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December - Open Range Hearts

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The color of Nicole’s breath drifting up into the atmosphere matches the ground cover that greets her in the early morning hour. She blows on her hands as she admires the way a pristine white blanket extends across the land.  The mountains rise out of the snowy landscape, grey and white figures reaching for the sky.  She’s reluctant to take the first steps away from her cabin, wanting to preserve the beautiful yet austere sight before her for just a moment more.

With a final glance across the land she forces herself to move. As soon as the snow closes in around her lower calves she gets over her hesitation to leave and strides towards the barn. Her boots and wool socks offer protection from the elements, but she knows it’s only so long that they can fend off the creeping grip of icy cold.

She could leave this particular job to one of the boys. Fish would have given her a smile and a salute if she asked him last night to take care of it. Dolls or Doc might have given her a hard time, each in their own way, before agreeing to the task, but it would have been nothing more than friendly ribbing.

No, Nicole isn’t doing this because she has to, she’s doing it because she wants to.

A smile curls her lips as she enters the barn, despite the cold and early hour.  Her attention zeroes in on a tarp covered mound.  The tarp kicks up hay and dust when she pulls it off, and she’s thankful the smell of the mixtures is not nearly so pungent right now as in the summer months.  There’s a four-wheeler sitting there, its half-sized plow attached to the front ready for the job that beckons her.

The muted sound of hooves against the hay-lined floor draws her gaze away. She smiles at the look she gets from the softest pair of brown eyes on Earp Ranch that don’t belong to a human. She ambles over to give a reassuring rub along the horse’s velvety nose. “Not this morning, girl. I appreciate your eagerness though.” The horse blows air out at Nicole, lips flapping with the action. Nicole has the distinct impression she’s telling her to get a move on and open the gate to saddle her up. She chuckles, giving a firm pat to the horse’s neck. “I swear, Dusty, you are the second most stubborn girl on this ranch.” A half second pause occurs before she amends her statement. “Well, third, actually. There ain’t no stubborn like an Earp stubborn, but you come close.”

Dusty nudges her in the shoulder with her head before turning away for her water trough, completing the move with a glorious head toss that flicks her mane to the other side of her head. Yeah, Nicole is definitely going to have to take her out for a ride later today.

There are plenty of horses on Earp Ranch, all extremely well trained for ranch life. Nicole’s ridden most of them in her time here, but something special developed with Dusty from the start. She came to them during the last summer, when it became clear another one of their horses was closer to retirement than they originally thought. They found a good home for him to live out his days on a farm a couple towns over. The owner’s granddaughter had smiled in excitement when he was delivered, and Nicole felt secure in the knowledge that he would be well taken care of.

Nicole wouldn’t quite classify her first meeting with Dusty as love at first sight. No, she has a new appreciation for that concept thanks to Waverly, but there was something to the way the horse seemed to single Nicole out with her stare as soon as she trotted off the cart that transported her. Nicole was the one to take her on the first ride around the land and test her around the cows.  Their bond was cemented after that, and while there wasn’t any official designation, there was a silent default agreement that when it came time to saddle up, Nicole was taking Dusty.

Feeling properly dismissed by her noble yet temperamental steed, Nicole turns back to the task at hand. She claps her gloved hands together, rubbing them in anticipation. Thank god no one is around to see her and her child-like excitement.

The world is just about fully illuminated now, and Nicole doesn’t feel a bit of remorse when she fires up the engine. Hours are always more lax in the midst of winter, but when there’s work to be done, there’s work to be done. And this work, Nicole thinks as she accelerates out of the barn and lowers the plow to start the clearing, is all hers.

They have an old beat up truck with a full-sized plow to get the snaking driveway that leads out to the road, and a tractor deals with clearing the way between barns, but Nicole gets to work on clearing the pathways between the main house and the cabins. On her final pass by she sees Shorty and Nedley on the front porch of the food hall both sipping from coffee mugs, having taken advantage of her snow clearing skills. She waves and gets nods in return, Nedley hiding a smile behind his mug.

Finally, only the path between the main house and her and Waverly’s cabin remains. For half a second Nicole considers not clearing the way, so Wynonna can’t pop in whenever she feels like it so easily, but she overrules herself. They have a good set-up. Sure, she could do with a few less interrupted kisses, but that would come with less whiskey toasts for her, and possibly less Earp sister laughs, and Nicole is not messing with either of those things.

She finds Waverly standing on their front porch, hands wrapped around a steaming mug that has the string from a teabag dangling over the side. She has on her boots adorned with giant pom pom balls that Nicole finds a little bit ridiculous, but a whole lot cute.  The sight inspires her to put the four-wheeler in park and cut the engine, her breath billowing out into the air.

Cold?” Waverly asks, eyebrows raised.

Nicole shakes her head slowly, eyes focused intently on Waverly. “Not anymore.”

A smile splits across Waverly’s face, but she’s counteracting it with an eyeroll. “Quite the line.”

Nicole ducks her head, giving it a little nod while she chuckles. She peaks back up with one eye scrunched. “But it’s true.”

Waverly’s eyes are soft as she takes a sip from her mug. The ring on her hand sparkles in the sunlight, and Nicole’s stomach does the little flip it always does when she realizes this girl agreed to share a lifetime with her.

Something mischievous glints in Waverly’s eyes, but Nicole doesn’t process it fast enough in her state of reverie.

The ice-cold projectile exploding against her neck yanks her out of that real fast.

What the hell?!” She grabs at the spot where the cold, wet remnants drip down, turning her head in time to see Wynonna launch a second snowball at her. This one she has time to deflect with her hand.

Boo, you whore, way to ruin my fun.” Wynonna calls.

You are such a child.” Nicole grumbles as she climbs off the four-wheeler.

Wynonna shrugs, not bothering to dispute the statement. “Waves thought it was funny.  Didn’t you, baby girl?”

Nicole squints her eyes at the way Waverly is still conspicuously hiding behind her mug. She flicks her eyes to Wynonna and then back to Nicole, clearly unsure who to back. Finally, she jerks her shoulders up a millimeter. “I mean, it was kind of funny?” Nicole is reminded that Waverly may be the love of her life, but that doesn’t mean she’s above Earp antics.

Is that so?” Nicole asks, though she’s not really upset. Well, not much, but she has to give a little bit of a show.

Maybe if you stop sulking I could be persuaded to help you dry off.” She smirks at the way Nicole freezes on the spot.

On cue, the retching noise behind them reminds Nicole they are not alone.

Listen, my therapist says it’s damaging to my psyche to hear about your little sexcapades, so I’m gonna go back to my place.”

Waverly’s brows knit together. “You have a therapist now?”

Wynonna waves a hand at the question. “More like a sparrow that likes to sit on my railing and stare at me in judgement when I day drink, but same difference.”

Nicole drops her head back between her shoulders, letting out a sigh loud enough both sisters can hear. “Please go away now.”

Don’t get your panties in a twist.” Wynonna tells her, kicking the snow around her as she starts to walk away. “Or do, but for fuck’s sake, don’t tell me about it.”

Nicole lowers her head back down to shoot an exasperated look at Waverly, but she’s already moving for the front door. She looks back over her shoulder with an arched-brow and Nicole swears her eyes could melt every bit of snow around them.

Coming?”

Nicole doesn’t need to be asked twice. She’s up the steps following after Waverly’s giggle in an instant, already unzipping her jacket before she’s through the door.

*****

His feet were moving, what are you blind?!” Nicole yells at the tv. “That’s not a charge. How the hell can he call that a charge?” She asks Wynonna incredulously.

Get some glasses, ref.” Wynonna responds, though she doesn’t have more than a basic knowledge of the rules. She throws a handful of pretzels at the tv for good measure, which bounce off the screen and find themselves on the floor. She manages to at least fake a level of sheepishness when Nicole raises her eyebrows at her. “Yeah I’ll pick those up later.”

The clock on the wall tells Nicole it’s after nine, which means Waverly could be home any time now. Although her monthly get together with Chrissy sometimes runs late, Nicole isn’t taking any chances. She starts to tidy up the beer bottles and attempts to collect some of the random bits of chips and pretzels that found their way to the floor between her flailing and Wynonna’s general mess of existence. She keeps her eyes on the screen as she grabs at some crumbs.

Haught-stuff, she’s just going to blame me for the mess.”  Wynonna waves a dismissive hand at Nicole’s attempts to clean up.  The comment earns her a glare. “Which I suppose might be a little accurate. But, take a load off, finish watching the game.” Wynonna props her feet up on the stone topped coffee table.

Nicole carries the bottles to the sink to start rinsing them. “Let me just take care of these and I’ll be back in a jiff, Boss.” She feels something hit her in the back of the head and finds a pretzel on the floor behind her. She sighs as she leans down to pick it up, tossing it in the trash on her way back to the couch. “Stop messing up my home, Boss.” She says it again as payback for the casual treatment of her house. She smiles into her beer bottle at the small shudder and strangled noise Wynonna lets out.

Yeah, well, laugh it up while you can, Chuckles, you won’t be able to use that atrocity much longer. But me,” she places a hand on her chest. “I get to call you Haught related names until the end of time.”

Nicole smirks. “I hate to tell you this, but me calling you Boss isn’t going away anytime soon.” She flips a pretzel at Wynonna and can’t quite hold back a chuckle when it bounces off her chest.  Extra clean up be damned.

Wynonna looks down at the offending projectile. “Boob shots are not cool, dude.” She picks it up out of her lap and pops it into her mouth. “And I hate to tell you this, but you can’t call someone else a Boss when you are also a Boss. There is very solid, made up logic about this.”

Nicole’s gaze turns quizzical. “I’m not following.”

Oh please,” Wynonna flips her off while she takes a pull from her beer. “Don’t play dumb just to get in a few more crack shots. A Co-owner equals a Boss, and a Boss does not get to call another Boss Boss.  Got it, Boss?” She ticks off on her fingers.

“What are you talking about?” Nicole asks, her voice gone flat.

Wynonna chuckles as she raises her beer bottle back to her lips, but her hand freezes halfway there. An impressive array of emotions flit across her face in mere seconds.  She ends on a look of quiet bravado, but Nicole can see the fear in her eyes as she licks her lips.

You’re fucking with me, Big Red, right?”

Even in the midst of her confusion Nicole takes the time to cross her arms and give Wynonna an indignant glare. “Don’t call me that. And no, I’m not fucking with you. So, again, what the hell are you talking about?”

The sound of Wynonna’s beer bottle clanks through the cabin when she drops it down on the coffee table. She stands abruptly as her eyes dart around the room, her head shaking in a weird impersonation of a bobblehead. “She’s going to kill me. Why didn’t she tell you?”

Who’s going to kill you, Wynonna?” Nicole asks as Wynonna starts to pace in the small living room area.

We talked about this weeks ago. Weeks. She was so excited to tell you. Wait–” She spins on her heel addressing Nicole again. “Did you do something to make her mad?”

Who?!” Nicole can’t keep the exasperation out of her voice.

Waverly! Wynonna yells back.

I don’t know. I don’t think so.  But I have no idea what’s going on. What if I did?” Nicole feels Wynonna’s panicked energy start to seep into her skin.

Wynonna is back to pacing again. “I swear to god, Poptart, if you made her mad and she changed her mind...” She trails off, the accusation rolling off her towards Nicole.

Wynonna, for the love of god, changed her mind about what?!”

Making you a co-owner!” Wynonna slaps a hand over her mouth, her eyes widening.

Nicole tilts her head to the side, not sure she heard Wynonna correctly.  “I’m confused.  It sounded like you just said something about me being a co-owner.”

Wynonna makes a muffled noise of affirmation, her hand still clamped over her mouth.

“Of the ranch?” Nicole asks, though she knows that’s implied. At Wynonna’s nod she blindly reaches out behind her to feel for one of the stools at the counter, slowly lowering herself down onto it.  “I don’t understand.” She manages to get out weakly.  “We never talked about that.”  She shakes her head, lifting her eyes back to Wynonna.  “We never talked about that at all.”

Clearly.” Wynonna mutters.

Her mind feels sluggish as Nicole fights to find some mental purchase again. “I don’t understand.  Why would she do that? Why would you want to do that?”

Nicole.” Wynonna says her name with equal parts exasperation and amusement. “You’re marrying into the family, what did you think was going to happen?

I’ve learned not to make assumptions when it comes to family.” Nicole mumbles towards the floor. She jerks her head up, eyes wide with the realization of what just came out of her mouth.

The V between Wynonna’s eyebrows is deep for a moment before everything in her face softens. “Nicole.” This time when she says her name it’s gentle.  There’s an understanding in her eyes that Nicole doesn’t feel ready to address, so she waves a hand to try to move them through the moment.  Her family history is not where she wants the focus of the conversation right now. “You and Waverly really discussed making me an owner?” She manages.

Weeks ago!” Wynonna exclaims, latching back onto the conversation immediately. “She wanted to tell you alone, which I was cool with, because I figured you were going to have a bunch of weird feelings sex after, and I do not need to be around that shit any more than I already have. But, clearly she didn’t tell you yet.” Wynonna trails off, her eyes going wide again. “Oh god, she’s going to kill me. Let’s pretend this never happened. Tonight was nothing but sportsing, lots of beer, and me being forced to pretend I like you as much as you like me. Okay?” She snaps her fingers at Nicole when all she gets is a blank stare.“Nicole! Waverly can’t find out I told you.”

Waverly can’t find out you told her what?” Waverly’s voice comes from the doorway.

Wynonna jumps so high in the air Nicole would find it impressive if it wasn’t for the situation. “Jesus Christ! I mean, it’s good to have you home, Waverly.” She attempts to save the moment, affecting a casual lean against the fireplace mantle, but instead manages to knock over a picture of her and Waverly in the process. She picks it up, wiping at it, even though there’s not a speck of dust to be found. “Would you look at that? All that sisterly love in a picture.” She waves the frame at Waverly. “A love that definitely keeps us from getting mad at each other and holding grudges.”

In different circumstances, ones where Nicole is capable of functioning like an actual human being, she might be highly amused by Wynonna’s deer in the headlights act, but she can’t quite get there right now.

What am I not getting mad about, Wynonna?” Waverly asks, her eyes narrowed.

Wynonna opens and closes her mouth multiple times, no sounds making their way out.

Waverly’s gaze darts to Nicole.  After taking in her state something seems to click into place. She drops her purse to the ground with a thud. “You told her?!”

I didn’t know that you were going to wait until you were both in the nursing home together!”

I was waiting for the right moment! How did you even end up telling her? Hey, Nicole, crack me another cold one. Oh, and by the way, we’re making you part owner of the ranch, congratulations! Insert snarky sexual innuendo to deflect from any real feelings.” Waverly finishes with a glare.

Wynonna balks. “Okay, one, that does not sound like me at all, work on your impressions. And two, she wouldn’t stop calling me Boss. You know I want to stick a hot poker in my eye when people call me that.”

In lieu of a response Waverly’s jaw flexes as she crosses her arms.

Something strikes Wynonna then, and she claps her hands together before pointing at her sister. “Now we’re finally even for that time in high school when you told Charlie White you saw me making out with Dustin Potter behind the bleachers. He broke up with me because of your blabbermouth!” Wynonna’s eyes drift off for a moment. “God, I have some patterns I should maybe think about some day.” A moment of silence passes before she shrugs it away.  “So, we’re good, right?”

Waverly takes a slow, deliberate breath, her shoulders rising and falling with the action. She rubs between her eyebrows with one hand while pointing at herself with the other. “I was eight, had no idea you and Charlie were, uh, dating,” She uses air quotes around the last word. “And yes, you should probably reflect on some bad life choices.” She looks at Nicole fully, her anger dissipating a bit at the sight. “Can we just passive aggressively drink about this later? I think we broke my fiancé, and there’s a slight possibility I might break you if you don’t leave now.”

Wynonna practically runs for the front door. “That is the best idea you’ve had in ages.” She stops in her tracks and spins around, taking the time to kiss Waverly on the head even though she tries to twist away, before grabbing another pretzel to shove in her mouth and beelining back to the door. “Always a pleasure, Haught-Dog!” She calls out before hastily making an exit.

Don’t slam the...door.” Nicole replies weakly, too late to stop Wynonna from doing exactly that. She feels like she’s moving at half speed when she turns her head to look at Waverly. “Hey.”

Hey.” Waverly’s reply is barely above a whisper.

Nicole takes in the scarf draped around Waverly’s neck, her jacket still done up at the buttons. She blinks once, twice, before feeling herself emerge from the fog. “How was dinner with Chrissy?”

Waverly crinkles her brow at the question, her hands starting the process of undoing the twist in her scarf to pull it off. “It was good.” She answers slowly. “She says hi, and that she hasn’t forgotten about when you said you’d be a volunteer deputy for the winter festival in January, so, don’t try to weasel out of that.” A small smile curls the corner of her lips as she hangs her jacket on one of the hooks by the front door. She kicks off her boots there as well, and Nicole marvels at her ability to get them perfectly aligned on the boot tray with just her feet.

I didn’t forget.” Nicole manages to get out, her eyes following Waverly’s feet as she steps back towards her. Her gaze makes its way up by the time Waverly is standing right in front of her, hands reaching out to cup Nicole’s face as she leans in for a soft kiss.

Good.” Waverly taps a finger against the end of her nose as she pulls back. “Because I think you’ll look cute in one of those highlighter yellow vests.”

Nicole rolls her eyes. “I am not wearing that thing. They can give me something else to show I’m volunteer law enforcement. Like, a cool hat or something.”

The ghost of a smile on Waverly’s lips deepens into something solid. “Okay.” Her tone is teasing, but the particular light in her eyes fades along with the smile as she regards Nicole in a more serious manner. “Are we going to talk about this?”

I don’t know, are we?” Nicole asks, and she doesn’t mean it in an unkind way, but Waverly takes a step back like the extra distance can buffer the perceived accusation. Nicole sighs, dropping her head down for a moment before finding Waverly’s gaze again. “Hey, I didn’t mean it that way, okay? I’m just a little taken aback.”

That manages to draw a small chuckle from Waverly, which Nicole is grateful for. “Yeah, I can tell. You were taking the thousand-yard stare concept to a whole new level. It was like, a thousand miles worth of stare.” She tucks a stand of hair behind her ear while shaking her head. “You seem to have rebounded mighty quick though.”

Nicole shrugs. “That’s me, able to Re in a single bound.”

The corner of Waverly’s eyes crinkle at the terrible joke, which, if she’s honest, was Nicole’s goal. Something about it warms her chest and puts her back on even ground.

Waverly reaches out a hand to her. “Come on, let’s talk.” She tilts her head to the couch, giving Nicole a reassuring smile. “Please.”

Nicole takes her hand, but instead of standing from the stool she pulls Waverly towards her for one more kiss, which turns into two. She lingers against Waverly’s lips for another moment. “Okay.” She finally whispers, pressing into a quick third kiss before standing and allowing herself to be led to the couch.

Waverly drops her hand, looking around for the tv remote before finding it shoved between two of the couch cushions. “Wynonna.” She mutters before freeing it from its prison and turning the tv off. She sets it on the coffee table and sits down, gesturing for Nicole to do the same, but indicating there should be a space buffer between them for now.

Nicole complies, sitting on the other cushion, one knee up on the couch so she can face Waverly, her arm laying across the back of the couch. With the tv off the only sound in the cabin is the occasional crackle of the fireplace, which still has a faint glow going from the last logs she added. She notices the way the toes of Waverly’s foot barely graze the ground with the way she sits, and she can’t help but find it cute, even as she watches Waverly visibly struggle with where to start. Her hands play with each other in her lap, an agitated air to the way she slides the ring on her thumb down towards the end and back again. Nicole is normally adept and all too willing to let Waverly work out what she needs to say in these moments before talking, but something about this is lodged uncomfortably in her chest and words topple out of her mouth before she can stop them.

You don’t have to do this, you know.”

Waverly blinks at her as if those were the last words she expected to hear. “I know I don’t have to.” She reaches up to squeeze gently at the hand Nicole has on top of the couch. “Nicole, I want to do this. So does Wynonna. Kind of enthusiastically. I was a little surprised at how fast she took to the idea.” She squints an eye. “Although she did tell me she would kick my ass if I told you that part.” She shrugs. “Too bad, turnabout is fair play.” Her gaze returns to Nicole, steady and sure. “Nicole Haught, we would like to officially, and legally, make you part owner of Earp Ranch. How do you feel about that?”

I–” Nicole starts, but she needs a moment to collect her thoughts. She takes a steadying breath and starts with the biggest question. “But what about the guys? Nedley and Shorty have been here forever, Doc and Dolls a long time.”

I’m not marrying any of the guys. Thankfully.” Waverly tells her, the corners of her mouth twitching.

I just mean, I’m the new kid in town, I don’t want to upset the hierarchy.”

The look Waverly gives is soft and the slightest bit humoring. “Babe, you are not the new kid anymore, you’ve been here a long time. And everyone thinks this is a great idea, we’ve already talked to them about it.”

You have?”

Yeah.” Waverly chuckles. “I really did wait awhile to tell you.” She points at Nicole. “Which is because I was waiting to do it at the right moment. Like Christmas, or maybe in a romantic moment. I don’t know, but Wynonna took care of that. Jerk.” She shakes her head. “Anyway, yes, it’s been talked about.”

And they weren’t upset?” Nicole asks, marveling at the fact that the guys already know about this. She’s going to cuff Doc upside the head for not saying anything the next time she sees him.

No, the opposite. You know you’re already pretty much the de facto head ranch hand around here, and have been for a while, right?”

Nicole shrugs. Sure, she’s been more involved with the planning, brought on Valdez when they needed new help, and she’s kind of been handing out assignments here and there recently, but she was just trying to be helpful. She gets the distinct impression that Waverly knows the path of her thoughts by the way she has her eyebrows raised, as if she’s waiting for her to get to the conclusion. She rubs at the back of her neck while trying to settle in with the idea. “I guess I kind of have been taking the reins a bit more, so to speak.”

Waverly smiles at the pun, and despite the fact Nicole feels like they still have so much to talk about, she can’t help but lean across the couch to steal a kiss. Waverly lets her, pressing back in for a few seconds before ending the kiss to press their foreheads together. Nicole finds her fingers toying with the strands of Waverly’s hair.

It’s probably a bad idea to put the rest of this conversation off for the night and make out with you in front of the fireplace instead, right?” She asks, only half kidding.

Waverly smiles, shaking her head against Nicole’s. “I don’t know that I would ever call that a bad idea,” She pulls back when Nicole starts leaning forward again. “But maybe we should hold off on that for about five more minutes?” She asks, hopeful.

Nicole makes a show of looking up at the clock. “Okay, five minutes. You’re officially on the clock.” She tells Waverly, giving her a lopsided smile.

Waverly smacks at her leg. “I’m serious.”

So am I, baby. Clock is ticking.” She raises her eyebrows and grins in a way she knows brings out her dimples.

Waverly sighs. “That’s not playing fair.” But she shuffles in a little closer on the couch, which Nicole takes as a victory. “What am I going to do with you? Besides make you part owner of the ranch.” A serious light comes to her eyes. “If you want that, of course. I don’t want you to do something just for me, not if you don’t really want it.”

There’s something in the way Waverly holds herself, how her eyes pass over Nicole’s face as she clearly looks for something, that pulls at Nicole. It hits her after a moment that Waverly might be more nervous and unsure about this than she is.  Waverly is just better at hiding it under a smile and cuteness that could charm a snake. She feels dense for not seeing it sooner. Waverly is looking at her as if she holds her heart in her hands, and might decide to crush it at any moment.

She takes both of Waverly’s hands in her own, pulling them into her lap and squeezing gently. Her thumb brushes over the ring she slid on Waverly’s finger when she proposed. “You’re my home, you know that, right?” She shakes her head. “I think this is probably more than I deserve, and it’s definitely more than anyone has ever given me, but, I would be honored.  If it’s what you really want.”

Waverly gently pulls her hands free, moving them up to Nicole’s cheeks to cup her face. “It’s what I want. And it’s nowhere near what you deserve, because you, Nicole Haught, deserve the world.”

You’re my world.” She mutters back, because nothing has ever been truer.

Waverly’s eyes flit back and forth between her own, her breath turning the tiniest bit uneven. “Are those five minutes up?” She asks, not bothering to break eye contact with Nicole to check herself.

“Close enough.”  Nicole tells her.

Waverly doesn’t wait a beat before moving towards her at the same time she pulls Nicole in. It’s something Nicole appreciated from the start, Waverly’s ability to go right in for what she wants without hesitation.

After a few blissful minutes that Nicole plans on revisiting later, she maneuvers them on the couch, so they can both lie together watching the final embers of the fire die. Waverly pulls the blanket laying across the back of the couch over them, resting her head on Nicole’s chest. “Thank you.” Nicole whispers, pressing a kiss into the top of Waverly’s head as she runs her fingertips up and down her back. She can feel Waverly’s lips curl against her shirt when she smiles.

You’re welcome, Boss.”

Nicole shakes with silent laughter as Waverly lets out a contented sigh, pressing herself into Nicole’s body more. “I don’t know what Wynonna’s problem is, I think I could get used to being called Boss.”

Waverly peaks up at her. “You could get used to it, huh?”

Well, at least by you. Only by you.” She amends when Waverly gives her a look.

Damn straight.” Waverly teases, and Nicole is pretty sure she’s never felt more content.

*****

An extra spring in her step has Nicole dangerously close to skipping right on into the barn. “Pull it together, Haught.” She mutters to herself, though it isn’t particularly effective at putting her in a more somber mood. Maybe slinging hay bales onto the back of the flatbed truck will do the trick. Loading up the truck and driving out to the winter pasture to add hay to the feed piles for the cows is her final task for the day, so she sets out with deliberate focus. After the first few bales it occurs to her she’s supposed to have help. Her frown hasn’t quite set yet when Doc saunters in.

Is this not to be our slow season, Nicole? I don’t see why you are moving with such haste when there’s so little to do.” His dimples deepen with a teasing grin.

Nicole smiles with him, because it’s impossible not to find humor in the idea. Most people assume Winter brings plenty of downtime on a ranch, but the tasks that fall away with the cold weather simply wind up replaced with others. Last week it was replacing the wood stove in the calf corral at the far end of the barn, and next week it will be cutting extra fence posts for repair work come the Spring. The work never really stops, but Nicole finds satisfaction in it.

They pass the time with idle chatter in between tossing hay bales onto the back of the truck. By the time the truck is loaded up, Nicole and Doc have discussed everything from the right way to make a holiday gravy to the idea of hiring a part time worker next Spring when Nicole is a little more distracted by wedding preparations.

If the help is a little less Dolls and a little more Valdez, then I am most certainly on board.” There’s a playfulness in his blue eyes as the corner of his mouth tugs up. “But I leave such decisions to upper management, of course.” He tells her with a wink.

Nicole stutters to a stop mid-stride to the truck. Waverly told her the idea had already been discussed with the other ranch hands, but it’s still an odd sort of experience hearing someone allude to it for the first time.

Doc must sense her unease, because he turns back to her with the truck door open, one foot in, leaning on the frame. “You coming along, partner, or am I feeding our livelihood myself?” His smile manages to be both playful and reassuring at the same time. Nicole nods her ascent as she wonders how exactly he does that.  Doc jerks his head back towards the steering wheel. “All right if I drive and you toss the bales? I would take on such an endeavor, but I know how you like to feel strong and productive.”

Nicole rolls her eyes as she heads for the passenger side of the truck. “Yeah, yeah, blame your abject laziness on me.” She turns to him as they both settle into their seats. “This is going in your performance review.” The chuckle Docs lets out puts Nicole more at ease, and she thinks maybe this whole thing is going to work out okay.

The ride out to the winter pasture is slow and steady. They follow along the tracks left from previous morning feedings until they reach the herd of cows, who show their approval of food arriving by plodding towards them. Nicole climbs out of the cab onto the foot rail and toes her way towards the flat bed in back, grabbing the bar on the side of the truck to swing herself up onto it. She won’t even pretend she feels like taking a tumble into the snow today, though she’s laughed off that mishap a time or two in the past. She throws the first two bales of hay off the back end before letting out a whistle and a circular motion with her hand in the air for Doc, who watches her progress in the rearview mirror. He starts driving at a slow, even pace and Nicole spends the next twenty minutes tossing out bales along the field, spread out enough for clusters of cows to press in on their meals throughout the pasture.

When the last bale is thrown she gives her well-worn leather gloves a yank back up her wrists, surveying the view before her. She’s thankful for both the expansive view of the mountain range before her and the layers of flannel and barn coat keeping her warm as she looks on. There’s something about this time of year here at the ranch that makes Nicole feel light. A lot of people think Spring is the season for eternal hope, but for Nicole, it’s Winter. Everything is barren and struggling in the cold, yet she feels the perseverance of nature all around her.

Doc sticks his arm out of the window of the truck and gives a light bang to the side of the door. “We gonna stay out here all day and freeze our britches off?”

Nicole chuckles as she reverses her actions from earlier, stepping off the flat bed onto the foot rail, grip firm on the bar as she swings the truck door open and climbs back in. She pulls her gloves off and blows on her hands as Doc cranks the window lever rapidly to close out the cold again. “I think we’ve got more pressing matters to attend to today.” Nicole tells him as they slowly drive out of the pasture, careful of any errant cows along the way.

With more exciting and enticing things on the horizon, it doesn’t take long to wrap things up when they get back. Nicole finds Waverly outside the barn when she and Doc part to clean themselves up for the day. She’s a pleasant sight to behold, all rosy cheeked and smiling in the winter sun. “Hey you,” Nicole greets her. “What are you up to?”

Waverly rocks up on her tiptoes to press a cold kiss to her cheek. “I’m heading into town to pick up a couple last minute supplies for tonight. Can you believe that Wynonna only bought canned cranberry sauce?” She says it like it’s the travesty of the century.

Nicole shrugs, not understanding the ferocity of her disapproval. “I’m kind of a fan, myself.”

Waverly sighs. “Thank god you’re cute, because with opinions like that it’s hard sometimes, you know?”

Mmhmm.” Nicole responds, her lips pressed together in a tight smile, trying hard not to laugh. “Well, I better take me and my crazy ideas on cranberry sauce to the shower. Unless you need me to help with something?”

No, I’m good.” Waverly presses another quick kiss to Nicole’s lips before heading off towards her Jeep.

Nicole makes it one step before something in her periphery lurches her to a stop. Her turn is almost comically slow as she tries to decide if she’s hallucinating or not. “Waves?” She calls out, assuming she’s still close enough to hear. Waverly makes an inquisitive noise from behind her. “Why is Buttercup wearing a Santa Hat and a holiday wreath?”

Huh. Would you look at that? It seems he’s really into the Christmas spirit this year.” Waverly manages an awfully casual tone, but her eyes are sparkling as she bites the inside of her cheek.

Nicole shakes her head in mystification. “Amazing. Now get out of here before I decide it’s a good idea to make a snow angel with you.”

The pink of Waverly’s cheeks deepens as she ducks her head down and tucks a bit of the hair spilling out from underneath her winter hat over her shoulder. “Maybe later.” She takes a couple steps backwards. “Oh, and make sure Wynonna doesn’t drink all the eggnog before tonight. She’ll be drunk and sick to her stomach.” She makes a face before spinning on her heel.

Nicole leans an elbow on the fence as she watches her go. “She’s a keeper, huh Buttercup?” The way he turns his head towards where Waverly is climbing into her Jeep, and then back towards Nicole, makes her think that, just maybe, a cow understands exactly what she’s saying.

Nicole gives his fuzzy nose a rub and adjusts the Santa Hat to give it a jauntier angle. Whimsical, perhaps, but then Waverly’s been inspiring a certain lightness in her since she got here. Nothing new there.

*****

That is a most attractive tree you have there.” Doc comments from the doorway, sipping from the glass of eggnog he just finished pouring extra whiskey into. He must deem the alcohol level just right, because he offers the flask in his hand to Nicole before returning it to his pocket when she declines. The flush in her cheeks makes it obvious she doesn’t need more alcohol in the eggnog than there already is.

Waverly hums happily at his compliment. “Thanks, Doc. We really went for a more cohesive color scheme and ornament placement this year.” She tilts her head to the side thinking over her words. “Well, I went for that, Wynonna mostly drank beer and pointed at places she found gaps, telling me to fill them while using as many euphemisms as possible.”

Wynonna chuckles to herself, and Nicole knows she’s reliving some of what she said during the decorating. “It was some of my finer work.” She waggles her eyebrows.

Valdez snorts, drawing a questioning look from Wynonna. She shrugs. “Just amused by the idea of you and work in the same sentence.”

Wynonna’s eyes narrow but she holds her glass up. “Touché.”

Nicole finds a place on the couch to lean back and try to make it through her food coma. Too much tryptophan, but the dinner was delicious, and the company even better. The spirit of Christmas Eve put everyone in a good mood. The snark still ran free throughout the night, but there was a decided cheerfulness underlying all of it.

She smiles up at Waverly as she settles herself on the arm of the sofa next to her, a hand immediately finding its way to the back of Nicole’s hair, playing with the strands at the nape of her neck.

Ladies, I think I’m going to call it a night.” Nedley addresses them. “I’m heading to Chrissy’s first thing in the morning but let me know if you need anything done before I head out.” He addresses the last part directly at Nicole. It’s then that she realizes word must have spread that she knows about the ownership decision. She gives him a soft smile while she squeezes at Waverly’s knee next to her.

We meant what we said earlier, we want you to take the entire day off. Spend time with Chrissy, relax, do whatever Randy Nedley enjoys doing on Christmas.”

He nods, and Nicole swears there’s a level of pride in the smile he gives her. “Yes, Ma’am.” He tells her before calling it a night. Shorty isn’t far behind him, and neither is Valdez. Fish left earlier in the day for a week-long visit with his family the next state over.

By the time the embers in the fireplace are starting to wane, Nicole’s eyes start to flutter. Waverly moved onto the couch next to her a while ago, and her warmth pressed into her side is lulling Nicole close to sleep as she listens with partial attention to Wynonna as she talks with Doc and Dolls.

Nicole jerks back to fully awake when she hears a throat clear. When she looks across the room there are three sets of eyes staring at her and Waverly. Doc runs a hand through his hair, then does it again, and Nicole realizes it was him who made the noise.

Ladies,” he addresses them. “Christmas always has me looking towards the future, what’s to come, and, well, your wedding has been on my mind a bit.” His eyes fall to the almost empty glass he rolls between his palms. “I don’t know exactly what your plans are, but if you find yourself in need of someone to walk you down the aisle, either of you,” His eyes flick back and forth between them. “I would be happy to oblige.”

Doc’s sentimentality hits Nicole like a sucker punch. Her eyes well up a bit but she fights back against it, feeling the moment is better with a clear vision. She and Waverly have already discussed some of the specifics of their ceremony. They were going to wait until the new year to talk to people about it, but a glance between them makes it clear they’re both okay doing it now.

Dolls claps Doc on the shoulder before either of them can respond. “Yeah, and listen, if you don’t want this clown doing the deed, I want you to know I’d be happy to offer my services as well.” He gives Doc a wink after his statement, and when Doc winks back Nicole realizes that for once they’re not trying to create a competition. It’s actually really sweet.

About that,” Waverly starts. “We’ve talked a bit about what we want for our ceremony.” Her eyes hold so much kindness and love when she looks at Doc and Dolls. “I think you are both so sweet for your offer, you have no idea how much it means to me. To us.” She inclines her head towards Nicole.  “But, it was always going to be Wynonna walking me down the aisle.” She finishes, her eyes landing on her sister.

Wynonna blinks, dropping the foot she has propped up on a knee to the floor with a thud and leaning forward. “What?”

You wanna walk me down the aisle at my wedding?” Waverly asks, her tone chipper and light, as if it’s a simple request, but Nicole knows the truth. This is a big deal to Waverly.

Of course I’m walking you down the aisle. We’re a team, baby girl.” She lifts her glass to Doc and Dolls. “But thanks for the offer, boys.” She finishes the rest of the whiskey in her glass in one swallow. Nicole wonders if it’s a trick of the light from the Christmas tree or if she actually sees tears forming in the corner of Wynonna’s eyes. She’s surprised when Wynonna makes no attempt to hide the fact that she’s wiping them away.

Nicole figures she can buy her an extra moment by pushing on with the conversation. “We could actually use you guys, if your services are available for other roles?” She asks, even though she already knows the answer. “Dolls, I was wondering how you might feel about joining the clergy?” She grins at the confusion that flashes across his face. “Waves and I don’t really want to do a traditional religious wedding, but we’d kind of like it if someone close to us could officiate things and sign our license. Think you’d be willing to get ordained online and use that calm, velvety voice of yours on our wedding day?”

The slow grin he gives them is a thing of beauty. “I think I can manage that.”

Waverly claps her hands together and lets out a small squeal at his response. It’s adorable, and completely manages to distract Nicole for a moment before she remembers she has another person to address. “Doc.” She addresses him. He gives her an absent sounding hum in response, though his eyes zero in on her like a hawk. She bites down on the inside of her cheek to avoid laughing at his obvious attempt to look like he’s not invested in what she’s about to say. “You are a pain in my ass. You’re a pain in everyone’s ass, really, and sometimes I can’t believe I have to put up with your shit.” The corners of his mouth quirk up, as if he agrees with her assessment. “But I think it might be a good idea to have someone standing beside me during the ceremony, so I don’t freak out and convince myself that there’s no way Waverly Earp is actually going to marry me.”

She picks up her and Waverly’s joined hands, pressing a kiss to Waverly’s knuckles as she waits on Doc’s response. He pushes himself back in his seat as he swirls the few melting ice cubes in his glass. It’s a blatant attempt to look casual.

Nicole sees right through it.

I suppose I could be pressed upon to be by your side come the wedding day.” He scratches at his cheek. “To be clear, you are asking me to fulfill the role of Best Man, are you not?”

Nicole nods, watching the way his mustache quivers just the slightest bit at the confirmation. “In that case, partner, you have your man.” He holds his glass up to cheers, despite its lack of alcohol.

Put your glass down, idiot.” Wynonna tells him. “This is their wedding we’re toasting to, we’re damn well going to do it right.” She gets up and disappears into the kitchen before returning with a bottle, refreshing everyone’s glass for a proper toast.

It seems to be a unanimous decision afterwards to call it night. Waverly gives both Doc and Dolls extremely long hugs, squeezing at their arms in thanks before they head for the front door, Wynonna escorting them out.

Waverly spins around and makes a happy sound in the back of her throat. “That went so well!”

Nicole breathes out a laugh, taking in Waverly’s stretched-wide smile, her hands clutched together at her chest in happiness. “Of course it went well. This is you we’re talking about. Everyone loves you and wants you to be happy.” She moves forward towards her.

You know it’s just as much about you as it is me, right?” Waverly asks, unclasping her hands and leaning back against the door frame to the hallway.

Nicole settles in front of her, taking the fabric of Waverly’s skirt between her thumb and forefinger. “I suppose it’s possible, but you’re just so damn likeable I think it’s more about you.” She gives the smallest of yanks on the material in her hand, causing Waverly to shift forward just a bit. The air between them shifts as the brown in Waverly’s eyes darken.

You know, if you want to head home, I might be willing to let you unwrap an early Christmas present.” She taps at her own chest with a finger.

Wow.” Nicole fights the grin threatening to overtake her face. “That is such a line.”

It takes a line-giver to know one.”  She arches an eyebrow playfully.  “And it worked, didn't it?” Waverly asks, moving her hand up into Nicole’s hair to pull her in.

Nicole hums happily into the kiss, forgetting where they are for a moment.

You guys are gross, you know that?” Wynonna’s tone is part disgust, part amusement.

Nicole lets her forehead rest against Waverly’s as she tries to subtly flip Wynonna the bird. Waverly reaches out and grabs her hand, giving it a squeeze as she puts a tiny bit of space between them.

Wynonna eyes them. “I suppose I wouldn’t want it any other way for my little sister, though.” She sighs.

Aww, you care.” Waverly coos, reaching out with an arm to bring Wynonna in for a hug, her other arm firmly wrapping around Nicole. “I love you guys so much.” Waverly exclaims, pulling them together in a hug. Nicole meets Wynonna’s eyes over the top of Waverly’s head, and she is certain that they both find the moment equally awkward.

Okay, okay.” Nicole and Wynonna say at the same time. Waverly lets them go, but her smile and the sparkle in her eyes is contagious. Wynonna is light on her feet as she ushers them out the front door, telling them to take their disgusting selves elsewhere, but Nicole doesn’t feel any actual resentment in the comment.

Hey,” Wynonna calls out, stopping them in their tracks at the bottom of the porch steps. “Merry Christmas. I love you, idiots.” She says, inching the door closer to closed. “Oh, and Haught Boss, don’t forget, you’re on leftover turkey carving duty tomorrow, so try not to tire those precious hands of yours out.” She shuts the door with a definitive click before Nicole or Waverly can respond. They stare at the door for a beat before laughing at the absurdity of life with Wynonna.

Waverly slides her hand into Nicole’s, giving a slight tug to pull her along down the path to their cabin.  Come on cowgirl, let’s go home.” Waverly takes a few steps before spinning around to face Nicole. “But you should know, I have zero intention of listening to Wynonna’s warning.” She grins as she rocks up on her toes to kiss Nicole before pulling back. 

There’s a light flurry falling from the sky, the snowflakes catching and shimmering in Waverly’s hair.  It’s one of the prettiest sights Nicole has ever seen.  She takes the time to absorb the moment before it passes. “Merry Christmas, baby.”