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Gravel Shoulders

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Waverly’s nose brushed against silky auburn curls, instinctively inhaling. Nothing could beat the combination of her baby’s scent and the aroma of vanilla dipped donuts lingering from Nicole’s cuddles earlier that morning.

As her lips grazed a soft ear, she gently bounced the eight-month-old in her left arm while her right hand wrapped securely around her daughter’s chubby fist. Waverly smiled, seeing the way her baby was transfixed by the brightly colored push pin that Waverly had folded into her slippery grasp.

"Nuh uh," she chastised softly, "it's not for eating."

She carefully guided the tiny hand towards the cork board before them.

“… we’ll put the last pin there,” she cooed, smoothing the photograph against the cork board before wrapping her arms around the baby’s squishy middle.

Bright eyed and alert, the child’s focus immediately shifted from her hand to her mother’s mouth as she spoke. Waverly hugged the baby’s back to her front, little legs kicking, as she admired the board in front of her.

Her task had taken most of the afternoon. First, thanks to a wriggling baby, then a fussy baby, then a feeding baby, then a burping baby, with a little bit of a respite for progress coinciding with a sleeping baby. But just after Waverly had managed to finish carefully taking down and storing her research materials in acid-free sleeves and museum quality boxes, the Apple of her Eye had decided to wake up. Thus, mother and daughter began pinning the family photos on the cork board ‘together’.

Waverly glanced at the boxes on the table beside her and pursed her lips. She took a breath and for a second let herself slip into that space in her mind where she’d lived for so long. She felt her chest tighten. She felt the grating, gnawing unease at the back of her neck, the burden attached to her skin that she knew the whole town could see since she was knee-high. Like the gravel shoulders of an old, rural, two-lane highway, she felt doggedly worn and sharp-edged, insecure, and dangerously unsteady.

Wyatt Earp had managed to kill seventy-seven people in his time as a law-man, however loosely he used the term. He had crossed the wrong Sheriff married to the right witch and ended up a cursed man, handing that curse down to his descendents. Funny, she could now muse to herself, how she wasn’t even an Earp and yet the curse had managed to plague her life just the same. Seventy-seven souls killed, seventy-seven souls returned, changed into demonic Revenants; these were just seventy-seven problems to solve for Waverly. Thus, stacks of files were compiled containing any kind of document she could get her hands on that might give her the edge to break the cycle. For a time she even believed she could break the Curse herself if she only knew where Peacemaker was hidden. She knew the eldest heir in the family was the heir to the Curse but Willa, she believed, was dead, and Wynonna was….wherever Purgatory wasn’t. Yes, for a period of time she had let herself believe that she could be the one to ‘logic’ and ‘reason’ her way out from under the Curse that triggered her whole world to fall apart. If she were honest with herself now, however, she knew it wasn’t her research that led her mind to that possibility, but instead raw, illogical hope that her tireless efforts weren’t in vain and for once, Waverly Earp was worthy.

Her day-in-day-out reality after Wynonna had been sent away and her life became consumed with researching the Curse was exhausting, if she dared look at it from the outside, if she examined all the secrets that were maintained to curate her pretenses.

Pretenses. For years she had kept so much of herself locked away. She knew Wynonna had been jeered out of school, tortured in ‘clinics’, and ostracized from all decent society in Purgatory – even the remaining family she had left. Her own mother was in a mental institution, and it seemed everyone had known this but Waverly. No, Waverly had been acting out a reality that wasn’t her own for so long, to survive, fit in, move forward, maintain some sense of normalcy and find that approval she had always so desperately sought… even begged for.

The research in those boxes was her life’s work. When she finished her algebra homework, she researched. After a band recital, she researched. After cheerleading practice, she researched. After Gus had declined another call from Wynonna in jail, she researched. She knew education was her way out of the sticky rut in the washed-out hole that was Purgatory. Research was her way out of this precariously fabricated spider’s web of pretense she had woven for herself since she was a child.

After so much shape-shifting and adaptation, what was real anymore? Wynonna coming back home, and Nicole Haught entering her life nearly simultaneously had a jarring effect. Sure, Revenants coming out of the woodwork to kill you and your sister will also throw things into stark relief. But more than that, deeper than that, it was the quiet, introspective nights in her bedroom and her own true face looking back at her in the bathroom mirror that really began to pull at the threads of her carefully woven but false foundation.

“I scare you?” Such a momentous question wrapped in such sweet empathy.

At the time Waverly had responded impulsively, because the resounding “YES” to that question vibrated her bones. Now, eight years later, she couldn’t think of a less scary thing than her kind, adoring, selfless wife. Losing her scared her. Losing her had scared her since that night a vest had stopped Willa’s bullet. She imagined it would always be that way for as long as she wore this simple golden band on her finger.

A tug on Waverly’s hair brought her back to reality. The baby reached for a second handful before Waverly untangled her fingers and kissed her chubby arm. “Ah ah ah, be gentle,” she chided softly.

Focusing on the photographs in front of her now, relief flooded Waverly’s chest.

Wynonna and Doc sitting on the Homestead steps with a dark, wild haired Alice beaming on his knee. She had never seen Wynonna look so genuinely happy in a picture before. Her hand held Alice’s and it looked as natural as if the two had been attached since Alice’s birth on a pool table.

Alice’s crayon portrait of the whole family was pinned in the very center of the board. Waverly sighed, making a mental note to talk to her about what the middle finger actually meant, and to remind her that she probably should not use it outside of her home.

Then there was the photo of Nicole and Waverly, taken at their baby shower in late summer. The duplicate sat on Waverly’s bedside table at home: Waverly’s hair half up and half down, a warm southern breeze pressing her floral-print sundress against her legs and her stomach, the sun still peeking over the top of the Homestead in the way that meant golden light was hitting Nicole’s hair just right, setting the red on fire. Even in the photo you could see her brown eyes looking almost amber in the late afternoon sun. Waverly was smiling up at Nicole and though Nicole was smiling at the camera, her body was curled into Waverly. In the background, pink and blue pennant flags were strung across the Homestead porch, lemonade cups perched on the railing behind them, Nicole’s shirt still had the ‘Haught-mom’ badge stuck to the front. Every time she looked at this photograph, Waverly’s eyes were drawn down to her own hand cradling her 7-months pregnant belly and Nicole’s hand placed over it – gentle, firm, protective, and proud. Her Nicole.

“See there, sweetie? You’re in that photo with Momma and me, we just can’t see you yet.” Waverly pointed to the photograph. Alert brown eyes darted to the photo and back to Waverly’s mouth.

“Mmma Mmma,” repeated the antsy baby, wiggling her arm and attempting to go for another handful of hair.

Waverly adjusted the baby in her arms, smiling as she heard the unmistakable sounds of her niece entering the building and running down the hallway to the bullpen.

“Slow down, Speed Racer!” Wynonna’s voice called from the other end of the hallway.

“I don’t know your obscure cartoons, mom!” Alice yelled into the room as she sped around the corner, her blue converse shoes coming untied in her efforts. “Aunt Waves! I brought you another picture,” she said, holding the photo out in front of her with all the enthusiasm of a track runner handing off a baton at a relay race.

Waverly took the photo from her niece. “Just in the nick of time, AliBear! I was almost finished here.” Waverly looked behind her to see Wynonna and Nicole come through the bullpen, and she shot them a smile.

“Ok, ‘obscure’? I take back what I said earlier about her picking up your vocabulary.” Nicole quipped to Wynonna as she made her way around the desk to her wife.

“Look, Jujube! Is that your momma?” The baby followed the movement and locked on to her other mother, smiling, rosy cheeks popping.

Nicole smiled excitedly at her two favorite girls and clapped her hands in front of her, making a move to go toward the baby, but was promptly cut off by Wynonna who eagerly took the baby out of Waverly’s hands.

“Age before beauty, Haught sauce, and I’ve got both on you so wait your turn.” Wynonna jabbed at Nicole while pulling excited faces at the giggling baby in her arms.

“She’s my baby, Wynonna,” Nicole remarked, hitching an eyebrow and sliding an arm around Waverly’s back to grip her waist.

Wynonna twirled her index finger around an auburn curl, making it stretch and retract, bouncing on top of the baby’s head. “As If there were any doubt about that, Red. I still love her though.”

“Auntie Wave, can we put it here?” Alice asked excitedly, pointing up at the board to the space above her drawing.

Waverly actually looked at the photo for the first time since her niece handed it to her. It was the picture Dolls had taken of them at the diner, the one he had kept in the manila envelope for Wynonna after he died. So much was said with the gifting of that photograph.

Waverly’s eyes immediately met Wynonna’s, who was already watching her sister.

“Are you sure?” Waverly asked quietly, knowing what the photograph meant, the significance it held.

Wynonna nodded, a smile playing on her lips. “The board is for family photos now, right?”

Waverly smiled and nodded. “Right”

For a fleeting second Waverly looked at Wynonna and saw her 12 year old big sister, bright eyed, mischievous, whip-smart, optimistic and hopeful - her hero. In that second the thought crossed through Waverly’s mind. What patchwork of trauma and pain made up the woman today, stitched up the little girl she knew in her childhood; what pretenses stood between that little girl and the adult standing in front of her? In a flash the mind's-eye visage of her adolescence was gone and her older sister, still her hero, was in front of her – leather jacket and all.

The sound of scraping chair legs across linoleum broke the sisters from their conversation. Alice had grown impatient and taken matters into her own hands.

“Hang on there, Tiger. How about we get Aunt Nic to use her super long go-go-gadget arms to put the photo up there?” Waverly suggested, as she pushed the chair back over to the desk.

“Go-go what?” Alice furrowed her brow, pushing wild dark brown curls away from her face.

Nicole turned to Wynonna, clicking her tongue disapprovingly.

Wynonna leveled her stare back. “Dude, I’m trying. We at least watch Scooby-Doo. It’s hard to raise a child with refined tastes these days, you’ll see,” Wynonna said pointedly, bouncing the baby on to her opposite hip.

“Zoinks!” Alice yelped in her best Shaggy impression. “Now can you put the picture up there Auntie Nic, please? Please?” She practically vibrated.

“Sure thing.” Nicole took the photo from Waverly and stepped up to the board. “Right here?” She glanced down to Alice who nodded assuredly. Nicole reached over and took a push-pin from the tin container and carefully pierced the very top-center of the photograph, pressing it into the board, before stepping back to Waverly’s side.

The four of them admired the view.

“It’s looking great, babe.” Nicole squeezed Waverly’s shoulder where her arm was wrapped around her. She glanced down at the brunette and saw a tension in her face.

“Waverly.” Nicole spoke quietly.

Waverly looked up and met her wife’s beseeching eyes.

Nicole’s voice was soft, only for her ears, but her hand on her shoulder was firm – pressing the words into her so that she might soak them up in her skin. “You did a good job. I’m so proud of you.”

Waverly knew her wife wasn’t talking about hanging the photographs anymore. Nicole knew what boxing up her life’s work meant to her – the child and the adult who had built her life around the hope that her research could save her torn family.

Waverly smiled and nodded, rested her head on Nicole’s shoulder and let herself sink into her wife’s embrace. Nicole’s arm tightened around her shoulders, her thumb running circles over the material of her blouse.

On the wall in front of them, placed carefully and thoughtfully across the board, were images of the family they had created.

Jeremy and Robin with their arms around each other on a picnic.

Nedley and Waverly standing proudly next to Chrissy at the opening of her juice shop.

Wynonna sitting on her motorcycle holding tightly to a three-year-old, beaming Alice.

Nicole and Nedley posing together as Santa and his helper elf at the Christmas tree farm.

Waverly and Nicole sitting on a square bale of hay in the midst of a pumpkin patch, their baby cradled in Waverly’s arms, bundled in layers of knit-wear

Rosita and Wynonna saluting each other to a shot at Shorty’s, a wink thrown Wynonna’s way.

Jeremy and Waverly sitting at the kitchen table, proud of their completed 2,000 piece puzzle.

Nicole and Alice cuddled up on the couch, showing the camera – likely Waverly – their matching Christmas socks.

Jeremy and Doc sharing a hug after Robin had surprised Jeremy with a proposal.

Nicole passed out on the couch with a newborn infant on her chest and Wynonna crouched down beside her with finger bunny ears behind Nicole’s head.

Wynonna, Waverly, Nicole, Rosita, Doc, Jeremy, Robin, Nedley, Chrissy, and Mercedes in various states of inebriation, yet full celebration at the “WAYHAUGHT” wedding held at the Homestead.

The photo of Doc, Alice, and Wynonna.

The photo of everyone, including Dolls, at the diner.

And the photo of Waverly and Nicole at their baby shower, bathed in golden light, brushed by a warm breeze. Physical, visual evidence to Waverly that she had found her way out the suffocating, doubt-filled thicket where she had spent the first 15 years of her life, to the sunlight-filled, open-aired clearing on the other side.

Not just existing. Not just getting by, but living – fully – her authentic self with her family around her.

She had her sister back in her life, no longer as battered as she had been strolling back into Purgatory that September, now whole and healthy and curse-free. She had a wife, a partner in every sense of the word whom she would have believed fictional if she could not feel her warm hand in her own this very minute. She had a child, created from love and willed into existence, to whom she had whispered soft promises the first time she had laid new skin upon her own. Promises to love, protect, and cherish enough to let them grow into their own person one day… hopefully free from any need of pretenses.

Waverly saw Wynonna take something out of her pocket and turned her head to see her sister handling a duplicate of Doll’s photo.

“What?” she said, when she caught Waverly’s eye. “I couldn’t let my kid get her grubby hands on the only copy.”

Waverly smirked and nodded.

Wynonna slipped the photo back into her pocket before exploring baby hands could seek it out. Alice skipped over to her mom and fingered the pant leg of the baby’s overalls. “I’ll tell Julia all about Xavier when she’s older. It’s on my to-do list… but I want to teach her all the karate moves I know first. Dad says I’ve got the fastest hands he’s ever seen!”

“You come by it honestly, kid.” Wynonna smiled down at her daughter and smoothed back her unruly hair. “You might have to wait a while on those karate lessons though. Haught Potato here hasn’t really mastered walking yet.”

“Speaking of Haught Potato, it’s time for you to hand her off, Earp.” Nicole took Julia in her arms, not waiting for Wynonna’s permission. The baby cooed and immediately grabbed at her mother’s face and the collar of her shirt. Nicole kissed sticky fingers and pressed her nose into warm cheeks.

Waverly’s heart swelled at the sight, as it did each time her baby and her wife interacted.

The gravel at her shoulders slipped away, fell to the floor at her feet where it belonged. The tightness in her chest, lingering from earlier, released. The echo of the gnawing had ceased. And she basked in her new normal.

Alice straightened up from where she had been crouched, retying her floppy laces. Waverly took a box of her research and handed it to Alice. “Got it, AliBear?”

The girl nodded enthusiastically, ready to show how strong she was by walking the box to the car. Tomorrow she would enlist the help of her niece to take the documents to the Ghost River Triangle Museum where they had agreed to archive her material after accessioning the collection. It wasn’t just because she was the head curator, Waverly had managed to compile one of the most comprehensive collections of materials documenting Wyatt Earp’s life anywhere in the country, along with multiple primary sources linked to Purgatory’s history.

Nicole took the baby’s backpack on her shoulder. Waverly lifted another box under her arm. Wynonna grabbed the last of the boxes on the table, smirking as she caught a glimpse of a note that said “77 kills”.

Wynonna took one more glance at the board and then back to her sister. “It’s a good start.”

Waverly adjusted the box in her hands and bumped her shoulder against her sister’s. “It’s a great start.”

“Home?” Nicole called over her shoulder, already making her way to the doorway of the bullpen with a babbling red-head in tow.

“Home.” Waverly agreed.