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let me down slow

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“If Earps know one thing,” Wynonna slurs, toasting Waverly with the entire whiskey bottle. “It’s how to wash blood stains out of our clothes. And carpets. And--” she vomits to the side, wet and effusive, then takes another slug. “--hardwood, and--”

//

Waverly had opened the O.K. Corral Cleaning Service with the inheritance Curtis left her, and the inheritance he left Wynonna, since she can’t be assed to come back to Purgatory to claim it. Waverly keeps the postcards she sends on the wall next to the register: Greece, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Jakarta, all with her name scrawled in Wynonna’s scratchy handwriting, Wish you were here.

Waverly tacks them up with the pictures facing out, because they’re pretty, and because she doesn’t want to see Wynonna’s lies all lined up next to each other.

//

Waverly makes the treatments herself, big safety goggles slipping down her nose until she sews on an elastic strap that actually fits. She loves her lab in the back, simple home remedies like lemon and seltzer water, corn starch and bleach lined up next to the beakers she uses to mix stronger chemicals. Her workbench lies against the opposite wall, tools neatly lined up into mounted brackets, everything just so.

Gus visited once, looking faintly bemused at the well loved, gently worn books and manuals on the shelves, the way Waverly crooned to the machines to keep them greased up and singing. “Always knew you were a smart girl,” she says, which is as proud an utterance as Waverly’s likely to get from her.

She hires a couple of the old rodeo boys part-time, hires Champ and keeps him hourly, even though he makes noises about wanting part-ownership, because this is a little business and sure it may not be likely to make it past the first five years, but it’s hers, only hers.

//

One year in and she’s hanging on, just barely. So she cleans Gus’ old pantsuit to get the mothball smell out and brighten the faded pink color, does a little tailoring work to make it fit her just right, and marches into the Sheriff’s office with a powerpoint clicker, a thumbdrive, and two presentation folders.

“Waverly Earp of the O.K. Corral Cleaning Service for Sheriff Nedley,” she chirps at the front desk, adding a little wave.

The Officer behind the desk is a girl, and Waverly doesn’t think she’s seen her around before, bright hair braided back out of her face. One of those big white department issued hats is lying to the side, the one Champ wants so badly but Waverly thinks is a little tacky. “Nicole Haught of the Purgatory Police Department,” she says, and when she offers her hand Waverly takes it, soft skin brightened by sharp calluses on her trigger finger. “Nedley’s just through there,” she points, and Waverly squares her shoulders before marching in.

 

She gets the contract in the end, and Champ takes her to Shorty’s to celebrate, insomuch as he’s on shift at Shorty’s and pours her a few free drinks between serving hard liquor to the bikers.

“Good for you,” Gus says, gruff and supportive.

Champ closes and brings her mac and cheese from the back kitchen, even though she’s told him a hundred times she doesn’t like the burned aftertaste. It’s the thought that counts, she thinks, still buoyed by her success, and forces down a few bites before letting him distract her with an arm around her waist and his lips at her throat. “You’re so smart,” he whispers wetly against her neck, “but so pretty, too.” She pushes him away and grabs her beer, taking a big drink to swallow down all the things she might wanna say to that. Champ doesn’t notice her reticence, hopping on the bed to sit cross legged. “Won’t it squick you out, cleaning up crime scenes and all that?” He pulls a face. “Dead bodies and stuff?”

“What do I pay you for?” Waverly teases. “I’ve done all the research, read all the books, watched all the videos.”

Champ shrugs. “I’ll call the boys whenever you say, babe. You’re the boss.”

“Yeah,” Waverly grins, straddling him and finishing the last of her bottle, letting it drop from her fingers on the floor. “Yeah, I am the boss.” She kisses him, tastes chew and stale smoke, the shot he took right after he locked the door.

//

Waverly’s in the back, cussing out Champ’s voicemail, when she hears the shop bell ring. “Just a sec,” she hollers. “I’m going to kill your deadbeat ass,” she hisses into the phone, and hangs up.

“Sorry,” she trills, hurrying into the front, “sorry, how can I help you… Officer…” It’s the girl she met in Nedley’s office, but she can’t quite remember her name.

“Hot,” the Officer says.

“Right,” Waverly agrees, “I think it’s some kind of heat wave--we’re great with sweat stains here at the O.K. Corral… and you didn’t mean it was hot outside.”

The Officer is smiling now, soft and easy. “Nicole.” She slides a card across the counter. Nicole Haught it says, under the scales of Purgatory. “I didn’t expect you to remember me; you seemed nervous.”

“I remember you,” Waverly objects, then blushes. “I just… forgot your name.”

“I guess I’ll have to try to be more memorable.” There’s a long dragged out moment, then Nicole lifts something up, lays it on the counter. It’s a white blouse on a plastic hanger, a brown stain slopped over the pocket and first few buttons. “Coffee,” Nicole explains.

Waverly takes the hanger out and handed it back to her. “The plastic will melt during the process,” she explains, “I use special hangers in the back.” She writes out the information on a ticket and rips the stub off for Nicole. When she hands it over Nicole’s fingers brush against hers.

“Pay now or at pickup?”

“Pickup,” Waverly says, distracted by Champ calling her back. “Thank you for your business.”

“Thank you,” Nicole says, and puts on that big white hat. For some reason, it doesn’t look as tacky as it does when Champ wears it.

//

Waverly goes out to her first crime scene on a Tuesday, around three in the morning. Trent Dawson fell asleep at the wheel, crashed into a pole, bled to death inside the old motel on Jackson Street. She drags Champ out of bed and lets him snooze in the passenger side while she grabs what she needs from the shop. She parks next to the cruiser, the lights flashing, and leaves Champ to unload the car. “Officer Haught,” she says, surprised.

“Rookie gets the shit jobs,” Nicole explains, leaning against the wall. She waves at the floor. “Body’s at the morgue, all you gotta do is clean the carpet.” She hands Waverly a clipboard. “Sign for it?”

“You bet,” Waverly chirps, and signs with a flourish.

Nicole hesitates at the door, looking out at Champ lugging the supplies in. “Just the two of you?”

Champ drops the supplies off at the door. Waverly hands him the big broom. “Glass,” she orders, and he heads back outside, grumbling a little.

“Champ’ll help,” Waverly says, pulling out a pair of scrubs.

“Hm,” Nicole says shortly, glaring faintly through the wall at him.

Waverly waves the scrubs a little, awkward. “Uh, can you…”

Nicole starts. “Oh right, of course.” She turns away, and Waverly kicks off her sweatpants, yanking on the scrubs. She takes off her top and the buttons tangle in her hair. She yelps.

“Uh,” she says, flushing, “um… Officer…”

Careful fingers free her. “Nicole,” Nicole corrects. She comes into view, closer than Waverly thought she’d be. She’s smiling again.

Waverly holds her scrub top close. “You’re um, I mean, your shirt will be ready tomorrow.”

“Okay.” Nicole’s still smiling. Her eyes are greener up close, flecked in the pupil.

“Okay,” Waverly says.

//

Nicole comes in just before closing, looking worn out. “Hey,” she greets, wearily.

Waverly had a nap in the back around lunch, and three cups of coffee before and after, and she knows just how Nicole feels. “Long shift?”

“The longest.” Nicole sags a little against the counter. Her hair is starting to escape its braid, wisping in her face.

Waverly goes to the rack and finds Nicole’s shirt. “You got your ticket?”

Nicole looks stricken. “I--”

“Kidding,” Waverly says gently, “like I could forget you.”

Nicole smiles, looking the most awake she has since she stepped in. “How was your first cleanup?”

“Not as gross as I’d thought it would be.” Waverly hands Nicole her shirt. “Good as new.”

Nicole looks surprised, running her fingers across the fabric. “Better. You’re really good at what you do.”

Waverly grins. “Yeah, I am.”

Nicole grins back. “I like confidence in a girl.”

Waverly’s fingers stutter against the counter. Nicole shakes herself, slides a credit card across to Waverly. “Oh no,” Waverly says, “first job’s free.” Nicole looks confused. “Because… you’re a cop.”

“Right.” Nicole gathers up the shirt in its plastic wrap. “Well then let me buy you a cup of coffee? Tonight?”

“Um,” Waverly stutters. Nicole steps a little closer, leans a little farther. Her eyes are dancing. She bites her lip and smiles when she sees Waverly stare. “Sorry,” Waverly says, stepping back. “I’m in a relationship. With Champ.”

Nicole’s face flickers, distaste crossing her expression before smoothing out. “I see. Maybe some other time.” She steps back, holding up her shirt. “Well now I know where to take my clothes.”

“Cleanest they’ll ever be,” Waverly chirps. She waves as Nicole leaves, tipping her hat. Then she leans against the wall and takes a few deep breaths, smiling despite herself.

//

A biker stabs a rival at Shorty’s and Gus looks proud when Waverly shows up with Champ in tow, mopping up the blood with a special mixture of cleanser that makes the scarred wood shine instead of leaving it lighter or stained. Waverly looks for Nicole but she isn’t there, and she signs the clipboard with Deputy Hewis, who’s seventy if she’s a day and more than half deaf. She pats Waverly on the cheek and says something about being glad one Earp girl made something out of herself.

Waverly texts Wynonna after, a short i miss you that she regrets as soon as she sends it. She gets a ping back five minutes later, that the number is no longer in service, and deletes both messages so she won’t see them ever again.

//

Nicole comes in two weeks and two crime scenes later. “I hear business is good,” she says.

“It’s all in the smile and the wave,” Waverly says, demonstrating both.

“Not all.” Nicole drops a uniform shirt and pants on the table. “Take credit where it’s due, Ms. Earp.”

“Waverly.”

Nicole smiles, slow and big. “Waverly,” she says, soft, and Waverly shivers a little. Nicole’s smile shifts into a grin, pleased.

“So, uh,” Waverly scoops up the clothing, “more coffee--or not. Woah.”

Nicole looks sheepish. “Drunks in the sewage pipes,” she says, apologetic. “I think I’d get run out of town if I took them through the Wash N Dry.”

Waverly scoffs. “The Wash N Dry should be run out of town.”

Nicole shrugs. “I don’t have machines at my place.”

“I got you.” Waverly stands as far back as she can as she slips the clothing onto hangers. She writes out the ticket. “Don’t lose this one, now.”

Nicole takes it and tucks it into her front shirt pocket. “Coffee?”

“Cash,” Waverly says, “or credit.”

Nicole gives her a little salute. “On pickup, yes ma’am.”

//

Waverly balances her checkbook at the end of the month and has to stand up to do a little twirl. “In the black,” she crows, and Champ scoops her up to spin her.

“I knew you and me would be a winner,” Champ says, kissing her. “Maybe we can save enough, open a bar somewhere far away.”

“What?” Waverly smacks his arm until he drops her. “Champ, I don’t want to run a bar. This is my business. I started it, and I like it. I’m good at it.”

Champ frowns. “You’re good at being a waitress too, babe.”

Waverly folds her arms across her chest. “I don’t want to be a waitress, Champ. What the hell?”

“Baby, baby,” Champ tugs her into his body, kisses her gently. Waverly remembers the first time they embraced, at a high school dance, and how she felt safe, warm. She feels trapped now, too close, twitchy. “Let me take you out, tomorrow. We’ll celebrate properly.”

She likes Champ, she reminds herself, and she knows he cares about her, he does. “Yeah.” She pushes him away, gentle. “I’m tired.”

//

She irons Nicole’s clothes herself, creasing the pants with care and re-sews the badge back on the sleeve by hand, tiny uniform stitches. She does it twice, actually, because she thinks the first time was a little crooked.

“Wow,” Nicole breathes, pulling up the plastic to stare. “This is--you’re amazing.” Waverly flushes.

“Just a little--” she tries, and Nicole cuts her off, her hand on Waverly’s hand.

“It’s amazing,” she says firmly. “You’re amazing.”

“Okay.” Waverly looks down to hide her smile. Nicole pulls back, clearing her throat.

“I might take all my laundry here,” she muses, teasing.

“For a fee I’ll iron your underwear,” Waverly says, and then has to close her eyes and take a deep breath to not punch herself in the face.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Nicole says after a few long, painful seconds.

“Okay,” Waverly says weakly, waving goodbye. When the doorbell chimes shut she smacks herself in the forehead with the palm of her hand.

//

Waverly wears her favorite dress, the one with the sparkles, and her strappiest, sexiest, most painful pair of heels, spends too long on her hair and makeup, kisses a perfect imprint of her lips on a square of tissue, glossy coral pink.

Champ shows up in a plaid shirt and the same jeans she saw him wear for the past two days, dirt stuck in the treads of his boots. But he also brings her daisies and opens the door of his pickup for her, so that’s something, she thinks.

He drives them to Shorty’s and parks. “Oh,” Waverly says, “did you forget something?”

Champ blinks at her. “Happy hour,” he says, “half-off apps.”

“This?” Waverly shoves the door open and climbs out, too full of rage to trip in her heels. “This? This is our night out, our ‘special date’? Shorty’s?”

“Uh,” Champ frowns. “You love Shorty’s!”

“Of course I love Shorty’s,” Waverly snaps, “I grew up in Shorty’s! But Shorty’s is not a night out. It’s not a celebration!”

Champ turns to look at the burned out neon sign and back again. “It’s family friendly!”

Waverly throws her clutch at his head. “It’s not family friendly, it’s owned by family.”

Champ sighs, “Okay, I get it. How about I take you by the rodeo bar, my buddies--”

Waverly picks her clutch up off the ground so she can throw it at him again. “Are you kidding me?”

Champ comes at her with his arms out. “Baby--”

“No.” Waverly steps back, takes a deep breath. “No,” she says again, and it’s exhilarating. “No, Champ. We’re done.” She grabs her clutch off the ground. “We’re through,” she says, head held high, and stalks into Shorty’s.

“Evening Sheriff,” she says politely, and heads straight for behind the bar, pouring herself a shot and downing it almost in one motion. She pours another and swallows quickly, heading for the stairs.

“Got room in that bottle for me?”

Nicole is sitting at a table against the wall, jeans and a soft looking sweater. Her hair’s down, and Waverly blinks at her, clutching the bottle against her hip. “I--hey,” she steps closer. “Can you carry boxes?”

 

Nicole drinks lazily from the bottle, leaning against the wall while Waverly takes everything that’s hers (and two sweatshirts of Champ’s she thinks she’s earned) and packs them into cardboard boxes. Then Waverly drinks from the bottle and watches Nicole load them into the back a cruiser. They sit on the hood and drink a shot together, toasting to the single life, breath puffing out white and foggy in the night air.

“Hold on,” Nicole says when Waverly moves to hop off the hood. “I need a few minutes before I can drive you someplace.”

“In the car,” Waverly insists, “I’m cold.”

Inside the cruiser feels just as cold as outside, and Nicole turns the engine over so Waverly can crank up the heat and direct all the vents at herself. “I broke up with Champ,” she says, still shivery.

“I got that,” Nicole says. They sit in silence for a few minutes.

Waverly breathes out big. “I--was it a mistake?”

Nicole shifts, the leather creaking. “Only you can say for sure, Waverly but… I don’t think so.” She looks at Waverly, and she’s all off-duty and calm, and Waverly thinks her sweater looks so warm and soft and comfy. “I think you deserve better,” she says, quiet.

Waverly swallows, leaning in. “You’re the only one that’s ever said that to me,” she whispers.

“I’ll say it as much as you want me to,” Nicole says, and Waverly thinks she’s staring at her lips. Nicole clears her throat, jarring, and Waverly sits back in her seat. “I’m good to drive,” Nicole says. She shifts the car in drive and crunches out of the parking lot. “Where should I drop you?”

“Jackson.” Waverly twists her fingers together and looks out the window. “The old motel.”

“Mm,” Nicole replies, and it takes Waverly another two minutes to catch on.

“Hey--”

“Yeah,” Nicole says, “you’re not staying in that motel. It’s creepy, and I think the old lady slings dope.”

“Oh, she does,” Waverly replies easily. “Uh, I mean, that’s what I have heard… from other people.”

Nicole is half-smiling again, her hands rolling smoothly on the wheel as she turns. “You can crash at my place. I’m working nights starting tomorrow anyway.”

“Oh no,” Waverly starts, “I couldn’t--”

Nicole doesn’t let her finish. “I’m new in town.” She frowns. “It’s a small town, and I don’t--I won’t hide who I am.” She looks at Waverly. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Waverly thinks about the way Nicole asked to buy her a coffee, the way she dips her head and smiles, the way she rolled her eyes at Champ. “Yeah. You’re a lesbian, not a unicorn.”

Nicole’s eyes are laughing. “Right. So I get if you don’t want to…” she makes an odd gesture with one hand. “Small towns gossip, I know that.”

“I don’t care about that,” Waverly promises fiercely. “And this town might surprise you.”

“So you’re okay bunking with a unicorn?”

“Not a unicorn.” Waverly laughs a little, “and yeah, okay.”

“Good.” Nicole pulls into a place and parks. “Because we’re here.” She hops out of the car, popping the trunk as she goes.

“You!” Waverly says, closing the door behind her and going to take one of her boxes. “You played me!”

Nicole hefts two boxes, easy. “Yup.”

 

Nicole’s place is small, and a little cramped. She scratches at the back of her neck when she shows Waverly the kitchen, the bathroom. “I had to rent unseen,” she explains, “it’s a year long lease.”

“It’s homey,” Waverly offers, dropping her boxes by the couch. A few boxes of Nicole’s sit against one wall, and she arches a teasing eyebrow at them.

Nicole’s fingers hook in the loops of her jeans, like she’s reaching for a belt that’s not there. “I’ve been busy,” she mutters. “You wanna shower?”

“Yeah,” Waverly says, and Nicole finds her a set of towels, thick and soft, shows her how to work the taps. Waverly uses the soaps in the shower stall, sniffing at them a little to see what Nicole likes. She wrings her hair out with a towel and lets it dry tangled over her back, padding into the living room in a cloud of steam, her pajamas worn and comfortable on her skin.

Nicole is flopped on the couch under a blanket, the tiny television crackling with an old movie. “Bedroom’s yours,” she says when she hears Waverly behind her, not turning. “I gotta stay up, fix my sleep schedule. There’s coffee and beer in the kitchen, cereal.”

Waverly folds into the couch next to her, Nicole’s long legs folding up to make room. “I’ll take the couch.”

“Oh my mama didn’t raise me to make pretty girls sleep on the couch,” Nicole drawls, lazy. She flicks the channel over to old sitcom. “I changed the sheets.” She nudges Waverly’s leg with her toe. “You should get some sleep.”

“Yeah.” Waverly stands. She hesitates at the doorway. “Thanks Nicole.”

“Sure,” Nicole says, “anytime.”

//

When Waverly goes to work in the morning Nicole is sleeping, face smashed into a pillow, one leg hanging off the cushions. There’s a key on top of the coffee machine, and Waverly slides it on her ring, running a finger over its teeth.

When she comes back later that night Nicole’s already gone, her holster missing from the hook it’d been on in the morning. Waverly makes grilled cheese sandwiches on Nicole’s flighty stove and leaves one sitting out, wrapped in plastic, before she goes to sleep.

When she wakes up the next morning it’s gone, and Nicole is on her back on the couch, the blanket thrown off, her knitted long sleeve sleepshirt ridden up high enough Waverly can see the point of a hipbone, the dip of her belly button. Waverly walks into the doorframe on her way out, blushing bright and hot.

//

On the fifth day, Nicole’s there when Waverly gets back. “Back to days,” she says cheerfully, around a mouthful of eggroll. “There’s takeout.” Waverly finds a box of chicken fried rice and sits next to Nicole on the couch. They watch three episodes of I Love Lucy before Nicole slides all the way down, slumped over the armrest. Her chopsticks dip and Waverly rescues them, putting everything down on the coffee table.

“You need me to go so you can get some rest?”

“No,” Nicole says, fumbly with sleep. “Gotta stay up a little longer so I can…” she trails off.

“So you can what?”

Nicole blinks at her. “So I can what?”

Waverly laughs. “You need to go to sleep.” Nicole is pliant when she pushes her gently prone, picks up her legs and lays them carefully on the couch, tucks a blanket around her body, up under her chin.

“Yeah,” Nicole agrees, a full minute after Waverly’s said anything, and Waverly has to bite back another laugh. Nicole wiggles down a little further, nuzzles into the blanket.

“Goodnight,” Waverly says, soft. She brushes Nicole’s hair out of her face. Nicole mumbles something, then snores a little.

 

The next morning she’s up before Waverly is, coffee already made, and Waverly eats oatmeal at the wobbly table while Nicole crunches cereal dry, leaning against the fridge. “See you after?” She asks, strapping on her belt, checking her gun before holstering it.

“I’ll cook,” Waverly offers. There’s a weird moment, just before Nicole leaves, where she’s moving past Waverly, dropping her dish in the sink, and Waverly can smell the toothpaste they both used that morning, spearmint. Then Nicole’s out the door and Waverly’s standing at the sink, spoon dangling from her fingers.

//

Waverly makes spaghetti, because it’s fast and it’s easy and Nicole already had a can of cheap sauce in the back of her cabinets. Nicole brings home a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread and Waverly folds up a piece of a flap of one of the cardboard boxes to wedge under the wobbly leg so they can eat at the table, feet brushing.

“Are you working this weekend?” Waverly asks.

Nicole, who’s been eating slowly, but much like she hasn’t been fed a proper meal since the New Year, pauses. “Why?”

“Available apartments are…” Waverly pulls a face.

Nicole jerks a thumb around them. “I’m aware.”

“I have a house here,” Waverly says carefully, “family homestead, actually.”

Nicole looks down. “I know.”

“Everyone knows,” Waverly sighs. “I think it’s time I went home. And uh, I was wondering if you’d like to help me… maybe? I’ll feed you again.”

“Can’t turn that down,” Nicole agrees.

//

Nicole drives her to the Earp Homestead. “You sure?”

“No,” Waverly says, but gets out anyway. She gets as far as the front hood before she freezes.

Nicole walks up next to her. “Ready?” she asks after a long moment.

“No,” Waverly repeats. She slips her hand into Nicole’s, grips tight. They walk up the driveway together.

“It’s just like I remember,” Waverly whispers. She trails a few fingers along a surviving strip of crime scene tape, dusty grit on her fingers. Nicole crunches along next her, quiet.

The door creaks when she leans her weight against it, squealing open with protest, and the inside smells like old smoke, stale fabric, ghosts. Waverly’s pulls her hand out of Nicole’s, gentle, walks through the living room into the kitchen, biting her lip. Her fingers trail over the doorway, marks etched in for their heights, Willa and Wynonna, every year on their birthday. “No marks for me,” she mutters. Something rises in her throat along with tears, anger: sharp and acidic.

Nicole is still by the door, opening and closing it with a frown. “I’ve got some WD40 in the car,” she says when Waverly catches her eye. “We can fix it before I leave.” She props it open with a chunk of wood. “To air it out,” she explains. They move the boxes into the entryway, and Waverly opens up all the windows. Then they loiter on the front porch and have a drink, watch the sun dip low, quiet and sipping warm shitty beer from the can.

Waverly smiles. “You didn’t have to do all this. It’s… way more than you had to do.” She shrugs off her jacket. “I’m taking off the next two days to clean,” she says. “Dinner on Monday?”

“It’s a date,” Nicole says casually, and leaves before Waverly can parse that all the way out.

//

On Monday, Nicole shows up with whiskey. “Wine not so much an Earp thing, huh,” she teases.

“Already you understand,” Waverly says, cheery. “I made burgers.”

Nicole steps inside, shucking her jacket, still in uniform. “Smells good.”

“Worked in a bar,” Waverly explains, “basically a certified short order fry cook.”

They eat on the porch, in the old folding chairs Waverly found in the barn and cleaned up, and drink too much, toasting to good architecture and strong building materials. Nicole tipsy is lovely, Waverly thinks, a little clumsy, a little loose, leaning on the railing, the wall, falling asleep with the last of the sun’s rays on her face.

//

It’s almost a little lonely, living all by herself. She went from Gus’ to Champ’s to Nicole’s, and now she’s got a whole house, land, barn, all to her lonesome. The first time the wind whistles loud through the house she starts, because she’d forgotten it used to scare her. Willa had told her it was angry spirits, come to steal her away, and Wynonna had let her crawl into her bed when it got real bad, tucking her close and whispering stories their mother used to tell them to keep the scary thoughts away. Waverly had only tried to go to their father once about it: he’s laughed loud in her face, big enough she could smell the alcohol sour smell of his breath, then told her not to bother him with such horseshit.

She likes it, though. Her own business, her own house, the used car Gus sold to her for a pittance. She feels more herself than she has in years, maybe ever, and she turns the music up loud in the mornings so she can dance while she gets ready for work.

//

Nicole comes into the shop after almost a week of not seeing her at all. “How’s the place?” she asks.

“It’s really great,” Waverly says, surprising herself with the truth. “I love it.”

Nicole hands her a blouse. “More coffee,” she explains, “cops are sloppy with it.”

“Two days.” Waverly writes out her ticket. “Hey uh, thanks again. For everything.”

When Nicole takes it she curls her pinky to catch Waverly’s wrist. “I’m a nice person,” Nicole says.

“Maybe not that nice.” Waverly feels bold, brazen.

Nicole grins, wide and happy. “Maybe not.”

 

She comes in two days later like clockwork, just before closing, out of uniform in that sweater that makes Waverly’s fingers itch to sink into. “Credit okay?”

“Credit machine’s broken,” Waverly says after a hesitation.

“Cash then,” Nicole says, and the line is just on the tip of Waverly’s tongue but she can’t quite seem to spit it out.

“Yeah,” she says instead, and counts out Nicole’s change real careful.

//

She hears about the serial killer just like everyone else does, courtesy of a small town, and bites her nails down to nothing when she hears about the shootout at the old Carnell Barn.

Nicole comes in the next morning, a bandage wrapped around one hand, and Waverly’s around the counter and into her with a hug faster than thinking.

“Oof,” Nicole grunts, surprised. Her arms settle around Waverly, careful. “Hey there.”

“Sorry,” Waverly says, drawing back and tucking hair behind an ear, suddenly nervous. “I heard about the uh… thing.”

“Ah,” Nicole says, “the thing.” She holds up a uniform shirt and pants with a suspicious looking dark stain that Waverly’s become very good at recognizing. “It’s not all mine. Do you think you can save it?”

Waverly goes back behind the counter for a pair of gloves. “Yeah. You wanna see?”

“Yeah.” Nicole follows her into the back. “Woah.” Waverly takes the clothing from her and she wanders, lingering at Waverly’s workbench, the table where her beakers are lined up. “You are just crazy smart,” she says, the corners of her eyes all wrinkled up.

Waverly gets everything set up just so, just perfect. “It’ll be good as new,” she promises, flushing at the compliment. “Two days.”

“Two days,” Nicole agrees.

//

Two days and Waverly is wearing her favorite high-waisted shorts, a top that shows off her midriff, her hair all done up. Nicole walks in and blinks at her. “Hey.”

“Hi,” Waverly says. Nicole’s clothes are already on the counter, all wrapped up.

“Credit?” Nicole asks.

“Still broken.”

“Cash then,” Nicole says, reaching for her wallet.

“How about coffee?”

Nicole freezes, one arm still reached back. She stares for a second, then smiles, real big and happy. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Waverly agrees. “Uh, I close at five.”

“I’ll be back,” Nicole promises. She backs up out of the shop, like she doesn’t want to stop looking at Waverly until she absolutely has to.

//

Five rolls around and Waverly closes up, stands outside her shop, frowning, for forty-five minutes before heading home with a sigh. She slams into the house, in a shitty mood, and has herself four fingers of whiskey before falling asleep to some shitty ghost movie on television. She sleeps too late the next morning and has to get ready without a shower, cussing as she hops quickly into a randomized outfit and hotfooting it to the shop.

Nicole is leaning against the door, looking wan. Her chin comes up when she sees Waverly. “Hey,” she says, rushed, “about yesterday--”

“If you just want to be friends,” Waverly says, shouldering her aside to open up, “you should have just said so.”

“Waves,” Nicole says, following her in, “c’mon, it’s not like that.”

Waverly turns. “I deserve better,” she says, pointing. “I do!”

“You do,” Nicole agrees, “I should have called.”

“Yes,” Waverly says. “You should have. Now I have a business to run, so…”

Nicole leaves, the bell ringing, and Waverly leans on the counter to take a deep breath. She jerks up a moment later when the bell rings again. Nicole’s back, clutching another uniform shirt. “I have business for your business?”

“Management reserves the right--” Waverly starts.

“Waverly,” Nicole cajoles, “c’mon. I’ll make it up to you.”

Waverly sighs, deep, and snatches the shirt out of Nicole’s hand. “Groveling,” she says.

Nicole grins. “You got it. Coffee’s on me. Forever.”

An answering grin tugs at Waverly’s lips. “Damn straight, forever. You--” she feels something in the shirt with her fingers. “What…” Her index finger pokes through a hole in the chest.

“Oh,” Nicole says, making grabby hands at the shirt, “you know, that’s not mine, must have been a locker room mix up--”

Waverly steps back to keep the shirt out of Nicole’s hands. “Did you get shot?”

“No,” Nicole says swiftly, and then, “well--”

“You got shot?”

“Not really,” Nicole hedges, “I mean look, no blood!” She tries for a smile, cheerful.

“Oh,” Waverly says, “there’s gonna be blood.” She takes a meaningful step forward and Nicole retreats.

“I was wearing a vest,” she says, hands up appeasingly, “it was already so late when I woke up, and you can’t use cell phones in the hospital--”

“You were in the hospital?” Waverly’s voice is approaching supersonic screeching, and Nicole winces. Waverly props her hands on her hips. “Take off your shirt.”

Nicole’s eyes go incredibly wide. “What?”

“You heard me. Off.”

Nicole’s fingers play with the buttons, nervous. “Coffee first, maybe?”

“Oh for god’s--” Waverly yanks at her shirt, impatient.

“You’re really fast at that,” Nicole says, surprised.

“Clothing professional.” Waverly yanks the bottom out of Nicole’s pants to part the halves of her shirt. Her breath catches. Just below Nicole’s bra cup, on the right, is a massive bruise, stretching out across her ribcage in dark shades. Along the edges it’s deep purple, at the center it’s swollen black, a small bandage taped over. Waverly lays a gentle finger on very edge of the bruise, an ugly green color. Nicole sucks in a breath, and Waverly withdraws. “Sorry, sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Nicole says, “you didn’t hurt me.” When Waverly looks up her eyes are liquid, the pupil blown.

Waverly traces the edges of the bandage, brave. Nicole’s skin quivers under her fingers. “I thought you were wearing a vest.”

“I was,” Nicole says, “cracked a rib, broke the skin.” She rolls a shoulder. “All that energy’s gotta go somewhere.”

“As missing dates go, this is a pretty good excuse.” Waverly’s fingers don’t move, and she watches Nicole’s throat work in a swallow.

“So I’m forgiven?”

“You’re still buying.” Deputy Hewis walks by the window, looks at Waverly with her hand in Nicole’s shirt, and shakes her head. Waverly does her shirt back up, careful, and tangles their fingers together.

“I can live with that.”

//

Waverly lets Nicole buy her a fancy coffee at the little shop around the corner, getting in just before they close, then she drives to Nicole’s apartment, picks up a duffel bag, and goes to the homestead. “You let me stay with you when I needed it,” Waverly says, parking over Nicole’s half-hearted objections. “You can stay with me now, I’ll wrap your ribs or something.”

“They tell you not to do that now,” Nicole says mildly, following Waverly up the steps into the house. She eases onto the couch and takes as deep a breath as she can. Waverly goes to the freezer and finds a bag of frozen peas.

“Put this on it, and take those pain pills you’ve got rattling around that you’re refusing to take.”

Nicole reaches in a pocket and takes out the orange bottle. She sets it on the coffee table. “Gotta eat something.” She sounds tired.

Waverly makes her a sandwich, handfeeds it to her with the crusts cut off, makes sure she takes her pill and drink two full glasses of water.

//

In the morning she makes Nicole oatmeal, gives her the right pill, sets her up with pillows and a real ice pack. “Don’t go anywhere until I get back,” she says. “I’ve got the rodeo clowns on the shopfront, but I’ve still got to check in, assign them in case a crime scene comes up.” She points threateningly. “You. Go nowhere.”

Nicole flashes a lazy thumbs up, the painkillers making her agreeable, loopy.

“Nowhere,” Waverly repeats, halfway out the door. She pauses. “Unless you have to pee,” she amends.

 

She gets Champ to come in and cover the shopfront, because she dumped him and he’s annoying about it, but he’s not so stupid he can’t follow easy instructions. She goes home at lunch, stopping at the diner for fries and sandwiches, and when she comes in Nicole’s asleep in the same spot she was when Waverly left. Waverly eats the fries because fries are shitty cold, and curls up with her toes tucked under Nicole’s thigh to take a nap. She wakes with Nicole’s thumb sweeping over her ankle, over and over.

“Hey,” she says, voice rough with sleep. “How’s the ribs?”

“Cracked,” Nicole says, sounding a little fuzzy still.

Waverly sits up, stretching. “Lemme change your bandages.”

“Mm.” Nicole unbuttons her own shirt this time, fumbling, and Waverly goes to get tape and gauze, antiseptic, from the bathroom first aid kit. Waverly peels off the old bandage, as gentle as she can.

“Sorry,” she murmurs, when Nicole winces from the sting of the antiseptic. She rests a hand on Nicole’s thigh, comforting, and lays the new bandage over, tapes it down carefully. She sets everything aside, and hesitates. Then she dips, and lays a feather kiss against the gauze.

She looks up the long plane of Nicole’s torso, and Nicole is watching her, eyes slitted. Waverly slides the hand on Nicole’s thigh to Nicole’s hand so she can feel her pulse flutter in her wrist. She lays another kiss, this one on the stretched out edges of the bruise, and Nicole’s heartbeat rockets, rabbiting against Waverly’s fingers.

“C’mere,” Nicole murmurs, and tugs at her. Waverly slides up, careful not to rub against her ribs, and bumps awkwardly against Nicole’s nose before their lips meet, chapped and lazy.

Her first kiss with Champ was in his truck, the gearshift dug into her ribs, no idea what to do with her hands or her tongue. It was awkward and scary, in an exciting sort of way.

Her first kiss with Nicole just feels soft. Soft lips against her, the skin of Nicole’s jaw and throat soft under Waverly’s searching fingers. She’s straddling Nicole before she can think too closely about it, her tongue dipping into Nicole’s mouth, Nicole’s hands sliding down to her waist and squeezing.

When she pulls away Nicole chases her mouth, eyes closed before they flutter open. Waverly kisses her eyelids, one then the other. “Time for your pill,” she says.

Nicole grins, swollen lips and flushed. “You know, I feel better already.”

She feeds Nicole the cold sandwich, Nicole nipping playfully at her fingers, and Nicole makes her lean into her uninjured side so they can fall asleep, side by side with matching cricks in their neck, before nine, like old ladies.

//

It feels like a vacation, puttering around the house while Nicole shuffles after her, cleaning the walls together. Waverly teases Nicole about her height being next to worthless and then scolds her for trying to lift her arms above her chest. The whole place smells like lemon and pine, freshly scrubbed, and Waverly beats the dust of the rugs, mops the floor underneath while Nicole makes them dinner on the old wood stove. She sleeps on the couch for the first two nights, until Waverly figures out the best time to give her the painkillers, makes her loopy enough to blink blearily and settle down into Waverly’s bed when Waverly nudges her. Waverly sleeps tucked up against Nicole’s unbruised side, her hand resting carefully on Nicole’s chest so she can feel her heartbeat all through the night. Nicole’s cat, a one-eyed feral thing, purrs softly where she sleeps draped over Nicole’s feet.

After a week Nicole refuses the pills and starts stretching in the mornings in a tank top, wincing as she limbers up. Waverly sips coffee and oogles her from the kitchen, sometimes gets brave and slips behind her, thumbs digging into stiff muscle. Nicole makes these little noises, sighs and bit-off moans, until she gets impatient and tugs Waverly around to kiss her thoroughly.

Nicole goes back to work on a Thursday, and the wind sounds louder than it ever has, Waverly tucked up under blankets, alone.

//

Monday Nicole is waiting for her outside the shop when she closes. Waverly tugs her inside and they kiss against her workbench in the back, get grease stains all smudged up on Nicole’s pants.

“I can get those off for you,” Waverly pants against Nicole’s neck.

“Okay.” Nicole blinks at the smudges. “Oh, right.”

//

Waverly’s not sure she’ll ever forget Nicole sitting on her washing machine in black hip hugging underwear, all pale legs and laughing with her eyes, her toes painted pale pink.

//

Waverly finds the old charcoal grill in the barn and teaches Nicole how to grill steaks, laughing when Nicole insists she already knows how. Both their hair smells like fire and smoke and meat cooking, and Waverly sucks a bruise into Nicole’s whiter than white collarbone, loves the noise Nicole makes, needy and high in her throat.

//

Nicole calls her on a Thursday. “I might not be able to make dinner,” she says, rushed. There’s shouting in the background, engines, dogs barking.

“That doesn’t sound like paperwork.” Waverly taps a button to quiet the roar of the machines for a moment.

Nicole’s hesitation is obvious. “Waves…”

Waverly bites her lip. “It’s dangerous, isn’t it? I know you can’t tell me everything, but--”

“I’ll be careful, don’t worry.”

“Come over after,” Waverly says, “I don’t care how late it is. Promise?”

“Promise,” Nicole says, and the line clicks off.

//

Waverly sits on her porch, wrapped in three blankets, chewing her fingernails down until they hurt, and falls asleep, somehow. When her phone rings she jumps so hard she drops it, fumbling to pick up before it rings through. The sun is rising, she figures it’s probably around eight or so.

“Nicole?”

“Waverly,” Nicole says, and her voice breaks in the middle. “Waverly, I’m… I’m coming to get you, okay?”

“Get me? Why? Are you okay? Why didn’t you come?”

“I’m fine,” Nicole says, and Waverly hears her swallow. “I just--you have to come in, but I’m coming to get you, okay?”

“Okay,” Waverly says.

//

Nicole won’t explain in the car, her fingers tight around the steering wheel, and she shrugs off her police jacket to wrap around Waverly’s shoulders while they walk into the station. She steers Waverly into the Sheriff’s office and nudges her towards the couch. She fiddles with her belt, looking this way, then that way.

“Waverly,” she says, taking a fortifying breath, “we raided a cult compound, out in the mountains, sovereign-government type--” she stutters a little, “it, we were, the FBI decided--”

“Officer Haught.” Sheriff Nedley is standing in the doorway. “If you’ll excuse us a moment.” Nicole’s face goes stubborn. “Officer Haught. Now.”

Nicole leaves, but not before dropping a hand to Waverly’s shoulder and squeezing gently. “I’ll be right outside,” she promises.

Waverly stands as she leaves. “Someone tell me what the hell is going on.”

The Sheriff looks a little sorry for her, the way he hasn’t since he told her Wynonna wouldn’t be going with Gus and Curtis, not ever. “There was a mass suicide at a compound, up on the Snowcaps. 12 girls, and the leader.”

“Okay,” Waverly says, confused, “I mean, that’s awful, but…”

“Normally it’d take longer to identify the bodies, but Gus came down to see if any of them were the Laney’s girl, went missing about two years back.”

“I remember,” Waverly says, still confused.

“She recognized one of the bodies, one of the other bodies. She says it’s Willa.”

Waverly stands, completely still, for maybe five seconds. Then she sits, abrupt. There’s a roaring in her ears. Nedley’s still talking, saying they need to do DNA testing, just to be sure. There’s a swab kit sitting on his desk, how did she not notice that before? She grabs it, ripping it open.

“Waverly--”

She drags the swab against the cheek of her mouth, back and forth. She puts it back in the wrapping. “I have to go.”

She flees the office, ignoring Nicole’s fingers brushing her elbow, and makes it all the way outside before she can’t catch her breath; her lungs won’t fill up all the way and she’s dizzy, falling.

Nicole catches her, drags her over to the curb and sits her down. She presses a hand to Waverly’s diaphragm and hums something, tuneless and quiet, until Waverly’s vision stops narrowing. “I have to go,” Waverly says again.But she stays sitting, the concrete cold under her ass, Nicole’s palm rising and falling as she breathes.

“Okay,” Nicole says finally, and drives her home.

 

She hesitates in the driveway. “Do you want me to…?”

“No,” Waverly says. She thinks Nicole might have said something else, but she leaves, shutting the door firmly behind her.

//

Waverly goes to the attic and looks for the pieces of an old life. Crayon drawings from school, old report cards, faded pictures gone yellow and curled around the edges. With an adult’s eyes, she can see the anger in Willa’s, the harsher lines, but all she remembers from being a child is the knowledge that her sister hates her and her father agrees. All her good memories are of Wynonna, and those are pasted over with bitter abandonment.

She goes to the barn and drinks her way through a bottle of whiskey in true Earp style, then calls every number she’s ever had for Wynonna, sobbing. When she wakes up she can’t remember what she said.

//

She closes the shop, and on the third day Gus storms the homestead. “Wynonna come calling?” she asks, dry, and kicks at the glass empties piled by the door.

“I’m an Earp too.” Waverly stirs on the couch. She swallows two aspirins dry, knuckles at her temple to ease her pounding headache.

“I claimed the body,” Gus says, “we’ll bury her next to Curtis and his tomatoes, day after next.”

“Not with Daddy?” She’s already got her name carved under his, after all.

Gus hesitates. “No.” She doesn’t offer any further explanation.

“Fine.” Waverly reaches for the bottle on the coffee table and Gus takes it away.

“That Officer’s been asking around after you,” Gus says, just as Waverly’s phone chimes with another message.

“She’s a friend.” Gus snorts again. She drops a container of grease and bacon and hashbrowns on the table.

“Sober up. Wear something nice to your sister’s funeral.”

//

Waverly finds a black blouse, black flats, black trousers. She combs her hair and braids it back out of her face. Gus reads from the bible, something trite and typical, and shoves Waverly up by where the tombstone will be, when it’s done being engraved. Waverly wonders if they’re going to chip off her name where it lies over an empty plot in the city cemetery.

Waverly gropes for what she’d prepared to say. “One time,” she says instead, “I broke something of Daddy’s, and I was scared. Willa told me she wouldn’t tell, if I could walk across the beam in the barn.” She remembers being scared, her stomach flipping, and how Wynonna had burst in, monkeying up the ladder and shoving her to safety before falling herself. “We never had the chance to be friends, and we never will. But we are sisters, always.”

Wynonna had fallen, broken her wrist, and told Waverly to run before Daddy could drag himself out of the bottle he’d fallen in to see what the screaming was all about, taken the lecture and the belting and never once snitched her out. Waverly drops a handful of dirt over her sister’s body and feels hollow, hollow, hollow.

//

Nicole’s waiting on the porch when she gets back. “I was going to wait for you to call,” she says, “but I’m impatient.”

Waverly walks by her into the house, letting her bag fall to the floor. “Yeah,” she says, wooden, and heads into the kitchen for a drink. She takes a drag from the bottle, and then another, and then Nicole snags it away.

“I won’t go where I’m not wanted.” The bottle dangles from her fingers, catching the sun. “Just say the word, Waverly, and I’m gone.” Her shoulders are bowed; she looks as tired as Waverly feels.

“I’m exhausted,” Waverly admits, and her voice cracks. Nicole puts the bottle down and crowds her against the wall. She smells good, like the shower gel Waverly herself has used in her shower, wrapped in Nicole’s soft towels. Nicole presses a soft, comforting kiss to just below her ear.

“I know,” she murmurs.

Waverly turns and catches her mouth, hungry, pushes Nicole back by her hips, goes on her tiptoes to mouth at Nicole’s jaw, sink her teeth into her neck. Nicole sucks in a sharp breath, and Waverly drags her to the couch, stripping their shirts off so she can press more skin together. Nicole lets her, lets her bite too hard down her chest, her hands fumbling but insistent at Nicole’s belt. “Baby,” she says, eyes too bright, and Waverly kisses her to keep everything unsaid.

Nicole comes with Waverly’s fingers hooked inside her, the same way she likes to be touched herself, Nicole’s head thrown back, tendons standing out on her neck while she pants. She flips Waverly into a sitting position and kneels between her legs, tongue firm and unrelenting, until Waverly’s hips stutter up, her fingers tangled in Nicole’s hair and pulling hard.

“You should go,” Waverly whispers, five minutes after, her breathing still unsteady. She closes her eyes so she doesn't have to see what Nicole’s face looks like when she dresses. The door clicks shut behind her and Waverly smashes her face into the couch and drinks until she falls asleep.

//

The door whispers open, not a creak since Nicole oiled it that first day, just like she’d promised.

“Home sweet home,” Wynonna grunts, and drags Waverly into the bathroom so she can throw up for ten straight minutes, until her chest hurts and her throat burns.

“Why are you here?” she pants, after Wynonna leans her against the tub, flushes the toilet and bullies her into a cupful of mouthwash.

“You called,” Wynonna says, and Waverly tumbles into her arms like she’s six again and scared of the howling wind outside.

//

Wynonna moves into her old room and bangs around in the morning, cussing out the shower pipes, the coffee pot, the uneven front step. She disappears for a full day and a half and Nicole brings her back with a black eye and cut up knuckles, smelling like a distillery. “Drunk,” Nicole says, not looking Waverly in the eyes, “disorderly. Smashed up part of the cemetery, ripped up some tomatoes.”

“Gus’ll understand,” Wynonna slurs, “or maybe not.” Nicole shoves her in the house and easily avoids the swing Wynonna throws at her.

“Resisting arrest,” Nicole says. “But no one’s pressing any charges.”

“Fuck the police,” Wynonna spits.

Waverly grabs her by the elbow and yanks her inside. “Don’t talk to her like that.”

“Why,” Wynonna asks, snort-laughing, “what are you two, best friends?”

Waverly catches Nicole’s eye. “Friends.”

“Sure Waverly,” Nicole says, turning and leaving, “whatever you say.”

//

Waverly opens the shop back up and takes home the casseroles people keep leaving with their drycleaning. Wynonna and her eat them on the porch straight from the glass dishes, clashing forks and teasing.

It feels good, to be back at work, and Wynonna joins her, looking admiringly at Waverly’s workspace. “You’re amazing,” she says, smiling, and Waverly feels pride at the same time her stomach turns, remembering the way Nicole’d said the same thing.

Wynonna touches the postcards pinned up on the wall in the front, quiet. “I wrote you letters,” she says, trailing over the Taj Mahal, the Shanghai River, the Pyramids. “I threw them all away.”

“You’re here now,” Waverly says, and then, “are you staying?”

“I’ll pick up Chinese for tonight,” Wynonna says, and the bell dings when she leaves.

//

Waverly buys the white mocha coffee with the caramel syrup, so sweet her teeth ache just thinking about it, and brings it to the station at almost midnight. “Rookies get the shit jobs,” she says from the door.

Nicole looks up, hesitates. “Yeah,” and when Waverly slides the papercup across the counter she takes it, sipping. She smiles. “My favorite.”

“Apology coffee,” Waverly explains. She drums her fingers against the cheap wood.

“I thought I was paying forever?” Nicole’s expression is guarded.

“Here’s the thing,” Waverly says, “I don’t really want to be friends.”

Impossibly, Nicole smiles. “No?” She leans across the counter, half of the distance between them.

Waverly smiles. “No,” she says, and presses their smiles together.

//