pilgrim .

 

Her teeth grit together and she was moments from pushing up on her elbows and running when her brain tripped.

 

On Xavier.

 

She’d almost forgotten about him. A gunshot would have woken her up if he’d gotten into it with them. Unless he was hiding in the barn, trapped and scared? Had he been taken, perhaps tied up and held hostage? Or was he baring his teeth and loading what he had into his revolver for whatever it would be worth at his end?

Whatever the case, he was alone.

 

Waverly Earp might cry at the injustice of her life - the frustration of the things the world thought of her - but she was no coward.

 

One last, longing glance out toward the safe blanket of darkness that stretched back toward distant safety was all she allowed herself. And then she turned back toward the farm.


+++


Even with Nicole’s shirt, Waverly could feel every inch she’d crawled along the outer perimeter of the farm in the bloody wear at her elbows and knees. She wouldn’t dare raise her head or come to stand on her feet, though, for fear they’d spot her lurking there at the fenceline. Muscles that she didn’t imagine a person was meant to use that way ached fiercely by the time the barn rose up next to her.

 

As she hauled herself on her elbows across the remaining house length into the shadows at the back of the barn, Waverly’s dirty hands stubbed into something painfully hard and cold. She bit her tongue against a whimper and shook her smarting hand out for a moment. When she cautiously reached forward and closed her fist around the object, she ended up pulling a rather formidable railroad spike out of an overgrown tangle of grass.

 

It was difficult to study much of anything in the heavy dark, but her fingers smoothed over heavy rust. She tried to lift it on the weak  torque of her prone arm, but it was deceptively heavy for its length. Awkwardly, she shoved it back into the bramble and continued forward toward the barn.

 

However…

 

Waverly thought twice about it and shuffled back to retrieve the ungainly thing. If she was going to wander around unarmed and alone in a nest of murderous outlaws, she might as well carry something she could swing in a pinch.

 

The shuffle forward with her added weight dragging in her left hand was even slower and more piteous. If she was to die in this manner, she thanked god she would at least pass unseen by anyone who’s opinion mattered to her.

 

Sweating and sore, she finally managed to crawl into the shadow of the far side of the barn. By that point, she could hear the men calling restlessly to each other, shouts of frustration as their search turned up empty. It wouldn’t be long before they truly had turned over every rock and driven her out, she supposed. Even still, she couldn’t resist a few moments propped up, sitting with her back against the barn to catch her breath and rest her arms.

 

She felt strangely calm sitting there with the weight of her weapon in her lap and the unaware bumbling noises of a search party off somewhere behind her. The advantage still went to the informed party, no matter her slight stature or her station in life. If surprise and stealth were all she had, then she’d use them.

 

Pushing to her feet on sore legs, Waverly steeled herself and hefted the spike in her hands. She slunk around the back of the barn toward the far side where she knew a low window stayed unlocked. As she rounded the corner, she pulled up short, her own wide eyes reflected in the surprised face of the man on the other side.

 

Honestly, she didn’t even remember doing so, but in a blink, the man was collapsing on the business end of a railroad spike smashing into his throat. Waverly stood there, heaving as quietly as she could, white-knuckled and towering over the man as he choked and spluttered, clawing at where she’d clubbed him.

 

The terror of it froze her there. Only the sight of one of his hands reaching down to scrabble at his gun belt and jerk his revolver out toward her snapped her to action. True panic had seized her then and she threw herself at the man, bearing the length of the spike down hard across the meat of his throat. Maybe she had meant to strangle him deep down, but she liked to believe that it had been an act of reckless panic - a bid to just stop him .

 

He stopped alright. He grew still far slower than she’d imagine a man would without air. But he did.

 

Stop, that is.

 

Even in the dark, Waverly could see the unnatural way his eyes were still bulged open and the bursts of red popped in their veins in death. She ripped herself off of him, clutching the spike to her chest with both hands and fighting….fighting….

 

The letdown was quicker than she thought it would be. It was probably for the best she hadn’t eaten much of her dinner that night, she thought as it all came back up in the dirt and grass.

 

Gasping and faint in the aftermath, Waverly pushed her back against the barn and tried to pull cold air into her lungs. The air was there - flooding her lungs and spilling out - but it was like she was breathing in water.

 

It was a long moment of weakness. Long minutes of wanting to sit there and cry until it was all over - put her hands over her eyes and retreat into herself until it all just went away

 

She allowed herself that, at least.

 

And then she forced her feet under her and took stilted steps over to the dead man in the grass to relieve him of his revolver and the ammunition tucked into his belt and satchel. Armed with a fully-loaded revolver and about twenty extra bullets shoved into the pocket of the apron of her dress, Waverly let her weak knees propel her toward the barn window.

 

It felt like it was someone else’s body that she was tugging at the joints, loose marionette jerks of movement while she lifted the window with clumsy hands and pulled her body through into the soft hay in the floor of Gretta’s stable stall. Gretta was a pleasant, old heifer with doleful black eyes that swung in Waverly’s direction nearly begging her to account for the lateness and rudeness of her midnight visit.

 

Would that I could, Gretta , Waverly thought faintly to herself while she scrambled to hide herself against the stall door. More than ever, Waverly was forced to acknowledge that bravery, as a concept, was wholly misunderstood by those that it had never been forced upon. It was blind fear masquerading as noble action, really. Each step forward was a hand laid over her own eyes and two steps backward off a cliff.

 

Steadying her breathing, Waverly peered up over the stall door to check the inside of the barn again. It all appeared as quiet as when she’d looked in through the window - as quiet even as it had been earlier that day when she’d kissed Nicole and Nicole had…

 

Well. She’d kissed her back, but calling it something so simple really seemed an insult. Waverly could be mad at how much better Nicole was at that than her or she could disembark from her high horse and admit that Nicole Haught was very deeply, movingly, erotically talented at kissing a girl. She figured she had time to make up her mind with the way the night had dragged on and on. Her own personal Purgatory, really.

 

Waverly gripped the revolver in her sweating hand and pushed out of the stall to search the barn. As the barn was the only lead she had on Xavier’s location, she really had no choice but to find him there or fall into despair.

 

A check of the other stalls, a brief tour of the rack of tools and buckets of feed came up empty handed.

 

Just as she was considering gathering her remaining wits and forming a new plan - abandoning the barn entirely - she heard a low, faint groan coming from the front doors of the barn.

 

Cautiously, gun held trigger-ready at her side, Waverly tiptoed toward the front of the barn, not daring to call out for Xavier. Just behind one of the support pillars, though, she found him slumped over and collapsed inward. Quite forgetting her caution, Waverly jogged the last few steps and dropped at his side, hands hovering anxiously over him.

 

A nasty bludgeoned wound leaked sluggishly from just above his left temple and he was unresponsive to her frantic whispered entreaties, but a hand under his nose and against his pulse confirmed he was alive. Just...out.

 

Waverly could’ve screamed for the frustration of it all. She even slapped at his face rather hard and tried to shake him out of it, but whoever had gotten to him must’ve knocked his lights out.

 

How was she supposed to carry a full-grown man to safety? How was Waverly Earp meant to defend someone twice her size with the capacity to assist her ranging helpless to hopeful from a sack of potatoes to a slumbering cow?!

 

Well, the first step was probably to be less sarcastic about it. And the second was probably to point her mind forward rather than back.

 

She sighed and rolled up the sleeves of her borrowed shirt.

 

+++

 

While Waverly had been made abundantly aware that men’s skulls were filled with nothing but bricks, she hadn’t been made aware that the rest of them was filled with bricks as well .

 

For all her efforts, she might as well have been trying to push Baltimore somewhere else.

 

Dolls slumped over into the hay like a sack of corn feed and that was about as far as she was able to move him. She punched her fists into the floor in frustration, pulled at her hair a bit, and considered crying some more. But quite honestly, she was dehydrated and didn’t have time for it. With a strength she probably didn’t actually possess, she eventually resorted to hauling him across the floor by his limp arms in perhaps the most undignified way possible. For the both of them.

 

Nobody ever had to know how she got him into a rather perturbed-looking Gretta’s stall, only that it was heroic and strong and brave. And totally dignified.

 

Whatever. She was a little hysterical and she’d just killed a man.

 

Sweating fiercely even in the chill of the night, Waverly pulled the revolver from her apron pocket that she’d stolen off of her victim. It wasn’t a terrible piece, but she could tell even in the low gutteral light of a single flickering lamp far off in the corner that the thing hadn’t been cleaned in ages. Waverly was very ferocious indeed - no doubt about it - but it did kind of make sense how a man so careless with his weapon could’ve let himself be bested by a lady half his size. Survival of the fittest, perhaps.

 

Waverly took to the ladder under the loft, reaching up to haul herself up the rungs so she might survey the invasion from the little window out top that faced the ranch house and further reaches of the property. With her foot on the first rung, though, she paused and glanced back into the dark recess of the barn, far off under the loft and out of reach of the lantern.

 

Ferocious, indeed .

 

Waverly abandoned the ladder and took quiet, quick steps back to the old wheelbarrow - unassuming and covered in old canvass. If a keen eye knew what to look for, they might look for the dust that had never quite settled there. If a really keen eye knew what to look for, they might lift the canvass to find -

 

“Holy shit,” Waverly cursed. It really wasn’t as fun without Nicole there. But still a little fun.

 

Even after Nicole had raided it for her mission, the thing was still irresponsibly stocked . She knew Nicole was a legendary outlaw in her day, but how many guns could one person reasonably expect to be able to use? She respected the irony of her criticism, as she was considering using as many as possible in this very unforeseen circumstance, but still. Nicole was ridiculous. Waverly would make sure to hold that thought dear and close when she kissed her next.

 

Which would happen, because neither of them were allowed to die.

 

Waverly’s eyes caught on a gem of a thing: a near new Whitworth rifle and scope. Her father had bought a scoped Enfield rifle near inception, boasting and bragging to all the friends he went sport hunting with in the hills. It got the most use, though, when he was too drunk to lift a glass let alone shoot a rifle and Waverly was feeling bored and reckless. Waverly Earp might be proficient at the domestic duties that would have made her a good wife - might still - but she was also quite proficient at those which made her wildly unsuitable. Waverly Earp was an excellent shot.

 

Let it not be said that Wynonna never did anything for her.

 

The rifle was lighter than her father’s - a pretty thing and a sight for sore eyes amidst the horrors of the evening. She’d always found it a surprisingly dainty rifle - thin gold-trimmed scope, deep mahogany stock, and simple finishings. Even with the sickness from her last encounter still on her tongue, Waverly resolved to do what she must. She was a part of that farm and she would protect it. No matter the costs.

 

Grimly, Waverly hoisted the rifle over her shoulder, grabbed the neat little box of ammunition - there was just the one - and began her ascent into the loft. As far as defensible positions went, she could do a lot worse than the small window that overlooked the sprawl of the ranch.

 

Slowly, Waverly pushed up the outer wooden trap and hitched it above so she could peer out into the darkness. As her eyes adjusted, she began counting hatted heads like dolls in a dollhouse.

 

It was easier from that distance - the dainty play-shape of them while they swore at each other, yelled into the night, rooted in burrows to try and tear her out of hiding. They were just toys, she thought to herself while she slid the slim long barrel of her new rifle out the window, propping it just so to site through the scope while the barrel kept steady and sure.

 

Nine dolls. Two ripping through the wagon, scattering luggage and ripping through the fine burlap and richly carved wood like starved wolves. Two combing the grass along the far fences. One barreling through the wood pile, scattering neat logs across the dirt. Two in the window of the kitchen, ripping open cabinets and passing the bottle of whiskey Nicole kept hidden in the top shelf between them. One walking toward the barn. The snake standing calmly on the porch, smoking Nicole’s cigarettes and holding his gold pocket watch dangled on the end of a chain from his waistcoat like he couldn’t quite believe Waverly was still alive and missing at that late hour.

 

Waverly pressed the ridge of her brow to the delicate gold circle of the scope while her thumb pulled back on the smooth, oiled hammer, cocking the mechanism for fire. When she sighted the man kicking through the dirt toward the barn, she pretended he was just an old can on the fence of Uncle Curtis’s backyard. She heard Wynonna’s voice.

 

Now imagine it’s daddy’s face.

 

Crack.

 

Eight dolls.

 

She reloaded quickly, locking down against the oncoming shake of her hands and dutifully ignoring the sounds of men shouting at each other. The confusion they’d caused in their uproarious pursuit of her granted her some moments of cover. They’d shot off their own pistols enough to wonder just what friendly fire might have occurred - not yet suspect the unfriendly kind.

 

Again, she sighted. The man at the woodpile was still and open, broad-side centermass lit by the house lanterns. She breathed out slowly and dropped him with another loud crack .

 

Seven.

 

Despite her best intentions, Waverly couldn’t help but let her eyes shoot up to watch as the snake stood straight and began calling his men to attention. They realized they were being targeted and Waverly was still staring and shaking. So much for steel nerves.

 

Finally, when the two men from inside the house came bursting out and the rest began to converge on the farmhouse, Waverly ripped the muzzle back in the window and started to reload. The box spilled out from frantic hands and her ammunition scattered at her knees.

 

Cursing to herself, Waverly scrabbled to find another bullet and reload while the shouting outside increased in volume. For once in her life, it helped to remind herself:

 

What would Nicole do?

 

Kill every last coward.

 

She breathed out heavily through her teeth, focused her strength, and loaded the rifle with a renewed calm.

 

When she sighted them again, she picked the broad back of a man standing just twenty paces from the snake, gesturing and shouting something unintelligible in front of the porch. That time, when he crumpled, the rest of the men took cover. They all huddled up behind the porch railing and dove for cover behind barrels and the side of the house. Everyone sheltered themselves from her except for one man. Through the scope she watched him turn and regard her coldly like he was looking dead in her eye. At that distance, she could still see the way his mouth curled up in the corner and his cold eyes narrowed in apparent delight.

 

Six.

 

Waverly tore her eyes from the vacuum of his gaze and patted around the hay and sawdust at her feet for another round. It took long enough to find to leave her frazzled again, but she pushed through and loaded the muzzle with shaking hands. Unsurprisingly, by the time she’d raised the rifle back to the window, they’d all marshaled and gathered their wits, adopting defensible positions with weapons drawn and backs guarded.

 

But when Waverly Earp shot at targets from 1200 yards, she wasn’t aiming at the broad side of a man’s back.

 

She was aiming at a circle on a small tin can.

 

After several deep breaths, she trained onto the exposed skull of a man’s cap left open just above the railing. Exhale and squeeze.

 

Five.

 

Even the snake went for cover, losing his cool briefly as his neighbor’s hat - and presumably head - was blown off. Waverly had neither the stomach nor the state of mind to dwell on the carnage. From that distance, they were just targets. Any closer and it’d be her.

 

Going down amongst the hay for her next round was an even more tortuous affair. No matter how she scrambled and rooted and searched she just couldn’t find another round . She swore up, down, and sideways for several minutes. A year. Who could say? Eventually, she tore away from the ground to look up over the ledge of the window.

 

Her stomach shot right up into her throat when she saw them rally at the doorstep. The snake whipped one of them forward by the handkerchief around his neck, gesturing wildly toward the barn and spitting in their faces. Her hands shook harder when they turned and charged the barn.

 

“Fuck. Fuck!” She cursed, feeling faint as panic seized her.

 

Was that how Waverly Earp died? If so, she would have guessed just about any other Earp first, but let it not be said that the world had ceased finding ways to surprise her. Maybe ancestry was a thing not so easily rebelled against.

 

Waverly tossed the rifle aside and snatched up her revolver, fleeing from the window toward the back of the barn. If that was to be her end - punched with lead and soaked up by sawdust and hay, alone on the stuttering breaths before first blush of dawn - then she would not be going quietly. Waverly Earp had never done anything quietly in her entire life and she certainly didn’t plan to start at the end.

 

Grinding her teeth against the lurch her heart gave at that prospect - the cowardly little hiccup - she checked the chamber, gave it a spin and pushed her back up against the shelter of a hay bale. Maybe there was a little outlaw in her too.

 

What would Nicole think to find her there? Would she be cold by the time Nicole arrived? Would her blood be a sticky mess that would never be scrubbed from the ground? Would Nicole cry for her? Would there even be enough of Nicole’s heart left to break? Would she bury her in a too-shallow grave out in the nothing of the prairie under the groan of cicadas and the sad late afternoon call of mourning doves?

 

These were never questions she much thought to consider. Or never with the impending feeling that these were questions not three towns over on the lips of a gossip monger, but rather knocking ominously on her front doorstep. Never so close. Never breathing down her neck.

 

Her hand shook badly around the grip of the revolver. And what did it even matter if tears rolled down her cheeks? By the time they found her body, they’d be dry. And they’d only know how she’d raged against it - how she’d died the way free men in the west did. Bloody and free.

 

When the barn door slammed open, she felt her breathing slow to a near stop. She glared at the wall across from her and summoned her sister, face stern but hands soft when she pulled her up out of the dirt where she’d been pushed. Pulled her up with bleeding knuckles and a black eye from a father who said he loved them, but could never quite manage it - a father she’d fought off. She summoned the way Wynonna had eyed her critically and said,

 

Somewhere, I know there’s a lion in there, kid.

 

She spun against the bale, propping the underside of her forearm against the scratchy hay and training down on the four men creeping inside on cautious feet. When she pulled the trigger, she did so to completion. After all: what was the point of having a six round chamber if you weren’t planning to use them all?

 

Only one of the men went down in the hail of frantic bullets. Another cursed and whined and grabbed at his leg as he collapsed to his knees, but soon they were shooting out over her head, deafening her in the small quiet of the barn and scaring the animals into a frenzy. She felt like she was being toppled by waves, thrown end over end in white noise and darkness.

 

It took long moments to realize they’d stopped.

 

Longer still to realize she wasn’t dead.

 

A short-lived relief, really.

 

Alive and unharmed, I said!” She heard him hiss. That man with the cold voice and the wicked eyes. The man who’d sent them there to rip her from her bed.

 

She heard scuffling, the solid thump of a fist against flesh and the fallout wheeze. She, herself, wasn’t breathing.

 

“Waverly, dear,” he continued, sickly sweet. “Do come out. No more fuss. You’re to come with me.”

 

Waverly gripped her revolver tighter - so tight she could almost stop the tremor in her hands.

 

“I’m a man of my word. And a man of great fairness ,” he tapered off, tickling that final word like a threat more than a platitude. “Nicole Haught is a brute. And I’m a gentleman who’s paid your price.”

 

Her price?

 

“Come down or I’m afraid I won’t be so charitable.”

 

Waverly Earp did not accept charity.

 

“Eat shit!” She yelled, shoving her hay bale with the broad side of her shoulder so it toppled from the loft onto their heads. In the confusion, with what might have been the last of a surprisingly deep well of nerves, Waverly dashed for the back window of the loft and climbed out of it feet-first, dangling there by her hands and trying not to think about the drop to the dirt. It was best not to dwell.

 

Loosening her fingers, Waverly shut her eyes against the swooping in her stomach while she dropped.

 

The landing sent a thrill of cold pain up her bones, right to the very top of her skull and back down. But it was felt most keenly in the strange twist and collapse of her left ankle. A rather creative litany of curses followed.

 

What she wouldn’t give for a few moments to just truly luxuriate in the full, well-rounded and rich texture of the word fuck .

 

No time.

 

She limped off grimly toward the fence line while her ankle pleaded with her to stop, stop, stop. She pleaded back louder: go, go, go .

 

Voices called out to her, no longer sickly sweet and polite but roaring and angry and getting closer.

 

Waverly’s hands dug around in her pocket for the last three loose rounds she’d taken from her first victim and shakily punched them into the chamber. One of them fell into the dirt while she hobbled and she had no choice but to leave it there. The chamber clicked into place as she reached the fence and turned back, leveling the revolver at him as he got closer.

 

“I’ll do it. I swear to god,” she said at barely a whisper. Whether it carried on the cold wind of creeping dawn or the stance alone was enough to translate her threats, it didn’t matter.

 

The man stopped and raised his hands with a small smile. Placating.

 

“I’m sorry we’ve scared you. I mean you no harm.”

 

Waverly didn’t respond, just stood there heaving in shallow breaths and watching him over the sight of her revolver. It shook less than she might have thought.

 

The snake let out a low, velvety laugh. “Cat has claws,” he joked weakly. “I’m not bothered by it. And you’ll grow to love me. Love my wealth and my power. I see that in you, little cat.”

 

“I’m not a cat,” Waverly ground her teeth together and pressed her back against the solid plane of the fence Nicole had built by hand. “I’m a lion.”

 

The man wasn’t so scary when he screamed, clutching at his thigh and swearing rather unimaginatively. It was a terrible shot, really. Clean, through the meat of his outer thigh and right back out. Painful, but cosmetic.

 

The other shot had missed entirely.

 

When the man looked up from where his hands pressed against his wound, Waverly could’ve sworn she could see the hate in her own eyes reflected in his own narrowed, pinprick pupils. He bared his teeth and Waverly truly wished she could see him dead.

 

As the sun crawled closer to the skyline, painting the farm in a royal blue that made it all look submerged in shallow water, one of his men came level with him with genuine fear in his eyes.

 

“There’s riders coming from the north - a dozen at least. She’s back. We have to go.”

 

Waverly kept her empty revolver trained on his head. And while math might not have been a common indulgence of the western outlaw, it was an easy equation for almost anyone.

 

“You won’t sleep a night more until it’s at my side,” He swore. “You’ll be mine.”

 

“I’ll kill you before that happens,” Waverly swore. “You won’t sleep a night more by anyone’s side.”

 

He bared his white teeth in a menacing grimace, almost a smile, then shoved at the man at his side, pushing them toward their horses. Waverly kept her empty revolver trained on them until they’d ridden so far south of the ranch, she could see nothing off their features or their outlines. They were a black spot on the horizon before she forced the lock of her elbow to release, letting the revolver dangle limply at her side and then fall in the grass. She leaned back into the fence, the broad board pushing flat against her sagging back, and thought about how odd it was to hear the west so noiseless. Even the crickets were quiet. The grass whispered. Waverly breathed in and out.


+++


Chapter Text

+++


Nicole breathed in and out, ragged. Waverly watched it as though from a mile above it all, outside looking in. And - how did Nicole get in front of her? Her expression was raw and her lips were moving. Oh, right. Waverly paid better attention, though every sense warred with the odd hyperfocus she clung to - the simple press of the fence into her upper back. Focus better.

 

“Waverly, say something,” Nicole begged, cold hands wrapped around Waverly’s cheeks.

 

Waverly pressed her lips together and took a long, shallow breath in and out. “I’m afraid I might have…” She trailed off, lost, and her eyes slid past Nicole’s face to look out toward the house. Oddly enough, all she could think about was how she would very much have liked to go to bed. After all she did - she did do that, right? - she could have simply laid down and whiled it all away in a deep, unbothered sleep.

 

“Are you hurt?”

 

“Xavier is in the barn,” Waverly said faintly, mouth numb. “In Gretta’s stall. That’s the farthest I could hide him.”

 

“Is he…” Nicole swallowed, voice cracking, and Waverly let her eyes focus back on her face.

 

“You’re back,” Waverly pointed out uselessly.

 

Nicole looked helplessly behind her, making some gesture at John Henry while he stood there studying them with an odd kind of look in his eye. They said something to each other that came to her like it’d been poured into her brain rather than carried there on the air. John Henry took off toward the barn after that.

 

Waverly watched over Nicole’s shoulder as Sheriff Nedley turned the man by the woodpile over onto his front, exposing the sludge of blood and dirt under his stiff body. “I think I’d like to go inside now,” she whispered.

 

“Right. Come on,” Nicole said quietly, wrapping an arm around Waverly’s shoulder and pulling her tight against her side. One step forward had Waverly nearly collapsing into the hold as her ankle seized up. “Did you hurt your leg?” She asked frantically.

 

Waverly waved a weak hand in front of her face, dismissive. “I jumped out of the barn loft,” she supplied vaguely.

 

“I’m going to pick you up, now. Okay?”

 

For a brief, lurching moment, felt strongly in the pit of her stomach, Waverly fought the instinct to push away. Felt like she had to run . But then she looked at the way one of her hands rested on Nicole’s stomach against the soft leather of her vest, met her eyes and studied the worried dip of her shoulders, and reminded herself that Nicole was a place, at least, that she could be safe. She nodded and felt as relieved by it as Nicole seemed.

 

Before she was scooped up under her knees like a child, Nicole dropped her hat down low on Waverly’s head so it grazed the top of her vision. When Nicole whispered, “You don’t have to look,” she allowed the brim to fall over her eyes as they walked past what she’d done.

 

She was glad for it.

 

Inside, the house was a disaster - the splintered carnage of smashed furniture and belongings was almost as gruesome as what she couldn’t face outside. They were just things , but they were their things and it hurt to see the little parts of their life together strewn about like prey with bellies split by wolves. In the bedroom, Nicole told her that she had to put her back on her feet to right the overturned mattress and gather the blankets thrown about. The bedframe was still intact, thankfully. The dresser had seen better days.

 

Nicole put a heavy blanket over her shoulders before she set about reassembling what she could of their life in there. Waverly didn’t even bother offering to help.

 

When the bed was mostly back to how it was, Nicole put her in it, taking the time to gently remove Waverly’s shoes and outer layers. The biggest relief was in the silence of it - the lack of questions. The lack of anything. Waverly wanted nothing. She craved nothingness.

 

When her feet were slipped under the covers and Nicole was kneeling at her side, chin propped on the mattress with a worried expression, Waverly allowed herself a small moment to appreciate the things she had fought for. She smiled at Nicole from over the covers at her chin. “You’re back. And you’re okay.”

 

“You are too,” Nicole promised.

 

Sleep took her almost before her pillow had fully decompressed when she lied back.


+++


Waverly didn’t dream.


+++


But sleep, like all good things, never seemed to last. The muffled static of low-buzzing conversation eventually pulled her from the dark of her rest into sluggish wakefulness. She clawed at sleep, tried to bring it back and make it stay but-

 

Her rest escaped her and she laid there blinking and irritated. Outside, she could just see the warm glow of a departing sun - the late afternoon yawning into evening as the sun drooped lower and lower. It was pleasant the way it slanted in a small sunset against the far wall of the bedroom in a single smear of orange and pink. Her fingers flexed against the blankets she’d pulled up over her chin and she got the distinct feeling that she hadn’t so much as twitched a muscle during her rest. Slept like the dead , her mother used to say.

 

First, she yawned.

 

And second, she allowed herself to think of the six men she’d killed.

 

In those exact terms. She thought: I’ve killed six people

 

Waverly Earp had killed six people.

 

She nodded to herself and stared at the stripe of sunset projected on the far wall through the window pane. Thought of herself. Everything that was there before she’d killed six people seemed to be there - the love of beautiful things, the belief that deep, deep down people really did have an innate goodness that they could only ever rage against - not an evil. There was a desire to be kind and a deeper well of love and affection for the people in her life than perhaps she even knew before. It had not all washed away in the tide, pulled back in an ebb powerful and dark and consuming.

 

It was a potently beautiful thing to realize that her soul was stronger than rocks on a violent shore, impervious to the slow erosion of the world. Evil could wash over a person and leave them standing where they’d been in more or less the same shape it had always been.

 

Perhaps Nicole was not so confusing a thing as she had previously believed her to be.

 

Speaking of...

 

Waverly was just sitting up, ready to swing her legs over the side of the bed and find her, when the door creaked open a few inches and Nicole looked over her shoulder into the room as though she’d been standing there with her back to the door the whole time.

 

Guarding it.

 

Waverly breathed out a long sigh of relief. “Nicole,” she said warmly.

 

Nicole pushed the door open wider, but kept herself at its threshold, worrying her hat between her hands. “Waverly.” She smiled tentatively. “You…”

 

“Are awake,” Waverly supplied. “And very hungry, oddly enough.”

 

“Oh!” Nicole stepped back from the door, already gesturing behind her in a rush. “Let me get you something!”

 

Waverly opened her mouth to try and slow her down, but she’d already left. The only lessons in devotion Waverly had ever received were in her father’s to the bottle. She’d never known it to be a pretty thing.

 

Nicole returned with a plate of bread and cheese and a hot cup of tea that tasted, truly, from the bottom of Waverly’s very in-love heart, terrible.

 

“Christ, what is this?” She choked, laughing through her coughs while Nicole turned pink.

 

“It’s tea! You just...I put the leaf stuff in the...hot water...and yeah.” Nicole looked almost devastated enough for Waverly to tough it out and drink it through her horror. “Is it not right?”

 

“Well. You’ve certainly invented something here.” She set the cup aside and pulled at the tough crust of the sour bread turning dry in the week since they’d bought it. “It’s like filtering pond scum through your teeth.”

 

“Yes, I’ve always felt that way about it.”

 

Waverly sighed irritably. “Come here,” she exasperated. “I want you close.”

 

Nicole took exactly two steps closer and stopped dutifully.

 

“Closer.”

 

Nicole took exactly two more steps closer and stopped.

 

“Closer.”

 

Nicole stopped at Waverly’s bedside, looking down pointedly at where her thighs pressed into the mattress, daring Waverly to bid her phase through the mattress.

 

“Closer.”

 

“Waverly,” Nicole sighed.

 

“I’d have you inside me if I could.”

 

“Waverly!”

 

Waverly rolled her eyes. “Not sexually,” she muttered. “Although…”

 

Probably in a bid to get her to stop talking, Nicole pulled the blanket back and slipped under it to sit against the headboard at Waverly’s side. She smoothed her hands against the blanket on her lap over and over until it was free of creases. In the bubble of their room, even in the state it was in, Waverly felt some of her strength return to her. She felt strong.

 

“Did you save the people on the train?” She asked.

 

Nicole nodded slowly, a perturbed expression on her face. “It was a shallow attempt, really. Just a small fraction of Bulshar’s gang. Hardly worth riding out for.”

 

“I thought they’d all left his camp together,” Waverly puzzled.

 

Nicole nodded again, brow furrowed deeply. “They did. What they did after that, we couldn’t say.”

 

“I think I might be able to fill in the gaps.”

 

Again, guilt won out on Nicole’s face. She tried to let go of Waverly’s hand, but it wasn’t the time or the place for that. Waverly needed something to hold and she wasn’t willing to negotiate on that front. She squeezed harder and Nicole gave up.

 

“Yeah,” she said lamely.

 

“Yeah,” Waverly agreed.

 

After a few minutes of charged silence, Waverly sighed. “Bulshar wasn’t out there was he?”

 

“No,” Nicole said gently.

 

“He was here . For me.”

 

“What happened?” Nicole asked again, so softly it was barely even a question.

 

“Those men out there,” she said, waiting until Nicole caught her eyes. “Bulshar’s men. I killed them. They came for me in the night. I had to do it.”

 

“I know,” Nicole said like it was the single greatest failure of her life. She looked miserable when she folded her other hand over Waverly’s to squeeze it between her own. “Dolls woke up. You saved his life, didn’t you?”

 

Waverly didn’t answer her. She looked down at her lap. “I just…” She tried to search for the mind and heart of the girl she’d been twelve hours ago and couldn’t quite remember who she was. “It was like I was sleepwalking. It was me, but...it also wasn’t. I just acted.

 

“How did you…” Nicole was studying her with barely concealed awe.

 

It elicited a confusing mixture of pride and disgust. “The scoped rifle. Didn’t I mention? I’m a crack shot,” she joked limply. One of her hands reached out and took Nicole’s loosely, just to have something to hold. “The rest was mostly running and crying.”

 

Nicole offered her a sympathetic smile.

 

She’d long since given up wondering why everything seemed to make her eyes well up, but some battles weren’t worth fighting. She only allowed the tears to gather there before wiping them away. “I was so scared. Don’t tell anyone,” she said quietly. “I’d rather not be known as a coward.”

 

“A coward?” Nicole echoed, incredulous. “You’re the bravest person I ever met. Before and after last night,” she swore.

 

Waverly let her head tip over onto Nicole’s shoulder and closed her eyes. “I didn’t want to kill them, you know. I’m afraid nobody will know that.”

 

“I know, darlin’.”

 

“Have you ever actually wanted to kill someone?” Waverly wondered. “Have you ever weighed a person’s life and decided it was less than what you wanted? Less than your own? Have you ever needed to live so badly you’d do something so terrible?”

 

Nicole’s arm came up around Waverly’s back and pressed to the side of Waverly’s head to hold her more securely against her shoulder. “Not quite until I met you.”


+++


They must have fallen asleep there, because Waverly woke up again in the dead of night with her head still propped on Nicole’s shoulder. Nicole was still leaned up against the headboard - likely uncomfortable. Down to Waverly’s hand still folded in Nicole’s, it was like they hadn’t moved at all. After all the rest she’d gotten, it was no wonder she felt wide awake.

 

She looked over at Nicole, her brows were drawn stiffly and her mouth a flat line, but she did seem to be asleep. Slowly, Waverly pulled her hand out from under Nicole’s. Holding hands was cute until it got sweaty.

 

Nicole’s nose scrunched up at the disturbance and her hand shifted, crawling out slowly in search of what she’d lost. When it settled on Waverly’s thigh, just inward enough to be considered an impropriety, Waverly stared down at it.

 

Whereas she’d been consumed with the fallout exhaustion in the hours after her fight and flight, she suddenly found herself thrumming with a deep, raging river of energy. She’d awoken to the primal knowledge that she’d survived . That she’d fought and won. That her blood was thumping hard in her pulse while everyone who’d tried to prevent that couldn’t say the same. She stared down at Nicole’s hand and let herself feel strong.

 

Nicole’s other hand scratched at her shirt, right over her stomach.

 

It couldn’t have been a very deep sleep, Waverly reasoned. Or at least that’s what Waverly used to reassure herself when she pushed up on her hands and swung a leg over Nicole’s waist. She settled there in Nicole’s lap with her hands braced on Nicole’s belly and a determined set to her mouth.

 

Nicole woke up far less gracefully, spluttering and wild-eyed, but not so disoriented that she didn’t secure Waverly there with hands at her hips. “What’s happening?” Was the first thing she managed to say, turning her head side to side like there might’ve been answers somewhere else in the room.

 

Waverly pushed her palms into the soft fabric of Nicole’s shirt, thrilled by the give and warmth there. She looked down into Nicole’s eyes, just making out the dark of blown pupils trying to swallow whatever light remained. There wasn’t much, though. A night on the ranch was a blinding thing with the turn of a new moon.

 

“Just me,” she soothed.

 

Nicole nodded dutifully, but her eyes were still wide. As her shock settled, though, her fingers started to drum nervously against Waverly’s sides. “Okay?” She said tentatively.

 

Waverly nodded. She hadn’t had much of a plan when she’d climbed aboard, but there’s really only two options: you either ride the train or you get off. She stared hard into Nicole’s face, trying to find even a fraction of the need there that she felt building in herself.

 

“Is there anyone in our house right now?” She whispered.

 

Nicole’s eyes went somehow wider, misunderstanding horribly. “What? Did you hear something.”

 

“No, but I’m worried about what might be heard .”

 

Nicole’s mouth worked for a bit, calculations flying wildly across her face until she blushed. Well - Waverly guessed at it. Couldn’t see the blush, but Nicole was not so unpredictable as a secret, retired outlaw might lead you to believe. “Waverly?” She asked.

 

That wouldn’t do at all. She needed the Nicole that lived outside of reason and the maze of her own head. Nicole was sweet when she was thinking , but there was something to be said about the way she could be when she wasn’t. Always, Nicole was careful to temper and refine into neat little elegant things, but Waverly had seen the raw material and that was what the rawness in her own heart wanted then. She didn’t want to think.

 

It wasn’t cheating, it was encouragement.

 

Waverly slid her hands up to brace herself better as she leaned down and kissed the dumb expression right off of Nicole’s face. Too much mind, not enough matter.

 

Whatever hesitancy existed underneath her evaporated as Nicole pushed up higher on her elbows, sitting up enough so Waverly slid into the cradle of her lap, caught in the comfortable fold while Nicole pulled her closer. She wasn’t trying to brag or anything, but she felt like she was getting very good at the whole kissing thing.

 

She would dwell on that more later, aglow in the satisfaction of a thing conquered. In the moment, though, her mind was a pleasant haze.

 

Less than a day ago, she’d held a man down by his throat and choked the life from him, but it didn’t make her feel powerful. She’d never felt particularly powerful until sat in Nicole’s lap, feeling the way Nicole lost her breath against her mouth and had to pull away to regain it. Here, at least, was a thing Waverly Earp had physical control of. She could feel the strength in Nicole’s forearms when she let her hands slide along her arms, but Nicole still swayed like fragile reeds in the direction Waverly leaned. When Waverly pushed at her chest, she fell back like she had this great control over her.

 

If love was surrender, than Nicole was a white flag.

 

“Are you okay?” Waverly laughed breathlessly.

 

Nicole nodded eagerly, but her throat bobbed on unspoken words.

 

“Are you sure?” She checked, placing her hand against Nicole’s thrumming heart.

 

“Are you?” Nicole countered.

 

“Not yet,” she said mischievously. One of her hands dragged slowly down toward Nicole’s belt, resting there with heavy intentions. It was a tender thing to know she hadn’t even left Waverly to remove the uncomfortable clinch of her belt while Waverly dozed on her shoulder. Made her decisions feel very, very right. “You’ve done this before, right?”

 

“I’ve...yes.” Nicole sat up a bit straighter, letting Waverly fall back against her thighs to look her clear in the eyes. “I need to know you’re sure about this. Yesterday was…”

 

“Yesterday is gone. It’s done,” Waverly said firmly, trailing her hands down Nicole’s chest and covertly loosening the buttons of her vest until it hung open limply. “Tonight we’re here. Together. And you’re all I want.”

 

“What about tomorrow?” Nicole asked ruefully. “Will you want this tomorrow?”

 

“I’ll want it always,” Waverly swore. “But I only ever know I have today.

 

Nicole wrapped her hands around Waverly’s cheeks and breathed out a long, shaky breath. “I’ll protect you better. I swear.”

 

“I don’t want your protection , Nicole. I want you. I want today.”

 

Nicole kissed her fiercely, erasing any doubts Waverly might have harbored about Nicole’s desires. It was much like the kiss they’d shared in the barn, when Nicole had swept her off her feet and held her at her mercy. Only there would be no interruption. Waverly could get truly lost in the current.

 

Her stomach gave a little flip when Nicole rolled them. A little too expertly, perhaps. Was it wrong to be indignant at the prospect of just how much more practice Nicole might’ve had pleasing  women than Waverly? Was being competitive sexy? Questions unanswered, unfortunately.

 

She hit the bedding with a little sigh that was swallowed as Nicole pushed their mouths together again. The thrill of the fall was nothing compared to the way Nicole settled between her legs, pulling them up snug around her waist and letting out a little chuckle into Waverly’s neck.

 

“Breath, darlin’.” She commanded.

 

Waverly obeyed.


+++


Nicole smokes after sex , Waverly catalogued.

 

The night wasn’t nearly as deep as when they’d started. Or even when they stopped.

 

Or restarted.

 

Waverly smirked to herself.

 

Nicole’s shirt hung loose and open , billowing out over her back from the cold breeze curling in from the window. Normally, Waverly sent her outside to smoke. But, well...exceptions could be made, she supposed. The side profile of her face was serene and sleepy. Breathtaking.

 

As a lady of semi-proper upbringing, she really hadn’t spent a great deal of her life without clothes on. However, now that she sat unclothed under the blankets, she grew rather dedicated to the notion. Surely, Nicole wouldn’t complain.

 

Waverly felt very powerful indeed. Power was a soft thing, maybe.


+++


The frantic knocking on the front door the next morning was so abrasive, they might as well have been knocking on Waverly’s forehead. Her eyes snapped open, a little bloodshot she was sure, and she glared out in the direction of the window. “Why?” she asked flatly.

 

“Ignore them,” Nicole advised, barely legible with the way her face was pressed into her pillow.

 

It was sorely tempting, but the last time Waverly had ignored someone at the door, they’d shot out the lock and tried to steal her away in the dead of night. She dragged the top layer of their blanket away with her as she stood up. She felt distinctly rumpled. Slightly sore. Wonderfully had.

 

And yes, perhaps smug too.

 

She trudged to the window and peered out between the curtains, squinting to the left toward the front door. Their visitor pounded childishly with both hands and aimed a boot heal at the door for good measure. In the ensuing silence, she threw her hands up and turned in Waverly’s direction to stare back out over the property.

 

“Holy shit,” Waverly whispered.

 

She pressed her face against the window, reassuring herself what she was seeing. “Nicole! Look!”

 

Nicole groaned into her pillow, but it was followed by the distinct sounds of someone unhappily peeling themselves out of bed. After a moment, she was standing at Waverly’s back grumbling about visitors and late nights. Waverly slapped her hand back against the bare flesh of Nicole’s belly and pointed out the window. “Look!” She insisted.

 

“Oh shit,” Nicole cursed.

 

“That’s Wynonna!” She slapped some more at Nicole’s stomach, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “That’s my sister!”

 

When she turned back to grin up at her, Nicole’s face was ten shades of mortified. “That’s what?” She asked feintly.

 

“Wynonna? My sister?” Waverly reminded her, raising one eyebrow. “What?”

 

“That’s not-” Nicole pulled back from the window, hiding just beyond its reach on the neighboring wall. “That’s the Marshal!”

 

“No...really?” Waverly frowned, staring out at her sister who was surveying the ranch with a most unimpressed look. “Huh. What are the odds?” She wondered.

 

“Astronomical! But unavoidable, because my life is terrible!” Nicole assured her.

 

Waverly watched a hard look pass across her sister’s face when she turned back to square her shoulders at the front door. Waverly recognized that look. They’d shared a room for a number of years.

 

“She’s going to break down the door,” Waverly remarked wearily.

 

“She’s not going to break down the door.”

 

Wynonna cracked her neck side to side. “I’m going to break down this door, Waverly! You’ve got thirty seconds!”

 

“See?” Waverly sighed.

 

Nicole scrambled to put her shirt back on, buttoning it so askew it was barely recognizable as a shirt. Waverly figured she might as well put some clothes on too. When Nicole had managed to throw some articles of clothes at her own body, she lowered herself to the floor and began scooting backwards under the bed frame.

 

“What are you doing?” Waverly asked grumpily as she pulled her dress up and tried to arrange her hair to look less like she’d just been ravaged.

 

“I am not going to be caught by a U.S. Marshal, half-naked in bed with her little, unwed sister!” She hissed. “She’s here to hang me, Waverly!”

 

“Sounds like she’s here for me, actually,” Waverly mused. “But...point taken. Stay there,” she instructed.

 

Nicole’s fearful eyes peered back up at her from the dark under the bed.

 

“The most feared outlaw in the west, ladies and gentlemen,” Waverly muttered under her breath as she exited the room, taking care to shut the door behind her. About ten paces from the front door, it crashed open, splintering the already-broken frame that’d been patched the night before. The door cracked against the back wall and swung open and shut a few times before Wynonna barrelled through, holding it steady.

 

Waverly frowned at her, hands on her hips. “That was not thirty seconds,” she accused.

 

Wynonna’s face lit up and she cleared the rest of the distance to hold Waverly at arm’s length with a coy grin. “Holy hell,” she laughed. “As I live and breath.”

 

“I think that’s what’s most surprising,” Waverly laughed. But her irritation had dissipated rapidly, leaving her with a hard ache in her chest. It was not such a small world that she really believed she’d ever run into her wayward sister again. Seeing her there, with the same cheeky smile and the same familiar affection in her eyes felt like something out of a dream.

 

“Holy hell,” Wynonna said again, before crushing Waverly against her in a too-hard hug. It wasn’t even worth trying to wriggle out of, she told herself.

 

Her arms came up to grip at the back of her dusty jacket. And maybe she held her a little too hard too.

 

“You’re still short,” Wynonna said thickly.

 

“Oi!”

 

“Thank god,” Wynonna sighed happily. “I was afraid you’d get really tall and be able to beat me up.” She swayed them side to side a bit before finally letting her go. “I’m so happy I could just…”

 

“Beat me up?” Waverly asked skeptically.

 

“I could ,” she gushed. “But I won’t. Boy did I miss you.”

 

“Me too,” Waverly forced through an irritated smile. “For the many, many years you were absent from my life. And I was alone! Without you!”

 

“Geez, it’s not a damn competition, Waves. I missed you too,” she assaulted the side of Waverly’s head with a hard kiss on her way to the kitchen, where she proceeded to rifle through their cabinets like she paid rent there.

 

“Wynonna!” She called after her, indignant.

 

Wynonna seemed unreceptive when she emerged from their pantry with the last quarter of their bread hanging from her mouth and a can of tomatoes in the other. “Whut?” she asked around the bread.

 

“I’m very upset!”

 

Wynnona gave her possibly the most idiotic look she’d ever received. “Why?” She tested the very fine threads of Waverly’s freshly renewed stance on not-murdering anyone. Very freshly renewed. Almost too fresh.

 

“I haven’t seen you in - what, six years? Longer?!”

 

Wynonna waggled her hand sheepishly. “Eight, maybe?”

 

“You left me! You left me alone with Daddy in a City full of people who hated us right on the cusp of ‘ you’re to be married soon ’ and ‘ don’t be a charlatan’!

 

“Well, did you?”

 

“Get married?”

 

“No, become a charlatan.”

 

Waverly flashed back briefly - and vividly - to Nicole’s head between her thighs. She blushed and pursed her lips. “Of course not.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Wynonna whittled her way into the can of tomatoes with a pocket knife and drank the contents noisily before wiping her mouth on the back of her hand. Truly, she had inherited their mother’s manners. “Then why are you here in some dude’s ranch? You been ridin’ , cowgirl? Hmmm?” Wynonna raised her eyebrows suggestively.

 

Waverly flashed back to a different scene: the view from atop Nicole’s lap while she pushed her hips down against her long fingers.

 

She swallowed hard. “I’ve - no. What? No. Of course not. Don’t be...gross.”

 

Wynonna did not stop being gross. Instead, she drank twelve ounces of tomatoes then went for Nicole’s nice whiskey. “So what, you’re a rancher’s wife now? Where’s the ring, sweetheart?”

 

“No, you’re done asking questions about me,” Waverly snapped. “How in god’s green earth did you manage to land yourself a Marshal’s job? You’re a lady!”

 

“I have lady parts , at best,” Wynonna said skeptically, stabbing the end of a rind of cheese on the tip of her pocket knife like a skewer so she could eat around it. The whiskey took a shortcut from the bottle right to her mouth.

 

“Well how did your lady parts get a badge?” She griped, making a failed attempt to jerk Nicole’s whiskey out of Wynonna’s firm grip. It didn’t budge.

 

“Slept with a judge,” she shrugged. “Easy as pie.”

 

“Wynonna!”

 

“What? I slept with his wife too, so it evens out.”

 

Waverly choked on nothing so hard that Wynonna put the whiskey down to come over and pat her back. “Geez, I was just kidding. Settle down, Virgin Mary.”

 

Yes. A virgin. That’s what she was….

 

Wynonna continued to pat sympathetically against her back and Waverly begged her own childish desperation for her big sister’s approval to ride second to the tangled web of weirdness they needed to dissect. Unfortunately for her, it had always steered.

 

She sighed and turned to look up into Wynonna’s smiling face. No matter what she did or what she said or the hell she raised, there was always that look . It was unconditional and it never failed to disarm her.

 

“You grew up so pretty,” Wynonna remarked, almost unconsciously while her hand still pressed warmly into her back.

 

Her heart clenched painfully, but Waverly covered it with a well-timed, sentimental, “fuck you.”

 

Wynonna just laughed, absolutely delighted. “And rude . Just how I like ‘em.”

 

“You’re terrible,” Waverly protested, so weakly it was embarrassing. It was weird how violently a person’s subconscious could crave the approval of people you didn’t choose. Even when Wynonna had lit her mattress on fire when they were kids, she’d only managed a warped thrill of pride at how impressed Wynonna was with the height at which it burned. There was a metaphor for family in there somewhere, but whatever muscle allowed Waverly to wax poetic about the worst parts of her life was strained and on the mend.

 

Wynonna was a menace. That was the metaphor.

 

“Why are you here?” She asked, looking down miserably at her shoes. Because once she knew the why then she’d know the expiration date. She’d watch her sister’s back as she walked herself out the front door, no promise and no explanation of a future. Whatever her rough edges, Waverly missed her . She missed the way Wynonna kept her close when she was around, worried over her, even fought with her sometimes. Before Nicole, nobody had ever even really cared enough to fight with her. Nobody except her sister, anyhow.

 

When she left it was all the worse. Waverly was not the kind of person who was a factor in any calculation. Just collateral damage. All of Waverly’s most significant relationships were either accidental or coincidental.

 

“Weird story, actually,” Wynonna trailed off, returning to pilfering their cabinets and honing her predator instincts on a jar of plain corn. The jar went much the way of the tomatoes, unfortunately. “Do you have any more cheese? This is a cow farm right?”

 

Waverly came up at her side, snapping under her nose. “What’s the story?” She demanded.

 

Wynonna’s mouth said “alright” but her eyes still said “where’s the cheese”.

 

“So that judge I...had relations with,” she offered diplomatically, pausing to see if Waverly would check her for it. When nothing was forthcoming, she continued, “obviously was perturbed by the newest addition to the Marshals. I am quite perturbing. Sent me out west with the first batch of Marshals being relegated to outlaw duty - to get rid of me or get me killed probably. Jokes on him, I love it out here. They want to clean up the west, I guess. Of course I share the dual opinions of why and bother but whatever. They swear the west will be civilized someday - a gem of industry and a place to be proud of. Personally? I think they’ll be a bunch of queer anti-establishment pipe-smokers, but what do I know. Now that’s a California I’d like to see.”

 

She inspected the empty bottom of the tin can with a frown. “Are you certain there isn’t cheese?”

 

“Wynonna.”

 

“Right. So as a graduate of the school of work smarter not harder I decided I wasn’t going to ride around on a horse popping off across the west, hoping an outlaw just happened to buy me a drink in some ghost town. I came up with a plan .”

 

“That doesn’t sound like you at all,” Waverly said wryly, producing a small covered plate of fresh cheese.

 

Wynonna was positively aglow. When she reached for it with dancing, greedy fingers, though, Waverly jerked it back with a pointed look.

 

“I’m explaining!” Wynonna griped until Waverly relented and passed the plate forward. “ Anyways. The plan. Took some of the heavier bounties and began putting ads in the newspaper selling horses and cows and the like - real good marks for them. Made myself sound like a sucker, you know? Got a lot of nothing responses - nobody with a bounty. But I also started getting hits on warrants. You remember how much I hated fishing? I’ve changed my mind about that lately,” She grinned. When she stood there waiting, hopeful, Waverly realized that she was waiting for some kind of validation.

 

“That’s...smart,” Waverly offered.

 

“Yeah? It is isn’t it,” Wynonna preened. “I’ve had good luck with it the last year. Anyways, posted an ad selling some cows in the area - I’d heard there might be a few undesirables out here. Close by.”

 

Waverly privately thought, closer than you’d think.

 

“Got an affirmative offer from one Bulshar Clootie. The bounty? Nine hundred dollars. It’s like fishing but dangerous and lucrative. And daddy doesn’t get angry when I try and shoot them. Like fishing is so sporting.

 

Waverly froze, fingernails pressing hard into the wood of the counter. Her brain tripped over itself for a moment, then sped forward. “You…” she swallowed, eyes widening. “How many cows?” She whispered.

 

Wynonna frowned at her, still chewing. “I don’t know. A handful. Something. Requisitioned them on government funds and showed up to deliver and confirm it was him. Recon before I went back and got him.” She turned thoughtful, swallowing and ticking her head to the side. “It was weird, though. He insisted he didn’t ask for any cows. Showed him his letter, signed and everything, but he swore he wasn’t in the market for them. The whole thing was bizarre, I tell you. He said he’d sent the letter trying to buy a wife! Imagine that.”

 

Waverly could very much imagine that. Could very much imagine the strange set of circumstances that put her in so much danger. Put her in danger and saved her life.

 

“Anyways. Played hardball, made him take the cows. Whatever. Tried to ride after him when I saw him break camp and head north toward a train route he’d hit before, but by the time we got there it was only a small number of his boys. Barely a fight, even. He had to have been up to something, but I ain’t sure what yet.” She shook her head to herself, then seemed to snap back to the present.

 

“But whatever, my life is awesome and I’m really brave and stuff. Someone dropped your name back at the saloon last night and I had to come see for myself. Tada! I’m here, you’re welcome,” she grinned, holding her arms out to demonstrate her awesome life and really brave self.

 

Waverly was still stuck on the mixup of the century. “I need to sit down,” she said vaguely.

 

“What’s wrong?” Wynonna’s grin fell and she pulled a chair out, escorting Waverly into it. “Are you okay? Do I need to kill someone?”

 

“I want one person in my life who doesn’t ask me that everytime I’m not smiling,” she muttered.

 

Not quietly enough. Wynonna leaned down with a bewildered expression. “What?”

 

“What?” Waverly echoed, in a small panic. “Anyways! It’s - nothing! I’m just tired, I think. I was up late last night.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Wynonna raised her eyebrows mischievously.

 

Waverly rolled her eyes. And despite the fact that it was exactly what Wynonna thought, she insisted, “It’s not what you think. Just...couldn’t sleep.”

 

“Well, you’d better get some sleep. We’re going to be spending time together,” she assured her with a bright smile. “I’ve had a bit of good fortune. Caught two fish with one lure. An outlaw they call Haught responded to my advertisement selling a horse a few weeks back. I was already planning on coming out here so it was fate, I tell you. I imagine the real terror will be, not when I have her hanged, but when she realizes she’ll be leaving behind the handsome horse I brought her. Let it not be said I’m a woman completely without honesty.”

 

The distinct sound of Nicole bashing her head on the bed frame echoed in the ensuing silence, clear even a room over. Waverly’s eyes widened and she turned her head slowly to meet Wynonna’s own suspicious glare. Her hand slipped down to her hip and she loosened the elegant Colt revolver she’d stolen from their daddy the night she left them. “Is someone else here?” She asked, narrowing her eyes in the direction of the bedroom.

 

“Um!” Waverly held her hands out, like she might’ve had a chance at physically restraining Wynonna. And then her brain regurgitated the first thing it could come up with. “It’s just our cat!”

 

The cat that they didn’t have. That cat.

 

Wynonna’s head jerked back in disbelief. “Your cat? Why is there a cat in your bedroom?”

 

“It’s afraid of the dark. It sleeps with us,” she said, horrified by the turn her lie was taking. She’d always been terrible at improvising. That’s why she needed plans, so she didn’t make up cats and assign them improbable backstories. “She hates visitors. She’s has red hair. And a bad temper. But she likes me? And sleeps in my room?”

 

Okay.

 

Okay, she owed Nicole a major apology for pretending she was a cat.

 

“Alright, slow down, kid. You know I’m not a cat person,” she muttered.

 

Waverly hoped Wynonna liked outlaws who slept with her sister out of wedlock more than she liked cats. Seemed doubtful, though.

 

“Well. I’m pretty tired, so I think I might just...go to bed,” Waverly said lamely, gesturing behind her. “Are you staying in town?”

 

“Yeah, room above the saloon. I’ve got to go anyhow, I need to have a longer chat with the sheriff and see if he can offer me any clarity on what’s going on around here.” She pushed her chair out and came around to press a kiss to the top of Waverly’s head. “I’ll come back for you. Or you can come to me if you like. Either way, we’re catching up,” she said like it was a threat. A loving threat, of course.

 

“Alright, bye babygirl,” she tossed over her shoulder before pushing out through the front door. The door hung a bit sadly on the hinges she broke. The sight sunk into the pit of her stomach for a heavy moment, before she breathed and swallowed around it. She reminded herself that Wynonna wouldn’t leave town again without telling her. Right?

 

Well. Though it was no comfort, Wynonna probably wouldn’t leave town without trying to kill Nicole so...their paths would probably cross either way.

 

Waverly stood on weak knees to watch Wynonna through the window while she got on her handsome brown stallion and rode off through the gate. When she was sure she was gone, Waverly made her way to the bedroom.

 

“You can come out now, you big chicken.”

 

“I’m not-” Whack.

 

The bed jostled. “Ow.”

 

Waverly rolled her eyes while Nicole extracted herself from under the bed with a look that was embarrassed, but probably not as embarrassed as she should have been. She was rubbing her head with a grimace and Waverly had to physically restrain herself from going over to touch at her head and worry over her. She crossed her arms. That helped.

 

When she extracated herself, Nicole sat back on the ground, back against the bedframe and a bedraggled look about her. Waverly chastised the softness of her own heart at the sight. “What am I going to do?” Nicole mused softly to herself.

 

Waverly wondered the same thing.


+++

 

Breakfast felt more like a funeral.


Nicole’s funeral.

 

Because even though Nicole was very tough and very strong, she knew the kind of hurricane of destruction that followed in the wake of her sister’s footsteps. Her sister was definitely going to murder her. She would try her very, very best.

 

Waverly stared glumly at the wall and pushed her eggs around her plate with rising nausea, trying hard not to look as miserable as she felt. Never had she been accused of subtlety, though. Nicole caught on quickly, fidgeting and left sitting with the loose threads of about a dozen aborted conversation topics. Of course, never had Nicole been accused of giving up.

 

“We’ll have to take you to see Dolls when we get back into town,” Nicole tried, valiantly. That, at least, caught some of Waverly’s interest. After going back for him that night, she’d never even had a moment to ask after his health or apologize for the ambush.

 

Through her glum mood, she looked up at Nicole from under tired eyelids. “He’s alright?”

 

“Oh! Yeah!” Nicole seemed relieved that Waverly hadn’t forgotten how to string more than two words together. “They scrambled him a bit, but he was awake and walking by the time he left the next day. Wasn’t talkin’ so much, but he’s always like that. I imagine the real worry would’ve been in him sayin’ too much of anything.” The smile she gave Waverly was so eager and so heartbreakingly hopeful, Waverly couldn’t help but spare her a wane smile.

 

“I’m glad.”

 

“He’ll want to thank you,” Nicole nodded to herself. “He tried to before he left, but you were like the dead. I sent him off to a doctor or I think he’d have guarded our front porch forever.”

 

Waverly hummed half-heartedly. Truly, she was glad to hear Xavier was alive and well, but her brain was stuck in a bog of inevitabilities and what-ifs. There were only so many ways it all ended for Nicole Haught, the first of the last of the wild west.

 

She looked up in time to see Nicole deflate, staring down at her plate and concentrating hard at nothing in particular. Waverly watched her think and filed it away in case she never got to see such a lovely thing again. Nicole didn’t do it terribly often.

 

“Sheriff cleaned up outside?” Nicole offered, apparently unsure if that was going to be exciting news or not. “Made it real nice. Just like nothing happened out there. Only thing left to put back is the house and I’ll make it twice as nice as before. Whatever you want,” she promised with an aching debt of sincerity.

 

Waverly just looked at her and wondered: how much longer am I going to have you?

 

She must have been staring. Nicole gave her a lopsided smile and reached up toward her hair, using both hands to push it so it stuck almost straight up in a point. Waverly derived endless amusement from the many and varied ways Nicole’s hair could rebel in the mornings. On a good day.

 

On that particular morning, she burst into tears instead.

 

Judging by the look of horror on Nicole’s face, it might have damaged her irreparably. In a blink, Nicole was up out of her chair, rounding the table, and hovering close to Waverly like her shadow. “I’m sorry!” She burst out, kneeling and trying to collect Waverly in her hands while she fell apart. “Was it something I…?”

 

Waverly fell into her and let herself be held. If they were to have an expiration, she would make the most of it. Nicole kept her mostly whole there, repeating in a broken whisper that everything was okay . It wasn’t. Nicole was stupid and Waverly was worse.

 

Eventually she fell into little hiccups and ran out of the energy and the tears to cry. It didn’t feel any better, necessarily, but perhaps it was better than pretending everything was fine. She felt sore and raw in that good way - preferable to be sore in the cheeks than sore in your heart. The Earps had never much mastered internalizing. Perhaps they would have all done well to have taken lessons from Nicole Haught.

 

She didn’t want to go, but after a more than generous amount of time, Nicole pushed her back and held her by the shoulders so she could get a good look at her red face. “Are you alright?” She practically whispered. “What’s wrong, Waverly?”

 

Waverly did a very admirable and impressive job of not bursting into tears again. Thousandth time’s the charm, surely. “I’m just...sad,” she said honestly.

 

Nicole’s eyes widened. “Is this because we…?”

 

It felt so long ago by the late hour of a whirlwind morning that it took Waverly a long, baited pause to realize what Nicole was talking about. “What? No. No, no, no.” Waverly shook her head vehemently. “That was everything I ever wanted.”

 

“Then why do you look like I done broke your heart?” She asked pitifully.

 

And she hadn’t. But she would, Waverly knew.

 

“I love you a lot,” Waverly said instead. “Just...a lot.”

 

Nicole smiled sadly, still very confused but an absolute darling about it. In the next quiet moments, while Waverly gave in and let herself rub a thumb along Nicole’s cheek and the side of her smile, she tried to package up her fears and file them neatly away. There was no need to terrify Nicole with the things that would haunt her. And perhaps even more importantly, Waverly didn’t wish to give voice to something like the danger and promise of her sister’s mission. Before the local priest had departed in shame - thanks to her mother - he’d once said that some evil exists only when its given voice.

 

If Waverly could prevent such evil upon Nicole simply by not talking about it, then why would she tempt fate?

 

Nicole pulled Waverly’s hand down from her cheek and held her fingers loosely between them where she crouched. “You know what? It’s fall and everything’s turning out there. Why don’t we get you up and go out for a walk. Stretch out your ankle. See the colors. How ‘bout that?”

 

“How ‘bout that,” Waverly agreed wistfully.


+++


They went just far away enough from the fenceline - just cresting a shallow hill that spilled into more flat eternity out into the western plains - just far enough so the barn and the ranch and everything human winked out on a heightened horizon and it was just them. Logically, Waverly inew the barn would rise up if she walked a half-mile back east, but it was easy to pretend it was just them and the thick wilderness around them.

 

Back in the overwhelming, choppy surf of a city filled with so many sights and sounds and smells, it felt like she could have drowned in the sense of it all. It was like she saw so many things she was blind. Heard so much she was deaf.

 

But out in the failing age of a season laying itself to sleep in the wilds of the west it was so quiet . As a person used to trying to keep her head above that surf, she noted that her footsteps were loud in the brush. Clumsy.

 

Nicole, though, was a brush stroke on the canvas. Her footsteps were quiet - almost indistinguishable from the sound of grasses pulling against each other in endless invisible tides. When Nicole reached out to mindlessly sift her fingers through those grasses, they shook hands. They found common ground. Nicole would close her eyes and swallow it all like she tasted it too.

 

Waverly had to tear her eyes away so she didn’t miss their purpose. It wouldn’t be fall forever. And while Nicole swore it was a milder winter out there, she couldn’t quite shake away the memory of the way winter fell upon her on the east coast like a funeral and a glum reception. She, perhaps, didn’t fully trust that it wouldn’t all spoil and turn grey before her eyes in the oncoming weeks. Most things in her life did, especially the ones so reliably scheduled as seasons.

 

Waverly had been brought as a young girl to vast, fussy gardens of rare and splendid things - carefully transplanted and showcased into great shows of exotic, extravagant wealth. Another thing that - while full of so many small bits of beauty - turned to ash in her mouth. If all rare and beautiful things could be seen in one room, then were they really rare and beautiful anymore?

 

So the warm glow of the prairie - sparse trees, grass, and foliage alike all sliding back, regressing to a mean of warm amber until they all sang just about the same tune - well. Maybe the rare and the beautiful was really the common and untouched. If the city was choppy surf, then the west was the slow slip of an inch of clear water on a single clean rock.

 

She looked out and saw. She listened and heard.

 

Nicole ran her hand across the pocked bark of a gnarled, low-stooping tree - hardy like the people that grew out there. And then she rested there a moment, smiling at Waverly secretly like, now you understand.

 

And she did.

 

Bending down, Nicole snapped the stem of some wild feverfew choked up high on the stem so only the brilliant top of the flower cropped off in the pinch of her fingers. Then she pushed herself up again and held the bloom out for Waverly to take with a hopeful kind of smile.

 

Waverly offered her own secret smile and took the flower. Before Nicole could step back, though, she reached up to still her and tucked the flower behind Nicole’s ear. “There,” she said because, well, it was.

 

“That was for you,” Nicole teased.

 

“I’m happy with my choices.”

 

“Me too,” Nicole said so vastly she could’ve been talking about anything and everything. Waverly got the feeling that might have included her. Even if, like most everyone else in her life, Waverly hadn’t really been a choice. Nicole had that uncanny habit of making her feel like she was.

 

As they made their way down and around the level dip of the slow spilling hill, Nicole picked another little white flower and another and another. It helped slow her pace to match Waverly slight limp. They all ended up tucked into Nicole’s own hair, much to her insincere exasperation. It’s very difficult not to fall in love with a person a thousand times over like that. Right there against the backdrop of warm, wild things in concert. Very difficult, indeed, no matter the fact that Waverly had already done so many times prior. No amount of dread or mysticism about the future of Waverly and Nicole could stop her, really.

 

Eventually, Nicole stopped offering the flowers, hoarding them instead while she sought out more and brighter buds. Waverly watched her a long while before pointing it out. “Can I not be trusted any longer?”

 

“No, you cannot,” Nicole said primly. “I’ll save ‘em until I can weave you a crown.”

 

“Can you do that, really?” Waverly asked, just a little bit skeptical.

 

“Well, no. But I’ve seen it done,” she said defensively. “I figured you out and I’ll figure this out too,” she puffed up with a determined scowl.

 

Waverly smiled and rolled her eyes lightly to herself. “Are you so certain you’ve even done that?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Well, what am I then, Nicole Haught? What am I that’s so easily figured?”

 

Patiently, she watched while Nicole considered her words, chewed them around, took the time to lower herself on a boulder that had been cracked right down the middle and cloven straight in two. Like it’d been sliced through as soft butter parting on a blunt knife. Nicole perched delicately so she could take the strain off of her back while she chose little stems for her growing bouquet.

 

After a grand, sweeping pause, Nicole cleared her throat and shrugged. “I can’t tell you.”

 

Waverly scoffed. “You can’t tell me.”

 

“If I tell you, I lose my advantages,” she teased. The way she chewed her smile back into the corner of her mouth when she looked up at her was enough to disarm her irritation. Or perhaps it was so grand a thing as to disarm the entire concept of irritation. “And besides, I meant that I couldn’t tell you because I ain’t figured out how to word it. I need more time. I’ll pick my words out real careful and then I’ll tell you when I know how.”

 

“Yes, that is your way, isn’t it?” Waverly agreed, all affection. Nicole had been correct in that the walk was perhaps exactly what she needed. The oppressive storm cloud of fear above her head had thinned and dissipated into grey fog. Through the haze, she felt she could navigate. Felt she could come clean.

 

She watched Nicole fail to tie a few stems together for a long enough while to gather herself, then sat on the second half of the split boulder next to her. “I’m sorry I worried you at breakfast. I’m just...really worried about my sister being here.”

 

“Hm? I thought you liked your sister,” Nicole said distractedly.

 

Waverly reached out to still her hands, bringing Nicole’s eyes up to meet her own. “I’m worried that she’ll kill you. You don’t know my sister like I do, and she’s impossible to deter. Like a bloodhound that’s caught a scent.”

 

“I’m not too bad at deterring things,” Nicole shrugged.

 

Which was exactly what Waverly feared. The most dangerous thing Nicole could do was dismiss the very real threat her sister posed. Wynonna was the rare creature that absolutely thrived on the dismissal and scorn of her character. “Nicole, I’m serious.”

 

“I am too,” Nicole offered, confused, but sensing her missteps. “What are you so afraid of?”

 

“Literally every outcome!” Waverly burst out. And then she realized, quite foolishly out of tune that she’d been, that it wasn’t necessarily Wynonna’s good fortunes that solely frightened her. “Your brand of deterring things is killing them.”

 

Nicole’s eyes widened. “Oh. You thought - Waverly. I’m not heading out to kill her, am I?” She sounded a little wounded. “I’m just keeping my head down until it passes.”

 

“And when that fails?” Waverly demanded, clenching her fingers together in her lap. “When she comes for you with a federal warrant for your death?”

 

“I...defend myself?” Nicole tried, suddenly very unsure of herself. The way she looked at Waverly for her cue was almost heartbreaking in itself. Waverly wasn’t conscious of it, but she must’ve been giving one, because Nicole swallowed heavily, looking more lost. “Or...not? I surrender?”

 

“I don’t know, Nicole. That’s what I’m saying,” she shook her head sadly. “I can’t let you hurt Wynonna, but I can’t let Wynonna hurt you. And you are both very difficult people to not let do anything.”

 

Nicole nodded hesitantly, then slowly more determinedly. “Right, I hear you. What do you want me to do?”

 

“Please just let me handle Wynonna. I know your instinct is going to be to fight her - that’s almost everyone’s instinct when they meet her. But I’m begging you to stand down. I love you so much, but I can’t lose Wynonna either.”

 

Nicole’s hands reached out to take Waverly’s hands between her own with a guilty look. “You don’t have to beg me for anything, Waverly.” She gave her hands a light squeeze. “I’d do anything for you. No charge.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Waverly said miserably. Because she knew what she was asking. She was basically asking Nicole to loosen the noose if Wynonna couldn’t fit it over her head. And the worst part is she really believed Nicole would do it - believed Nicole wouldn’t raise a hand to defend herself at Waverly’s behest. That amount of power over a person was proof that love wasn’t always such a tender thing.

 

Nicole smiled, dipping her head to catch Waverly’s downcast eyes. “Don’t be sorry. You’ll figure something out. You always do.” If Nicole was to be faithful, Waverly hoped it wasn’t to her end. Admittedly, she felt better knowing Nicole wouldn’t hurt her sister - she just had to contend with the other half of that equation.

 

Long moments passed and Nicole took the opportunity to fold Waverly’s hand into her own lap and stare out at the little copse of trees, stood sentinel against the harshness of the dry west. They were not neat or green or even beautiful in symmetry and trim, but they were an art in their own right with the way the sun slipped below the low curtain of the evening clouds to lay heavy hands on the upturned boughs. Waverly thought they’d been gold before. The sun laughed. 

 

Eventually, Nicole sent her a small smile, trying to lighten Waverly’s mood. “I must be terribly difficult to love.”

 

“You’re not,” Waverly breathed out.

 

“I am,” Nicole disagreed, her grin growing. “But...you know. I do ...love you and stuff. If you want me, even still. Well. I want to give you everything that comes with it. If you still want that.” Her brows furrowed in consternation. “I’m almost very sure there ain’t a judge in the west that would do it. Or a clergy or nothin’. It wouldn’t be legal or - much of anything in god’s eyes maybe. So I’m not sure what it’d look like or how.” She scratched at the top of her head, eyes flicking upwards as she considered. “Which - this doesn’t sound very good the way I’m saying it now. I hear it. It sounds stupid. But - I’ll figure somethin’ out…” She trailed off thoughtfully, quite unaware of the way Waverly’s throat had closed up.

 

“Well, I don’t know that it’s such a nice offer, but I’ll find a way if you still want it,” Nicole settled, finally turning to meet Waverly’s eyes. “Marriage, I mean. Yeah. Should’ve said that - the...the marriage thing.”

 

In the moment, she wasn’t entirely capable of giving an answer. Instead, she settled for turning toward Nicole and leaning in until she could press her forehead against the side of Nicole’s head and wrap her arms around her neck. Just...hold her there.

 

Nicole’s breathing slowed to calm waves as she was held, the thump of her pulse smoothing out into sleepy palpitations. The sun was just about to rest itself against the horizon by the time Nicole cleared her throat and whispered, “Is that a yes?”

 

Waverly let her go to lean down and pull up one long, rough stalk of grass. She plucked it then twisted and tied it into a mediocre, lopsided ring. When she slipped it onto Nicole’s cold hand and looked up at her, it was with a wide smile. “‘Til death do us part.”


+++


It was difficult to hike back through the brush to the farm with her arm wrapped around Nicole’s hip, but she wouldn’t let her stray even though it put them out past sunset. “Oh. We also need to get a cat,” Waverly informed her.

 

Nicole looked over at her with a frown. “What? Why?”

 

“I told Wynonna we have a cat.”

 

“What? Who cares? I don’t want a cat,” Nicole sulked.

 

Waverly sighed and shook her head. “We’re getting a cat. She’s insufferable when she’s caught me lying. Or when she’s right about anything. Where do you think I get it from?”

 

“I don’t want a cat.”

 

Waverly patted at her hip sympathetically. “You can name it.”


+++


That night was less frantic - less overwhelming in its intensity. Nicole didn’t seem particularly driven to her goals like she’d been the prior night when she pulled Waverly’s pleasure out so many times and so often that she had to eventually plead for mercy. Instead, Nicole seemed content just to have her there under her slow, sleepy hands. Waverly wondered if there wasn’t something appealing to an uncaged creature like Nicole in being able to keep something tame for herself.

 

Even in slower moments, catching their breath, Nicole still kept her close. Waverly never knew she held the means to love a person as much as she did in those moments. She cried a bit in the throws of it, because she’s just like that.


+++


Post-coital conviction hit her like a steam engine, the second her eyes blinked open in the - much, much too late - morning sun. And she knew it was just the flush of sex and love and good feelings and whatnot. But she felt conviction pumping through her veins. She felt it in her...heart. And a little bit in her groin.

 

“Nicole,” she said too loudly.

 

Nicole sat bolt upright, hand reaching back awkwardly to search for the revolver under her pillow. Waverly cut her hand to the side, slapping it against Nicole’s bare stomach. “Stop. Nothing’s wrong.”

 

Nicole’s hand froze, then fell limp as she plummeted back to the pillow. “Yes there is. I’m awake.”

 

“You’ve gotten so lazy since we’ve met,” Waverly teased, swinging her very naked legs out of bed. It was a weird thing to be so unclothed in the bright of a late morning.

 

Nicole rolled onto her face. “You’ve spoiled me.”

 

“You spoiled me first. Several times. My sister will be very upset.”

 

Nicole groaned and muttered something unkind about Wynonna under her breath, but Waverly was already up and dressed, throwing Nicole’s clothes at her naked back. When she requested Nicole come to breakfast, it was not in a tone that welcomed arguments.

 

Minutes later, Nicole was at the kitchen table, hair a mess and shirt buttoned up askew. Waverly didn’t have the time to dwell on this very alluring look. Well. She had a few minutes while the eggs cooked. But no more!

 

“You’re...vivacious this morning.”

 

“Vivacious?” Waverly shot her an impressed look.

 

“From that book you read me,” Nicole dismissed. “What’s got you so happy?”

 

Waverly dropped a plate of eggs and potatoes in front of her and kissed her temple. “I just feel ready to face the day.”

 

“The day or your sister?” Nicole asked, shoveling food into her mouth with her usual gracelessness. One of her sexier qualities.

 

Waverly sat down across from her, brimming with potential . “Both.”

 

That gave Nicole pause, fork halfway lifted. “You’re going to see your sister?”

 

“No, we are going to see my sister,” Waverly corrected.

 

“You sure that’s such a good idea? She wants to have me arrested. You remember that part, right?” Nicole went back to her breakfast.

 

“This far out from civilization, she’d probably just kill you instead.”

 

Nicole grunted. “Great.”

 

“But not in broad daylight,” Waverly rushed to reassure her. “And not with me there protecting you. I just think the longer we wait to break this all to her and plead your case, the worse it’s going to be. I think enough people in town would point her toward what’s happening. It’s worse to be caught in a lie than get in front of it and ease her into my life here. Into you.” Waverly leaned forward, desperate to make Nicole understand. “And besides, Bulshar is still out there and I can’t imagine he’s happy with the way things went. And if Wynonna’s going after him too, I’m not sure she can handle him and his gang alone. She’ll need our help.”

 

Nicole put her fork down and heaved a long, long sigh from the bottom dredges of her lungs. “It would seem we’re all on a collision course, hm?” She mused. “Seems none of us can jump tracks now.”

 

“Please come talk with Wynonna,” Waverly asked, reaching across the table for Nicole’s hands. “I want to be honest with her.”

 

Nicole’s stern brow softened and she offered a tired smile. “Okay. Whatever you want.”

 

“I won’t let her hurt you,” Waverly promised.

 

Nicole let out a low laugh and turned to gaze out the window. “I know.”


+++


Maybe the day was a deceptive kind of brilliant - the ghost of summer brushing one last time against the plains with a soft warmth that deceived how very far gone it was. Not a single cloud cast a shadow for miles in any direction and the wildlife was more vocal than it’d been since the frost. Even Stanley seemed happy, despite his arthritis and general grumpiness.

 

So it was feasible that the slow trot Nicole kept her horse in was an appreciation for the summery day gifted to them in the late of the fall. But it was also quite possible that dread weighed down her grip on the reigns, pulling Stanley back into an unhurried pace. Waverly tried not to make any assumptions because both were so very reasonable.

 

Out there, fate was a thing measured in miles she supposed. A person could put their thumb on a map and trace by the scale the distance at which they traveled to bring them to any end. Forward motion was inertia. Whatever that fate may have been for Nicole, Waverly had a hard time denying that they were riding towards it.

 

Despite her fierce, unending battle for independence, Waverly allowed herself to sink back into the cradle of Nicole’s hold and relax the strain of her thighs. Riding double wasn’t her idea of heroics, but she was only human. And there was a certain comfort in being held. Though the day was awful warm…

 

“Am I to ride double forever?” She teased. “I feel like maybe I’ve taken the bit rather than Stanley some days. I promise I’m not going to run off.”

 

“Huh?” Nicole’s arm around her middle slackened and Waverly thought that she maybe should have learned how to keep her big mouth shut. “Oh! I’m sorry. I kinda...tried to get-” She hummed frustratedly to herself. “Well. I thought maybe I could surprise you.”

 

“You’ve surprised me enough for this lifetime, Famous Outlaw Nicole Haught.”

 

“No, but like a good surprise,” she defended. “I mean, I wanted to get you a horse. A well-bred, hardy horse from an advertisement in the paper. So you wouldn’t have to ride double.” A huff of laughter hit the top of Waverly’s head. “Uh...well. I think you get how that ended up.”

 

“Oh god,” Waverly laughed through her wince. “My sister.”

 

“I ain’t ever believed much in god, but the sicker his sense of humor, the more pious I find myself,” Nicole muttered.

 

Waverly couldn’t help but laugh. It wasn’t funny because Wynonna had a loaded Buntline and a doggedness unmatched and she wanted to kill her Nicole . But...well. Gosh.

 

What else can you do sometimes.

 

“I wanted it to be a surprise,” Nicole sulked. “I can’t even do that right.”

 

“Is there a single telegram around here that has actually traveled from honest point A to honest point B without cross, interference, misinterpretation, or death ?” Waverly chuckled. “Ridiculous!”

 

Nicole laughed too even though it still wasn’t funny. “I think,” she said slowly and not without mirth, “that if ours wasn’t a story of miscommunication, it wouldn’t be a story at all.”

 

+++

 

On the outskirts of a town stirred to life by the sun and cheer, Nicole dismounted earlier than she would have. The foot traffic was never heavy in a town like that, but it was enough to warrant the niceties of walking oneself through the thick of it. When she’d helped Waverly down, Nicole paused a moment, then pulled the folded edge of her bandana up over her nose so she was more or less made incognito.

 

“Sorry,” Nicole offered when she saw Waverly watching her tensely. “I don’t...I think I might have no real idea how to be honest,” she admitted, a little lost looking.

 

Waverly took pity on her, reaching up to thread her arm through the crook of Nicole’s own and gently pull them forward. “You’re honest with me.”

 

“I can’t help that,” Nicole explained, too, too soft for all of the hard things they needed to do that day.

 

Waverly smiled up at her and tsked . “Worry less. Wynonna will love you.”

 

“No she won’t.”

 

Waverly smiled grimly to herself. “She doesn’t have a choice.”

 

As they approached the T in the road that would lead them off to the right and - much too soon - to the steps up into the Sheriff’s office, Waverly realized her nerves had gotten the better of her. All it took was Curtis hailing her from out of view, a friendly shout of her name, and Waverly nearly leapt out of her skin. She might have too, if Nicole hadn’t inadvertently been holding onto it. She turned with such poorly greased torque, she could practically hear the screech of her movement while she jerked to face him.

 

Curtis’s face was flushed with the warm weather and he had some old, undoubtedly fascinating book tucked under his arm. His hand was half-raised to give her a friendly gesture, but it froze along with his expression when he took her in. Waverly’s smile fell a little in confusion for a moment while Curtis’s hardened.

 

Ah.

 

Curtis was not looking at Waverly, but what she’d brought into town on her arm.

 

“Curtis,” Waverly greeted, a little wary with how quickly he’d shut down at the sight of Nicole. “Nice to see you.”

 

Curtis’s suspicious gaze didn’t hardly leave Nicole’s, even as he addressed Waverly. “Likewise. Are you…?” He trailed off, averting his eyes and fidgeting.

 

When Waverly shot a nervous glance up at Nicole’s covered face, Nicole was just glancing around awkwardly. Not particularly threatening.

 

“Are you alright, Curtis?” Waverly asked, loosening her grip on Nicole’s arm.

 

Curtis met her eyes with a shadow of their previous ease and kindness. “Would it be - could I maybe speak to you a little bit more privately?” His gaze flicked pointedly toward Nicole, but he couldn’t look at her for long before his gaze skittered away.

 

Waverly looked behind her to the looming nearness of the Sheriff’s office, then back at Nicole. For her part, Nicole just blinked at her, waiting on instruction.

 

“Well, I don’t see why not. It will have to be quick, though,” she added, glancing again between Nicole and the Sheriff’s office. “Just a moment,” she released Nicole’s arm with a final pat and took a few steps off to the side in Curtis’s confidence.

 

Before she could even get a word in edgewise, Curtis had pushed her forward a few steps by the small of her back - rude - and stooped to give her a wide-eyed, worried look. “Are you alright?” He whispered fiercely. “Are you safe?”

 

“Safe? I’m with Nicole,” she said stupidly, hoping that explained everything.

 

Curtis sucked in a sharp breath. “I know, that’s why I’m asking.

 

Oh. Oh.

 

Is she safe, in spite of Nicole. And that sentiment really just...

 

What everyone needed in that moment was for Waverly to be calm - rippleless like a windless pond top, gently reflective and worldly. These were all things Waverly struggled greatly with.

 

And didn’t even really try to accomplish.

 

“You don’t even know her ,” Waverly snapped, stepping away from his gentle pressure and folding her arms against her chest.

 

Curtis seemed surprised, shaking his head to himself like Waverly was being simple.

 

Waverly Earp was complicated and ridiculous, but she certainly wasn’t simple. If she was simple , her time from telegram to present would have filled a short newspaper announcement rather than the goddamn novel it’d stretched into.

 

“I know enough,” he said all fatherly and full of himself. Waverly had a father, thank you very much. He ignored her when she needed him and bruised her when she didn’t. And if everyone just stopped telling her what she ought to feel and do - as a lady of her standing - then she’d have a chance at being the peaceful little creature they wanted from her.

 

“Nicole loves me,” she defended, pushing back another few steps and shaking her head. “She’s had a hard life, but she’s never hard with me. You don’t know her .”

 

“Are you sure you do?” He tried one more time. And maybe what irritated Waverly so much was how genuine his concern was. He was only trying to help.

 

Her anger deflated a little, but she kept her distance. When she looked over her shoulder, Nicole was wringing her riding gloves between nervous hands, shoulders slumped and...yeah. She’d probably heard them. Despite what she’d heard, she still smiled hopefully, a little tentative, when their eyes met.

 

Waverly didn’t need any reassurance, but it made her feel a little stronger nonetheless. “I’m very sure, Mr. McCready. I know you’re worried about me, but I need you to know that I’m happy, I’m safe, and I can take care of myself. In fact, I’ve never been happier than when I’m with her. Please do me the courtesy of believing I’m smart enough to be sure of myself. Okay?”

 

Curtis’s brow bunched up sternly over his eyes while he studied Waverly’s face carefully. A long minute passed, before his face slackened and he nodded. “Okay,” he nodded ruefully. “Forgive me. I’m a worrier.”

 

“Me too,” Waverly confided. “So you can trust I’ve worried this one to death.” She hooked her thumb over her shoulder in Nicole’s direction. “That one’s good.”

 

Curtis bobbed his head obediently. “Alright, Ms. Earp.” Another moment, then more sure, “Alright.” His posture opened up and he cast a look over in Nicole’s direction. Nicole raised her eyebrows, mouth opening a little. In return, Curtis beckoned her sternly. “A moment, Haught?”

 

Nicole came forward hesitantly, giving Waverly a look full of concern. As she got closer, she tugged the bandana from her nose and pulled her hat off to be polite. “Sir?”

 

“You’re not what I expected,” Curtis joked limply.

 

Nicole cocked her head to the side in innocent confusion. Fingers dancing along the brim of her hat, she pursed her lips. “What did you expect?”

 

“Fangs, maybe.” He huffed out a small laugh and stuck his hand out expectantly.

 

Nicole took it after a moment of consideration, clasping it and nodding politely before they released their hold. Curtis sat back on his heels, face tired while he perused Nicole’s person. Whatever he found there, he reached out, placing one hand gently on the top of Nicole’s hat held in her hands. “Don’t forget to be kind,” he reminded her solemnly.

 

Then he gave Waverly a courteous nod and turned back toward his shop with a small little farewell wave over his shoulder.

 

Nicole watched him go a long while before turning to Waverly. “How could I forget?”

 

Waverly smiled back, then took her arm again to lead her the last distance to the Sheriff’s office. “I know.” Her fingers stroked along the soft, worn canvas of Nicole’s jacket while they walked. “That was good practice, I think.”

 

“For Wynonna?” Nicole chuckled and shook her head. “I’m not sure you can really practice for someone like her.”

 

“That’s right, you’ve met,” Waverly nodded thoughtfully. “You rode north with her that night.”

 

“She’s a force alright,” Nicole said vaguely, allowing Waverly to lead them up the stairs and stop at Nedley’s door. “I should probably let you do the talking, huh?”

 

“I wish I didn’t have to do any of the talking,” Waverly griped. “I think it’s too optimistic to hope this goes smoothly.” In a last ditch escape effort, Waverly looked up at Nicole and fluttered her eyelashes. “Do it for me?”

 

Nicole laughed out loud, right in her face. “No, darlin’. She’s your blood, your problem.”

 

“Well. Technically, she’s your problem,” Waverly muttered. Childish yes, but she wasn’t the one who Wynonna wanted to hang. “C’mon, you coward,” she grunted, tugging the door open while Nicole pulled her bandana up over her nose again. “Stop that,” she chastised. “You’re making it worse.”

 

The door gave an ominous slow groaning creak as it opened, swaying a bit on it’s rusty hinge. It was something of an emotional letdown to find the small office unoccupied save for the little dancing swirls of dust motes and lazy noon light filtering through grimy windows. Even the drunk tank was empty, no sign of Wynonna or the Sheriff except for a cold cup of coffee on Randy’s desk.

 

Waverly deflated in a nervous heap, shaking her head while they stepped cautiously inside. “Well. Probably still asleep with her head on the bar counter,” Waverly sighed. “Hungover and late, as usual.”

 

The door swung shut at their backs, enveloping them in a cloud of pipe smoke smell and stuffy silence. When the hammer of a revolver cocked behind Nicole’s head, it echoed in the muffled quiet.

 

Nicole’s spine pulled taut and stiff, unwinding her to her full height while she sucked in a surprised breath. Waverly’s head whipped around to where Wynonna was lurking just in the shadow of the shut door, one hand nursing a crusty loaf of bread, half-chewed, and the other casually aiming the long, delicate tip of their daddy’s gun at Nicole’s head. “I think we both know I don’t sober up enough to get hungover,” she said, tearing another chunk off of her bread and chewing slowly.

 

“Wynonna!”

 

“Sister,” Wynonna greeted, not sparing her a glance. “And...jackpot. How nice of you to come to me.”

 

One of Nicole’s hands hitched up like she meant to go for her belt, but Wynonna tapped the muzzle against her skull and tsked. “Ah, don’t do that,” she instructed her, rather patient. “Settle.”

 

Nicole settled.

 

Waverly didn’t. “Stop it, Wynonna. She’s with me!”

 

“Yes I do see that,” Wynonna nodded. “It’s not helping.” She tapped again at the back of Nicole’s head. “Hands up, please.”

 

Nicole gave a small, rueful laugh, then slowly raised her hands, palms forward and disarmed. “This wasn’t exactly how I imagined coming clean,” she murmured, just loud enough for the both to hear her.

 

“That’s a fucking terrible disguise, you know,” Wynonna drawled.

 

“Worked when we rode out past Calico,” Nicole said, far more pleasant than the situation probably warranted.

 

“To be fair, I was drunk.”

 

“Yes, I could tell.”

 

Waverly took Wynonna’s upper arm in desperate hands, tugging at it. “Please, Wynonna. We need to talk to you. She’s not who you think she is.”

 

Wynonna’s gaze drifted lazily from her target to where Waverly was pestering her. “Yeah,” she said slowly. “We do need to talk. Let’s start with what you’re doing keeping my baby sister at your farm, hm? Do talk,” she said dangerously, snapping her attention back to Nicole.

 

Nicole’s eyes cut over to Waverly’s, mouth twisted up in the corner. It was a tired kind of look. One that Waverly had imagined - in only her darkest moments - to be the kind of look Nicole might give her on a long walk to the gallows. A well of panic bubbled up in her throat and she found herself nearly shouting, “I love her!”

 

That, at least, got Wynonna’s attention.

 

Her eyebrows rose up slowly until her expression was no longer closed and dark. Slowly, her head turned in place to look down at Waverly’s raw expression. More than anything, she looked tired when she studied her face for doubt. “You...what?”

 

“Please, Wynonna,” Waverly said, feeling small again. Just like when they were kids and all she wanted was to be heard and to come first. Just once. To someone - anyone.

 

Wynonna’s expression softened a bit, though she remained quiet and her aim stayed true. But Waverly had gotten her attention and that was a rare and valuable thing in itself. Before she could temper or design her appeals, they burst forth in a jumble of mess and love and fear.

 

“I just - there was a mixup when I advertised for a husband and I ended up at Nicole’s door and she let me stay even though I had nothing to offer her and, and - but I fell in love with her and I built my own life here with her and we - I know what she’s done and who she is - it’s just not - it’s not like that anymore - she’s good , Wynonna - and I don’t - please don’t hurt her.”

 

Wynonna’s expression was vague enough to be concerning - betraying almost nothing except perhaps pity in Waverly’s general direction. And pity wasn’t likely to spare Nicole’s life. But then the frustration turned into tears again and it only served to twist her up more. Because how do you make a person see someone else the way you do? How do you crack them open and leave them soft, spilled out for someone else when it took you an age to get there yourself? Everything was so unfair.

 

Maybe Waverly made no sense, but the tears at least had Wynonna blowing out a long sigh and letting her aim fall to the small of Nicole’s back.“Don’t cry. Alright, alright. Hit me where it hurts, why don’t you?” Wynonna said softly.  She gave a small, affectionate roll of her eyes and tapped Nicole on the back, almost polite. “Into the cell with you, Haught. I’m asking nicely.”

 

And she was, really. For Wynonna.

 

Nicole gave Waverly another little look. Trusting .

 

When she nodded and allowed herself to be corralled behind iron bars, locked in like an animal, Waverly could only guess at the willpower it took to keep her docile and chained. Waverly swore internally that her trust would not be misplaced. She would fix it.

 

Wynonna locked her in with a big set of iron keys before tucking them back into the folds of her jacket and gesturing for Waverly to follow her. “On me, kiddo. We’re going to go have a drink and a talk ,” she said with a stern look. Even at her age, Waverly found herself still nodding her head obediently and trailing on Wynonna’s heels with the foreboding sense that she was in trouble.

 

Wynonna held the door for her, ushering Waverly out first then turning to give Nicole one last look. “Sit. Stay. Good dog,” she said seriously.

 

The last glimpse of Nicole that Waverly got was of her irritated expression, hands wrapped around the iron bars she’d willingly gone behind. Then the door closed and Wynonna motioned for them to head up the street. They didn’t speak as they entered the main thoroughfare, dust puffing up and curling at their shoes while the sun beat down on their shoulders. A low-boiling panic curdled in Waverly’s gut the farther behind they left Nicole.

 

As they stepped out into the middle of the street, Wynonna stopped quite suddenly, swaying back a bit in place at the jerk of her stop. Waverly stopped too, looking up at Wynonna’s hard expression, then allowing her gaze to follow out toward the far end of the road. Like a vision from a nightmare - fantastical and not quite touching the edges of her reality - the snake stood gaunt and ghoulish against the noon sun. Bulshar’s shoulders were squared with purpose and his fingers hovered in the shape of his grip just above his holster. A wicked little smile curled the corner of his mouth, eyes shadowed by the brim of his hat.

 

Gently, Wynonna swept Waverly behind her with one arm while the other loosed her revolver to hang with a measured, deliberate casualness. Waverly looked up at her face, watched as her eyes flicked quickly between porches and shuttered windows like she was counting. When Waverly gathered enough of herself to look too, her heart quickened.

 

Just within view, she could count maybe eight grim looking men in patchy coats with unkempt beards and drawn guns taking cover along the road behind railings and barrels - even up in the vantage of second-story windows.

 

“Welcome, Marshal,” Bulshar called from fifty paces away, seeming content to luxuriate in the eye of the oncoming storm, poised clouds fat and heavy above their heads. Ambush laid.

 

Wynonna blinked, mouth in a flat, grim line. “I do love a welcome wagon.”

 

A single falcon called out from the weathervane atop the boarded church.


+++




Chapter Text

 

+++



The way Wynonna’s fingers flexed and hovered over her holster drew Waverly’s eyes more than the dozen trigger-happy outlaws choking off their exits and loosening their own revolvers, longhorns stamping at the dirt and bowing their horns. Wynonna was never particularly concerned with things she couldn’t do, nor really the definition thereof. The qualifiers, as it were.

 

It was with a horrifying kind of clarity that Waverly realized Wynonna was going to fight. Worse yet, she planned to try and outshoot a vastly over-numbering army of better equipped, better sheltered, and better vantaged outlaws from her spot in the middle of the street. Their spot. Waverly’s spot!

 

They were both going to die.

 

Waverly didn’t feel all that guilty when she snatched Wynonna’s gun arm and hauled her into a sprint toward the nearest building, surrendering any chance of fight for flight - no matter how Wynonna cursed at her side. There was no point in stopping or making a stand when bullets were already hissing past their ears, tearing the air in deadly whistles and drowning them in the burning scent of gunpowder.

 

But they managed to clear the street and duck under a railing leading up to the general store before they were popped full of wayward ammunition. Instead it tore into the rails and crates on the porch in a stinging hail of chipped wood while they ran in a crouch towards the nearest door. Waverly didn’t like to count any metaphorical chickens, but she was wretchedly surprised that they’d cleared the street alive, let alone unharmed . Despite apparent impressions to the contrary, Waverly wasn’t much one for bantering when her life was so precariously dangled. As it so often was.

 

Wynonna was less picky.

 

“I really only needed one asshole,” she panted. “But now that I’ve got three…”

 

“Did they shoot you in the ass?” Waverly asked sympathetically as she pushed into the first open door she could find behind their cover and crawled inside on hands and knees.

 

Wynonna, practically draped over her back, fell through the door nearly on top of her. “I don’t know, want to check? - oof ,” Wynonna gave her a glare for the elbow to her stomach, but kept the rest of her opinions to herself. Before they could really get into it, Wynonna pushed her down flat by her shoulder into the dusty floorboards, revolver held out over Waverly’s head, steady.

 

Waverly looked up slowly to find Jeremy with both hands upheld in surrender, standing behind the cash register. For one horrifying moment, she thought Wynonna might shoot the poor man. Jeremy’s face was pale , fingertips trembling in the air and...eyes flickering pointedly down under the counter, just to his right.

 

The thundering of gunshots above and below- everywhere - threatened to deafen Waverly as she clamped down over her ears. A scream was strangled in her throat, a plea for Jeremy’s life on the tip of her tongue but…

 

She watched the counter explode in splinters as Wynonna fired into it, a full chamber in a concentrated circle next to Jeremy’s knees. When her revolver emptied and the only sound was the click of the hammer, the fizzling heat, and a remarkably high scream from Jeremy, Waverly uncovered her ears and tried to unswallow her tongue. Something behind the counter toppled in a muffled heap - a wet choke.

 

“Stop screaming,” Wynonna snapped, pointing her revolver in Jeremy’s direction.

 

Jeremy clapped his hands over his mouth, only a little bit of terror leaking out around the edges in a pathetic squeak.

 

“Is he dead?” Wynonna asked calmly.

 

Jeremy nodded so hard, he might’ve shaken his head loose.

 

“Are you good?”

 

Another nod.

 

“Act like it please,” she ordered.

 

Jeremy swallowed and lowered his hands, looking almost surprised that his mouth didn’t keep screaming when he did. “Thank you,” he said faintly. “He was holding me hostage! He-”

 

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Wynonna pushed up using Waverly’s back, then offered her a hand to get to her feet. “I don’t need a history lesson. Grab his gun off him and bring it here. Try not to point it at any faces. Unless there’s anymore faces in here I don’t know about.”

 

“Just mine,” he promised. He made as though to bend down below the counter - maybe search his hapless captor - but stopped and turned a remarkable shade of chameleon green. At top chameleon speeds, too. “Oh, I...”

 

“You what?” Wynonna snapped.

 

Jeremy threw up.

 

“Jesus Whore Christ,” Wynonna motioned for Waverly to stay low to the ground and ducked under the side windows to scurry the length of the store and join Jeremy at the counter. She took a quick look over the top of the cash register, then turned away with her eyes closed in barely restrained patience. Gathering herself. Of whatever remained. “You ralphed on him ,” she said through gritted teeth.

 

“‘I’m a delicate man ,” Jeremy returned, offended.

 

“Motherfuck,” Wynonna grunted as she rolled gracelessly over the too-high counter and crashed into the ground, out of view on the other side. “You get the barf gun, kiddo,” came her muffled voice. “A big congrats. You’re a man now.”

 

Jeremy grimaced, but accepted the revolver between daintily pinched forefinger and thumb, held two feet from his body like it was...covered in vomit. The unmistakable sound of a corpse being flopped over kicked up a little cloud of dust and then Wynonna emerged again, groaning with effort while she yanked at a worn leather strap. It came loose in a jerk and then she was triumphantly holding up a dead man’s double-barrel shotgun.

 

“Waverly, on me. We’re gonna shove that big shelf so it blocks off and jams the front door. Buy us some time, yeah?” She slung the shotgun over her back and emptied the spent casings from her revolver so they clattered carelessly across the floor before punching new ones in with a practiced efficiency.

 

Waverly braced her back against the far side of the shelving unit and waited for her sister to make her way over. Wynonna had always been scrappy, but watching the way she checked her weapon and wiped a long, gruesome streak of dead man’s blood across her brow with an absent swipe of the back of her hand painted the hard years they’d spent apart in shocking relief. It seemed neither was quite the girl they’d left behind.

 

Wynonna used the butt of the shotgun to bash the door handle right off and joined her at the shelf, shoulder to shoulder. They wasted no time pushing back in synch so the shelving unit groaned and screeched against its own inertia until they’d wrestled it to stand half sentinel at the breach of the door.

 

“Good enough,” Wynonna panted. “We’re not exactly gonna stick around to start families and till the land. You get me?”

 

“Almost never,” Jeremy promised her.

 

They congregated in the corner least compromised by windows and poor vantage, kneeling in a small triangle of trust with determined expressions. Jeremy’s was mostly determined to just not vomit again, but considering the circumstances, Waverly thought that was kind of brave too.

 

“I’m Jeremy,” Jeremy offered toward Wynonna.

 

Wynonna gamely assured him, “Oh, I don’t care.”

 

Jeremy nodded thoughtfully.

 

“Alright, we need to find the fastest way to get to the saloon,” Wynonna explained, leveling a serious look between the two. “This only goes south so long as we’re outgunned and pinned. And before anyone else around here, I trust a barkeep to have guns. I’ve met Shorty. He hates people with an inspiring dedication. I want him and his guns on my team.”

 

Waverly’s brain was skipping, rewinding the conversation and unable to make the fibers of both ends of the plan knit together. She furrowed her brow in confusion. “Wait, but - we’re going to get Nicole first, right?”

 

“What? Who?”

 

“You know who,” Waverly said sternly.

 

Wynonna rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I know who. I was kind of hoping you might forget.”

 

“She’s my wife! Sort of.” Waverly gave her very best glare at Wynonna’s petulant expression. “I will save her.”

 

“Okay, Sappho. You do what you need to, but our first priority,” she gestured pointedly between the three of them, “is getting out of this alive and not tied to the back of a horse by our delicates.” She leveled a stern finger in Waverly’s face - one of her more annoying older sibling habits. “Don’t be a brat. Does Haught know you’re a brat? You know what? I don’t want to know.” Wynonna caught Jeremy’s bewildered face and soured. “Don’t look at me like that, Jerry. It’s a long story.”

 

Jeremy waved his gun dangerously close to his own face before Wynonna reached out to direct it toward the floor. “Well what am I supposed to look like? What the hell is going on?”

 

“Bad guys. Guns. Whatever. There’s not a lot of plot here, just do what I say and you’ll probably not die.” Wynonna turned back pointedly to Waverly with an almost placating expression. “I know you’re not going to like this, but I think one of the worst things we could do right now is to draw attention to Haught. If we go storming the keep, they’re gonna know there’s something in there that we want. Right now, Clootie doesn’t have much reason to want anything from there. Right now we need backup .”

 

“Nicole is backup! Almost everyone here is afraid of her!” Waverly protested.

 

“Yeah well, almost everyone here has some sense,” Wynonna eyed Waverly pointedly. “But one retired gunslinger isn’t going to save our bacon. If we want numbers and odds our best bet is still the saloon. And whatever our best bet is, Haught’s best bet is. Until I have her hanged, obviously.”

 

“This isn’t how I wanted this talk to go,” Waverly muttered. She twisted her fingers deep into the folds of her skirt just to flex and feel the strain of it hard against delicately trembling hands. It was hard to translate the bad omens screaming in her head over the cacophony of prophecy already shooting at them and choking off their exits. She couldn’t think . Of course she had a bad feeling about leaving Nicole - everything was definitely bad! And Wynonna was good at convincing people she was right, but leaving Nicole unarmed and alone in a cell with nowhere to hide and nothing to protect herself with felt…

 

“I don’t know that I can do this,” Waverly admitted quietly. “Just leave her. She wouldn’t do that to me.”

 

Wynonna eyed her from under a serious brow. “I need you here with me. Not with your heart in that jail cell. Do you understand?” She swung the shotgun around from her back, under her arm, and held it out in between them. “We’re not leaving anyone or anything here. Can you fight?”

 

And just for at least one more second - one more longing ache of a moment - Waverly let herself worry about Nicole sitting on her hands in a cell. Let herself think about what she must be thinking or how she must be prowling the length of the iron bars like the wild thing she was. But…

 

Just the one moment.

 

Luxury wasn’t an outfit worn well by the West. Waverly steeled her gaze to match her sister’s and held one hand, open grip out. An approving smirk pulled at one corner of Wynonna’s mouth and then she was tossing the shotgun the short distance so it slapped into Waverly’s palm with a kind of foreboding finality, suspended there in front of her body. When she cracked open the chamber, two full unspent shells gleamed back. Snapping it back in place, Waverly nodded. 

 

“Alrighty, cowboys,” Wynonna sang under her breath, turning from their small circle to press her back against the wall below a front windowsill. Her eyes rolled up over the edge, head tipped back so she didn’t get brained by an ambush bullet. A few shots cracked at the walls, but she didn’t flinch as her eyes flicked out across the street and along the store fronts. “Jerry, what’re our exits?”

 

“It’s Jeremy,” he said faintly. “And we’ve got one in the front and one in the back.”

 

Wynonna kept her eyes over the windowsill, humming to herself. “They’ll have that covered by now. We’ve stayed too long.” Despite the situation, she let out a little laugh. “Not much of a last stand, are we?”

 

“We should’ve tried to push further when it all blew up,” Waverly sighed. “At least tried for Curtis’s shop.”

 

“Oh!” Jeremy rested his revolver gingerly against his knee and ran a thoughtful hand across the scruff on his cheeks. “You know, I forgot. Curtis’s shop used to have access to my cellar. I bet we could get through down there.”

 

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about,” Wynonna breathed a sigh of relief and ducked back under the sill. Still squatting under the sight of the windows, Wynonna returned to their circle, patting at Jeremy’s back and gripping at his jacket. “There you go, Jerry. C’mon, let’s get a move on.” She practically carried him the length to the narrow stairs at the back of the shop, occasionally pushing his head lower to keep his skull in one piece. Waverly took up the rear, pausing to grab a box of shotgun shells and a small utility knife to tuck into her skirt apron on the way.

 

The cellar was distinctly less charming than the shop upstairs - inescapably cold and dreary like most cellars were. Jeremy had a shocking backstock of cartons and boxes and towering shelves of cans and imports. With the pressure off their bent knees and aching backs and Jeremy’s expertise, they navigated the surprising depth of the cellar much more quickly than they had the shop. Waverly tamped down her urge to scold Wynonna when she nabbed a tin of crackers and ripped them open to begin snacking as they moved deeper underground. If they were all to die in a flurry of bullets and courage - as was increasingly likely - then she certainly didn’t want to be quibbling about snacks and manners in the moments beforehand.

 

But on the other hand.

 

“Wynonna, please. Those weren’t yours.”

 

Waverly planned to die exactly as she had lived. And in that devotion to the pure concept of consistency of character, we remain immortal.

 

“Jerry wanted me to have them.”

 

“It’s Jeremy.”

 

“Him too.”

 

Jeremy halted their quick pace, one hand up while he studied an old shelf at a dead end, coated in a thick undustable film of disuse. “I think it’s behind here?”

 

“How’d you lose an entire door?” Wynonna muttered, shoving Jeremy aside and feeling around the edge of the shelf for a few moments before bracing her back against the side of it. She beckoned Waverly over, gesturing for her to take an end. Jeremy didn’t seem all that offended that he was being passed over for a woman of even more diminutive stature than his own.

 

Waverly went but not without saying, “Well you managed to lose an entire sister.”

 

“Hush! More work, less reliving your dark childhood please.”

 

Waverly grunted when they threw their weight against the shelf in synch, inching it bit by groaning bit toward the opposite wall. “I can do both,” she assured her through gritted teeth.

 

“Of course you can. You’re an Earp,” Wynonna grunted back, giving one last almighty shove so the shelving unit cleared the door they’d uncovered behind it. They stood panting in the aftermath, Wynonna pushing her palms hard into her back with a grimace while she stretched. “Is this what the outlaw wife thing is about? Is this a cry for attention?”

 

“No,” Waverly snapped. “C’mon, let’s go kill people.”

 

Even with her back to them and fighting against the heavily rusted hinges of the hidden door, she still heard Wynonna turn to Jeremy, amicably. “See? No trauma. She’s doing great. We’re all real normal.”

 

The door finally swung open with utmost protest. Waverly passed through it with none at all.

 

Her team followed behind in the darkness pressing in from both sides of the narrow passage up. Each step was a blind hand outward and a foot pushed up and forward searching for a step nobody was confident would still be there. Blessedly, they reached another door. When Waverly pushed against it, though, it held fast. Locked.

 

She resisted the very real, primal urge to scream at it. Or maybe turn around and push Wynonna down the stairs. “Ugh! This is the second most inconvenient thing to ever happen to me!”

 

“Well what did you do with the most inconvenient thing?”  Wynonna breathed in her ear. “Oh! See if the door will marry you too.”

 

Waverly had to cross her arms. Physically restrain them. “I didn’t have to do anything, it just left one day and never came back,” she gritted out.

 

Jeremy came up at her elbow and tapped on her upper arm. “Let me try,” he said kindly, waiting for her to step aside. And then he did the very clever, imaginative thing and knocked on the damn door.

 

A few moments passed in heavy silence before he gave another polite, firm knock.

 

“This is horse shit,” Wynonna supplied helpfully.

 

But then the door swung open and Curtis was standing there looking as bewildered as they probably did. He cut a heroic figure there in backlight of his shop, brandishing a fire poker with as much bravery as he knew how.

 

“Well howdy,” Wynonna greeted briskly, pushing past him with the muzzle of her revolver jabbed hard into his shoulder before she could remember to pretend at manners. If she could even pretend. Waverly wasn’t so sure.

 

Waverly offered Curtis an apologetic smile and skirted around him a little bit more politely. “Sorry Mr. McCready, we’re…” 

 

“Being shot at?” He asked with a sternly raised eyebrow.

 

“Well. You know how it is,” she agreed, vaguely. “It’s not my fault.”

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,” Wynonna’s muffled voice came from behind a warped shelf stuck upright at a weird angle to its neighbor. The furniture in the shop was arranged as less organized, functional infantry and more pool shooters three whiskeys deep. Waverly picked through the maze while Jeremy greeted Curtis politely. When she found Wynonna, she was straining her eyes around the edge of a front window, scanning back and forth.

 

“What’s going on out there?”

 

Wynonna made a thoughtful sound in the back of her throat. “I’m calculating,” she said slowly, whispering to keep secrets from the thin walls.

 

“I didn’t know you could do math.”

 

“I have a badge and I will shoot you.”

 

Waverly pressed into Wynonna’s shoulder, leaning her weight on it to get a good look around through the thin slip of light she’d allowed past a dusty curtain. Wynonna’s hair tickled her nose, but she scrunched it and held her position, doing her level best to keep her movement subtle. It wasn’t an ideal view. Through the one-dimension they had, all she could see was a man smoking tensely across the road just one building down from the Sheriff’s office. His gaze was drawn in the direction of Jeremy’s shop, but every so often he scanned the length of the street.

 

“The longer we wait, the more they box us in,” Wynonna murmured.

 

Waverly hummed her agreement. “Front or back door?”

 

Wynonna let the curtain drop back so it brushed their noses as they withdrew and headed back to where Curtis and Jeremy were waiting awkwardly at a small tea table. “Can you shoot?” Wynonna asked Curtis.

 

“Oh, I’m sure I could. But I doubt I’d hit anything,” Curtis said pleasantly, picking up the book he’d earmarked from the table and finding his place again.

 

Wynonna threw one frustrated hand up - a desperate appeal just in case there really was some guy in white robes up there who disapproved of everything she’d ever done. “Do you even own a gun?”

 

“Why would I?” He countered, offended.

 

“Back door it is,” Wynonna blew out in a long, long sigh. “Come on, let’s go before they realize we’ve jumped shops. Jerry, on me.”

 

“Can’t I just stay here?” Jeremy asked tiredly. “I can’t shoot either.”

 

You’ve got a gun, though. Sorry kid, you’re in this now,” she warned, sounding not the least bit sorry - whatever that might have sounded like coming from Wynonna. “Waverly, watch our six. Jeremy, stay between us. I’ll lead.”

 

They trailed each other’s heels around the maze of shelves filled to burst, pushing up against the back door for one tense moment, stretched out like water tension before a drop falls. Wynonna had her ear pressed to the door, eyes meeting each of theirs in turn. “Duck and run. Don’t break from each other,” she said lowly. “And don’t waste your mercy. You’ll find none this side of the Colorado.”

 

Nods. Terms set and agreed upon.

 

“Don’t. Die.”

 

Terms expanded and amended.

 

Waverly’s heart had time for only one hiccup up into her dry throat and then Wynonna was pushing the door outward in a smooth, quiet motion, Colt first. Her aim was steady when she checked the left, then made a sharp turn right, away from the general store and off along the back alley toward Shorty’s. Jeremy’s eyes widened briefly in Waverly’s direction and she could see just how badly he didn’t want to die, right there like a picture of everything he still wanted to live for, right in his eyes. Then they shut tightly and he was turning away, slipping out the door on Wynonna’s heels and taking his fear with him.

 

 Whatever place inside of her that allowed Waverly to walk into the black and come out the other side with a half dozen men’s blood on her hands yawned vast before her. She brushed her hands against it as she passed, running fingers in the velvet of nothing. The blissful numbness of survival. She would yet visit it before the day was out. But before the veil and before the blood, Waverly needed herself. She needed clarity. She did not walk into it.

 

Waverly cushioned the closure of the door as she passed through, spinning so her aim trailed behind them while they fled. Two men were hurling their weight, shoulder-first, against the rear door of Jeremy’s shop only fifty paces away. Again the darkness loomed, but Waverly let her finger trail gently along the delicate catch of the trigger and slip down to rest in the saddle of the guard while they quieted their footsteps and melted deeper into town. The men got smaller in her watch. Their grunts quieter. Her own breathing louder in relief.

 

She’d never heard anything so quiet in those moments they passed around the back of some small stables and swung on Wynonna’s pivot to sneak upwards between buildings back toward the main road. It wasn’t so grand a town that a journey from one end to the other would leave them exposed too long. The roads formed a crude T from south to north and they’d already crossed half of it by the time they passed back to the main thoroughfare.

 

Waverly was so focused on the tail they left behind their procession, that the sudden ear-shattering snap of gunpowder from the front almost dropped her heart out. She turned just in time to watch Wynonna push against the man standing dead on his feet in their path, toppling him backwards onto the road with a gunpowder burn over his heart and a small expression of shock on his grizzled face.

 

Wynonna didn’t slow a beat as she carved their path across a porch and through the naked intersection at the head of the thoroughfare. In fact, she sped up to an almost dead-sprint, straightening her back as they threw off the shoddy cloak of stealth they’d worn for the occasion. Waverly was treated to the heart-stopping view behind them as Bulshar’s men poured out of hiding, tossing cigars at their boots and hollering while they reached for their weapons. They were still far off, though, hung up on their search in and around the general store.

 

Waverly turned her back on them and pushed forward to match Wynonna’s furious pace on a dead sprint toward the saloon. The shotgun was unwieldy with the high draw of her knees and the way her lungs burned, but she had plenty of motivation. Nothing quite so motivating as the ten men at their backs and the ten men coming at them from the front. They must have posted up at all the major roads out of town trying to choke them off.

 

The zip of passing bullets began whistling by in the thunderous clap of a dozen ill-aimed shots. But the saloon was right there, rising up against the pale light cast behind it like Solomon’s Temple itself. It was such an honest, pure relief when they hit the steps up to the door that Waverly almost forgot to be afraid.

 

Almost.

 

A man with long, gnarled black hair pushed out of the saloon door, rifle aimed right in Wynonna’s face.

 

A scream got stuck in the back of Waverly’s throat, crashing into Jeremy while he tried to dig his heels in and stop, stop, stop .

 

Wynonna did not stop.

 

The scream managed to escape her throat as she watched Wynonna plow into the man at full speed, crashing back through the door into the saloon under the crack of a rifle shot. A fine mist of warm blood sprayed back into their faces where they stood tangled and horrified. Oddly enough, it was Jeremy who grabbed Waverly by the back of her head and pushed her down. They were being hammered from across the street and in almost every direction. Jeremy said something shockingly profane while they ducked under the railing and the shock was enough to shake Waverly out of her own head as she found herself crashing through the door where her sister had disappeared, heart in her throat and shotgun drawn.

 

The saloon was always lit with a pleasant dullness, a balm to the gentlemen who preferred to treat their hangovers with hair of the dog that bit them. But in the moments it took Waverly’s eyes to widen and swallow for light that wasn’t there - in those long, short moments, Waverly could’ve screamed for the frustration of it.

 

Inside, Wynonna was straddling the man, bringing the butt of his own rifle down to club into his temple with a sickening, final kind of sound. Jeremy was at Waverly’s back, one hand digging fingernails into her upper arm. They all held their breath save for Wynonna who was letting out a long sigh while she sat back against the man’s stomach. One of her hands came up and touched at the brutal scorch of a grazed bullet torn through the top of her opposite shoulder. Her fingers came away red, but she seemed more relieved than anything. Her head tilted to where Waverly and Jeremy had turned to stone in the doorway.

 

“Ow,” she said irritably.

 

“Wynonna!” Waverly burst, quite unable to help herself.

 

“Yes, still. Unfortunately,” she groaned, slapping at the man’s face for signs of life and then hauling herself off of him with a wheeze most unbefitting her age. Waverly started toward her, ready to pull her close and fret over her, but Wynonna held a hand up and gave her a stern look. “Clear the room. I need to barricade the door.” Waverly must have looked some kind of desperate, because Wynonna softened a bit and chucked her under the chin like when they were kids. “I’m fine. I’m so awesome it hurts. A lot.” She smiled. Grimaced. “Now get.”

 

Waverly got. She shot another nervous look back at her sister while Wynonna threw her weight into a fine looking liquor cabinet on the wall next to the door, trying to tip it in front of the door. Jeremy tapped at her elbow and gave her an encouraging smile. “She’s fine,” he echoed. “Let’s make sure he doesn’t have any friends in here.”

 

“He doesn’t.”

 

Waverly’s head jerked up while Jeremy stiffened beside her. Before she could think too much about it, her double-barrel was pointed right at Shorty’s nose, hands raised in surrender where he stood behind the bar. “Just me, Miss Earp.”

 

“Jesus,” Waverly breathed to herself, letting her weapon drop back into rest. The liquor cabinet crashed over behind them, glass shattering loudly against the sound of decanters and expensive bottles spilling over and drenching the floorboards. When they turned, Wynonna had successfully blocked the front door, but the cabinet was destroyed.

 

“That was my best liquor!” Shorty cursed, slapping his hand against the counter.

 

Wynonna shot Shorty a flat look, walking up to the counter, pulling the cork from a top shelf American whiskey and taking a long, long pull from the lip of the bottle. “Yeah, well. This was my best shoulder. We’re all tightening our belts today, aren’t we?”

 

“That’s five cents,” Shorty snapped, pulling the bottle from Wynonna’s mouth and slamming it back on the counter. “Two for the bottle.”

 

“Yeah?” She hooked her thumb over her busted shoulder toward the corpse gathering dust in the corner. “Well I owe you a whiskey and you owe me your life. We’ll settle up later, old man.” With little resistance, Wynonna was able to take the bottle back and put a few more swallows over her chafed nerves. “He was the only one in here, right?”

 

“For now. You gonna tell us why we’re under siege all of a sudden?”

 

Wynonna put the bottle back on the counter, though kept it on a short leash. “Depends. Who’s us ?”

 

Shorty gave her a hard look for a moment, but seemed to relent as he let out a small whistle. “Come on out, boys. The Marshal’s here to save us,” he said all too sarcastically and then went right back to rag shining the water marks out of his whiskey glasses as though nothing was all that out of the ordinary in his life. And perhaps as a lifelong barkeep in an outlaw town out west, it really wasn’t all that extraordinary. Day by day, Waverly was beginning to agree.

 

Two baby-faced boys clambered out from behind the bar and not much else. Not anything else.

 

Wynonna met Waverly’s eyes instantly, already braced for whatever insincere comment plagued the women of their bloodline always and forever. “Well. You’re right. This is much better backup than Nicole,” Waverly said sweetly. It was hereditary and very much out of her control.

 

Wynonna ground her teeth loudly and turned away, stalking toward their new recruits. “Hey! Wipe those dumb looks off your faces.” And for good measure she slapped the one on the right and grabbed at the kerchief around his neck. “Name and occupation,” she demanded.

 

“Champ, sir. Cattle hand,” he moped, rubbing at his reddened cheek.

 

“I am not calling you that.”

 

“James.”

 

Wynonna nodded, but just when she had released her chokehold and seemed done with him, stepped back to him and gave him another harmless clap across the cheek.

 

“What was that for?!” He whined.

 

“Your face.” Wynonna turned to the other boy who had already snapped his heels together and seemed on the comical edge of saluting her. “And you?”

 

“Robin. Also cattle hand. But a better cattle hand,” he added, quite unable to help himself.

 

Wynonna pointed a threatening finger in his face, but let it slide. “Alright boys, can you shoot?” Before they could answer, “You know what? Doesn’t matter. You’re going to shoot either way. Waverly, grab that rifle from my pal and arm the less stupid one, please.”

 

Instead, Waverly tossed her shotgun underhanded so that Robin could grab it midair round the middle of it. Champ glared at her, but she was already turning around to retrieve the rifle from where it had fallen next to Wynonna’s victim. She took a brief moment to check his breathing, but he was still. It wasn’t a situation that afforded her much more than a passing consideration for the dead man. These were things she’d have time to catalogue and piece together from the blasted tapestry fear made of a story. Blankly, she rifled through his pockets and came up with twenty rounds and a picture of a plump woman with rosy cheeks, weathered like a thumb had been stroked over her likeness a thousand times over. Only a moment of hesitation and Waverly was tucking the picture into his slack hand and returning to the others.

 

When she turned back, Shorty was handing Champ a beat up looking revolver - more antique than weapon - while he checked the chamber of his own shotgun that he kept above the nice glasses on the back wall behind the bar.

 

“I ain’t had to kill someone since forty-two,” he grumbled to himself, snapping the chamber shut.

 

“Let me tell you, you’ve really been missing out,” Wynonna muttered around the lip of her bottle.

 

Waverly leaned against the counter so she could catch Wynonna’s eye. “So you’ve got your posse. What’s next, Marshal ?”

 

“I wish you’d all stop saying it like that,” she frowned at Waverly, leaning backward against the bar and propping herself on her elbows to mirror her pose. “I’m doing my doggone best. We’ve armed Jerry for god’s sakes. You don’t think that required a certain amount of bravery on my end?”

 

A few feet away, Robin was stopping Jeremy from looking down the barrel of his revolver with a patient smile on his face.

 

“We need Nicole,” Waverly argued, allowing her rifle to rest against the floorboards by the stock. “This was a mistake.”

 

“It wasn’t,” Wynonna shook her head. “We’ve got something better than a posse here. We’ve got high ground .” At Waverly’s critical look, Wynonna pushed off from the bar and motioned for her to follow. “Shorty, you guys take the windows - and for fuck’s sake keep your brains out of range, yeah? We’re going to take the balcony.”

 

She’d almost gotten so used to the barking of gunfire on wood, that she couldn’t figure out why they were ducking under windows toward the back staircase. But the bullets were still occasionally finding ground, shattering through windows and pinging against the back wall, so she smartly kept her head ducked and followed Wynonna at a clip. It was truly remarkable the speed at which a human could adjust its status quo - impressive just how far to either side you could slide the median and find even ground again. Normal being, as always, the most relative thing on earth.

 

They reached the sheltered corridor of the staircase and followed it up two at a time until they were in the shabby hallway of small rooms Shorty maintained above the saloon. Wynonna’s lead was familiar as she beelined for one of the center rooms on the left side, conveniently located at the front facing side. She pulled out a tacky, ornate key and jiggled it in the lock until it swung open revealing a spartan little bachelor’s bed and a tall, beaten dresser with a sad tilt. Wynonna motioned for Waverly to stay low below the french doors that pushed out to the balcony while she rifled through her bag in the corner for more rounds and a box of the same imported cigarettes Nicole stashed around the house.

 

“Nicole smokes those,” Waverly pointed out, suddenly very homesick for a thing they’d left back in the holding cell.

 

Wynonna grunted and lit one with a match swiped across her boot heel, but said nothing more on the matter. A few soothing drags and Wynonna stuck the butt between her teeth, heading for the balcony doors and gesturing for Waverly to stay low and follow. No matter their stealth, the place must’ve been covered something fierce, because the first few inches the doors swung outward, bullets were already snapping in a fine mist off glass through the exposed decorative windows atop the doors. Wynonna swore, but didn’t let it stop her as she shoved them the rest of the way open and fell outward against the cover of the solid railing, back propped against it. Waverly took up the same position at her side, hugging her rifle grimly while bullets smacked against the wood over their heads.

 

Wynonna let her Colt sit casually propped on her knee while she finished off her cigarette with only a mild look of consternation as wood chips rained into her hair. She swiped them away occasionally, hardly bothered. Waverly did the same, allowing her cheek to drop to her hand while they waited out the latest volley.

 

In the worst of it, Waverly turned to meet Wynonna’s eyes and they couldn’t help but let out a little, wildly inappropriate laugh at it all.

 

“I fucking hate outlaws,” Wynonna said good-naturedly, flicking the stump of her cigarrette at the wall.

 

“They’re here because of me,” Waverly spontaneously confessed. It all felt so small and stupid in the moment, white noise and gunfire filling her ears and her sister at her side after almost a decade. “Bulshar was trying to respond to my advertisement for a husband. Nicole was trying to respond to your advertisement for cows. I think our last names got them swapped.” She shrugged in the aftermath, brushing another shower of splinters from her hair.

 

Wynonna opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, and then closed it again. The gunfire tapered off for the moment, just a respite while the siege reloaded. “Well,” she finally said. “Your intended is very charming.”

 

Waverly snorted again. Inappropriate.

 

But…? The funniest things are.

 

“Do you even have a cat?” Wynonna asked wryly.

 

“Yes,” Waverly insisted, because as an Earp woman she was more than willing to die on an anthill. “Of course I do,” she lied, already deep into the finer points of a plan to acquire a cat before Wynonna could be the wiser. One of Nicole’s few fallacies was thinking she could stop Waverly from doing anything.

 

If Wynonna wasn’t convinced, she made nothing more of it. She just shook her head and lit another cigarette. “So what, Clootie can’t just go buy a whore like the rest of us? What a shit.” She raised an eyebrow at Waverly. “Haught too, for that matter.”

 

“She loves me,” Waverly snapped. “And I love her.”

 

Wynonna blew out a long plume of smoke, running a tired hand down her face and pinching her eyes like she was trying to snuff out an oncoming headache. “Can’t it be anyone else?” She asked wearily. “ Anyone? She’s wanted on at least four murder bounties and so much robbery she might as well be working for the government! Honestly, babygirl. I’m trying here, but the view from inside my boots to where she’s standing is that she’s probably a pretty fucking awful person.” She looked over at Waverly. “Doesn’t any of that matter to you? Just because you’ve trained a lion not to eat you doesn’t mean anyone can go stick their head in its mouth.”

 

“What does that even mean?” Waverly asked, equally tired.

 

“I don’t know, I’m stressed,” Wyonna griped. “I’m stressed and I don’t know how to fix this without breaking your heart.”

 

“Wynonna-” Waverly choked back her words when a rifle shot burst through the wood to her right, shattering a huge hole in their cover and sending them scrambling away further down the tight balcony. Wynonna growled and popped up in the aftermath, steadying her revolver on the ledge of the balcony to fire off shots downward until she emptied her chamber.

 

When she ducked back down, letting her spent rounds clatter around them to reload, her face was grim. “I only hit one. They’re too set up on us, I can’t aim quick enough before they’re on me. Stay down, would you?”

 

Waverly would not, thank you.

 

She pushed herself up using Wynonna’s shoulder and swung around to prop her rifle and aim downward on the men below. They were hidden behind sparse cover, more concerned with unloading holy hellfire than protecting their own underbellies. Alone on a farm in the middle of the night, quite unfamiliar with her own mettle, Waverly was a nervous shot. Steeled and tried, it was not so unfamiliar an enemy. Waverly downed a man standing behind a water barrel across the street and didn’t bother ducking back down while she shucked another round and trained her sights just a few feet further down to a man with his back against a thin post. Her second round tore through his lower chest, splattering the wall behind him in gore. As she prepared her third round, she spotted Bulshar throwing himself bodily behind the side of a building most ungracefully.

 

Yeah, she thought with grim satisfaction as he hid himself from her sight. That’s what fear feels like.

 

Wynonna yanked her down after she’d blown out the back of a man’s knee on his way to stronger cover.

 

“Jesus, shit. What the fuck was that?” Wynonna asked, looking Waverly over frantically like she expected her to be popped full of holes. “Did you just…?”

 

“Three less to worry about,” Waverly said simply, loading another round from her apron pocket and feeling Wynonna’s eyes burn holes in the side of her head.

 

“The fuck did you learn that from?” She laughed nervously.

 

Waverly gave her a confused look, holding her rifle to her chest again. “You?” She pointed out what she thought was obvious.

 

Wynonna didn’t even seem to notice that her cigarette had slipped from between her fingers and rolled away down the sagging slope of the balcony floor. “I…” she cleared her throat and shook her head, giving Waverly a small smile. “I didn’t teach you that. I taught you how to shoot a gun.”

 

“What’s the difference?” Waverly asked, tilting her head to the side in confusion.

 

Wynonna laughed to herself, still shaking her head. “Well I didn’t teach you how to be brave or so loyal a dog looks fickle. I ain’t taught you how to protect and do what’s right.” She considered the wall opposite them, clicking her tongue in thought. “You taught me that. Well...you try to. It’s an everyday kind of labor. I was a shit until you.” She let out another little laugh just between her and herself - a joke Waverly didn’t imagine she’d ever be privy to.

 

Waverly opened her mouth because she thought she probably ought to. Nothing really came out, though, so she let it fall shut and let them stew in the bubble of quiet they’d made for themselves. Waverly wasn’t sure which one of them was more embarrassed by the admission.

 

Surprisingly it was Wynonna who spoke first. “I gotta tell you: the reason I wouldn’t go back for Haught - a big part of my plan to come here instead of the jail was because I couldn’t face her. You probably guessed it.” She groaned and pushed her knuckles into her forehead. “I don’t know how to look at her, knowing I gotta do what I gotta do. Knowing how you feel. It’s my job Waverly and I don’t think it’d be wrong of me to put her in the ground after what she’s done. What gets me is that every passing minute I’m starting to realize just how bad I’ll be breaking your heart when I do it.”

 

“It would,” Waverly said quietly. “It’d break my heart.”

 

Wynonna’s knuckles pushed harder against her skin and she nodded slightly. “I know, I know. I’m not asking you to understand. We just,” she shook her head. “We can’t live like this anymore .” She threw a hand outward, gesturing vaguely around them. “We can’t kill each other over nothing. We can’t get so used to wipin’ the blood off our boots we don’t even bother going indoors anymore. We can’t spit in each other’s faces and rip each other’s hearts out over a nickel. I never thought I’d live to believe it, but we need to have rules .” She turned to eye Waverly, looking much older than she’d ever really looked. “How does Haught fit into that? Maybe it’s not her fault, but she doesn’t know rules and she doesn’t know anything different. It’s like this world just doesn’t have room for her anymore.”

 

Waverly remained quiet for long moments trying to consider what the world did have room for. She thought about desert flowers tucked behind Nicole’s ear and the way she talked to goats like they were people.

 

“You’re right,” Waverly shrugged, fiddling with the strap of her rifle. “We can’t go on like this. We shouldn’t. But…” she stilled her fingers and folded them in on each other. “If we’re going to make room to be honest men in the west, then how can there be no room for forgiveness and mercy? How do we make a new west without forgiving the old for what it made of people?”

 

They breathed together in the dredges of the quiet moment, Wynonna murmuring, “I don’t know, kid. I just don’t have the answers.”

 

Waverly wondered if anyone really did.

 

She drummed her fingers on her knees. The smile on her face was entirely involuntary when she realized Wynonna was doing the same thing, their posture identical.

 

“Hey!”

 

Their heads jerked up and they shared a confused look.

 

“HEY!”

 

It was the world’s most impressively shouted whisper Waverly had ever heard. They scrambled and jockeyed for position at the wide tear in the railing that’d been blown out earlier, knocking heads and quarreling until they were both able to fit an eye in the hole and look out across the yawning divide between sides of the street. It took no time at all to spot two sights for sore eyes.

 

“The hell did you do?” Doc hissed from the opposite balcony, gesturing vaguely toward the street and then pointing accusingly with his revolver. As though they hadn’t had enough guns pointed at them on that fine day.

 

“Waverly,” Dolls called. “Are you alright?”

 

“Oh, I’m fine thank you,” she whispered back as loudly as she dared.

 

“I’m fine thank you?!” Wynonna echoed, shoving Waverly’s head away from their shared real estate and pressing her face right into the crater. “We’re not fine! Not fine! Bring guns!”

 

Waverly elbowed back into a portion of the view with a well aimed jab to Wynonna’s stomach and only a single smarting knock of their heads. “That’s John Henry and Xavier,” Waverly snapped. “I know them, now move.”

 

“Oh, I’ve met Broody and Disgraced, kiddo. I’m not interested in the exposition. Who’s the third?”

 

“What third?” Waverly squinted out across the divide and spotted a man in a smart, finely tailored wool suit and immaculate hat, quaking where he sat against the opposite railing and clinging with both hands to a watch at the end of a gold chain. She didn’t recognize him. “Who’s that?” she mouthed a few times, miming until understanding dawned on Doc’s face.

 

“No idea,” he mimed back with an exaggerated shrug. “I think he lives here. We busted in for cover.”

 

Waverly looked over at the man who was staring back with wide, wide eyes. “H e l p  m e,” he mouthed back very slowly.

 

“Oh Jesus,” Wynonna muttered. “You ever been to the circus? No? Good. They’re terrible and so are we. A town of clowns and nobody’s clapping.”

 

Dolls waved to get their attention, pointing off down the direction they’d come, back toward the south end of town. “They got the Sheriff. Frog marched him back to his office. Bulshar took him.”

 

“Shit,” Wynonna sat back from their small view window and checked her chamber. “He knows we’ve got the advantage here. He’s trying to get some leverage. A snake is a snake, in the grass or otherwise.”

 

“Nicole’s back there!” Waverly breathed, reaching out to dig her fingers into the sleeve of Wynonna’s shirt. “He’s…”

 

“Well, he’s either got her dead or alive by now,” Wynonna said absently, reloading before looking back at Waverly’s distraught expression. “Er - alive. Probably. Of course.” She shrugged and gently pulled Waverly’s clawed hand from her shirt. “Boy do I hate being sworn to uphold the law.” She shook her head and gave Waverly’s hand a supportive squeeze. “I’m very legally obliged to go after our hapless sheriff,” she promised. “Nicole’s survival will just have to be an unhappy consequence.”

 

“Wynonna!”

 

“What do you want from me?” She groaned. “I said I’d save her. Please don’t ask me to be happy about it.”



+++



Back downstairs, their ramshackle army was still posted up loyally at the windows even more tense than when bullets had been raining down around them. The unexplained armistice was an uneasy strain on their nerves and their fingers hadn’t strayed very far from their triggers. Even Champ wore a serious expression at the far end, head ducked just behind a shutter and leg jiggling nervously.

 

“Alright, gang,” Wynonna announced their return, heading straight for the whiskey bottle abandoned on the counter and somehow whole and intact despite the splintered, unholy damage to the rest of the saloon. “Who wants to join me on a suicide mission?” She grinned wildly. “It’s a good one,” she said as enticingly as any one person could.

 

Surprisingly, Jeremy was the first to stand and gather at the bar. He still held his elbows too tight to his sides, like he was really fooling anyone out of the way his body shook, but the thin line of his mouth was the only thing that didn’t waiver. “Where are we going?” He asked firmly. Waverly was proud to realize that the answer wasn’t a contingency to him. He was decided.

 

Wynonna sized him up for a moment and then slid the half-bottle across the bar to him. “You’re gonna want to put as much of that down as you can,” she advised.

 

He choked on his swallow, but pushed a few more swallows down and slid the bottle back with a determined glare.

 

“Me too,” Robin breathed heavily, jogging over to stand at Jeremy’s elbow. “I’ll go too.”

 

“Whatever, I’m old,” Shorty grumbled, snatching the bottle up and smoothly draining a worrisome amount. “On with it, Marshal. Are we busting down the front door?”

 

Wynonna took a long moment to look between them before shaking her head. “Actually, old-timer, I think this one might not be for you. We’ll need cover fire from the front.”

 

“I’ll keep Hardy,” Shorty agreed, jerking his head in Champ’s direction where he was still diligently watching the front boarded window. “So what in god’s unholy grace is so onerous you can’t take an old man with you?”

 

“Well gentlemen...and lady.” She seemed pleased as she looked at their merry band of schoolchildren. “I hope you’re not afraid of heights.”



+++



Plan was a strong word for what Wynonna had come up with. Rather, she had come up with a direction and a modus operandi, but plan? Waverly couldn’t quite qualify it as such.

 

All they’d gotten was a rough sketch on the way back up the stairs toward the balcony they’d weathered the latest volley from. The “plan” was simple: jump balconies until they reached the sheriff’s station and performed whatever improvised daring rescue seemed to call to them at the point of arrival. It wasn’t a plan . But as far as Wynonna Earp was concerned, Waverly did consider it to be a promise.

 

Waverly wasn’t the scared little girl alone in a barn anymore. They were a force and she was a soldier.

 

They fell together, backs slamming against the blown-out cover of the saloon balcony while a firefight lit up around them again. Jeremy and Robin were determined, shoulder to shoulder and quiet while Wynonna seemed to count under her breath at Waverly’s side. She took the opportunity to reach out and pinch the fabric of Wynonna’s jacket in her fingers, drawing her attention.

 

“I’m glad you’re here with me,” Waverly said. “No matter what happens.”

 

Wynonna gave her a barely-there wink. “No matter what happens,” she agreed.

 

The gunfire drew to a lull as chambers were reloaded and deep breaths were taken. In that small moment of peace, the ground floor lit up underneath them, Shorty and Champ raining hell on the other side of the street.

 

“Don’t stop,” Wynonna commanded before the cacophony drowned them out.

 

And then they stood.

 

And then they sprinted for the side railing separating them from the second bedroom’s balcony, vaulting it easily as they tore toward the steep and yawning void between that balcony and the tailor’s next door. Waverly emptied her head of thoughts, quieted it in the maelstrom to a point of peace few would know and fewer would survive. She watched Jeremy clear it behind Wynonna, scrambled and dropped for one terrifying moment before his elbows caught on the railing next door and he clung. Wynonna had him over the railing in a heap with one violent jerk at the back of his jacket and before Waverly could doubt or do something so dangerous as think , she was launching over toward them.

 

Just flashes: the swoop in her stomach as she pushed off, rifle dragging heavy and slamming against her back where it was slung - Wynonna’s outstretched hand. Her world narrowed to these points before her elbows hit the opposite railing hard and Wynonna was practically lifting her bodily up, up, up and over. It was such a suspended moment in time for her, that Robin practically landed on her back as she doddled, tried to feel her feet underneath her again.

 

Jeremy was blindly blasting shots out over their new cover, one shaky hand over his right ear. It would’ve been a miracle if he hit so much as the sky.

 

“Cover them!” Wynonna shouted, pointing out to where Doc and Dolls were sprinting the length of the upper balconies opposite their end of the street. Robin clambered off of Waverly, lining up his shots with much more success than Jeremy likely was. Waverly’s hands shook like something possessed while she tried to line up a clean shot under the brim of a red-bearded man’s hat where he was posted up in the shoddy cover of a wagon wheel. The quake in her elbows ricocheted the shot off the side of his neck, sloppy . He went down nonetheless: slow and gurgling blood.

 

Instead of reloading and counting them off like cans on the fence - something she should have been able to do - Waverly sank down beneath their cover, brain buzzing and rifle clutched uselessly between her sweating hands. She needed to get it together.

 

“No time!” Wynonna returned.

 

Waverly thought faintly that she must’ve said something out loud. She didn’t have the time to ponder it, Wynonna dragging her up by the collar of her dress and pushing her to lead them toward the next balcony.

 

Her legs felt like stilts under her - things she had little control over as they propelled her over the next shallow rail into a much, much wider flight down, down down as she fell.

 

The blessed cut of jagged splinters into her palms as she caught the next balcony sent relief flooding through her and she savored that burn. Her soft shoes slipped and scrabbled against  what little purchase she could get on the thin ledge and she thought for brief, immeasurable moments that her arms would collapse and her body would fall. Fall.

 

Waverly let out a small roar as she pushed past what she was capable of into what she needed to be capable of. Her feet took purchase and she rolled over the railing into the long residential balconies that damn near cleared the rest of the way to the main intersection at the T of the town thoroughfare. She could have cried for the relief of it as she pushed up on her knees and stood to clear the area alone.

 

And that’s where the man found her, still on her knees with prematurely grateful tears in her eyes, rifle still slung and stuck against her back. No time. No cover.

 

He rose up from behind a planter full of brown, dead and curled plants out of season, revolver held out and settled so Waverly could see right down the barrel into the chamber. The only thing she could think about was how dry the back of her throat was as a gunshot thundered right through the echo chamber of her heart.

 

She swallowed a few more times against that dry patch. It wouldn’t go away.

 

The man fell backward and toppled sideways over the balcony with a quiet choke.

 

Someone grabbed her shoulder and gave her a little shake, drawing her eyes upwards into Jeremy’s worried face. “I got him,” Jeremy said, looking just as surprised as Waverly did.

 

“You got him,” Waverly agreed, sharing in his quiet surprise. A hand went to her chest, the dry solid, unshot grace of it. “Wow. Thank you.”

 

Wynonna cleared the railing and grabbed Jeremy by the back of his neck, giving him a little shake. “Good shot, Jeremy,” she said breathlessly. “Christ, you lucky little man.” For good measure, she planted a quick, rough kiss on his cheek before turning back to haul Robin over the ledge into their cover.

 

When their feet were all planted, they took off at a crouching run down the long, connected length that balcony stretched across until they were at a stop above the town intersection. Finally, Wynonna collapsed with her back against their cover to check her revolver and allow them all some measured breaths without the burn of gunpowder in their noses.

 

“Anybody shot?” Wynonna asked.

 

They all looked at her like it really hadn’t occurred to them to check. A few quiet moments passed and then Wynonna looked up. “No? Hm. Waverly?”

 

Waverly shrugged.

 

“Lucky little shits,” Wynonna chortled to herself. “This is good cover,” she remarked, rapping her knuckles against the solid, triple-reinforced quality of the railing they’d ducked behind. Her lips pursed thoughtfully and she tapped the frame of her Colt against her knee while she seemed to ponder.

 

Waverly took the opportunity to try and force another round into the rifle, wrestling with the stubborn quake of her own hands. It was only getting worse as the day dragged on and she found herself frustrated as the round slipped against the chamber for the third time, clattering to the ground. Robin picked it up and offered it back with an encouraging smile.

 

“Alright,” Wynonna finally cut in, blowing out a long sigh. “We’re stuck on the north end of the street and we gotta cross the intersection if we plan to head south toward the sheriff’s station for any kind of rescue.” She pulled a cigarette out and lit it fast, dragging so hard on it she’d almost burned down to her fingers by the time she exhaled. “I’m afraid,” she exhaled slowly, smoke curling out from her nose, “I can’t in good conscious bring you all along. I think this is where we part ways, my loyal band of baby-faced heroes.”

 

“Wait, what?” Waverly turned to her sister indignantly.

 

Wynonna smiled back sadly. “This is my job. And sometimes it requires a particular brand of stupidity. One I can’t lead you into.” She shrugged and took another pull into her lungs. “I need cover fire here. Just look down,” a vague gesture behind her. “I’m sure they’re converging here on our best defensible position. But I need to find Clootie. This ends with him. And if I know a snake like him, he’ll be holed up with his bargaining chips, as far from the fight as he can get away with.” Her cigarette left a thin tail of smoke as it was flicked away against the opposite wall. “I’m going to cross the street. Alone . And you’re going to cover me.”

 

“The hell you are,” Waverly glared her down, nails digging into the hold of her rifle. “I’m coming too.”

 

“Waverly,” Wynonna sighed, gearing up for a fight.

 

“You can’t ask me to stay here when the two most important people in my life are on the other end of town.” She grit her teeth and stared defiantly into Wynonna’s face until she could meet her eyes. “You’re not leaving me behind again. Not this time.”

 

“I’m trying to protect you,” Wynonna appealed, a desperation in the way their eyes met.

 

“Not letting me fight for my life here isn’t protecting me .”

 

One of Wynonna’s hands reached out, grabbed Waverly’s jaw gently with the pad of her thumb just touching her chin. Wynonna’s cheeks puffed out, a brief pained look, raw like a toothache in the gentle openness of her expression. But these soft things were only ever little windows into her sister’s soul, never open doors. Her expression turned rueful and she let Waverly’s chin go with a little tap. Slowly, Wynona nodded and Waverly couldn’t help but feel seen for the first time in a long, long while. “Okay, Waverly,” she said gently.



+++



“I know you don’t think it,” Wynonna said thoughtfully, examining the last of her cigarettes, clean and unlit in the pinch of her fingers, “but I did have a plan when we left the saloon.”

 

“Yeah: run, jump, and shoot,” Waverly sighed, trying her very hardest to press her shoulder blades against the wall of the foyer they’d found themselves in hard enough to stop the shaking in her arms from rippling out into her fingers. Any more than it already was.

 

Wynonna rolled her eyes. “If that’s how it seemed, then fine.”

 

“Why?” Waverly asked flatly.

 

“Well,” Wynonna considered her cigarette again, then reached over and stuck it between Waverly’s lips. Before Waverly could protest, Wynonna was already licking the head of a match against her boot heel and lighting the end for her. “I just wanted you to know that I don’t have a plan this time. Just so you really understand what you’re getting into.”

 

Waverly reached up to steady the cigarette and take a small draw of it. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, but it did curl warm in her throat and give her hand something to do other than quake. “I’m done planning,” Waverly muttered. “And I’m done sneaking. I’d like to walk out a front door like I’m the thing they should worry will come knocking.”

 

“God, you became the stuff of legends,” Wynonna laughed warmly to herself. She snatched the cigarette back and burned it down to its butt before throwing it onto the nice woven carpet at their feet to roll away and singe ash into expensive cotton. “Well, your wish is my command. When Jeremy and Robin start unloading from above us, we’re running. Unless your feet get blown off, don’t stop. If your pals across the street managed to reach the intersection, we can only hope they’ll cover us. Otherwise?”

 

“Just me and you,” Waverly confirmed.

 

Wynonna laughed. “Until it kills me.”

 

And when gunfire opened up above them like a heavy rain, Waverly’s hands weren’t shaking at all. Wynonna pushed through the door calmly, revolver first, and Waverly could just see over her shoulder when they were greeted with…

 

Nothing.

 

Bullets popped and zinged from their comrades one floor above them into empty barrels and vacant home and store fronts across the street, raining useless and blank against the backdrop. Wynonna scanned the landscape with the business end of their daddy’s Colt, but found nothing to aim at. As though they’d never been there at all, Bulshar’s gang had evaporated like smoke in the air.

 

Their cover fire trailed off awkwardly, a few dangling shots trailing off into the quiet afternoon until it was just the heavy sound of their own stressed breathing.

 

“This is somehow worse,” Wynonna said to herself, pointing her gun around uselessly.

 

Waverly whipped her head in all directions, but came up equally confounded. And she’d somehow reached a point in her short, tumultuous life where she couldn’t help but agree. The strain of nothing weighed heavier than a dozen men sighting them down their barrels.

 

“We’ve got to move,” Wynonna finally broke them out of their pause and reached back to yank Waverly along, right across the street into the cover of nearby porches. They skirted the length of them, Waverly allowing Wynonna to drag her much like when she’d been half her height and with half her body count. It would’ve been pleasantly nostalgic if it didn’t chafe at her wrist and her nerves

 

Not a soul bothered them as they jogged south down the bottom of the ‘T’ straight toward the Sheriff’s office at a suspiciously unhindered pace. As Nedley’s office loomed in their path, it was almost a relief when the remainder of Bulshar’s gang reappeared looking grim, guns cocked but skyward as they poured out of the busted open sheriff’s door and Jeremy’s shop across the street.

 

Wynonna slammed to a stop, digging her heels in and leveling her revolver with one arm sweeping Waverly behind her back. They weren’t pumped full of holes in an instant. Or the next.

 

“Gentlemen,” Wynonna greeted grimly. “Or approximations thereof.”

 

Waverly took a fistful of the back of Wynonna’s jacket, casting about for an exit.

 

In all her casting, all Waverly managed to catch was the sight of Sheriff Nedley being pushed out the double doors of a nearby second-story balcony with the muzzle of a revolver dug into his neck, Bulshar smirking over his shoulder. For all her sympathy for the hapless man, Waverly found her attention diverted urgently when a second man emerged with his revolver jammed up into a familiar outlaw’s neck.

 

Even on the business end of revenge, Nicole looked more inconvenienced than anything. Waverly was mostly new to it all, but she supposed it did get old after awhile.

 

“Nicole!” She burst out, instantly cowed when Wynonna pushed her back with a shushing noise. Waverly was not to be shushed. “Let them go!” She plowed on, rolling up her sleeves and preparing to fight a dozen men with her small, bare hands. She had long since risen above her physical limitations. She would kill them all and carry her tall wife home in time for supper.

 

“Hm, what she said,” Wynonna agreed. “I need that guy alive so I don’t have to stay here until we find a replacement Sheriff.”

 

Even from there, Waverly could see the heavy roll of Nedley’s eyes.

 

“And I need that one because she’s my wife!” Waverly chimed in.

 

Wynonna made a noncommittal sound. “You can keep that one.”

 

“Wynonna!”

 

“Fine, fine. We apparently need that one too,” she begrudged. “Hand them over, Clootie, and you’ll only get one boot up your ass and not both. You’ll find I’m almost capable of mercy,” she lied.

 

Clootie flashed them his teeth in the shape of a smile. “Marshal,” he greeted diplomatically. “ Whore ,” he greeted, less diplomatically.

 

Waverly supposed that was her. Charmed.

 

“I don’t know that I’m in the treating mood,” he continued, shaking his head with the phoniest sympathy Waverly had ever seen. “I think, maybe, I should just clean house. I mean, what can you really offer me that’s sweeter than revenge?”

 

“I don’t know, have you ever had a woman’s boot up your ass?”

 

Waverly jabbed Wynonna hard in the kidney.


“Fuck! Alright,” she hissed behind her. “Clootie, you kill them you’re dead. You don’t? I don’t know, maybe you’re dead but gentler. Either way, you don’t want to be on my list. It’s short and updated often. I don’t take any major holidays.”

 

Clootie stuck a finger in his ear, wiggled it around a bit to clear it out, like he really couldn’t be bothered to listen to them. “Hm. I can think of something I’d like.” He stroked a hand down the front of the Sheriff’s vest, earning a comically bewildered eyebrow raise from the man. “I’d like to see your faces when I blow their brains out the backs of their heads while you watch. I think that might be worthwhile.”

 

“I’ll kill you!” Waverly roared, just barely held back when Wynonna’s arms wrapped up under her own to pin her back. She struggled, but was held hard against her sister’s chest. Waverly felt then, she imagined, much the same as a fly caught in a spider’s web. She struggled, life dependent on that strength of spirit, but fluttered uselessly against the clasp of fate and uselessness .

 

Even at that distance, she could see the wry smile Nicole offered her. Her hands were held up, palms out in vulnerable surrender, but…

 

One finger tapped subtly against her heart then made a small ‘X’ across it. A corner of Nicole’s mouth pulled up in a half-smile.

 

Oh.

 

Oh , she was going to…

 

Nicole was not a being so easily caged.

 

Waverly was already screaming her name when Nicole’s head cracked back in a jerk against her captor’s nose, shoving his gun arm down toward their feet. In slow motion, she watched the way Bulshar threw Nedley down to the floor and raised his own gun up toward Nicole’s chest. However, even Waverly could not have foreseen the way Nicole turned in her captor’s hold and gave an almighty, full-body shove backwards, splintering through the flimsy railing and toppling them both together over the balcony ledge, plummeting toward the ground.

 

Wynonna was cracking off shots toward Bulshar’s head as he fled indoors even as she dragged Waverly under the cover of a nearby wagon. Waverly swallowed dry against her throat, screaming while she watched Nicole brace against her fall using the body of her captor. She was pulled out of view just as they hit the ground in an audible crunch .

 

The second Waverly’s back was slammed into the hard paneling of the wagon, she was pushing off of it and trying to get back. Wynonna held her there, though, demanding she meet her eyes. Wynonna’s face was set in determination. “Waverly,” she snapped. “She’ll be fine.”

 

“She jumped off a roof!”

 

“Yeah, right into the soft gut of Bulshar’s buddy,” Wynonna scoffed. “Keep your head down, jesus.”

 

Waverly blinked at her, then let the fog of her own thoughts dissipate until she could hear - could feel the way gunfire had opened up around them again. The back of her eyes couldn’t stop the tracked, repeated motion of Nicole falling backwards over the balcony, fists twisted up in the front of her captor’s shirt. Over and over and over.

 

Wynonna slapped lightly at her face until their eyes met again. “Girl, I need you here with me. Nicole’s holding them down from their left and we can pin them from their right but I need you to - Waverly!”

 

The odds of her getting her head blown off to take a peak around the side of a wagon seemed worth the marginal risk because Nicole was out there. Alone!

 

Her heart climbed up her throat when she saw the man Nicole had taken over the railing stumbling toward the line of Bulshar’s defenses on clumsy feet. His feet dragged and his body quivered and jerked in weird movements until Waverly realized…

 

He was already dead.

 

His corpse stumbled forward on limp knees, held up only by the figure at his back, propelling him forward by the iron grip she had on him while his brothers pumped him full of empty led. Shielded at his back, Nicole’s steps did not falter.

 

“She’s charging,” Waverly whispered. And then louder, “Wynonna, she needs cover!”

 

Wynonna was already two feet off the ground, boots dug into the back ledge of the wagon with her colt propped over the top. “Friendly fire, friendly fire,” Wynonna said distractedly to herself, racking off shots into the panicking crowd of Bulshar’s men. Half were already turning tail, running north past them toward the intersection where they’d been minutes before. One glance back showed Doc and Dolls stepping out grimly to meet them, guns raised and the balcony cover of Jeremy and Robin at their backs.

 

Waverly realized she’d wasted enough valuable time asking one, Wynonna Earp, to shoot of all things. Like asking a bird to fly, really. She shut her mouth promptly and moved to prop her rifle on the large wheel of their cover, instantly shooting off a shot so rushed, that instead of his head, it tore through the lower stomach of a man still thirty paces away from Nicole.

 

Not the one Nicole was closing in on. Not the one drawing a long knife from his belt and shoving his revolver back into its holster, roaring at Nicole to take him on . If it weren’t for the gravity of the whole thing, it might’ve been laughable the way Nicole just hurled her limp shield bodily into the man’s face, toppling him under the dead weight. She didn’t even spare him a second glance as she leveled her borrowed revolver at the next closest face and fired.

 

The man hadn’t even hit the ground by the time the last half dozen had turned their backs and fled north toward the end of town like god himself was driving at their heels. What awaited them was no better. 

 

Nicole’s pace slowed almost casually as she watched them run. She scratched at her nose for a few seconds, then downed one of the men with a shot through his back like an afterthought. The rest of them only ran faster. Their fates began sounding off in the gunfire that met them down the way - a grim thing Waverly didn’t bother watching.

 

The last man there crawled his way out from under the limp body Nicole had thrown at him and roared out unintelligibly, beating at his chest before he threw himself in Nicole’s direction. Waverly’s pulse jumped, but it was a quick dispatch. She didn’t even hardly have time to worry before Nicole had him flat on his back again, her knuckles making a grotesque, wet sound as they pummeled his face in. When she withdrew her fist for the last time, her knuckles pulled away a long drip of gore that splashed back against her cheek. Waverly hardly even saw it when Nicole turned her head to look into Waverly’s eyes.

 

Even with gore between her fingers, Nicole’s expression was soft when it met hers across the street.  In the face of everything, always soft.

 

Waverly was sure she must’ve been smiling by that point - there was no way that kind of blind relief could’ve left her any other kind of way. It was naive but there was little she could do against the way her feet carried her out toward her, hands already reaching for Nicole.

 

She’d only cleared twenty paces before she was grabbed about her middle, one arm pulling her back firmly into a chest behind her. Her instincts roared to life, prepared to spit and claw and kill , but then…

 

“Just me,” Wynonna murmured into her ear. But her grip stayed strong.

 

Nicole had stood from her knees, swaying there and looking apprehensively between Waverly and her sister. She swiped at the blood splashed into her face, but it only smeared. Her expression turned rueful as she looked down at the mess on her hands.

 

Their father’s gun came up over Waverly’s shoulder to aim into Nicole’s lost expression. “Go on,” Wynonna called calmly across the distance. “Take your horse and ride out of town now. Never come back and you’re pardoned. Save your own skin,” she commanded.

 

Waverly tried to twist in Wynonna’s grasp - maybe give her a look that was every ounce of what the hell are you doing - but her sister was deceptively strong and only pulled her against her front tighter. “Wynonna-”

 

“Go on!” Wynonna bowled over her, making a small gesture with the barrel of her gun. “Get on your horse and never come back. Leave it all behind and you can have your life back. I won’t ever look for you.”

 

Nicole’s head tilted to the side, expression gentle and confused. “Waverly…”

 

“No.” Wynonna’s voice was hard. “Just you. You go free, alone .”

 

“Alone?” Nicole looked off to the side, expression sad. She seemed even more confused when she looked back toward them. “Without Waverly?”

 

“This is for Waverly, not for you,” Wynonna said darkly. “Alone and free. Or you stay and I kill you dead,” Wynonna said darkly, cocking the hammer of her revolver pointedly. “One time deal, Haught.”

 

Waverly would’ve said something - anything - but everything she wanted to say had tried to come up her throat at the same time, jamming in her mouth and preventing anything from coming out. She struggled one more time, but Wynonna had her pinned.

 

Nicole looked down at her feet, shook her head faintly to herself, then looked back up with a sad expression. “Okay,” she shrugged.

 

And Waverly would’ve screamed for it, except then the revolver Nicole had stolen dropped into the dirt road with a little plunk and her hands were hanging innocently at her sides. “I choose her,” Nicole said simply.

 

“She’s not a part of this.” Wynonna ground out. “You go or you die, asshole! Those are your options! There’s not a way you walk out of here with my sister.”

 

Meticulously, Nicole seemed to consider the state of things - the two paths laid out before her. But it didn’t take long before Nicole nodded, expression vulnerable and young. “Alright, I understand.”

 

Wynonna cursed in Waverly’s ear, teeth grinding together audibly. “I’m arresting you. You understand that? You’ll be hanged for what you’ve done. You think Waverly wants that?”

 

And it was a fair question, really. Waverly was as selfish a creature as any out there in the lonely west, but her heart warred between wanting Nicole to stay because that’s where she belonged and wanting Nicole to go. What good did having Nicole do her if she wouldn’t survive it? But if she was to lose Nicole either way, would it be better to know she was Waverly’s at the end? Even her selfishness couldn’t make up its mind.

 

“I’m sorry,” Nicole said sincerely, coat blowing out around her knees as it was caught in a cold breeze from south of town. She let out a small, introspective laugh that barely carried against the howl as wind split against the space between them. “I can’t go.”

 

“I’m trying not to break her heart here,” Wynonna near pleaded. “Please go .”

 

“I wouldn’t know how to,” Nicole made her final confession, palms held out. “I wouldn’t survive it anyhow. Not without her.”

 

Finally, after a long beat of silence filled only with a lonely whistling wind carried to them from the direction of Nicole’s farm and the little hiccups of tears that Waverly realized were her own, Wynonna’s arm lowered and the Colt fell from Waverly’s view. The arm around her waist loosened. “Damnit,” Wynonna said softly to herself. “Damn it all.”

 

Waverly freed herself from Wynonna’s hold and took a few steps forward, every part of her aching to be closer to Nicole. She hadn’t taken more than a few steps in that direction when Wynonna caught her wrist and pulled her back. She shook her head, face stone and the set of her mouth grim. “Stay here, I’ve got to take her in.”

 

A version of Waverly, less heartbroken and less shaken from the past hour, might’ve fought her or followed her or tried to say anything at all. But she found herself numb in her shoes, left behind while Wynonna approached Nicole on tired feet. Nicole just stood there, bloody hands raised up in an innocent kind of surrender. All Waverly could do was stand there.

 

Wynonna reached Nicole, hands on her hips in a way that said she had a job to do and she never did it poorly. With her blocking Nicole from sight, Waverly felt some of the panic that’d been lost to her sputter weakly to life, like she somehow hadn’t been drained of it that day. She took a step forward, mouth open-

 

A thick arm with none of the familial grace of Wynonna’s hold snaked around her middle, hauling her back cruelly into the hard line of a man’s body, forearm pressing too tight against her ribs and toes barely scraping the ground. Even held blind to the man’s face, Waverly would never forget the quiet, toneless way he laughed into her ear. His breath smelled clean and cold like a grave.

 

“Watch this,” Bulshar crooned just loud enough for only her to hear and raised his revolver over her shoulder to train square between her sister’s shoulder blades. Waverly squirmed against him frantically, voice stuck in her throat and hand clawing around through the twisted folds of her apron pocket. When her fingers grasped cold iron, thin, smooth - she flicked it open with little thought, grasped the handle, tore it out of her pocket, and jammed it hard up under the soft underside of Bulshar’s jaw just as a shot exploded from the chamber of his revolver.

 

+++

 

 

 

Chapter Text

+++




Regression to the mean was a powerful force indeed.

 

Just one short hour had passed and already everything was normal. Marginal. Calm.

 

With half its glassware splintered into a million fine crystal pieces and a sluggish blood stain smeared across the front entryway - displaced dust in the shape of a man who had died -

 

The saloon was, at its bones and skins, the same. Shorty was cleaning a glass with a dirty rag, Champ was shooting pool with a man who must’ve somehow missed it all and Waverly had been served promptly at a freshly wiped down bartop. The only strangeness was that the whiskey bottle had been left at her elbow, free of charge.

 

The collar of Waverly’s dress was drying quick to a sluggish, sticky red mess and the evidence was already drying and rubbing away in sore, tacky friction between her fingers and up her forearms. Her left hand splayed flat against the clean counter was limp. Her right hand didn’t shake anymore. The pointer finger that traced the lip of her whiskey glass absently was steady, nerves already gone and forgotten.

 

Someone was clumsily playing an old church song on the piano in the corner, quite unconcerned with the twin bullet holes blown out the side of its frame.

 

Deliciously, tragically normal.

 

Waverly realized she was humming the song in better tune than the piano and silenced herself with a long pull of whiskey, making sure she held her breath and swallowed fast before her shaky stomach pushed it back up onto Shorty’s clean counter. The moment her empty glass hit the counter, Shorty was neatly topping it off with her bottle. He hadn’t been watching her but - he probably was.

 

“Can I get you anything, hon?” He asked kindly.

 

When Waverly looked up, she could see where blown out glass had taken a long, wicked cut of his cheek. It pulled grossly when he gave her an encouraging smile.

 

Waverly pursed her lips and tried to remember if she needed anything. “I don’t think so,” she shrugged a little.

 

If Shorty was burning at all to know more about the thing, he did a good job of pretending otherwise. In another blink he was back to sorting ruined stock and shuffling barware in a way that must’ve meant something to him.

 

The church song lost its thread and was replaced, instead, with a jaunty bar tune that Waverly was fairly certain balladed the unsavory tail of a barmaid with loose sexual morals. It made her less nervous somehow.

 

Her stomach churned unhappily, but Waverly held her breath and took another long, long drink - down her throat like fire. She shivered involuntarily, trying to keep her tongue from touching anything else in her mouth.

 

Truly, truly disgusting. Absolution had never tasted quite so terrible.

 

Waverly waggled her stout glass, sloshing the dredges and surprised at how much she’d managed to choke down. Not so surprised that she didn’t look up to see if Shorty was going to be replacing it anytime soon. But he was busy down the way, leaning his whole body over the counter and smiling at something Jeremy was explaining with his hands. Waverly sighed and reached for the bottle, resolved to do it herself, but a heavy hand with long fingernails wrapped around the bottle neck before hers could.

 

Waverly let her own hand flop back down to the bar and glanced up warily.

 

“Miss Earp.”

 

“Mister Svane.”

 

Robert topped Waverly off so generously it could have been considered a threat, and then helped himself, sitting backward on the neighboring stool so he could lean back against the bar and face out toward the rest of the room.

 

“I’ve heard you’ve all had a day here,” Robert said pleasantly, drinking from the bottle like it was water.

 

Waverly tried not to feel irrationally emasculated by the gesture as she eyed her full, full glass. “It’s certainly been a time.”

 

“There’s a cart full of dead men outside. Have you ever seen such a thing?” He mused. But something about his serene expression made Waverly wonder just how much of a novelty such a thing could’ve been to a man like Robert Svane.

 

Waverly watched him carefully. “And where were you?”

 

“Oh. Around.”

 

Waverly laughed dryly. “I’m sure.”

 

“Here and there.”

 

“More there than here , though.”

 

Robert grinned to himself, wide and unabashed. Handsome if he wasn’t so strange. “More there ,” he agreed. “ Here sounded a little…”

 

“Deadly,” Waverly finished, taking a long drink until her throat corked and bobbed back, begging she stop.

 

Robert took another messy swig, his eyes locked onto Waverly’s own with piercing intensity. “Imagine my surprise when I saw none other than Bulshar Clootie laid out among the dead. Gruesome, gruesome,” he clicked his tongue in faux sympathy. “Someone carved him a new smile, ear to ear, opened him up like a pig for slaughter.”

 

The last drink Waverly had taken bobbed up violently in her throat until she swallowed it back hard. “Well,” she said, meeting his stare. “He was certainly a pig.”

 

Robert’s grin split wider, eyes lighting up with delight. “Oh, Waverly Earp. They will write songs about you, girl. You are the best of what we make out here.” When Waverly didn’t say anything, face solemn, he demurred. “Don’t waste your guilt. It was a real pretty smile you carved him.”

 

“I didn’t have a choice,” Waverly lied just a little bit . Because what walks the line between defense and regurgitative rage is the twist of a knife already lodged. The feeling of dragging that knife up and across even when he was already on his back and under her slippery hands. Needing to see his eyes turn blank and his teeth painted red.

 

Just small, small differences.

 

Robert tipped his head at her, watching her from under his brow line. “Oh, no. We always have choices, Waverly. And you made the right one.”

 

“I wanted to kill him,” Waverly said quietly.

 

Robert nodded like that much was obvious. “That’s why I know it was the right choice.”

 

“We can’t all just go around doing what we want all the time,” Waverly scoffed, gesturing around them at the swept-up cataclysm they’d made of the place. “It’s violent and selfish.”

 

“You misunderstand me,” Robert set the bottle back on the table and leaned closer. “I know it was the right choice for the very simple reason that you, my dear, are a good person. And sometimes, Waverly, bad men dig their own graves long before little girls with brave hearts stand their ground.” He let out a long, dramatic sigh and his head rolled to the side to give her a tired look. “If you ever do me any favor, do me the favor of absolving yourself. I think we can all agree that Bulshar dead in a dirt grave is the first step toward a less violent and selfish west.”

 

“I’ve killed a lot of people,” Waverly mused.

 

“And look at you, dear: you’re tortured over it. I’ve never seen such a thing.” He chuckled under his breath. “Tomorrow is a new day. And you are still alive and still good,” he said so simply, like law, signed and codified there in the blown-out mess of Shorty’s bar. “Sometimes good people ride off into the sunset. Even good people with...scoundrel wives.” He gave her a pointed look and then let his gaze wander, seeking and questioning. Wondering how Waverly Earp could possibly have been alone in such a place.

 

At that, Waverly deflated again, leaning heavily into the counter and propping her head on a blood-stained hand. Robert was patient, but expectant and she could feel him staring at her even as she rested her forehead against the sticky center of her palm and let out a long, quivering breath. “I’m not sure my scoundrel will be seeing many more sunsets, with me or otherwise.”

 

The big grandfather clock just left of the glass shelves swung back, forth, and then seemed to stop entirely suspended counterintuitive to gravitational pull. Waverly cocked her head to the side and fell into herself, backward into the waters.

 

+++

 

The noise he made when she skewered him on the end of her pocket knife was a strange kind of spitting noise and Waverly couldn’t help but think it wasn’t what she was expecting. His arm choked high on her throat in involuntary distress, something warm running down the back of her ear and pooling in the neck of her dress. Waverly pushed up and back harder , tripped their feet together and they were falling heavy.

 

Waverly somehow held onto the knife where it stuck out of him, even in the fall.

 

There was a great wall of nothing between the fall and the twist. The swoop of lost stance and the grotesque strength required to drag a knife meant for cans and whittling up through meat and tendon to carve a line in even the softest part of Bulshar’s throat. She used both hands when one wasn’t enough.

 

When she finally let the knife handle go and sat back against his stomach, pinning him to the dirt, she had long moments to watch him reach up and push shaking fingers against the bloody mess like he might’ve been able to fix it. He gargled angrily, eyes wild but focused directly on Waverly’s own. She thought maybe he was trying to say something, the way his breath whistled out the gaping split in his neck. It took him almost two minutes to die and he did it with his teeth bared and slick with the rising gorge of his own blood. Waverly stared the whole time. His hands were the last thing to fall away, a long ten seconds after his eyes had already gone vacant and cold.

 

“Waverly!”

 

And then she was Waverly again. Not the thing she’d had to be to split a man’s neck. It had never been quite such a relief before, but her hands shook and she took a few gulping breaths, pushing against Bulshar’s chest and turning back to where Wynonna was bodily holding up Nicole’s slumped, unsteady shape as it leaned into her like a limp hug.

 

It took long seconds she wasn’t sure she had to put it all together and find her feet again. As she stumbled her way towards them, Waverly watched the way Nicole tried to simultaneously push Wynonna away and use her for support. Wynonna seemed equally confused, hands hovering anxiously near Nicole’s shoulder and back, staring helplessly in Waverly’s direction.

 

“Nicole!” And for good measure, “Wynonna!”

 

“I’m fine, I’m fine, it’s - she’s - like an idiot, Waverly!” Wynonna spluttered, shaking Nicole as though to demonstrate.

 

Just before Waverly cleared the distance, Nicole pushed herself up and away from Wynonna with great effort and turned to let Waverly fall into her. Waverly’s hands fluttered anxiously around Nicole’s face and then down to the spreading patch of red spidering outward from the ragged hole in her shoulder. “I’m okay,” Nicole groaned like she was very much not. “Did he hurt you, Waverly?” She asked tenderly, reaching her one good hand out to thumb at Waverly’s cheek.

 

“Me? You’ve been shot!”

 

Wynonna wedged herself between them despite Nicole’s noise of protest and began pushing away Nicole’s duster to put hard pressure on her shoulder. “Alright, well. Let’s not be dramatic. I got shot too. It happens.”

 

“Wynonna!”

 

Wynonna rolled her eyes, but it was weak. And if Waverly didn’t know any better she’d swear the nervous way Wynonna looked rapidly between Nicole’s pained face and the blood leaking sluggishly between her fingers was almost one of concern. “But geez, what were you doin’, Haught? You take a bullet for me? You got any sense at all?”

 

“Ha!” Nicole let Wynonna loose the top buttons of her shirt and pull it away to squint and prod at the wound. “Trying to get the jump on you, more like.”

 

“Right,” Wynonna said slowly. “By turning me around and throwing yourself over me. Very clever.”

 

“Oh, shut up and say thank you,” Nicole grumbled, strained when Wynonna pushed back against the raw wound again.

 

“Over your dead body maybe.”



+++



“She’s not…?” Robert faltered, rubbing one hand against his beard and giving her a gentle look.

 

“No,” Waverly shook her head. “She’s alive. She’s with my darling lawman sister. My sister who has locked me out of the Sheriff’s office they’re holed up in.”

 

Robert’s eyebrows rose higher somehow, still rubbing absently at the long hairs on his chin while he chewed it over. His eyes glazed into middle distance as he stared out across the saloon, muddling through his own thoughts waist-deep while Waverly walked away from the shore of her own. She was sore and grimy and wanted Nicole.

 

Some of that must have shown on her face, because after a while, Robert turned to her with a kind of importance. “Waverly,” he said seriously.

“Hm?”

 

“You are my best friend,” he told her. At whatever strange look she must have given him, Robert held up a hand to stop her. “I see you - better than I have ever seen a person, I think. And it’s because you let me - unfailingly honest to the quick of you. Now just let me repay you.”

 

“Repay me?”

 

Robert leveled her with a grave look. “We both know I have no honesty to offer. But I will do something for you that I’ve never done for another person.”

 

Waverly raised one mildly alarmed eyebrow at him.

 

Robert perched his fingers on the edge of the bar and leaned closer. “I will get on my knees for you.”

 

“I’m sorry, what?”



+++

 

Robert’s knees turned out to be weaker than was strictly safe, but after only a little bit of griping and one near-disastrous sway, Waverly had managed to climb onto the precarious perch of his shoulders while he grunted and pretended she was a light thing. Nothing was light when it was standing on your shoulders. And that wasn’t metaphoric or of poetic intention. People were heavy.

 

She braced her hands, just south of steady against the side of the Sheriff’s office in the gangway between buildings. Robert tried to hold her still with both hands around her ankles, but she knew they were probably just a strong breeze shy of the both of them toppling into a fatal pile of snapped necks and broken knees. And she was sure they looked ridiculous, but the barred window of the cell at the back of Nedley’s office was just within reach .

 

Robert practically bounced Waverly against the side of the building as he tried to line her up with the window and it was just absurd enough for her to be glad they were relatively sheltered in the alleyway from witness. Eventually, teetering precariously, Robert got her to the window and she was able to anchor them by wrapping both hands around the iron bars. She looked down to check on him, but Robert just gave her a distracted, pained thumbs up before returning his grip to her ankles. Robert seemed either bizarrely above or bizarrely below the whims and patterns of humanity, but Waverly said a silent prayer that he didn’t look up her skirt.

 

She peered into the cell, eyes adjusting to the wane lamplight burning oil on the Sheriff’s desk in the corner to the dingy inside of the cell she was faced with. The blinds were drawn so it was a heavy, warm dark in there. In the muzziness of the room, it took her a short time to find her sister, chair tipped back against the wall, arms crossed cozily, and mouth open a bit in a hard-earned nap. Her shoulder was tied up with a dirty rag and even standing on a crazy man’s shoulders to break into the cell she put her wife into, Waverly couldn’t help but think fondly that she’d have to change it for her.

 

Her eyes grew comfortable and she was able to see Nicole there in the corner of her cell, sitting on the ground with her long legs stretched out in front of her and a whiskey bottle at her knee, half-empty. She looked strangely peaceful, even with the shoddy stamp of Wynonna’s help wrapped haphazardly around her poor shoulder. She even had a small, dopey smile pulling at the corner of her mouth.

 

Oh.

 

She was drunk.

 

Waverly wanted to laugh and she wanted to cry, so she did neither. Instead, she tapped her blunt nails on the iron bars over the open window, mindful of her sister snoozing just twenty paces away. Nicole looked up, confused a moment, swiveled around, and then noticed Waverly clinging to the bars at her window. Her smile was a little slow and boozy, but still warm enough to kindle.

 

“Wave’lry,” she said almost right, pushing up slowly to join her at the window. The only way they could really touch each other was with Nicole’s hands wrapped over her own around the bars. Warm and strong.

 

Waverly smiled gamely. “Hi love,” she said quietly.

 

“You came to see me,” Nicole said with a certain kind of wonder. “You’re an angel. I haven’t even tidied the place.”

 

“And you’re a little drunk,” Waverly giggled. “Drunkie.”

 

Oh.

 

Waverly might’ve been a little drunk too.

 

“Well I did get shot,” Nicole defended, looking a little contrite. “Wynonna gave me some whiskey, then pulled it out none too gentle. Then more whiskey.” She failed to smother her smile and Waverly couldn’t help but think she couldn’t be too mad about that. “Do you think she’ll hang me tomorrow? Today, even?”

 

“What? No. I’m going to save you,” Waverly promised, a kind of too-loud secret.

 

Nicole’s eyes widened. “How? Your sister wants me dead. She’s got reason too.”

 

“No she doesn’t, she’s just ornery.” Her hands tightened around Nicole’s, a stubborn set to her mouth. As though her mouth was ever set any other way. “I’m going to figure this out.”

 

Tiredly, Nicole’s temple found rest against Waverly’s knuckles. She looked frightful - heavy circles painted under her eyes and a failing pallor against it. Despite it all, she seemed relieved to have Waverly there with her. It was a scary thing to realize that Nicole really did believe her. Nicole trusted her with nothing more than drunk promises and dumb faith. As though love was such an easy thing to survive.

 

“I don’t think I’d like to die,” Nicole told her honestly. “I never imagined it that way. Isn’t that funny? All the people I’ve killed.”

 

It wasn’t funny at all. Even tired, Nicole looked a young kind of scared.

 

“I wouldn’t like you to die, either,” Waverly assured her. “I’ve just found you. And I don’t want anyone else.  Don’t want any thing else.”

 

“Really? Nothing else?” She smiled, seemingly surprised. “How’d I deserve that?” She asked nobody in particular. And nobody answered.

 

Waverly watched Nicole faintly nuzzle her temple against her knuckles, a little disarmed and tender in the wake of the whiskey. It would’ve been funny to see - Nicole almost never drank, see - but the situation just wasn’t that funny. Except for Robert grunting and swaying underneath her while he held her up. That was a little funny.

 

“If I die…”

 

“-Nicole”

 

“No, let me finish,” Nicole said sternly. “If I die, my farm is yours. My house and everything there. It’s all yours. There’s...money,” she said cryptically, “in the walls of the barn.”

 

“In the-” Waverly interrupted, “-how much money?!”

 

“Enough.”

 

“Enough to fill the walls!”

 

“Waverly please, let me finish. All my papers are in the dresser. An’ there’s a note under my side of the mattress that I wrote for you in the happenstance that I die tragically and…” She hiccupped, still serious, “sudd’n’ly.”

 

“You wrote a note?” Waverly raised an eyebrow. “In case you die?”

 

“Well it’s not ‘xactly irrelevant right now, is it?”

 

Waverly couldn’t really argue with that, so she didn’t. But rest assured, the urge was still there.

 

Nicole pulled one of her hands away, slipping it out from under Waverly’s own to level a finger at her. A little rude, but Nicole seemed serious. “Read the note, then talk to Dolls. He’ll help you. The note is not...specific’lly relevant to this situation. I did not see being hanged by your sister as an eventuality at the time I wrote it, but who does, really?” Nicole somehow pronounced every letter in eventuality with the care of a great work of art. Waverly loved her so very, very much.

 

“I’m going to stop this,” She choked out, not even realizing she was crying until Nicole’s fingers squeezed between the bars to swipe gently at the tears rolling down her cheeks. Whiskey always did make her weepy. “You can count on me.”

 

“I know, darlin’,” she smiled. “I always do.”

 

“Maybe we should be quieter,” Waverly dropped into a loud whisper. “I don’t want to wake my sister.”

 

But when she shifted her gaze to just past Nicole’s head, she could see her sister already standing at the door to Nicole’s cell with her hands on her hips and a disappointed tilt to her mouth. “Wouldn’t want that, would we?” She sighed, one hand propped against the cell bars while she gave her best critical look to the both of them. “Do you have any idea how loudly you’re in love?” She begged of them.

 

Waverly had some idea.

 

“Christ in hell, would you just come inside already?” Wynonna rolled her eyes and pushed off and away to head back to her desk. “Should’ve known better than to lock out an Earp,” she muttered under her breath, unbolting the front door and dropping heavily into the Sheriff’s empty chair. Her attention turned back to papers on the desk, shuffling them about and searching for ink.



+++



Climbing back down from Robert’s shoulders was somehow more difficult even with the assistance of inevitability. Heavy, heavy inevitability. A premeditated maneuver - and then a flailing downward.

 

Robert made her swear in the alleyway behind the sheriff’s office to speak of his involvement to no one. And Waverly knew it had nothing to do with the illegality of the venture and everything to do with the way she’d collapsed him onto his rear end and nearly broken his nose on the way down. The inelegance of the thing was almost fatal.

 

But she promised and she hugged him tight while his hands hovered nervously near her shoulders. And then he was gone as suddenly as he’d arrived.

 

Wynonna was bent studiously over a missive drawn in careful, slow script while her tongue poked out the corner of her mouth. As children, she’d always been a deliberate, if not slow study at penmanship. She spared Waverly a quick look over the top of the letter, then held her hand out to her, a heavy iron ring of keys suspended from one finger. As Waverly took the keys, Wynonna added sternly, “Visitation only, kid.” She didn’t look up again as she went back to her letter. “And try to be in love a little quieter.”

 

Waverly smiled and tried not to run toward the back cells, fumbling with the keys in her haste to get inside. Nicole was waiting eagerly, both hands wrapped around the cell bars of the door, so that Waverly had to yank it out of her hands to throw it open. She didn’t wait for Nicole to find her footing again - just crushed into her, arms wrapped tight around her middle and face smushed into her chest. Nicole’s hands landed softer, slower, around her. The cell door creaked and swayed on its hinges while they breathed together.

 

Eventually, Waverly reemerged to look up at Nicole and touch at the bandage on her shoulder. “Does it hurt?” She asked stupidly. But if Nicole said no, then maybe Waverly wouldn’t have had to hurt too.

 

“Hardly,” Nicole smiled, but winced when she tried to demonstrably rotate it against the bandage. Waverly winced too.

 

“I’m sorry, love. I’m glad you’re okay, though.”

 

Nicole glanced over Waverly’s shoulder and smiled weakly. “For now,” she conceded. “Come on, can we sit? My head is watery,” she murmured, leading them over to the cold iron bench sat morosely in the corner.

 

Waverly laughed quietly as they sat themselves close. “Your head is watery?” She leaned her temple against Nicole’s shoulder and threaded their touching arms together to keep her close.

 

“From the whiskey. You know? It’s like there’s water in my head,” she explained with a little shrug that lifted Waverly’s resting head for a moment. “Reminds me why I don’t drink.”

 

“My head is watery too,” Waverly agreed. “It’s...fun sometimes, though.”

 

“You’re more outlaw than me, most days,” Nicole chuckled.

 

Waverly thought maybe - just maybe - with a dozen men’s blood on her hands, hand in hand with a girl whose neck was marked for gallows rope - well maybe she was a little bit. Despite the long stretches of mist and darkness shrouding Nicole’s historied past, she looked at her then and thought, I think I finally understand you .

 

And again, maybe there wasn’t much in need of understanding . Maybe they were all just an overture of things happen and a symphony of so I did . Right and wrong existed along a single line but they were all on a dimensioned globe like constellations in the sky. It was all about what a person could live with. And Waverly had done comparably awful things, but she thought, I can live with this. Nicole had done awful things too and Waverly thought, I can live with that too.

 

She squeezed Nicole’s hand and shifted her head so her nose was resting close enough to smell the gunpowder burn on her sleeves. “Is that it, then? You said once that you’d figured me out. And I asked you what I was that was so easily figured. You wouldn’t tell me what I am. Am I an outlaw to you too?”

 

“That’s not what I meant,” Nicole said with humor in her scratchy voice. She cleared her throat and smoothed a hand over the back of Waverly’s, spreading it flat on her thigh and covering it with her own. A long, long moment of silence passed, interrupted only by the scratching of Wynonna’s penmanship. So long in fact, that Waverly had resigned that she wouldn’t be getting her answer just then.

 

But then, “My father,” Nicole smacked her lips a little, wry like the taste of it was sour on her tongue. “Worked on a tuna boat out on the coast before he met my mother and followed her out to the frontier,” she said carefully. “He fished his whole life - used to say he didn’t have any parents ‘cept the sea. I believed him too. I don’t think I ever saw anything of a parent in him.”

 

“He used to talk about the sea all the time - not much else, really. He’d talk about how bad life had done him wrong, talk about what a whore my mother turned out to be and how awfully I looked like her. Talk about all the men he’d kill dead if he ever got his hands on ‘em. He was a poisoned man, Waverly. Like something bad got in him and he couldn’t shake it out. Couldn’t drink it out. Couldn’t beat it out.” Nicole considered the other end of the cell thoughtfully. “But I think the only real thing he ever felt was for the sea.”

 

Waverly could feel Nicole turn to look briefly at the top of her head. “I saw it just once, you know. The sea. I rode far, far out to Sonoma chasing a score - the job turned out to be a whole lot of nothing and I hadn’t even really planned to reach the ocean until I accidentally did. It was real early in the morning, had to be before six about when I came to it because the sun was still sat on the horizon. I think it must’ve been a fishing spot. There was a small pier, though I couldn’t see a boat or a person for miles. I remember my horse didn’t like the thick of the fog. It was an odd thing, you know? So thick I felt I could just push it aside with my hands, squeeze it or mold it into something else. It even felt heavy, like someone had put it around my shoulders and let go. I felt like I wore it down to the pier and out twenty paces on the water.”

 

“It was strange, though. For all the ways my father made poetry of it, he’d never made one verse about what I saw. It was dead calm there - no white caps or crashing or swelling or beautiful destruction, hungry and godless. All I could see looked like the ghost of the thing - a flat, dead mirror with spirits rising up off it. It wasn’t anything like he said it were. Even the birds were quiet. He always said it was endless, but I saw an end like a white sheet.

 

I turned and looked straight down the messy line of the shore, just the half mile out I could manage in the mist and saw a light out there. I don’t know what it was. Could’ve been a cottage or another lamp-lit pier or maybe nothing at all, but it burned. Just beyond, the cliff face fell off the shore straight into still waters. I could see an end in the fog, but I knew there wasn’t one. Not really. And I hadn’t thought about my father in years, but I thought then: well, how was I ever going to compare to that?”

 

Nicole lifted her hand off of Waverly’s to give a small, expressive shrug. “I don’t know my mother. I don’t think my father was a good man. I don’t think he was right and I don’t think I’m sad I killed him. But I thought maybe those few hours at the edge of Sonoma, I could feel how a man could love a thing so much it killed every part of him to lose it. I felt him more there then I felt him for twelve years sleeping ten paces from him.”

 

Nicole’s hand fell back onto Waverly’s and she squeezed it. “And I understand you, Waverly Earp. That’s what you are.”

 

“What am I?” Waverly picked her head off of Nicole’s shoulder, looking up at her in confusion.

 

Nicole gave her a rueful smile. “The sea, I’m afraid.”

 

Inexplicably, Waverly found a disbelieving laugh tumbling out of her mouth.  “I don’t think I’m quite so complicated.”

 

“Yeah, I didn’t find the sea to be so, either.” She smiled at her. “But I’ve seen very little of it so far. And I know what it might be like to love it so bad, I’d rot without it.”

 

“You, Nicole Haught, are a sweet talker.”

 

Nicole laughed. “Now that , I have never been accused of.”

 

Waverly pressed her forehead harder into Nicole’s shoulder, butting her until she hissed and flinched back. “Sorry, sorry!” Waverly patted softly at her bandaged shoulder, hushing her and trailing off into little dangling pardons begged. “Sorry, love. I forgot.”

 

“It’s because I’m so tough,” Nicole said with tears in her eyes.

 

Waverly smothered a laugh, still smoothing her hand uselessly over the dressing like it was helping, maybe. “It must be,” she conceded. Her brows pinched together as she looked at the dressing, surprised to find it looked much better than Wynonna’s own. “My sister did this?” She looked up to gauge Nicole’s reaction.

 

“Mmm, yeah,” Nicole nodded sleepily. The day had been months-long, bruised and battered and beat to its end, but Nicole was also prone to early bedtimes and waiting for sunrises. The red evening light filtered in between the bars and Nicole’s eyelids drooped. “Make sure you check hers. She didn’t hardly bother,” she murmured.

 

“With her own bandages?”

 

Nicole nodded again, chin tipping forward before her head jerked back up and she blinked into the dull light. “She’ll catch sick,” she agreed.

 

Again, Waverly regarded Nicole’s bandages suspiciously. They were neat and clean and shockingly thorough for the grit her sister was made of. For a woman promised to be hanged anyhow. Waverly narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth, prepared to follow that loose thread, but-

 

Nicole’s chin had tipped forward again, neck bunched uncomfortably and pressed into the back of the cell while she dozed off. Sleepy, drunk fondness came for her too as she watched Nicole deflate into the wall, content even on death row. “You wouldn’t have left, would you? Taken Wynonna’s offer and ran?”

 

“Hm?” One of Nicole’s eyelids peeled up and her pupil swam around before finding Waverly one more time. “No. I wouldn’t. I need you,” she slurred, “More’n I need me .” Her eye slipped closed again.

 

Waverly let Nicole rest, warm up with whiskey and love and probably not enough common sense to do much about it. But just how common could it have been if she always seemed unable to find it. Her head tipped to the side, gentle on Nicole’s hurt shoulder, and she let the heavy heat and low light of the evening rock her to sleep.



+++



When she came to it was to stifling darkness, just the dull glow of a low lit oil lamp in the corner casting shadows, long and eerie. Wynonna was leaning against the cell bars, just watching. Like maybe she’d been there a long while.

 

Waverly blinked at her sister for long, quiet moments.

 

“She’s a funny drunk. Does she not drink?” Wynonna asked, off-handed.

 

Waverly held tight to Nicole’s limp hand. “Are you really going to hang her?”

 

Wynonna pushed her finger around in a swirl of old dust caught between slats in the cell. “I can’t believe she didn’t run. I really would’ve let her go, you know? Wouldn’t have looked. I meant it.”

 

Waverly stared hard until Wynonna looked up again and met her eyes. She didn’t back down from the hard look, just met it evenly with dark eyes and a face cast in poor light. “She loves me. You know that, right? Can’t you see it?”

 

Wynonna’s inclined her head just the barest amount, then turned back to the Sheriff’s desk. “I’ve sent my report back,” she said vaguely as she sat back into the chair and tipped it back again, pulling her jacket warmly around herself. Her eyes drifted closed and Waverly watched her cozy up in the chair with a small, amused smile at the corner of her mouth. “The sea, huh?” She mumbled, laughing once through her nose.

 

Waverly realized there was a thick, scratchy wool blanket draped over both their laps.



+++



The second time the cell door was opened, neither of them were so drunk that they slept through it. The morning light was young and weak, but fresh and without the oppressive heat of the prior evening. Waverly was glad for the blanket on their laps as she blinked in the daylight and squinted at her sister. Wynonna had swung the cell door open wide and stood to the side of it.

 

“C’mon, cowboys,” she called, jangling the ring of keys loudly. “Out.”

 

Nicole rubbed at her eyes next to Waverly, stretching her sore neck and looking around. “Out? Why?”

 

“What kind of outlaw are you?” Wynonna griped. She left the cell gaping open behind her and pushed out the front door of the Sheriff’s office out of sight.

 

Nicole looked over at Waverly in mild concern. “Maybe it’s a trap.”

 

“What trap? You’re already in jail,” Waverly said critically. “Wynonna’s right, you’re not very good at this.”

 

Nicole looked a little offended. “Well, I’ve never been caught before!”

 

“C’mon,” Waverly stood up, pausing to crack her aching back once before she began herding Nicole out of the cell and toward the front door. Nicole tried half-heartedly to dig her heels in at the last moment, but Waverly gave her a loving, kind-hearted shove out the door.

 

Just outside, Wynonna was waiting next to a cart full-up with...dead men.

 

Waverly watched flies buzz around, lighting daintily on glazed over eyes and parted lips as they felt around. She couldn’t help but stare for a long, suspended moment.

 

Nicole cleared her throat. “Taking them out to bury? They won’t last long in this heat.”

 

Wynonna let out a sarcastic bark of laughter. “They haven’t. Should’ve done it yesterday. I’m paying a few boys from town to take them out to the patch of land south of town for a proper burial. I think even they deserve that much.” She spared a distasteful look at the cart, then leaned over to delicately pull the corner of a burlap cover more securely over the worst of it. “Shame you’re on here too,” Wynonna shrugged, looking properly contrite.

 

“Huh?” Nicole blinked. “Me?”

 

“Yeah,” Wynonna shrugged. “Damn shame. Came out to take two outlaws alive and killed ‘em both. You’ll be buried nice and Christian beneath a cross, though. I’ll do that for you.”

 

“I ain’t Christian,” Nicole frowned.

 

“Ungrateful!” Wynonna kicked her boot weakly at the wheel of the wagon. “Well, you’re dead now according to the Federal Government...according to me. So. Congratulations and sorry for your loss, I guess.”

 

It took too long for Waverly to hear the words underneath the words. “You’re letting her go?” Waverly asked, quite unable to keep the excitement from her tone.

 

Wynonna scoffed. “Didn’t you hear me? Nothing to let go. She’s dead and that’s that.” 

 

“I’m really certain I’m not, though,” Nicole said thoughtfully.

 

Waverly grabbed the open lapel of Nicole’s jacket, tugging at her. “ Dead , Nicole. As in, no longer wanted by the law. No more warrant ,” she said hopefully.

 

Nicole smiled sweetly at her. “But that’s not honest, Waverly.”

 

Wynonna made a loud noise of great complication and despair. It struck a rather similar, perhaps genetic note in Waverly, but she instead focused that energy on grabbing the other lapel and holding Nicole more securely while she gave her a look .

 

“Nicole. You have a trove of murder treasure in the barn and I’ve had a very long two days,” she said sternly. “Now you can either accept your dishonest death or you can sleep in the hawthorn tree for the next year.”

 

“Waverly,” Nicole chided, a note of disappointment in her voice.

 

And she was sweet - almost always, somehow - but Waverly could throttle her with her earnestness. She swallowed that urge and softened, slipping her hands inside Nicole’s jacket. “I’m sorry. I know you’re not happy with it, but...it’s not necessarily a lie. The Nicole Haught on those warrants is your past. You’re here now. With your goats and your chickens and your cows and your...me. I’m not asking you to be dishonest. I’m asking you to let go of who you were and come home with me. Please,” she added quietly.

 

Nicole took a long moment, chewing at the bottom of her chapped lip and staring down into Waverly like she’d looked straight through her to the bottoms of Waverly’s shoes. Wynonna was smoking rapidly and with great distress in the background.

 

“Does who I was ever really go away, though?” Nicole wondered.

 

Waverly shook her head, smiling sadly. “I don’t think it really does - not quite. But we can walk away from it. And maybe one day it will be so far behind us, we won’t even be able to see it anymore.” She took a loose hold of Nicole’s hand. “Can’t we at least try?”

 

The corner of Nicole’s mouth turned up. “Well. Alright. We can try.”



+++



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+++





She had passed many sunsets there on the wrap-around porch she’d all but begged a recalcitrant Nicole to build. If Earps were ones to beg. At best, it had amounted to an impassioned request.

 

As with nearly everything, Nicole had given in. It had taken Waverly in trousers, sleeves rolled up and blindly determined while she brought in lumber and declared she’d build it all by herself, but then Nicole was there too with rolled up sleeves and exasperation of the warmest regard.

 

Bless it, but it was a hideous thing. An uneven warp from north to south, floorboards like crooked teeth, and a home-cooked quality to it that, at best, gave off the impression that someone had really tried their very best.

 

She loved it.

 

Few days went by without the sun’s arrival and departure watched steadily from her chair and the cradle of her rocker raising unholy hell against the creaking of warped board and loose nails. Nicole would stand or rest half her thigh against the railing they’d managed and smoke quietly. They didn’t talk at all.

 

But that evening, Waverly wasn’t watching the sun set, attention pulled to the foreground where her sister slowly took shape near the front gate of the ranch. She shifted uncomfortably, likely from too long a ride, and wiped often at her hairline against the dry heat of late summer. Waverly didn’t remember standing from her chair, but realized she was leaning eagerly over the porch railing and squinting against the warble and pitch of heat against dirt for a better view of her sister’s face.

 

Wynonna must’ve caught her eye because her chin tipped up and she offered a lazy wave as her horse shuffled the last bit of the property to the house. Its flanks twitched and Wynonna practically poured out of the saddle.

 

“Long ride?” Waverly asked, hovering eagerly near her sister and unsure of what kind of affection she would be allowed. It had been nearly a year after all.

 

Wynonna draped an arm over Waverly’s shoulder and leaned heavily into her, steering them toward the house. “And I’d swear it gets longer each time.”

 

“Or you’re just getting older,” Waverly teased.

 

“And what? You’re just going to remind me of that every time I see you?” Once they were inside, Wynonna fell uninvited into Nicole’s good chair by a cold fireplace, sweat, dirt and all.

 

Waverly hovered nearby, starving to see and hear Wynonna after their long year apart. But it was a relationship half-mended - a rope bridge across a ravine that she knew she could cross, but wasn’t always sure how. “I’ve...missed you,” she offered tentatively.

 

Wynonna looked up and grinned. “I know. I’m so easily missed.”

 

Waverly scoffed. A rope bridge across a small creek, then. Wynonna was much more shallow than a ravine. “Nevermind,” she muttered, heading to the kitchen to find the leftovers from dinner.

 

“Lighten up,” Wynonna called behind her. “Where’s you-know-who? Even a jail cell didn’t keep you two apart last time I saw you.”

 

“You know who,” Waverly admonished.

 

“Yeah, I know who. I’m saying you know who too.”

 

“You’re allowed to say her name.” Waverly dropped a plate in Wynonna’s lap and took the chair next to her.

 

Wynonna stuffed a rudely sized bite of food into her mouth and flattened her hand, waggling it side to side in a gesture of uncertain disagreement. “Well. I’m allowed to say her name. But...I’m also legally obliged to maintain ignorance about this happy little bachelor marriage. On account of that tall tale I’ve reported back to the federal government regarding her not-so-untimely demise. You remember them, right? With the laws. And the oaths I swore to uphold and all that.”

 

“Hm, doesn’t sound familiar.”

 

Wynonna shrugged carelessly and tucked in with vigor.

 

Waverly watched her for a long while, taking in the state of her and still, despite the flippancy of it all, immensely relieved to see her whole and hungry and as rude as ever. “You’ve been alright, yeah?” She asked. “I’ve worried about you.”

 

“Me? Please.” As though that was an answer. “You avoiding my question? Where’s the master of the house.”

 

“Feeding you dinner,” Waverly returned, annoyed.

 

Wynonna laughed around a mouthful of food. “Alright, boss.” Her humor faded for a moment and she narrowed her eyes. “She’s not...gone out , is she? You remember what I told you two. Me and her are going to be in deep shit if someone recognizes her or she’s caught up in something less than legal. The last thing I want to do is to have to kill her twice.”

 

“I’m sure she’s around here somewhere,” Waverly finally relented. “And we don’t get up to anything, if you must know.”

 

“Oh, I doubt that,” Wynonna said slyly. She groaned as she stood, rolling each vertebra up and uncoiling herself loudly. After dropping her plate in the kitchen, she headed straight past Waverly into the bedroom and flopped right into the middle of their mattress with her boots still on. “Tell Red she doesn’t have to hide,” she breathed out, eyes already slipping closed and breath evening out. “She’s my sister now too, like it or not.”



+++



Waverly wasn’t certain if Wynonna was just tired enough to drop into deep sleep mid-conversation or if she was putting on a show of it so she didn’t get scolded for making herself at home, but Waverly left it alone. Quietly, she shut the door and went to go find her wife.

 

Her first major clue was the distinct absence of Wynonna’s horse from where she’d left her loosely tethered near the porch. Waverly wandered out to the barn and found the horse brushed, fed, and watered and safely stalled for the night with the others. Nicole wasn’t there, but she couldn’t have gone far. As always, Waverly took the opportunity to stroke the velvety nose of her own horse and slip him a treat. Nicole would occasionally remark that her horse appeared to have been getting...well, fat. Waverly simply had no idea how that could’ve been. 

 

Waverly also climbed the ladder into the loft to search between the hay bales, but came up empty. A passing glance out the small loft window, though, drew her attention to the fence behind the barn. Nicole was small below her, forearms propped on the upper railing and one leg on the lower while a cigarette burned forgotten between her fingers and she stared off the property into the setting sun. Waverly smiled and hurried to descend the ladder and close the barn for the night. Nicole didn’t seem to notice her as she circled around the back of the barn and walked toward the back fence line.

 

“Wynonna says to stop hiding,” Waverly began, climbing up onto the fence and looking over to admire Nicole’s profile in the failing light.

 

Nicole seemed to come back to herself, flicking her cigarette into the dirt and turning to smile at her. “Well. She did try to have me hanged last we spoke.”

 

“She didn’t mean it,” Waverly said encouragingly.

 

Nicole frowned. “I think she meant it.”

 

“Well. She meant it a little.” Waverly winced. “But then she didn’t! She changed her mind because you’re so lovely.”

 

“Said that, did she?” Nicole laughed.

 

Waverly laughed too, reaching out to push weakly at Nicole’s shoulder. “She doesn’t need to say it. It takes a lot for Wynonna to change her mind about anything.”

 

“I think that might be more a reflection of you than me.” Nicole propped her chin on her hand, leaning into the fence and watching Waverly with the same singular interest she always did. It never failed to make Waverly feel interesting - a thing she’d never really felt as a silly girl growing up in a silly town.

 

Waverly blushed - even after so much time! She really expected that burn to temper in the year since things had settled, but she was surprised and secretly a little delighted that it hadn’t. “I told you she wasn’t going to do it.”

 

“You did,” Nicole agreed easily, like she was proud of her. “She just makes me a little nervous.” She tugged at the bandana around her neck, loosening its knot and slipping it from her collar to mop at her hairline. “Am I bein’ yellow?”

 

“No,” Waverly said fondly, then hummed to herself. “Well, maybe a little.”

 

Nicole grinned and pinched her forefinger and thumb close together, indicating a very small amount. Waverly mimicked the gesture until they were giggling together. She scooted down the fence to be closer so she could press her head into Nicole’s arm and feel her there. It was almost too hot for it to be comfortable, but after a lifetime of not being touched, Waverly couldn’t help but want it anyway. Nicole never told her off, never rolled away in the night or politely brushed her away. Never leaned away, always leaned in.

 

Maybe they would’ve headed inside sooner, but the relief in the arrival of a gentle cool breeze, maybe the first of the end of summer, broke across the plains and brushed at their cheeks. So they stayed. Watched the sun sink and the heat break. Let Wynonna have her rest.

 

“We should probably make sure Wynonna isn’t going through our things,” Waverly whispered. “And I love you,” she added.

 

Nicole laughed under her breath. “I love you too.”



+++



“So I was going through your things,” Wynonna explained.

 

Nicole hummed thoughtfully into her coffee, but didn’t seem to share Waverly’s indignance. She never did, really.

 

“Saw the pictures on the mantel. Really? You two honeymooned on the coast? And traveled with a photographer ?”

 

“He likes seafood,” Waverly shrugged.

 

“I tried to say no,” Nicole added.

 

“Anyways,” Wynonna cut in, waving her hand in front of her face as though to dispel such thoughts. “Found this under the mattress - just where you said it’d be last year. Not terribly secure,” she criticized, holding up an extremely worn piece of parchment.

 

“Hey!” Nicole snapped, setting her mug back onto the kitchen counter clumsily so it slopped over. She marched across the room towards Wynonna who had, again, stolen residence in Nicole’s nice chair. After two failed attempts to snatch the parchment from Wynonna’s evasive hands, she practically climbed into her lap to try and wrestle it away from her.

 

“I am- oof ,” Wynonna pushed her elbow against Nicole’s gut and somehow squirmed her way around so she was sitting on Nicole and smushing her back into the chair, held down. “I am a federal agent ,” she griped.

 

Counterpoint: “That’s mine!”

 

“Finder’s keepers, dirtbag - aha!” Wynonna pushed her elbow back into Nicole’s face and brandished the parchment in the air.

 

Waverly watched on dispassionately, sipping her tea. “Could you two behave, please?” She muttered, snatching the parchment from Wynonna’s hand as she passed by toward her own chair.

 

Wynonna looked at her empty hand in surprise, but recovered ground quickly. “It’s the letter she wrote for you in case she...” Wynonna drew her thumb across her own throat and stuck out her tongue, eyes going crossed before Nicole dumped her off her lap onto the floor.

 

Waverly eyed it with interest.

 

“It is extremely dirty,” Wynonna advised, bursting with mischief.

 

Waverly eyed it with keen interest.

 

“It is not !” Nicole protested, standing and wringing her hands nervously.

 

That was...disappointing. Waverly was sure she did a bad job of not showing that. “Can I read it?” She asked.

 

“Well I ain’t dead, so I don’t think it’s much of anything to read,” Nicole fidgeted. “But if you’d like to…”

 

Waverly looked down at the parchment, it’s worn smooth folds and the fraying edges of it. Slowly, she peeled the edges back and spread the note with Nicole’s sloppy writing scribbled in the middle of the page.





Waverly -

 

The money is with Daisy.

 

I’m sorry I got me killed. I was bad at making friends and good at stealing.

 

I love you until the sun stops rising. And maybe even after that too.

 

Be well and be you.

 

(Don’t let Robert write anything about me.)

 

Love, Nicole






Waverly read it twice and then read it twice more. When she looked up, Nicole seemed a little apologetic. “It’s quite short,” Waverly finally said, though she was smiling down at it.

 

“Writing is hard,” Nicole said quietly.

 

Wynonna was smoking against house rules, still sat on the floor with her legs spread out in front of her. “What I really want to know is who’s this Daisy gal?” She gave Nicole a suspicious look.

 

“She’s a cow, Wynonna,” Waverly sighed, stepping over her to claim a spot in Nicole’s lap. The note had been utterly clumsy and infinitely charming. She placed a kiss to Nicole’s cheek while Wynonna watched them.

 

“Well, I’m not warm to the gal either, but that’s not a very nice thing to say.”



+++



Even Wynonna’s affinity for fire hadn’t changed in the years stretched blank between them. As children, she’d taken every opportunity to set things to flame whether designated tinder or priceless family heirloom. Nicole had been reticent because of the lingering heat, but Wynonna had needled at her until Nicole gave in and built a large bonfire a walk from the front porch. Waverly pulled a chair up next to Nicole and they watched quietly while Wynonna fed the fire, poked around in it with a large charred branch with the reckless fascination of a child but the liquor resistance of a grown man.

 

“Now I’m hot all over again,” Nicole sighed. “And she’s using all the wood.”

 

Waverly took Nicole’s hand over the arm of her chair and smiled. “Look how happy she is, though.”

 

Wynonna threw an armful of dried prairie grass into the fire and watched it spark with a large crackle and go up in a flashing blaze of color, raising her hands up and roaring in triumph.

 

Nicole rolled her eyes, but let it go.

 

As they swapped gut-warming flasks of whiskey and let the coals burn long and slow, Wynonna joined them, looking down at Nicole where she sat and tapping the toe of her boot with her own. “Hey. So I know you’re dead and all, but how’d you like to help me out with some stuff.”

 

Nicole shot Waverly a quick look, then cocked her head to the side. “What stuff?”

 

“Mm, let’s call it consulting.”

 

Nicole raised an eyebrow.

 

“Well seeing as you spent the better part of life before Waverly gallivanting with the worst of the worst, I figure you might have a bit of insight into open warrants I’m tracking. I’d offer you money, but I think we both know you have plenty you don’t deserve.” She held up one pointed finger. “I do feel a little like you owe me. C’mon. I killed you so gentle last year.”

 

Nicole frowned, sending another searching look in Waverly’s direction. As the silence limped onward, she realized that Nicole was waiting for her input. “Don’t look at me,” Waverly held her hands up. “They’re your secrets. Do what you want with them.”

 

“But I need you too, kid,” Wynonna continued. “Your brains, Nicole’s information, my everything else.” She trailed off, looking between the two encouragingly. “Strictly consulting, no danger or shootouts and horse chases. Just me visiting as often as I can. Maybe a spare mattress for me when I come?”

 

“In the barn,” Nicole said sternly.

“Or in the house…?” Wynonna appealed, dangerously close to a pout. When she was met with silence, she reached into her light jacket and fished around for a moment before producing two scrappy pieces of jagged tin. “Look, I made you these counterfeit deputy badges. Kind of.”

 

They looked down at the crudely carved stars and then at each other.

 

“Don’t make me beg. I cut myself twice making these.”

 

Nicole reached out and took one of them, flipping it a few different ways to get a better look at it. Even in low light, Waverly could tell they more closely resembled the cans they’d been carved out of than an actual badge. “If you wanted to visit more often, all you had to do was ask,” Nicole sighed, slipping the tin badge into her breast pocket.

 

“Aha!” Wynonna crowed. Nicole looked nothing short of bewildered when Wynonna kissed the top of, not only Waverly’s head, but Nicole’s too. She raised one fist in victory and then went back to tending the fire like nothing much had happened.

 

Nicole touched the top of her head, then turned to Waverly with a consternated kind of look. “What’s happening?”

 

“Wynonna wants to stay with us between jobs.”

 

“I thought I was being recruited,” Nicole puzzled.

 

Waverly shrugged. “In a way. I think most of her friends and family get that sense too.”

 

“Am I her friend now?” Nicole wondered.

 

Waverly chuckled and watched while Wynonna pulled the still flaming end of a branch from the fire and waved it around so the sparks lit and popped in the warm night air. She vaguely wondered if their house would be set ablaze.

 

“Oh, much worse. I think you’re her family now.”

 

Nicole sighed heavily, stroking over Waverly’s knuckles. “This is what I get for marryin’ you, huh?” She teased. “If I’d have known…”

 

“Well, it’s too late: you’ve already purchased me. And at a bargain, I’d say.”

 

“Yeah?” Nicole’s eyes reflected a small spark from the fire when she turned to smile widely at her. She reached out and pulled the entirety of Waverly’s chair closer with her in it - just by the arm until they were as close as they could get. Nicole leaned their temples together, speaking low in her ear. “And what’s it going to take to get rid of your wayward sister tonight so we can have some alone time?”

 

Waverly giggled, hushing Nicole lest her sister find reason to suddenly pay attention to them. Again, it was too warm to pull a person so close, but she just couldn’t help herself. “Oh, I’ll do anything for you, cowboy. For the right price.”