The heaviness of the door forced her from her slumber. Her heart, the same steel weight. Her slumber, a constant loop of nightmarish hell, the kind to keep her slashing and kicking and cursing all night for it to end. Her slumber, a nightly torture. A reminder of what she lost. What she had.
The memory of a little girl she used to hold close, closer than those in her circle already small. Memories she tried to create, of what could’ve been. What she begged and begged to happen. Memories of what actually happened.
Horizontal planks placed over the vertical steel bars made the room dark. They had power—fussy at times, but power was a miracle not to be taken for granted—but she so rarely used it. Couldn’t look at herself. Couldn’t look at the little bed across the way from her. Empty. Always, always, fucking empty.
Waking quickly, panicked, she searched around as reality surged into her, a cold sweat consuming her while she tried to gather an understanding. Another being was in the room, standing at the door. She slumped back down with a sigh, running her shaky hands across her face. Her elbow knocked over an empty liquor bottle. Last night’s dinner.
“Sorry,” the other entity spoke, “didn’t think you were sleeping.” They approached slowly, cautiously. “Haven’t seen you all day. Just checking to see if you’re alright, Earp.”
By now reality was set in full, and suddenly she was springing up from the couch she lay, grabbing for proper clothes. “Oh, shit, my shift.”
The other raised a hand, a gesture enough to make her stop her frantic movements. “It’s okay. Dolls covered for you. Don’t worry about it, Wynonna.”
Wynonna Earp fell on her back again. A frustration to her. The usual frustration she’d recently become known for. “Great, because I haven’t piled enough on that man already. Why didn’t you come get me, Nicole?”
Nicole Haught was crossing her arms, amused with the stubbornness of it all. “I did. Twice. But you were not budging . You said you didn’t want to be bothered today, remember?”
Wynonna looked down, into her lap. “Right.”
Nicole read the new energy pouring in, the only kind acceptable for today, and stepped closer, mere inches away now. The amusement to her disappearing. “ Are you alright?”
“No.” Easy answer, one that required no thought and no reasoning. Nicole understood. If she were Wynonna, she’d surely have fallen apart by now, twice over.
“I’m sorry,” she offered, and Wynonna nodded in numb absence. Nicole respectfully removed her hat, fingers toying with the rim. The accessory, a solid black stetson, was uniform around this place for the part she played in it every day. “Waverly come see you today?”
Wynonna’s eyes moved from blankly staring at Nicole’s toes, upward. “She tried, but I wouldn’t let her in. I can’t take another ‘we all love you and care about you’ speech. Not today. I think I’ll just wait her out.”
Nicole laughed, once again at the ridiculousness of the idea. “Yeah, good luck with that. But she is busy today, so maybe it’ll work.”
“That why you’re bugging me, Sheriff?”
Nicole rolled her eyes at that title. “I really wish people would stop calling me that.”
“Well, you serve justice to evildoers, don’t you?”
Suddenly, Nicole fell serious a moment. “I’d hardly call what we do ‘justice’. It’s just plain cruel.”
“ They’re cruel. They took two of our own, two of my —” Wynonna stopped herself. Shaking her head. “I’m—I’m getting dinner.”
“A bottle of whiskey or real dinner?”
“I don’t know yet. I just don’t—I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think about her.”
She motioned Nicole along, knowing well that tired look on her sister-in-law’s face meant she came straight here after work. Long day, no doubt. These days Nicole Haught was the busiest person here, in the prison dubbed “Sanctuary” by Wynonna herself. Not far off from the actual name, Eden. Believed to be a sanctuary, either way. Up until recent, it truly was.
Wynonna was quick to move. The smiles, the stares, the condolences and sympathies—all too much. Just too damn much. Today, more than ever, she craved isolation. Silence. Too much whiskey for her liver to possibly handle. Just her, the food on her tray she wasn’t going to touch, and some peace.
It all went according to plan until her epic, swift exit back to her room was interrupted, when she came face-to-face with someone she only seemed capable of letting down repeatedly. Someone she betrayed. Someone who loved her too much to care how she betrayed him.
She was frozen, a deer in headlights before Xavier Dolls and his impossibly gentle smile. The only one around here she didn’t want to smack off. Because it made her want to burst into tears and beg him to find the person he deserved to be with. Someone who deserved the wonderful smile on his wonderful face.
“Evening, Earp.” He was first to break this awkward silence, and Wynonna was thanking the gods. And cursing them, because she didn’t want to talk to him right now. Or ever, perhaps. She did not have the right to talk with him, and he shouldn’t waste his time on her. There was only so much time to lose in a person.
“Hi,” she said in reply, foolishly, rather than follow her instinct of rushing off without a word. Wasn’t too late yet, was it? (Oh, but how she wanted to stay.)
“Hi.” Wynonna could die with that look he gave her. The one reserved only for her.
“How—How’re you—How’ve you been?”
He shrugged. “Just a little tired.”
Wynonna nodded, fingers tapping at the tray in her hand. One bumped into the fat pile of mashed potatoes. “So you—Um, thanks for taking my shift. I really appreciate it. I know people are up in arms about me not pulling my weight.”
“You shouldn’t listen to them, especially today. Today’s hard. Three months now?”
Her nerves left for sadness. “Yep. First birthday without her. She would’ve been—” Wynonna stopped herself. Not going down that dangerous road right now, certainly not in front of Dolls and in front of everybody and their fruitless sympathies. “Y’know, I gotta—gotta go.”
Dolls stopped her, his hand gently gripping her shoulder. “I’m here if you need me.”
She teared up at that. It was exactly what made this so difficult, so awful, so messed up. “You always are. Even after I—”
“I don’t care about that.”
Wynonna felt her throat tighten, enough to choke her. Difficult, awful, messy. “Yes you do. You’re just too polite to do something about it.”
She easily resumed her escape after that, not bothering to look back on Dolls. If she did, she might’ve turned around.
He watched her go, let her go, his free hand closing around the chain on his neck. Keeping a precious ring on his person forever.
Every cell in the prison was converted into a comfortable living space. A home. Walls were knocked down to create a fairer-sized space for one person to whole families. Prison cell toilets relocated to the new and remodeled community bathrooms. Materials from the broken walls were used to rebuild more in open spaces of the facilities. All former prison cells were decorated like the homes they were, with a new coat of paint, a few handmade crafts for decoration, and furniture imported from the big city about half an hour away by horse.
The least cell-looking room in the three-story building was the residence of the Haught family, holding just two people. Room for more, if the future called for it.
Currently, Nicole Haught was asleep at the home’s work desk, papers piled high. Two food trays, empty, on her left. Stetson tossed somewhere else. Her head resting on her left elbow, right hand in her busy wife’s left from where she sat across. Plowing through the papers, smiling at Nicole between.
She paused when Nicole’s finger began tracing patterns on the back of her hand, back and forth until meeting the ring on her finger. A family jewel, passed down for its first time.
“I know your job is important,” Nicole mumbled, voice hoarse in her waking, “but it’s so boring.”
Waverly Earp-Haught was smiling at her, as she always seemed to be. “I could tell from your snoring.”
“Sorry.” Nicole moved to stretch, first kissing Waverly’s hand. Warm. Soft, as always.
“Rough day, baby?”
“Dolls was on the same time as me, so we patrolled the outer perimeter together. Like you said: we haven’t really been spending time together lately. We needed that patrol, honestly.”
Waverly smirked, smug. “I told you.”
“Yeah, yeah. Then some traveler snuck up on us and made off with Dolls’s precious flamethrower, so I chased him down. Didn’t seem dangerous, didn’t try to kill us, so I let him go. He was just some scared kid. Ran for the hills.”
“My poor, brave baby.” Waverly pouted sarcastically. “See? I told you Nedley picked you for a reason. I think he likes you more than his own daughter.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. When we used to patrol, I mostly handled the action for him. I think it made him lazy. No wonder he promoted me; I bought his affection.”
“Or he knew you’d make a great sheriff.”
Nicole shook her head. Made a face. “I really wish everyone would stop calling it that.”
“Well, you have to call it something other than ‘person in charge’.”
“Okay, what about ‘Captain’ or ‘Commander’?”
“It’s basically the same thing. Right? You make sure everyone keeps it together here, and you keep bad people from breaking in and causing trouble. And you’re in charge of the other ‘officers’. Sounds like a sheriff to me.”
“You forgot the part where we unleash a firing squad on wrongdoers instead of jail time.”
Waverly shook her head. “It’s too risky, baby.”
“We’ll keep them somewhere else. Or drop them somewhere. Dolls’s execute-and-loot practice is harsh.”
Waverly took her hand, a deep care and understanding in the look she was giving Nicole. Nicole, and her endless pool of empathy in a world quickly losing its own. “He knows that. Everyone does. No one likes it, especially those with hearts as big as yours.”
Nicole shot off a flustered simile.
“But that’s our world now, isn’t it?” Waverly paused. “Unfortunately.”
“If only the Fireflies hadn’t stopped looking for a cure. Maybe the world would be back on track, by now. Assuming something like a cure would actually fix things.” Nicole exhaled.
Waverly cleared her throat. A strange uneasiness seemed to wash over her as she retreated her hand and awkwardly shifted in her seat. Nicole wasn’t sure what to think of it.
“Uh,” Waverly moved to change the subject, “did you see Wynonna today? I’ve been so busy. I’m just happy Jeremy found and restored that copy machine, it’d be way worse with it; making copies by hand for so many kids is awful. ”
“She just went to get dinner. Real dinner.”
Waverly exhaled. “That’s a relief to hear. Assuming she actually eats. I’ll try to stop by later.”
“Today’s her birthday. Can’t be easy.”
“Mama and Alice, on the same day. Doc leaving, right after Alice was born.” Waverly’s head lowered. “It’s just not a good day.”
Nicole caught the falling expression on her wife’s face and grabbed her han d, grounding. “I’m so sorry. I knew they were going out. I should’ve sent someone with them.”
Waverly looked into her eyes. “It’s not your fault. It’s that stupid Clootie family and their followers.”
Nicole sighed at the name. Awful, relentless people, they were. “I wish they’d let up. They’re desperate to take this place, and at the rate we’re losing people I doubt we can hold it for much longer.”
Waverly was leaning forward a bit, hope to her eyes now. “We have Nedley running this place, Dolls running the attack squads, and the world’s best sheriff on defense. I think we’re here to stay. This is just a rough patch. They’ll let up, eventually.”
Nicole found the optimism hard to take, but appreciated it either way. This family, the Clootie family, were terrible people. Terrible, relentless people with an even worse set of followers. Michelle, as head of the prison, dealt with them for years before they eventually managed to kill her. The one and only time she let her guard down, going on a picnic with her granddaughter. Nedley, as her replacement, was the unlucky asshole who inherited the mess. As were Nicole and Dolls.
The Cult was organized, smart, strong, and determined. Attacks were random and unpredictable. Small groups every time, usually small enough to escape after taking down one or two of Nicole’s men. Thing was, one or two each time added up.
Lately the cultists were getting bolder and bolder. Killing more men. Kidnapping some and sending back their severed heads. Hanging their corpses from their camp like decoration. Nicole’s deepest fear was waking one morning to no other guards. Losing this place. Losing her family.
So she leaned in, Waverly meeting her halfway, and kissed her partner for life, one exchange she prayed would last forever, a second following because damn was it hard to stop. Even after five years together.
And she knew Waverly felt the same. That look in her eye when she glanced to their bed, then to Nicole, then down to the papers on her desk. Raising her eyebrows in a pleading way.
“One quick one?”
Nicole laughed. “Don’t you have papers to grade? Kids to teach reading to? Occasionally explore some history?”
The way Waverly was eyeing her was dangerous; a look that could do anything. “There’s only one part of history I’d like to explore right now.”
Nicole sighed in surrender. Not that she had much of an argument. “You’re terrible.”
And then cursed, because someone knocked on their door. Some very rude person with no respect for private time.
“If Lonnie lost his gun again,” Nicole grumbled, “I swear I’m kicking him out.”
“He should really be on farming duty,” Waverly agreed.
“No, we tried that. Remember those really small potatoes?”
“Those were cute!”
“They were wasteful. Certain people were angry.”
The knocking on the door continued, and with it Nicole groaned.
“I just got off my shift. Am I in Hell? Is that what this is?”
She looked over to Waverly, who smiled sympathetically.
“No, can’t be. There’s an angel.”
Dolls was standing on the other side of the door, not the faintest hint of a smile to him. Then again, he wasn’t the smiling type to begin with.
Next thing Nicole knew, not even two hours after her last shift ended, she was being dragged off to do more work. They needed to change their patrol routes. Again. Last time they changed it was to adjust the patrol group sizes. That stupid cult, taking them out one by one by the day.
They met with a new warden in a new office. Randy Nedley replaced Michelle Gibson—recently changed from Earp, the more and more stories she heard about her ex-husband’s failures to keep his children safe—but took a new office. After her death, moving all her things out felt wrong. Rude. Like they were erasing her memory.
By now they should’ve been experts, but it still took an hour to redraw the routes. Taking a risk by leaving less security by the main gate. It was a heavy gate, and the usual crowd was typically small. More people needed to be out in the field, patrolling. The risk had to be taken. That, or those who posed as normal, old-world civilians all these years were suddenly going to get thrust back into the battlefield via draft.
Waverly was one of those people. She hadn’t touched a gun in five years. Nicole was not letting that happen. Waverly was perfectly happy being a teacher, and Nicole intended to keep things that way.
It took another hour to gather off-shift patrols and explain their routes, then instruct the current patrols of what they’d be doing next rotation.
“Why even have routes, at this point?” Someone whined. “Let’s just free-for-all, the way you guys change your minds.”
“It’s the most strategic way,” Nicole defused. Tried to defuse; most didn’t care for it, given the giant, collective groan.
“Or you could abandon your post and get dozens of innocents killed, if you prefer.” Dolls was not as nice as her. More direct. Less caring of who liked him and who didn’t.
The person he learned this mentality from, Wynonna Earp, pulled Nicole aside after the final meeting. She had her own ideas. Her own ways of getting rid of the people who killed her mother and her daughter.
“There’s only one way to stop these cultist assholes, Haught, and you know it.”
Nicole was too tired for another pitch, so she was furious with herself for motioning Wynonna to go on.
“We need to invade their camp. We destroy their homes, kill their families. We just wipe them off the fucking map!”
The fact she was drunk did not help to buy Nicole’s support.
“Come on, Haught. They’re killing us. They’ve been killing us for a long time. Let’s just end this, already.”
Nicole was neutral. Calm. Uncaring, for the idea. “I think it’s today and you’re feeling hurt.”
“Oh, come on—”
“We’re not doing that. We can’t move a squad out of here and leave a giant opening—”
“Then we leave all those outsiders behind! It’ll just be us! Like the old days. The old team—we crossed a whole country by ourselves! It’s how we got here in the first place! We can kill a few delinquents!”
Wynonna shoved Nicole, before walking off. Adding, in Nicole’s face, whiskey laced strongly with the words, “So is letting the people you love die.”
She was sick and tired of the sympathetic looks. The apologizes. The reminders it happened.
Any time the Cult was so much as mentioned. Any time someone walked by with their own kid. Any time Wynonna breathed, there was the fucking sympathy.
She didn’t want sympathy. She wanted her daughter back.
She wanted the Cult of Bulshar and the Clootie family, their beloved ringleaders, to die. She wanted every single one of them to die, the same way they slaughtered a three year old girl.
Wynonna pushed past all the sad eyes and all the sad whispers, her gear in hand, and left the prison through the farms in the back. The concrete of an old prison yard, dug up and turned into a condensed farming space. It was a miracle anything even grew there. Wynonna wondered how long they would have it before the Cult took that, too.
The Cult of Bushar were not new to the area. Were not new to the prison. The worst part about Michelle’s death was the fact she was murdered by the people she was trying to eradicate.
They were a gang of purists. Rough initiations. Doing things, in the name of God. Reciting all the Bible verses they could remember. Killing those who did not fit their perfect world. The Infected, to them, were God’s abominations; those who defied His word, turned into monsters. They wanted to take the prison, because the prison was a secure, luxurious paradise to operate from. The damn thing was even called Eden by its residents. The perfect place for children of God to rest their heads while they worked hard to shape the world to the image of perfection.
Normally Wynonna rolled her eyes at post-apocalypse cults. There were plenty to go around, each with their own unique take. But this one, this Cult of Bulshar, this Bulshar Clootie and his family—they were no joke.
Standing here, in the middle of an endless field, staring at a grave too small, Wynonna knew, for certain, these people were no joke.
Standing here, as her peers died one by one, week after week, day after day, she knew, for certain, these people were no joke. They were going to take her home. They already had a small bite of her family. They were going to take the rest, too.
Forget Nicole. She was doing this, herself. She was killing the Cult, with her own hands. Nobody would die the way her Alice Michelle did. Never again.
“Wynonna, what’re you doing out here by yourself?”
She was furious to turn and find Waverly. Out here, in the open. Dolls had escorted her, too. Two people Wynonna cared about, out here in the open like a couple of morons.
“Get back inside,” Wynonna snapped.
Waverly did not flinch. Waverly was as stubborn as every Earp to ever walk the planet. The only reason she moved was to join Wynonna at the graves. The only reason Dolls backed off was because Waverly asked him to.
“I hate that he helped you with this.” Wynonna’s eyes did not leave Dolls. Walking away, his head not on a swivel but on the ground. Thinking. He was a thinker.
“I hate that you came out here by yourself,” Waverly snapped back. “I also hate that you don’t trust him—”
“I trust Dolls, Waverly. That’s the problem! He trusts me! We were together and I cheated on him! I had someone else’s baby while we were engaged!”
Waverly was quiet. “You thought he was dead.”
“Yeah, and my grand solution to that was getting drunk and fucking Doc. Doc, the fucking traitor! Doc, the Cultist! A follower of Bulshar!”
At least they had something in common: things got hard, and Doc left. He left, everyone he cared for watching him walk away and betray them forever.
What a coward.
The fact Waverly was so calm and so kind was annoying. “He thought his wife was dead, Wynonna. And now she’s right there, right in front of him? If that happened to me and Nicole, I would’ve joined them, too.”
“He’s a coward, and if he walks through that gate, I swear I’ll—”
“I’ll kill him and every last one of his cult buddies. I will kill every last one of them.”
“You don’t mean that. You’re just—”
“No, Waverly.” She turned to her sister, her eyes leaving her daughter’s grave. “I mean that. If they’re a member of that cult, they’re on my list. I don’t care about Doc or his fucking wife. And while we’re at it, you can tell yours I’m actually making a difference, because sitting around isn’t doing shit.”
Waverly looked as if her heart was breaking. Then Wynonna implied Nicole was doing terrible and she immediately fell on the defensive. “Please don’t talk down on Nicole.”
“She’s getting us killed and she doesn’t care—maybe it’s time for some criticism.”
Waverly only stared, in hurt. It wasn’t the words. It was the person saying them. “You’re only saying that because you’re hurt. You don’t mean it. This isn’t you.”
Wynonna hated it when Waverly rationalized. It’s all she did when Alice died. Trying to fix everything. Trying to make sense of something that didn’t make sense. “She isn’t doing anything about this. Do you know how many times we’ve changed our patrol routes? Do you know how many people we lost last month? And the month before that? How many we’re totaling this month? She’s too soft. She’s letting this happen. Don’t defend her.”
“I’ll defend my wife as much as I want.” It took everything for Waverly not to raise her voice. “The same reason I put up with half the things you say—I love her.
“Believe me, Waverly, you can’t lie to someone you love. You’re holding the truth from her—”
“I’m doing it to protect her—”
“You’re controlling her life for your own gain. How is it I’m the sick one here?”
Waverly left her to her sulking. Maybe Wynonna would drink herself into a coma and wake up a better, nicer person.
She marched right into the prison, to one of the raised guard posts on the walkways of the walls that kept everyone protected, and kissed Nicole. Pulling her confused partner into a close hug.
“I love you, Nicole.”
“Um, I-I love you, too Wave.”
Putting her arm around Waverly, the one with a healed over bite mark. A tattoo of roses covering it, like nothing ever happened. Like Nicole Haught wasn’t immune to the virus that destroyed most of the world’s population. Like Nicole Haught wasn’t the answer to bringing it all back together.
“I think I’ve figured it out.”
“Because he’s a genius. Smartest guy in town.”
“With all the parts I’ve salvaged, I think I can make a running system—”
“Effing genius, man. Effing. Genius.”
“—that’ll stay running.”
Robin Jett was a find. The type of person with layered knowledge in things better used for trivia than actual use. Nice. Cheery. Best damn potato farmer in the settlement.
Most of all: he was Jeremy’s husband. After several months of flirting and clear connection, they only officially began their relationship after Waverly made the final push and “accidentally” had Jeremy put on farming duty.
Second of all: he was an extremely supportive individual. Tagging along and eventually lending a huge hand in planning the monthly salvage raids into nearby towns, just to help Jeremy get new tech and new tools.
All those salvage raids, all those tools, all that tech, broken down and remade, sitting around them in Jeremy’s office: a new security system. Cameras. A camera system, in the friggin’ apocalypse.
Dolls was impressed. Jeremy’s alarm-rigged spotlights were already a life saver. Now they could station hidden cameras out in the field. Be alerted long before Cultists and other bandits tried to take the prison. Have a heads up.
Lose a whole lot less people.
“Somewhere down the line, I might even be able to add turrets,” Jeremy added, grinning with pride at his creation and the open field of possibilities. “We’ll need an alternative to bullets, though. Bullets aren’t cheap. Or easy to find.”
Robin was staring at him, lost in a pride of his own. “Effing genius.”
“This is fantastic work, Chetri.” Dolls examined one of five cameras, turning it over gently. “We can test run it, whenever you’re ready. Is the live feed working, too, or does it need time?”
“Nope, that’s ready, too! Wanna know how it works?”
“Oh, no that’s—”
“So this part here . . .”
It was three minutes of technical talk Dolls could never hope to follow before Nicole knocked on the door and, quite frankly, saved the day.
“I’m out for the day. Need anything from me?”
She really hoped the answer was no. five minutes. Nicole just needed five minutes of nothing.
When Dolls motioned her over to check Jeremy’s finished project, she nearly groaned in exhaustion. Luckily it wasn’t too harmless. A summary of the tech, its use, a small demonstration. She liked it. It was a fantastic idea.
It was just the assurance she needed to get the whispers of Wynonna’s pitch out of her head.
She and Dolls walked out together. Dolls, to his shift. Nicole, to anywhere there wasn’t work for her. Then Dolls asked about Wynonna and she felt to pass out on the ground, right there.
“Has she been okay? I know yesterday was—Well, it was yesterday.”
“She got through it a lot better than I thought she would. Nobody got hurt, thankfully. I was hoping she wouldn’t turn up to her shift. Thanks for covering, by the way.”
“Anything for Wynonna. I just—” Dolls stopped, to exhale. Exhausted, in his own way, too. “I wish I could reach out to her. Preferably before she does something of the Wynonna value.”
Nicole had no plans to mention the kill-them-all pitch. Or her fear she’d actually go through with it, with or without help.
“She just doesn’t want to talk to me.”
It took a lot to break Xavier Dolls’s heart. “It’s not your fault, Dolls. She feels guilty about Doc. We all thought you were dead. We thought Clootie’s goons had you, for good. They don’t normally take prisoners, not for as long as you were gone.”
“I was too high a rank to kill.”
“And then Doc saw Kate helping you back and he left. I don't know why Kate would even stay with those assholes in the first place, but—Anyway, then she had Alice. And Alice wasn't yours. But you loved her like she was.”
“She was a part of Wynonna. Of course I loved her. I don’t care whether or not Wynonna cheated. I just want to help. I want her to be okay. I want her back.”
Nicole sighed. “We all want her back.”
Classes ran late. Older kids spent their mornings helping on the farm, and their afternoons learning to shoot. Ammo was in limited supply, so the best training they could get was by Nerf guns and an instructor pulling them after every shot to mimic the kick of a real gun. Newbie recruits were always entertaining to watch, during raids.
Waverly taught kids of all ranges. Higher level English to teens, who mostly questioned the need to be literate in a world like theirs, and lower levels to little kids who had more enthusiasm to learn. History, as well. Though she didn’t delve too deep into what the world used to be. Too depressing.
It wasn’t Nicole’s plan to step into a room full of moody teens, but she did. The kid in the back with their muddy boots atop their desk and I-really-don’t-care-about-this expression reminding her of a younger Nicole the same age.
“Looks like we have a surprise guest,” Waverly said. Setting Fahrenheit 451 aside for now. “Let’s give our Sheriff Haught a warm welcome, shall we?”
Scattered clapping. Couple yawns. Didn’t exactly make Nicole feel like a superstar. Same kid in the back, the perfect, spitting image of Teen Nicole, took the opportunity to point out the rumors about the Cult of Bulshar getting closer and closer to overthrowing the prison. If Waverly hadn’t set the book down already, she would’ve dropped the damn thing.
“Let’s not bother the sheriff about—”
Nicole stepped closer to the center of the room, where Waverly typically lectured. “We are currently in the process of installing a new security system. We’ll be putting five cameras with functional live streams around our perimeter, to help alert us when intruders step onto our territory. This system’s going to take us a long way. I assure you, everything is under control.”
Her mouth felt bland. Like she was telling lies. Even she wasn’t convinced by it.
Wynonna’s pitch echoed in her head. Was this really the best she could do for the people of Eden? For its children?
The teen in the back somehow managed to lean even further back in her chair, her head bumping against the wall. “Yeah, that’s what my parents say you government types used to tell them when things were going wrong.”
Waverly promptly dismissed class, early. Nicole made sure to wave goodbye to the moody teen. “Kids,” she laughed.
“Did you know her name is Hayley?”
Nicole turned to Waverly. “No way. That was my sister’s name! Before she changed it and turned into an asshole. Well, bigger asshole.
“It’s an older sister thing. They’re all jerks.”
Laughing, Nicole asked, “So you talked with Wynonna today, then?”
“Well, I intended to come over here and ask if you wanted to get an early dinner. Sorry I hijacked your class instead.”
“That’s okay.” Waverly indicated the book on her desk. “They weren’t feeling Ray Bradbury today.”
Nicole shook her head. “Their loss.” Such a thing earned her a kiss.
“To answer your question, though, I can’t make it. I have a meeting with Jackson Miller’s foster parents.”
“Jackson Miller. Is he that kid we found last month? Next to his dead parents?”
“That’s the one. He used to love reading, but even he’s falling behind in it. I’m worried about him. He’s only fourteen and he watched his parents die—that’s not easy.”
“No, it isn’t. Okay. I’ll go check up on Wynonna. Let me know how it goes with Jackson.”
“Meet you at home?”
“If Wynonna doesn’t tear my eyes out today.”
Nicole stopped to smile, like it was the first time Waverly ever told her. “I love you, too.”
There was a muttered, Please don’t be drunk before Nicole knocked on Wynonna’s door. For the sake of being polite. It was useless otherwise, because Wynonna never actually answered the door. But, she was usually too out of it to lock up.
Nicole couldn’t tell if that was the case today. She asked, twice, if Wynonna was up for dinner. No answer, twice. Just silent sitting. Staring at Alice’s empty bed, as if she were in a trance.
“Have you had time to think about my plan?”
In a snap, Nicole went from worried to annoyed. At least some hint of her old feelings for Wynonna were here. “I said no. It’s too r—”
The speed Wynonna stood and slammed a whiskey bottle against the wall actually made Nicole jump. “At some point,” she began, pointing an accusing finger at Nicole, stepping over to close a threatening distance, “you need to step up, Haught. You need to grow up. Things are getting worse and worse. Those assholes are killing us. Don’t you care about this town? Don’t you care? It’s only a manner of—”
“We are not doing this, Wynonna. We are not blindly charging into an enemy camp with a tiny team and marching to our deaths. We’re staying here, where we have backup and a defensive perimeter. The home field advantage is the best possible way to go. I’m sorry, but—”
“You’re not sorry. By now they know this place as a home of their own. And soon it’ll be their actual home.”
“I’m not letting you get killed by your own temper.”
Wynonna shoved Nicole. She wanted a temper? There it was.
“I’ll let you have that one,” Nicole threatened, and with the words Wynonna felt a need to do it again, “but not another. Knock it off.”
“Don’t you want a nice life with Waverly, Nicole? Don’t you want her to be safe?”
“Of course I do. It’s why I’m keeping us on defense! It’s why I work so god damn hard and it’s why I put up with your shit.”
“Oh come on, Wyn—”
“Get out. I don’t want killers in my home.”
Nicole grabbed Wynonna’s hands before Wynonna could shove her again. Shoved her back. “You’re no better than I am.”
“At least I’m honest about it.”
Wynonna had the last word of their argument, as Nicole chose to be the bigger person and walk away.
Nicole barely had enough time to recover, to even think about clearing her head, before she saw the people of her settlement running, in a panic.
Again. They were under attack again. With a tired sigh and a curse, she sprinted for the main gate.
The cultists were everywhere. Everywhere, like ants. It was abnormal, different from the usual, controlled, smaller groups. They were really trying today.
The settlement’s sheriff did not jump headfirst into the attack. She retreated into the prison. Jeremy wasn’t the only one with a work in progress.
“Rosita, are the bombs ready?”
It wasn’t unusual to see Rosita Bustillos, by herself, working past red, tired eyes, pushing her biochemistry degree to its fullest value. It was unusual, however, to see her moving in a frantic worry.
Even Rosita Bustillos was afraid for the future of Eden.
“Please,” Nicole begged, “tell me you have something ready for me. Anything. There are a lot of them out there.”
Rosita dumped an awful-smelling concoction into a flask. “How many?”
“A lot more than usual, maybe triple? I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know why there’re so many of them!”
“They know we’re getting weaker. I’d get used to this crowd, if I were you. However many of them make it out of here.”
“Assuming they’re the ones that’ll lose today.”
Rosita shoved something into Nicole’s hands. A shade of green so dark it was almost black. “Have a little faith, Sheriff.” She handed several more glass balls of dark green weirdness to Nicole. “Throw this into the larger crowds. Make sure none of our people are around.”
Nicole was already halfway out the door. “What does it do?”
“Basically, it’s poison gas. Don’t get anywhere near it!”
“Thank you, Rosita.”
“Go, don’t thank me!”
Not a soul was fighting the invaders on the ground. There were simply too many of them. Each and every one of Nicole’s “officers” of Eden retreated and lined up on walkways, poking their heads up and down from cover. She immediately saw someone shot, when she returned from Rosita’s lab. One of her people, not the assholes below. His friend calling out to him from down the line.
Pushing everything aside a moment, Nicole could admire the cultists’ bravery. Standing in the middle of a field, no cover, charging in with guns blazing. Like they were trying to be killed. Like they were asking for it. But with the speed they were shooting, it really didn’t seem that way.
Maybe it wasn’t blind stubbornness. Maybe it was desperation. A little trouble back at home? What was the sudden rush, otherwise?
No further time to speculate. She handed the bombs off to Dolls with a quick explanation, and straight away discussed the best places to drop them.
Two words in, someone else answered the question for them.
“The front gate! They’re going to break through the front gate!”
Nicole and Dolls rushed over without a second thought. Those assholes, those smart ass little assholes, were keeping the guards’ attentions somewhere else. Multiple somewhere elses. A big chunk went and attacked this corner. Another, over there. A small group sniped at walkway patrols and kept them pinned and distracted. All the while a smaller, quicker group was trying to charge the gate. Explosives in hand.
Nicole dropped two of the bombs below. Shooed Dolls to another one of the groups, wherever they were bunched up.
She watched, in nervous terror, as each and every one of the afflicted choked to death on their own, closing throats. They were so close to the main gate. They were so close to blowing it open, like it was nothing. Charging further inside. Dropping more of their explosives.
Taking the whole prison, on her watch.
Nedley would never let this happen. Michelle would be disappointed.
Waverly would be dead.
Nicole caught a glimpse of Wynonna, where she was stationed across the way. Staring, right back at Nicole.
Her expression, like her pointing finger earlier, accusing.
They used up all of Rosita’s bombs and spent a lot of ammo, but they managed to survive. Barely.
Things ended with a handful of Eden guards, finally risking the dangers of taking the battlefield by foot. Some of the cultists made off, with two of their horses. The assholes killed four more, just for the sake of screwing the whole settlement over.
Nicole was on her own copper mare, Penny, but she did not return to the prison as quickly as she rode off. Penny, probably catching her breath. Nicole, lecturing herself on everything that went wrong.
Wynonna’s pitch echoed in her mind.
Truly, what was Nicole doing to stop these invasions? Was sitting back on defense really her best strategy? How many people died today? How many more people were going to die, by the end of the week?
Never had anyone gotten so close to the main gates. Never, had they been taken by such surprise. The cultists knew how low on numbers Eden was. Today was supposed to be the final strike, wasn’t it? They weren’t supposed to make it today, were they?
Back at the stables, not yet fully inside, Nicole jumped off her horse to meet Waverly. Waverly, armed with the shotgun she hadn’t touched in five years and looking around for Nicole in a horror. Nicole pulled her in for the longest hug of their lives.
And behind them, Wynonna was watching. Shaking her head.
Her plan echoed in Nicole’s mind.
Four horses killed. Two stolen. Six guards killed. Four more, injured.
They redrew the routes again.
Nicole, hearing Wynonna’s pitch over and over.
She wasn’t doing enough.
When she finally got home for the night, she slammed her sheriff’s hat on the ground and cursed.
She cursed again. “I’m sorry, Wave, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Come here, baby.”
Nicole dropped her gear right off her waist, placed her handgun on the nightstand, and settled behind Waverly. Breathing her in, trying to shrug the whole day off.
“Are you alright?” Waverly took Nicole’s hand. Nicole squeezed in return.
“Just tired.” There was a pause so long, Waverly thought Nicole had dozed off. “How was your meeting?”
She felt Waverly shift. Let go of Nicole’s hand and looked over her shoulder. “Are you awake? Like awake awake?”
“Yeah.” It was a lie, of course, but right now, after everything, all Nicole wanted to do was listen to Waverly’s voice.
She didn’t think anything of it. Then Waverly left the bed to turn on the lights and returned with a serious face, and suddenly Nicole wanted to leave for a coffee.
“Gil didn’t want to talk to me about Jackson’s schoolwork. Well, not technically, he—Gil’s been looking for stable families for all the foster kids he has. Parents to give them their full attention.”
Nicole sat up.
“He—” Waverly smiled so large— “wanted to know if we were interested in adopting Jackson.”
Nicole no longer needed the coffee.
Her silence was killing Waverly. “Do you—Do you want to have a son, Nicole?”
For a moment Nicole was frozen. The next, she was laughing joyously and pulling Waverly into a giant hug. “I would love to have a son with you.”
Waverly held her tighter. “Let’s have a son, then.”
Like a demon or a curse, Wynonna’s words echoed in Nicole’s head.
She was going to raise a kid, in a place that was falling apart.
She couldn’t protect her own people, never mind a kid.
Waverly said Jackson’s foster parents wanted to meet them at the end of the week, when they both had a day off fully invest into the transition.
One week. Nicole had one week to fix this. One week, to eradicate the Cult.
First thing in the morning, earlier than the sun, Nicole knocked on Wynonna’s door. Politely. Before bursting in, rudely.
One minute Wynonna was cursing her out. The next, for the first time in a long time, smiling.
“I’m in. Just you and me. Anyone else will try to stop us.”
That’s where Wynonna smiled, because that’s where she realized she’d won.
“We’re leaving now, before the next shift starts. Before the skeleton crew sizes up. We can sneak out. Are you ready?”
Wynonna grabbed her weapon from the table next to her. Peacemaker, loaded, safety off. “Oh, Nicole, I’ve been ready for this for a long time."