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Open Range Hearts

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The first thing Nicole notices as they approach their destination is the stunning view of the mountains in the background. They rise high into the sky beyond the speckle of buildings and never ending landscape of green and brown fields.

“You get used to the view eventually, but that first sight, oh, she's magical.” Doc's rough voice cuts into her reverie.

Nicole's not so sure she'll be getting used to the splendor of the view ever, but she just gives a small nod.

The truck bounces along the dirt road, making noises Nicole can only describe as rickety. She's honestly surprised they made it here without breaking down or a wheel falling off.

They pass under a wrought iron archway onto the property, a circle in the middle of the arch containing an intricate looking E and R, the bottom of the first letter linking through the loop at the top of the second.

Earp Ranch.

Her soon to be place of employment for the foreseeable future. She hopes anyway.

For whatever reason, she made a good enough impression on Doc over the course of a night drinking and playing cards in town that he offered her a vacant ranch hand position.

Which she gladly accepted, because anything was better than the state of limbo that comes from being between jobs.

And it's not like Nicole can't do the work in her sleep. She's a farmers daughter through and through, no stranger to horses and cattle and everything that comes with it.

They finally come to a stop in front of what Nicole assumes is the owner's house. It's the biggest building on the property that actually looks habitable, so she thinks it's a good guess.

She hops out of the truck, walking to the open bed to grab her rucksack. There's a long trail of dust snaking it's way back out the way they came down the road, but it's slowly evaporating.

She hears a throat clear and turns to find Doc looking at her with that gaze she thinks might be scrutinizing, but it also might just be how his face looks a lot of the time.

He jerks a thumb towards the house. “That's the owner's house, obviously. That way,” he points past her, off to the right of the home, “is where the bunk house, dining hall, and cabins are.” Then he gestures to the left of the house at the large barn. “This here is what we call the 'main barn', because, well, it's the main barn.”

He gives her a rueful smile that brings out a bit of his dimples, and Nicole knows he's trying to make her feel comfortable. She appreciates the effort.

“I figure we can let you get set up in your cabin before I introduce you to -”

“Please tell me you brought back the good shit Doc.”

The voice is loud, and Nicole turns her gaze to the long wrap-around porch attached to the house.

The girl is pretty, that much is certainly true. She also looks vaguely annoyed and is leveling Doc with a look and arched eyebrow that says she expects a certain answer.

“Ah hell Wynonna, that the best you can give as a greeting?”

In lieu of a verbal response the girl, Wynonna, just puts her hands on her hips and waits.

Doc sighs, relenting. “Yes, I brought back the good shit. And more than one kind.” He waves his hand towards Nicole.

Wynonna blinks in surprise for a moment when she realizes Doc did not arrive alone, but she recovers quickly enough, making long quick strides down the front steps towards Nicole.

She sticks out a hand that Nicole shakes, noting a strong, sure grip. She knows hers is likewise.

“I'm assuming Doc hired you to be the new ranch hand. Either that or he's looking to spice up our next Friday night.”

Nicole's brow furrows, not quite understanding if Wynonna is implying what she thinks she is.

A wide grin breaks across Wynonna's face at the look. “I'm kidding. Well, I'm trying to kid anyway, it appears I haven't had enough alcohol to actually be funny yet.”

Nicole can't help the small smile that comes to her lips.

Wynonna seems kind of...eccentric. Nicole can work with eccentric. She's also pretty used to ribald humor, having worked on farms and ranches since her teenaged years.

“Well, luckily you were right on your first assumption, because if it was the second, it probably wouldn't work out as fun for Doc as he thinks it would.”

Wynonna tilts her head a fraction, and Nicole finds herself holding her breath, waiting to see if she understands; waiting to see if it's a problem.

A wicked smile takes over her lips, and she looks back to Doc, pointing at Nicole. “I like this one, she rolls with my subpar jokes. Let's keep her.”

Nicole lets out a slow breath.

“Please tell me you're not terrorizing the new ranch hand already Wynonna. It'd be nice if you didn't drive her away in less than 24 hours.”

Nicole looks over Wynonna's shoulder to the porch.

And just like that, she feels like she's holding her breath again.

If Nicole absently thought Wynonna was pretty upon first sight, she doesn't know what to describe the girl she's looking at as.

Whatever it is makes Nicole's heart stutter in her chest for a moment.

Nicole frowns at the reaction. Most inconvenient.

“Waaaaaave,” Wynonna whines, “why are you always trying to ruin my fun?”

The girl rolls her eyes as she walks forward to introduce herself.

“Waverly Earp.” She extends a hand, and Nicole takes it, aware that her shake is softer than it was for Wynonna.

Waverly drops her gaze down, looking at their joined hands for just a moment before her eyes dart back up. They seem a little bit wider than before, but Nicole figures she's imagining things.

“Nicole. Nicole Haught.”

Wynonna laughs. “Your last name is pronounced 'hot'? Oh my god, you just get better and better.”

Waverly shoots Wynonna a look that clearly says 'please shut the fuck up' before turing back to Nicole.

There's the tiniest hint of pink to her cheeks now, and the color darkens just a bit when Waverly realizes they're still holding hands.

She pulls away and Nicole misses the contact immediately.

“Please excuse my sister, she's an acquired taste.”

Nicole smiles warmly. “No worries, nothing I can't handle.”

Wynonna smacks Waverly in the arm. “See? Nothing she can't handle.”

Waverly gives her another unimpressed look before smiling at Nicole.

“Glad to hear it. And welcome aboard, look forward to working with you.”

She turns her full attention to Wynonna. “I'm heading out to meet Champ, not sure if I'll be back tonight. Don't wait up.”

Wynonna gives a funny looking thumbs up sign at her sister, who nods once more at Nicole before walking away.

“Gross.”

Nicole's not sure she heard the word Wynonna muttered correctly, but one look at her face tells her she definitely did.

Her eyes trail Waverly until she disappears around the side of the barn, before returning to Nicole.

“Well, I'll let Doc show you to your cabin so you can get settled.” She starts to walk away before turning back, “and get some sleep Haught-stuff, we're going to see what you're made of tomorrow.” A rueful grin later and she's back up the steps and heading into the house.

Nicole startles a bit when she hears Doc chuckle. She almost forgot he was here. “Well, you met the Earp sisters, and you're still standing here, so I'd say that's a pretty good first day.”

Nicole would have to agree, it was a pretty good first day indeed.

*****

Tendrils of steam climb from the tin mug of coffee Nicole sips on while taking in the view of the mountains.

It's something Nicole can see herself doing each morning. If she's going to have to get up at the crack ass of dawn almost every day, it might as well come with a view.

She just finished breakfast in the ranch hand communal kitchen/dinning building, getting introduced to all the other workers. They seem like a nice enough lot.

There's Fish and Levi, who seem to be around Nicole's age, who bunk together in one cabin; Nedley, who comes across as the old timer who's seen it all (and doesn't have a whole lot to say about it); Shorty, a congenial middle-aged man who immediately makes Nicole feel at ease; and finally there's Dolls, who Doc introduced rather shortly, stating he does some stuff 'here and there'.

It earned Doc a pointed look from Dolls over his coffee mug.

Doc merely grinned back at him unapologetically.

“You survived your first group breakfast, that's a good sign.” Wynonna's voice interrupts the memory.

“Indeed I did. It takes a lot more than that to scare me off.”

Wynonna makes a small humming noise, leaning against the porch rail on the side of the steps opposite Nicole.

Her eyes sweep across the horizon of mountains for a moment before she turns and reaches out to take Nicole's coffee mug. She gives it a sniff before taking a sip.

Nicole's eyes narrow, her mouth opening to tell Wynonna how insulting it is she thinks she'd drink on the job, especially on her first day.

“Girl scout.” Wynonna hands the mug back with a smirk on her face.

Nicole closes her mouth again at her words. That was...unexpected. Although after last night, maybe it shouldn't be.

She shrugs. “I was a girl scout at one time, and a damn good one at that.”

Wynonna's smirk grows into a sarcastic grin. “I'll bet.”

“Also, it's 6:00 in the morning.” Nicole points out.

Wynonna rolls her eyes. “Good lord Haught, all the more reason for needing a drink.” She slaps her hands against her thighs, pushing off the railing.

“Alright, let's see what you're made of. We've got a herd of cattle that needs branding.”

Nicole swallows the dregs of her coffee slowly, trying to cover her distaste. Sure, she's done plenty of branding in her life, but finds it rather barbaric if she's perfectly honest.

She must not hide her feelings well because Wynonna gives her an understanding smile.

“We use a special freezing method for branding. It removes hair in the shape of the pattern, rather than burning it into their skin. I never cared for the hot iron method, but Waverly, oh man, it used to make her cry as a kid. It was a top priority when we took over to find a better way.”

Nicole feels a smile spread across her lips. “That's refreshing to hear.”

She ducks back into the kitchen quickly to dispose of her mug, and when she returns, Wynonna turns on her heel immediately, heading for the barn.

“Do try to keep up, Haught, lots of work to do.”

Nicole tugs her stetson down a bit to hide her grin as she follows.

She likes it here.

*****

It's been a long first full day, and Nicole is feeling the exhaustion set in.

She'll never let it outwardly show, and certainly not to her boss, but the time off in between jobs has her a little less in shape than she used to be. That'll change soon enough though.

Ranch life is pretty much 24/7, and with springtime calving season about to start, Nicole knows her ass will be whipped back into shape in no time.

She looks forward to it.

She and Wynonna finish their horseback ride along the perimeter of the pasture closest to the barn, where all the pregnant Heifers are being kept until they give birth, and head back towards the main barn.

Tomorrow night will be Nicole's night to stay up, riding around the pasture and keeping an eye out for any Heifers that might be in labor.

It's a job she's familiar with, and one that no one ever really relishes, because it involves cold and lack of sleep, but Wynonna rotates all of her ranch hands during the calving season so no one ever gets the short end of the stick.

They turn their horses over to Fish to unsaddle and groom before heading out of the barn, stumbling to a stop at the ruckus going on in front of the homestead.

Doc and Dolls are rolling around on the ground, yelling profanities and insults at one another.

Nedley's trying to break it up, but he just ends up with Doc's boot to his face, his stetson falling into the dirt as his backside hits the ground.

“Hey! Break it up assholes!” Wynonna yells, striding over to try and get a handle on the situation.

Shorty puts a hand on her shoulder to stop her before she can jump into the fray.

“Don't bother, they've been going at each other all day. You'll get yourself hurt if you try to break it up.” He spits on the ground, eyeing the rolling ball of fisticuffs that is still Doc and Dolls. “Let 'em get it out of their system.”

Nicole is so absorbed in watching the shit show unfolding in front of her she doesn't even notice the younger Earp sister come out of the house.

She nearly has a heart attack when the shotgun blast goes off. Judging by how high everyone else jumps and the looks on their faces, they're in similar positions.

Doc and Dolls whip their heads around to the source of the sound, eyes wide.

“If you don't break this up right now, I will bring the pain, do you hear me?” Waverly's face says she is not messing around.

Nicole actually has a visceral reaction to the sight of a pissed off Waverly brandishing a shotgun, but she frantically tries to tamp it down right away.

“Doc, get in the house so I can look at that split lip. Dolls, go with Shorty, let him take care of that nick on your ear.” Waverly commands.

When everyone just continues to stare at her, she pumps the shotgun again in warning. “NOW!”

Everyone scrambles after that, happy to get away from Waverly's wrath.

Nicole, slides her hands into her back pockets, waiting casually to see if Wynonna needs anything else from her.

She's helping Doc up form the ground, and he jerks his head in her direction when he notices her waiting.

Wynonna looks over. “Oh, yeah. We're good for today Haught. Get some sleep. Don't worry about coming 'round for work till a little later tomorrow since you'll be doing an overnight.” She heads into the house with Doc in tow without waiting for a response.

Nicole slides her eyes to Waverly, who seems to have just noticed her standing there.

“That was some show. Remind me to never get on your bad side.” Nicole gives her a smile that's been described as 'easy and charming' more than once in her life.

A light pink color stains Waverly's cheeks, her eye widening a bit. “I am so sorry you had to see that, and on your first full day. God, you must think we're a bunch of heathens.”

Nicole chuckles. “Hardly. I've spent my life around ranches, I've seen far worse, trust me.” As an after thought she adds “But never something quite as badass as what you just did”

The flush on Waverly's cheeks darkens a bit more as her eyes flit away. They come back after a moment, and a small smile takes over her mouth. “Well thank you. I think.”

Her smile grows a bit more, and Nicole's heart trips over itself.

“I better go see how Doc is doing.”

Nicole nods, taking a step backwards. “You have yourself a good night Waverly.”

“You too Nicole.”

Nicole spins on her heel and walks away then, before she can make a fool out of herself with her reaction to hearing Waverly say her name.

She tells herself, again, how very, very, bad it is to develop a crush on the boss.

She makes the decision to nip it in the bud now and only see Waverly when she has to.

That should be simple enough when working, eating and sleeping on a ranch together, right?

*****

The night is cloudless, and the stars are absolutely breathtaking with the lack of light pollution on the ranch.

Not that Nicole has a lot of time to enjoy them, but she sneaks a minute to look skyward when she can.

The rest of the time is split between slowly riding her horse through the pasture over and over, keeping an eye out for any heifers displaying the characteristics of labor, and trying not to freeze her ass off.

She's got her chin tucked down into the collar of her shirt and jacket, her stetson pulled low, and a lot of layers on, but the early spring night is permeating its way through everything.

Every once in awhile she stands in the saddle, trying to get better blood circulation, in the foolish hopes it will bring a little more warmth to her body.

Her eyes sweep the pasture again as she does another pass through, and she's just about ready to spend another couple minutes looking at the stars, when she notices the heifer in the far corner of the fencing.

The cow is showing signs of distress, but that can happen for short periods of time, eventually coming to nothing.

Nicole rides closer, narrowing her eyes to get a better feel for the situation.

Normal protocol is to watch for thirty minutes to see if it's just a false alarm. It only takes Nicole twenty minutes to realize something is wrong.

“Come on girl.” She mutters as she tries to slowly corral the cow towards the barn.

It's a slow ten minutes, filled with gentle pleading and riding her horse behind the cow at a snail's pace to keep her moving.

When they finally reach the barn Nicole shuts the gate on the pen, and quickly walks to the walkie talkie radio setup.

“Hey Fish and Levi, you guys copy?” She waits a minute, before trying again.

About thirty seconds after her second transmission she gets a static response before Levi's sleepy voice come across. “Yeah Haught, we're here. One of the ladies go into labor?”

“I think so, but she's not acting right about it. I don't have a good feeling.”

“Okay, we'll be there in just a few, hang tight.”

Nicole switches the radio off and heads back to the pen.

It's only a few minutes later that Fish and a still half-asleep Levi come ambling into the barn.

They're the experts when it comes to animal care, so Nicole defers to them immediately, assisting with whatever they need.

The labor is slow going. Fish and Levi's face are serious and grim throughout the ordeal, which tells Nicole her initial assessment is most likely right.

When the calf is finally born, shaky legs and slime covered, it's clear the mother won't last much longer.

Levi puts a gentle hand on Fish's shoulder, murmuring something quietly to him. Watching the moment play out, Nicole thinks she knows why they share a cabin. She's curious if anyone else is aware, but it's none of her business, and certainly not the time for it.

Levi leaves the barn then, for what Nicole is not sure, and she waits for Fish's next directions.

“Can you come hold her head up a bit? I'm going to get the little one set in her own pen.” He asks, and Nicole is happy to comply.

The cow is lying down now, which is something they almost never do, so Nicole knows it will be over soon.

She eases herself down in the bed of hay, ignoring the dampness that seeps into her jeans, and gently moves a knee underneath the cows head.

She can hear Levi coming back through the barn, and when he rounds the corner he's not alone.

Waverly climbs over the gate into the pen and drops down next to Nicole, reaching a hand out to run it along the cow's neck.

“Hey pretty girl, heard you're not feeling well.”

Waverly's face is grim, so Nicole knows she's aware of how the situation will ultimately end. That part is at least a relief. She'd hate for Waverly to have false hope.

Waverly peeks up at Nicole, giving her a small smile and 'Hey' before returning her full attention to the cow.

They sit in amiable silence, with Waverly occasionally murmuring gentle words to the animal, as Fish does what needs to be done around them.

Once it's over, Fish softly tells them they can go, that there's nothing more to be done.

Waverly's voice breaks when she tells him thank you, and she's out of the pen and the barn in an instant.

Nicole follows her route to make sure she's okay, and she finds her just outside the main doors, arms wrapped around herself in the chilly night.

Her eyes hold unshed tears, and Nicole's heart aches for her.

“Hey.” She says softly, careful not to startle Waverly. She places a gentle hand on her arm, hoping it conveys comfort.

Waverly looks down immediately at her hand, and Nicole is afraid she's overstepped a boundary, so she quickly pulls it back to her side.

She searches Waverly's face for any sign of anger, but instead she sees only sorrow.

It's then that the tears come in earnest, and before Nicole knows what is happening, Waverly is stepping into her personal space, Nicole's arms coming up to wrap around her without conscious thought.

She stays silent as Waverly cries into the front of her jacket, rubbing her hands softly up and down her back in an effort to sooth.

After a few minutes Waverly seems cried out, and she steps back out of Nicole's arms, wiping at the tear tracks on her cheeks.

“I'm sorry. God that's so embarrassing. You would think being in this line of work I wouldn't be affected like that. I'm such an idiot.”

Nicole shakes her head softly. “No, I think it's amazing you care so much. Don't ever change that.”

Waverly's lips curl into the smallest smile, and Nicole can feel her heart flip in her chest.

How long they stand there with their gazes locked, Nicole can't be sure, but eventually Wynonna's voice breaks the moment.

“Hey baby girl.” She steps up next to Waverly, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and kissing the side of her head. “I made some tea. Why don't you go have some and try to relax? I'll be in soon.”

Waverly nods, pausing to give a little wave. “Night Nicole.”

Nicole just nods, words escaping her in the moment.

Luckily, Wynonna is too pre-occupied with watching Waverly walk into the house to notice anything strange in Nicole's behavior.

By the time Wynonna levels her gaze at her, Nicole has herself composed again.

“Follow me.” Wynonna clips out, wasting no time walking into the barn.

Nicole feels nervous. A cow died on her first night watch. It's not something she had any control over, but still, not the best way to start things.

Wynonna strides over to the old, dusty desk the walkie-talkie radio equipment sits on, opening the bottom drawer and pulling a bottle out.

She pulls the top off and takes a generous swig before handing the bottle to Nicole.

Nicole shakes her head. “I'm still on night watch.”

Wynonna waves a hand dismissively. “Nah, I got Dolls up, he's going to finish up the night for you.”

That seems awfully nice of Dolls, Nicole thinks, unless it's because she's being let go. An ache starts in the pit of her stomach at the thought.

When Wynonna shoves the bottle towards her again, the contents sloshing noisily, Nicole grabs it and takes a gulp.

The liquor burns on the way down, but it's welcome.

Wynonna eyes her carefully, and Nicole waits silently for whatever is to come.

“Rough first night Haught.”

Nicole just nods.

“Fish said you handled it real well. And I can't thank you enough for being there for Waverly. She has such a hard time when things like this happen, and the guys aren't always the most sensitive about it.”

Nicole blinks in surprise. Wynonna is thanking her?

A sarcastic looking grin takes over Wynonna's face. “What, did you think you were getting fired?”

“I-” Nicole cuts off, not sure how to answer. “Maybe?”

“Oh hardly Haught-Stuff. I like you. Waverly likes you.”

A warmth that has nothing to do with the alcohol spreads through Nicole.

“So you'd have to do a lot worse than actually performing your job well to get fired, my friend.”

“Okay.” Nicole responds simply, relief sweeping through her as she takes another swing from the bottle.

“Just because I like you doesn't mean you can drink all my booze, jerk.” Wynonna winks at her before taking the bottle back. “I'm going to take this little lady to bed. You should get some sleep too. Plenty to do in the morning.” She heads out of the barn, leaving Nicole by herself.

Nicole stands rooted to the spot for another minute.

She has the strangest feeling that coming to the Earp Ranch might just be one of the best things that's ever happened to her.

She shakes her head at herself and her own absurd thoughts before finally heading off to bed.

 

 

Chapter Text

Nicole settles into life at the Earp Ranch with ease, the first few weeks passing by in a blur of hard labor, mountain views and smiles from Waverly Earp.

She spends any downtime (though there really isn't much) learning the land, riding the miles and miles of vast fields.

She even picks out her favorite tree on the property. It’s an old western-yellow pine that grows high into the blue sky on the banks of a river that winds through the fields. Nicole fully intends to sit against it and watch the water run by at the first opportunity.

By the end of her first month, she fits in seamlessly with the other ranch hands, and they work together as a well oiled machine.

Calves are born and brought out to initial pasture with regularity throughout the spring. The only loss of the season turns out to be the Heifer who passed during Nicole’s first night watch.

Luckily, the calf born that night has flourished despite not having it’s own mother to feed from.

They tried having the little guy feed from another Heifer at first, but it never quite took, so instead they take turns feeding him from an oversized bottle, Waverly taking on the task more than anyone.

It’s cute, the bond they’ve formed. Nicole can’t help but smile whenever she finds Waverly in the barn, talking away to the calf as it feeds from the bottle, as if it can understand her.

The calf has a particular marking of brown on the back of the head that makes it easy for Nicole to pick out in the herd, and she finds herself looking out for him a bit more than the others.

Not that she would ever admit to that.

Nor would she ever admit why.

She does her best to keep her ridiculous crush to herself. She knows it’s a terrible idea, and could possibly get her fired if anyone ever found out.

Most of the time she’s able to play it close to the vest. At least, she’d like to think so.

But sometimes, well, sometimes the moments sneak up on her.

Like this afternoon.

She’s up in the loft of the main barn, a conveyer belt angled up from the ground through the large second story doors, feeding bales of hay one after the other for Nicole and Doc to stack up for later use.

It’s grueling, dirty and sweaty work.

Nicole loves it.

Doc motions to her that he’s stepping away from the belt for a minute, before heading towards the stairs.

Nicole is solely focused on catching the bales of hay and swinging them over to the stacked row currently being built up, but when she vaguely hears a familiar melodious laugh her eyes wander of their own volition to the stairs to find Doc and Waverly engaged in conversation.

Nicole fully intends to turn her attention right back to her work, really, but the crop top Waverly is wearing has other ideas.

The thud of a hay bale hitting the floor draws Nicole’s attention back to the task at hand, and she quickly reaches down to grab it, hoping the pair did not notice.

When she turns back to grab the next bale she knows her hope is in vain.

Doc has an eyebrow raised at her, and Waverly gives her a quick smile and wave before setting off down the stairs.

Doc takes his time, sauntering back over to the belt.

“You all right there Haught? Lose sight of your task for a second?”

Nicole laughs it off, schooling her features into casual.

“You going to get back to work here old man, or just sit there shooting the breeze?”

His dimples come out as he grins, but he drops it and joins back in the stacking.

By the time they finish the sun is just starting to set.

It’s been a long and physically exhausting day, but the way the sky is starting to change into the most beautiful colors keeps Nicole on the second floor of the barn for a few more minutes, leaning against the frame of the open doors, gaze fixed on the landscape.

Late spring has clearly arrived, by the way the fields are becoming a more vibrant green, the mountains losing some of the white fingers of snow snaking down their crevices.

“This is one of my favorite spots on the whole ranch, just for the sunset view.”

Nicole startles, whipping her head around to see Waverly approaching.

She gives Nicole an apologetic smile. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“No worries. Now, if you had startled me so much I accidentally plunged to my death? Then maybe I would have been upset. Probably would have haunted your ass for years, to be honest. But that didn’t happen, so we’re good.” Nicole shrugs, and gives a casual smile.

Waverly raises her eyebrows, one corner of her mouth curling up softly. “Wow. Well then, remind me not to ever risk startling you again.”

“That seems like a solid plan.”

Nicole can’t help the way her eyes are drawn to Waverly’s hair, and how the gold of the setting sun is highlighting the gentle waves it falls in today.

Her gaze pauses when she notices a piece of hay sticking out from the side.

“Um, you’ve got something...” she trails off, reaching a hand towards Waverly’s head before freezing the action, unsure if she has permission to touch.

Waverly pats at her head in the wrong spot. “Oh god, what is it? Please tell me it’s just hay or dirt, and not bird shit or something.”

Nicole laughs. She quickly picked up on the fact that the Earp girls do not have any qualms about swearing, and Waverly’s favorite curse word seems to be ‘shit’, and all of its variations.

“Just a piece of hay. I can get it for you.” She reaches out again, grabbing the straw of hay.

She rolls the piece between thumb and index finger as she pulls it back.

Waverly watches the action intently, before her eyes flick up to Nicole’s.

And Nicole feels trapped.

Trapped in the moment and the way the sunlight is dancing in Waverly’s eyes. She can feel her heart pounding in her chest.

“Hey Waves, baby, you up there?”

An unfamiliar male voice breaks the moment, and Nicole takes a small step back at the same time Waverly does.

“Yeah Champ, I’m here.”

The boy, Champ, bounds up the stairs of the barn, walking right up to Waverly to plant a noisy kiss on her lips.

Nicole would have pegged his name as Biff, if anyone asked, but Champ gives a similar enough feel.

He’s got enough gel in his hair that his head would probably go up in flames if someone lit a match within ten feet of him. He’s handsome enough though, so Nicole figures he’s got that going for him.

He maneuvers himself behind Waverly, wrapping one arm around the front of her shoulders while reaching out a muscular, tattooed arm to Nicole for a handshake.

“Champ. I’m this adorable little things boyfriend. And you are?”

His entire posture and air screams ‘mine’ in regards to Waverly, and Nicole has to fight hard to suppress an eye roll.

Seems they have a real boy-man on their hands then.

“Nicole. Nicole Haught. I’m the new ranch hand.”

“Ooohhhh, right, Waves told me she was hiring someone new. I didn’t realize it’d be a chic.”

Nicole clenches her jaw, telling herself he isn’t worthy of her aggravation.

He certainly isn’t worthy of Waverly either, but that’s really not for her to decide.

Waverly finally interjects, saving the moment. “Yeah, well, Nicole was definitely the right person for the job. She’s been a perfect fit.”

Nicole can’t quite keep the smile from her face at the words.

“Ready to head to dinner?”

Champ gives a series of quick, sloppy kisses to the side of Waverly’s head before answering. “Of course baby, let’s go.”

He gives Nicole one last fleeting glance. “Nice meeting you Nicky.”

They’re down the stairs by the time she mutters “It’s Nicole.”

She gives them a few minute head start before leaving the barn, not keen on catching anymore displays of affection.

Dusk has fallen by the time she makes it to her cabin.

After a glorious hot shower and dinner, Nicole tries to relax, but she can’t turn her mind off. She thinks maybe a walk outside might help still the mental train.

As she walks by the main house she doesn’t even notice Wynonna at first, but the familiar sound of liquid sloshing in a bottle draws Nicole’s eyes to the front porch.

There are multiple chairs scattered along the wrap around porch, but Wynonna is sitting in none of them, opting to sit directly on the porch, back against the siding of the front of the house.

When Wynonna notices Nicole’s presence, she gives a little wave with the bottle.

“How goes it Haught-stuff?”

“It’s going. How about yourself?”

“Great.” Wynonna makes a funny looking face that seems like a cross between a smile and a grimace before taking another swig from the bottle.

“You sure about that?” Nicole can’t help the feeling that Wynonna is not quite her usual sarcastic, casual self tonight.

Wynonna shrugs before smacking at the porch next to herself and jerking her head towards the spot.

“Pull up some real estate and have a drink with me.”

Nicole slowly makes her way up the porch steps, her body protesting after the long work day. She slides down beside Wynonna, mirroring her position of one leg out straight, the other bent at the knee.

Wynonna hands over the bottle.

Nicole’s worked here long enough, and spent enough time with Wynonna, to know not to refuse. She takes a healthy swig before handing the bottle back.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” She tries again.

Wynonna huffs out a laugh. “I’m fine. Just felt like a little drinking and stargazing…” She trails off, her eyes losing their focus. “It’s the anniversary-” Her eyes sharpen again as she cuts herself off, shaking her head. “Never mind that, boring stuff, wouldn’t want to put you to sleep.”

Nicole highly doubts that would happen, but she doesn’t want to pry.

They sit in amicable silence for a few minutes, listening as the chirp of crickets rise up in the dark around them.

“So what’s your story Haught? How does a girl like you end up in a place like this?”

Nicole is the one shrugging this time. “Oh, you know, been working on ranches for eight years or so, taking jobs for however long they’re available, moving on when they’re not. Looking for that right fit, ya know?”

Wynonna makes a humming noise.

“Family? Siblings or parents?”

Nicole gives a tight smile. “I have an older sister. She’s got a couple kids, a husband. My parents are still alive.”

Wynonna rolls her head to the side to look at Nicole. “Shit heads?”

“Nah, not really. It’s just, once they realized I really wasn’t going to settle down with a nice man and give them more grand babies, or take over the family farm, well, they didn’t have a whole lot of use for me.”

“Dude, parents suuuuuck.” Wynonna draws the last word out.

“Yeah?” Nicole asks. She’s trying to tread carefully without crossing boundaries, but she must admit, she’s curious about the Earp sisters’ background.

Wynonna chuckles. “Yeah. Our Mama got restless of the ranch life when Waves was four and took off, haven’t heard a word from her since. And Daddy? Well, let’s just say, we share more than one personality trait.” She shakes the bottle in her hand to convey her meaning.

Nicole feels an ache start in the pit of her stomach thinking about that kind of childhood.

“Honestly, if it wasn’t for Shorty and Nedley, this place probably would’ve fallen apart before Wave and I had the chance to take over.”

“Well, I have to say, I’m pretty happy that didn’t happen. I kinda like it here.”

Wynonna makes a disgusted face, taking another drink from the bottle before wiping her lips with the back of her sleeve.

“God, Haught who knew you were such a sap?”

Nicole gives a quiet chuckle, not bothering to answer.

Wynonna falls silent again, and Nicole knows she should leave it alone, but she feels compelled to ask, even though the answer is already pretty clear.

“And your Dad? Where is he now?”

Wynonna shakes her head softly, her eyes going distant again. “They found him out in the fields one day, said he had a heart attack. I still don’t know if that’s true, or if they made that the official story for Waverly’s benefit.”

They fall into silence again, but it’s easy, and Nicole is happy to find it not at all uncomfortable to sit here with Wynonna after a conversation like that.

A barn owl hoots in the night, eliciting a ‘fucking creepy’ from Wynonna.

After that they fall into easier conversation, about childhood shenanigans and teenage drunken hijinks.

Unsurprisingly, Wynonna has more drunken stories than Nicole.

They’re so engrossed in their conversation neither of them even notice Waverly until she’s standing right in front of them, eyebrows raised in question.

“Are you two drunk?”

“Waaaaaaaves, good to see you too.” Wynonna answers ignoring the question. She narrows her eyes. “What are you doing back? I didn’t think I’d see you till morning.”

Waverly runs a hand through her hair (her really shiny, pretty hair, Nicole thinks), as her eyes drift away.

“Oh you know, I decided to call it night. Champ was being…”

“Champ?” Wynonna supplies, popping the ‘p’ at the end of his name with her lips.

Waverly scowls, but her face softens instantly. “Well, yeah.”

Wynonna shakes her head. “I honestly have no idea what you see in that asshole.”

“Limited dating options Wynonna, and he’s not that bad.”

Wynonna scoffs. “Whatever you say Waves, it’s your life, you’re free to date whatever scum you want, I guess.”

An awkward silence falls over them, until Wynonna goes and breaks it, making Nicole really wish she hadn’t.

“Speaking of limited dating options, can you think of any ladies in town off the top of your head that might have interest in our resident Haught ranch hand here?”

Nicole’s heart sinks in her chest. She'd like to disappear right about now.

It’s not that she keeps her a sexuality a secret, all the guys know at this point, and hell, she’d essentially outed herself to Wynonna during their first conversation.

No, it’s more that, for whatever reason, the topic hasn’t come up with Waverly yet.

Nicole holds her breath, hating the nervousness she can feel creeping up her spine as she waits for Waverly to react.

There’s a hint of surprise in Waverly’s eyes when they flick to Nicole for a split second, but it’s gone in an instant as her eyes return to Wynonna.

“I can’t say that I do, and I doubt Nicole needs your matchmaking help anyway. Not to mention, you have your own terrible track record when it comes to picking partners.”

“Hey! I’ll have you know, I have fantastic taste!”

Nicole lets out a slow breath in relief as the sisters start to bicker back and forth. That went about as well as she could hope.

She doesn’t miss the vague reference to ‘multiple horses in the stable’ Waverly levels at her sister, which confirms some of the things Nicole’s noticed around here when it comes to Wynonna and the other ranch hands. Doc and Dolls, in particular.

Nicole figures it’s time to make her exit when Waverly starts her long list of ill-suited guys Wynonna hooked up with in high school.

She groans as she stands, her body stiff from sitting on the hard wood. Her eyes widen when she realizes both Earp girls have stopped talking and are staring at her.

“Hey, don’t stop the show on my account,” she holds her hands up in front of her, “I just figured it was time I called it a night. Work to do in the morning and all.”

“Fine, leave me here with this wretched child, see if I care.” Wynonna pouts, but it doesn’t hold malice.

“Oh I’m sure you’ll be just fine.” She spares a glance at Waverly, still a little nervous after the earlier conversation.

“Night Waverly.”

But Waverly just gives her a soft smile and wave, like always, with a quiet “Night Nicole.”

Nicole slowly makes her way back towards the cabins.

She swears she can feel Waverly’s eyes on her as she disappears into the darkness.

*****

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

Wynonna hops down from her horse and stalks over to the destroyed piece of fencing.

She and Nicole have been riding the perimeter of the land for hours, checking the fencing to make sure it’s ready for when they start rotating cattle amongst the fields.

The calves are all big enough to make shorter trips, and it’s imperative to rotate them through the fields for optimal grass feed before they make the long overnight cattle drive to the far pastures come summer.

So far everything looked to be in great shape, until they came upon a small, completely missing section of fence.

The remnants of what used to hold the perimeter together lay charred on the ground.

Nicole furrows her brow in confusion. She’s encountered rare occurrences of lightning burning a section of fence, but this seems too large a gap, and the wood stakes seem too burnt, as if they were on fire for a prolonged period of time.

She dismounts her horse to drop down next to Wynonna, who’s on her knees inspecting the damage.

“Revenant scum.” Wynonna spits out.

“Huh?” Nicole does not understand the reference.

Wynonna waves a hand at the fields beyond the fencing. “Revenant Ranch. It borders our ranch on the north side. Run by a scumbag who’s made no secret about how much he’s wanted to buy us out for years, double his operation size. When Waves and I refused, well, it made enemies out of us.”

“Apparently.” Nicole runs her hand over the charred wood, black soot smearing across her glove.

She’s heard of feuds developing between ranches, but never been part of one herself before.

“Why don’t we head back? I’ll grab some supplies and a couple of the boys and we’ll get this fixed up in no time?” She offers.

Wynonna nods, hardened eyes still looking across the horizon. “Sounds like a plan Haught.”

*****

The sun hasn’t quite started to set by the time they’re almost finished repairing the fence.

Levi and Shorty leave Nicole and Dolls to make the finishing touches, loading most of the tools into one of two ATV vehicles the property has, before driving back towards the main property for evening rounds.

Nicole assumes the boys forgot something when she hears the distant drone of an approaching vehicle, but when she looks up she finds the Earp sisters coming to a stop in the other ATV.

“How goes it?” Wynonna asks.

“Good, we’ll be wrapping up soon.”

Wynonna nods, her eyes sweeping down the length of the fence.

Dolls clears his throat, giving a head tilt to Wynonna. “Might not hurt to take a quick lap in the ATV to make sure the rest of the fencing in this area is still intact.”

“Good idea, let’s ride.”

“Wait-" Waverly calls out, but Wynonna throws a hand in the air as she’s walking away.

“We’ll be back in just a few baby girl. Sit tight and keep Haught-pants company, okay?”

They hop in the ATV and drive away before Waverly even finishes her “But I have somewhere I have to be soon…” She cuts herself off with a sigh. “That is just like her.”

Nicole rubs the back of her neck and smiles at Waverly apologetically.

Waverly smiles back, but her body language is tense, and Nicole can tell she has places to be.

Nicole looks to her horse, an idea forming in her head. Not a very good one, but an idea nonetheless.

She clears her throat, drawing Waverly’s attention back to her.

“I’m almost done here, if you wanted, I could maybe…give you a ride?”

Waverly looks confused for about ten seconds before it dawns on her, and her eyebrows raise a fraction of an inch.

“You mean, on your horse?”

“Well…yeah. I don’t know that it would be the most comfortable thing for you, but it’d get you back home a lot faster than walking, or waiting for Wynonna and Dolls to get back. There’s enough day light left for me to make it back out here to finish up before darkness.”

Nicole waits.

A nervous energy courses through her body as the seconds tick by. This is the first extended period of time her and Waverly have spent together alone since the night on the porch.

For some reason, this feels like a test of sorts to Nicole, to see if they can still be as easy and friendly with each other as before.

Waverly gives one more look over her shoulder towards where Wynonna and Dolls took off through the field. When her gaze returns there’s a humorous light to it, and it relaxes Nicole.

“Why not? Who knows how the hell long those two will be.”

Nicole grins, moving to mount her horse.

She steps into the stirrup and hoists herself up, swinging a leg over the horse before sliding as far up in the saddle as she can go.

She lowers a hand to help Waverly up.

Nicole feels a tiny jolt at the initial contact when Waverly takes her hand, but she keeps her expression neutral, offering a steady leverage as Waverly swings up behind her.

It takes her a moment to settle in against Nicole’s back; a moment Nicole spends questioning her own sanity, because really, how did she ever think this would be a good idea?

Waverly ‘harrumphs’ from behind her.

“Something wrong back there?” She turns her head to look back, catching Waverly’s eye.

“No, nothing wrong. Just not thrilled to have no view of where we’re going. Drawback of the whole challenged height thing.”

Nicole likes Waverly’s height just fine, but she keeps that to herself.

“Would you prefer the front?”

The surprise is evident on Waverly's face. “You would actually let me sit in front?”

“Well yeah, I mean, technically this is your horse. I’m not too proud to take the back seat.”

The smile Waverly gives her is soft. “Good to know.”

They stare at each other for a moment too long, before Nicole realizes herself. She clears her throat and raises an eyebrow in question. “So, you wanna switch?”

Waverly shakes her head. “No, thank you for the offer though, I’ll be all right.”

Nicole sets them off at a slow pace, wanting to ensure the ride is comfortable and safe for Waverly.

After a few minutes she hears Waverly sigh again.

“Having second thoughts about staying back there?”

“No, just wondering if we'll make it back to the house sometime this week, at the speed we're going.”

Nicole throws her head back and laughs.

And christ, she can feel Waverly press a smile into the back of her shoulder.

“Is that a hint to pick up the pace?”

“I wouldn't really call it a hint.”

“Well all right then, you better hold on tight Earp.”

She waits until Waverly’s arms wrap securely around her waist before spurring the horse into a gallop, trying desperately to ignore the way her stomach flips at the contact.

Waverly lets out a giggle that gets lost to the wind, and Nicole feels so free in the moment, with Waverly snug up against her back, flying across the field on horseback.

It’s over too quickly for Nicole’s liking, but she knows she will never, ever, be able to forget how it felt, just for a moment, to have Waverly Earp so close.

They come to a stop in front of the main barn, and Nicole offers her hand again to help Waverly dismount.

Waverly sports pink cheeks and windblown hair, and an honest to goodness grin when she hits the ground.

It takes Nicole’s breath away.

“Thanks for the ride, cowboy.”

When Nicole raises an eyebrow Waverly chuckles. “Sorry, cowgirl.”

“That’s more like it. And anytime.”

She starts the horse at a trot before reigning it around, circling back to face Waverly, who is still standing there watching her.

She touches two fingers to the brim of her stetson, tipping it down just a fraction. “Ma’am.”

The smile Waverly gives her stays fresh in mind as she spurs the horse back into a gallop across the field.

The grin that overtakes her face doesn’t leave until she’s all the way back to the fencing.

She is in so much trouble.

 

Chapter Text

Nicole hears the news on a Tuesday afternoon.

Her face is turned up slightly to enjoy the early summer sun as she heads towards the main barn, when someone comes to a shuffling stop in front of her.

Nicole lowers her gaze to find Wynonna, who, interestingly enough, has her shirt completely buttoned wrong.

Huh.

When Nicole takes in the direction Wynonna is coming from it’s not all that hard to put it together.

She can draw a straight line back to Doc’s cabin.

Nicole considers it none of her business, but she does make a mental note that Doc is supposed to be mucking out stalls right now.

She’d like to give him shit for not, well, taking care of the shit.

Wynonna gives her a wide grin.

“Hey Haught-stuff, I’m so glad I ran into you. Have you heard the glorious news?”

Nicole can see pure joy dancing in Wynonna’s eyes, and she wonders just what could elicit such a reaction.

Unadulterated joy is not something usually found on Wynonna’s face, unless it comes to donuts or whiskey.

Nicole hooks her thumbs into her belt loops. “Can’t say that I have, but I’m willing to bet you’re about to share it with me.”

“Finally, a ranch hand with brains.” Wynonna sighs out.

Nicole grins, waiting for her to continue.

“I came home last night to a tipsy Waverly, which is so not a normal occurrence, sadly. And do you know what the reason for her inebriation was?”

“You know I don’t, so do you want to get to the answer sometime today?” Nicole draws out the last word.

Wynonna scoffs. “Rude. Just for that, I shouldn’t tell you, BUT, this news is too wonderful not to spread. It would seem our Waves has finally realized what a loser Champ is and given him the heave ho.”

Nicole’s heart gives a violent flip in her chest, which she mentally chastises herself for.

“Is that so?”

Wynonna smacks her arm. “Yes! Please be more excited with me.”

Nicole softens her features a little bit, giving a small smile. “I’m excited that you’re excited, and if Waverly truly feels like it was the right decision, then I’m happy she came to it.”

There, Nicole thinks she did an excellent job of seeming completely impartial.

“Oh it was the right decision. God, I hate to think taste that bad runs in our genes.”

Nicole slowly raises an eyebrow at her in response, and she can’t stop her eyes from drifting down to Wynonna’s improperly buttoned shirt before they drift towards Doc’s cabin.

Wynonna, looks down, finally noting her shirt, before wrinkling her nose and pointing a finger in Nicole’s face.

“Don’t even say it.”

A chuckle escapes Nicole’s lips. “I wasn’t going to say anything. Not my place.” She jerks her head towards the barn. “I better get to work, but thank you for sharing the glorious news.” She mocks.

Nicole slowly saunters away, turning her head to grin at the loud “You’re kind of a dick, you know that?” Wynonna hurls at her retreating back.

“Takes one to know one.”

She actually laughs out loud at the huff she can hear leave Wynonna’s mouth across the growing distance. “I oughta fire your ass!”

“Probably!” Nicole yells as she rounds the corner of the barn.

She starts whistling without even realizing it. Once she becomes aware, she makes herself stop.

She should not feel so chipper about Waverly breaking up with Champ.

Sure, the one time she met him it was abundantly clear he wasn’t worth the hay on the bottom of Waverly’s boots, but all the same, it’s not for Nicole to have an opinion on.

She just wishes she could make the warmth spreading in her chest believe that.

Nicole forces herself to change the track of her thoughts, and smiles when she replays the end of her conversation with Wynonna.

Her feelings for Waverly may be complicated, but she sure is thankful for the easy rapport she has with the elder Earp sister.

*****

Nicole has no idea what she’s looking at as she approaches the large mass on the ground off to the side of the barn.

When she gets close enough to figure it out her stomach turns.

It’s a full grown cow. Or, it used to be. Now it’s a mutilated carcass, parts of it chewed at and ripped off.

“What in the name of hell?” Doc and Dolls stumble to a stop next to Nicole.

Doc turns his piercing gaze to her in question.

“I don’t know, I only just got here myself.”

Dolls approaches the carcass, crouching down to peer at it intently.

“What is this?”

All three ranch hands whip their heads around as Wynonna stalks over.

“Seriously, what in the flying fuck is this?”

“We don’t know yet Wynonna, we only just came upon it ourself.” Dolls voice is calm, and he resumes his visual examination. His eyes narrow when he spots something.

“It’s not even one of ours. Look here,” he points to a small tuft of fur not bloodied or shredded, “that’s the Revenant brand.”

Doc pushes his hat on his head more securely. “Oh hell, let’s get this poor thing out of here.”

He and Dolls pull their gloves out of their back pockets, taking the time to slip them on before each grabbing an end.

“This wasn’t an accident.” Wynonna mutters to herself.

“What?” Doc wheezes out.

“I said, this wasn’t an accident. That cow did not just wander over here like that on it’s own and die. Revenant scum.” She spins on her heel suddenly, stalking away.

“Wynnona, get back here!” Doc yells.

“Do not go off half cocked Wynonna.” Dolls tries, in a calmer voice, but Wynonna is still walking away.

Both men look to Nicole expectantly, and she’s not sure exactly what they expect her to do, but something tells her she should not let Wynonna go off alone to do whatever she’s gotten in her head at the moment.

Nicole catches up to her just as she’s hopping into the old ranch truck, grabbing the door frame before Wynonna can slam it shut.

“Wynonna, I don’t know what you’re planning, but -”

“Let go of the damn door.” Wynonna’s eyes are blazing, and Nicole tries her best to hold her gaze calmly.

“No. I don’t know what you’re about to do, but I’m not about to let you go off by yourself and do something stupid.”

Wynonna glares for a solid minute, before skirting her gaze across the horizon. When she returns her eyes to Nicole they look a fraction calmer.

“Fine, you can get in this truck now with me, or you can lose a hand, got it?”

Nicole doesn’t need to be told twice.

She hops in the passenger side, not even getting the door closed all the way before Wynonna floors it, wheels spinning in the dry dirt before gaining traction.

Nicole honestly expects the old truck to disintegrate around them, with the speed Wynonna is driving at. She’s not sure where they’re going (though she has a strong suspicion), but Nicole won’t be a bit surprised if they never get there.

They don’t talk the entirety of the roughly 20 minute drive. Wynonna’s knuckles periodically turn white as she grips the steering wheel harder, before relaxing, just to repeat the movement again a few seconds later.

Finally, they reach their destination, and Wynonna barely attempts to slow down as she crosses under the Revenant’s Ranch archway, only slamming on the breaks once she’s approaching actual buildings.

The wheels skid a bit, and it takes a harrowing moment before they came to a lurching stop, dirt and dust billowing up around them.

Wynonna already has her door open before she even finishes jamming the truck into park.

Nicole is just behind her, still utterly lost as to what they're doing here.

“What's the plan Wynonna?”

“Just stand there and look angry.” Wynonna responds.

“That's not a plan.” Nicole says, speaking to herself, since Wynonna is clearly not listening.

Nicole takes in her surroundings, and she finds herself rather appalled with the condition of things.

There's an old rusted out tractor missing one of the back big wheels out in the yard. The barn she can see, which Nicole assumes is the center of operations, is missing several of it's planks, and there’s an unpleasant smell emanating from it.

Nicole finds herself wondering exactly why Revenant Ranch is trying to buy out the Earp land, when it's clear they don't spend money on their own property.

A man with greasy hair strolls out of the barn, coming to an abrupt stop when he sees them. His mouth curls into a lurid smile.

“Wynonna Earp, it's been a looooong time. How are you girly?”

Wynonna actually does a double take at the man, before fixing him with an incredulous look. “Stupid Carl, I'm not here for small talk with you. Go fetch Bobo!”

Carl utters “Bitch” under his breath before scampering off towards the house tucked under an old tree that looks like it's well past dead.

As they wait for whoever it is Wynonna just asked for, (Bobo? Nicole wonders what the hell kind of name that is), more ranch hands stroll over. It's clear by their expressions they want to watch the show.

“Wynonna Earp. To what do I owe this distinct pleasure.” The way the man walking towards them emphasizes the last word tells Nicole that he finds this visit anything but pleasurable.

“Cut the crap Bobo, you know why I'm here. That was a nice little gift you left on my ranch today. Business so good you can afford to make abstract art out of your cows to leave me as tokens of your affection?”

Bobo's eyes harden, and he strokes at the grey streaked beard on his chin before answering. “I'm quite certain I have no idea what you're talking about.”

“Oh, I'm sure you do Bobo. A very dead, very torn apart, Revenant cow somehow found its way onto my property.”

Nicole notes how the ranch hands move in during the confrontation, and she finds herself stepping a little closer to Wynonna, a tension winding its way into her body.

“Huh. Sounds to me like we have a case of coyotes. It's unfortunate they dragged the body onto your land. Have you come to bring me back the meat?” Bobo gives a small smile, but there is nothing warm or friendly about it.

“Oh please, you and I both know you're pissed I won't sell the ranch to you. Is that how you think you're going to get back at me now? Childish pranks?”

Bobo laughs coldly. “The only thing childish here Wynonna, is you.” He spits on the ground, taking the time to look around at all his gathered employees before continuing.

“You come onto my land, accusing me of something you have no proof for, and you want to make me out to be the bad guy?” He points a finger at his own chest.

For the first time Bobo looks at Nicole fully, and she finds it chilling. She's not afraid of him, no, but she does mark him as someone she does not want to get mixed up with.

He grins at her, and she has to fight a shiver at how creepy it is.

“I see you brought a lap dog. Seems to me you might be spoiling for a fight.”

One of the ranch hands takes a step towards them, and Nicole immediately steps between him and Wynonna.

But Bobo waves him off before he comes any closer.

“It's a pity I'm not in the mood today.” He looks away, off in the direction Nicole knows is Earp Ranch.

“Where's little sister? She at least makes these visits worth it.”

He grins, and it's borderline grotesque. Nicole can feel her hands balling into fists at the way he looks mentioning Waverly.

Unfortunately Bobo notices, and it only makes his grin deepen.

“What's the matter, did I touch a nerve?” He chuckles deep and slow, not waiting for an answer.

“Get off my property, and don't come back here again with your baseless accusations, unless you're in the mood for a world of hurt, you hear me?”

Wynonna screws her face up into a mocking glare and flips him off before huffing out “Come on Nicole, we're done here.” She backs away, keeping her gaze on Bobo until she reaches the truck. “For now.”

Nicole swears Bobo chomps his teeth together at them as they hop back into the truck.

Wynonna floors it back out of Revenant Ranch as quickly as she arrived, forcing some of Bobo's men to jump out of the way. Nicole can't say she feels all that bad for them.

It's silent in the truck for a few minutes, until Wynonna slams a hand against the steering wheel and yells “Fuck!” She repeats the curse word about six more times at rapid pace before blowing air out of her lips and running an agitated hand through her hair.

“Look, Nicole, I'm sorry about that. You don't have to say it, I know it was kinda stupid.”

Nicole lets the apology settle, thinking about her response. Before she can say anything Wynonna speaks again.

“I know I shouldn't have lost my cool like that. It's just, this ranch, Waves, you guys...” she trails off, the fingers of one hand tapping on the steering wheel nervously, “you're all I have.” The words are spoken so quietly, and Nicole can feel the tension coming off Wynonna's body at the admission.

Nicole senses how important and rare this moment is, but she's also aware of just how easy it is to spook Wynonna with talk of real feelings. She weighs her next words carefully.

“Honestly Wynonna, I'm game to ride or die with you any time. It's just, I'd prefer if we had more of an actual plan next time, ok?.”

It's the truth, and Nicole is surprised by just how much she means it.

Wynonna actually laughs, and Nicole watches the tension drain from her shoulders.

“Fair enough Haught, fair enough.”

It's not till they are about to arrive back at Earp Ranch that Wynonna starts to seem tense again.

“Maybe we could forego filling Waverly in on the details of this little field trip?”

Nicole bites her lip to keep from laughing. It's hard for her to imagine Wynonna fearing her sister's reaction, but hey, all families have their own dynamics.

Once the truck is parked back by the barn they head towards the house.

The carcass is nowhere to be seen now, and Dolls is raking up the dirt where it previously lay to remove any remnants of blood.

He shoots them a look that Nicole can't quite read as they approach.

“You might want to steer clear-”

He cuts off as the screen door to the house flies open. It slams shut behind a clearly fuming Waverly.

“Wynonna Earp, tell me you did not just go off half-cocked where I think you did!”

Wynonna startles at the tone, shuffling to the side towards the barn as she slides her hands into her back pockets. “Ok, I won't.”

Waverly narrows her eyes as Wynonna takes another step towards the barn.

“What's that Doc, you need my help with something? I'll be right there!” Wynonna calls out to the silent barn. She makes an exaggerated apologetic face. “Sorry Waves, got things to do, people to help. Hope we can have this little chat later!”

She literally speed walks away into the barn, and Nicole can't help the small snort of laughter she lets out. The girl's got a style all her own, Nicole will give her that.

When Nicole turns to Waverly her smile fades fast.

There's a blaze in her normally soft eyes, and Nicole takes a small step backwards in reaction.

“And you. What were you thinking, letting her go to Revenant Ranch like that? It could have been a disaster!”

“Whoah,” Nicole holds up both hands in a placating gesture, “hold on now. When it comes to Wynonna I don't think there’s such thing as letting. She's going to do what she wants. I tagged along to make sure she came back.”

It feels like the longest thirty seconds of Nicole's life as Waverly stares her down, her face unreadable.

Finally, Waverly sighs, her face softening into resignation as she looks down at the ground. “I know, you're right.” She toes at the dirt for a moment before raising her head again.

“Sorry for yelling. I just...worry about her.” She takes a deep breath, blowing it out as she runs a hand through her hair. “I suppose what I should be saying is thank you, for going with her, instead of yelling.”

Nicole smiles a slow smile to let Waverly know it's ok. “I mean, you're technically the boss, so yell anytime you want. But, you're welcome.”

Her smile grows when Waverly raises an eyebrow at her, a small smile finding it's way to her lips as well.

“Do you ever not have the right response?”

Nicole pretends to think it over. “Hard to say, might depend on who you ask.” She throws in a wink before she can think better of it.

Waverly shakes her head, humor clearly sparkling in her eyes. “You are something else.”

They stand there, smiling softly at each other, until Dolls clears his throat.

“Hey Haught, I know you just had an eventful afternoon, but Nedley asked me to send you his way when you got back. He wants to go over the field rotations for the next week.”

Nicole nods, actually okay with the interruption. She really doesn't need to stand here making a bigger fool out of herself.

So she gives a small nod and smile to Waverly in departure, and forces her mind back to safe things.

*****

The sound of grass being ripped from the ground sounds in a chorus all around Nicole. It’s a familiar sound that puts her at ease.

Some might find that strange, but when you spend your whole life around cows, well, there’s some things you just get used to.

The sound has Nicole in a lull, and she tries to hide a yawn in her jacket collar.

She was up early, before the sun, preparing for the ride to move the cattle across another field.

They’re fast approaching the big overnight run that will move the cows to the far end of Earp land for a good part of the summer, but for now, they move them from field to field every couple of days to prevent the grass from dying out in any one field.

Nicole gives a nod to Dolls as he rides up next to her.

“Everything looks to be in order here, so we’ll be heading back soon.” He eyes her without making any kind of expression.

It’s a little disconcerting how he does that. He’s a solid guy, and they get along okay, but he’s not someone she can really get a read on.

She assumes he has some other qualities besides his stoicism, because otherwise she can’t really see Wynonna having much interest in him for extra curricular activities.

Although, he sure is handsome, so perhaps that’s enough for Wynonna. It probably, most definitely, is enough for Wynonna, Nicole corrects herself.

“If you’re interested, we’ve got a poker game set up for tonight. Doc says you’ve got some skills with a deck.”

Nicole smiles, mulling it over. “I do all right. Count me in.”

“Great. I hope you’re ready to part with your money in painful amounts.”

Nicole is actually surprised at the slow grin that spreads over Dolls face. And yeah, she thinks his handsomeness is the draw for Wynonna.

“Oh please, Dolls here couldn’t play his way out of a paper bag, don’t let him fool you.” Doc drawls, surprising them both with his silent approach.

Dolls shoots him an unimpressed look before he gently taps his heels into his horse to start at a slow trot away.

“Both of you be ready to drop some major coin tonight. Eight O’Clock!” He calls over his shoulder.

Doc chuckles lowly. “Don’t mind him none. Fancies himself Mr. Big-shot.” His eyes follow Dolls’ figure as he crests over the nearest hill.

Nicole can sense a sort of sadness rolling off Doc, and though she’s not exactly sure why, it makes her chest ache for him a bit.

“Well, we better get along if we’re going to have time to shower and eat before taking everyone else to the cleaners.”

“Sounds like music to my ears Doc.” Nicole replies.

They spur their horses on into a gallop, riding for home together.

*****

“Read ‘em and weep boys...and lady.” Nicole lays her pair of Queens down on the table to loud grumbling from the other ranch hands and Wynonna.

“That’s three hands in a row,” Levi mutters, tossing his cards to the middle of the table.

Wynonna takes a drink from her bottle of whiskey that she (of course) brought to the table they set up in the barn. “If you don’t take it easy Haught, I’m going to have to resort to strip poker, and I’d hate to be objectified for my body.”

“Oh please Wynonna, ain’t one of us here who hasn’t seen at least three quarters of you naked.” Shorty pipes in, and everyone laughs, including Wynonna.

“What’s so funny?”

Everyone whips their heads around at the sound of Waverly’s voice.

“Oh, just your sister being her usual self.” Nedley answers for the group, shuffling the cards before starting to deal.

“Oh.” Waverly stands there with her arms wrapped around herself.

“Something you need baby girl?” Wynonna asks, tilting her chair back on two legs to get a better look at her sister.

Waverly shrugs. “Not really, I was just...bored.”

“Huh. Well, we can’t have that.” Wynonna drops the chair back down noisily on all four legs before pushing it over closer to Fish. “Why don’t you sit with us?”

The unsure but pleased smile that curls Waverly’s lips tells Nicole a multitude of things at once.

Clearly Waverly has never taken part in a poker night before, and Nicole senses that she’s wished more than once for an invite to join.

Doc must sense it too, because he’s speaks up as Waverly pulls over the old barn desk chair to the table.

“Why I think this might be a splendid time for the youngest Earp to learn a little about the fickle nature that is gambling with cards.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to intrude or anything...” Waverly trails off, but it’s clear by the way her eyes light up at the suggestion that she would love to play.

A low grumble comes from Levi. “We’re already ten hands in, it ain’t right.”

The smile on Waverly’s face dims as her shoulders slump a fraction. “It’s ok, I can just watch.”

Wynonna’s eyebrows draw together, her lips parting to respond, but Nicole beats her to it.

“Personally I think if my boss wants to play into a game of poker, I let her. Anyone else got a problem with that?” She looks around the table, daring someone to contradict her.

Nicole hears a chorus of ‘no’s’, some weaker than others, before she speaks again.

“Good. Nedley, would you mind reshuffling and dealing in our new player?”

“Gladly.” Nedley responds, giving a rare wink to Waverly.

It takes several hands for Waverly to get the hang of the game, and, okay, even then she isn’t very good at it. But she’s smiling and laughing, and she looks so darn happy, that Nicole couldn’t care less how good a poker player she is.

As the night progresses everyone, including Waverly, slowly gets more inebriated.

It doesn’t take long for it to become obvious that Doc and Nicole are each other’s only real competition.

Dolls isn’t a bad player himself, but luck does not seem to be on his side tonight.

It takes about an hour after she joins the game for Nicole to notice the fleeting glances Waverly sends towards her direction.

She’s not sure of the reason for them at first, but when she wearily rubs at a collarbone exposed by her partially unbuttoned shirt, it becomes more clear.

Waverly’s eyes are drawn to the movement, and they stay locked there until Nicole moves her hand back to the table, when her eyes flit away again.

A couple of minutes later and her eyes are drifting back towards the exposed skin of her neck and collarbones again.

Nicole can feel a warmth starting low in her belly, and she takes a long pull from her beer bottle to try and squash it.

There could be any number of explanations for the looks, and she really needs to just put it out of her mind.

Now.

She’s still trying to follow her own advice a few hands later, which is probably why she’s unaware of most people choosing to fold the hand around her.

Wynonna is whispering in Waverly’s ear, and Nicole is surprised to realize it’s just herself, Doc and Waverly still in this hand.

“I’m going to raise you everything I’ve got.” Waverly giggles, pushing all of her chips in.

Doc tosses his cards into the middle of the table. “Too rich for my blood.”

Nicole is honestly taken aback in regards to how they got to this point. She shakes her head softly, trying to get her mind back in the game.

She’s got a pair of Jacks, which is normally something she would bet on.

She looks back at Waverly, at the way her eyes are shining and her hands are fidgeting on the table.

She’s bluffing. Nicole is willing to bet she doesn’t have more than a pair of eights.

“All right, I’ll see your bet Earp.” Nicole pushes her chips in.

Waverly’s eyes widen a bit in surprise. Nicole suspects Wynonna whispered to her that no one would take such bet.

Everyone at the table is looking back and forth between the two of them, and there’s a tension in the air that comes with big money on the line.

Waverly takes a deep breath before showing her cards. “A pair of tens,” she practically mumbles.

Nicole stares at the cards. Better than she thought, but not good enough.

A pin drop could be heard right now with how quietly everyone waits for Nicole to respond.

Nicole is just about to turn her cards over when she locks eyes with Waverly again, and damn it all to hell, she can’t do it. She just can’t take away the happiness she’s seen emanating from her all night.

“Well damn Earp, you’ve cleaned me out, pair of nines.” Nicole tosses her cards facedown in front of herself, reaching out to collect everyone else's discarded cards and mixing them together before anyone can check to see what her cards really were.

Waverly bounces in her seat happily when she realizes she’s won, a wide grin overtaking her face.

Wynonna laughs in Nicole’s direction. “Wow Haught, thank god you’re a better ranch hand than poker player. Calling a bet like that with a pair of nines? And here I thought you were more than just a pretty face.”

“Oh you hush Wynonna.” Waverly says, reaching out to scoop up her winnings before happily humming as she stacks the chips in front of her.

Dolls gives a side-eye to Wynonna, which she completely misses, before he raises a subtle eyebrow at Nicole.

He knows.

Nicole can’t find it in herself to care though. She would purposely lose a thousand hands of poker if it meant seeing Waverly smile like that each time.

“Well, since Waverly just embarrassed you so badly Haught, I think she deserves a trophy.”

Before Nicole knows what her intention is, Wynonna pulls the stetson from her head and drops it onto Waverly’s. Wynonna gives it a firm yank down over Waverly’s eyes, causing her sister to giggle.

Waverly adjusts the hat back up so she can see again, and Nicole feels sucker punched.

She is wholly unequipped to deal with seeing Waverly wearing her hat. The way her heart kicks in her chest has her standing abruptly.

“You know, after a beatdown like that, I think it might be time to call it a night.” She keeps her tone neutral and friendly in the hopes that no one thinks her behavior odd.

Shorty stifles a yawn behind his hand. “Sounds like a good plan to me. Some of us get up as the crack of dawn.” He shoots a humorous but pointed look at Wynonna.

“Fine, leave us minions. We’ll be here counting our spoils.” Wynonna retorts.

“Ours?’ Waverly asks her.

“Oh please, you never would have won that hand without my expert advice.”

Nicole quietly makes her leave without a proper goodbye. She feels like she needs some air to clear her head.

The acrid smell of smoke alerts her to the fact she has company as she steps out into the darkness on the west side of the barn.

Doc is leaning against the barn smoking one of his hand rolled cigarettes.

“Such a shame to flame out so terribly on the final hand, wouldn’t you say Haught?”

Christ, apparently Doc knows too. She really needs to get a handle on this situation.

Before she can answer the sound of boots and hushed voices come from just around the corner of the barn, and Nicole watches as Dolls and Wynonna stroll casually towards Dolls’ cabin.

When Nicole looks back to Doc his eyes are locked on the pair. He realizes she’s watching him and casts his eyes down to his cigarette as he flicks it.

Nicole feels like she’s intruding on a private moment for him, and she starts to walk away, but when Doc speaks she halts her tracks.

“You know, I am aware that I’ve never really been good enough for her. That there are others who are better suited to being what she needs.” He takes a deep drag from his cigarette as his eyes wander back to the spot Wynonna and Dolls disappeared into the darkness.

“Trouble is, when she comes calling, I can’t say no. Or maybe I just don’t want to.” He shrugs, flicking his cigarette again.

Nicole isn’t sure what to say, or if he even wants her to respond. She doesn’t know if he’s making a drunken confession, or he just needed to get it off his mind.

“Nicole?”

Waverly startles her.

Nicole walks a few steps back towards the barn door where Waverly stands.

“Sorry, but you forgot something.”

Nicole raises an eyebrow as she slides her hands into her back pockets. “And what’s that?”

“This, silly.” Waverly pulls Nicole’s hat from her own head, stepping into her personal space and going up on tip toes to put it back on Nicole’s head.

Once it’s in place Waverly grips the brim lightly, giving it a little wiggle.

“There, now all is right in the world again.”

Waverly is still standing in her space, and Nicole allows her eyes to drop to Waverly’s lips just once, for a fleeting moment.

They looks so soft.

The smell of smoke wafts back to her, and she remembers that they are not alone.

Nicole takes a small step back, putting some distance between them, but gives a gentle smile.

“Well thank you, I don’t know what I’d do without my favorite hat. Glad you didn’t decide to keep it as part of your winnings.”

Waverly smiles before a yawn overtakes her. “Well, I guess that’s my queue to get some sleep. Night Nicole.”

It might be the alcohol, or the nighttime playing tricks on her, but Nicole swears in that moment Waverly looks down at her lips too before she turns away.

She wanders off into the darkness and Nicole releases a breath she didn't realize she was holding.

“For the record,” Nicole spins back in the direction of Doc’s voice, “I do not think that your situation suffers from the same pitfalls as mine.”

Doc eyes her carefully as he puts out his cigarette with the heel of his boot.

“Not quite sure what you mean Doc. I’m not in a situation.” Nicole swallows, hoping the confidence in her voice will convince him. Or maybe convince herself. She’s not really sure anymore.

Doc gives a derisive snort. “With lying skills like that I find it hard to believe you ever win at poker.” He tips the brim of his hat towards her before he strolls by without a backwards glance.

Nicole tries to put his words out of her head all the way back to her cabin. But she finds herself struggling to fall asleep that night, staring up at the ceiling with her hands steepled beneath her head.

The only thing she knows for sure is that she’s got it bad, and judging by the way Waverly’s eyes seemed drawn to her tonight, she might not be alone.

Well hell, life just got more complicated.

 

Chapter Text

The overnight cattle run is a little over a week away, and the entire ranch is busy with preparations.

Nicole is actually thankful for the lack of time to to stop and think, because lately it feels like she’s in a constant battle with the train of her thoughts.

And whenever she thinks she has a handle on it, there Waverly will be, chatting or working with one of the other ranch hands.

She always gives a small smile and wave, her eyes drifting away just to come back again.

Nicole is still aware of how ill advised their situation is, and honestly, she’s not even sure Waverly is consciously aware of her own possible feelings.

Despite all that, it sometimes feels like she’s fighting a losing battle against some sort of gravity between them.

Today Nicole finds herself distracted by the hay baling machine, which is mysteriously not working right.

She reaches for a wrench from the tools scattered along the ground, her hands already streaked with grease.

She doesn’t mind this kind of work normally, but with how much there is to do, she’s frustrated by having something like this go wrong.

It takes her a good thirty minutes of trying to figure out the problem before she realizes what she’s looking at.

She heads off at a clipped pace to fetch Doc, giving curt nods to Fish and Levi as she passes by the barn.

Once she’s dragged Doc back out to the equipment barn she gestures at the machine without saying a word, waiting for him to see it.

“Well I’ll be damned.” Doc pulls his hat off, leaning in to take a closer look. He shakes his head and looks back to Nicole. “Have you told anyone else about this?”

“No, as soon as I realized what happened I came straight to you.”

Doc nods. “Good.” He scratches at his cheek, getting lost in thought for a moment. “Listen, maybe we should keep this under our hats for a little bit, not bring Wynonna in on it right away.”

Nicole eyes Doc carefully, looking for any sign of dubious intentions, but finding none.

Doc sighs roughly. “And not for any of the reasons I can see floating around in those pretty brown eyes of yours.”

Nicole softens. “Flattery will get you nowhere with me Doc.”

“Oh, I have noticed.” He grins. “Honestly, you saw how Wynonna reacted with the dead cow situation. Just give me some time to look into this, okay?”

Nicole thinks it over before nodding slowly. “I’m not crazy then? This was obviously broken on purpose by someone?”

Doc’s eyes harden. “No, you are not crazy. It would appear we may have a sabotage problem on our hands. One I hope we find a swift resolution to.”

They work together effortlessly to figure out what parts they need to get the baler running again, and Doc heads to town to get the needed supplies while Nicole heads back to her cabin to get cleaned up.

As Nicole rounds the corner of the main barn she practically bowls Waverly over.

“Whoah, there, where’s the stampede?”

Seeing Waverly is not something Nicole expected right now, and she doesn’t really have time for small talk, but per usual, it seems her common sense takes a lunch break every time she’s around her.

She gives Waverly a small smile. “Because we’re on a cattle ranch? Good one Earp.”

Waverly tosses her head to swing her hair over one shoulder. “Well I am known as the funny one in the family. Also the sober one.” She tilts her head in contemplation. “Actually, those two things might be related.”

Nicole can’t help the way her smile grows. She never seems to be able to help it.

Waverly’s eyes zero in on Nicole’s cheek.

“You’ve got something on your face.”

Nicole raises her hand to swipe at it before remembering the amount of grease she wasn’t able to quite scrub off without the grease remover she keeps in her cabin.

She waves a hand at Waverly, shrugging her shoulders. “I’ll get it when I get back to my cabin.”

“Here, let me help.”

Nicole swallows as Waverly steps closer, sliding her fingers across her cheek, her thumb rubbing firmly but gently against a particular spot.

It takes all of her self control for Nicole to keep herself from closing her eyes and leaning in to the touch.

“There,” Waverly says softly, “much better.” She steps back, but it doesn’t do much to put Nicole at ease again.

They’re staring at each other.

The air feels heavy with something, and Nicole’s heart beat picks up.

She has no idea what’s happening here, but she distantly recalls that being a fool and kissing Waverly Earp was not on her list of to do items today.

Her body screams at her to reach out and run her hands through Wavelry’s hair while kissing her senseless, but her mind forces her to stay put.

Waverly blinks then, and a sharp clarity comes back to her pretty eyes as she takes another step backwards from Nicole.

“I better let you go, I’m sure you have lots to get done. I’ll see you around.” She gives a small smile before walking away.

Nicole would pay just about anything to know what was just running through Waverly’s head, but she doesn’t have time to focus on that.

As her feet start moving again she tells herself to forget about it, forget about Waverly, and just do her job. If only she felt like that was possible.

*****

Even in the midst of the controlled chaos around her, Nicole takes the time to admire the way a gentle breeze blows through the grass of the fields around them.

She sits on her horse, having crossed the river ahead of the herd of cattle to entice them to ‘follow the leader’. Doc is making his way across the river now on his horse, ushering across the first cluster of cows.

Today marks the last time they’ll move the herd before making the long push in a few days.

Getting the cows across the river now will save them a lot of time and possible headaches come the morning of the big drive.

Dolls is across the river, in position to slowly push clusters of cows into the water intermittently, while Fish helps keep the groups corralled together as they plod down the river bank.

Levi’s job is to circle around repeatedly behind them, making sure no cows wander off back towards home or make their way down the river bank to deeper waters.

Doc emerges from the river, water pouring from the flanks of his horse heavily onto the ground. He tips is hat to Nicole. “Lovely morning for a horse ride, wouldn’t you say Haught?” His dimples come out as he grins.

Nicole mirrors his smile. A lot of ranch work is monotonous and menial, but days like this, with mountain views and country air, all from atop horseback, is what makes it all worth it.

Doc works to keep the cows that have already crossed in a relatively contained area, while Nicole continues to work close to the bank, ushering up the next cluster of cows Dolls has pushed over.

Things are moving along smoothly for awhile, but Nicole starts to get concerned at how spaced out the remaining cows on the other side are getting. It makes it far too easy for some of them to wander off, which will add a lot of time and hours to this whole operation.

She scans the bank for some sort of explanation, and it becomes clear to her that Levi is not properly looping around the back end of the cows to keep them moving forward.

Her eyebrows draw down in confusion, because it seems like such a rookie mistake for an experienced ranch hand. Although she supposes everyone has a bad day or drive here and there.

She doesn’t have time to think on it too much, because she hears loud splashing off to her right.

She whips her head around to see a cow has entered the river far down away from the rest of the herd, and it appears to be struggling to cross.

It’s letting out distressed noises, eyes wide, and water kicking up all around it.

Nicole knows that cow. The brown spot she can see on the back of it’s head has her heart plummeting.

She doesn’t stop to think as she spurs her horse into movement, acting on pure adrenaline and emotion.

The only thing she knows in the moment for sure is that she absolutely can not let that cow die.

*****

By the time they get back to the ranch it’s much later than it should be, and the fluffy clouds dotting the sky stand out against the pink streaks of the setting sun.

Nicole is finally almost dry, although the boots currently residing in her saddle bag will take at least a night to lose the dampness they still have.

It was worth it though.

The entire herd is now safely in the field across the river, happily feeding on the grass until the ranch hands return again in three days.

Wynonna and Waverly are waiting for them on the front porch of the house, along with Shorty and Nedley, who stayed behind to handle the chores that still needed to be done leading up the overnight trip.

The girls immediately stand and come down towards the barn when they spot them, Shortly and Nedley ambling along behind.

Wynonna raises an eyebrow when Nicole dismounts her horse, taking note of her bootless feet.

“Did you lose your boots in a bet out there?”

Levi takes the reins of Nicole’s horse from her, keeping his head down as he does so. He hasn’t made much eye contact since the incident, and it’s obvious he feels rather guilty about it. He mumbles another “Sorry” to her as he quickly leads her horse away.

Before Nicole can answer Wynonna, Doc slings an arm around her shoulder.

“No bets lost, just some run of the mill hero stuff coming from Nicole here.” He gives her a little shake and grins.

“Explain.” Wynonna prods him.

Doc and Dolls take turns filling Wynonna and Waverly in on on the situation; how Nicole had ridden right into the deep part of the river to help the cow get across, and how she had to dismount her horse in the deeper water.

“Hell, at one point I thought she might be a goner. She went under for a good fifteen seconds or so, wouldn’t you say Dolls?”

Dolls nods his head in agreement. “At least.” He gives a rare grin at Nicole. “You are made of some hardy stock.”

“Well Haught-damn, that is quite the tale. Might just break out some of the good stuff for a night cap later. Come on by if you’re up for it.” She walks by Nicole, pausing to smack her in the ass as she does so.

Doc and Dolls both chuckle, meeting each other’s eye and shaking their heads.

“Well I’m starving, how about we rustle up some dinner.” Doc proclaims.

Nicole, who can’t help but notice Waverly hasn’t said a word yet, jerks her head towards the cabins.

“I’m going to get out of these damp clothes first, then I’ll head on over.”

“Sounds like a plan. We’ll make sure we leave you a bite or two.” Doc replies.

He and Dolls head off with Shorty and Nedley in tow, and Nicole can hear them talking over the story again.

She grins a little, feeling a bit silly about the hero worship they’ve been giving her since this afternoon, but liking the feeling of camaraderie nonetheless.

When her eyes come back to Waverly her grin fades.

Waverly does not look one bit amused or happy, and Nicole is a little confused by the reaction.

She has a feeling she might regret asking, but she has to know the reason for it.

“Is everything ok? You seem kind of upset.”

When the fire sparks in Waverly’s eyes it becomes clear that was the wrong thing to ask.

“Do I? Do I seem angry? Huh, well how about that.”

Nicole swallows. Waverly just left the vicinity of kind of upset and now seems full blown mad for some reason.

“I wonder, could it be because you decided to play the asshole hero and do something incredibly-” she takes a step forward and shoves at Nicole’s shoulders “fucking-” she shoves again “stupid and dangerous?” She gives a third shove and Nicole’s hands raise to gently grab her wrists.

“Whoah, hold on there. Everything turned out ok, I’m fine. Everyone is fine.”

Waverly pulls her wrists out of Nicole’s grasp. “Oh, well then, since everything turned out fine I guess that makes what you did not stupid. How silly of me. I didn’t realize that guidelines for stupidity change when everything turns out fine.

If Nicole thought Waverly had fire in her eyes before, they are now blazing.

She’s really not sure how to diffuse the situation, but she hates that she’s upset Waverly so much. The only thing she can think to say is the truth.

“It was the calf from my first overnight watch. I know how upset you were when the mother died, and I hated seeing you that way.” Nicole’s voice is pleading for Waverly to understand. “I couldn’t bare to think of you being that upset again.”

Nicole immediately realizes sharing the truth was a mistake.

Waverly’s eyes harden, and her face becomes impassive. She takes the smallest of steps back, but it might as well be a chasm that’s opened up between them.

“You don’t want me to be upset? How do you think I’d feel if one of my employees got seriously hurt, or worse, killed?” Her voice is stiff, bordering on formal.

It feels like a kick in the gut, Waverly coldly referring to her as an employee like that. Nicole is quick to remind herself it’s the truth, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.

She huffs a breath out her nose, a small, humorless smile curling the corner of her lips. Her eyes drift to the mountain range, but she isn’t able to enjoy their splendor one bit in the current moment.

She shakes her head softly, bringing her gaze back to Waverly.

“You’re right. I wasn’t thinking. Next time I promise I’ll take into account what a headache it would be for my bosses if one of their employees got hurt.”

Nicole knows her tone isn’t particularly friendly, but she can’t help it. She needs to be away from here right now. She needs to be away from Waverly before she can make an even bigger fool of herself.

“Please tell Wynonna that I’m too tired for that drink. You have yourself a good night Waverly.” Nicole tips the brim of her hat, but it’s cold and lacking any of the normal warmth and humor she usually gives it.

The spark of hurt in Waverly’s eyes is clear for just a moment before it disappears. She gives a stiff nod and “Fine” before falling silent again.

“Fine.” Nicole can’t help but childishly respond back before she turns and walks away.

She bypasses the dining building and heads straight for her own cabin, closing the door a little more forcefully than necessary.

She leans back against the door, her head making an audible sound as it comes in contact with the wood.

This is not how she saw this day going. Not at all.

*****

Almost forty-eight hours pass, but if feels like a lot longer to Nicole.

She didn’t even realize how often she and Waverly shared little smiles and waves as they made their way around the ranch each day, until now, when they are completely absent.

Nicole hoped after a restless and awful night of sleep she’d wake to find Waverly cooled off, and they could calmly and rationally talk about things.

No such luck.

It seems Waverly is actively avoiding going anywhere near where she might be, and the few times Nicole has spotted her, Waverly quickly averts her eyes and walks in the opposite direction.

The worst part about all of it is how much it hurts.

There’s a deep, persistent ache in Nicole’s chest, and she hates it.

She feels beyond stupid for letting things reach the point where she actually feels hurt by something like this.

She knew developing feelings for one of her bosses was a terrible idea, and now she gets the pleasure of chastising herself for not listening to her own common sense.

She spots the Earp sisters as she walks from her cabin to the barn.

She’s just about to change direction with the hope of not being spotted when Wynonna notices and calls her over.

“Hey there Haught-hero, everything in order for the overnight trip tomorrow?”

Nicole can’t help the way her eyes drift to Waverly briefly before she answers. The younger Earp sister is refusing to look at her.

Waverly gives a mumbled “I have something I need to do,” and walks away without another word.

Wynonna watches her leave, brow creased in concern.

“Any idea what crawled up her butt and died? She’s been so distant and moody the last couple days.”

Nicole scratches at the back of her neck uncomfortably. “I’m not sure, unfortunately.”

“Huh.” Wynonna shrugs. “Well maybe I’ll just have to get her drunk tonight and force her to confess. Anyway, everything good to go for the drive?”

Nicole doubts Wynonna will be successful with her plan to make Waverly talk, but she certainly isn’t going to say that out loud.

“Pretty much. We’re supposed to get some rain tonight, but I don’t think it will cause any problems.”

“Well good. Wouldn’t want you to have to pull any more heroic shit, even if it was awesome.” Wynonna winks, and Nicole is struck by just how different the sisters’ reactions to the situation have been.

“Me neither. I better get back to it, see you later.”

Nicole wanders off, in the opposite direction she saw Waverly go.

She desperately hopes by the time they get back from the trip Waverly won’t be quite as angry.

It makes her stomach turn to think about having to find other employment because of this. She likes it here.

If she were honest, which she refuses to be, it might feel worse to think about not seeing Waverly and her smiles everyday than to think about getting another job.

She forces the thoughts from her mind and sets about finishing up the final tasks that need to be done before tomorrow.

A couple hours later and she’s just about done, thankfully, because the skies have become seriously overcast.

All of the other ranch hands have headed off to dinner, and she promised to meet them shortly.

She’s making her way from the equipment barn to the main barn when she sees Waverly coming back from the field.

Unfortunately Waverly notices her too and immediately heads in the opposite direction.

Nicole must be a glutton for punishment, because all of her previous ideas about giving Waverly space and waiting to talk until after she gets back go right out the window as she calls out to her.

“Waverly, wait.”

She’s surprised when Waverly actually listens and stops, turning around slowly with her arms crossed and an eyebrow raised in question.

Now that Nicole has her here, she has no idea what to say, so she asks the first question that pops into her mind.

“Are you going to stay mad at me forever?”

The sky lets out an awful crack of thunder, and they both look up for a moment before returning their eyes to each other.

“I’m not mad at you.” Waverly responds cooly.

It’s Nicole’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Really?” she asks in a monotone voice.

Waverly rolls her eyes. “Fine, then yes, I am.”

Thunder rolls again, and the first fat drops of rain start to fall.

Nicole decides this little confrontation is a terrible idea. She doesn’t feel like getting poured on and clearly Waverly isn’t ready to talk.

“Okay then, suit yourself.” She walks away without another word, heading towards the main barn and ducking inside as the rain intensifies.

“So that’s it?”

Nicole whirls around at the sound of Waverly’s voice.

Waverly jumps a little when there’s a flash of lightning and crack of thunder that follows immediately.

And god help her, Nicole finds it cute. And it’s that fact that makes her blood boil.

Normally Nicole is even keeled and so very level-headed. She thinks you should be to do this line of work properly, and it’s something she prides herself on.

But this thing with Waverly knocked her off balance almost from the start, and it’s starting to take its toll.

“That’s really all you have to say?” Waverly huffs out.

“Yes, damn it, that’s all I have to say!”

Waverly startles at her tone, and Nicole would feel guilty for it in any other situation. She shakes her head, at a loss. “What do you want Waverly?”

The sound of rain increases, and Nicole curses the storm for coming now.

Waverly parts her lips to speak, but closes them again a moment later, her eyes drifting away.

Nicole hates the silence stretching between them, and she desperately wishes she knew how to make things right.

“Please Waverly, just tell me what you want.” Nicole tries again, softening her tone.

Waverly closes her eyes tightly, breathing deeply through her nose as her fingers curl into fists at her side. A moment later she relaxes again, and when she opens her eyes there’s something in their depths so clear it almost takes Nicole’s breath away.

Waverly’s gaze dips to her mouth, and Nicole knows for certain she isn’t mistaken.

Trouble is, she doesn’t know if Waverly is aware of the message her look is giving, and Nicole is tired of feeling unsure.

“Stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?” Waverly whispers.

“Like how you’re looking at me.” Nicole hates the slight tremor audible in her voice.

“I can’t.” Waverly slowly pulls are eyes away from Nicole’s lips to meet her gaze, a hint of desperation visible on her face. “Believe me, I’ve tried.”

Thunder rolls loudly again, but neither of them react to it.

The air in the barn has shifted, and Nicole can physically feel the tension stretching between them.

“Waverly.” There’s a hint of a warning in Nicole’s voice, of what, even she herself isn’t quite sure. She just knows they’re hurtling towards something neither one of them will be able to take back.

Waverly shakes her head back and forth softly, her eyes focusing back on Nicole’s lips.

She’s moving then, in sure steps, towards Nicole. It seems to take both an eternity and no time at all for her to cross the barn.

When Waverly crashes into her, going up on tiptoe to capture her lips, Nicole catches her. Her hat falls to the ground in the collision, but neither of them pay any mind.

It takes approximately two seconds for Nicole to realize she’s a goner, because Waverly has the softest lips she has ever kissed, and her hands drift to Waverly’s cheeks to hold her in place as she deepens the kiss.

Waverly clings to her wrists with her hands, pressing impossibly closer.

It’s not nearly close enough for Nicole.

She walks Waverly backwards slowly until her back hits the barn wall.

One of Nicole’s hands slips into Wavelry’s hair, gently tilting her head to change the angle of the kiss as she runs her tongue along Waverly’s lower lip.

Waverly parts her lips immediately, and the second their tongues touch Nicole knows they’re in trouble.

She can not get enough, and the way Waverly is clinging to her and kissing her back, it’s obvious she can’t either.

Nicole runs a hand softly over Waverly’s neck and down her side, slipping over her backside before pulling a leg up to hook around her hip.

Waverly lets out a tiny, breathy moan and Nicole needs her closer.

She brings her other hand down to Waverly’s other leg, getting a firm grip and lifting her off the ground.

They break the kiss for a second as Waverly hooks her legs completely around Nicole’s waist, settling her back against the wall, before frantically pulling Nicole back into another kiss.

The new position evens out their height difference, and Waverly uses it to her advantage, sliding a hand to the back of Nicole’s head and threading her fingers into her french braid, guiding Nicole into a deeper kiss.

Nicole digs her fingers into Waverly’s ass as she nips at her bottom lip before soothing it with her tongue, and god help her, Waverly smiles at the move.

Nicole can’t help it when her hips nudge forward of their own volition, but the small moan of desperation Waverly lets out manages to cut through the fog in her brain a bit.

When Waverly’s hands move to the buttons of her shirt, Nicole pulls back an inch.

“Wait.” The roughness of her voice is foreign to her own ears.

Waverly leans back in for another kiss, and Nicole succumbs to the temptation again, getting lost for another minute before her senses come back to her.

“Hold on.” She pulls back farther this time. “Please.”

The way her chest heaves as she tries to catch her breath matches Waverly’s, and all Nicole wants to do is keep kissing her senseless.

And yet, there’s a voice in the back of her mind telling her if they keep going like this their first time is going to be in a barn, where anyone could walk in. Nicole doesn’t want that for Waverly. She doesn’t want it for them.

Waverly’s eyes go wide and she drops her head back against the wall with a light thud, her cheeks flushed and lips bruised from kissing.

Nicole can’t help but reach a hand out to stroke a thumb over her bottom lip. Waverly’s eyes flutter closed at the contact.

Nicole shakes her head, trying to get her brain working properly again.

“I’m going to put you down, okay?” She says gently.

Waverly just nods, and Nicole very slowly sets her down before taking the tiniest of steps back.

Waverly runs a hand through her disheveled hair and looks away from Nicole in what appears to be embarrassment.

“Hey.” Nicole whispers, reaching out a hand to Waverly’s cheek to softly turn her gaze back towards her. “Are you okay?”

Waverly visibly swallows. She nods her head, but a crease forms between her eyebrows. “Do you -” she pauses to clear her throat, “do you not want me?” Her gaze drops to the ground.

Nicole can’t contain the laugh that bubbles up from her chest, but it dies out when she realizes Waverly is serious.

“Waverly.” Nicole takes one of Waverly’s hands and presses it over her still thundering heart. “Do you feel that? That’s what you do to me. Of course I want you.”

The flush on Waverly’s cheeks deepens, and the smallest of smiles curls her lips before disappearing again. “Then how come…?” She trails off.

“How come I stopped?”

Waverly nods.

“Because as much I want you, and I really, really do, I don’t think a barn where anyone could walk in at any moment is the best place to be doing this.

Nicole chuckles as Wavelry’s eyes go wide again and she frantically looks around, relaxing a fraction when she realizes they’re still alone.

Nicole reaches out to take a strand of Wavelry’s hair in her fingers as she continues talking.

“Plus, I want you to be sure.”

She can see the question on Waverly’s face.

“I want you to be sure about this. About me. That this is something you really want to do.”

She presses a finger to Waverly’s lips when she sees them part.

“Please. I just want you to take some time to think about it.”

Nicole knows she’s making the right decision, she does, but the delicious thrumming low in her body is not happy about it. For half a second her libido hopes Waverly might fight her on this.

Instead, Waverly takes a deep breath, nodding her assent.

“I’ll be gone for two days on the cattle run” she gives a wry smile, “which I think might be really good timing. Can we talk after I get back?”

Waverly smiles shyly. “Yeah, we can talk when you get back.” Her smile fades. “But you better not pull any dangerous hero stunts while you’re gone.”

Nicole puts a hand over her own heart. “I wouldn't dream of it, I promise.”

Waverly rolls her eyes at the faux seriousness of Nicole’s declaration, but she’s still smiling.

They stand there looking at each other, and just like that, the tension between them is building again. Nicole knows Waverly can feel it too, based on the way her eyes have zoned back in on her lips.

Nicole shakes her head. “I’m gonna need you to go now, while I still have some self-control and chivalry left.”

Waverly sighs. “You and your damn chivalry. It might be what got us in trouble in the first place.”

Nicole grins. “Is that so?”

Waverly walks back to her, going up on her tip toes to brush her lips against Nicole’s cheek. She pauses just by her ear to whisper “It is so.”

She gives a deliciously coy smile as she pulls back, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

“You take care of yourself out there cowgirl, you hear?” And then she’s walking away, and Nicole watches her dash through the rain, side stepping the puddles until she reaches the house.

Nicole blows out a long breath, dropping her head back between her shoulder blades.

God she is such an idiot.

The smile that comes to her lips as she replays the last ten minutes tells her she doesn’t care.

And just like that, Nicole knows the next thing on her list today is a very long, very cold shower.

Chapter Text

The excitement in the air is tangible amongst the ranch hands as they mount their horses in the dawn hour. Even with the earlier than normal wakeup there is plenty of chatter going on, albeit in quieter voices than usual.

Nicole is surprised to see the Earp sisters on the front porch as they ride by the house, and she feels a warmth in her chest when she realizes they’re up simply to see them off.

Wynonna gives a mock salute as they pass by, which Shorty returns with gusto, and Waverly gives an adorable little wave.

When their eyes meet in the streaming rays of light from the sunrise, a slight blush comes to Waverly’s cheeks, but she holds Nicole’s gaze confidently, a small, secretive smile coming to her lips.

“You going to putter along at this pace all day, or might you want to actually get going and do some work.” Doc gravels lowly next to her.

Nicole laughs, despite her suspicion that Doc knows exactly the reason for her slow pace. “Go easy on me Doc, the caffeine from my coffee hasn’t even made it through my veins yet.”

Doc grins, raising his eyebrows as he looks over his shoulder for one last look at the Earp girls on the porch.

“Well I don’t know about you, but I dare say there are some things a slight bit better for giving me energy than a cup of coffee.”

Nicole shakes her head, but she can’t keep the smile off her face. “If you say so. Come on, time to pick up the pace old man.” She taps the flanks of her horse with her boot heels to send it into a trot, and can’t help but laugh out loud when Doc calls out after her.

“Old man? I oughta knock you on your ass for that.”

“You’d have to keep up with me first in order to do that Doc!”

Dolls gives an appreciative chuckle and hat tip as she passes by him.

Nicole slows her horse again when she rides up alongside Shorty and Nedley at the head of the group. Nedley gives a shake of his head at her.

“Did we have this much enthusiasm back in the day Shorty? I can’t seem to recall anymore.”

Nicole laughs. “Oh come on. Tell me, does the feeling ever get old, even after all these years?”

Shorty snorts. “I think she just implied we’re from the Stone Age Nedley.”

Fish rides up along the other side of Shorty. “Nice day for a ride gentlemen and lady.” He looks back at every one else riding closely behind, a mischievous grin curling his lips. “Last one to reach the herd has to build the fires tonight?”

A palpable energy moves through the group, as everyone grips their reins just a bit tighter.

“You’re on whippersnapper.” Shorty growls before throwing his head back and letting out a loud “Yeeeeeeehaaaaaw!”

*****

Doc loses, which Nicole finds highly unlikely under normal circumstances, so she suspects he did it on purpose.

When they reach their final destination for the night, he grumbles good naturedly about getting the fires going. Nedley asks in a deadpan if he needs the help of someone who actually knows what they’re doing, and Doc claims his pride is wounded at the very question.

Nicole can’t help but notice Dolls silently lend a hand, neither he nor Doc speaking a word about it as they get both fires going, a distance apart from each other so they can keep an eye on the herd from multiple angles, and Nicole finds their begrudging respect despite all the odds fascinating.

Nicole sits near one of the fires, her arms stretched back behind her, bracing herself up with the palms of her hands on the ground, thinking over the events of the day.

They successfully corralled the herd to their summer grazing fields, where they’ll stay for the next couple months. The group worked together seamlessly today, no mishaps befalling them this time.

Shorty and Nedley called it a night a while ago, claiming their ‘old man status’. Fish, Levi and Doc are relaxed around the other fire a ways down the field. Nicole can hear them laughing and reminiscing about the old days from where she sits.

The sound of footsteps alerts her to Dolls approach.

“Everything looked good on my last loop.” Her reports, settling down next to Nicole.

They sit in silence for a few minutes, the sound of the night crickets chirping around them, but it’s not uncomfortable. Nicole does not have the relationship with Dolls that she has with Doc, but they get along okay now that she’s been here awhile.

Dolls sighs out as he leans his head back to look at the stars. “Not a bad gig, huh?”

Nicole certainly doesn’t think so. In fact, it might just be the best job she’s ever had in her life, even without the addition of an Earp sister that makes her heart pound.

She hums out in agreement, tipping her head back to mirror Dolls pose. “No, can’t say that it is. If you’re going to be married to a job, this is the one to hitch yourself to.”

Nicole senses Dolls roll his gaze to her. “Careful now, I don’t want the job to get the wrong idea. It’s a girlfriend at best.”

“Gun shy about commitment?” Nicole asks.

Dolls takes his time answering, and it makes Nicole a little curious. “Let’s just say, I’m not really the settling down kind. In any aspects of my life.”

Nicole turns her head to look at Dolls fully, wondering if she understands him correctly. She thinks she does. “Do the ladies in your life know that?” She knows she’s prying a bit, which is rude, but she’s been curious about the situation at Earp Ranch for awhile now.

“They do.” Dolls answers simply.

“Do other people in your life know that too?” Nicole feels like she’s pushing it a little bit now, but she glances over at Doc, who is deep in conversation with Fish, and she finds it’s more than simple curiosity driving her question.

Dolls chuckles, and luckily it seems to carry no anger. “Let’s just say, I’m not the settling down type, but I am the competitive type.”

They fall into silence again, and Nicole is thankful it doesn’t feel any more tense than before. She doesn’t push for more conversation, feeling like she’s already tipped toed right over the line of casual inquisitiveness.

After a few minutes Dolls stands, brushing his palms off on the front of his pants. “I’m going to get some shuteye. You okay over here by yourself?”

Nicole nods.

Dolls takes a step away before pausing, rare indecision crossing his face. His eyes drift to Doc for a moment. “Look, I’ll deny it if you ever repeat it, but...I’m not the man standing in the way of things. Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies.” He walks away without another word.

Nicole finds her gaze drawn to Doc. He must sense her watching him, because he turns his head to her, and Nicole can just make out his wink across the distance.

Somehow, she knows he would never take her advice on matters with Wynonna, and she honestly doesn’t feel in a position to be giving any, considering her own predicament.

Speaking of, Nicole’s thoughts turn to Waverly for what feels like the millionth time today. She doesn’t know what to expect when they return tomorrow, but she can’t deny the smile that comes to her face every time she replays the events of the barn in her mind, which is a lot.

She blows out a slow breath, eyes drifting to the sky again, looking for constellations. Nicole is not too proud to admit she’s got it bad. Really, really, bad.

*****

The group arrives back at the ranch early the next evening, spirits high in the warm sunshine.

It takes them almost an hour to get their saddle bags unpacked, horses unsaddled and groomed and sent happily out to pasture. There’s no sign of either Earp sister during that time, but Nicole figures they have their normal day to day things to do.

Doc smiles as he lets everyone know Wynonna wants them to have dinner at the main house tonight, and she’ll be providing the booze.

Nicole assumes this is an annual thing when Levi says “My favorite day of the year.”

Everyone disburses to clean up for dinner. An overnight out in the field amongst horses and cattle does not make for very pleasant smelling dinner guests.

Nicole takes her time in the shower, letting the hot water ease her sore muscles as she leans her head against the tiled wall.

She can feel the beginning signs of nerves fluttering in her stomach, and she tells herself there is absolutely no reason for them. A few slow, deep, breaths later and she feels more level. Nicole really wants to avoid making Waverly feel any pressure after what happened between them in the barn. If they move forward (and god, Nicole hopes they do), she wants it to be Waverly’s choice she comes to on her own.

Nicole pulls on a simple, soft white t-shirt and light-washed jeans when she gets out of the shower, leaving her hair down to dry. She slips her feet into flip flops before leaving her cabin, which feel heavenly after two full days in her boots. The ensemble feels casual, which is exactly the air Nicole wants to exude.

She’s thankful upon arriving at the house to see everyone else opted for casual as well. Nicole smiles when she sees Dolls in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, an outfit that is awfully close to what Shorty is wearing.

Nicole scans the length of the long table in the dining room, and is surprised to find Waverly missing.

Wynonna keeps her from wondering on that too much when she slings an arm around her shoulder, handing over a cold bottle of beer. “Please tell me these heathens treated you okay out there?”

“Oh please Wynonna, if anyone is capable of handling themselves out there, it’s Nicole.” Doc cuts in.

Wynonna grins in response, giving Nicole’s shoulder a squeeze before letting go. “That’s why I hired her. Brilliant, I tell ya.”

Doc raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t bother to correct her.

They settle in to an extremely pleasant meal, filled with lots of laughs and plenty of alcohol. Nicole stops after three beers, feeling the beginning of a warm buzz, but not wanting to push beyond that tonight.

Wynonna suffers from no such conviction, which is certainly her right as the boss Nicole muses. She pulls a chair noisily over next to Nicole once the dinner has devolved into nightcaps and individual conversations.

“Hey, have you seen Waverly at all since you got back?” Wynonna asks, taking a sip from the glass of whiskey she switched to from beer a while ago.

Nicole works to keep her face impassive as her heart gives a small jolt at the sound of Waverly’s name. Her eyes skirt around the room as she shakes her head. “Can’t say that I have.”

“Huh. She said she had some things to take care of this morning but I haven’t seen her since. Kind of reminds me of childhood when she’d get sick of us picking on her and take off hiding all day until we had to go find her.”

One word sticks out to Nicole, and she can’t help but ask “Us?”

Wynonna looks away, taking a drink from her glass again, shrugging as she wipes at her mouth with the back of her hand.

“At least whatever crawled up her butt to die seems to have dislodged itself. She was not a fun person for a couple of days there.”

It’s not the smoothest of subject changes, but Nicole goes with it, never one to press. Though her interest is certainly piqued.

“Whatever, she’s probably hanging out with those airhead friends of hers in town. Honestly, I worry about Waves vicariously losing brain cells because of them.” Wynonna gives a mock shudder.

Another thirty minutes go by as they chat about various things, and finally Nicole decides to call it a night. Fish and Levi were the first to head out earlier, followed closely by Nedley and Shorty. Nicole doesn’t really want to be around to witness whatever kind of drama might come about from being in the same room as a somewhat inebriated love triangle.

But as she makes her leave, Dolls stands as well. “I’m beat, time to call it a night.” He actually winks at Nicole as he walks by her, and she follows behind with a small smile.

They walk together towards the cabins, reaching his first, and Nicole bids him goodnight, getting a salute in return.

Nicole fights the small bit of disappointment she feels at not seeing Waverly tonight as she climbs the three steps to her cabin.

The disappointment is quickly replaced by surprise when she walks in the door.

“Waverly?” She asks in question, feeling her eyebrows climb up her face.

Waverly gives a small wave, and a nervous kind of smile curls the corners of her lips. “Hey.”

Nicole leans back against the front door, looking around the small space of her cabin. She notes the soft glow emitting from multiple candles spread throughout the living/bedroom space, and a bottle of wine sitting on the counter of the tiny kitchenette that wasn’t there when she left earlier. When her eyes return to Waverly there’s a slight blush coloring her cheeks.

“So it occurs to me that I maybe should have thought this through more, because it might actually seem a little creepy, me letting myself into your cabin like this.” Waverly rushes out, running a nervous hand through her hair.

Nicole pushes out of her lean on the front door, taking two small steps forward. “I wouldn’t call it creepy. I’m more just wondering what’s going on?”

Waverly blows out a breath. “Oh thank god. Well, see, I’m a bit of a planner, and after spending a couple nights not getting much sleep, this is what I came up with.” She gestures vaguely around the cabin.

“Okay,” Nicole drawls out, “but what exactly is it you came up with this for?” Nicole’s elevated heart rate tells her she already knows, but she wants Waverly to tell her.

“Great question. Here’s the thing, I don’t need time to think about things, even though I think it was incredibly sweet of you to give it to me. But I want this.” She pauses before softly adding “I want you.”

Waverly holds up a hand when Nicole parts her lips to speak. “And please don’t try to talk me out of this or tell me to take more time. I know my own mind.”

Nicole breathes out a laugh as she takes another tentative step forward. She has absolutely no intention of trying to talk Waverly out of anything. Now that they’re standing here, Nicole can admit they’ve spent the past three months building up to this very moment.

She realizes Waverly is waiting for her response when a crease forms between her brows in concern. “I know you do. It’s one of the many things I respect the hell out of you for.” She answers with what she hopes is enough conviction to ease Waverly’s worry.

The furrow between Waverly’s eyebrows disappears as she smiles. “Thank you. And it’s not like I haven’t done this before – well, never with a girl, but still, I’ve had sex plenty of times– oh god,” Waverly brings a hand up to her face in embarrassment “I should really just stop talking.” She sneaks a look at Nicole. “I’m ruining this, aren’t I?”

Nicole shakes her head softly, taking another step forward, leaving just one more step between them. “No, you’re not. You could never ruin this.”

Waverly drops her hand, one corner of her mouth curling up. “There you go again, saying just the right thing.” She reaches out, hooking a finger into one of Nicole’s belt loops and pulling her forward the final step.

Nicole lowers her head, pausing a few inches shy of Waverly’s lips and holding there, waiting.

Waverly’s eyes flicker back and forth between Nicole’s eyes and lips a few times. “You should know, on top of being a great planner, I also happen to be an excellent researcher.”

Nicole’s stomach flips as she comprehends the words, and she can’t help but smile. “Oh I bet you are.” She murmurs.

Waverly surges forward to finally connect their lips, her hands sliding up to find their way into Nicole’s hair.

Nicole’s own hands quickly find their way to Waverly’s waist. If there was ever any question on whether or not they could replicate the urgency and desire from the barn, it’s quickly answered.

Nicole is thankful for once that Waverly is wearing one of her croptops that usually causes so much distraction, because it’s now allowing her immediate access to the skin of Waverly’s midriff. Nicole takes advantage, skirting her fingers along her sides and around to the small of her back, pressing Waverly into her farther. It’s not enough, and her hands slide down, gripping at Waverly’s backside to pull her impossibly closer.

She’s forced to relax her grip a bit when Waverly starts pulling gently at her shoulders, directing her back towards the bed at the same time Nicole starts to push forward. They move along slowly, neither of them wanting to break their kiss for more than a few seconds at a time.

Nicole can’t even think properly with Waverly’s tongue doing the things it’s doing to her own, and her fingers curl around the bottom of the croptop, pulling upwards before she even knows she’s doing it. Waverly lifts her arms as the shirt is swept over her head and tossed aside, moving back in immediately for another kiss.

Nicole runs her hands over the plane of Waverly’s back, fingers pausing at the clasp of her bra.

“Is it ok if I-” She mumbles against Waverly’s lips.

“God yes.” Waverly answers, biting at Nicole’s lower lip, causing her fingers to fumble in their efforts, making her feel like a sixteen year old again.

When she finally gets the clasp undone and pulls the bra off, she can’t help but inch back to take in the view in front of her. Waverly’s arms fidget around Nicole’s neck, making her nervousness clear.

Nicole skates the back of her hand up Waverly’s side, running it softly over the outside of one of her breasts, causing Waverly’s eyes drift shut for a moment at the contact. When she opens them again there is so much desire visible that Nicole struggles to breath properly.

“I want you. Please.” Nicole whispers, not caring how desperate she sounds.

Waverly’s breath picks up, and she gives the smallest of nods, slowly lowering herself down onto the bed. She scoots back towards the pillows as Nicole kicks off her flip flops before crawling on after her on all fours, leaning forward to capture Waverly's lips again.

Waverly breaks the kiss on a gasp when one of Nicole’s hands brushes over a nipple, and Nicole takes the opportunity to kiss her way down the side of Waverly’s neck. She nips at her pulse point as she moves her hands languidly down to Waverly’s skirt.

It would be so easy to just slide up underneath the skirt and take what she is desperate for right now, but Nicole wants more for their first time, so she resists the urge, taking the time to undo the button and zipper.

She pulls back from Waverly’s neck, hooking her fingers into the waistband of the skirt and underwear that lay beneath. She holds Waverly’s gaze as she begins to pull them down, making sure it’s okay. Waverly’s parted lips and blown pupils convey that it definitely is.

Nicole sits back on her heels as she pulls the fabric past Waverly’s ankles and tosses it to the floor. One of Waverly’s hands grips the bedspread in a death grip as Nicole’s eyes rake over her body.

Nicole shakes her head, trying to clear herself from a daze. “You have no idea what this view is doing to me.”

Waverly’s grip on the bedspread loosens. “Yeah?” She asks. Her eyes deliberately run up and down Nicole’s torso. “Well I think you’re a little over overdressed here.”

Nicole grins, reaching down to grip the hem of her own shirt and whisking it overhead in one fluid movement. When she reaches behind her back for the clasp of her bra Waverly shakes her head. “Wait.”

Waverly hooks her heels behind Nicole’s legs, using the leverage to pull herself up into a sitting position, her hands gripping at Nicole’s waist. She brushes her lips tentatively over the tops of Nicole’s breasts as she reaches around her back.

It takes a couple tries, but eventually Waverly gets the bra unclasped, waisting no time in pulling the straps down Nicole’s arms and tossing it onto the growing pile of clothes on the floor. Nicole can feel the gusts of Waverly’s breath against her nipple just before she presses a soft exploratory kiss to it. Nicole’s head drops back involuntarily, one of her hands sweeping up to thread into Waverly’s hair.

Nicole is so distracted by what Waverly's mouth is doing to her breasts that she doesn’t even notice the hands undoing her belt and unbuttoning her pants until she feels them being shoved down, only to be stuck by Nicole's’ kneeling position.

“Hey now,” she whispers, bringing her head forward to kiss Waverly once again, “that’s not playing fair.”

Waverly smirks into their next kiss as Nicole gently lowers her back down onto the bed. She braces her arms on either side of Waverly's head and tries to wiggle her way out of the jeans unsuccessfully. Waverly honest to goodness giggles at the effort, and Nicole rolls off to her side with a grin on her face, pulling her jeans and underwear off. It occurs to her as she tosses them to the floor that her heart might not make it through this ordeal the same as it was before.

The momentary playful nature disappears the second Nicole makes her way back on top of Waverly, slowly lowering her hips in increments until they rest between Waverly's legs.

They both whisper out a different swear word, staring at each other as their erratic breaths crash into each other’s.

Nicole ducks down to capture Waverly's lips in a single, bruising kiss before pulling back to trace her fingers gently along her cheek.

“Waverly, look at me for a sec.” She requests.

Waverly’s eye flutter open, and Nicole swallows at just how damn beautiful she is. “I need you to know, if at any moment you want me to stop, for any reason, just say so and I will. Okay?”

Something flits across Waverly’s face, too quick for Nicole to catch, but she nods. She lifts her head to kiss Nicole, whispering against her lips “That’s really not going to happen, but thank you.”

Nicole smiles as she sets off on a path downwards. She curls a tongue around a nipple, before sucking it into her mouth, then kissing across Waverly's sternum to pay the same attention to her other nipple. The shaky breaths coming from above make Nicole wish she had the self control to stay in this spot for longer, but she doesn’t.

She kisses her way down Waverly’s stomach, dipping her tongue into her belly button before taking the time to press a few soft kisses to the inside of both inner thighs. She pauses over her final destination, taking the time to look up Waverly’s body, noting the way Waverly grips at the bedspread with one hand while the other rests on her own stomach, inching it’s way down towards Nicole’s head.

Nicole smiles into the first kiss she presses to Waverly’s center, relishing in the way the hips under her jump. When she slides her tongue through the growing pool of wet heat, she’s honestly not sure who groans louder.

Waverly’s hand slides into her hair, taking a firm grip as Nicole picks up the pace with her tongue. She fully intended to take her time, but finds she really can’t. She feels an overwhelming need to drive Waverly over the edge, and she suspects the need won’t subside all that much once she succeeds.

She reaches out blindly to Waverly’s leg, lifting her knee up and over her own shoulder, needing more contact; as much contact as she can get.

She slips two fingers inside Waverly to move in time with what her tongue is doing, and Waverly's heel digs into the back of her shoulder as the fingers in her hair tighten almost painfully. Nicole doesn’t even care, because a few minutes later when Waverly falls apart beneath her it’s the most amazing thing she’s ever witnessed.

Nicole brings her back down slowly, placing soft kisses to her stomach until Waverly stops squirming and beckons her back up for a kiss.

Waverly groans when she tastes herself on Nicole’s tongue, gripping the back of her head as she deepens the kiss, and it’s almost enough to push Nicole over the edge right then and there.

Nicole is surprised when Waverly slides her hands to her shoulders and shoves her onto her back. She feels a heavy pulse low in her body as Waverly settles herself, kneeling between Nicole’s legs.

Waverly watches her face closely as she runs a tentative hand softly along Nicole’s inner thigh, and Nicole can’t help the way her leg twitches in response. Waverly raises an eyebrow, repeating the motion on the other side. She takes her time, softly touching everywhere around Nicole’s center, ignoring the parts that need her touch the most for what feels like an eternity.

Nicole splays a hand over her face, muffling into her palm “Waverly I swear to god, you are going to kill me.”
She peaks through her fingers when Waverly softly hums out, her breath catching at the look she finds in Waverly's eyes.

“Is it ok if I-” She dips a finger slightly into Nicole’s entrance, and smiles wickedly when Nicole’s hips buck upwards, forcing her finger deeper. “I’ll take that as a yes.” She whispers, starting up a tentative rhythm. The push and pull is a little unsteady at first, but soon enough she has the hang of it, and it’s not long before she adds a second finger.

Nicole can’t believe how quickly Waverly has brought her to the brink of desperation, and that’s before Waverly decides to shuffle forward, leaning down to suck on one of Nicole’s nipples. She braces herself with a hand against the mattress, and the move causes the palm of her other hand to start hitting Nicole’s center in just the right spot with each thrust.

Nicole feels so ineloquent as she pants out an expletive over and over as she builds towards climax, but she really can’t help it. She turns her head to bite down on the pillow as she comes, letting out a long muffled moan.

She can feel Waverly watching her as her chest heaves in an effort to breath evenly again. When she opens her eyes her heart flips at the questioning look in Waverly's gaze.

Nicole shakes her head in disbelief. “Jesus Waverly...” she trails off, at a loss for words.

Waverly’s face lights up in the most beautiful smile. “Yeah?” She whispers.

Nicole can only nod, still not sure how to put the experience into words. She’s had plenty of sex in her life, honestly, but Waverly Earp just managed to absolutely wreck her on the first try. She ignores the quiet voice in the back of her mind suggesting that might have something to do with her actual feelings for Waverly.

Waverly leans down, pausing an inch form Nicole’s lips, “Just imagine what’ll happen once I have more experience.” She gives a wicked smile before leaning in to kiss her.

*****

The clock reads 1:00 a.m., and Nicole knows she should get some sleep, but she can’t bear to give up a single minute she doesn’t have to with Waverly.

Her fingers brush along Waverly’s skin constantly as they talk, down her back, along a shoulder, tracing a bicep. Nicole might be worried at her inability to get enough, if it wasn’t for Waverly's hands doing the same thing to her.

Waverly softly runs her fingers between the knuckles of Nicole’s hand resting on the bed.

“I felt something that first day.” Her eyes lifts to Nicole’s. “When we shook hands, I felt something, but I didn’t know what it was.”

Nicole can’t help but smile, turning her hand over to play with Waverly’s fingers. “So did I, only I knew exactly what it was.”

Waverly buries her face in the crook of her arm to hide her smile, before turning her face back. “Even though I didn’t quite know, I think it scared me a little.”

Nicole furrows her brow, threading her fingers through Waverly's to pull her hand closer, placing a soft kiss to her knuckles. “I don’t ever want to scare you.”

Waverly huffs out a laugh, arching an eyebrow as she pushes herself up on her forearms to lean in for a kiss. “I hate to tell you, but you still scare me, and I think I kind of like it.”

Waverly captures her lips in a sweet kiss, before pulling back again, propping her head up on her hand. “Now, tell me more about how you wound up here.”

Nicole chuckles. “It’s not that interesting.”

*****

It’s two a.m. when Nicole feels Waverly shrug against her. “I don’t really know what I was like as a child.”

Waverly is nestled into her side, head resting on Nicole’s shoulder, as a hand idly brushes up and down Nicole’s arm.

“I picture you as a little ball of sunshine, to be honest.” Nicole admits.

Waverly presses a small smile into her shoulder. “Now that I know isn’t accurate.”

“No?”

Waverly lets out a soft sigh, her hand halting in it’s movements. “I was actually pretty angry a lot of the time.” She admits quietly.

Nicole senses they are treading into painful territory, and she squeezes Waverly’s back reassuringly. “We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.”

Waverly shakes her head against Nicole’s shoulder. “No, it’s okay. I probably should, I just usually avoid it. We all do.”

Waverly goes silent, and Nicole waits it out, perfectly willing to change the subject if need be.

“I spent most of my childhood feeling left out. It always seemed like I was an after thought. The least preferred daughter...the least preferred sister.”

Oh.

Nicole recalls her conversation with Wynonna earlier in the evening, before her mind drifts further back to that night on the porch, and her heart sinks, even though she’s not sure of the whole story yet.

“We had another sister.” Waverly admits quietly. “Her name was Willa, and she was eight years older than me.”

An ache in Nicole’s chest starts as she notes Waverly’s use of the past tense.

“Her and Wynonna were thick as thieves, and I was always just a nuisance to them. They used to get so annoyed when Daddy made them watch me, which was pretty much all the time.”

Nicole runs her hand soothingly up and down Waverly’s back. “What happened?” She asks softly.

“Willa hated ranch life, always talked about getting out of this hellhole as soon as she had the opportunity. When she was sixteen she started dating one of the ranch hands over at Revenants, which Daddy didn’t like, not that he paid all that much attention.” Waverly huffs out a humorless laugh. “She would sneak out all the time to see him, and Wynonna would always cover for her. I threatened to tell one time and Willa said I was worthless to her and Wynonna; said they would never speak to me again if I did.”

Nicole feels a small amount of moisture drip onto her shoulder, but she keeps silent, afraid of spooking Waverly when she so clearly needs to talk about this.

“When she was eighteen, Daddy and Willa had a huge, blow out fight, and Willa stormed out, took off to go to some party with her boyfriend.” The tears are falling down Waverly's cheeks in earnest now. “It wasn’t till the next morning that they found the truck flipped over. I remember sitting on the stairs eavesdropping when the police told my dad. Willa and her boyfriend were both drunk.”

Waverly swipes furiously at her cheeks. “And Daddy always blamed the boyfriend, but Willa was the one driving.”

Nicole knows there’s nothing she can say to provide any really comfort right now, so instead she kisses the top of Waverly's head and holds her tighter.

Waverly shakes her head. “Wynonna almost never talks about her, or the accident, still to this day. They were so close, and I know it still hurts for her, but for me,” she shrugs again, “I don’t feel like I ever really knew Willa, you know? I feel so guilty sometimes, because she was my sister, but she didn’t even like me.” She takes a shaky breath, her eyes squeezing shut. “And sometimes I can’t help but feel like if she was still in the picture I wouldn’t be worth anyone’s time here on the ranch, not even Wynonna’s.”

Nicole hates that Waverly would ever find herself unworthy like that, and she can’t help but hook a finger under Waverly’s chin to tilt her face up.

“Hey, I know I wasn’t there, I don’t know what it was like for you, and it certainly doesn’t change anything,” Nicole holds her gaze surely, “but I want you to know that I’ve never met anyone more worthy of people’s time than you.”

Waverly’s eyes flit back and forth between her own for a moment before she darts up to capture Nicole’s lips. The kiss starts off as chaste, but it quickly changes to desperate and needy.

Nicole gives no resistance when Waverly crawls fully on top of her and takes control.

*****

Nicole curses softly when her alarm goes off at six a.m. She reaches out to turn it off before it wakes Waverly, placing the softest of kisses to Waverly’s hair before slipping from the bed to get ready.

A shower does little to wake Nicole, but she doesn’t care. Last night was worth a thousand sleepy mornings, and more.

Once she’s done sleep walking through getting dressed she drops to her knees by the bed. Waverly is sleeping on her stomach, face resting on the back of one hand.

Nicole runs a hand through Waverly's hair gently. “Hey Waves?” She whispers.

Waverly gives a sleepy hum in return.

“I have to go to work now, but sleep as long as you like, okay?”

“What time is it?” Waverly mumbles out.

“6:30.”

“6:30? God your boss is a hardass.”

Nicole smiles, lifting the sheet from Waverly’s back to admire the view. “She really kind of is.”

Waverly reaches out her hand to grab the sheet back, blinking her eyes open as a sleepy smile curls her lips. “Kiss me, then get out of here you creeper.”

“Yes Ma’am.” Nicole responds, placing the softest of kisses against Waverly's lips, chuckling as she flops her head back down on the bed to go back to sleep.

Twenty minutes later, Nicole doesn’t even realize she’s whistling as she pours her coffee.

“Well someone sure is chipper this morning.”

Nicole startles, turning to Doc, who looks as tired as she feels. Nicole’s eyes are drawn to his neck.

She grins despite herself. “What’s not to be chipper about Doc? It’s a beautiful day, and we get to go bale hay.”

“Uh huh.” Doc smiles knowingly, sipping at his coffee.

Nicole gives his shoulder a slap as she walks by. “Let’s go buddy, time’s a-wasting. And maybe while we’re baling hay you can tell me why it looks like you got mule kicked in the neck.”

Doc’s annoyed “Aw hell.” has Nicole laughing out loud as she walks out into the sunshine.

Chapter Text

If Waverly Earp was a mild distraction before, Nicole doesn’t know what to call her now.

The past two weeks have been a stream of fleeting eye contact, secret smiles and stolen moments. Stolen moments in places like the hay loft, a barn stall, and behind the cabins, among other places. Nicole swears each time they’re going to be mature about things and just walk past each other, continuing on to whatever job needs to be done, but then one, or both of them, reach out at the last second, and they’re ducking out of sight as they come together in make out sessions that remind Nicole of her high-school days.

Nicole can’t help but muse on the absurdity of it all as she pulls apart pieces of the tractor she’s working on.

“So you have to, what, fine tune it?” Waverly asks. She’s standing a respectable five feet away from Nicole to ensure work actually gets done.

“You got it.” Nicole smiles in response. “With the herd out, it’s time to spray the pastures for weeds, and doing it by tractor is a hell of a lot faster, and easier, than by horseback. Or worse, on foot.” Nicole grimaces at the thought.

Waverly narrows her eyes, but a small smile remains on her lips. “I do know the general ins and outs of how my own ranch works, you know.”

“Huh, and here I thought you were just the pretty face of the place.” Nicole wiggles her eyebrows.

Waverly holds up a hand in between them, palm facing out towards Nicole. “Hold on there Romeo, we’re not allowed to say things like that right now, remember? We’re being super serious and getting work done.”

Nicole tilts her head to one side. “I think you mean I’m getting work done, and you’re here to keep me company. Completely platonic, innocent, company.”

Waverly lets out a long sigh. “Why did we decide on that again?”

Nicole chuckles as she returns her attention to the tractor. “Because I actually have a job here that I should at least attempt to do on occasion, and you claimed you wanted to watch me do it. In a––”

“–Completely platonic, innocent way,” Waverly cuts in. “Yeah, I remember that terrible idea all on my own, thank you very much.”

Nicole grins as she smears grease around the bearings currently exposed on the tractor. “I’m not opposed to if you maybe wanted to come over tonight, for some not very platonic, and definitely not innocent, company.”

She actually hears the small breath Waverly takes in, and when Nicole turns her head to look back at her there is decidedly less space between them than before.

Waverly’s gaze dips to Nicole’s lips. “You know, since I am technically one of the bosses here, I feel like I have the right to change the work assignments anytime I want.”

Nicole turns fully to lean back against the tractor, crossing one ankle over the other. “I suppose that’s true. And exactly what work would you like to assign to me?” She can’t help but tease, even though she has every intention of sticking to their resolution of doing actual work out here. Even if her libido hates her for it.

“Kissing. Lots, and lots of kissing.” Waverly says.

Nicole tucks her lips to one side, contemplating the idea. “I don’t know, have you seen all the boys lips? It’s like they’ve never heard of chapstick.”

Waverly draws her brows down as she takes a step forward, leaving a sliver of space between them. “I have zero intentions of sharing, and lucky for you, I’m a regular user of chapstick.”

Nicole hums out, feeling her restraint slipping with Waverly standing so close. She speaks just as Waverly leans forward. “We’re really not supposed to be doing this right now.” But her hand is rising up, fingers pressing gently to Waverly’s cheek to guide her forward the last inch.

“Hey Waves, where you at girl?”

Nicole’s heart kicks in her chest at the sound of Wynonna’s voice coming from around the side of the tractor.

Nicole quickly turns around, grabbing a phillips head screwdriver resting on the metal in front of her and sticking it somewhere in the opening of the tractor. She has no clue if there’s even a part that would take a phillips head screw driver anywhere in the vicinity of where her hand is at, but she can’t worry about little things like that right now.

Wynonna rounds the corner just as Waverly ducks down to grab something from the open tool box on the ground. “Is this what you need?” She asks, holding out an object to Nicole.

It’s a small container of Elmer’s glue. Jesus they are so busted.

Nicole feels her eyes widen when Doc follows behind Wynonna. He immediately take in the entire scene, from the glue in Waverly's hand to the flush Nicole can feel blossoming on her cheeks, and his mustache starts twitching as he fights a laugh.

“Hey, what are you doing out here?” Wynonna asks.

“Uh, I-” Waverly tries at the same time as Nicole speaks.

“She wanted–with the maintenance–you know.”

“Yes, exactly.” Waverly finishes.

Nicole is pretty sure her swallow is audible as she waits for the inevitable blow up when Wynonna realizes what’s actually going on.

“Wow.” Wynonna starts, and Nicole swears her heart stops beating in the pause. “That’s pretty commendable of you little sis, but if you think elmer’s glue has any part in tractor maintenance than maybe we’re better off if you leave it to Nicole.”

Nicole is sure Wynonna is playing them, that she’s about to call them out, but it quickly becomes clear she’s serious.

“But props for trying baby girl, and you’re sporting some awesome battle scars on your cheek.” Wynonna wipes at a spot on her own cheek to indicate to Waverly where she has a small bit of grease smeared. Grease, Nicole realizes, that came from her own hand when she touched Waverly’s cheek.

Waverly swipes at the spot furiously, which only makes it worse. Nicole would totally find the move adorable if it weren’t for their current predicament. “Did I get it?”

“Not even close, but I’ll help you get it off back at the house. I need that fancy college educated brain of yours to look ever some paperwork, if you’re done playing with the tractor. I’m sure Nicole would welcome getting her work done without having to hold your hand through it.” Wynonna raises a questioning eyebrow at Nicole. “It’s okay you know, you can tell Waves to scram, I give you permission.”

Doc remains a few steps back of Wynonna, and Nicole is thankful, because he is losing the battle to keep a straight face. She realizes her mistake in looking at Doc the second Wynonna follows her gaze, whipping her head around to look at him.

He tries to sober, but he’s not very successful. “Sorry, I’m just picturing Nicole saying ‘scram’, and it gave me a tickle is all.”

Wynonna turns back, shaking her head. “Everyone is so weird today, and I’m not even drunk enough to blame it on that.”

Finally Waverly finds her voice. “You know I think I am done playing tractor maintenance for the day, clearly isn’t my strong suite. But that paperwork of yours sounds right up my alley.” Her voice is a tad too enthusiastic, but Wynonna doesn’t seem to notice.

Waverly’s eyes flit to Nicole briefly before she walks away, and there’s apology along with a promise of later in their depths.

Once the sisters are out of earshot Doc’s shoulders start shaking in earnest.

Nicole gives him a pointed look. “I don’t see what’s so funny about Waverly wanting to learn a little about tractor maintenance.”

“Horse shit!” Doc slaps his thigh. “That is one of the worst lies I have ever heard come from your mouth.”

Nicole crosses her arms. “Like it’s any worse than your excuse for that bruise on your neck the other week? You tripped and fell into a coat rack? Please Doc, we both know you don’t even have a coat rack in your cabin.”

They glare at each other as the seconds tick by, until Nicole can’t fight the twitch at the corners of her mouth, and neither can Doc apparently, because they both start to grin.

“We are quite the pair, aren’t we?” Nicole asks, shaking her head.

“Perhaps. Although I do not believe I quite follow the meaning of your statement.” His eyes dare her to challenge him.

And just like that, they’re back to the status quo, which suites Nicole just fine. She’s not ready to talk about this thing with Waverly yet, even to someone like Doc.

Doc tips his hat with a wink before he leaves Nicole to her work.

She can’t help but laugh out loud, when she sees the Elmer’s glue sitting in the tool box. She reaches down to grab it, sliding it into her back pocket with a grin.

They probably should work on their subterfuge skills.

*****

Nicole makes her way past the main house, pausing when she notices the vehicle approaching, it’s conspicuous appearance sticking out against the country landscape.

Her brow furrows as she awaits its arrival.

Waverly didn’t mention visitors coming today when she saw her this morning. Granted, there was a bit more kissing than talking going on, but still.

Doc and Dolls exit the barn when they hear the vehicle pulling up the dirt driveway, joining Nicole at the steps of the house. A moment later the screen door opens behind them, Wynonna coming down the steps to stand with them.

“Who brought the NARC mobile?” She asks, eyeing the black SUV with suspicion.

“No idea.” Dolls responds, his eyes taking in every detail as it pulls to a stop in front of them.

A woman Nicole doesn’t recognize climbs out of the driver seat, pulling off her sunglasses to reveal a piercing gaze as she approaches them, sunlight glinting off the blonde hair she has pulled back into a severe bun.

She approaches, gaze sweeping across them in clear disdain before looking down at the clipboard she holds in her hand.

“I’m looking for the owner of this ranch?” There’s a flat, no nonsense tone to her voice.

A rye twist comes to Wynonna’s lips. “Winner, winner, chicken dinner. Have you come to deliver a package? Will there be a sexy dance that comes with it?” She asks, wiggling her eyebrows.

The woman stares mutely, no amusement showing on her face. “Would you be Wynonna or Waverly Earp, ma’am?”

“Wynonna,” she leans forward on the balls of her feet, sliding her hands into her back pockets, “you can tell us apart by our height difference.” She whispers conspiratorially.

Still no reaction from the woman. Nicole is starting to get a bad feeling about this.

“Well Wynonna, my name is Agent Lucado, and I’m with the State Livestock Board. I’ve received several complaints of animal cruelty at your ranch.”

All humor disappears from Wynonna’s face in an instant. “Come again? Actually, no, don’t come at all in the first place, please. That is an absurd accusation.”

“Is it? I’d like to take a look around and decide for myself, if you don’t mind.” The way Agent Lucado speaks the statement makes it clear it’s not a polite request.

“For what? Signs of animal cruelty? Have you fucking met my sister? It’s not even a possibility here.”

“Wynonna.” Dolls cuts in, careful to keep his tone calm and even.

“No, don't ‘Wynonna’ me, this is crap. Who made these accusations?”

Agent Lucado remains stone faced as she answers “I’m not at liberty to share that. I’m simply here to make sure you are abiding by the state ranching laws regarding animal well being.”

“It’s Bobo Del Rey, isn’t it?” Wynonna practically spits out.

Agent Lucado tilts her head a fraction, appraising Wynonna. “Do you have some sort of vendetta against Mr. Del Rey?”

Nicole knows immediately Wynonna is right. This is absolutely Bobo’s doing. But Nicole can tell Agent Lucado is the real deal, and the only way to handle this is professionally and through legitimate pathways.

Wynonna slaps a hand to her own chest. “Do I have a vendetta? Maybe you should be asking him that.”

“Okay, let’s start over here.” Nicole steps forward, extending a hand. “Agent Lucado, I’m Nicole Haught, one of the ranch hands here. I would be more than happy to show you anything around the ranch you’d like. I think afterwards you’ll find the accusations are completely unfounded.”

Agent Lucado looks cooly at Nicole’s outstretched hand before finally giving a brief shake. “Very well then, I’d like to examine the livestock.”

“Aw hell, good luck with that, they’re out to summer pasture.” Doc grounds out. His fury is obvious, and Nicole doesn’t think it helps their cause.
“Are you suggesting it’s not possible for me to see the livestock, Mr….?” She trails off in question.

“Just call him Doc, and of course he’s not saying that Agent Lucado.” Dolls steps in. “If seeing the livestock will clear this up, then we’ll leave straight away. Nicole and I can accompany you out to the summer pasture. There’s an old access road we can catch from the highway that will take us just about to the field. We’ll have to walk a bit after that.” He looks down at the heels she’s wearing and raises an eyebrow.

Agent Lucado tilts her chin up a fraction of an inch. “I keep boots in the car, that won’t be a problem.”

Nicole is grateful to have another level head involved in this ordeal, and when her eyes meet Dolls, she knows he feels the same way.

Agent Lucado turns on her heel without another word, striding back to the car and waiting in the driver’s seat for Dolls and Nicole to get in the vehicle.

“What a frosty-ass bitch.” Wynonna mutters lowly.

“That is not going to help anything.” Dolls reprimands her. “You and Doc stay here, make sure Fish has the stables in tip top shape, like he always does, in case she wants to inspect those when we get back. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir, drill Sargent, sir.” Wynonna retorts, giving a sarcastic salute before turning to go back in the house.

Dolls sighs, shoulders slumping a fraction. “Doc, can I count on you?”

“Can you? No. But can Nicole? Yes.”

Dolls rolls his eyes. “Fair enough.” He slides his gaze to Nicole. “Come on, let’s go show the ice queen what she needs to see so she’ll head back home on her broom.”

*****

It’s well after dark by the time Agent Lucado is done with her inspections, including the barns. She looks almost disappointed to not find any damning evidence at Earp Ranch. That fact alone makes Nicole wonder just how deep in Bobo Del Rey’s pocket she might be.

As the taillights on the SUV fade in the distance, Wynonna comes stumbling out of the house waving a bottle of liquor.

“Well, did you give her a good show? Flash her some titties or the anaconda to buy her off?” Her voice is way too loud, and Nicole worries it’ll wake anyone who’s turned in for the night.

“Wynonna,” Dolls starts, but Wynonna cuts him off.

“No, Dad, I’ve had quite enough of your lectures today.”

Nicole jerks her head towards the cabins. “Go on, I’ll take care of this. You don’t seem to be her favorite person right now, get yourself out of the crosshairs.”

The relief that crosses Dolls face is obvious. “Have I told you you’re my favorite person today? If not, I’m telling you now.”

He ambles off into the darkness without another word.

Wynonna sways on the spot as she takes another swig from the bottle, and Nicole thinks someone should take that thing away from her. She sighs as she realizes that someone is probably going to have to be her.

“Where’s Doc?” Nicole asks, making casual conversation as she climbs the porch steps.

Wynonna blows a raspberry with her lips, giving her wrist a sharp flick. “Hell if I know. I’m not his keeper”

Nicole is trying to figure out a way to approach Wynonna without putting her on guard when Waverly comes out of the house, mouth set in a hard line. Her eyes skirt to Nicole before fixing on her sister.

“Wynonna, why don’t you come inside to bed?” She wraps her arms around herself to ward off the night chill.

“How ‘bout no? I’m perfectly fine out here with my buddy Nicole.” Wynonna swings her head back to look at Nicole, the movement causing her to stumble a step. “Oops.”

Waverly rolls her eyes. “Okay, you know what? Give me the bottle and go inside. I’m not playing around tonight.” She reaches for the bottle but Wynonna yanks it away.

“Geez, Officer Earp, no need to ruin all my fun. Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything stupid like hop in a car and kill myself drunk driving.”

The second the words are out of Wynonna’s mouth an uncomfortable silence settles over the moment. Nicole shifts her gaze from one sister to the other waiting for someone speak.

Waverly narrows her eyes, and it must dawn on Wynonna then, the actual words she said, because her eyes widen in horror.

“I didn’t mean that. I didn’t- I swear, I didn’t meant that.”

Waverly shakes her head, huffing out a humorless laugh. “Of course you didn’t.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Wynonna asks, brows lowering in confusion.

“Nothing, Wynonna, absolutely nothing.” Waverly turns her head to glare out into the darkness.

Nicole can feel the situation slipping out of hand, and she really doesn’t like where this is headed. She decides to step in before Wynonna can respond. “Hey, why don’t we save all this till the morning, okay? No need to say anything we might regret.”

Waverly snaps her head around, something hard flickering in her gaze. Nicole takes a step back, holding up her hands in apology.

“You know what? Nicole’s right, let’s save this for the morning, you’re killing my buzz with all your talking and words and things. I’ll catch you guys on the flip-side.”

Waverly watches Wynonna stumble into the house without saying a word, peering through the screen door to make sure she makes it up the stairs.

Nicole waits out the silence, hoping she hasn’t stepped over any boundaries too much. The way Waverly is eyeing her, she thinks she might have.

“I can’t tonight.” Is all Waverly says.

It’s not what Nicole was expecting. “I wasn’t going to ask you to.” She shakes her head softly, imploring Waverly to understand with her eyes. “I didn’t mean to upset you by stepping in, I swear.”

“I’m not upset with you.”

On one hand, Nicole is thankful Waverly seems unable to ever hide the truth, her voice and facial expressions giving her away. On the other hand, Nicole hates that she’s now certain she upset Waverly. “Really?” She asks gently.

Waverly takes a deep breath, running a hand through her hair. “Fine, I’m a little bit upset. But it’s not really about you.” Her face softens as she takes a step towards Nicole. “I promise.” She reaches out to take hold of one of Nicole’s hands. “Can we table all this till tomorrow? I’m exhausted.”

Nicole squeezes her hand. “I know. We’ll talk tomorrow, okay? Try and get some sleep.”

Waverly nods. She goes to enter the house, but pauses with her hand on the screen door for a moment. Finally she turns back to Nicole, going up on her toes to press a quick kiss to her cheek. “Thank you.” She whispers, slipping inside after.

Nicole blows out a slow breath before heading back to her cabin. Once she gets there she can feel exhaustion setting in from the weight of the day.

She wants to think over the events of the day, pull apart the important things, but she’s drifting off to sleep minutes after climbing into bed.

*****

Wynonna finds Nicole late the next morning, on her way to the barn.

“Hey there, Haught-stuff, got a sec?” Wynonna asks, voice slightly raspy from her night of drinking.

“Sure thing boss.”

Wynonna winces. “Gross, don’t call me that. Look, I drank a lot last night, and I’m a little hazy on the details, but sometimes I can be a little...” She trails off, making a rude hand gesture. “So if I was a shit to you, then I’m sorry or whatever.”

Nicole fights a smile at how terrible Wynonna is with apologies. “No worries, though Waverly is the one you might want to apologize to, if I’m being perfectly honest.”

Wynonna lets out a loud a sigh. “Yeah, I suspected as much. God I’m such a dickbag sometimes. Or all the time, I don’t know.” She drifts off, eyes sweeping over the dirt around them. Her eyebrows furrow, and she starts looking from the ground to the barn in the distance, and back again.

“Huh.”

Nicole wonders if she’ll regret asking, but she’s curious. “What’s ‘huh’?”

Wynonna blinks, her gaze focusing back on Nicole as a grin spreads across her lips. “I want a fire pit.”

“What?” Nicole does not understand the non sequitur.

“I want to build a fire pit, here.” She waves her hand in front of them. “It’s far enough away from all the hay in the barn, so it shouldn’t be a hazard. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before!” She slaps a hand to her thigh.

Nicole is learning that verbal whiplash is par for the course with Wynonna, so she nods. “That could work.”

“Of course it will work, it’s a brilliant idea. Go find Doc, and meet me at the truck, I’m going to grab Waves.”

Wynonna is striding across the yard before Nicole can even respond.

“Well okay then.” She mutters to herself, shaking her head as she sets off to find Doc.

*****

Nicole tumbles out of the passenger side door of the truck the second they’re parked. The ride to town wasn’t particularly pleasant, with four people squished across the truck bench seat, and Wynonna banging on the steering wheel in time to the rock music blasting on the radio.

Nicole didn’t even get to spend the ride conveniently squished up against Waverly, instead having Doc next to her, who elbowed her in the ribs twice and only had “Heh” to say about it.

Waverly gives her a small smile and head shake as she climbs out of the truck. Nicole smiles back, relieved that the tenseness of last night doesn’t seem to have carried over to today.

They enter a supply store, heading towards the front where a smiling blonde is leaning on the counter next to the register.

Wynonna smacks her paper list on the counter. “Samantha, long time no talkie. We need the items on this list.”

Nicole gets the sense Samantha is not Wynonna’s favorite person. Waverly seems okay with her though, given the apologetic smile she shoots her.

Samantha calls over a stock boy, who leads Wynonna and Doc out into the stock yard to load up the heavy materials, while Nicole and Waverly gather the smaller sized items in the store.

Their eyes meet over the top of a shelving unit, and Nicole gives a wink, earning her a small smile from Waverly.

After a few minutes, and several giggles later, they make their way to the register to pay for everything.

Nicole almost does a double take at the way the woman at the register, Samantha, she remembers, gives her the once over as she approaches.

Waverly doesn’t seem to notice, smiling sweetly and asking “How’s the husband?” as she places all the items from her basket on the counter.

Samantha makes a face as she rings everything up. “Boring. You know how it is. There are days when I swear I’m just going to leave him and run off on a grand adventure.”

Her eyes drift to Nicole, and she gives another, very exaggerated once over. “I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I’m Samantha Baker. And you are?” She holds out a manicured hand for Nicole to take.

This is not Nicole’s first rodeo with a bored, flirtatious housewife, and she always finds it best to be polite and casual before extricating herself from the situation. She shakes the hand offered to her briefly. “Nicole Haught.”

Samantha hums appreciatively. “That’s quite the name you’ve got honey.”

Nicole sneaks a look at Waverly out of the corner of her eye, hoping she isn’t really paying attention to what’s transpiring, but no such luck. Waverly holds herself rigid, only her head moving back and forth between Samantha and Nicole.

Samantha leans forward on the counter, her low cut shirt revealing a whole lot of everything. “Well, Nicole Haught, is there anything else you need? I’d be more than happy to help you find it.”

Nicole is actually surprised at how dirty Samantha manages to make the last sentence sound. Her eyes flick to Waverly again, and she really wants this little encounter to be over.

Apparently, Waverly does too, because she steps up to the counter and starts to throw everything into the bag Samantha is still holding. “No thank youuu,” she draws out, “we’ve got everything we need. Just go ahead and charge it to the Ranch account.”

Waverly grabs Nicole’s wrist and pulls her from the store, dropping it as soon as they walk outside. “God I can’t stand her.”

“Who,” Wynonna startles them, “Samantha? I thought you got along with her?”

Waverly shrugs, her eyes dropping to the ground as she mumbles “I don’t know, she just gets on my nerves sometimes.”

The way Doc is looking between Nicole and Waverly with a twinkle in his eye makes Nicole think he knows exactly what happened in there. She might find the whole thing funny herself, if it wasn’t for the annoyed air rolling off Waverly.

“Hey, Samantha ‘Perky Tits’ Baker gets on my nerves too. My breasts feel so inadequate whenever they’re in the vicinity of hers.” Wynonna grins. “Although, you must have enjoyed the show, huh Nicole.” She elbows Nicole in the side.

Nicole would seriously love to smack Wynonna right about now. She can feel Waverly staring her down, waiting for the answer. “I didn’t really notice.”

“What? You’re kidding, right?” Wynonna asks.

“Can’t say that I am.” Nicole chances a quick look at Waverly, and finds herself still under careful scrutiny.

“What kind of gay lady are you, not noticing a rack like that?”

Nicole wants to sigh in frustration and demand Wynonna drop it so Waverly will stop looking at her the way she is, but she can’t. So instead she shrugs, and gives the only excuse she can think of. “I guess I was just really focused on my work.”

“Jesus Nicole, do Waves and I ride you that hard?”

It’s a terrible feeling, choking on ones own spit, Nicole notes as her eyes start to water and she leans over to hack roughly. She can hear Doc laughing, and if she wasn’t so busy trying to breathe again, she’d be really inclined to punch him the gut. Or lower.

Instead, Wynonna smacks him. “God Doc, a person choking is not something to laugh at...you wait until after you’re sure they’ll survive.”

“Can we please go back to the ranch now?” Nicole wheezes out.

“Well if this isn’t the motliest crew I’ve ever seen.” A rough voice interrupts.

Wynonna jerks around. “Bobo.” She spits out. “How nice to see you after that stunt you pulled.”

Nicole sucks in a full breath, wiping at her eyes to clear the tears so she can properly glare at Bobo along with Waverly and Doc.

“Oh please Wynonna, I don’t pull stunts, you should know that by now.” He strokes at his beard. “I did hear a little something about an inspection. Seems to me it happened because you don’t know how to properly run a ranch.” Bobo tilts his head. “Or maybe,” his eyes sparkle with malice, “the wrong Earp sister is around to run things.”

Nicole’s fingers curl into fists, but it’s Doc stepping forward, putting himself between Bobo and Wynonna, as Waverly wraps a hand around her sisters arm to keep her in place.

“Bobo Del Rey, I suggest you turn around and walk away right now, before this gets ugly.”

Bobo’s grin is grotesque. “Well, haven’t you turned into quite the lapdog Doc. I don’t seem to recall you showing such loyalty when you worked for me.” He leans forward, dropping his voice to almost a whisper. “Tell me, has she taught you how to come on command yet?”

Doc raises his arm, his intent clear, but Bobo backs off, raising his hands to chest level. “Now, now, no need to get all uncivilized in the streets of town.” He looks around at the people passing by. “We wouldn’t want to cause a scene, now would we?”

Waverly steps forward, laying a hand on Doc’s shoulder. “Come on Doc, he’s not worth it.”

Bobo grins again. “You wound me, Waverly.”

Waverly rolls her eyes, muttering “Let’s go.”

Doc allows Waverly to drag him away a few steps before yanking his arm free. He glares at Bobo, as he spits on the ground and growls “This isn’t over.”

“No Doc, it’s really not.” Bobo answers, chomping his teeth together once before turning on his heel and striding away.

The ride home is tense.

The truck cabin was cramped before, but now it feels even more so, everyone’s body held rigid and unyielding. No one speaks until they get back to the ranch.

Dolls comes out from the barn to meet them as they pull up, waving in greeting. His hand lowers slowly when Wynonna hops out of the truck, her stride determined as she heads for the house, Waverly close behind. “What happened?” He asks Doc lowly.

“Bobo.” The crease between Doc’s eyebrows deepens when the screen door to the house slams behind Wynonna. “It was ugly.” Doc rubs at the back of his neck, lowering his voice. “Look, she could probably use a level head like yours right about now.”

Nicole starts unloading the supplies from the bed of the truck, not wanting to intrude upon what feels like their private conversation.

The physical labor of putting together a fire pit might be just the thing she needs right now after everything that’s occurred the past two days. She needs time to think, and manual labor has always helped her organize everything bouncing around in her brain.

There’s a lot to think on, and she really hopes she can put to rest the twisting in her gut that says the drama is far from over

*****

Nicole smiles as a coyote howls off in the distance. The sound fades into the crackle of the fire in the pit.

She sits on the ground, back resting against the tree trunk now acting as a bench for the fire pit. Shorty and Nedley contributed that stroke of genius, using a tree downed in a recent storm.

She thinks back on her conversation with Doc while they shoveled out the pit. Something from the confrontation with Bobo stuck with her, and the question came out before she could stop it.

“You used to work for Bobo?”

Doc stops, wiping at his brow with the sleeve of his shirt. “Well you just cut right to the chase, don’t you?”

“I’ve been told it’s one of my better qualities.” Nicole grins, despite the hesitation she feels over Doc’s coming answer.

“I did, once upon a time. I find the working conditions here more to my liking.” One corner of his mouth pulls up.

“So what happened?”

The half smile fades from Doc’s mouth. “Bobo offered me a job when I first came to town. I didn’t know any better, so I took it. Wasn’t long before I realized the type of person I was dealing with, so I cut ties with him when I could.”

He starts shoveling again, his squared shoulders indicating his desire for the conversation to be over.

Nicole stopped pressing, but now, alone after everyone else headed off to bed, she can’t help but wonder if there’s more to the story. She wants to trust Doc, and she thinks she can, but something in her gut keeps telling her to be cautious here.

The fence, the cow, the tractor, and now the inspection. It feels like things are escalating, and Nicole doesn’t know what the end game is. It seems obvious Bobo is behind it, he’s pretty much admitted it in his own round about way. What Nicole isn’t sure of is how he’s pulling it off, and if he has help. Because Bobo Del Rey does not seem like the type of man to get his own hands dirty.

Nicole tilts her head back, closing her eyes as she listens to the fire pop and sizzle as it gets closer to burning out. She makes out the sound of footsteps approaching, turning her head to find Waverly walking by slowly.

Nicole raises an eyebrow at her. “Out for a night stroll?”

The way Waverly looks around in an exaggerated manner to make sure they’re alone is almost comical, and Nicole can’t help but laugh.

“Everyone else went to bed.” She spreads her legs apart, patting the ground between them. “Care to join me?”

Waverly smiles, looking around one more time before she moves to take a seat in between Nicole’s legs, leaning back into her. Nicole wraps her arms around Waverly’s waist, dropping her chin onto her shoulder.

They sit in silence for a few minutes, staring at the fire, before Nicole works up the courage to ask “Are we okay?”

Waverly blows out a breath. “God I hope so. I mean, I think we are, but I didn’t want to assume you felt that way. I know we haven’t had much of a chance to talk since last night, and then the thing with Bobo today, and it’s all just kind of a mess, but you feel like the one perfect thing going on in my life right now, and I really hope I didn’t screw that up.” The whole thing comes out in rapid fire, and Nicole can feel the nervous tension in Waverly’s body.

Nicole squeezes Waverly gently. “Hey, breathe, okay?” She takes a deep breath herself, and Waverly matches the breath with one of her own. She places a soft kiss to Waverly’s neck. “You didn’t screw anything up, at all. I’m really sorry I overstepped with Wynonna.”

Waverly shakes her head. “You didn’t, not really. I think I’m just not used to having anyone else involved on that level. Even with Doc and Dolls, they both kind of stay out of things like that. Wynonna would probably kill them if they didn’t.”

Nicole certainly believes that. “Well, either way, I’m still sorry.”

Waverly threads her fingers with Nicole’s, giving a gentle squeeze. “I’m sorry too.”

Nicole presses her lips against Waverly’s skin again, this time to the underside of her jaw, before settling back. She lets out a small sigh. “It has been one hell of a day. My boss demanded a fire pit, and here one sits.”

Waverly turns enough to give Nicole a small grin. “It’s impressive. Not quite as impressive as you in a tank top, shoveling and all sweaty, but close.”

Nicole gasps. “Waverly Earp, were you objectifying me earlier?”

Waverly lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “Maybe just a little.” She leans back, turning her head to press the tip of her nose into the dimple showing in Nicole’s cheek. “What are you going to do about it?” She whispers.

A tiny shiver runs down Nicole’s spine, and she finds herself amazed, yet again, at how Waverly manages to make her feel this way every time they’re close. “Probably nothing. Except maybe put myself in more positions where you can objectify me.” She admits.

“That’s what I like to hear.” Waverly presses her nose into Nicole’s dimple again, brushing a feather soft kiss to her jaw.

“Stop that.” Nicole says when Waverly nudges her dimple a third time.

Waverly pauses, before doing it again. “Make me.” She whispers.

Nicole turns her head to capture Waverly’s lips, their mouths opening to each other immediately. It only takes a moment to realize their current position is all wrong for the closeness they want.

Waverly pulls back, turning around to straddle Nicole’s legs she slides together to provide a lap. “Much better.” She breathes out, pulling Nicole back in.

Nicole slides one hand into the silky strands of hair at the base of Waverly’s neck, holding her gently in place as she deepens the kiss. Her other hand idly plays with the hem of Waverly’s shirt, before slipping underneath to scratch lightly at the small of her back.

Waverly slides a hand down from it’s perch on Nicole’s shoulder, pausing a moment to feel the heartbeat hammering in her chest. It makes Waverly smile into their next kiss, and god, Nicole swears her heart does an actual somersault.

It’s when Waverly brushes a thumb over a nipple straining through her shirt that Nicole remembers they’re, yet again, locked in a compromising position in public space. She wraps her fingers loosely around Waverly’s wrist to keep the sweet torment from continuing, pulling back from the kiss with reluctance.

“We shouldn’t be doing this out here.”

Waverly touches her forehead to Nicole’s, shaking it softly. “Probably not, but I don’t recall being the one to start this.”

Nicole huffs out a laugh. “Pretty sure both of us are to blame.” She squeezes her eyes shut as she admits “I don’t seem to be able to help myself around you.”

“Good,” Waverly whispers, “because I don’t really want you to.”

The most beautiful light is shining in Waverly’s eyes, and Nicole can’t help it, she tilts her chin forward for one more soft kiss. She makes herself pull back when she feels the overwhelming urge to take it further again.

“Why don’t we take this over to my cabin?”

Waverly smiles wickedly, and it causes a jolt low in Nicole’s body. “I thought you’d never ask.” She disentangles herself, standing up and offering a hand to Nicole to help her up.

Nicole takes the time to shovel some dirt onto the dying embers of the fire, not wanting to take any risks.

She glances around one last time, making sure no one is lurking about in the shadows, before taking Waverly’s hand in hers and leading the way back to her cabin, a smile on her face the whole way.

Chapter Text

Nicole wipes a brow with her forearm. The summer heat is causing the sweat to drip off of her, and she’s glad to be finished with the task of replacing an old fencepost.

She steps back to admire her handy work as she drinks deeply from a water bottle. The sun is finally starting to go down, but it doesn’t offer much relief.

The sweat and heat can’t diminish the spectacular view of scenery though. Nicole takes the time to admire the three hundred and sixty degree views of pastures and mountains around her, never tiring of it. She takes in the house and barns in the distance as well, and finds the view just as pleasing.

Earp Ranch is starting to feel like more than just a place of employment.

It’s something that has Nicole a little worried, if she’s honest. In this line of work you never know when you might be required to move on. It’s not all that uncommon for ranch hands to get laid off in the fall and early winter months.

Nicole can feel her brow lower at the thought. She’d deal with it if it came to that, but she’s not sure how things with Waverly would go, and that part makes her feel the most uneasy.

She’s drawn form her thoughts by the approaching ATV speeding through the pasture at a break neck speed, which tells her Wynonna is at the helm.

The vehicle comes to an abrupt stop dangerously close to Nicole’s toes, and she very pointedly looks down at the minimal space between her feet and the front of the ATV before looking back up and raising her eyebrows at Wynonna.

“Oh don’t look at me like that. No need to piss yourself, I’m a pro at driving this thing.”

Nicole passes her a look but stays silent, which has Wynonna rolling her eyes.

“Anyway, what are you doing tonight?”

Nicole crosses her arms and quirks an eyebrow. “I suspect I’ll be doing whatever it is you’re about to tell me I’m doing.”

Wynonna looks skyward. “Thank the lord. Have I mentioned how refreshing it is to have a ranch hand with a brain? Because it is.”

Nicole can’t help the way the corner of her mouth tugs upwards. “More than once. So, are you going to fill me in on what my plans are, or do you want to keep praising my intellect? Which, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to let you do.”

“You and me,” she gestures her finger back and forth between them, “are going into town for a drink. I need to get off the ranch for a bit and blow off some steam.”

“Is Waverly coming?” Nicole asks, hoping it comes across as a casual inquiry.

Something flits across Wynonna’s face too quickly for Nicole to read before she shakes her head. “Nah, I’m giving Waves the night off from me. I think she could use it.” Her voice is quieter on the last part.

Nicole knows things aren’t quite back to normal after the night on the porch a couple weeks ago, but she doesn’t feel like it’s her place to pry. Any attempt she’s made to discuss it with Waverly has been side-stepped, so Nicole figures she should stay out of it for now.

She nods. “All right then. Let me finish up here and get showered”

“Please do, you filthy animal.” Wynonna winks before hopping back in the ATV and tearing away, almost running Nicole over in the process.

She works for a crazy person.

Nicole doesn’t run into Waverly on the way back to her cabin, and she wonders if she’ll have the opportunity to see her before going out tonight with Wynonna.

They’ve made sure to keep their relationship under the radar. Well, Nicole calls it a relationship in her head, but they still haven’t really discussed what they’re doing in any official capacity.

Nicole is patient. She doesn’t want Waverly to feel any pressure to be someone she’s not, or for this thing between them to become something she’s not ready for, but the truth is, Nicole can feel herself sink a little bit deeper into her feelings for Waverly with each day that passes, and it would be nice to know for sure where things are headed.

Nicole feels the uncomfortable thoughts slip away when she gets out of the shower to find Waverly standing in her cabin.

“Hey you.” She greets, and her heart flutters at the smile Waverly gives her.

“I should have come over sooner.” Waverly says, clearly enjoying the view of Nicole wrapped in a towel. “I could have helped you get clean.”

Nicole feels her stomach flip. She wonders absently if that will ever stop happening. She’s starting to suspect not. She slides her hands over Waverly's shoulders and links them behind her neck. “Is that what would happen?”

Waverly dips her eyes down to where the towel is knotted at Nicole’s chest. “Uh huh, absolutely, your cleanliness would be my top priority.”

Nicole grins, dropping her head back to look at the ceiling as she chuckles. “You are such a terrible a liar.”

Waverly pinches at her hip, an exaggerated look of indignation on her face. “Rude.”

Nicole shrugs. “That’s me. Horribly,” she leans in for a quick kiss, “terribly,” another kiss, “rude.” She whispers the last word against against Waverly’s lips.

A knock at the front door startles them apart. Waverly's eyes widen when Wynonna’s voice comes through the door.

“You in there Nicole?”

Nicole swallows, looking around for a hiding place for Waverly; an absurd prospect considering how small the cabin is. “Yeah, but I’m naked, so don’t come in.” She yells back, her voice coming out more panicked than she’d like.

“Dude, quit diddling with yourself and get dressed. I’ll be at the house whenever you’re finally ready.” Wynonna calls out.

They both breathe a sigh of relief when they hear Wynonna jog down the porch steps to leave. Nicole raises an eyebrow in question when Waverly gives her a sheepish look.

“Sorry, Wynonna told me you guys were going out for drinks tonight, and I wanted to see you before you left. I didn’t think she’d come knocking so soon.”

Nicole gives her a reassuring smile. “You don’t ever have to apologize for coming to see me.” Her smile fades slowly. “Is it okay that I’m going for drinks with your sister?”

“Of course. I’m actually glad. Trust me, she could use a steady head with her for a night on the town.” Waverly goes up on her toes for another kiss. “Just promise me you won’t let her run through the streets topless.”

Nicole grins, placing a hand over her heart. “I promise.” She pauses as a thought occurs to her. “Wait, that hasn’t actually happened before, has it?”

The look Waverly gives her as she heads for the door does not inspire confidence. “Good luck.” She sing songs before checking that no one is around to see her leave the cabin and slipping out the door.

“But-” Nicole trails off as the door shuts.

She wonders, not for the first time since arriving at Earp Ranch, what exactly she’s getting herself into.

*****

Wynonna pulls out a bar stool with a loud scrape and a “park yourself here.”

Nicole fights an eye roll as she complies.

The place is called Gus’, and while it’s not a complete dive bar, it certainly has a rustic feel about it. Nicole imagines most of the bars in this town do.

The bartender eyes them critically before making her way over. She’s an older woman, probably in her sixties, with short grey hair and a weathered look about her. She wipes down the bar in front of them before tossing the towel over her shoulder.

“Wynonna.” She says in greeting. It’s not a particularly rude greeting, but it’s not happy either.

“Gus.” Wynonna responds in a similar tone. She turns to Nicole to make introductions. “Nicole this is Gus, the owner of this fine establishment.” Gus rolls her eyes at the emphasis Wynonna puts on the word ‘fine’. “She was pretty much like family to my parents, and still is to Waverly.”

Nicole does not miss the way Wynonna excludes herself from the statement. Gus notices too, if the thin line she sets her mouth in is anything to go by. Nicole reaches out a hand in an attempt to smooth over the awkward moment.

“It’s very nice to meet you Gus.”

Gus gives her a firm handshake, her face softening a fraction. “Doc was in here not too long ago, told me he’d hired a new ranch hand. He seemed mighty impressed with you so far. Welcome aboard.”

Nicole smiles at the comment. She is so going to bust Doc’s balls later for being complimentary.

Wynonna lightly smacks her palm on the bar. “Now that that’s out of the way, I am parched. Hit us with a shot of tequila. Oh, and a beer to quench the thirst.” Her dimples come out with her devious grin.

Gus sighs. “Coming right up.” She pauses mid turn. “Oh, and I’m sorry to say the mechanical bull is broken. Such as shame.”

Nicole has the distinct impression Gus does not find it a shame at all. Yet another story she’ll have to learn some day.

Their first round goes down quick. Too quick, in Nicole’s opinion, but Wynonna is insistent she keep up.

After the second round it’s all too easy for Wynonna to talk her into a game of pool against a couple of local boys in the bar. The gleam in Wynonna’s eye tips Nicole off to the possible hustle plan, which is only confirmed when she states the losers have to buy the next two rounds.

Nicole gets a strong sense of satisfaction at the look of surprise on Wynonna’s face when she realizes just how good Nicole is at pool. Apparently Wynonna thought she was running this hustle all on her own.

It takes a pitifully short amount of time for them to win, and Nicole realizes just how much fun she’s actually having when she and Wynonna execute a particularly elaborate victory handshake. Their competitors want to change the stipulations of the bet to best two of three, but Wynonna is having none of that.

“Don’t be dickless, buy us our drinks.” She says loudly, before turning on her heel and marching up to Gus, who Nicole noticed watching them on and off throughout the pool game.

“Gus, I’d prefer our winnings all at once if you don’t mind. Another shot and another beer for me and my pool shark friend here, and put it on Buddy’s tab.”

“It’s Brendan.” The guy mutters, but Wynonna just waves a hand in the air dismissively. Nicole almost feels bad for the guy. Almost.

Nicole makes sure to make eye contact with Gus as she sits back down at the bar. “This is it for me on the shots, please. And if you don’t mind, I’ll take a water when you have a sec.”

Gus nods, looking relieved while ignoring Wynonna’s comment about Nicole being a spoil-sport.

Nicole holds up both hands. “Hey, I promised your sister I wouldn’t let you go streaking, so I have to maintain at least some semblance of control here.”

Nicole takes a sip of her beer, pausing mid-gulp when she realizes what she just said. She can feel Wynonna’s eyes on her as she finishes her swallow. She attempts a casual pose as she turns in her stool. “What?”

“It’s okay you know. I know the deal with you and Waverly.”

Nicole swears her heart skips a beat. “What deal?”

Wynonna rolls her eyes. “I know the two of you are friends too. You don’t have to try and hide it, I’m a big girl, I can share my toys.”

Nicole feels the strangest mixture of relief and disappointment at the comment. The relief is easy to understand, because she would never in a million years want to out Waverly without her permission. But lately she’s been feeling more and more uncomfortable with keeping things from Wynonna, and she thinks that’s where the disappointment comes in.

Wynonna looks contemplative as she turns the beer glass in her hands. “Do you think I keep Waves to close?” It takes her a moment to meet Nicole’s gaze, and it’s clear she’s been asking herself the question for awhile now.

Nicole leans back in her chair, giving the conversation her full attention. “How do you mean?”

Wynonna’s eyes trail away, landing on Gus across the bar. “I don’t know. Sometimes I just wonder if I should have encouraged her to go away to college, instead of getting her degree by correspondence. Maybe it would’ve been good for her to get the hell out of this place.” Her eyes find their way back to Nicole. “Sometimes I’m afraid the only reason Waverly stays is because she thinks she has to take care of me.”

A painful squeeze occurs in Nicole’s chest at the sentiment. She finds herself surprised by Wynonna’s candor. She thinks about a few of her middle of the night conversations with Waverly and knows without a doubt the fear Wynonna has is unfounded, but she gets it.

“I think,” Nicole starts carefully, wanting to be sure she doesn’t reveal anything she shouldn’t, but at the same time wanting to reassure Wynonna, “that Waverly is not the type person who would stay somewhere she didn’t want to be.” She takes a sip of her beer, needing something harder than water in the moment. “It seems to me that Waverly is perfectly capable of figuring out who she is and what she wants right here at the ranch. And if that were to change, I think she would tell you.”

“Would she?”

Wynonna sounds so unsure with the question and Nicole hates it. She might be absolutely crazy about Waverly, but Wynonna has become extremely important to her too.

“Yes, I think she would.” Nicole pauses, measuring her next words. “Look, Waverly wants to talk to you, about everything. There just seems to be certain topics she’s afraid to broach with you. I think she’s afraid of what you’ll say.”

Wynonna scratches at a groove in the bar with her nail. “Willa.” She says the name quietly, staring at her beer as if lost in it. “I screwed up. I screwed up so bad.” Wynonna shakes her head. “I shouldn’t have helped her keep sneaking out. I shouldn’t have let her treat Waverly the way she did. I shouldn’t have treated Waves the way I did. God...” She throws back her shot, making a face at the burn.

“Hey.” Nicole reaches out and touches Wynonna’s shoulder lightly. “You were a kid, and kids do stupid things. What happened to Willa is not your fault. People make their own choices in life, you have to know that.”

Wynonna looks at the hand on her shoulder, and Nicole pulls it back immediately.

“I don’t know how to talk to Waverly about it. Hell, I don’t know how to talk to you about it, and you weren’t even around at the time.”

Nicole nods. “I get it, I do. But Waverly wants to talk about it.” Nicole pauses, deciding if she should say her next words or not. Screw it. “You’re afraid she stays because she feels like she has to take care of you, and I think deep down she’s afraid that no matter how long she stays you’ll never love her like you loved Willa. I know it’s hard, but you need to talk to her about it Wynonna.”

Wynonna blinks in surprise at the words. The silence stretches out between them and Nicole resists the urge to fidget in nervousness.

“Well fuck.” Wynonna murmurs, before raising an arm. “Gus, another round please!”

Gus looks over her shoulder in annoyance, her shoulders moving visibly with a sigh. She places another shot and beer in front of Wynonna before raising an eyebrow at Nicole.

Nicole gives an apologetic look. “I’ll take one more beer.”

An hour, and two more beers, pass by quickly as they move into much easier conversation. Wynonna gives her the lowdown from high school on a lot of the bar patrons, and it’s honestly quite amusing. Nicole knows she has a good buzz going, judging from the volume of her own laughs, but she doesn’t really care.

Things become a little less humorous when Gus informs them Waverly is on her way.

“Oh shit, you called Waves?” Wynonna asks in a panic. “Why the hell would you do that? She’s gonna kill me.”

Gus looks unimpressed. “Because she’s your sister, and neither of you should be driving.” A shadow passes quickly over her face. “Now sit there and drink some water until she gets here.” She walks away with purpose, putting an end to the conversation.

“Heinous.” Wynonna mutters, taking a gulp of water and wincing as if the zero alcohol content offends her.

They sit in amiable silence until Waverly arrives, giving Nicole an amused look as she approaches.

“I thought maybe you would be the responsible one here, but I guess not.”

Nicole can feel her eyebrows raising in question at the comment before Wynonna cuts in. “She means you look drunk, dude. You have serious derp drunk face going on.”

“You’re one to talk.” Nicole feels like a twelve year old with her response, but it’s all she can think of in the moment.

Waverly takes the time to head behind the bar to give Gus a hug before corralling them towards the door.

A familiar looking blonde catches Nicole’s attention on their way out. Unfortunately Wynonna notices too.

“It’s Samantha. Now’s your chance Nicole, look at her tits. Look at them in all their perky glory!”

Nicole grabs her by the arm and yanks her out the door. The last thing she wants right now is to revisit the topic of Samantha and her assets. The look on Waverly’s face only furthers her desire to ignore the topic.

“Okay, one, quit it with the man-handling. Who knew you were so butch? And two, I seriously am going to have to revoke your women loving woman card soon. Seriously? Her boobs are like kryptonite to every single guy I know. They’re like, better than dynamite, or something.”

“Oh my god, enough! If you love her boobs so damn much why don’t you marry them?!” Waverly cuts in, practically yelling.

Wynonna freezes with her eyes wide, holding up her hands in defense. “Okay, crazy town, I’ll stop talking about her boobs.”

“And stop saying boobs!” Waverly huffs out before spinning on her heel to yank open the driver side door of her jeep.

“I think she has some boob envy going on.” Wynonna whispers.

Nicole rolls her eyes. “Seriously, stop saying that word. Your sister is scary when she’s mad.” She climbs into the back seat of the jeep, eyes meeting Waverly’s in the rear view mirror. The narrowed gaze she encounters indicates Waverly heard her.

Super.

The first few minutes of the ride are silent, a strange sort of tenseness hanging in the air. Nicole isn’t sure if it’s from her earlier conversation with Wynonna, or the conversation about Samantha Baker’s boobs. Probably both. She suppresses the urge to sigh. The Earp sisters do not come without complications.

Her eyes drift to Waverly tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. The complications are worth it.

Apparently the silence is too much for Wynonna because she launches into a retelling of their pool victory to Waverly. The story does seem to lighten the mood a bit, so that’s something.

Approximately five minutes from the ranch Wynonna starts snoring. Good god, Nicole is thankful she never has to share a bedroom with her.

As soon as Waverly parks Nicole hops out of the back seat, opening Waverly's door and drawing her out of the jeep before she can wake Wynonna. She gently shuts the door and positions Waverly back against it.

“Hey.” She whispers, dropping her hands to Waverly's waist.

Waverly raises an eyebrow. “Hey back.”

Nicole starts to rub her thumbs in slow circles over the hip bones beneath them in an attempt to sooth. “Are you mad?”

Waverly blows out a slow breath, eyes drifting somewhere beyond Nicole’s head. “Mad? No. Annoyed? Maybe a little.”

Nicole nods. She can understand annoyed. “Is this about Samantha Baker’s rack?”

Waverly smacks her shoulder. “Oh my god, stop talking about Samantha Baker. No one cares about her or her stupid perfect body parts.”

Nicole fights the smile tugging at her lips. She wants to nip this in the bud once and for all. “Waverly, are you, perhaps, experiencing a touch of jealousy?”

“What?” Waverly asks. “That is absurd. Why would I be jealous? I wouldn’t, that’s why. What a silly thing to say.”

“Waverly.” Nicole interrupts, waiting for Waverly’s eyes to finally meet hers again. “Ask me what Samantha was wearing tonight.”

Waverly huffs out a breath. “What?”

“Ask me what she was wearing tonight. Hell, ask me what any girl in that bar was wearing tonight.”

Waverly shakes her head in confusion. “What was she wearing?”

“I have no idea. Not a single clue.” The corner of Nicole’s mouth quirks up. “Now, ask me what you were wearing the first time I saw you.”

Something in Waverly’s face softens. “What was I wearing the first time you saw me?”

Nicole can feel the smile widen on her face. “A denim skirt, which is one of my favorites on you, by the way, and that green scoop neck top of yours that shows your collarbones.” Nicole lifts one of her hands to brush against the area she’s referencing. “I could not care less about Samantha Baker, or anyone else for that matter. I’m sorry to tell you that my attention has been firmly fixated on an Earp girl for quite some time now, and I’m not talking about your sister.”

Waverly fights a smile, looking down at her feet, before meeting Nicole’s eyes again while shaking her head. “How do you that?”

“Do what?” Nicole asks innocently, though she knows her grin gives her away.

“Say things that give me the biggest butterflies in my stomach?”

Nicole plays with the silky strands of Waverly’s hair. “I don’t know, I just say the things that pop into my mind when I’m with you.” She takes on a more serious air. “I am sorry for not staying sober enough to drive tonight. I know I promised I’d look after Wynonna, but...” she trails off, shrugging one shoulder. “sadly it appears I’m very far from being perfect.”

Waverly smiles. “Oh I know, I’ve hung up way too many of your towels when you leave them on the floor after a shower to think you’re perfect.”

Nicole shakes her head, leaning in slowly. “However do you put up with me?”

“It’s a real struggle at times, let me tell you.” Waverly whispers, closing the short distance to capture her lips. When they part for air Waverly runs her fingertips softly along Nicole’s cheek. “Do you have any idea how much I like you?”

Nicole scrunches up an eye. “A little?”

“More than a little.” Waverly admits, pulling Nicole back in.

Before the kiss can get out of control, Wynonna lets out a loud snort from the passenger seat, muttering out ‘grilled cheese’ in her sleep.

Nicole takes a step back. “That’s probably my cue to head off. You should get your crazy sister to bed.”

Waverly rolls her eyes. “You heard her, the second I wake her up she’s going to ask me to make her grilled cheese. Trust me, bed time is a ways off.”

Nicole takes another step back, unable to wipe the smile off her face. “Well, I’ll leave you to your culinary pursuits then. Goodnight Waverly.”

“Night Nicole.” Waverly makes her way to the passenger side of the jeep as Nicole walks away.

Nicole actually snorts in laughter when she hears Wynonna startle awake in the darkness with a ‘Holy hell, I need a grilled cheese.”

Nicole loses herself in thought about her earlier conversation with Wynonna at the bar, not noticing the person approaching in the darkness before they’re right in front of her.

“Levi.” She says, startled by his appearance.

He seems almost as surprised by her. He fidgets with a pocket on his jacket as he nods in greeting to her. “Nicole. What are you doing out here?”

Nicole can hear a tremor of nervousness in his voice, and her guard goes up immediately. Did he see something? This could be bad.

“I went out for a drink with Wynonna. Kind of a girls night thing, you know?” She tries to play up the casualness of the situation, watching his face carefully for any reaction.

He nods, his eyes shifting around rapidly. “Sounds like a good time.”

Nicole slides her hands into her back pockets, rocking back on her heels. “What brings you out here?”

Levi swallows, opening his mouth to speak before closing it again. Finally, he hangs his head in dejection, pulling his hand from his pocket, revealing a pack of cigarettes. “Look, I basically quit, but sometimes...well, sometimes I still sneak one now and then, and Am– I mean, some people, don’t really like that.”

Nicole forms a silent “Oh” with her mouth, nodding slowly. “I got it. So, you’d prefer I kept this little run in to myself?”

Relief washes over Levi’s face immediately. “Yes, please. I would really owe you.”

“No need to owe me anything, it’s no big deal.” She smiles. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to continue on my walk back to my cabin, during which time I never saw you.” She gives a wink before continuing on.

She turns back once when she reaches her porch, something tugging at her mind, but Levi is long gone into the night.

She turns her attention to getting the door unlocked and her shoes off without tripping, not the easiest of feats.

Damn it, Wynonna.

*****

Most days on the ranch Nicole manages to almost forget there’s an outside world, and an entire group of people that know her beyond her role as a ranch hand here.

It’s a cozy little bubble that bursts the second she gets the phone call from her mother. She wouldn’t classify the five minute conversation as terrible, but it isn’t exactly of the warm mother-daughter variety either. Her relationship with her parents stopped having a warm and fuzzy feel to it the second the words “I’m gay” came out of her mouth.

Nicole reluctantly goes in search of Wynonna after the phone call, not really wanting to make the request she’s about to make, but which her mother made clear she’s expected to do.

She slows her pace when she finds Wynonna on the porch steps of the house next to Waverly, the two of them in animated conversation.

It’s a picturesque moment, Wynonna’s arm around Waverly’s shoulder as she laughs at something her sister just said. Nicole feels a warmth in her chest, and her lips curl up at the scene. There’s a particular feeling hovering at the edge of Nicole’s awareness, but she can’t quite put her finger on it just yet.

Waverly looks up and catches sight of her, giving a little wave in greeting.

Nicole clears her throat as she approaches, trying to find the best way to start the conversation. She figures a direct approach would be easiest.

“What can we do you for Haught-stuff?” Wynonna asks, giving Nicole a genuine smile as she removes her arm from around Waverly’s shoulder and leans back on her elbows.

“My folks called. Apparently they’re throwing a big to-do for my sister’s birthday this weekend, and my presence has been requested. I really hate to ask, but do you think it’s possible for me to take a few days off?”

Wynonna narrows her gaze. “You, a lowly minion, dare to ask for time off? Of all the nerve.”

Waverly bumps Wynonna’s shoulder with her own. “Chill out with the power trip.” There’s clear concern in her eyes when she meets Nicole’s gaze. “Do you actually want to go?”

Nicole shrugs, trying to play it casual. No, she really doesn’t want to go, but in the grand scheme of things she supposes it’s not that big a deal. “I haven’t seen the family in awhile, so it’s probably a good time to do it.” It’s not a real answer, and judging by the way Waverly is looking at her, she knows it too.

Wynonna interrupts the silent conversation Nicole and Waverly are having with their eyes. “Fine, leave us. Hopefully things are still standing when you get back.”

“You are a kind and benevolent boss. I promise to make it up to you when I get back. Maybe I’ll even bring you back some good shit.” Nicole teases.

Wynonna sighs. “You really get me.”

Nicole wishes she could alleviate the concern she still sees in Waverly’s eyes, but she doesn’t think she can without raising Wynonna’s suspicion. So instead she heads back to her cabin to pack, ignoring the churning in her stomach at the thought of going home.

*****

“Do try and be just a little bit quiet over there, will you?” Doc’s voice interrupts the silence.

Nicole breaks her stare out the truck window to turn and look at him with an apologetic smile. “Sorry, just tired.”

Nicole’s bus arrived back in town just before midnight, and Doc was kind enough to pick her up. She appreciates the ride, but in all honestly she’s not up for much conversation. The last few days have been taxing, and Nicole is glad about her return to Earp Ranch.

“I’m going to guess the trip home was not exactly a picnic.”

“Not exactly, no.” Nicole responds softly.

Doc scratches at his chin as he makes the turn onto the dirt road towards the ranch. “Well, at least you came back with an American classic. I find a quality piece like that can make up for a multitude of sins.”

The corner of Nicole’s mouth quirks up when Doc refers to the lever action rifle she’s bringing back with her.

Her father always promised her as a child he would someday pass it down to her. She never expected it would be handed over along with the news she was being written out of the will and everything would be going to her sister and her sister’s children, but Nicole figures at least she walked away with something. Better than some people got.

Nicole makes an attempt to shake herself out of the melancholy she’s felt for the last twenty four hours. “Maybe if you go an entire day without being a jackass, I’ll let you shoot it.”

Doc chuckles, and Nicole can make out his dimple in the darkness of the truck cabin. “Oh you are definitely letting me shoot it. Might even learn a thing or two watching me.”

“We’ll see about that.”

They pull under the archway onto the property, and Nicole is reminded of her first arrival all those months ago. Almost seems like a different lifetime now.

The front porch light is on at the main house, and Nicole wonders if Waverly is sound asleep at this time of night.

“You need help with any of that?” Doc asks.

Nicole snorts. “Don’t think you’re getting your hands on my rifle that easily.” She slings her bag over one shoulder and grabs the gun. “But thank you for the offer. You have yourself a good night Doc.”

Doc’s tips the brim of his hat before driving away to park the truck behind the barn.

There’s a lamp on in her cabin, and when Nicole finds Waverly asleep in her bed she breathes easier than she has in days.

She gets ready for bed as quickly as possible, feeling a desperate need to have Waverly wrapped up in her arms.

Waverly lets out a sleepy sigh and turns towards her when Nicole slips into bed. She runs a hand softly through Waverly’s hair as she places a kiss to the underside of her jaw.

Waverly slowly blinks her eyes open at the sensation, a sleepy smile coming to her lips. “You’re home.” She whispers.

Home.

The word hits Nicole in the middle of her chest. “I am. And you’re in my bed.” She whispers back.

Waverly’s eyes flutter closed again. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too baby.” Nicole’s heart thuds in her chest at the term of affection slipping past her lips without thought, but Waverly just hums in contentment, squeezing her hip lightly.

Waverly opens her eyes again “How did it go?”

Nicole shrugs, not really wanting to talk about it. “It went.”

The concern on Waverly’s face is evident, and Nicole wants nothing more than to wipe it away. She leans in for a kiss, deep and slow. When she pulls back there’s a different light in Waverly’s eyes, and Nicole can see the vestiges of sleep falling away.

It takes mere moments for their clothes to find the floor, hands and lips wandering at a leisurely late night pace.

They lock eyes when Nicole slips inside of Waverly, her fingers starting up a gentle rhythm, and Nicole can’t deny the overwhelming feeling that hits her again. Home.

There’s something else whispering in the back of her brain as she watches Waverly come undone under her, but she’s flat on her own back before she knows it, and it’s not long until coherent thought ceases all together.

*****

Waverly stirs at four in the morning, opening her eyes to find Nicole with her head propped up on her hand watching her.

“Have you slept at all?” Her voice is husky with sleep.

Nicole shrugs a shoulder. She hasn’t, but she doesn’t want Waverly to worry about it. “A little.”

Waverly shifts her gaze back and forth between Nicole’s eyes. “What are you thinking about?”

“Go on a date with me.” Nicole doesn’t even realize she’s going to say the words until they’re already out.

Waverly smiles in amusement. “Um, I think maybe you’re a little out of order with that.” She lifts the sheet to look pointedly at their naked bodies.

Nicole breathes out a laugh. “True, but I’m serious. I want to take you on an honest to goodness date. You deserve that.”

“I would love to go on a date with you.” Waverly bites her bottom lip.

Nicole can hear the unspoken word at the end of her sentence. “But?”

“It’s just that,” Waverly squeezes her eyes shut for a moment, before opening them again, apology clear in her eyes, “I’m not quite ready to go public with this yet.”

Nicole tries to ignore the sinking sensation in her stomach. She nods, not quite able to meet Waverly's eyes when she responds. “I understand, no problem.”

“Hey.” Waverly goes up on her forearm, reaching out a hand to turn Nicole’s gaze gently back to her. “This is has nothing to do with how I feel about you. I can not wait to go on a date with you, honestly. I just need a little more time, okay?” Her eyes are pleading with Nicole to understand, and the thing is, Nicole does. She remembers what it was like all those years ago for herself.

She gives what she hopes is a reassuring smile. “Okay.”

Waverly leans in for a kiss but Nicole pulls back when a thought strikes her. “What if I figured out a way to take you on a date where no one would have to know?”

Waverly smiles, and it eases some of Nicole’s worries. “You think you could do that?”

“Well, I am pretty resourceful when I want to be.”

The look Waverly gives her has Nicole’s temperature rising a few degrees.

“In more ways than what you’re thinking right now.”

Waverly laughs, shaking her head as she looks away. When her eyes return Nicole finds genuine happiness there. “I think I would very much like to see your resourcefulness at work, so yes please, take me on this clandestine date.”

Nicole pulls Waverly into her arms, kissing the top of her head. “It would be my pleasure.”

A ghost of a smile is still on her lips as she finally falls asleep.

Chapter Text

Nicole makes her way by moonlight to the back of the house, keeping her footsteps quiet as she watches for anyone who might still be up. All the windows of the house are dark, which is a good sign.

Nicole is thankful Waverly’s bedroom is on the first floor so she doesn’t have to test out her rock throwing skills. A broken window is probably not the best way to start out a date. Instead she gives the window in front of her a light rap with her knuckles. It’s not even a minute before the window slides open, and Waverly stands there with a warm smile.

“Out for a night stroll?” She asks, leaning forward to prop her elbows on the window sill.

Nicole shrugs, looking up at the sky. “It’s a nice night for it.” She lowers her head to meet Waverly’s eyes again. “Wanna join me?”

Waverly pretends to contemplate the question, tilting her head from side to side, and Nicole waits, trying to comprehend the unfamiliar feeling coursing through her. Because she’s nervous, and Nicole can’t remember the last time that happened to her.

Finally Waverly nods her head. “Why not?” One corner of her lips quirk up. “Like you said, it’s a nice night. It’d be a shame to miss out on all it has to offer.”

Nicole can’t help herself; she braces her hands against the side of the house and leans in for a quick kiss. She offers a hand for help climbing out the window when she pulls back, but Waverly just raises an eyebrow at her before doing it on her own.

“Practiced that move a time or two?” Nicole asks as they start to walk. She sees Waverly shrug in her periphery.

“Not nearly as much as my sisters, but yeah, I can handle my own when it comes to sneaking out of the house undetected.” She’s silent for a few moments before asking “Where are we going?”

Nicole smiles, turning around to face Waverly as she walks backwards. “You’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?” She teases before turning back around and leading the way behind the barn to the horse she has saddled and tethered to a post.

Nicole gestures to the horse. “Our ride awaits, my lady.”

Waverly looks at her questioningly, but a hint of a smile curves her lips. “Only one horse? Seems awfully presumptuous of you.”

Nicole tries to look innocent, which just makes Waverly smile more. “I just figured it was a lot easier to fly under the radar with one horse instead of two.” She pauses a moment before adding. “Plus this way I get to touch you more, so...” She trails off.

“I’m not complaining.” Waverly responds.

Nicole feels a tug low in her stomach, and not for the first time she marvels at the way this girl gets to her like no one ever has.

She helps Waverly mount the horse before situating herself behind her.

“I get the front this time, huh?”

Nicole chuckles as Waverly settles herself in. “I think it’s good manners when on a first date.”

Waverly turns her head back, a playful light in her eyes. “I’ll have take your word for it. I’ve never had a date involve horse back riding.”

Nicole puts a hand to her own chest. “Shock and horror, never? Clearly the people you’ve gone on dates with were doing it all wrong.”

“I’m really starting to think they were.” Waverly says it so softly.

Nicole swallows, the moment heavy with something she can’t quite define. Finally Waverly turns around, settling back into Nicole more securely before spurring the horse into an easy walk.

Nicole can’t help but press her nose softly into Waverly’s hair and breathe in the scent she’s become so familiar with, a scent she’s growing to love.

It’s not the only thing.

“So, where are we, uh–” Waverly trails off as Nicole brushes her hair aside to kiss softly at her neck. Nicole can hear the breathe she takes in through her nose. “If you keep doing that we’re going to end up in the next county.” Waverly manages to get out, her voice a touch airier than usual.

Nicole pulls back with a smile, hands squeezing at Waverly's waist. “I’d like to think we would notice before we got that off track.”

“I’m not so sure about that.” Waverly responds.

Nicole thinks she might have a point. “Follow the moonlight and head towards the river.”

“Aye, aye captain.”

“Wrong line of work, babe.” Nicole responds without much thought.

It’s only when Waverly seems to melt back into her a little more that Nicole realizes she let a term of endearment slip from her lips again. It doesn’t seem to bother Waverly though, and that causes a warmth to start in Nicole’s chest. She can’t help but wrap her arms a little more securely around the waist in front of her.

They ride slowly, the light of the full moon casting a silvery glow throughout the pasture, mountains rising as dark figures in the background.

It takes about thirty minutes to arrive at the tree on the river bank. It’s the one Nicole designated as her favorite the first week on the ranch. She can’t believe how long ago that was now.

Nicole tethers the horse to a low tree limb before removing the necessary items from the saddle bags. There’s a prickle on the back of her neck as Waverly watches her intently the whole time.

She spreads a blanket along the river bank, placing a small electric lantern in one corner, not that it’s necessary with the light from the moon, but Nicole figures it can’t hurt. Finally she takes out a bottle of wine and two tin cups before grasping Waverly’s hand to lead her to the blanket.

“Is that what I think it is?” Waverly asks once they’re seated and she can get a good look at the bottle in Nicole’s hand.

Nicole can’t help but smile. “It is. We never did get around to drinking it that first night.”

“No, we never did.” Waverly responds.

When their eyes meet Nicole knows Waverly is thinking about their first night together too. She clears her throat lightly, gesturing to the tin cups as she fills them.

“Sorry about the lack of class, but I needed something that wouldn’t break on the ride over.”

Waverly takes a cup from her and gives a reassuring smile. “I think it’s perfect.”

Nicole shifts herself a little closer to Waverly, taking hold of one of her hands and raising it to her lips for a quick kiss. When she drops their hands back down neither one of them make a move to untangle their fingers.

Waverly squeezes her hand gently as she tilts her head back to look at the night sky. “God it’s beautiful out here.”

Nicole turns her head to watch Waverly as she takes in the stars. “It really is.”

Waverly must feel her gaze, because she turns her head and catches Nicole in the act of staring. Her eyes are so beautiful in the moonlight that it nearly takes Nicole’s breath away. She’s so caught up in them that she doesn’t even notice Waverly put down her wine, her hand finding it’s way to the back of Nicole’s neck to draw her forward into a kiss.

The kiss is so soft, and it starts a feeling in Nicole’s chest that she can only describe as both wonderful and terrifying. The whisper at the periphery of her brain is back, and Nicole is starting to understand its quiet insistence. She doesn’t feel entirely ready for it, but suspects she has little choice in the matter.

Nicole pulls back, raising a hand to caress Waverly’s cheek with her thumb. “Tell me what your favorite college class was?” She whispers.

Waverly shoves at Nicole’s shoulder playfully. “Seriously? What kind of question is that to ask right now?”

“That is a first date question. Get used to it, I’m going to ask more of them.” She leans back with a wink, taking a sip of wine while she waits for Waverly to answer the question.

Waverly bumps her shoulder with her own, and they settle into comfortable conversation while stargazing and making their way through the bottle of wine.

Nicole throws her head back to laugh when Waverly proves her handle on the Latin language by saying “This date is totally amazeballs”, and it feels so good to be out in the open, laughing, holding hands and exchanging kisses without having to check if anyone is around first.

The gentle sound of the river running and the crickets chirping give off their own kind of night time music, and Nicole is struck with an overwhelming urge. She finishes off her wine, setting the cup down before standing and holding out a hand.

Waverly's brow furrows in question.

“Dance with me?” Nicole asks gently.

Waverly takes her hand without hesitation after the request, allowing Nicole to pull her up. Nicole keeps hold of Waverly’s hand, drawing her in close as she slides her other hand around the back of Waverly's neck and starts them in a slow sway.

Waverly shakes her head in wonder. “Slow dancing on the river bank at midnight? You are something else Nicole Haught.”

Nicole plays with the soft wisps of hair at the back of Waverly’s neck as she whispers “Right back at you.”

They stay like that for awhile, turning underneath the stars and moonlight, and it feels as close to perfect as anything Nicole can remember.

“What are you thinking about right now?” Nicole asks, breaking the silence.

Waverly looks away, and Nicole swears a slight blush comes to her cheeks. “Honestly? How amazing this all is.”

“Yeah?” Nicole asks when Waverly meets her eyes again.

“Yeah.” Waverly seems to hesitate for a moment before speaking again. “And also I was thinking about how I’d love to get you out of those clothes sooner rather than later.” She admits.

Nicole stops their movement. “Waverly Earp, are you suggesting sex on our first date? Because I think that might be against first date rules.”

Waverly leans in. “Well lucky for us, first date rules don’t apply. We make our own rules.” She nips at Nicole’s bottom lip before stepping back, hands reaching down to pull her own shirt up and off in one smooth movement as she backs towards the blanket.

Nicole sucks in a breath. The way the moonlight plays along the creamy expanse of Waverly’s torso is beautiful, and it makes it hard to think.

It’s Waverly’s turn to hold out a hand. “Are you going to stand there staring, or are you going to get over here?”

The comment spurs Nicole into movement. “I think wine makes you a little bossy.”

Waverly hums at the comment, taking hold of Nicole’s hand and drawing her down into a kneeling position on the blanket. She wastes no time undoing the buttons of Nicole’s shirt and pushing it from her shoulders, her bra following quickly. Waverly brushes her fingers along a collarbone, across one shoulder, her eyes following the movements of her own hand intently.

Nicole pulls her in for a kiss, sliding one hand around to undo Waverly’s bra as their tongues brush against each other.

Waverly pulls back with a chuckle. “So smooth.”

Nicole shakes her head, resting their foreheads together. “Honestly? I don’t feel smooth. The butterflies you make me feel...” She trails off, not sure she’s capable of explaining it properly.

Waverly smiles in understanding. She runs her hands down into the back of Nicole’s jeans, applying light pressure to draw her in for another kiss. “I know the feeling.” She whispers against her lips, and Nicole feels a shiver run down her spine.

It’s not long before Nicole lowers her down onto her back, making quick work of the rest of their clothes before lying on her side next to Waverly, head propped up on one hand to take in the vision before her. “So beautiful.” She murmurs, running a hand along the curve of Waverly’s hip.

Their gazes lock, and Nicole feels a little overwhelmed by the moment. She shuts her eyes in an attempt to rein the emotions in.

Waverly’s fingers slide along her check, coaxing her eyes open again, and Nicole gives a reassuring smile at the concern she can see flitting across her face.

Nicole kisses her then, the instincts of her body taking over, hinting at the words trying to take shape in her mind.

They take their time under the stars, lips and hands moving everywhere until their bodies are sated in the most heavy and delicious of ways.

Nicole draws half the blanket over their bodies as they recover, Waverly curled into her side.

“Best first date ever.” Waverly whispers, and Nicole can’t help the wide smile that comes to her face.

When it becomes clear Waverly is about to doze off, Nicole presses a gentle kiss to the side of her temple, telling her they really should get back to avoid the risk of anyone finding them out.

Waverly whines a bit, which Nicole finds kind of adorable, but eventually she relents, sleepily pulling her clothes back on before climbing on the horse and settling back into Nicole.

Nicole takes the reins of the horse, pressing a kiss to the top of Waverly's head. “You can sleep on the ride back. Don’t worry, I’ve got you.”

“I know you do.” Waverly responds quietly before yawning. She’s asleep in Nicole’s arms within minutes.

Nicole reluctantly shakes her awake when they get back, helping her down from the horse. She smiles at the bleary eyed look Waverly gives her.

“Why don’t you go ahead to bed? I can take care of the horse.”

Waverly looks like she wants to decline the request before another yawn overtakes her. “Okay.” She whispers, not making a move.

Nicole huffs out a laugh, leaning in to kiss her check. “Thank you for going on a date with me. Now go to bed.” She directs.

Waverly nods, her eyes conveying her appreciation before she slowly makes her way out of the barn.

A half hour later Nicole gets back to her cabin to find Waverly passed out in her bed. For some reason Nicole expected her to return to her own bed, but she’s more than happy to steal a few more hours together

Waverly stirs when Nicole draws her back into her torso, mumbling “Wasn’t ready for the date to be over,” before falling fast asleep again.

“Me neither.” Nicole whispers, succumbing to her own exhaustion and drifting off to sleep minutes later.

*****

Nicole claps her gloved hands together, sending small bursts of dirt and grass into the air.

Doc cuts the engine on the tractor in the equipment barn before hopping down to join her, sliding his leather gloves off to slap them against his thighs.

“Well that was most unpleasant.” He complains.

Nicole nods. They finished mowing the pasture before the summer sun got too high in the sky, but the recent dry conditions had dirt and dust and grass clouding into the air and all over them.

Nicole unties the bandana from around her neck she’d used to block her mouth and nostrils, giving it a good shake, but she doesn’t manage to remove much debris from it. She shakes her head. “If you know any way to bring on the rain, get to it old man.”

Doc scoffs. “Old man, I ought to cuff you upside the head for that.”

Nicole shrugs, trying to fight the smile tugging at her lips. “I just call it like I see it.”

Doc walks away, calling over his shoulder “To think I vouched for your employment.”

Nicole chuckles as she follows behind. “I can’t believe it’s almost time to bring the herd back from summer pasture. Where the hell did the time go?”

Doc slows his pace to let Nicole catch up with him, giving her a dimpled grin. “Now who sounds like the old person?”

Nicole laughs, and they fall into an amicable silence as they make their way back to the main barn. She waves to Fish and Levi as they pass by in an ATV, Fish returning the wave with a small smile while Levi gives a curt nod. Nicole finds herself wondering about their differing personalities until Doc speaks again, drawing her from the thoughts.

“You still find the work and the scenery to your liking?”

The way Doc says ‘scenery’ has Nicole raising her eyebrows, but she ignores it. “I am. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I accepted your job offer, but I really like it here...even if some of my co-workers have the tendency to be smug assholes.” Nicole side eyes him, waiting for his reaction to the dig.

“Well hell Nicole, that’s no way to talk about your boss. Sure, she can be ornery, but we try and keep that to ourselves.” Doc responds, and Nicole can’t help her hearty laugh.

“I’ll tell her you said that.”

Doc has a particular twinkle in his eye when he looks at her. “Please do. Angry Wynonna can be highly entertaining.”

Nicole shakes her head in amusement, but she’s distracted when she sees Waverly walk out of the barn and head towards the house. Her heartbeat picks up the tiniest of fractions, the way it always seems to do.

“You still in there?” Doc asks, causing Nicole to break her stare.

“Sorry, just taking in the scenery.” Nicole lies.

“I’ll bet.” Doc’s eyes follow her previous sightline, and Nicole knows he noticed Waverly too. “You think you’ll stick around through the winter?” Doc asks, and it should be a casual question, but there’s an intensity to his gaze that has Nicole answering sincerely.

“Honestly, I think I’ll stick around as long you guys will have me.”

Doc nods, his face switching back into a lazy grin. “I think you’ll find we’re willing to have you for quite some time. I myself don’t care much for you, but I have it on a good authority the boss likes you. Well, one of them anyway.”

Nicole smacks his shoulder, completely ignoring the comment as she turns to head to her cabin and a much needed shower. “Drinks by the fire pit tonight?” She asks before leaving.

Doc scratches at his cheek. “I think I might be otherwise occupied. Can I take you up on that offer tomorrow?”

Nicole shrugs. “Maybe, we’ll have to see if I can still stand to look at you in another twenty-four hours.”

She doesn’t miss the “Jackass” Doc mumbles at her as she walks away.

*****

It’s late. Nicole knows she should probably be asleep, but her mind isn’t listening.

For a long time now she’s found the best way to process her thoughts and feelings is to walk it out, turn things over in her mind for a bit. And so she walks the property, thankful it’s late enough for no one else to be out and about.

She thinks about the copy of the updated Will she received in the mail earlier today from her parents. Nicole snorts to herself when she recalls the note attached that simply read ‘For your records’. It feels so unnecessary, they made everything quite clear during her last visit, and Nicole is honestly ready to move on and be done with the whole thing.

Nicole is surprised when she notices Doc coming towards her from the direction of the house. Apparently he was indeed otherwise occupied tonight. She almost looks forward to the day they can outright give each other shit over something like this, but for now she ignores the obvious implication of where he’s been.

“Well look what the cat dragged in.” She calls out to him.

Doc looks surprised to see her, but his face relaxes almost immediately. “You come here to force me to have that drink with you? Because you should know, it’s awfully easy to twist my arm.”

Nicole chuckles. “Nah, just felt like a walk to clear my head.”

Doc’s smile dims a bit, his eyes running over her face.

The slight evening breeze shifts, and it takes Nicole a moment to identify the acrid smell that hits her nostrils.

Doc must smell it too, because his brow crinkles in confusion as he and Nicole both look over to the fire pit, finding it completely dormant. He whips his head back to her. “You smell that too right? It ain’t just me?”

Nicole nods, her eyes tracking through the night for the source of the smoke.

Nicole grips Docs’s arm at the sight of flames licking up one side of the barn. “Doc.”

She doesn’t manage to say anything else, taking off in a sprint to the emergency bell at the wide doors of the barn. She clangs it multiple times before searching for Doc.

She locates him hooking up the emergency hose at the water spigot not far away. “This fire won’t put itself out, you know.” He growls at her.

“Doc, the horses.” She calls to him, and she can see the worry flash across his face before he sets his mouth in a grim line.

He jerks his head at her, eyes already fixed back on the hose. “Go on then, I’ve to this.”

Nicole is already running into the barn when she hears him roar “But for god’s sake, be careful!”

She’s distantly aware of Fish joining her at one point to help move all the horses from the barn out into the fenced in area of the pasture, the smoke getting thicker and thicker as time goes by. Nicole hopes they’ll be safe there, but that means they’ll have to contain the fire before it spreads.

Nicole has no idea how much time passes, she’s only aware of small flashes of moments, snippets of the people around her working to put the fire out. It takes longer than she hoped, but eventually the last embers are doused.

The outcome isn’t great. An entire wall will have to be replaced, and it’s likely the whole supply of hay bales in the loft were lost between the flames, smoke and water, but Nicole will take it, all things considered.

She takes the time to really look at everyone else then, and wonders idly if she looks as exhausted as they do.

Shorty has dirt smeared across his cheek, Nedley’s hair is standing straight up on one side of his head, Dolls’ undershirt has black ash on it, and Fish and Levi are wearing almost identical flannel pajama bottoms, but there’s a tear in the leg on Levi’s.

Wynonna and Waverly stand close together, and Nicole can tell by the way Waverly has a hand wrapped around Wynonna’s arm she’s trying to provide comfort.

Or perhaps hold her in place, Nicole realizes, when she notes the fury flashing in Wynonna’s eyes.

“How did this happen?” She asks, a dangerous edge to her voice.

“Wynonna.” Waverly gently intones.

Wynonna shakes her off. “No I’m serious, does someone have an explanation for why half my barn is charred?”

Everyone seems to shift uncomfortably, except for Doc, who tries to cover a laugh at Wynonna’s choice of words. Wynonna points at him without sparing a glance. “Don’t start.”

Nedley sighs, stepping forward. “We’ll call in the Sheriff’s Department to investigate first thing. Could be faulty wiring, could be something else, but we won’t know until everything is looked at.”

“Faulty wiring? That’s bullshit Nedley, and you know it. We’re up to code on everything, thanks to my pain in the ass sister. We’re also supposed to have a nifty sprinkler system in the barn, which works, last time I checked, but didn’t fucking go off for some reason. So it seems to me, this is either some random poke in the ass from God, or someone set my barn on fire, made sure it was going to burn down, and none of you saw a thing.”

Silence envelops the moment as everyone eyes each other. Nicole meets Doc’s gaze, and something shifts uncomfortably in her stomach. She doesn’t want to think about how different the outcome might have been if they hadn’t been where they were tonight.

Levi mumbles something from the back of the group, and Dolls whips his head around. “What did you just say?”

Levi clears his throat, taking a reluctant step forward. “I said–” his voice cracks. He tries again. “I said it seems to me all this started happening when you hired her.”

It takes Nicole a solid beat to realize he’s pointing at her, and her eyebrows furrow in confusion. “Excuse me?” She asks in disbelief as the reality of his accusation sinks in.

She finds her eyes pulled to Waverly first, and what she she sees feels like a crushing blow. There’s disbelief flitting across Waverly’s face, but there’s something else in her eyes too, so clear.

Doubt.

Waverly shakes her head like she doesn’t want to believe it, but she’s obviously questioning the validity of Levi’s statement, and just for a moment, Nicole can tell she’s afraid it’s true.

Her heart sinks. One moment, that’s all it takes.

“Levi, did you inhale too much smoke tonight? Because that is the only reason I can think of for such an accusation.” Doc growls out. He turns to Wynonna. “Nicole was with me when the fire broke out, I can vouch for that.”

Wynonna and Doc appear to have some sort of silent conversation before she finally nods.

Levi’s mouth opens and closes a few times, but when he steps back Nicole exhales slowly.

The next words Levi speaks are muttered, but to Nicole, they’re as loud as a gun shot.

“I guess sleeping with the boss means you’re above any kind of suspicion.”

Nicole’s heart thuds heavy in her chest as her fingers curl into her palms, nails digging in painfully. As the seconds tick by, she waits for someone, anyone, to say something.

Nicole is surprised when Wynonna lets out a loud snort of laughter.

“I’m sorry, are you suggesting that me and Nicole–” she cut off in another fit of laughter.

Nicole’s eyes move to Waverly, who looks like a deer caught in the headlights, and she realizes they’re sunk.

Wynonna turns to her sister, still chuckling, but one look at Waverly has her laughter trailing off. Nicole knows the look on her own face only confirms the accusation when Wynonna cuts her gaze to her.

A sense of dread sets in, and Nicole can’t make herself meet anyone’s eye, afraid of the scorn she might find there.

It’s Nedley who clears his throat and speaks up first. “You know Levi, none of us have ever stuck our nose in your private business,” his eyes flicker to Fish before landing back on Levi, “so perhaps you should extend the same courtesy to others.”

Levi’s shoulders slump as his eyes find the ground and stay there.

Nicole is shocked to find everyone looking at him with distaste instead of her. Even Fish doesn’t look particularly pleased with Levi at the moment.

When Nedley gives her the smallest of nods Nicole thinks she might cry, and she would definitely hug him if she thought it was at all appropriate.

Wynonna finds her voice again. “Okay, you know what? Everyone go away. Nobody even breathe on the barn until morning, or I swear to god, I will murder you. We’ll figure this out later, because right now it’s like a damn soap opera up in here.” Wynonna points at Nicole. “But you stay.”

Nicole swallows as she nods.

Everyone disburses, exhaustion evident in their slow walks. Nicole feels her spirits somewhat lifted when Shorty takes the time to place a gentle hand on her shoulder as he walks by.

“Wynonna–” Waverly starts once they’re alone, but Wynonna cuts her off.

“No, you’re not the person I want to hear from right now.” She flicks her hand towards the house. “Go be Waverly somewhere else while I have a little chat with Nicole. Then after that, you and I are going to have a chat too, so don’t even think about pretending to be asleep. I caught on to that trick when you were like eight.”

Waverly meets Nicole’s eye before she turns to go, nerves and fear written all over her face. Nicole watches her leave, desperate to ignore the feeling of dread curling in her stomach.

Wynonna stares her down once it’s just the two of them. Each second that passes Nicole becomes more and more convinced of her fate. She thinks maybe she should have seen this coming from the start.

“So,” Wynonna finally draws out, “my barn gets set on fire, and I find out you’re sleeping with my sister all in one night. I could really use a drink right now.” She runs a hand through her hair in agitation before pointing to the steps of the house. “Sit your ass down, I’ll be back.”

Nicole takes a seat on the first step, prodding at the dirt with the toe of her boot while she waits. She tries to mentally prepare for what’s to come.

She doesn’t bother to turn around when she hears the screen door open again behind her, keeping her eyes downcast as Wynonna sits on the same step as her, leaving a good amount of space between them.

She can feel Wynonna’s eyes on her as she takes a drink from the bottle. The slosh of liquor is the only sound between them until Nicole can’t take the mounting tension anymore. It’s time to get this over with.

“Yes, I’ve been sleeping with your sister. And Levi’s actually right, it is suspicious how all these things started happening around the time I got hired.” Nicole takes in a deep breath. “I can have my bag packed and be gone by morning, if that’s what you want.”

As the silence stretches between them, Nicole can’t help but turn to Wynonna to find out her reaction. She holds her face carefully blank as she takes another drink from the bottle, shoving it at Nicole afterwards.

“Pussy.”

Nicole pauses in her reach for the bottle, hand suspended in mid-air between them. “Excuse me?”

Wynonna points a finger at Nicole, gesturing it in a circle. “I said pussy. As in, you were just being a giant pussy, and I’m calling you on it.”

Anger is probably not the best reaction for Nicole to have right now, but it’s what she feels flaring up. “Well sorry for trying to do the right thing.”

Wynonna gives a sarcastic laugh. “The right thing? Oh please, for who? I have to assume for you, because it’s not the right thing for me.”

Wynonna’s eyes drift to the charred barn as she shakes her head. “Did you try to burn down my barn Nicole?”

“No.” Nicole’s response is firm. If nothing else, she needs Wynonna to know she would never betray her like that.

“Good. Didn’t think so, but I was totally going to call in sick tomorrow if I was wrong. That shit’s embarrassing.” She holds the bottle out again and Nicole takes it this time.

“So how about we table all that bullshit for now, and get to the part where you tell me how long you’ve been sleeping with my sister and keeping it from me?”

Nicole lowers the bottle from her lips slowly. “About a month and a half.” She admits quietly.

“Jesus Nicole, are you kidding me? You’ve been screwing her that long and never bothered to tell me?” She huffs out a laugh. “So what was it, too lazy to go into town and find someone to bang there?”

Nicole hates how flippant Wynonna makes it all sound, and the truth comes bubbling up before she can stop it.

“I’m in love with her.”

She squeezes her eyes shut at the admission. It’s one hundred percent true, but Nicole’s not all together sure she was ready to say it out loud, and she certainly isn’t ready for the fear she feels by doing so. “Don’t tell her I said that.” She adds, her voice borderline pleading.

Something in Wynonna’s face softens. “Well you sure know how to take all the fun out of this for me.”

“What?” Nicole asks weakly. This conversation is not going at all how she thought it would.

“The fun, you’ve killed it for me. I was going to play the scary older sister card for awhile, you know, for shits and giggles, but now you’ve taken that away.” Wynonna sighs at Nicole’s quizzical look. “Look, I’m not mad you’re sleeping with Waves, I’d be a pretty big hypocrite if I was. I am a little pissed you did it for so long and didn’t tell me, because I feel like it goes against some girl code or crap like that, but whatever.” She waves a hand dismissively.

“I wanted to tell you, believe me. I hated keeping it a secret from you after the first couple weeks, but,” she shrugs, “I didn’t feel like it was my choice to make.” Nicole admits.

“I get it. I mean, you definitely owe me, so be prepared for that. And you should expect to bale hay every damn day until you have to bring the cows back, because clearly we’re going to need it.” Wynonna jerks her head to the barn. “But as long as this is what Waverly wants, we’re cool Haught-stuff.”

Nicole nods, feeling a bit dazed from the turn of events. There’s a quiet voice in the back of her mind asking whether Waverly still wants this after what happened tonight.

Her face must show something, because Wynonna dips her head to catch her gaze. “Any particular reason you don’t want Waves to know you love her?”

Nicole sighs. She doesn’t really want to talk about it, but she probably owes Wynonna a little bit of candor at this point.

“I just don’t want her to feel any pressure to say it back. Hell, I don’t want there to be any pressure for her to ever feel it if she doesn’t, you know?” Nicole takes another drink from the bottle before handing it back to Wynonna, shrugging in an attempt to give the statement an air of casualness. She knows she failed.

Wynonna tilts her head a fraction, and Nicole tries her best to withstand the scrutiny. “Fair enough. And again, way to ruin the fun.” She responds lightly, but Nicole can tell she wants to say more.

They sit in silence for a while, letting the night settle in around them. Nicole turns her head when Wynonna lets out a soft swear word.

Wynonna gestures to the barn. “We’re going to have to rebuild that wall before you guys bring the herd back.”

Nicole nods in agreement, an idea coming to her. “If you want an extra set of hands, I know someone who does good work. She lives the next county over.”

Wynonna gives Nicole a look out of the side of her eye. “That someone going to be an issue for Waverly?”

Nicole laughs. “God no. Always only just a friend, I swear.”

Wynonna nods. “Call her up then, we’re damn well going to need the help.” She smacks her palms against her knees. “All right, go to bed, think about what you’ve done, say ten my ass is sorry prayers, or whatever it is, and let’s pretend you’re not banging my sister every time we talk from now on, deal?”

When Nicole nods solemnly Wynonna rolls her eyes. “I’m kidding, for fuck’s sake. Go away, I need to razz my sister before I pass out.” She stands to climb the porch stairs, pausing at the top. “Oh, and no doing the do in the hayloft, you got it?”

Nicole tries to keep a straight face as she gives her agreement, not bothering to mention it’s too late for that request.

“Finally, I’m not the only one sleeping with the help around here.” Wynonna sighs out as she enters the house.

Nicole smiles, but it quickly fades as the weariness from the events of the day sets in. She’s slow in her walk back to her cabin, playing over the conversation with Wynonna in her head. Nicole blinks a couple times to make sure she’s not hallucinating when she finds Waverly sitting on her cabin steps.

Waverly stands when she sees her approach, and Nicole can’t help but notice how tired she looks, arms wrapped around herself, even though the night holds no chill. “Hey.” She greets quietly. “How’d it go?”

Nicole slides her hands into her back pockets and rocks back on her heels. “It went surprisingly okay. She didn’t fire me, which is more than I could have asked for, I suppose.” She shrugs.

Waverly gives a wan smile. “Well that’s good.”

“Yeah.” An uncomfortable silence stretches between them, and Nicole hates it. “Look, Waverly, I’m sorry about what happened, with everyone finding out that way.”

Waverly’s swallow is visible in the dark. “It was bound to happen, I suppose. I wasn’t all that careful.”

Nicole removes a hand from her back pocket to place it on Waverly’s arm for comfort. She doesn’t miss the way Waverly looks around to make sure no one can see them.

It’s no different than before, and yet Nicole’s heart sinks a little bit further in her chest. “Why don’t we focus on work for a few days? You can take some time to figure out what you need, okay?”

Waverly meets her eyes. “What about what you need?”

It’s a question Nicole wishes she could answer. She thinks what she really needs right now is to not remember the doubt in Waverly’s eyes earlier tonight, but she doesn’t want to talk about it at the moment, so she shrugs instead. “I find it’s always easier to figure out what I need in the morning light, after a good night sleep.”

Waverly nods, not putting up any resistance to the generic platitude, even though part of Nicole wishes she would. “I guess I better go talk to Wynonna.”

“You probably should.” Nicole moves out of the way to let her pass, and it’s at least a small comfort when Waverly goes up on her tiptoes to kiss her cheek good night.

Nicole watches her walk away, trying to imagine what might be going through her head right now after being outed like that.

At the reminder, Nicole feels a very strong urge to punch Levi. At the very least she’s going to have a little chat with him come the morning. She’s never been one to shy away from difficult things.

Her eyes drift to where Waverly just disappeared into the darkness. She tries her best to ignore the whisper in her head that says she’s a liar.

Chapter Text

Nicole blinks up at the ceiling of her cabin, trying to chase away the vestiges of sleep she’d found on and off throughout the early morning hours.

The hollows underneath her eyes feel heavy due to lack of sleep, but it wouldn’t come for more than an hour at a time, and each time she’d wake with the memories from the night pressing back into her consciousness.

She takes a single long breath through her nose, closing her eyes as she exhales. No point in putting off the start of her day any longer. She pushes out of bed with purpose, stride determined into the bathroom.

The hot water in the shower does little to ease the tension in her shoulders. The second Levi uttered the words that brought the question and doubt to Waverly’s eyes a tightness settled in that Nicole can't shake. She clamps her teeth together, the muscle in her jaw working at the thought of Levi. He’s the much easier thing to focus on at the moment, everything else she can set aside for now.

Nicole wipes the condensation from the bathroom mirror, noting the dark shadows under her eyes contrasting sharply with her skin tone.

She places her hands on the sides of the sink, dropping her head down, fingers gripping at the sink harder until her knuckles turn white, then relaxing them and watching as the color fades back in. It’s something she’s done since her teenage years to release pent up angst and anger. She hopes it still works.

Nicole straightens back up, and the image in the mirror is different this time. Solid, put back together. She gives her reflection a quick nod before leaving the bathroom to get dressed.

It’s slightly overcast outside, which suites Nicole just fine, although the lack of sun fails to lower the late summer temperature much. She takes purposeful steps towards the dinning hall, playing through her mind exactly how many different ways she’d like to rip into Levi.

Dolls leans against the porch railing as he sips on a mug of coffee, a second mug sitting on the rail in front of him letting off tendrils of steam. He picks up the extra mug and holds it out to her as she climbs the stairs. “You look like you could use this.”

She accepts it with a curt nod, eyes searching the doorway for any sign of Levi.

“If you’re looking for Levi, he conveniently volunteered to go on a supply run to town this morning. He won’t be back till this afternoon.”

Nicole's shoulders droop at the statement, the anger she built on the walk over rushing out of her.

Dolls eyes her silently as he sips on his coffee. He shrugs when he lowers the mug. “Of course, his volunteering might have been connected to Doc saying he wants to go ten rounds in the ring with Levi so he can properly knock the stuffing out of him.”

Nicole can’t help the way one corner of her lips quirk up. In the midst of this mess it’s nice to know Doc still has her back. “Is that so?”

Dolls hums out an agreement.

“Well, we all know how Doc likes to talk a big game, but I imagine that was enough to send Levi running.”

Dolls nods. “For the most part, although I think it really sealed the deal when I called dibs once Doc was done.”

Nicole pauses with the mug halfway to her lips, something she can’t quite define passing through her.

Doc defending her isn’t too much of a surprise, and it’s true all the guys seemed to be on her side last night, but Nicole wasn’t sure what the morning light would bring.

Dolls must feel her staring, because his eyes drift her way, though he doesn’t make direct eye contact. “You’re good people Nicole.”

Nicole swallows thickly at the sentiment. She’s not sure what to say, so she doesn’t say anything at all. If anyone would understand, she figures it’s Dolls.

He finishes off his coffee, setting the empty mug on the railing before making his way down the steps. “The Sheriff’s department should be here soon, I’m going to head down to the house, see what needs to be done.” He walks off without waiting for an answer.

Nicole shakes her head, wondering if she’ll ever have the enigma that is Dolls completely figured out.

She downs the rest of her coffee, taking the time to bring both empty mugs to the sink. Shorty and Nedley sit at the old wooden table, sipping on their own coffees.

“Gentlemen.” Nicole greets, rinsing out the mugs in the sink. “How’d you sleep?” She asks.

Shorty snorts. “Like the dead. Only I had the strangest nightmare about half our barn burning down, and realizing we’d have to rebuild it.”

Nicole isn’t sure what to expect when she turns back around after the comment, but it certainly isn’t for both of them to give her small smiles over their coffees and for Nedley to wink at her. She blows her cheeks out and shakes her head. “I wish it was only a nightmare.”

“Hey,” Nedley starts, leveling Nicole with a serious look, “we’ve dealt with worse around here, trust me, I’m more than old enough to remember it all. We’ll get through this too.”

Nicole gives a grateful smile before heading out.

By the time she makes it over to the house Dolls and Wynonna are in conversation on the front porch.

Her eyes settle beyond them on the fenced in pasture area where she can see Fish lifting up a leg on one of the horses. He uses a metal hook to scrape dirt and gunk out of the bottom of a hoof before doing the same thing on the other three hooves. He notices her watching when he moves on to the next horse, lifting a hand to give her a tentative wave.

It takes Nicole a few seconds but she finally returns it. She reminds herself that he’s not the one her anger is directed at.

The screen door on the house opening catches Nicole’s attention. Waverly comes out, greeting Wynonna and Dolls before her eyes track to Nicole and hold there before she gives her own tentative wave.

Nicole waves back, stomach churning at how fragile and tired Waverly looks this morning. She wonders idly how many tentative waves she’ll have to endure today. She’s pretty sure two is enough.

She walks away, off in the general direction of the equipment barn. What she plans to do once she gets there, she can’t say.

When her eyes fall on the wood pile and axe next to the barn she has her answer.

It might be summertime now, but they can always use smaller chunks of wood for the fire pit, and it’s never too early to start stockpiling for winter, when the Earp sisters will need wood for the fireplaces in the house. Nicole mentally rolls her eyes at herself for the justification.

She gets through the first few pieces with a clear head, but then everything pressing in on the corners of her mind start coming to the forefront, and her swings get harder and harder, the distinct sound of the axe blade hitting the wood like an increasing crescendo. Towards what, Nicole doesn’t know.

Levi, accusing her of sabotaging the ranch.

Thwack.

Levi, outing Waverly.

Thwack.

Bobo Del Ray and his vendetta that doesn’t make any sense to Nicole.

Thwack.

Her parents deciding her worthiness was tied to her ability to procreate and settle down into a life they considered normal.

Thwack.

The doubt in Waverly's eyes.

Thwack.

Her heart.

Thwack.

Her stupid– thwack– reckless– thwack–heart.

Nicole drops the axe, lungs heaving for air as a bead of sweat trickles from her temple down to her jaw before dripping off.

“I can not possibly imagine what that wood has done to deserve such ire from you.”

She clutches a hand over heart as she spins around. “Jesus Doc, wear a bell or something if you’re going to sneak up like that.”

Doc chuckles, holding a canteen of water out to her. Nicole yanks it from his hand, gulping until it’s almost empty.

“I made plenty of noise on my approach, but it would seem you were otherwise distracted.” He looks at the pile of split wood pointedly, taking the water canteen back to tip the last few drops into his mouth.

Nicole wipes at her brow with her shirt sleeve. “Something like that.” Nicole can see understanding in his blue eyes, but honestly, she doesn’t want that right now.

She wants answers.

“What’s going on Doc?”

Doc raises his eyebrows. “Seems to me you are working out some aggression, and possibly trying to give yourself heat stroke, which seems most unpleasant.” He scrunches up his face.

Nicole shakes her head. “No, what’s going on here,” she sweeps her hand back towards the barn and house, “on the ranch. This seems like way more than just anger at Wynonna and Waverly for not selling the place. Even Bobo can’t be this petty.”

“Clearly you do not know Bobo Del Ray well enough. Petty revenge is exactly his sort of thing.” Doc responds.

Nicole waits a beat, playing the sentence over in her head. “No, I don’t know him well enough...but you do.”

Doc’s eyes harden as a muscle in his jaw twitches. “You best not be implying what I think you are.”

Nicole holds up her hands. “I’m not implying anything like that, Doc.”

He eyes her cautiously. “Good.”

“But I do think you know more about this than you’re saying. You worked for him, Doc.” When he stays silent she changes tactics. “Please Doc, I know you care about this place as much as I do.”

Doc looks angry, toeing a piece of wood with his boot in silence long enough that Nicole thinks he’ll refuse to talk about it again, but then he sighs, shoulders drooping in resignation.

“I told you I used to work for him.” Nicole nods when he looks to her for acknowledgement. “But I did not tell you when.” Doc’s eyes scan the horizon, looking towards memories Nicole can’t see.

“The first Earp sister I ever met was Willa.”

The quiet admission takes Nicole by surprise.

“She used to show up at Revenant Ranch at all hours of the day and night to see Pete, this boneheaded ranch hand that got hired shortly after myself. Boy did not have a lick of sense.” Doc makes a face of disgust.

“What was she like?” Nicole can’t stop herself from asking the question she’s been curious about.

Doc meets her eyes with reluctance. “She didn’t have much time for those who weren’t useful to her, so there were not many conversations between the two of us. But she was whip smart, and Bobo seemed to have a soft sport for her, never discouraged her from coming 'round.”

Nicole nods, trying to fit the current narrative into the pieces of what she already knows.

Doc scratches at his chin before he continues. “Day after the accident Ward Earp shows up at the ranch, drunk out of his mind, yelling about the whole thing being Bobo’s fault.” Doc pauses, and Nicole thinks he looks the most uncomfortable she’s ever seen. “Then he starts yelling about how their deal is off, that he’ll never sell the ranch to Bobo.”

Nicole holds up a hand, eyebrows crinkling together in confusion. “Wait, there was a deal for Ward to sell Earp Ranch to Bobo? That doesn’t make any sense. Why would he sell the ranch to his enemy?”

Doc shakes his head, taking the time to light one of his hand rolled cigarettes before he answers. Nicole resists the urge to glare this one time, even though she finds the habit gross.

“Thing is, Bobo Del Rey and Ward Earp were not enemies prior to Willa’s death. They were, in fact, poker playing buddies. I myself sat in a time or two when they played. Word around the ranch was Ward Earp wanted out of the ranching business, did not find it to his particular liking after his wife took off. Apparently he made a promise to Bobo over one of their card games to sell him the place.” Doc pauses to take a drag from his cigarette.

Nicole works to process the new information. “So, Ward went back on his promise after Willa died, and that’s why Bobo has it out for this place?” It still seems unbelievably petty to Nicole, all things considered.

Doc shakes his head. “Oh it was more than that. People around town started talking, saying it was Bobo who supplied the booze the night of the accident. He lost a lot of respect around town, and a fair bit of business, because of the whole ordeal. People who used to be afraid of him weren’t so afraid anymore to say no to his requests.” Doc flicks his cigarette to the ground, crushing it out with his boot heel with more force than necessary. “Bobo cared more about his loss of status and money and Ward reneging on the deal than he did about his ranch hand and an 18 year old girl dying.”

Nicole didn’t think it was possible for her distaste of Bobo Del Ray to get worse. She was wrong. “What happened after that?”

Doc shrugs, but Nicole can tell he doesn’t feel casual about this at all. “I decided Revenant ranch wasn’t the place for me shortly after that, left town for some years. Came back to find Ward Earp had died, decided to offer my services to his daughters.”

“Do Wynonna and Waverly know any of this?” Nicole asks, even though she’s already sure of the answer.

A shadow passes across Doc’s face. It’s quick, but Nicole catches it. “They know I used to work for Bobo, and they know my loyalties lie completely with them now. I don’t see the good in disabusing them of the already murky opinion they hold of their father, even if Ward Earp deserves it.”

Nicole’s not sure she agrees, and it must show on her face, because Doc points a finger at her.

“Ward ruined enough of their life, I’ve never found a reason to let him take more of their time.”

Nicole gets it, she does. It’s just, she hates the idea of the Earp sisters being in the dark about the full truth of things. But ultimately, it’s not her story to tell, so she nods at Doc. “Okay, I’ll keep this between us, for now, on one condition.”

Doc raises his eyebrows in question.

“You and me are going to figure out how to put a stop to all this.”

His deep dimples come out as a grin spreads across his face. He holds out a hand and it takes Nicole a second to realize he wants to shake on it.

When they drop hands Doc jerks his head towards the house. “We should probably get back, find out what the Sheriff’s department found. That is, if you’re done punishing the wood pile for merely existing.”

The quirk of his lips puts Nicole at ease, and she nods, sliding her hands into her back pockets as they walk back. “Sooooo,” she drawls out, “exactly what services did you offer to Wynonna when you showed up here for a job?”

Doc turns his head to narrow his eyes at her. “Ranch hand services and only ranch hand services, don’t you be getting any other ideas. I am a gentleman after all.” He stays silent for a few moments before adding “The current nature of things between us is a much more recent development, and that’s all I have to say on that.”

“Fair enough.” Nicole responds. She gives a nod when Doc splits off to go see Fish, who’s still working on the horses.

There’s police cruisers in the driveway and Wynonna looks to be deep in conversation with one of the Deputies.

Nicole stops a few feet away, wanting to hear the conversation but not wanting to intrude.

“Our initial look thru doesn’t turn up anything obvious in the way of evidence. There’s tons of footprints in there, so it’ll be near impossible to gain information from that, but we’ll comb through all the samples we took, see if something doesn’t jump out at us, I promise.” The Deputy finishes.

She’s young, but she has an air about her that suggests competence. Her dirty blond hair is pulled back in a low ponytail, deputy hat held in hands. She waits patiently for Wynonna to respond.

Wynonna nods. “Do your thing. Maybe we’ll get lucky and that dirt bag will have made a mistake.”

The Deputy reaches out to squeeze Wynonna’s wrist. Nicole is surprised by the gesture. Clearly there’s a familiarity there. “I promise, if even a scrap of evidence connects Bobo to this in anyway, I will bring him in.”

“Thanks Chrissy.”

The Deputy, Chrissy, notices something over Wynonna’s shoulder, a smile spreading across her face. “Daddy.”

Nicole cranes her neck to see Nedley approaching, and she puts the pieces together when Chrissy leans up to kiss him on the cheek.

“Hi sweetheart.” He notices Nicole standing there and smiles with obvious pride. “Nicole, I don’t think you’ve met my daughter. This is Chrissy.” He gestures at Nicole. “This is Nicole, the newest ranch hand.”

Chrissy reaches out for a firm handshake. “It’s very nice to meet you Nicole.” Her tone is perfectly polite and her smile seems earnest.

“Likewise.”

Chrissy’s face changes when Waverly approaches, relaxing into a grin as she steps away to hug her. “Waves, it’s been way too long. Please tell me you can do dinner or something soon, I need to hear all about what’s going on in your life.”

Nicole takes half a step back.

Wynonna makes a choked sound deep in her throat. She’s got a look of mock outrage on her face, mouth hanging open and brows drawn together.

“Let me guess,” Nicole speaks lowly to her, “you were under the impression Waverly’s spent some time with Chrissy lately?”

Wynonna shakes her head in disbelief. “My entire life is a lie.” She mutters.

Nicole knows she means it as a joke, but something shifts uncomfortably in her stomach. She pushes it away as quickly as it comes.

Waverly walks with Chrissy and Nedley to the police cruisers, making plans for a dinner along the way.

“Hey.” Wynonna distracts Nicole from her staring. “How soon can you get your friend here? With the cows due to come marching back in we don’t have a lot of time to get the stupid barn rebuilt.”

“Hopefully a day or two. Depends on what other projects she has going on, but I’ll use my powers of persuasion to get her here fast.” Nicole smiles in the way she knows brings out her dimples.

“That’s what I like to hear.” Wynonna starts off towards where Waverly and Chrissy are still in conversation before pausing to turn back. She speaks low enough for only Nicole to hear.

“Just so you know, at the end of this season we’re laying Levi off. I would do it now, but Waverly’s heart is three sizes too big, and she feels bad about doing it in the middle of summer.” She rolls her eyes at the sentiment.

Nicole is surprised by the words, and it must show on her face, because Wynonna scoffs. “Douche nozzle outed my sister, what did you think I was going to do?” She backs up another step. “Besides, I like you better than him, but don’t let it go to your head, I’d hate for you to have to buy a bigger stetson.” She winks before turning on her heel and striding away.

Something that feels an awful lot like gratitude takes up residence in Nicole’s chest as she heads to her cabin to make a phone call. She feels like the least she can do to pay back Wynonna’s faith in her is to get the barn rebuilt as fast as possible.

*****

It’s not till later that night Nicole finally comes across Levi alone.

She’s walking back to her cabin, too many thoughts swirling through her head, when she looks ups and locks eyes with him. He shuffles to a stop, looking around as if hoping for an exit or someone else to save him.

Nicole takes a deep breath, fingers curling into her palms. It’s time she got this out of the way.

“Levi.” Her tone is curt.

He visibly swallows, eyes darting around in a clear attempt to avoid looking her in the eye as she approaches. “Nicole.” His voice cracks a little at the end.

“I think it’s time we had a little chat, don’t you?” Nicole asks. She waits, watching Levi’s shoulders sag. He nods reluctantly.

“Okay.” It’s quiet, as if he’s accepted this moment was bound to happen whether he wanted it to or not.

Nicole takes her time, letting him squirm in discomfort. Knowing Wynonna plans to let him go at the end of the season changes what this encounter might have been otherwise, but she still needs to say some things.

“Look, I can almost understand you accusing me of the crap that’s been going on around here, because I’m going to assume it comes from a place of you caring about this ranch.” He finally meets her eyes, nodding quickly and a few too many times. “But what you did to Waverly? I’m not so willing to forgive that.”

Levi scuffs at the ground with his heel. “I know.” His voice cracks again. “Honestly Nicole, I don’t know what I was thinking. I feel terrible about it. It just came out, and...” He trails off, shrugging. When he looks up Nicole can see his eyes hold remorse, but it’s not enough to change things between them.

Nothing will ever be enough.

Nicole squares her shoulders, and Levi flinches at the action. “Here’s the deal Levi. You’re going to apologize to Waverly, alone, with no one else to help you. And once you do that, you’re going to leave her alone, and never, ever, utter another word about her personal life, do you hear me?”

Levi’s eyes are wide, but he nods in agreement.

“And as for you and me? We have to work together, but that doesn’t mean we have to be buddies. I don’t care if you like me. I don’t like you much at this point, to be honest, but we need to be able to get through our work together. I need to know I can trust you out there when we’re moving the herd. Is there going to be an issue with that?”

Levi shakes his head with a quiet “No.”

“Good. Glad we had this little chat Levi.” She walks away then, whistling as she goes, because the conversation made her realize something.

Levi is afraid of her.

*****

Mattie arrives two days later, her old Ford F100 pulling up in front of the house in a cloud of dirt. She climbs out of the truck, dark hair windblown from driving with the windows down, grin creasing her face at the sight of Nicole.

“Hey there cowgirl, heard you had a barn building emergency?”

Nicole grins back, pulling her into a quick hug before stepping back. Mattie’s never been a big toucher, and Nicole respects that, but it’s been too long and she’s missed her friend.

“Thanks for coming.” She says earnestly.

The humorous light in Mattie’s eyes fades to something more genuine. “Of course.”

She pulls a tool belt out of the truck and slings it over one shoulder before grabbing an old olive green military style backpack. “Besides, if I wasn’t here you’d probably find a way to muck up the rebuild.” She nudges at Nicole’s shoulder with her own.

The screen door of the house opens as Wynonna comes out to greet them. She leans against a porch column, arms crossed while she appraises Mattie.

Nicole does a quick introduction, internally holding her breath. Both Mattie and Wynonna can be an acquired taste, and she’s not sure how mixing them will turn out, but they need all the help they can get.

“So I hear you build barns.” Wynonna states, eyebrow raised.

Mattie shrugs. “Sometimes. Sometimes I work with metal. Other times I travel, do some meditating.”

Wynonna takes in the tool belt slung over her shoulder. “Interesting. And you even come with your own accessories.”

The corner of Mattie’s mouth twitches, but she doesn’t say anything back.

Finally Wynonna rolls her eyes, pushing herself off the column. “Welcome to Earp Ranch, Mattie. I hope you brought a sense of humor and a healthy liver, because you’re going to need both around here.”

“Think I’ve got that covered. Like you said, I come with my own accessories.”

Nicole relaxes at the easy banter. If this is the one thing in the past few days that goes right, she’ll take it.

She sticks around the Earp house long enough for Wynonna to show Mattie around and get her settled in one of the guest rooms. Waverly’s there too, but Nicole keeps their interaction to a minimum, considering Mattie doesn’t know anything about their situation.

Hell, Nicole’s not sure she knows much about their situation.

Things have been hectic with getting ready to work on the barn on top of the regular ranch duties. There hasn’t been much time for any sort of talk on where they stand.

They’ve made some casual conversation, and Waverly’s smile still makes her heart flip in her chest every single time, but they both seem to be in a sort of silent agreement to back burner talking about things between them for now.

Nicole honestly can’t tell if she feels more relieved or hurt by the development.


*****

The next week passes in a blur.

They clear out part of the equipment barn to make space for hay until everything can be moved back to the main barn once it’s finished.

Nicole gets up each day at dawn, heading out to the fields to bale hay, the need to replenish what they lost in the fire growing the closer they get to bringing the herd back. Come each afternoon, after a shower that cleans off one kind of dirt just to make way for another, she works on rebuilding the barn. She falls into bed after a second shower each night, exhausted and alone.

It’s nice having Mattie around though. She’s spent months isolated from her outside prior life, with the exception of her brief visit home, and Nicole would rather forget that. But with Mattie here, she feels like she can turn a little of her focus away from things she’s trying not to think about.

Like how things with Waverly are uncertain, or the way the two of them still find their eyes drawn to each other and share smiles and waves, but still don’t talk about the night of the fire.

Nicole pushes the train of thought from her mind as she picks up a plank of wood, putting it on her shoulder to carry back to the barn, the hammer hanging in the tool belt around her waist bumping against her thigh with each step.

The afternoon heat is brutal, and everyone is down to their undershirts. Nicole can feel another trickle of sweat run down and collect at the small of her back.

She props the wood plank against the framework of the barn and accepts with gratitude the bottle of water Mattie holds out to her.

“Can’t have you wilting out here, cowgirl.” Mattie says with amusement.

Nicole gulps the water down, pausing with the bottle still at her lips when she hears some sort of collision behind her and the distinct sound of air being pushed from someone’s lungs.

“Geez Waves, first day with new feet?” Wynonna says behind her.

Nicole lowers the water bottle, wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand.

She turns to find Wynonna and Waverly, who’s eyes seem to be fixated on Nicole and clouded with a particular something. Clearly she ran into the back of Wynonna, and it takes Nicole a second to realize why, but once she does she can feel a warmth coming to her cheeks that has nothing to do with the afternoon heat as a pulse hits somewhere low in her body.

“Earth to Waverly, come in Waverly. Were we going to head into town?” Wynonna’s eyes drift to where Dolls and Doc work to nail a plank into place. “Or did you want to stand here objectifying our sweaty, alarmingly attractive employees? Because I’m game.”

Waverly blushes, and Nicole can’t help but find it cute. They might be in a weird place right now, but Waverly has as much of an affect on her as ever.

“No, we can go.” Waverly says quietly, eyes meeting Nicole’s for a second.

And Nicole can’t help it, as much as she’d rather not, she flashes to the night of the fire and the look of doubt in Waverly's eyes. She’s tried the last few days to find a way to brush it off and forget about it, but the memory’s taken root, and Nicole has no idea how to dislodge it.

Wynonna leads them away, but not before giving Dolls a hard smack on the ass. He jumps while spitting out the nails clenched between his teeth. “You could have killed me you know.” He hollers after her.

“Maybe try keeping something better than nails in your mouth and that won’t happen.” Wynonna calls out, not bothering to turn back.

Doc chuckles as he shakes his head. “Hazardous to our health, that one.”

One corner of Dolls lips curls up before he goes back to his work. “For once you speak the truth Doc.”

Nicole finds Mattie watching her.

“What?”

Mattie shakes her head, turning away to grab the next plank of wood. “Interesting bosses you’ve got here.”

“You have no idea.” Nicole mutters to herself.

Mattie arches an eyebrow, but Nicole focuses on nailing the plank into place.

“Everyone else you work with seems cool though.” Mattie shoots a wink at Doc who works on the other side of Nicole. He’d taken to Mattie almost immediately. Nicole suspects it might have something to do with their sometimes matching levels of orneriness.

“Except for that squirrelly dude. He gives me bad vibes.” Mattie scrunches up her face.

“You’re not the only one.” Nicole says, driving a nail in more forcefully than necessary. She doesn’t even have to ask Mattie for clarification to know she’s talking about Levi.

She’s managed to work with him this past week without incident. He exhibits all the signs of being uncomfortable and nervous around her, but she doesn’t care, as long as they get the work done.

Doc and Dolls seem to be more reluctant to work with him than she is. They do it, but they keep the conversation curt and to a minimum. Shorty and Nedley are better about it, but even their interactions with Levi are more restrained than they used to be.

Nicole finds their faith in her a source of comfort, especially at night, when she thinks about the one person she wants if from the most.

*****

Nicole swings her legs idly over the edge of the little porch attached to the cabin, watching as the sun dips lower and lower in the sky.

Mattie sits on the other side of the steps, her back against the corner post, one leg hanging over the side of the porch, her arm draped over the knee that’s propped up. Nicole can’t help but admire her ability to always exude a casual confidence.

They both take a long pull from their beers, thankful for the decision to knock off work on the barn early today. It’s almost done, a few more days will complete it, then it will be time to prepare for moving the herd back; time to go back to the way things were before the fire.

Nicole wonders if that’s even possible.

Dolls walks by, giving a small wave and an even smaller smile. Nicole waves back, tilting her beer towards him in invitation. He calls out “No thank you” as he continues on.

“That man has a sinfully great butt.” Mattie comments, eyes following Dolls backside.

Nicole hums in amused agreement, watching as Dolls stops to talk to Wynonna at the fire pit.

“Of course, so does she.” Mattie says appreciatively as she gives Wynonna a thorough once over.

Nicole laughs. “It certainly is a top shelf ass, I’ll give you that.” She holds out her beer for a cheers and Mattie grins as they clink the bottles together.

“But somehow I suspect it’s little sister you have a thing for.” Mattie drawls before she takes a sip from her beer bottle, eyes watching Nicole the whole time. “And from what I can tell, she has a thing for you back.”

Nicole’s stomach swoops in an uncomfortable way at the mention of Waverly. She twists the bottle in her hands, eyes drifting off towards the sunset. “It’s complicated right now.” She admits quietly.

Mattie huffs out a laugh beside her. “Then uncomplicate it, cowgirl.”

“Not sure I can.” Nicole finishes off her beer, not sure what else to say to explain things, or if she even wants to at this point.

“Great Gaea.” Mattie murmurs.

“What?” Nicole turns her head to find herself under deep scrutiny.

“You really like her, don’t you?”

Nicole breaks the uncomfortable eye contact, finding safer refuge in watching her legs hang over the edge of the porch. “What makes you say that?”

“Please. When have you ever not gone after something you want? You of the ‘when I see something I like I don’t wanna wait’ life philosophy?” Mattie shrugs, finishing off her own beer. “I just find it interesting that you clearly want this girl, and yet you don’t seem to be going for it.”

Nicole’s lips curl into a sad smile. “Like I said, it’s complicated...and not something I really feel like talking about.”

“All right, I’ll drop it. For now.” Mattie concedes.

They fall into a silence that eventually makes way to conversation about the old days, when Nicole first moved away from home and met Mattie while working a farm job in the next county over.

Nicole is grateful for the distraction, even if she can’t quite keep thoughts of Waverly from the back of her mind for the rest of the night.

*****

“When does Mattie go back?” Wynonna asks, head tilted back to take in the inside of the rebuilt barn.

“Tomorrow.” Nicole answers.

“That’s awfully quick. I do hope our manners did not run her off prematurely.” Doc chimes in, climbing down the steps of the barn loft.

Nicole shrugs. “Nah, that’s just how Mattie is. Finish a project, move on to the next one.”

They finished the barn earlier in the day, much to everyone’s relief. Full attention can finally be turned back to regular ranch life.

Nicole’s happy to have the grueling extra work off her plate, although she worries without it her avoidance of Waverly will become obvious.

If she’s honest, she has no idea why she’s doing it. Avoidance has never, ever, been her style, but something about this is different. Or maybe it’s the someone the situation involves that’s different.

The first week after the fire it was easy enough to write off the growing distance to extra work and the shock of the situation.

It was harder this past week.

Monday night Nicole took Mattie to dinner in town, walking by Waverly as they left, fighting hard to ignore the questions in her eyes.

Tuesday Waverly had dinner with Chrissy Nedley.

Wednesday and Thursday Nicole hung around the fire pit with Doc and Dolls until exhaustion made it impossible to keep her eyes open.

The hardest moment came earlier in the day when Waverly approached her, quietly asking to talk, concern etched clearly on her face. Nicole backed away quickly, saying they would definitely talk later before turning and walking away without specifying what later meant.

Nicole feels like a coward. A terrified, stupidly in love coward, to be exact.

“Well, looks like she’ll hold.” Wynonna says, taking one last look around. “Anything else you think we need?”

“How about a frickin explanation for the avoidance.”

Three heads whip around to find Waverly stalking into the barn. There’s a fiery resolution in her eyes that has Nicole taking a step backwards.

“What? Waves, we just had breakfast together this morning, remember? Powdered sugar on my nose and all that?” Wynonna gestures at her nose, brow crinkled in confusion. When Waverly doesn’t respond Wynonna follows the line of her steely gaze to Nicole, her mouth forming a silent “Oh”.

“Waverly,” Nicole tries to sound calm, “We can talk later, okay?”

“Yeah Waves, maybe wait to unleash the shit storm I see written all over your face until later?”

Nicole gives Wynonna an exasperated look. “Not helping.” She mutters.

“Can you guys please excuse us, I’m trying to have a conversation with my girlfriend.”

Nicole’s heart flips at the words. “Girlfriend?” She can’t help but ask.

“Well, I mean, I thought so, yeah. I know we never talked about it...but I guess not, since you won’t even talk to me.” She holds her arms out before dropping her hands back to her sides with a smack.

“Okay, you know what? Doc and are just going to show ourselves out of this terribly awkward situation.” Wynonna grabs Doc’s arm, backing them out the door while she mutters something about rather having a hot poker stuck in her eye than be in the middle of a lover’s spat.

Waverly watches them go before turning back to Nicole, arms crossed. “Will you please tell me what is going on?”

Nicole opens her mouth, but finds she doesn’t know where to start, so she closes it again.

Waverly softens her tone. “Nicole, please?”

Nicole can’t help but be reminded of their first kiss in this barn, when she’d spoken so similarly to Waverly. That was back before she realized just how easy falling in love with Waverly would be, and long before Waverly looked at Nicole like maybe she wasn’t at all who she thought she was.

“I can’t do this right now Waverly, I’m sorry.” Nicole hates the slight quiver in her voice as she walks by Waverly and heads towards her cabin.

She can hear footsteps following behind her. “I didn’t realize when you said we should focus on work for a few days you really meant we should stop being together.” Waverly calls out from behind.

Nicole bristles at the comment. “People will hear you.” She says without bothering to turn around or stop her stride.

“You think I care about that?” Nicole stumbles to a stop when Waverly grabs her wrist from behind, halting her progress.

“Don’t you?” Nicole asks quietly.

Something passes over Waverly’s face that Nicole can’t quite read, and then she’s yanking on Nicole’s hand and leading the rest of the way to her cabin.

Waverly shuts the door behind them more forcefully than she intends to, if the wince on her face is anything to go by. She fixes Nicole with a look that is equal parts determined and angry.

“So you’re upset because I’m not ready to be out to everyone?”

“No-”

“What happened to telling me to take my time figuring out what I want?” Waverly cuts her off.

“I meant that.” Nicole answers a little louder than necessary for the small confines of the cabin. Whatever is happening between the two of them right now, she needs Waverly to know that. “I was trying to give you space to do it.”

“And what if this space,” Waverly gestures between the two of them “is not what I want?”

“Well maybe I assumed it was.”

“Maybe you should have bothered to ask before assuming like an asshole.” Waverly counters.

Nicole can’t help it, she laughs, though it lacks any real humor. “Asshole? Sorry for caring about your well-being, Waverly.”

“Why don’t you let me tell you what I need for my own well-being!” Waverly yells.

Nicole shakes her head, holding her hands out with palms up. “Fine. What is it you need Waverly?”

The second the question is out of her mouth the air in the cabin shifts.

“What I need?” Waverly asks. She still looks annoyed even as her eyes drop to Nicole’s lips.

It occurs to Nicole in that moment just how long it’s been since she actually touched Waverly, and it’s like a flood gate opens.

She’s not sure who moves first, only that both of them crash into each other this time, lips coming together roughly.

Nicole grips at Waverly’s hips, fingers digging in when Waverly bites down on her lower lip. “I’m so mad at you right now.” Waverly mumbles against her lips, fingers undoing the first few buttons of Nicole’s shirt.

“I know.” Nicole tugs on Waverly’s hair gently to tilt her head for easier access to her neck. “I’m mad at myself.” She admits roughly, sucking at Waverly’s pulse point.

Waverly seems to lose patience with the amount of buttons on Nicole’s shirt, bypassing the final few with a yank, the buttons scattering on the floor a distant noise to Nicole’s ears.

Nicole shrugs out of the ruined shirt before picking Waverly up and walking her to the bed. “That was one of my favorite shirts.” She says as she drops Waverly onto the bed.

“Tough shit.” Waverly responds, yanking Nicole down onto the bed with her. Her mouth hovers an inch away from Nicole’s lips, eyes boring into Nicole’s with intensity. “I want you.” She breathes out.

And god, it’s not the three words she wants to hear, Nicole realizes, but the affect they have on her is undeniable. She has no idea how she stayed away as long as she did. “You can have me.” She answers honestly before pushing forward to join their lips.

It’s not gentle, the way they come together. They tug and pull the clothes from each other, and by the time they’re naked, Waverly straddling Nicole’s lap as she pushes her fingers inside of her, they’re both panting from the exertion.

Waverly bites down hard on Nicole’s shoulder, and Nicole scratches her nails down Waverly's back in response. She can tell Waverly is close by the quiet gasps and moans coming from her.

“I want you to come for me baby.” Nicole practically growls in her ear, and Waverly does, burying her face in Nicole’s neck as she tenses up.

Nicole gentles her movements as she brings Waverly back down. The reality of what they just did hits her while Waverly clings to her shoulders in the final vestiges of climax.

Nicole closes her eyes, breathing through her nose until her heartbeat starts to slow.

She’s afraid to look at Waverly, afraid of what she’ll find. Nicole can admit this is not at all how they should have handled things, but in the moment it honestly felt impossible not to come together.

Waverly finally lifts her head up, but Nicole continues to avoid her gaze, dropping a hand to the mattress to play with the sheets.

“Hey.” Waverly says softly, laying a hand on Nicole’s cheek to guide her gaze to her own.

Something lodges in Nicole throat at the look she finds there. Waverly’s eyes are so soft and full of concern and something else Nicole can’t quite discern.

She’s wondered before if she’ll survive Waverly Earp, and now she knows the answer.

She doesn’t. There’s no way she possibly could.

“What’s going on Nicole?” She whispers.

Nicole can’t stop the words from bubbling up to the surface. “You believed him.”

Waverly’s forehead crinkles in confusion. “What? Believed who?”

Nicole takes a deep breath before answering. “Levi. You believed him when he accused me. I saw it in your eyes.” Her heart pounds at the admission.

Waverly is silent for a beat, then two, before she finally strokes a thumb across Nicole’s cheek. “Oh baby, is that what this is about?” She asks quietly.

Nicole gives a small nod, eyes fixated on the bed. Waverly kisses her brow gently before climbing off her lap. She slips underneath the sheets and holds them up, waiting for Nicole to climb under with her.

Once they’re both settled Waverly reaches out to squeeze one of Nicole's hands. “Look at me, please?”

Nicole does as she asks, only to find herself drowning in the way the tiny flecks of green hidden in Waverly’s brown eyes are brought out by sunlight streaming through the window.

“Have you ever had something so amazing happen to you that you almost don’t believe it’s real?” Waverly asks.

Nicole nods in response, waiting for Waverly to continue.

“It’s just–” Waverly cuts off, eyes wandering the room as she shakes her head. “God Nicole, I feel like I was sleep walking through parts of my life before you showed up. I always tried to be what everyone else wanted. The good daughter, the happy sister, the girl who dates the Champ’s of the world. And some of it was what I wanted, but a lot of it wasn’t. Then you showed up, and I felt like you saw me, not just some version of me that you wanted.”

Nicole can see how vulnerable Waverly feels at the admission. She reaches out to tuck a strand of hair behind Waverly’s ear, stroking her thumb across her cheek before pulling away.

“So yeah, when Levi suggested maybe you were behind things, I was afraid it was true, just for a second. Because of course this thing between us is too good to be true. But I knew almost as soon as I had the thought you would never do something like that. And I’m sorry you spent the past couple weeks thinking I believed it.”

Nicole’s heart breaks a little at the words. God she’s been such an idiot. She let her own insecurities keep her away from this girl.

Nicole lifts Waverly’s hands to her lips and places a soft kiss to her knuckles. “I’m sorry I stayed away. I was afraid to talk about it.”

“Why?”

Nicole searches for the words to explain it. “I thought you knew who I was, and I–” Nicole pauses and shuts her eyes before admitting the truth. “I was afraid this one thing, this one moment, was going to change everything you thought about me.”

Nicole feels so exposed in the moment, waiting for Waverly to respond. Then something shifts in Waverly’s eyes and a quiet understanding takes hold that has Nicole swallowing thickly.

“You belong here, you know. Even if you and me never happened, you’d still belong here. I hope you know that.” Waverly states evenly, never breaking eye contact.

It’s not at all what Nicole was expecting, yet it feels like everything in the moment. She blinks away the extra moisture in her eyes.

“Thank you.” She blows out a slow breath. “I really am sorry for being an asshole.”

Waverly leans over to kiss her, whispering “It’s okay” against her lips. And Nicole realizes it really is just that simple.

Waverly must be on a similar train of thought, because a wry twist comes to her lips when she pulls back. “So, can we be done with the drama caused by poor communication? Because, to be perfectly honest, I think we have enough of it coming from other places right now.”

Nicole buries her face in a pillow and groans. “Yes.” Another thought occurs to her and she lifts her head with purpose. “I need you to know I really am okay with not telling people about us until you feel ready. I want you to do things on your own time table. I mean it.”

An excitement sparkles in Waverly’s eyes when she speaks. “I told Chrissy about us the other night at dinner.”

Nicole’s stomach flips at the gorgeous smile that crosses Waverly's face at the words. “Yeah? How’d that go.”

Waverly chuckles. “Well, at first she just yelled ‘What?’ a few times really loud, but then she wanted details, and at the end she said she was really happy for me.” Waverly scrunches up one eye. “She might have mentioned something about you being a big upgrade from Champ.”

Nicole laughs. “I think I might really like this girl, clearly she has good taste.”

Waverly smacks her shoulder. “Shut up.”

Nicole can’t help the slow lazy grin that comes to her face. “Make me.”

*****

It’s quite awhile later when Nicole finds Wynonna and Mattie on the porch of the Earp house having a beer together.

“Well don’t you two look cozy.”

Wynonna and Mattie share an unimpressed look before shrugging.

“Had to do something to pass the time while you and Waverly had a little chat.” Wynonna uses air quotes on the last word. “I do hope it went well and everything came to a satisfying resolution.”

Mattie snorts into her beer bottle.

Nicole tries to play it casual. “It was a good talk, thanks.”

Wynonna hums out, giving Nicole a once over. “I’ll bet. I mean, I know when I have a really great conversation it requires me to put on a different shirt after. What about you Mattie?”

“Oh definitely, all about the shirt changing after a good talk.” Mattie deadpans.

Nicole points a finger and gestures between the two of them. “I think that’s about enough of the two of you spending time together. I am one hundred percent against a friendship forming here.”

“What friendship?” Waverly's voice cuts in.

Wynonna and Mattie break out into laughter. When Nicole looks to see why, she covers her face with a hand. Because of course Waverly strolled over here wearing Nicole’s shirt she destroyed earlier, the front tails tied up to bare her midriff.

But then Nicole can’t help but laugh too, and it feels really, really good.

*****

Nicole is a little sad to see Mattie go the next morning. She doesn’t say it of course, because Mattie doesn’t really do that sort of thing, but she feels it all the same.

Mattie tosses her gear into the truck, pausing with her hand on the door.

“Listen, if you ever want to make some extra cash, or take a few weeks off from playing cowgirl, give me a call. I always have projects going on that could use someone with a steady head and passable skills.”

Nicole shoves her shoulder lightly. “Passable skills my ass. But thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.”

Mattie smiles, her eyes drifting to take in the ranch. “I think you’re doing all right here kid, place seems like a great fit.”

“I really think it is” Nicole admits quietly.

Mattie climbs into the truck, shutting the door and leaning an arm on the open window frame.

“Don’t be a stranger.” Nicole says, stepping back from the truck.

Mattie grins. “Oh I won’t be. Doc told me I should come back for your next poker night, and you know how I love to part fools from their money.” She touches two fingers to her brow in a salute before driving away.

Nicole watches the truck disappear down the old dirt road, an easy grin stretched across her face.

 

Chapter Text

Nedley raises the rifle to his shoulder, firing off three rounds in a row, each shot echoing through the pasture and getting lost amongst the mountain range in the distance.

“You still shoot pretty well, for an old codger.” Fish gives Nedley a smile full of boyish charm and humor. “Just stating facts, is all.”

Nedley works his lower lip, eyes narrow. “The young ones always think they can do it better.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” Shorty chimes in.

Fish shakes his head, still grinning. “Careful now, I never said I was any better. In fact, my shooting’s pretty pitiful. Levi was always the better shot.”

Nicole watches on as Levi nods warily, looking somewhat uncomfortable at being brought into the conversation.

The dynamics between everyone are still on shaky ground, but it’s gotten better the past week. Nicole doesn’t interact with Levi unless she has to, and when she does, she keeps it simple and focused on work, which makes things a bit easier for everyone.

They’re set up out in the pasture, hay bales stacked in the distance with targets attached to the front. After an extended period of subtle prodding from Doc, which eventually transitioned into full on heckling, Nicole finally agreed to let him shoot the lever-action rifle she brought back from her trip home.

Of course, once everyone else caught wind it became a full on production. But it’s been hectic and more than a little stressful preparing for the fall cattle drive home, and Nicole figures an afternoon shooting at targets is a great way to decompress.

The last hour has been a sort of musical chairs with everyone taking turns with everyone else's guns, accompanied by a whole lot of ribbing and barbs. To no one’s surprise, Doc and Dolls exchange the most insults over the hour.

Turns out, Nicole is almost as good a shot as Nedley, and a better shot than Fish, Levi and Shorty. Although Shorty proclaims he’d much rather be shooting birdies on a golf course than shooting bullets at a target. Nicole isn’t surprised by that tidbit of information.

The drone of an approaching ATV comes from the distance and everyone holds their fire as they watch the Earp sisters drive up.

“If you’re going to be deadbeats and shirk your work duties, the least you could do is invite us to the party.” Wynonna complains as she jumps out of the vehicle. She crosses her arms and raises her eyebrows in question.

Everyone shuffles a little on the spot until Doc rolls his eyes and steps forward. “Don’t get your britches in a twist, we got all our work done for the day first.”

Wynonna stares him down, and Nicole is honestly not sure how angry she really is. That is, until Waverly finds her eyes and gives a small smile and wink. Nicole fights the urge to smile back.

Finally Doc sighs. “Well hell, here.” He holds out the rifle he’s been using to Wynonna, and her face instantly transforms to a state of childlike excitement.

“You should know, bribery and distraction with shiny toys will always work on me.” She smirks.

Everyone shifts uncomfortably as Wynonna looks over the bolt-action. She looks up, eyes sweeping over the group. “Oh my god, relax you assholes, I’m completely sober.”

“For once.” Shorty mutters.

Wynonna points at him. “Hey, I heard that. Good thing you’re older than dirt and I have a soft spot for the geriatric, otherwise your ass might be out of a job.”

She pulls the rifle butt into her shoulder, lining up the open sights before squeezing the trigger. The crack of the shot echoes across the field, and a group of birds rise from the ground, wings flapping noisily as they fly away.

“Everyone’s a critic.” Wynonna calls after them, grabbing the binoculars Fish holds out to check her shot. She lets out a displeased sound. “Just a bit of rust.”

Doc has the audacity to snort, and Nicole takes the opportunity the resulting squabble affords her to casually stroll over to Waverly.

“Hi there.” She smiles easily.

Waverly gives her an amused smile back. “Hi yourself.”

Nicole slides her eyes over to make sure everyone else is still paying attention to the Wynonna and Doc saga. “You look pretty today.”

Nicole catches the light blush that comes to Waverly's cheeks before she looks down to try and hide it, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. It’s a move that has a devastating affect on Nicole no matter how many times she witnesses it. She clears her throat holding out the rifle in her hand to Waverly. “So uh, you want to give it a shot?”

Waverly eyes the rifle. “You wouldn’t mind? I know it’s a family gun.”

“Nah, I let everyone take a turn already.” Nicole is curious about something. “I know you fire a heck of a mean shotgun into the air, but how are your rifle skills?”

A playful glint shines in Waverly’s eyes before she shrugs casually. “Hard to say.”

“I’ll show the basics if you want?”

One corner of Waverly’s lips quirks up. “Please do.”

Nicole explains the lever-action mechanism and recoil, Waverly watching her with rapt but amused attention all the while.

“You ready to try?” Nicole asks.

Waverly is full on grinning now. “I’ll give it a whirl.”

“Hey guys, Waverly’s going to take a try.” Nicole announces.

Waverly sets up to the target, hesitating for a moment.

“Just take your time, and don’t worry about these jerks. Distance shooting with a rifle is not an easy thing.”

Nicole notices Doc roll his lips inward at the same time Wynonna crinkles her brow in confusion and Nedley gives her a weird look.

“Um–”

Wynonna is cut off when Waverly takes her first shot, quickly pulling down the lever to reload before firing the next round, and the next.

Nicole watches as the hole in the center of the target gets bigger and bigger with each shot.

Oh.

Waverly fires off the final round, lowering the rifle from her shoulder to squint at the results on the target. “I don’t know Nedley, looks like I might be a fraction low and to the right. Might be me dropping my shoulder a bit again, or maybe the sights are a touch off, what do you think?”

Nedley shakes his head, fighting a laugh. “At this distance and with your skills, I hardly think it’s you Waverly.”

Doc doubles over in laughter and Nicole feels the strong urge to kick him in the shin. She throws her hands out to the side in response. “How was I supposed to know she’s a sharp shooter?”

“Because she’s an Earp Nicole. Duh.” Wynonna answers before holding up a hand to Waverly for a high-five. “That is totally going to get you laid later.” She says lowly to Waverly, but Nicole hears it.

She’s not necessarily wrong.

Dolls must overhear the comment too, because he side eyes the sisters before clearing his throat. “If you all don’t mind, Doc and I have a bet on a very nice bottle of Whiskey going to the better shot.”

Wynonna makes an appreciative noise. “Please boys, by all means, compete away. I’ll be happy to judge.”

Dolls rolls his eyes as he makes his way down the pasture to change out the targets.

Wynonna turns to Doc and whispers to him in a conspiratorial tone. “If you promise me half that bottle of whiskey, Waves and I will flash Dolls when he’s shooting to distract him.”

“Speak for yourself Wynonna.” Waverly sighs out. She takes a few steps towards Nicole, the sparkle of humor clear in her eyes. “So, what do you think? Did I handle your rifle okay?” She wiggles her eyebrows.

Nicole shakes her head, trying to look as serious as possible while fighting a smile. “Really? I’d expect that from your sister.”

Waverly scoffs, giving Nicole a playful smack in the shoulder. “You better not.”

Nicole catches Levi watching them over Waverly’s shoulder. His eyes quickly cut away when their eyes meet.

Waverly notices Nicole’s change in attention and follows her line of sight to Levi. Nicole waits for her reaction, unsure of what to expect, but when Waverly turns back and gives a small shrug and a smile it feels like the sun shines just a little bit brighter.

*****

Nicole steals a few extra moments in the pale light just before dawn to take in the warmth of Waverly’s sleeping form curled into her side. She ghosts her fingertips along the shell of her ear, along her jaw, down her neck, before dropping a kiss to her temple.

Waverly stirs at the action, eyelids fluttering open for a second before shutting again. “Time is it?” She mutters, fisting a hand more securely in Nicole’s shirt.

“Time for me to go get your cows.” Nicole responds with a soft smile, even though Waverly can’t see her face.

A crease forms between Waverly's eyebrows. “They can find their own way home. Stay here and keep me warm.”

Nicole chuckles, running a soothing hand up and down Waverly's back. “I would, but I’d hate to risk my boss getting mad at me.”

Waverly cracks an eye open to fix Nicole with a look. “Your boss will be mad if you leave.”

Nicole let’s out an exaggerated sigh. “You really wanna leave the fate of your cows to the boys?”

Waverly loosens her grip with a grumble. “Fine, go. Stupid cows and stupid boys.”

Nicole laughs as she starts to extricate herself, dropping a quick kiss to Waverly's lips. Anything more and she knows she really won’t get out of bed.

Waverly’s fast asleep again by the time Nicole is showered and dressed. She stops to pull the blankets up more securely around her, earning a sleepy sigh.

The words are on the tip of her tongue, her heart picking up tempo at the thought of saying them out loud. But Nicole waits.

It’s not time yet, and so she makes her way out into the morning with a smile on her lips.

*****

Even with her Stetson on and her chin tucked down into the collar of her jacket, Nicole can’t keep the driving rain out of her face. It drips off the brim of her hat in a steady stream, splashing off the leather of her saddle.

This was not supposed to happen. They had no issues the day before, reaching the cows as the sun was setting in a cloudless sky. But then they awoke to find angry gray clouds wrapping themselves around the mountains in the distance, their ominous intent clear with every rumble of thunder.

They broke down camp as quickly as possible, getting the herd on the move earlier than planned, but the clouds blew in with alarming speed.

Nicole prods her horse along at a glacial pace, its hooves slipping a bit with each step on the slick ground. Keeping the herd together and moving in the same direction is always difficult, but the rain and thunder add an extra challenge.

“I am going to tar and feather the weather people after this, assuming we make it back alive. Clear skies for days my ass!” Doc hollers over the sound of fat rain drops slapping on the ground.

“I might help you with that.” Dolls calls out from just ahead.

Nicole shares their sentiment. She’s soaked to the bone in a way that makes her think she’ll never feel dry and warm again. Exhaustion is setting in and they haven’t even made it to the halfway point. But there’s no turning back now, and Nicole wouldn’t even if she could.

“No point in crying about it now boys. Just need to push through and get home. Preferably sooner rather than later.”

Nicole turns her head at the sound of Doc’s chuckle on the wind, her hat letting another stream of rain off it’s brim with the movement.

“Why Nicole, I find your eagerness to be rid of us positively insulting. Are you telling me you have something better to do than this?”

Despite their predicament Nicole can feel a smile curling her lips that quickly turns to a grimace as the next gust of wind slaps at her face and drives the rain into her eyes.

Their situation is dicey and miserable, but Nicole will be damned if she isn’t making it home before nightfall to the girl she loves.

*****

They’re hours late returning to the ranch.

The storms blew out over an hour ago, and Nicole might feel more thankful if she didn’t have mud splattered everywhere and the wetness of her clothes weighing her down.

She walks out of the barn, feet squishing in her boots with each step, only to find herself bracing for impact as Waverly all but launches herself at Nicole, pulling her down into a tight embrace.

“Hey there.” Nicole chuckles out. Exhaustion slows her efforts to return the hug. “What’s with the greeting?”

Waverly clings to Nicole, face buried in her neck. “The storms blew in, and you guys were due back hours ago. I was worried.” Her voice is muffled in Nicole’s shirt collar.

Nicole can’t help but smile as she tries to pull back. “You’re going to get all muddy and wet if you keep hugging me like that.”

“I don’t care.” Waverly only tightens her hold.

“Geez, it’s almost as if you like me or something.” Nicole teases, rubbing a soothing hand over Waverly’s back.

Waverly buries her face further in the crook of Nicole’s neck. “Or something.” She breathes out.

Nicole’s heart just about stops.

Her fingers curl into the fabric of Waverly's shirt as the words replay themselves over in her head. They sounded an awful lot like something else, and Nicole tries to ignore the way she can hear her own heart beat in her ears, almost certain Waverly can hear it thundering too. She wants to pull back to see Waverly’s face, but Waverly clings to her even tighter.

“For the love of god, doesn’t anyone work around this place?” Wynonna’s voice startles Nicole.

Her eyes find Wynonna’s form striding past them, and she might be a bit annoyed at the interruption if it wasn’t for the wink Wynonna throws their way before continuing on into the barn.

Waverly sighs, giving one last squeeze before untangling herself and stepping back. Nicole knows the moment has passed, but any disappointment about it evaporates with the smile tugging at the corner of her mouth when she sees the dirt smudged on Waverly’s cheek.

“Speaking of work, I do need to finish up with my horse and make sure we’re set for the night. And as much as I’d rather stand here looking at you, I could really use a hot shower. A very long, hot shower.”

Waverly takes in Nicole’s soggy form, pity and apologies clear in her eyes. “You do look a little drowned.”

“Hey now.” Nicole gives a playful nudge to Waverly’s shoulder.

Waverly shrugs. “I’m just being honest.” She tilts her head to the side, a light coming to her eyes that means she has an idea. “I think you need more than a shower.”

Nicole furrows her brow in confusion. “And what exactly would you suggest?”

Waverly gives her a sly smile. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Really?” Nicole asks.

“Yep.” Waverly pops the p at the end of the word. She takes a step back from Nicole. “Go finish your very important work and come to the house after.” She gives a wink of her own, and Nicole watches for an extended amount of time as she walks back to the house, until Waverly reaches the porch and looks back over her shoulder to find Nicole still standing there. She cups her hands together over her mouth to project her voice. “Get a move on, will ya?”

Nicole laughs, shaking her head as she finally moves from her spot.

It doesn’t take everyone long to get the horses unsaddled and groomed. It’s clear they all want to be out of their muddy clothes and away from the smell of damp horses and cows as soon as possible.

Nicole climbs the steps to the Earp house, pausing to toe off her boots, which proves a more difficult task than she planned for with damp socks. She braces herself on the door frame, leaning down to pull them off one at a time, almost tipping over in the process. When she straightens up again she finds herself face to face with Waverly on the other side of the screen door.

“Having fun?” Waverly asks.

Nicole gives a sheepish smile. “Yeah, just trying to avoid tracking a bunch of mud and crap through your house.”

“I appreciate the sentiment, but that’s really not necessary. It is a ranch after all.” She pushes the screen door open. “Besides, it’s not like Wynonna ever shows such regard.”

Nicole steps over the threshold. She and Waverly stare at each other for a few beats, something warm and comfortable settling around them. Nicole thinks Waverly might be blushing, but she can’t for the life of her figure out why.

“Hey.” Nicole says softly, stepping forward and tugging lightly on Waverly's shirt to draw her in for a quick kiss. “Wasn’t there a promise of something to help with all this?” Nicole gestures down at herself. “Because I think I could really use it.”

Waverly smiles, seeming to come back to herself. “Wait here one second, I’ll be right back.”

Nicole watches her disappear around the corner into the kitchen. When she returns she’s holding a plate with some sort of muffin cut in half on it, with what appears to be cream cheese spread across both sides.

“So, I know it’s not much, but in case you’re hungry, it’s a banana muffin. I made them this morning during the storms, because sometimes I bake when I’m anxious. I’m a pretty good baker though, so at least something good comes out of it–and you don’t have to have it if you don’t want, but I just thought–“

“Waverly.” Nicole stops her ramble gently. “Thank you, I would love something to eat.” She takes the plate from her hand, watching as Waverly exhales a slow breath.

“Okay. Well then, follow me.” Waverly takes one of Nicole’s hands in her own and heads down the hallway towards where Nicole knows her bedroom is.

Nicole’s never really spent time in Waverly’s bedroom, and she finds herself curious as she’s lead over the threshold. Her eyes drift around the room, noting how very Waverly it is.

A stack of books are askew on the white desk against the wall; little touches of soft pink here and there; a cork board with little notes and photos tacked up on the wall; a queen size bed with a fluffy looking comforter and decorative pillows resting against the headboard.

Nicole can feel Waverly watching her as she takes the room in. “I haven’t really changed anything in awhile, but it works for me.” She shrugs.

“I think it’s great.” Nicole reassures her.

There’s appreciation and relief in Waverly’s eyes. It occurs to Nicole then that Waverly is nervous, and god help her, it’s so endearing.

“Relax for a minute, I’m going to go get something set up, okay?” Waverly asks.

“Of course.” Nicole nods, turning her attention to the pictures on the board. She takes her first bite of the muffin and makes a noise of surprise. Damn it’s good. She hates to think of Waverly feeling anxious, but this is an awfully delicious result to come out of it. She continues to nibble as she turns her attention back to the pictures.

There’s one Nicole assumes is from high school, with Waverly smiling brightly standing between two other girls, one of them Nicole recognizes as Chrissy Nedley. Another shows a preteen Waverly standing in the field behind the barn, rifle to shoulder, aiming at an invisible target. The one next to it is of a young Waverly on horseback, a much less gray haired Shorty standing on the ground holding the reins with a wide smile on his face.

Nicole’s gaze lingers on the final picture.

She’s never seen a picture of Willa before, but it’s obvious the image is of all three Earp sisters. Waverly looks around eight or so, standing next to her older sisters. Willa and Wynonna wear identical smirks, but it’s Waverly’s unhappy face that captures Nicole’s interest. Her heart aches at the photographic evidence of just how left out Waverly felt.

Nicole notes the lack of Ward Earp in any of the pictures when she hears a throat clear.

Waverly is leaning against the door jam, arms crossed, watching her. “Was it okay?” She asks softly.

Nicole is confused before she realizes Waverly is referring to the now empty plate in her hands. She sets the plate down on the desk, brushing the crumb remnants from her fingers. “It was more than okay. Pretty sure it was the best muffin I’ve ever had.”

Waverly gives a pleased smile as she pushes off the doorframe and uncrosses her arms to hold a hand out to Nicole.

Nicole takes her hand and allows herself to be drawn into the bathroom across the hall where a bathtub sits filled with steaming water. A light scent of lavender is in the air, and Nicole suspects it might be from bath salts. There’s a candle lit on a shelf, and it’s clear Waverly is trying to create a relaxing environment for her. Nicole feels an overwhelming sense of gratitude. She’s never had someone show such care for her as an adult.

She’s fighting the urge to speak those particular words again when a random thought occurs to her.

“Is this going to be a problem if Wynonna comes home?”

Waverly shakes her head. “She uses the bathroom on the second floor. Besides, she’s going into town for drinks with Doc. Or was it Dolls?” Waverly purses her lips and squints in thought. “Or maybe it was both.” She shrugs, reaching out to unbutton Nicole’s shirt. “Why don’t we get you out of these clothes?”

“Is that a come on?” Nicole jokes.

The corners of Waverly’s mouth quirk up, but her eyes hold such a soft understanding, and it’s in that moment Nicole realizes just how exhausted she is.

Waverly is slow and gentle with her hands as she helps Nicole undress. She drops to her knees to help tug off the damp jeans, taking the time to brush her lips just above Nicole’s belly button before standing up again.

It’s a strangely intimate thing, standing completely naked in front of Waverly while she remains fully dressed. Their gazes lock, and Nicole wonders if she’s imagining the extra weight that seems to have taken up the air between them the moment she stepped foot in the house.

Waverly breaks the eye contact first. “Take as long as you want. I put a towel out for you and some clothes to change into.” She waves a hand at the t-shirt and shorts that sit on top of a stool.

Nicole raises an eyebrow at Waverly in question. The clothes are hers. From her cabin.

Waverly makes an attempt at looking apologetic, but it isn’t very genuine. “I may have borrowed some things when you were away, now seems like a good time to give them back.”

Nicole chuckles. “You are amazing.” She comments, drawing Waverly in for a kiss.

Waverly steps back, giving a gentle nudge at Nicole’s shoulders. “Time for you to relax.” She scoops up the pile of wet clothes from the floor. “I’ll put these in the washer. Give me a shout if you need anything.” She ducks out of the bathroom, drawing the door closed behind her.

Nicole settles into the tub, and god, this is just what she needs. The tension in her shoulders from the long day melts in the hot water. It’s comforting, letting the cares of the day drift away knowing Waverly is just across the hall. Nicole’s always been someone to take care of herself, but she can’t help the warmth that spreads through her at Waverly’s actions.

She spends a good half hour in the tub, until the water chills and her skin starts to prune, before taking the time to turn the shower head on and rinse any vestiges of dirt away. After toweling off she changes into the t-shirt and shorts Waverly set out for her. She smiles when she notices the new toothbrush sitting next to the sink for her.

Nicole opens the bathroom door quietly, and it’s her turn to lean in the bedroom doorframe watching her girlfriend. Waverly sits on the bed reclined against a pile of pillows, her lower half under the covers, a book resting against her bent knees as she reads. She must feel Nicole watching her, because her eyes drift up from the page.

“Feel better?” She asks.

Nicole pushes off from the doorframe. “Lots. Thank you.” She says softly.

Waverly smiles. “Of course.” She folds down the corner of the quilt. “Come to bed?”

Nicole’s stomach flips at the words. They aren’t meant sexually, and for some reason that affects Nicole all the more.

“You don’t mind if I sleep here tonight?” She asks, just to be sure.

Waverly gives a gentle smile. “I would prefer you did. Unless you thought I was doing all this just to send you back to your cabin?”

It’s good enough for Nicole. She crawls under the covers, lying on her side to face Waverly with her head propped up in her hand.

Waverly reaches out to her in for a kiss, which Nicole promptly ruins by letting out a big yawn.

Waverly laughs at her, adjusting the path of her lips to press a soft kiss to Nicole’s brow. “You should sleep. Do you need me to turn out the light, or is it okay if I read for awhile?”

Nicole yawns again as she curls into Waverly and gets comfortable. She slips a hand under the hem of Waverly’s shirt and lightly traces her fingers back and forth. “Read as long as you want baby, it doesn’t bother me.”

The last thing Nicole is aware of before drifting into a deep, dreamless sleep, is the feeling of Waverly pressing a kiss to the top of her head, and the realization that she would gladly fall asleep like this every night if she could.

*****

Nicole slowly blinks her eyes open while she tries to get her bearings.

It’s morning, the sunlight streaming through the window tells her that much, and she knows the warmth wrapped up in her arms and tangled with her legs is Waverly, but it takes her a few extra seconds to remember where she is. She smiles as soon as last night comes back to her.

She gives Waverly a quick squeeze before untangling herself to head to the bathroom; a necessity based on the current state of her bladder.

Nicole pads across the hall, careful to be quiet. After brushing her teeth and freshening up for the day she slips back into Waverly’s bedroom.

She’s surprised to find her clothes from yesterday dry and folded on the desk waiting for her. Waverly must have slipped out of bed last night after Nicole fell asleep to get them. Nicole’s can’t believe she slept through it. She’s normally a somewhat light sleeper, but she can’t recall waking up once last night.

Nicole’s eyes drift to Waverly only to find a pair of sleepy eyes blinking back at her. She lifts a hand from under the covers to gesture vaguely in the direction of her desk. “Your clothes are clean.” She mumbles.

Nicole can’t help her smile. For all of the energy and perkiness Waverly exhibits during her waking hours, she is adorable in her sleepy, lethargic state first thing in the morning.

“I saw that. Thank you.”

Waverly’s shoulder shifts under the covers in what Nicole assumes is a shrug. “Not a problem. I’ll collect my payment later.” One corner of her lips turn up.

“I bet you will.” Nicole responds with a grin, stripping off her sleep shirt and tossing it at Waverly before she starts to get dressed for the day. She doesn’t miss the way Waverly grabs the shirt and bunches it up under her pillow.

“Help yourself to coffee and whatever else you want in the kitchen. There’s more muffins.” Waverly props her head up on one hand, watching Nicole as she dresses.

“You mean you’re not gonna make me crawl out of your bedroom window to sneak away?” Nicole jokes. Well, she thinks it’s a joke anyway, although the way her hands fidget with her back pockets suggests otherwise.

Waverly shakes her head. “I’d like to think we’re past that sort of thing. Make yourself at home.” Waverly holds her gaze with a particular kind of intensity. “Please.”

Nicole feels her body relax at the words. “Okay." She speaks the word just above a whisper, holding Waverly's eyes a beat longer before moving out of the moment. "I’m going to make some coffee and eat one of those absurdly delicious muffins before work. Care to join?”

Waverly flops onto her back, rubbing at her eyes with the heels of her palms. “Give me a few minutes.”

Nicole chuckles as she heads for the bedroom door. “I’ll make sure to have some coffee waiting for you.”

She’s lost in thought sipping on her mug of coffee when she hears someone coming down the hall. Only instead of Waverly, it’s a half asleep Wynonna who stumbles into the kitchen and makes a beeline for the coffee pot.

Wynonna reaches up and clumsily grabs a mug out the cupboard, muttering “Shut up” at the sound of ceramic clinking together. The action raises the t-shirt she’s wearing, and Nicole is extremely happy to find that Wynonna is wearing underwear.

Because Wynonna is not wearing any pants.

She fills her mug, spilling drops of coffee on the counter and wiping at it with her bare hand, droplets falling to the kitchen floor in the process. She turns around and notices Nicole sitting at the small kitchen table, narrowing her sleepy eyes as she takes a few sips of coffee, not saying anything.

Nicole waits her out, trying her best to hold back a smile as she drinks her own coffee and avoids looking at Wynonna’s lower half.

Finally Wynonna sighs. “Does this little development mean I have to start wearing pants around here? Because I’m not really big on that in the morning.”

“What?” Nicole drawls out in confusion.

“Hey Nic, when you see Doc can you ask-” Waverly comes to a stop, looking back and forth between Wynonna and Nicole.

Wynonna’s eyes drift down to Waverly's legs and she points a finger. “She’s not wearing any pants, so I shouldn’t have to either.”

Nicole pinches the bridge of her nose. Is this really the conversation they’re having right now? “No one has to wear pants if they don’t want to, Wynonna.”

Wynonna cocks her head to the side, humming out as she takes another sip of coffee. “Well, I mean, you should probably wear pants, at least when I’m around anyway.” She looks to Waverly for agreement, who bites her lip in amusement and nods before giving Nicole a wide-eyed look with her eyebrows raised.

“Oh my god.” Nicole mutters to herself before pushing up from the kitchen table. “I think it’s time for me to get to work.”

She sets her coffee mug in the sink before giving Waverly a quick kiss on the cheek. She keeps her voice low, ignoring Wynonna, who she knows is watching them. “Thank you for last night, I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

Waverly nods and gives her arm a small squeeze, so Nicole knows she’s okay with the bolting act.

“Have a super productive day Haught-stuff!” Wynonna calls after her as she’s walking out the front door.

“Sure thing boss!” Nicole calls back, laughing at the “Bite me” she hears as she grabs her still damp boots and jogs down the porch steps to work.

*****

It’s a beautiful, cloudless day, and Nicole would love to admire the view of the rolling pastures as the light breeze moves through the grass, but instead her eyes are fixed on the cows moving by her in what feels like a never ending line.

This particular day on any ranch is always tedious, but extremely necessary. The entire herd gets moved into one part of the fenced-in pasture, and one by one, or as close to it as possible, they push the cows through the long alleyway of fencing into another pasture, where Shorty, Nedley and Dolls are waiting to administer the vaccination and parasite treatments needed after the cows spent the summer on their own.

Fish is just at the end of the chute helping to usher the cows towards their waiting treatments, Nicole is further up from him to ensure no cows get skittish and hold up the flow of movement. Doc is positioned at the opening to prod the cows forward, and Levi is in the first pasture slowly driving the cows forward into the chute.

Nicole’s job allows her a seat atop the fencing and away from the clomping feet of the cows, which she’s perfectly fine with. She’s done this whole thing a fair amount of times at other ranches, and she’s been in every different position.

As the newest member here, she assumed she’d wind up in Fish’s position on the same side of the fencing as the cows, trying to avoid getting stepped or drooled on, or worse, but apparently job positions are assigned by spirited rounds of rock paper scissors here. Because of course it would work that way at Earp Ranch.

Nicole lets her mind wander for just a moment to earlier when the Earp sisters came by to make sure everything was properly set up before heading into town.

She couldn’t help but notice the way Waverly's eyes drifted across the herd until they fell on one particular cow and held. Nicole doesn’t blame her. She herself sought the same one out when they first arrived at the summer pasture to ensure everything was well.

They aren’t in the right line of work to get too attached to any one cow, but Nicole can’t deny there’s a bit of a special connection there.

Nicole is pulled from her thoughts when she notices a pick up in the speed of cows moving past her. It’s too quick. They’re going to wind up with a stampede on their hands in a tightly confined space if they don’t slow it down.

Nicole hops down from the fence to head towards Doc to try to get a handle on the herd when she realizes it’s too late.

“Whoah whoah whoah!” Fish’s shouts reach Nicole and she turns to find him trying to grasp at the fencing to avoid getting swept up in the herd. She’s running towards him at full speed before his head disappears, hand losing it’s grip on the wood.

Nicole skids to a stop where she saw him go down, dropping to the ground and frantically searching amongst the hooves of the cows now running through the chute. He’s on the ground, trying to crawl towards the fence and get underneath it. Nicole yells out to him, reaching out a hand to help guide him under, but she’s not fast enough.

“Fish!” Nicole shouts as he gets trampled, the hooves of a running cow hitting him in the chest first then his head, knocking him unconscious.

Nicole risks getting trampled herself as she ducks further under the fence and grabs his arm. She’ll be damned if she’s just going to leave him there to get killed (she ignores the voice in her head that suggests it might already be too late).

She yanks as hard as she can on his arm, dragging him slowly along the ground. She closes her eyes to the dirt and dust and pebbles kicked up from the cows' hooves . It’s chaos around her, and for a second she fears she may meet the same fate as Fish, but then she feels a strong yank on her legs, and Doc’s voice drifts into her ears.

“I’ve got you, just keep a hold of Fish and pull god damn it!” He growls through the physical effort of dragging two bodies to safety.

He manages to pull her and Fish clear before collapsing onto his back. Nicole scrambles to her knees, turning Fish over and desperately hoping she won’t find the worst.

His face is covered in dirt and sweat and a growing amount of blood coming from a gash on his forehead. Nicole checks his chest, and thankfully it’s still rising and falling, although his breathing seems shallow.

“Dolls is calling an ambulance, try not to move him too much.” Nedley's voice is calm next to her. She blinks in surprise, looking over at Shorty and Nedley beside her, and Doc on the ground across Fish’s body from her still trying to catch his breath. Their eyes meet and Nicole swallows, thinking about what might have happened if he hadn’t been there to help.

Doc raises two fingers to his forehead in a salute, as if reading her mind. “You did good cowgirl.” He pants out.

Nicole notices Levi running towards them from over Doc’s shoulder.

“No no no no, what happened?” He asks, grasping at his hair with his hands as he takes in Fish’s unconscious form.

Nedley stands, putting a hand on Levi’s shoulder. “Now just stay calm son, an ambulance is on it’s way and they’ll get him taken care of, all right?”

Nicole is thankful for Nedley’s patience. She doesn’t think she could find it in her right now, especially concerning Levi.

The words don’t seem to calm Levi much. His face is ashen white as he shakes his head vigorously. “I didn’t, I didn’t–” Levi mutters lowly to himself.

Nicole’s eyes cut to him. There’s something scratching at the back of her brain, but before she can fully formulate it Dolls is running back to them.

“Ambulance should be here in less than fifteen minutes.”

It becomes a bit of a blur after that. Shorty insists on looking Nicole over to be sure she’s not hurt herself. She’s a bit surprised at how tender one of her shoulders feels when Shorty prods at it, and Nicole has a flash of getting kicked in the shoulder by one of the cows, but not having it register in the moment.

Nicole rotates her arm and shoulder around when Shorty asks if it’s broken and shakes her head. It’ll be sore for a few days, but she’ll be fine.

Once the ambulance arrives and Fish is loaded into the back Nedley volunteers to drive to the hospital with Levi. The rest of them stay behind to try and finish off the job they started with some order, albeit far more slowly.

Shorty looks at Nicole intently to make sure she’s okay to continue on. She assures him with as much energy as she can muster that it’s fine.

Nicole does her best to focus on the task at hand, but the whole time her mind whirls and catches on random moments of her time here.

There’s a picture starting to form, and Nicole wonders why it took so long to come into focus.

*****

It’s almost dinner time when Wynonna and Waverly get back from the hospital. They went immediately after getting the phone call from Shorty with the news.

Nicole meets Waverly halfway between her cabin and the house, and if her determined stride and gaze are anything to go by, Waverly was specifically looking for her.

“Are you okay?” Waverly asks, as she reaches a hand up to brush against Nicole’s cheek.

Nicole nods. “I’m fine. How’s Fish?”

“He’s going to be okay, thank god. He has a pretty serious concussion and a couple cracked ribs, but it could have been so much worse. Would have been so much worse, if it wasn’t for you and Doc, from what I hear.”

Waverly’s gaze is piercing, and Nicole swallows in the face of it. “Look, Waverly,” Nicole reaches out to tuck an errant hair behind Waverly's ear, “I know you hate it when I do the whole heroic crap thing, as you call it, but I swear, I wasn’t trying to put myself in danger. Fish got pulled down and I just–”

Nicole cuts off in surprise when Waverly goes up on her tip toes and presses their lips together, the tiniest hint of desperation in her kiss. When she pulls back she keeps Nicole’s face cradled in her hands.

“Thank you for what you did. You’re amazing.” Waverly reassures her.

Nicole smiles. “I had help.” She tries to be casual, but it feels like her heart is swelling at Waverly’s words.

Movement over Waverly’s shoulder draws her attention away, and when Nicole sees Doc she remembers what she wanted to do before she came across Waverly.

“Hey Wave, would you mind if I had a quick word with Doc in private? I can come find you after if you want.”

Waverly nods. “Of course.” She leans in for one more quick kiss. “I definitely want to see you after.” She says with a quiet intensity before stepping back and moving around Nicole.

Nicole watches as Waverly heads towards her cabin to wait for her instead of going back to the house. It makes her smile.

Doc stops next to her, watching Waverly as she retreats. He turns to Nicole with an eyebrow wiggle, and Nicole honestly doesn’t know if she she’d rather grin at him or smack him.

“Listen,” Nicole starts, “about today-”

Doc cuts her off. “If you are about to thank me then I implore you to not finish that sentence, because I did not think we felt the need to do such things.” He glares at her until she nods in agreement. “Besides, I fully expect you to make it up to me down the line.”

“Of course you do.” Nicole rolls her eyes. She takes a moment to figure out how to broach the idea that’s been rolling around in her head for a couple of hours now. “Doc, how long has Levi worked here?”

Doc raises his eyebrows in question. “Levi? Probably a good five or six years now. We actually hired Fish first. I knew him from another job I worked between Bobo’s and here. He mentioned if we ever needed more help he knew someone else.” Doc shrugs, eyes drifting as he thinks over the memory.

Nicole mulls that over. “And you trust Fish, right?”

Doc’s eyes sharpen on her. “I do. Fish is a good man, of that I am certain. Why do you ask?”

Nicole holds up her hands. “Just working on a theory here Doc. I actually trust Fish too, but I wanted to get your take on it.”

Doc’s face scrunches in confusion.

“I guess I’m just wondering how well you know Levi, and how much you would say you trust him.” Nicole asks, not wanting to fully jump into what she’s thinking until she gets Doc’s thoughts on Levi in general.

The confusion remains on Doc’s face for a few more seconds before it smooths out as the realization dawns on him.

“Aw hell.”

 

Chapter Text

Normally when the fall comes, things gradually slow down on a ranch, but Nicole feels like she has more to do than ever.

Some of it is even actual ranch work.

A good chunk of her time off the job is spent with Waverly, which is something Nicole has zero complaints about, but the rest of the time she finds herself looking for ways to keep tabs on Levi without being obvious about it.

Like right now.

Nicole peaks her head around the corner of the barn, catching sight of Levi in the pasture with the cows. Most of them will be sold off soon, so it’s imperative for someone to make the rounds each day with the herd to ensure no health issues arise.

“Find any smoking guns yet.”

Nicole jumps about a foot into the air at the sound of Doc’s gruff voice. She spins around with a hand pressed to her chest. “Jesus Doc, you almost gave me a heart attack.”

Doc does not look one bit apologetic; on the contrary, he grins in amusement.

Nicole’s jaw ticks. She grabs the hat off Doc’s head and swats him in the shoulder with it repeatedly. “You–are–an–ass, Doc Holliday, you know that?”

“Watch the mustache.” Doc holds his hands up to protect his face, even though Nicole didn’t once come close to hitting him there. Maybe she should have.

She shoves the hat into his chest for him to take back. “I swear to god, you love your facial hair more than you do people.”

“Heh.” Doc doesn’t make an effort to refute the accusation. He pushes his hair back from his face to place the hat back on his head. “See anything out of the ordinary today?”

Nicole sets her mouth in a grim line, looking around the corner again. “No.”

It’s the same outcome as yesterday, and the days before that.

Nicole can’t watch Levi up close much. Considering everything that’s occurred between them, it would be highly suspicious if she started spending more time around him by her own choice.

Instead, Doc tails Levi whenever he can. If Levi mentions going into town, Doc makes up an excuse for needing to go too. Doc offers to partner up with Levi for any ranch work while Fish is out of commission. If Levi is out and about after nightfall, Doc goes for a little mosey himself.

So far they’ve turned up nothing to implicate Levi. Sometimes Nicole wonders if her dislike for him is clouding her judgement. Perhaps she’s making connections that point to Levi because she wants to.

But the thing is, everything in Nicole’s gut is screaming that Levi is the guy. And Nicole has always done well by trusting in her gut. Not to mention, the second she raised the idea to Doc he kicked himself for not seeing the connections sooner.

“Is this some sort of special secret club, or can I join?”

This time it’s Doc who jumps. “How do you like it?” Nicole mutters at him before turning her full attention to Wynonna.

“Nothing special or secret going on here, just discussing work. All work talk here.” Nicole answers, her words coming out faster than normal. She mentally sighs at herself, because way to sound absurdly suspicious.

Wynonna narrows her eyes. “That sounds...awful. Please get more interesting lives so you have other things to talk about.”

“We would be happy to oblige. Got any suggestions?” Doc responds. Nicole doesn’t miss his wink at Wynonna, who rolls her eyes.

“Yeah, I suggest you find more interesting things away from here. I actually need to steal Nicole for a bit.”

Doc rocks back on his heels, nonplussed by Wynonna’s dismissal. Nicole figures he’s well acclimated to the push and pull nature of his relationship with Wynonna by now.

“Very well.” He backs away a few steps, his eyes cutting to Levi still in the pasture. He tosses another wink, this time at Nicole, before he turns on his heel and heads in that direction, whistling as he goes.

Wynonna watches him walk away. Well, watches parts of him, anyway, before she focuses on Nicole. “Got time to take a little ride with me, check out some fences?”

Nicole assumes there’s another reason for the invite, because there isn’t much need to check on the fences. The perimeter has been checked, and old sections replaced, throughout the summer.

“Sure thing. Horses or ATV?” Nicole asks.

Wynonna’s eyes sweep over the land, focusing on the hills in the distance. “Let’s take the horses.”

Wynonna seems almost tense for the first half hour of the ride. They make small talk, and Wynonna never lets up with her casual sarcastic jokes or innuendos, but Nicole can tell there’s something simmering under the surface. Not to mention, they haven’t once looked at the fences.

“What do you think about chickens?”

Nicole’s brow furrows at the question. She ponders it for a moment, wondering if there could possibly be more meaning to it. “Are you asking what I think about their existence in general? What I think of them as a protein source? Or…?” She trails off.

Wynonna sighs beside her. “You’re such an asshole sometimes.”

Nicole shrugs, not taking any offense. “Maybe, but get back to the chickens.”

Wynonna jerks one of her shoulders in what Nicole assumes is a shrug.“Waves and I have been talking about some ideas for the ranch lately, but I don’t know.” She stops there, eyes wandering to the stream they’re riding along.

Nicole pulls her horse to a stop, sensing the conversation is going to take some prodding from her. “Okay, what sort of ideas?”

“I don’t know.” Wynonna repeats, letting out a small sigh before she speaks again. “When we first took over this place Waverly had some ideas to change things. I didn’t really care much because I wasn’t even sure I wanted this podunk place.” Wynonna rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “No, that’s not true. I didn’t want this place.”

Nicole nods, thinking it over. “Understandable. I’m just going on a hunch here, but in high school I doubt you put ranch owner under your future aspirations in the yearbook?”

Wynonna makes a face. “God no. In high school I wanted to get out of this rinky-dink town, go see the world. I was going to go to Greece, sunbathe while some muscular, shirtless local brought me drinks. Then from there, who knows? Maybe just get drunk and point to a place on a map and head there next.”

Nicole smiles, because the plan, or complete lack of it, is just so Wynonna. “Okay, so your top ambition was to be a world traveler. Or world drinker. Maybe both. Anyway, what about now?”

“That’s the weird thing.” Wynonna shakes her head. “Lately, it feels like this stupid place has become more and more a part of me. The land feels like it’s mine for the first time.” Wynonna shoots a glare across the distance to where Nicole knows Revenant’s Ranch sits. “Maybe this stupid situation with Bobo is getting to me, but I’ve never felt more protective of this place.” Wynonna’s eyes flit around the landscape, taking it all in.

“And how do chickens fit into these new found feelings on the ranch?” Nicole asks gently.

Wynonna blinks, working to catch back up the conversation. “Right, the chickens. Waverly says chickens bring about better grass in the pastures, and better grass in the pastures means healthier cows.”

Nicole nods. “That’s something I can definitely get behind. What else? Hit me with the ideas.”

Wynonna talks for a while, and Nicole is honestly a little taken aback. She didn’t know Wynonna had such a vision for this place. She mentally chastises herself for being another person in what she suspects is a pretty long line to have underestimated Wynonna Earp. She won’t make that mistake again.

“So, what do you think?” Wynonna asks.

She wants reassurance, that much Nicole can tell, but she’s determined Wynonna find it in the right place. “I can tell you what I think, that it’s a great plan, but it doesn’t really matter. The most important thing is what you think.” There’s an edge to her voice. It’s a challenge to Wynonna to step up, and she waits, holding her breath for the reaction.

Wynonna’s shoulders set, her chin tipping up a fraction. “What I think is that Waverly and I are the god damn Earp heirs, and it’s time we run this place the way we want. We’ve got work to do.”

She fixes Nicole with a look so full of steely reserve that Nicole would respond with a ‘That’a girl’, if she didn’t already know it would earn her the middle finger. So instead she grins, giving Wynonna a nod in agreement.

“Think you’re up for being a part of that work?” Wynonna looks calm asking the question, but Nicole notices the way she fidgets with the horse reins in her hands while she waits for an answer.

“Damn right I am.” Nicole answers, hoping her voice conveys the amount of conviction she feels. “I love this place, and my bosses are pretty kickass, so I’m here for as long as you’ll have me.”

“Oh my god, stop kissing my ass. Save that shit for Waverly.” Wynonna responds, a reluctant smile pulling at the corner of her mouth. “But that’s good to hear.”

They spur their horses into movement again, heading back towards the ranch.

“Not that it’s any of my business, but what happens if you and Waverly go south?” Wynonna asks.

Nicole’s stomach turns at the words, but it’s a fair question. In reality, it is Wynonna’s business, as her boss and as a sister.

“Look, I can’t predict the future, but I can tell you that I have zero intention of ever walking away from your sister. If things get rough, I’ll just roll up my sleeves and figure out a way to work through it.”

Wynonna nods beside her. “If it helps, she’s partial to ice cream as a peace offering after fights.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Nicole laughs.

“You tell her yet?”

Nicole’s smile fades at the question, a nervous thrumming taking up residence in her chest. “Not yet. Like I said, I don’t want her to feel pressured.”

“Always so chivalrous.” Wynonna sighs. “Waves is really careful with the things that are most important to her. You know that, right?”

Nicole takes her time before answering. “I do.” And she does know. It’s one of the many things Nicole loves about Waverly. She gives Wynonna an appraising look. “Huh, who knew underneath the lairs of sarcasm and drunk rambling you held such insight?” She tosses Wynonna a playful grin when she hears her scoff.

“Don’t be insulting and then flash those things at me, jerk.” Wynonna retorts.

The laugh Nicole lets loose travels across the expanse of pasture. “Fair enough.”

The rest of ride back occurs in amiable silence, and Nicole takes the time to enjoy the slight crispness of the early Fall air.

It’s not until they’re about to part ways that Wynonna shakes her head, seeming to remember something.

“Hey, what are you doing Saturday night? And I swear, if you answer Waverly I will fire you on the spot.”

Nicole crinkles her brow. “Only you would make a joke like that Wynonna.”

Wynonna narrows her eyes. “Good point.”

“I currently do not have any plans Saturday night, with Waverly or otherwise.”

“Well you do now. The stupid annual Cattle Rancher’s Association dinner is this weekend, which is just an excuse for a bunch of assholes to fawn over each other to the point it makes me want to vomit. And if there’s one thing I love, it’s making all my employees suffer along with me.” Wynonna gives Nicole a once over. “Do you own anything that isn’t flannel or jeans or those chaps that give you an oddly attractive swagger?”

Nicole raises an eyebrow at Wynonna, but all she gets in return is a shrug. “If you’re asking if I own dress clothes, then yes. As long as this thing doesn’t require a ball gown, I think I’ll be okay.”

Wynonna snorts. “No ball gowns required.”

*****

Nicole puts the finishing touches on her makeup before sliding simple diamond stud earrings into her earlobes.

She looks herself over, taking a deep, slow breath, not entirely sure why she’s nervous about this.

It’s not the first formal function she’s ever attended. Hell, she wore this very dress a couple years ago to a fundraising event Mattie forced her to attend. Nicole smiles when she thinks about the non-stop commentary Mattie made behind her champagne flute about the other attendees.

No, Nicole knows the nerves aren’t from the event, but rather, because Waverly will be there.

It’s not a date, more a required work function. But still, it’s the first time she’ll be dressed up like this in front of Waverly, and she finds herself wondering what the reaction will be.

Nicole reminds herself to get a grip. It’s not like they’re seventeen years old and going to prom together.

She grabs her small black clutch, giving herself one last once over in the mirror before leaving the cabin.

She finds Doc and Dolls waiting on the porch of the main house. Nicole has to admit, they clean up nice. They have two completely different kinds of style, but boy do they manage to pull it off.

Nicole smiles, reaching up to give the black stetson on Doc’s head a small shake. “You even have a dress hat? Impressive.”

Doc grins, his deep dimples making an appearance. “Of course. What kind of cowboy gentleman would I be without one?”

“The kind who lives in the current century.” Dolls deadpans, but there’s a playfulness to his sarcastic smile.

Nicole looks around for the others.

“Levi, Shorty, and Nedley left a little while ago. They were going to stop in and see Fish before meeting us at the hall.” Dolls explains.

Nicole nods, her eyes meeting with Doc’s for a brief moment.

Then the front door opens, and Nicole forgets about everything else in the world but Waverly Earp.

She’s wearing the most beautiful pale pink dress, her hair swept back on one side and cascading down her back in waves, teardrop diamond earrings sparkling in each ear.

Nicole knows she’s staring, but she can’t help it. She shakes her head in awe. “You are a vision.” She says, because it’s true.

Waverly’s face splits into a smile, and she shakes her head while looking Nicole up and down. “Speak for yourself. If I’d known you own a sexy black dress like that I probably would have found an excuse to make you wear it sooner. We should get dressed up way more often.”

Nicole dips her head down, the faint heat of a blush coming to her cheeks. She peeks back up at Waverly. “Does this mean you want me to lose the ranching clothes from now on?”

Waverly shakes her head, reaching out to take hold of one of Nicole’s hands. “Oh no, I’m pretty partial to that look too.”

Nicole pulls her slowly forward. “Good, because I don’t think I’d enjoy working in this outfit much.”

She’s leaning in for a kiss when a throat clears behind Waverly. Nicole quickly diverts her path and places a soft kiss on Waverly’s cheek before stepping back.

Wynonna, looking like a knockout herself in a scarlet red dress, has her arms linked with Doc and Dolls on each side of her. She gives Nicole a once over and lets out a low whistle.

“You clean up nice Haught-stuff.”

“Don’t flirt with my girlfriend, thank you.” Waverly draws out.

Wynonna gives her a wink in response. “We ready to hit this party?”

Dolls adjusts one of his cufflinks. “Yes indeed.”

They take Waverly’s jeep. Dolls drives, and Doc sits up front with him, the three girls taking up the back seat, with Waverly in the middle.

Nicole idly traces her fingers along the top of Waverly’s hand on the ride, sneaking sideways glances. Waverly catches her, a soft smirk forming on her lips. Nicole gives her hand a squeeze, uttering a soft “Hey.”

Wynonna leans forward in her seat. “Hey back. Oh I’m sorry, were you talking to me?”

Waverly rolls her eyes but she’s smiling. She sits back in her seat, taking one of Wynonna’s hands in her free one. “This dress is to die for Wynonna, you’re going steal the show.”

Nicole catches Dolls and Doc in the rearview mirror looking at Wynonna, and it’s clear they agree.

Wynonna shrugs. “Someone’s gotta do it kid, might as well be me.”

Once they get to the banquet hall it’s a bit of a whirlwind for Nicole. She gets introduced to more people than she can remember; shakes more hands than she can count.

She finds Nedley a welcome sight as he strolls up with Chrissy on his arm.

“May I just say, you ladies look absolutely stunning.” He announces. Chrissy presses a kiss to his cheek, and his pride at his daughter is so evident in the way he looks at her that it warms Nicole’s heart.

Chrissy turns to Nicole. “It’s good to see you again.” Her eyes are warm and her smile is wider and more open than it was the first time they met. Nicole suspects it’s due to being privy to the nature of her relationship with Waverly, and she honestly appreciates the support.

Nicole responds likewise when her attention is drawn to Levi making his way across the room to join them.

His eyes sweep across the sea of people swiftly, coming to a stop momentarily when they land on Nicole. He jerks them away again as he slides his hands into his pockets, only to pull them back out a moment later. He stands there fidgeting with the bottom of his suit jacket.

Nicole finds Doc in the group and he gives her a subtle nod. The message is clear. They’ll both be keeping an eye on Levi tonight.

As the night progresses Nicole finds herself actually having a good time. She converses easily with everyone, noticing the whole time the way Waverly seems to gravitate back towards her in regular intervals, eyes soft and full of something Nicole can’t quite name, but that starts a flutter in her stomach.

Chrissy Nedley rejoins their group once she’s done making her way around the room to shake hands and rub elbows as a member of the Sheriff’s department, and Nicole is happy to discover she is excellent company.

Chrissy tells stories about Waverly in her school years. There’s one about the time Waverly took on the classroom bully in grade school; she steamrolls right into another about the first time Waverly smoked an ‘herbal substance’, as Chrissy puts it, and ate everything in sight, cleaning out the kitchen at Chrissy’s mother’s house.

Nicole is captivated by every word, and watching the two of them play off each other, laughing until they’re in tears, makes her heart swell.

“And they’re off.” Wynonna appears at her side, highball glass of whiskey in hand. She eyes the two girls with a faint smile on her face. “There is no stopping them when they get on a roll like this. Believe me; I had to live through the sleep overs.”

Nicole chuckles. “I think it’s kind of endearing.”

“Of course you do.” Wynonna murmurs, but her eyes are soft over the rim of her glass as she takes a sip.

Nicole excuses herself to use the bathroom then. It’s when she exits the restroom that she bumps into Bobo.

She almost let herself forget about him. There’s so many people here she’d managed to miss him hanging on the periphery of the event.

He gives her that razor sharp grin that makes Nicole want to punch him. “Pardon me.”

Nicole doesn’t bother to respond, tilting her head down as she moves around him.

“Hold on a moment.”

Nicole stops, turning her head slowly to look at Bobo’s hand clasped around her arm. She raises her eyebrows at him in question.

Bobo immediately lets go, holding his hands up. “No offense meant. I simply wanted to talk to you.”

Nicole turns towards him, crossing her arms. “About?”

Bobo’s eyes give nothing away as he taps a knuckle against his lips a few times in thought before pointing a finger at her. “Maybe we should talk about your wasted potential.”

Nicole tilts her head to the side. “I’m sorry, my wasted potential?”

“Oh yes.” Bobo draws out. “You see, I think your skills are being squandered at that,” he pauses, rolling his wrist as he tries to find the words he wants, “second rate ranch.”

Nicole stares at him, surprised he would try such a tactic with her. The corners of her lips quirk up in a humorless smile and she lifts her chin a fraction. “That ranch is my home, and I have no interest in working for someone like you.”

Bobo puts a hand to his chest. “Someone like me? I don’t know what kind of lies the Earp girls have filled your pretty little head with, but let me assure you, I’m someone you want to work for. At the very least,” he grins again, and it turns Nicole’s stomach, “your bank account would be happier.”

Nicole’s jaw clenches. “Like I said, I’m not interested.” She forces out through gritted teeth.

Bobo pushes out his lips, tilting his head to the side as if her rebuff doesn’t bother him. “Suit yourself.”

He takes a step to go around Nicole, pausing in her personal space. He reaches up to take a strand of Nicole’s hair between two fingers. “But if you change your mind, you know where to find me.” He chomps his teeth together once before letting go of her hair and walking away.

Nicole takes a deep breath, fighting the urge to shiver in disgust.

Instead, she turns on her heel and cuts through the crowd, trying to push the encounter with Bobo from her mind until she can tell Doc about it later tonight.

If only it were so easy to forget.

Nicole spots Wynonna first, deep in conversation with Shorty. She strides up to her, taking the time to say “Excuse me,” before taking the glass of whiskey from Wynonna’s hand and swallowing the remaining contents.

“Thanks.” She says roughly, the burn of the whiskey still making its way down her throat as she hands the empty glass back.

Wynonna looks down at the glass in her hand before batting sorrowful eyes at Nicole. “We were in a committed relationship, that whiskey and I, and you just took it all away.”

Nicole takes the empty glass back from her with an eye roll. “I’ll get you a refill.”

She makes her way to the bar, ordering another whiskey for Wynonna. At the last second she adds another one to the order for herself. Nicole has no intention of getting drunk tonight, but she could use something to take the edge off after her encounter.

She drums her fingers against the bar top while she waits, eyes sweeping the room for Doc. She doesn’t see him by the time she gets the drinks, so she heads back to where she left Wynonna.

Nicole pauses in her tracks when she sees Levi duck out the back door.

It probably doesn’t mean anything, Nicole tells herself, chewing her bottom lip in contemplation. Maybe he’s just getting some fresh air. Or perhaps it’s the opposite, and he’s smoking a cigarette.

She stands rooted to the spot for another thirty seconds before she makes a decision.

“Here, and I got you a backup to make up for the separation anxiety.” Nicole hands Wynonna both glasses and walks away without another word.

She fights her way through the crowd of people to get to the door. She pauses when she finally reaches it, attempting one last time to locate Doc. When she doesn’t find him she pushes out the door into the back parking lot.

The night air has chilled, and Nicole rubs her hands up and down her arms to ward it off. She turns on the spot, not seeing anyone around, or any telltale clouds of smoke that might indicate where Levi is.

Nicole contemplates going back inside, but something in her gut is tugging at her. She stops moving, going completely still to just listen, and that’s when she hears it.

Muffled voices, coming from around the side of the building.

She slips her heels off, not wanting to make a sound as she inches along the building towards the corner. She stops in the shadows before the edge of the building, her heart pounding in her chest when she hears Bobo Del Rey speak.

“I’m very disappointed in your results.”

“I’m trying everything I can think of, I swear, I just need more time.” Levi’s shaky voice responds.

“Oh no, Levi. No no no.” Bobo tone is low and menacing. “I’ve given you plenty of time. And what do I have to show for it?”

Silence stretches out as Bobo waits for Levi to respond. When he doesn’t, Bobo speaks again.

“Nothing is what I have. I told you to make sure the ranch was mine by Fall, and yet here I stand, no closer to owning it.”

Nicole sucks in a breath through her nose as her pulse pounds in her neck.

“You screwed around, sabotaging tractors and cattle runs. You couldn’t even properly burn a barn down in the middle of the night. Complete bush league.” Bobo spits out.

Nicole can hear shuffling.

“But Fish–” Levi’s voice cracks.

“Fish getting hurt is your fault. If you hadn’t been so inept, it never would have happened.”

More silence reigns before Levi speaks again, voice barely above a whisper.

“I’m sorry.”

“Oh Levi, no, you’re not sorry. Not yet, anyway.” Nicole can hear the menacing grin in Bobo’s voice. “But you will be, if Earp Ranch isn’t mine soon. You get me results, or I’ll be forced to take back the money I paid you, with interest. And believe me, it won’t be pleasant.”

Levi audibly swallows.

“O-Okay. I’ll get it done, I promise.” Levi agrees, voice weak.

“Good boy, that’s what I like to hear.” There’s the sound of skin contacting skin that Nicole assumes is from Bobo smacking Levi’s cheek, followed by footsteps fading away.

Silence falls again, and Nicole stays pressed to the building for minutes, waiting. She hears the flick of a lighter and the sound of a long exhale.

She finally risks a peak around the building and finds Levi alone, his head hanging low as he takes a drag from the cigarette.

Something snaps inside her, and she’s rounding the corner of the building and closing in on Levi before she can even think about it properly.

“You son of a bitch.”

Levi’s head snaps up in surprise as the cigarette falls from his fingers to the ground.

“Nicole.” He squeaks, his hands rising to ward her off. “That wasn’t what it sounded like, I swear.”

Nicole clenches her jaw. “I think it was exactly what it sounded like Levi.” Anger and disbelief course through her. “How could you do this? How could you try to ruin Earp Ranch?”

Levi shifts from one foot to the other, his eyes darting all around before settling back on Nicole. He pushes a hand through his hair as he shakes his head in denial.

Nicole straightens her shoulders. “I can’t wait to turn you in. Let’s go Levi.”

Levi’s eyes snap to hers, and something in his face changes. His body stiffens, but he still doesn’t speak.

She jerks her head towards the building before turning on her heel, but a familiar clicking sound halts her tracks.

“I don’t think so.” Levi’s voice is barely above a whisper. “Turn around.”

Nicole turns slowly, hoping she didn’t hear what she thinks she did. But sure enough, she comes face to face with the barrel of a silver revolver she shot in the pasture not all that long ago. She doesn’t much care for having it turned on her.

“Levi, I don’t know what you’re doing, but stop and think about this.”

“Shut up.” Tiny bits of spit fly from Levi’s mouth as he jabs the gun at Nicole. “Stay right there and don’t move.” He demands. “I need to think.”

Nicole raises her hands slowly, aware for the first time that Levi may be a whole lot more dangerous than she gave him credit for.

He shakes his head, muttering to himself, but Nicole can’t quite make out the words. He wipes at his mouth with his free hand before dropping it back to his side, tapping his fingers against his leg, all the while still not speaking to her.

“Why are you doing this Levi?” Nicole asks. She’s not sure the best way out of this, but talking is at least a start.

“Why am I–?” Levi cuts off, shaking his head again as beads of sweat dot his brow. Nicole flinches when he jerks the gun at her.

“Do you have any idea what it’s like to live every day of your life being disrespected?” He presses his lips together, staring Nicole down for an answer.

“You think you’re disrespected Levi?” Nicole asks, keeping her voice as neutral and flat as possible.

Levi scoffs. “I know I am. I’ve worked at that place for years. YEARS. And you know what it’s gotten me?” He doesn’t wait for a response this time. “Nothing. Not a damn thing. I don’t get paid what I deserve, I don’t get the respect I deserve.” He gestures the gun in the general direction of the building. “Instead I get to watch as idiots like Doc and Dolls do whatever the hell they want, and get praised for it. Hell, the boss fucks them for their incompetence.”

Nicole’s nostrils flare at the words, but she holds herself still.

“And then you,” Levi levels the gun at her again, his tone laden with disgust, “you show up and suddenly you're the hero, the greatest thing to exist. Everybody just loves you, and you get in on the boss fucking action too. Only took you a few months though, so apparently little sister gives it up easy.”

Nicole takes a step forward, before she can think, her fingers curling into a fist.

Levi jabs the gun at her. “Hold it right there.”

Nicole stops, forcing air in and out through her nose while she tries to regain control. Her voice is tight when she speaks again. “So, what, you ran to Bobo Del Rey because you felt disrespected?”

Levi lets out a low chuckle, but there’s no humor. “Oh no, Bobo came to me. You see, he recognizes what I can do. What I’m worth. Paid me a whole lotta money to help him take down Earp Ranch.” He grins then, and it turns Nicole’s stomach. “Truth be told, I would have taken less. Nothing will bring me more satisfaction then ruining that place.”

“And what about Fish?” Nicole asks, because she needs to know.

“Don’t say his name!” Levi shouts. “You don’t get to say his name. It’s your fault what happened. Without you meddling around and always riding to the rescue Earp Ranch would have been Bobo’s already, and Fish–” his voice cracks, a slight tremor in his hand shaking the gun, “Fish never would have gotten hurt.”

Nicole seizes on how affected Levi clearly is about Fish. “He wouldn’t want you to do this Levi. Fish, he would tell you to put that gun down.”

Levi shuffles on the spot, a war playing across his face. Nicole has hope for a moment, until Levi’s face hardens and a resolve settles there again.

“I told you not to say his name.” Levi whispers.

Nicole swallows, eyes darting around, desperate to find a way out of this. Levi is clearly unhinged, why did she have to confront him alone, damn it? She considers her limited options, discarding the ideas as quickly as they come to her.

“Levi–”

“No.” Levi cuts her off, voice flat. It makes Nicole’s stomach fill with dread. “I’m done talking.” His breathing becomes more rapid as he straightens his arm, pointing the gun at the center of Nicole’s chest. “You forced my hand Nicole, I don’t have a choice.”

Nicole shuts her eyes, waiting.

The cocking of a gun has her opening her eyes in confusion, because she is positive Levi already did that minutes ago.

“Levi, I do like to consider myself a gentleman in such situations, but I swear, if you even think about pulling that trigger, I will shoot you in the back faster than a fly can blink.” Doc’s drawl comes from the darkness behind Levi.

Levi’s neck dips as he swallows, a bead of sweat making its way down his temple. “Doc, you should stay out of this.”

Doc actually snorts. Nicole might find it funny if she wasn’t staring down the barrel of a gun. “That is one of the stupidest things I have ever heard, and I have heard a lot in my life.” The gravel crunches as Doc takes another step forward. “Now drop it.” He growls.

It takes a few more harrowing seconds before Levi finally complies, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

Doc kicks the gun away, walking around to stand at Nicole’s side, keeping his gun trained on Levi the whole time. “You all right there, darling?”

Nicole straightens, sucking in a lungful of the cool night air. “Yeah, I’m all right, although it certainly took you long enough.” She gives Doc a glare. “And if you ever call me darling again I’ll slug you.”

Doc grins at her, dimples flashing. “Fair enough.”

Nicole returns her gaze to Levi.

Speaking of slugging.

Levi crumples to the ground at Nicole’s right hook. She shakes her hand at the sting of pain, but it’s worth it. She’ll take bruised knuckles, hell, she’ll take a broken hand, for the satisfaction of hitting Levi in the face.

Doc and Nicole turn at the sound of approaching footsteps.

Dolls raises an eyebrow at the scene. “What exactly is going on here?” He reaches down to pick up Levi’s gun Doc kicked away.

“Don’t touch that, you fool. It’s evidence.” Doc tells him.

Dolls straightens back up with an eye roll, leaving the gun where it is. “How am I supposed to know that?”

“You use your eyes for seeing what is clearly going on around you.” Doc sneers.

Nicole sighs, interjecting before they can really get on a roll. “Can we save the sniping for later boys? I’d feel a lot better if we could call the police,” she jerks her head at Levi’s barely conscious form on the ground, “and get some cuffs on this jackass.”

“Oh.” Dolls reaches into his suit jacket as if remembering something. When he pulls out a shiny pair of handcuffs all Nicole and Doc can do is raise questioning eyebrows at him. Dolls rolls his eyes again. “You never know when you’re going to need them, okay?” He rolls Levi to the side so he can cuff his hands behind his back.

They hear the back door of the building bang open, and a few moments later Wynonna and Waverly come around the corner, laughing about something.

When Wynonna catches sight of the scene the laughter fades as confusion flits across her face. “What in the hell kind of kinky after party are you guys planning?”

Waverly looks at Levi’s crumpled form first, then the gun, before her eyes bounce between Nicole, Doc, and Dolls. “What happened?”

Doc tips the brim of his hat up with the barrel of his gun. “Well, it seems Levi is our Earp Ranch saboteur, per Bobo’s orders if I had to guess,” he looks to Nicole for confirmation and she nods, “and when Nicole here confronted him about it he decided to go all O.K. Corral and pull a gun on her before I happened to come along and spoil his fun.” He shrugs before tilting his head towards Dolls. “Oh, and for some reason Dolls here carries handcuffs on him.”

“Seriously?” Dolls asks in exasperation.

Waverly looks between her sister and Dolls a few times before her face screws up. “Ew.”

Wynonna snaps her attention to Waverly, pointing a finger in her face. “Oh no, you dated Champ, you don’t get to ‘ew’ me about anything.”

Waverly opens her mouth to rebuke, but then seems to think better of it, shrugging instead.

She turns her attention to Nicole then, and the rest of the group around them seems to fall away as she takes a step forward, not breaking eye contact as she draws closer.

“Are you okay?” She asks quietly, the words meant only for Nicole.

Nicole nods, swallowing thickly at the concern she can see on Waverly’s face. “Yeah.” She doesn’t seem to be able to look away from Waverly. “Are you?” She asks, brain on autopilot.

Waverly gives her own nod. “Yeah.”

They stay locked in the stare for a beat longer before Waverly mutters “Screw it.” and reaches up to draw Nicole into a kiss.

Nicole lives in that kiss, just for a moment, and it’s exactly what she needs to steady the nerves she didn’t realize were still so violently moving through her.

Their eyes stay locked on one another’s even after they pull apart, until Nicole becomes aware of the extra company that’s joined them in the last few moments.

The guests of the dinner are spilling out into the night, and several have noticed their little situation. Chrissy Nedley pushes through the growing crowd, taking in the full sight before her, clearly shifting into police officer mode.

“Want to tell me what’s going on here?” She asks the group.

Nicole is thankful when Doc handles the initial explanation. It gives her a little more time to draw calmness from Waverly at her side before Chrissy approaches her.

“We’re getting the Deputy on duty down here to pick him up.” Chrissy jerks her head to where Levi now sits on the ground, a red welt starting to grow on the side of his face. “Think you’re up to giving us an official statement tonight?”

Waverly gives her hand a reassuring squeeze, and Nicole nods. She’s more than happy to finally get the truth out in the open.

*****

By the time they get back to the ranch it’s almost midnight. Doc parks the Jeep by the front of the house, the silence they’ve been in for awhile now deepening when he switches the engine off.

Nicole climbs out of the car, Waverly keeping ahold of her hand as she follows. She hasn’t let go once since she captured it after Nicole finished giving her statement to Chrissy.

Nicole doesn’t really want her to.

Waverly steps in front of her, catching her eye. There’s something present in her gaze that Nicole can’t quite catch yet, but when Waverly looks over her shoulder to Nicole’s cabin her intent is clear. Nicole nods her assent.

Wynonna clears her throat, startling them from their silent conversation. “Well, that was quite the night.”

Nicole raises her eyebrows at her.

Wynonna sighs. “Yeah, yeah, don’t look at me with that tone.” She looks to Dolls first, and then Doc, standing on either side of her, before sliding an arm around each of their shoulders. “Well boys, I could really go for a drink, so why don’t you both accompany me inside, and these two can go be emo together alone, like they were one second away from doing before I interrupted.”

She shoots a wink at Waverly, and Nicole watches the corner of Waverly’s lips quirk up as she nods in appreciation. “Oh, and everyone take the morning off. I’m pretty sure the cows will survive.” Wynonna adds before corralling Doc and Dolls up the porch steps.

Waverly looks back at Nicole and inclines her head to the side before setting off, Nicole’s hand still firmly in her grasp.

They make their way to the cabin without speaking a word. Their pace is slow, almost leisurely, as if they have all the time in the world.

Nicole thinks maybe they do.

Once they’re inside, Waverly draws Nicole close, finally letting go of her hand in order to cup her face in both hands.

“Hey.” Waverly whispers.

“Hey back.” Nicole responds, her voice not much louder.

The smallest of smiles touches Waverly’s lips before fading away. She shakes her head softly. “I am so happy you’re okay.”

Nicole reaches up to gently squeeze one of Waverly’s wrists. “Me too.”

Waverly’s eyes flit back and forth between her own, and Nicole is finally able to pin down what she can see swimming in their warm depths.

She knows what’s coming before it happens; she can see it so clearly for the first time on Waverly’s face.

It still doesn’t prepare her for hearing the words.

“I’m so in love with you.” Waverly breathes out.

A shaky sigh leaves Nicole’s lips. She ducks her head down to collect herself, swallowing thickly before lifting her eyes to meet Waverly’s again. “Yeah?”

Waverly holds such sincerity in her eyes when she nods, and Nicole just has to kiss her. It feels like the most important thing in the world to do in the moment.

The kiss is firm and far too short for Nicole’s liking, but she needs to collect herself. She presses their foreheads together, feeling every ounce of emotion moving through her, like a wave overtaking everything in its path.

Waverly draws back, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth as her hands drop to Nicole’s shoulders, fingers curling gently into fabric and skin. “Just uh, jump in any time Nicole, because I sort of feel like I’m out here on a limb all by myself.”

Nicole huffs out a laugh, raising a hand to stroke her fingers along Waverly’s jaw.

“Waverly, I’ve been in love with you for so long now. Maybe since my first day here.”

The slight tension in Waverly’s body melts away as she pulls Nicole in for a kiss, only to push her back again a short moment later, squinting in thought. “It was the shotgun, wasn’t it?”

Nicole struggles to fight the grin pulling at her mouth. “It’s entirely possible.” She answers, running her fingers through the hair spilling over Waverly’s shoulder.

They’re both smiling when they draw back together, Waverly breathing the most amazing words Nicole has ever heard against her lips once again, and Nicole whispering them right back.

They make slow progress across the short distance to the bed, Waverly giggling at Nicole’s attempts to kick off her heels in a smooth manner, only to stumble a bit in her concentration to kiss Waverly senseless.

“You think that’s funny, huh?” Nicole husks out, knowing full well the grin on her face ruins the affect.

Waverly shrugs, trying to look apologetic but completely failing.

Nicole trails her fingers down Waverly’s arm, gripping at her fingers and leading her to turn around so Nicole can access the zipper on the back of her dress. The pace she slides it down is excruciatingly slow as she presses light kisses to the back of Waverly’s neck.

She lets the dress drop to the floor with a muffled sound before moving at an equally slow pace to remove Waverly’s strapless bra. Nicole slides her fingers down, tracing over every rib, brushing kisses along Waverly’s shoulder as she hooks her fingers in the waistband of her underwear, easing them down until they fall to the floor.

Nicole doesn’t miss the shiver that runs through Waverly’s body when she ghosts her lips up the side of her neck and tugs gently at her earlobe with her teeth.

“I’m not sure I can stay standing for much longer.” Waverly manages to get out, her voice airy and shaking.

Nicole smirks, giving a gentle nip to Waverly’s pulse point before taking a step back.

Waverly crawls onto the bed and watches with rapt attention as Nicole divests herself of her own dress and the lace underneath. Her heartbeat skyrockets at the flush across Waverly's cheeks and the way her lips part as Nicole joins her on the bed.

She places a hand over Waverly’s heart, the corner of her lips curling up at the hammering beat she feels underneath her palm. Nicole presses forward, gently pushing Waverly onto her back as she moves to straddle her lap.

Nicole can’t help it then, she has to pause. She wants to remember this moment, every single bit of it, for the rest of her life.

Waverly raises her eyebrows in question. “You’re really taking your time up there, huh?”

Nicole breathes out a laugh, shaking her head. “Oh baby, you have no idea.” She rolls her hips down slowly, deliberately, and watches Waverly suck in a sharp breath as her eyes slide shut in response.

She lowers her body, holding herself a few inches shy of full contact, waiting until Waverly opens her eyes again.

“This is going to take all night.”

*****

Nicole’s internal alarm clock has her stirring at first light, despite just drifting off to sleep a short while before.

She smiles at the way Waverly's hair tickles her neck from where she lays sleeping, ear pressed to Nicole’s chest just above her heart.

Nicole shifts the slightest bit, pressing a kiss to the top of Waverly’s head with a whispered “I love you.”

She feels Waverly’s lips curl against her skin. “I love you too.”

The words still hang in the air seconds later as they both drift off to sleep again.

Chapter Text

Muffled banging on the door rouses Nicole from the doze she fell into moments before.

She rolls out of bed to pull on shorts and a hoodie as the sound, coming from a curiously low position on the door, continues. “Just a sec.” She calls out, voice still scratchy with the remnants of sleep

She fights a smile at the sight that greets her upon opening the door.

Waverly stands there, hair still disheveled from last night despite giving it a quick finger comb before walking out earlier, a mug of coffee in each hand, muffin tucked in the crook of an elbow, and two bananas tucked under her other arm. She looks exasperated by the delay to her entry.

So naturally Nicole takes the time to lean against the door frame. “Did you just kick my front door?” She asks, trying her best to sound serious. She knows she’s failing.

Waverly blows at the strands of hair falling over one eye. “Yes, and if you don’t let me in right now both of these coffees are mine.”

That gets Nicole moving. She takes one of the mugs from Waverly along with the bananas from under her arm and backs out of the way.

“I’m still not sure why you insisted on going to raid your own house for breakfast just to bring it back here. I would have been fine eating over there, you know.”

Nicole raises her eyebrows when Waverly digs a container of butter out of the deep pockets of Nicole’s sweatpants she borrowed for her little excursion. She finds it adorable the way Waverly has to roll up the bottom of the legs to avoid tripping over them.

“For the muffin.” Waverly explains, as if it isn’t obvious. “And did it occur to you that just maybe,” she tugs on Nicole’s sweatshirt to bring her forward, “I’m not quite ready to share you with anyone else this morning?” She goes up on her tiptoes to give Nicole an impossibly soft kiss.

Nicole hums against her lips, feeling the loss when Waverly pulls back. “Well when you put it that way.” She murmurs, pulling Waverly back in to brush their lips together one more time. “Have I mentioned that I love you?”

Waverly acts like she’s thinking over the question. “Not in the last thirty minutes or so.” She brushes a strand of hair back from Nicole’s forehead. “Which, if I’m being perfectly honest, is about thirty minutes too long right now.”

“Good to know.” She responds quietly, shaking her head at the way they get lost in each other for a moment. “On second thought, I’m glad you ruled against eating at your house. Can you imagine being around Wynonna right now?”

Waverly winces. “Yeah, I’d prefer not to think about all the crude ways she’d come up with to make fun of us.” She heads towards the bed. “Seriously, if I don’t eat something soon after all of our physical activities last night I’m going to die of starvation.”

“Can’t have that.” Nicole murmurs, enjoying the view as she follows behind.

They set up their little breakfast on the bed, coffee mugs on the night stand near them, sitting crosslegged next to each other while they eat.

Nicole bumps Waverly’s shoulder lightly with her own. “I like this. Having breakfast in bed with you, relaxing before the day starts.”

Waverly bumps her shoulder back, a happy spark evident in her eyes. “Me too.”

They take their time over breakfast, sharing small smiles and sweet kisses, until reluctantly deciding they should join the outside world.

Nicole reaches down to pull off her sweatshirt as she heads to the shower, but Waverly’s hands still her own.

“Why don’t you let me help with that?” She asks, pulling the sweatshirt up and off before tossing it over her shoulder as she walks Nicole backwards into the bathroom.

Their plan to depart the cabin quickly falls by the wayside.

Instead, Nicole finds herself wrapped up with Waverly underneath the spray of hot water. She whispers the truths in her heart along Waverly’s wet skin as Waverly traces her own truths along Nicole’s body with her fingertips.

And if they’re missing out on anything important because of the diversion, Nicole can’t quite bring herself to care.

*****

Nicole finishes her walk through the herd, heading over to the house when she notices Wynonna leaning against the porch railing.

“How goes it Haught-stuff?” She asks, pushing herself off the rail to join Nicole.

“You’re never going to get tired of calling me that, are you?” Nicole asks.

Wynonna shakes her head. “Nope. Give me enough time and I’ll come up with more variations too.” She grins.

Nicole sighs. “I figured. And to answer your question, I’m good.”

Wynonna looks Nicole over, appraising her in a way that’s slightly uncomfortable.

“What?”

Wynonna shrugs, but the intensity in her eyes betray the casual move. “Nothing. It’s just, with the way Waves is walking around this morning with her head in the clouds, I was wondering if anything momentous happened last night?”

Nicole can feel a faint heat prickling up her neck at the memories. “It’s possible.” She admits.

Wynonna smacks her in the arm. “Freaking finally, dude.”

Nicole can’t help the genuine smile she gives before her attention is pulled away by the sound of footsteps.

Nedley clears his throat as he approaches. “Wynonna. Nicole.” He nods at both of them.

Wynonna gives him a grave nod in return. “Nedley.” She responds in a mock-serious tone, which he completely ignores.

“I spoke to Chrissy a little while ago.”

Wynonna’s demeanor changes, her face tightening as her eyes snap to attention. “And?”

Nedley scratches at the underside of his chin. “Well, she wanted me to give you a message. She said while the specifics of the ongoing investigation can’t be shared, it’s entirely possible Levi flipped like a pancake overnight, and she might just be heading over to Bobo’s in the next few minutes for a visit.” His eyes flicker back and forth between Nicole and Wynonna, waiting for their reaction.

The second their eyes meet Nicole knows. She and Wynonna practically stumble over each other as they take off at a run towards the truck.

“Do NOT tell Waverly about this!” Wynonna yells over her shoulder to Nedley.

“Good call.” Nicole agrees.

They both skid to a stop when the front of the truck comes into view.

“Don’t tell me about what, exactly?” Waverly asks. She leans against the hood of the truck drumming her fingers against the metal as she waits for an answer she clearly already knows.

Wynonna opens and closes her mouth a few times in a fairly decent impression of a fish while Nicole fidgets next to her, at a loss for what to say.

Waverly straightens up from the truck with an eye-roll, yanking the driver side door open and climbing in. She rolls down the window with vigor, the old crank arm letting out a squeaky complaint.

“Get in shitheads, I’m driving.”

The words spur Wynonna into movement around the front of the truck. “You let her kiss you with that mouth?” She asks over her shoulder.

Nicole shoves her lightly before opening the passenger side door. “Hurry up, you’re riding bitch.”

“So bossy.” Wynonna mutters as she climbs in.

The wind whips through Waverly and Wynonna’s hair as the drive. Nicole is thankful for having hers pulled back, because having Wynonna’s hair flying in her face and sticking to her lips is more than enough.

They make it to Revenant’s Ranch in record time, and Nicole seriously questions her belief that out of the two sisters Wynonna is the crazy driver.

Silence greets them when they get out of the truck. There doesn’t appear to be anyone around working, but Nicole figures that might be best.

Watching Wynonna and Waverly stalking towards the house, she makes a decision. She leans back against the hood of the truck, crossing her arms and her feet at the ankle.

Wynonna and Waverly look back at her in question when they notice Nicole isn’t with them.

“Are you coming?” Waverly asks.

Nicole reassures them with a smile. “I think I might be better suited as your backup, make sure you’re covered from behind. Besides,” she shrugs, “I wouldn’t want to get in the way of the Earp sisters. You’re a force to be reckoned with.”

“Damn right we are.” Wynonna says with conviction. She gives Nicole a small, grateful smile before turning her attention to Waverly. “You ready, baby girl?” She inclines her head towards the house.

“You bet your ass I am.” Waverly responds, mouth set in a grim line as she and Wynonna head to the porch steps.

Nicole stifles a smile when both Earp sisters bang on the front door with gusto. Her features morph into a stony glare the moment Bobo answers the door.

He looks from Wynonna to Waverly, and for a second, before the familiar menacing grin takes over his face, Nicole can see confusion flit across his features. “Well well, to what do I owe the pleasure of a visit from both Earp sisters?” He notices Nicole then and his grin grows. “And one of their guard dogs to boot.”

“Save it Bobo. We’re not here for one of your lame ass villain speeches.” Wynonna tells him.

Bobo’s cheek twitches. He strokes at his beard while his eyes move between the three of them. “Color me intrigued. Whatever are you here for then?”

Wynonna and Waverly have a silent conversation that only takes a moment. “We’ve got a little message for you that we wanted to deliver in person.”

It happens so fast Nicole doesn’t see it coming, and neither does Bobo. Waverly sucker punches him in the gut a second before Wynonna kicks him in the crotch.

Bobo doubles over, wheezing as his face contorts in pain.

“That’s for messing with us and trying to take away our ranch, dickhead.” Waverly spits at him.

Bobo tries to stand up straight, his face red and eyebrows drawn down. “You’re going to regret that.” He gets out through gritted teeth. “I always told Ward he needed to teach his bitch daughters more respect.”

Waverly lunges forward but Wynonna grabs her by the waist, pulling her backwards towards the steps.

Nicole pushes off from the truck, ready to intervene if needed, when the sound of sirens approach.

The police cruiser pulls up in front of the house. Chrissy ducks out of the car, giving Nicole a quick nod before surveying the scene before her.

“Officer, you’re here just in time.” Bobo points back and forth between Wynonna and Waverly. “These two just assaulted me, and I demand you do something about it.”

Chrissy’s hands move to rest on her belt as she rocks back on her heels. “Is that so?” She turns to Nicole. “Did you happen to see the assault Mr. Del Rey is alleging?”

Nicole shakes her head. “I’m sorry to say I did not.” She rolls her lips inward, giving an exaggerated look of apology.

Chrissy nods. “Thank you for your witness testimony.” She turns back to Waverly and Wynonna. “Did you ladies assault Mr. Del Rey?”

Wynonna blows a gust of air out in dismay. “No. We’re here to have a little talk with Bobo about the ranching business, that’s all.”

Chrissy nods again, finally moving forward to climb the porch steps. “Unfortunately, Mr. Del Rey, it appears there are no witnesses to back up your claim, and the Earp sisters seem to have an alibi, so I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.”

Bobo looks murderous, but before he can start on whatever tirade is forming in his mouth, Chrissy speaks again.

“Oh wait, that’s not true.” She pulls out her handcuffs. “Bobo Del Rey, you’re under arrest.”

Bobo laughs, clearly not taking the statement seriously. “That’s absurd, you can’t arrest me. On what charge?”

For the first time, Nicole notices Chrissy did not come alone. A male deputy steps forward, hand coming to rest on top of the firearm resting at his hip.

Bobo notices too, if the straightening of his posture and slight step back he takes is any indication.

“Criminal solicitation, bribery, extortion, just to name a few.” Chrissy lists off. “Now, if you wouldn’t mind, I’ll need you to place your hands behind your back so I can handcuff you and read you your rights Mr. Del Rey.”

Nicole is amused by Chrissy’s polite demeanor. It feels like the perfect extra jab at Bobo.

Bobo clenches his jaw, and for a tense moment Nicole fears he’ll get violent, but then his eyes dart to the deputy again. He turns around for Chrissy, growling over his shoulder “This will never stand. I’ll make sure you lose your job for this.”

“Thank you for adding ‘threatening an officer’ to the list of charges, Mr. Del Rey.” She tightens the cuffs on him before wrapping a hand around his arm to lead him to the squad car. “Ladies.” She nods to Wynonna and Waverly as she exits the porch.

“Bobo Del Rey, you have the right to remain silent.” Chrissy reads Bobo his rights, a small smile crossing her lips as she passes by Nicole.

Waverly and Wynonna join her at the truck to watch as the squad car pulls away with Bobo in the back seat.

Wynonna sighs, wrapping an arm around Waverly’s waist. “Well, that was incredibly satisfying.”

“Bye bye Bobo, don’t let the cell door hit you in the ass.” Waverly calls out after the car, laughing at her own joke.

Wynonna shakes her head at Nicole. “I got all the humor in the family, but we try not to tell her. Can’t stand to see the kicked puppy look on her face.” She stage whispers.

“Hey.” Waverly objects. “I’m funny.” She pouts her lower lip and turns the full force of her soft brown eyes on Nicole. “Tell her I’m funny.”

“Yeah Nicole, tell me she’s funny.” Wynonna ribs, crossing her arms and waiting in expectation.

Nicole knows they’re toying with her, it’s so clear by the sparkle in both their eyes. Right then and there she has a flash of what her future looks like, and it fills her with happiness even as she gives a resigned sigh. “You’re both funny. Now let’s go home.” She pulls the driver side door open. “And I’m driving, because I’d like to actually get there in one piece.”

“Dude, I think you’re girlfriend just insulted our driving.” Wynonna grumbles as she walks to the passenger side.

“She is seriously rude.” Waverly complains. “Great butt though, so I’ll probably overlook it.”

“I’m so proud to call you my sister.” Wynonna places a hand over her own heart.

“You guys know I can hear you, right?” Nicole calls out the open window.

Both sisters look at her through the passenger side window, eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

“Yeah.” They respond in unison, as if it’s the most absurd question ever asked.

Nicole shakes her head, starting the truck. “Get in before I leave you here.”

Despite her words, Nicole can’t keep from smiling as they head for home.

*****

“I can not believe I missed out on a Bobo beatdown at the hands of the Earp sisters.” Doc complains before he takes another swig from his beer.

“Agreed.” Comes Dolls response from the other side of the fire.

Nicole shakes the remnants of beer in her bottle. “You have no idea how satisfying it was to watch.” She says before downing the final dregs of liquid. “Anyone need a refill?” She asks, standing up from her seat by the fire pit.

In responses Nicole could have predicted, Doc and Wynonna nod, while Dolls shakes his head.

“I’m good, thank you.” Waverly gives her a soft smile from where she sits with her head resting on Wynonna’s, shoulder.

Nicole feels a little funny walking into the empty Earp house on her own to get beers out of the fridge, but she has a sneaking suspicion that will change soon enough.

She pauses on her way back to the fire pit to take in the scene from afar.

The fire crackles warm and bright, throwing a mixture of light and shadow across everything in its radius. Doc and Wynonna are holding sticks out over the fire to roast marshmallows for the s’mores Waverly declared necessary after their takedown of Bobo, while Dolls comments on their technique.

Nedley and Shorty called it a night a little while ago, but earlier, while they all sat together under the stars with the crickets chirping around them, Nicole felt a comfortable weight settle in her chest she’d been missing for so long.

Family.

“Are you going to bring me another beer or stand there impersonating a tombstone a little longer?” Doc calls out, spurring her into movement again.

“I know you’re afraid you might die soon, with your advanced age and all, but you can hold your horses old man.” Nicole tosses back at him, making sure to give Wynonna her beer first before making her way back to Doc with his. He gives her a glare as he snatches the bottle from her hand.

“You save a person’s life and you think they would be forever grateful to you.” He growls out, twisting the cap off his beer before flicking it into the fire.

Nicole lowers herself to the ground next to him. “Doc, I’m extremely grateful for your help with Levi, but you’re still an asshole most of the time, and I’m going to remind you of it as much as possible.”

Doc seems to contemplate the words before shrugging. “I suppose that’s fair.”

“Speaking of assholes,” Wynonna interjects, “I can’t believe Bobo brought up Dad today.” She stares into the fire, her forehead creased as she tries to puzzle something out. “I know he’s a jerk in general, but it was kind of...weird.” She finishes faintly.

Doc goes rigid next to Nicole.

She watches him fidget with the bottle in his hands, waiting until he finally turns to her with a question in his eyes. Nicole gives him a nod, hoping he takes the encouragement.

His neck dips as he swallows, and it’s clear how uncomfortable he is with where the conversation is about to go. He takes a deep breath, his chest rising and falling with the action, before he clears his throat.

“About that...”

Nicole sips her beer slowly while Doc finally admits the truth he learned while working at Revenant’s Ranch. She notices Dolls watching Doc with a carefully blank face for most of the story. His only real reaction comes when he cuts his eyes to Wynonna and Waverly after Doc reveals Ward promised to sell Bobo the ranch.

Once the truth is out in the open a silence descends around the fire.

Doc adjusts his hat, carefully avoiding eye contact while waiting for someone to say something.

“Huh.” Wynonna finally speaks, chewing on her lower lip in thought.

Waverly makes a humming noise in agreement before shrugging the shoulder not buried in Wynonna’s side. “What a shitticket.”

Wynonna points a finger at her sister. “Yes! Those are the words I was trying to come up with.” They both fall silent again.

Doc gives his head a small shake, mystified by the reaction. “Is there nothing else you have to say?”

“Oh I have plenty of things to say. Like how I’m the marshmallow toasting master you suckers don’t deserve, or how Dolls’ pants are going to catch on fire if he doesn’t put out the cinder that just landed dangerously close to his fun bits. But do I have anything to say about your story?” It’s her turn to shrug. “Not really.” A sad smile ghosts her lips. “I guess I’m not surprised by any of it.”

She turns her head towards Waverly. “You?”

Waverly lets out a massive yawn, which might as well be her response. “Can’t say I’m surprised either.” She manages to get out.

“So, you’re not mad?” Doc asks cautiously, as if he doesn’t actually believe their casual reaction.

The corner of Wynonna’s lips quirk up. “Well, I’m sure I’m mad at you for something, but not this.” She shoots Doc a wink.

“I have some questions.” Dolls states flatly.

Wynonna stares him down. “No, you don’t.” She lifts her chin a fraction, challenging him to argue.

“Fine.” Dolls huffs out.

“Well all right then.” Doc tilts his bottle towards Wynonna before lifting it to his lips to finish the whole thing.

Nicole claps a hand on the back of his shoulder before finishing her own beer. She wishes he hadn’t taken so long to share the whole story, opting instead to carry around the weight of it for so long, but she’s proud of him for finally talking about it tonight.

Waverly yawns again.

“Hey Nicole, I think you need to take your girl to bed before she starts drooling on me.” Wynonna jokes, but then she ruffles Waverly’s hair and drops a kiss to the top of her head.

Nicole thinks bed sounds like a fantastic idea. She stands, brushing the dirt from her jeans. “I’m happy to take her to bed if she wants.”

Nicole ignores the way Wynonna mutters “I’ll bet.” under her breath.

“She wants.” Waverly mumbles from Wynonna’s shoulder as she reaches out a hand for Nicole to help her up.

Nicole bids good night to everyone as Waverly pulls her away. She notices their direction after a couple steps. “We’re sleeping at your place?”

“It’s closer.” Waverly explains.

Nicole doesn’t bother to point out it’s only closer by a matter of inches. She’ll sleep anywhere as long as Waverly is there.

Once they’re in her bedroom, Waverly kicks off her pants and drops into bed without bothering to change.

“It’s your fault I’m so tired right now.” Waverly grumbles when Nicole chuckles.

Nicole is glad Waverly has her eyes closed right now, because the smile on her face gives away how not sorry she is for their mostly sleepless night.

Waverly holds out her arm without looking to point a finger in the general direction of her dresser. “Second drawer.” She muffles into the pillow.

Nicole has no idea the reason for the direction, but she pulls open the drawer anyway. It takes her a good minute to understand what she’s looking at.

Her t-shirt and shorts from the last time she slept over sit folded neatly in the center, while the rest of the drawer is completely empty. Nicole runs her fingers along the bare wood almost reverently.

The implication is clear, and Nicole finds herself awed by the jumble of emotions fluttering through her.

She can’t get changed and into bed fast enough.

Waverly is already asleep when Nicole curls up against her. She turns into her, fisting a hand in Nicole’s shirt to pull her impossibly closer.

“Stay with me.” Waverly mumbles in her sleep.

Nicole smiles, brushing the softest of kisses to the top of Waverly's head, careful not to wake her.

“Forever.” She whispers just before sleep overtakes her.

*****

Nicole finishes her inventory of the hay bales in the barn, smacking her gloves against the stair railing in an attempt to dislodge the dust and hay stuck to them as she descends from the loft.

She’s pleased to find the ranch is in pretty good shape moving into what amounts to the off season for cattle ranching, if there really is such a thing.

Fish will be back full time tomorrow, although he still has to take it pretty easy as his ribs continue to heal. It’s clear by the shadowed and forlorn look he’s been wearing since he got back that other parts of him haven’t yet begun the healing process.

As happy as Nicole is for Levi to be getting exactly what he deserves, she hates that Fish was collateral damage in the whole thing.

Nicole walks out of the barn, coming to a stop when she notices Waverly standing at the fence, running her hand along the forehead of a particular cow.

The majority of the herd will be sold off tomorrow afternoon, and Nicole’s not at all surprised to find Waverly here, apparently saying her goodbye.

Nicole watches as a fall breeze lifts strands of Waverly’s hair in gentle movements around her head. The landscape she now thinks of as home provides a stunning backdrop to the moment, and Nicole takes a deep breath as a quiet sureness fills her at the sight.

She’s supposed to be here, and her heart was always meant to belong to Waverly Earp.

The thought sets Nicole in motion again.

Waverly looks over her shoulder at the sound of Nicole’s approach, a smile coming to her face when their eyes meet. She turns around, leaning back with her elbows on the top rail of the fence as she waits.

Nicole steps into her space, skimming her fingers along Waverly’s cheek before tucking strands of loose hair behind her ear. And then she kisses her, because she has to.

Waverly’s eyes drift shut, her arms moving to wrap around Nicole’s shoulders to hold her close.

The kiss is slow as Nicole breathes in everything that is Waverly. She’s pretty sure Waverly is doing the same thing right back.

Nicole finally ends the kiss, pressing their foreheads together out of the need to stay close for just one more moment.

She returns to her senses when a cow lets out a moo behind them.

“Looks like someone is a little jealous.” She jokes.

“Hm?” Waverly hums out, eyes still cloudy as they blink up at Nicole.

Nicole tilts her head towards the cow, who seems to be staring them down. “I think your friend here resents the absence of your attention.

Waverly looks over her shoulder. “Oh.”

“It’s okay, I don’t mind sharing.” Nicole gives Waverly the space to turn back around before stepping forward again to drop her chin on Waverly's shoulder, hands coming to rest on her hips. “You’re going to miss the little guy, huh?”

Nicole’s chin rises and falls with Waverly's shrug. “I shouldn’t. I mean, I know what business I’m in, so it would be silly to care about any one cow.” She reaches over the fence, stroking at the cow’s forehead again. “But he feels like part of our story. Is that crazy?”

Nicole shakes her head, pressing a kiss to the side of Waverly’s neck. “It doesn’t seem crazy at all.” She whispers, brushing her lips over the same spot again.

“I can’t recall, did they add canoodling as a competitive event to rodeos?” Wynonna’s voice cuts in. “Because if they did, I think you two should really hit the road to showcase your talent.”

Nicole feels a sigh move through Waverly’s body, but they both smile as they step apart.

“Sorry boss.” Nicole emphasizes the second word.

Wynonna narrows her eyes and gives Nicole the middle finger before turning her attention to the herd. She drapes her arms over the fence, surveying the field. “So,” she draws out, “it’s that time of year again.” Nicole can see her side-eying Waverly.

Waverly straightens her shoulders before giving a resolute nod. “It is.”

Wynonna turns to look at Waverly full-on, propping her head in her hand as she continues her scrutiny.

Waverly looks around, confused by the attention. “What?”

“Oh nothing, just thinking about something.” Wynonna responds casually.

“Which would be?” Waverly rolls her hand in a gesture for her to continue.

Wynonna’s eyes drift back and forth between Waverly and the cow before she gives a small nod to herself.

“I’m thinking maybe it’s time this place got itself a mascot. Well, a better one than Doc, anyway.” She looks pointedly at the cow.

Nicole grins when she realizes what Wynonna means. It takes Waverly a little longer to understand. She tilts her head at the words. “You mean–?”

Wynonna nods. “I do mean.”

Waverly launches herself at her sister, pulling her into a hug that looks a little bit like a strangle hold, if Nicole’s being perfectly honest.

“Okay.” Wynonna pats at Waverly’s back. “Okay, seriously, I happen to enjoy breathing.” She manages to get out.

“Sorry.” Waverly steps back, a slight blush dusting her cheeks.

“Nah, it’s cool, Waverly hugs are the best. Am I right or am I right big red?” Wynonna wiggles her eyebrows at Nicole.

“Don’t ever call me that again.” Nicole frowns.

“Fine, killjoy.” Wynonna mutters, but the corners of her mouth tug up. She wraps an arm around Waverly’s shoulders, turning them back towards the cows. “We survived another year. A sort of fucked up year, to be honest, but here we are.”

Waverly smiles. “Indeed we did.” She peaks over her shoulder at Nicole. “We did have a little bit of help though.”

Wynonna drops her head back between her shoulders. “I suppose so.” She concedes to the sky. She holds her other arm out. “Don’t leave me hanging here Haught-stuff.”

Nicole rolls her eyes to herself, but she ducks under Wynonna’s arm and allows herself to be pulled into her side.

Wynonna turns her head to kiss Waverly's temple. “Love you sis.” She turns towards Nicole. “You’re all right too, I guess.”

“Thanks, but if you try to kiss me I’m going to have to hit you.” Nicole deadpans.

“Me too.” Waverly adds, but the happiness in her eyes takes the edge off her words.

Wynonna pulls her arms away from them. “Fine, don’t take my pathetic excuse for affection then, see if I care.” She pushes a hand through her hair, looking around the area. “You know what? I’m going to go find someone who appreciates my advances.” She shoots a wink at Waverly before spinning on her heel and striding away.

“Wonder who it will be today?” Waverly wonders under her breath.

Nicole huffs out a laugh, reaching out to take hold of one of Waverly’s hands.

Waverly swings their joined hands between them, watching the action intently for a moment before she meets Nicole’s eyes. The look on her face makes Nicole’s stomach flip.

Waverly takes a step backwards towards the house, pulling Nicole along with her. “You know, Wynonna is probably going to be preoccupied for awhile.” She takes another step back.

“Really?” Nicole asks, matching Waverly with each step.

Waverly nods. “Uh huh.” She looks over her shoulder at the house before turning back. “Think you might be willing to play hooky with me for a bit?”

Nicole pulls Waverly slowly back towards her. “I think,” she pauses as she raises her free hand to run a thumb along Waverly's lower lip, “I’m willing to do anything you ask me to.” She admits quietly.

The playful light in Waverly’s eyes gentles to something more serious. “Yeah?”

Nicole nods. “I’m kind of head over heels in love with you, so, yeah.”

“Kind of?” Waverly raises her eyebrows in question, but her eyes sparkle.

Nicole holds her thumb and index finger close together. “A little bit.”

Waverly laughs, shaking her head as she pulls Nicole down to within an inch of her lips. “I’m kind of head over heels in love you too.” She whispers before closing the gap to kiss her.

Before Nicole can get too lost in the kiss, Waverly ends it, stepping back with a playful smile on her lips. “So, are you coming?” She takes off towards the house without waiting for an answer, a small giggle floating through the air as she goes.

Nicole tries to give her a head start, but it’s only seconds before she’s drawn to chase after her. She catches Waverly by the time she reaches the porch steps.

They go the rest of the way into the house hand in hand, and just for a little while, they leave the open range behind.

 

Chapter Text

By the time Nicole makes her final turn, the old truck kicking up dirt and rocks in its wake, the early fall sun has started to sink in the sky. Her fingers tap impatiently on the steering wheel as the green and brown landscape zips by her window, until a familiar barn finally comes into view.

Three weeks is far too long to be away from home.

Nicole is grateful for the occasional side jobs with Mattie, they’ve helped her save up for some important things, but she might have to put a limit on how long she’s willing to be away in the future.

Her train of thought is broken as she passes by Fish scattering feed along the ground at the chicken coop. She raises her hand from where it rests on the open driver side windowsill in a wave, getting a grin and a tip of his hat in return.

He seems lighter these days, more carefree. Nicole suspects it might be due to the new bartender down at Gus’ bar. Doc certainly gave him some guff for getting extra ‘spiffed up’ the last time they went into town for drinks, but a firm smack to the back of the head from Nicole made him shut his mouth on the topic.

None of them like to talk about Levi and the events of last year much, preferring to move on and live in the present. But it took Fish a long while to fully get back to his normal, affable self, and Nicole thinks he deserves to be happy. Or at the very least, he should have a little fun.

She breaks out into a smile as she pulls under the wrought iron archway, the familiar E and R like a welcome beacon.

She’s finally home.

Nicole parks in front of the house, killing the engine before she steps out of the cab. She whistles as she grabs her bag out of the bed of the truck.

“Please tell me you brought back the good shit.”

Nicole drops her chin down onto her chest as she huffs out a laugh. Some things never change.

She shakes her head as she turns to the porch. “I’d like to think I did.” Nicole sweeps a hand up and down her torso.

Wynonna screws her face up in disgust. “Oh my god, you are so full of yourself. I’m seriously going to fire you for that.” Wynonna ruins the threat with a smile.

“You most certainly will not.” The screen door opens, and Nicole feels like everything in the world rights itself as Waverly jogs down the porch steps towards her.

“Hey baby, welcome home.” Waverly tugs at the front of her shirt to draw her down, and Nicole forgets about Wynonna, or anything else for that matter, as she sinks into the kiss.

Three weeks is seriously too damn long to be away.

They draw apart when Wynonna clears her throat. “You guys have been together for practically all of eternity now, stop making out like teenagers. It’s gross.”

“Like I didn’t just catch you in the barn last week making out with Doc…and with Dolls the week before that.” Waverly mutters, her face softening as she strokes Nicole’s cheek. “I missed you.” She drops her hand to thread their fingers together as they head towards the porch.

Wynonna fixes her gaze over Nicole’s shoulder. “Looks like Waverly wasn’t the only one waiting for your return.”

A rust and white colored blur streaks through the pasture towards Nicole. She drops to her knees, discarding her bag in the dirt as she opens her arms. She laughs when the dog plows into her, bathing her cheek in kisses.

“Hey there Skip, did you miss me? Because I missed you buddy.” Nicole ruffles his fur giving him a pat on the back. “I brought you back a treat from Auntie Mattie.”

She reaches for her abandoned bag, pulling out a bone while being careful not to spill out any other contents. She holds up the bone for Skip to see and gives a firm command. “Sit.”

The Australian Cattle Dog obeys immediately, his eyes unblinking and fixed on the bone in Nicole’s hand as he waits patiently.

Nicole counts to thirty in her head, still following the protocol from his training days. “That’s a good boy.” She murmurs, lowering her hand and offering the bone. He leans forward, his teeth closing carefully around it before backing away. His body is taut as he waits for the final command.

“All done.” Nicole states firmly, and Skip takes off at a trot towards the barn, dropping onto his belly in the open doorway to happily gnaw away.

“Thank god you’re back, that damn dog woke up me up at the crack ass of dawn every morning wanting me to be his surrogate other mommy.” Wynonna complains.

Nicole rolls her eyes, because they all know how much Wynonna loves the dog, even though she pretends not to. “However will I make up for your hardship?” She deadpans, fighting a smile when she hears Waverly hide her laugh behind a cough.

Wynonna arches an eyebrow. “Remind me why I wanted you to come back?”

Nicole grins as she slings her bag over her shoulder, taking Waverly’s hand in her own as she heads into the house. “Because you can’t live without me.”

She throws her head back and laughs at the muttered “Asshole” she hears in response.

It’s good to be home.

*****

Nicole makes her way to the barn with a deep satisfaction coursing through her body. She accomplished a lot her first day back to get ready for the fall cattle run, and now it’s time to go find her favorite person and canine.

Shorty and Nedley exit the barn just as she’s about to enter. They’re all smiles when they see her, each giving her a strong clap on the shoulder. “Since you’re back, think you can you straighten them out?” Nedley jerks a thumb over his shoulder, and Nicole doesn’t even have to ask who he’s talking about.

Some things will never change.

“Has it been bad?”

Shorty snorts. “They’re like two hens pecking at each other. It’s not so bad when you’re around, but whenever you’re away,” Shorty makes a face, “I think about tying them up and dropping them off in the middle of nowhere so we can all get some peace.”

“I’ll try to knock some sense into ‘em.” Nicole promises. She can hear Doc and Dolls before she even turns the corner to see them.

“I swear that is the worst square knot I have ever seen tied in the history of knot tying.” Doc complains, yanking the rope away from Dolls.

Dolls holds his arms out. “Fine then, if you’re so proficient at it, you can do all the work.”

“Well I suppose I will, seeing as you are more useless than a dairy cow with no udders.” Doc retorts.

“You both suck at tying knots, so quit your yapping.” Nicole steps forward and grabs the rope out of Doc’s hand to redo the whole thing before shoving it back into his chest. She looks pointedly from Doc to Dolls daring them to challenge her. When they just stare at her in admonished silence she gives a curt nod before making her way over to the saddles lined up on the wall.

“How did Valdez do while I was away?” She asks, tossing a saddle blanket over her shoulder.

“Great. She’s been a good hire. I’m still impressed with how much she can get done in a day. Probably because she doesn’t spend most of the time running her mouth” Dolls tells her, passing an obvious look to Doc.

Nicole ignores the jab, partly because it’s true and partly to keep the peace, and instead nods her head in response.

She’s pleased with how things are going with Valdez so far. Being a man down when the busy calf season started this past Spring was exhausting, and Nicole was quick to suggest bringing someone else on board.

Valdez was a referral from Mattie, and while Nicole didn’t think for a second Mattie would ever steer her wrong, she was still nervous to have her name on the line with a new hire. It actually gave her a heightened appreciation for when Doc took a chance on her a year and a half ago.

Not that she’ll ever tell him that.

“Course, her and Wynonna still get along like a cat and water.” Doc says, rubbing at the back of his neck. His mustache twitches though. Nicole knows he’s as amused by the dynamic between Wynonna and Valdez as she is.

Nicole shrugs, hoisting a saddle up over shoulder. “The adversity is good for Wynonna, keeps her ego in check.” She winks at the two of them, and even Dolls breaks into a small smile. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got someone I need to go meet.”

She saunters off towards the horses.

“Hey!” Doc calls after her. “When’s Mattie coming for her next visit? I’m ready to win my money back.”

Nicole snorts. Doc must be a glutton for punishment, considering how badly Mattie beat him at their last poker night. “She’ll be here in a few weeks to take a look at something for me, and I’m sure she’ll be happy to clean you out again if you’re stupid enough to take her on.” Nicole calls over her shoulder.

She doesn’t even need to turn around to know Dolls is laughing while Doc shoots daggers at her.

*****

Nicole slows her horse to a trot as she crests the final rolling hill, a familiar Western Yellow Pine tree on the river bank with a horse tethered to the trunk coming into view.

She can see Waverly, jeans rolled halfway up her calves, standing on the edge of the river watching on as Skip splashes out of the water with a stick in his mouth. He drops it at her feet waiting for the game to start over again.

It’s an image that never fails to make Nicole’s heart feel too big for her chest, no matter how many times she comes across it. She suspects she’ll experience the same reaction for the rest of her life.

Nicole reins her horse in to a full stop, taking the time to just watch Waverly and Skip for a little longer. Her eyes trace the tree and out along the horizon, her thoughts drifting to the first date her and Waverly shared in this very spot.

Her heart skitters in her chest as an idea comes to her, tangled up with the image of the ring she has buried deep in her travel bag in the closet, away from prying eyes until she’s ready.

Skip notices her then, scampering up the river bank with water pouring off his fur as he runs out to her, careful to make a wide circle around the horse just like Nicole trained him to, before he takes off again towards Waverly, as if telling Nicole to hurry up and get over to her girl.

Nicole rides at a leisure pace the rest of the way to where Waverly waits, hands tucked into her back pockets and a warm smile on her face.

“Hey you, how was the first day back?” She asks.

“Oh you know, kicked ass, took some names. And that was before I even left the house this morning.”

Waverly laughs at the terrible joke, her eyes shining in that particular way that takes Nicole’s breath away as she approaches the horse.

Nicole chuckles when Waverly taps at her knee in expectation, and she gives in so easily, pulling her feet from the stirrups to slide back in the saddle as far as possible.

She watches in fascination as Waverly swings herself up onto the horse, arranging herself into a position facing Nicole, somehow making the whole movement look effortless.

Waverly tickles at the underside of Nicole’s knees in a request for her to push them outwards enough to slide in closer.

“You have your own perfectly good horse out here, what do you need mine for?” Nicole teases as she complies.

Waverly uses a knuckle to nudge up Nicole’s hat far enough to gain full access to her lips. “Because I really needed to do this.” She murmurs, giving Nicole’s nose a soft nudge with her own before kissing her.

It only takes a second for Nicole to bury her hands in Waverly's hair and draw her closer in an attempt to deepen the kiss.

Skip drops down onto his belly with a huff. He learned early on how long a wait it can be when the two of them get wrapped up in each other like this.

“What was that for?” Nicole asks quietly as they draw apart.

Waverly shrugs, playing with the collar of Nicole’s flannel shirt. “You know what your whole rugged cowgirl on a horse thing does to me.”

Nicole grins as she wiggles her eyebrows, because she does know. Her smile softens as she takes ahold of Waverly’s hand to place a soft kiss to her knuckles. She gently drops their joined hands to her lap, absently stroking her thumb back and forth.

“We should probably head back, Wynonna said something about wanting to do dinner together at the house tonight.”

Waverly rolls her eyes. “I’m sure. She pretty much moped around the house for three weeks waiting for you to get back. But don’t tell her I said that.” She adds.

Nicole laughs. “Your secret’s safe with me baby.” She brushes the hair off Waverly’s forehead, taking in the tinge of pink to her cheeks and the way the sunset is reflecting in her soft brown eyes.

Nicole swallows thickly as she fights against saying the two words running through her mind. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling for her after going through a similar thing last year with a particular three words. Only this time she’s not waiting out of fear of her own feelings or what Waverly’s response will be.

Nicole knows what the response will be, she can feel it in her bones. No, this time she waits for just the right moment, and Nicole suspects that moment is coming soon.

Waverly regards her carefully, eyes flickering between her own, and Nicole gets the distinct feeling she knows exactly what’s running through her mind.

She’s reluctant to break the moment, but she knows she has to. “You ready?” Nicole asks softly.

Waverly gives her hand a gentle squeeze, her lips tugging into a small smile.

“Whenever you are.”