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The day had been going well up until the point where Waverly had committed a felony.

Perhaps it was a bit hot. Perhaps the bugs were a bit hellish. Perhaps passing the government property markers made her subject to a fine upward of a thousand dollars. But it was worth every minute of lugging up her equipment and over-packed backpack and taking the winding, baffling, almost contradictory trails that led here and being absolutely soaked through with a mixture of sweat and cheap bug spray.

Worth it for the photography.

Waverly Earp stood stock-still, framing the perfect picture of the way the sun slanted high noon, catching the color of the plants and the now-turning leaves and making it a landscape worthy of Eden. Beyond the roads and signals and RESTRICTED AREA: NO TRESPASSING signs lay untouched, forbidden beauty, unsullied by discarded bottles and clumsy feet, just waiting to be captured permanently.

There was still a trail. Waverly was being risky - reckless, even - but she wasn’t that much a fool.

At the moment, ahead of her, a fawn and doe inspected the woods around them curiously. It was a shot worthy of live action Bambi, bar the horrendous fate of his mother that left Waverly sobbing for days. They perched, mid-step, like curious forest spirits that could show only in the spotted rays of the sun through the canopy.

Her sixth shot is of white tails and movement, the deer spooked off by something imperceptible. Waverly stood up, disappointed, only to become aware of a strange sort of pause, like the forest had taken a great big inhale and was waiting to burst into laughter. The hairs on her neck rose to attention in the still air and Waverly blinked rapidly, feeling a bit dizzy. She cautiously looked around, trying to pinpoint the source of her concern, and finding only silence and a distinct, lingering feeling of being watched.

But all concerns fled Waverly's mind the instant she heard the call for help.

Help me!

The cry, desperate and distinctly feminine, startled Waverly to panic. This was far out in the middle of Nowhere, USA. Someone injured here, miles from the nearest chance of help, would be in fatal danger.

Waverly couldn’t leave them. She jumped into the undergrowth and shot like a bullet towards the source of the sound without a second thought.

"Hey! Can you hear me? I'm on my way!" Waverly shouted back, pushing aside plants with her walking stick and running through others. She sailed through the forest like it was carrying her forward, pushing her on like a ship in the ocean, the undergrowth never causing more than a moment's pause. It was as if it watched her and, knowing her desperation, allowed her the fast lane.

"Help me! Please!"  The agonized cry rose again from somewhere ahead.

She muttered a curse as poison ivy flashed into her vision. "Hey! I'm coming!" Waverly shouted, voice already hoarse from the volume. The woman had probably suffered a fall. She had heard that happen once, a traveler had gotten lost and suffered a broken ankle from a sudden drop. They had found her days later, still alive, just barely due to her supply of water.

How long had this woman been here? The massive Southwestern wilds stretched for miles all around, federally protected. Was she alone? Who in their right mind went here alone?

Well, Waverly herself did. But that was another matter entirely. She was experienced, she'd been solo camping for years. She'd left the trail some half-mile behind her. She'd be able to find it again.

Wouldn't she?

"Help me!”  the woman begged. Waverly was close enough to hear the desperation in the voice, the pain, the helplessness. “Help me, please!”

"I'm here! I'm coming!" Maybe she had suffered a head injury and couldn’t respond. Still, Waverly called out ahead of her as she ran herself ragged. She ducked, narrowly avoiding a low hanging branch, and leaped over a fallen tree. This was untamed wilderness, perhaps never knowing more than a couple brave humans a year (or perhaps none).

"Help me! Please!"

The woman had to be a few yards ahead. By the echo in the woods around her, she must be right on top of her.

Maybe it was the sun in her eyes. Maybe it was her wild desperation, her headlong rush, her heedless bravery at a call to action.

Either way, Waverly stepped off the cliff into open air.

Her stomach dropped as her foot found nothing below it and her weight carried her beyond the point of safety. Time slowed and she watched, strangely fixated and curious, as gravity started to take her camera from around her neck.

Sometimes, when Death faces you down and you slip into acceptance, your final thoughts will tell you about what you cared about most. What you regret. What you wish you had done, if you had the time.

Waverly’s last thought was Wynonna’s going to kill me if I die out here.

Adrenaline shot through her body as she was jerked by her backpack's handles. Waverly tumbled, thrown hard through the air, and she landed breathless a few yards from the cliff edge, right on top of a stinging bush. Her camera landed awkwardly under her, definitely broken.

Images flashed through her shocked mind: Rocks. Yellow rocks. Yellow shapely rocks with holes in them. Twisting plants and sharp edges.

Bones. So many bones. Oh god, they were bones at the bottom of the cliff.

Her fight instincts kicked in and Waverly rolled to the side, clutching her walking stick and coming to her feet so fast she felt dizzy. All she saw was a figure with a gun on their back. She launched herself at it, screaming in her reckless terror and slammed her sturdy walking stick into the figure's chest, knocking it backward towards the cliff.

"Shit-- Ah! Ow!" The figure cried, raising a hand in defense. "Ah!" The walking stick connected a second time to the ribs. "Stop!" Again, this time to a shoulder. "Please stop!" her victim cried, covering themselves with their arms.

Waverly stopped, panting heavily with eyes wide with panic and wobbling slightly. She held her walking stick in a tight grip above her head, waiting for movement.

"Please stop hitting me," begged the woman, raising her hands in surrender, "I'm no threat, I just saved your life. Please don't hit me again." She muttered a curse. "God, that hurts so bad."

Waverly stepped back from the woman and took a long look. Tall. Pretty. A shock of red hair tied back in a messy bun. Her clothes were an absolute mess -- though, Waverly is sure that she herself looked no better. On her back was a pack much like her own, and a large hunting rifle slung across the shoulder for easy access.

Had she really thrown her that far...?

That gun is huge. Definitely for bears.

The woman turned her face up. Soft brown eyes watched her searchingly. "Hey, can I get up now?"

"Who are you?" Waverly snapped, still not ready to let down her guard.

"Uh..." The woman rubbed her head. "Nicole. Nicole Haught. Search and Rescue."

"Okay, Nicole." Waverly eased her grip on her staff and reached down a hand to help the other woman to her feet. "My name is Waverly. Waverly Earp, solo hiker." She inspected the other woman critically. Had they both been following the voice? Why did she have a massive hunting rifle on her back, and mud and dirt caked everywhere? Her face was gaunt with too many sharp edges, a shadowy cast to a beautiful face. She looks like she hasn’t seen a person in weeks, Waverly thought, Just like me.

"All right then, Waverly," Nicole said as she took the hand and got to her feet. She was surprisingly tall and good-natured by the way she smiled when she talked. She didn’t seem to harbor much ill-will towards her attacker. "What are you doing out here in this part of the forest? It’s restricted."

"I could ask you the same thing," Waverly responded warily, taking a few steps back. Nobody came here. Not even ‘Search and Rescue.’

"Saving your life, obviously!" Nicole pointed, turning to look over the cliff. "You almost ran right off this. Would have broken a leg or two, or struck your head."

Waverly stepped to the cliff edge and took a look over as well. Yes, bones. Her first view was correct. She shut her eyes from the sight and backed away towards the trees, suddenly violently ill. The adrenaline was wearing off already and she swayed slightly.

A hand reached out to stable her and leaned into it gratefully. Nicole looked over her shoulder briefly at the sun’s level.

“Hey, didn’t you hear that woman --” Waverly began.

A branch snapped. A heavy, thick sound, made only by a large weight.

“W--” Nicole slapped a hand over Waverly’s mouth and shushed her brutally. The hand turned into a hard grip as they stood stock still, listening. Great. She’s a serial killer. I’m being kidnapped. She lured me here.

Listen. ” Hissed Nicole, breath hot against her ear. There was no sound. Though it was just past noon, not a bird sang. Nothing moved. The forest held its collective breath along with the two startled humans.

Waverly’s eyes widened, catching Nicole’s gaze. Those brown eyes reflected her confusion back at her. No, she’s just as spooked as I am. Her neck hair rose skyward as they stood there, completely frozen, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

They turned slowly towards the sound of a rustling branch.

A shape hidden behind the thickest part of the brush, positioned perfectly, an inscrutable mound of fur - a coyote? No, this was too large - sitting back in the woods, watching. Orange eyes locked on the two women with a promise of intelligent design.

Waverly almost relaxed. A bear! Just a bear! I have bear spray, Nicole has a gun --

Then it stood.

Vertigo. Waverly's mind reeled as it realized that her world, how her brain formed assumptions, was turned completely upside down and left her spinning, struggling, almost suffocating before she could right herself and find the right reaction. 

I should take a picture, some part of her mind thought. All other thoughts had fled, which was a perfectly understandable reaction.

It wasn't fear that made them vanish - No, fear brings to mind spiders and closets, it was somehow deeper than fear, a close kin to dread and desperation, and its name was terror.

Terror is realizing that the bear you saw is not a bear at all and had never been a bear. It is not a coyote, or a fox, or a cougar, or even a curious looking deer. It is humanoid. It is leaving the bush. It has a face (horrendous, half hidden, long teeth laid bare, a coppery smell accompanying it like twisted background music), and god, it was getting closer.

Adrenaline thundered in Waverly's veins, too early, too late, leaving her crystal clear aware of her surroundings -- of everything -- and Waverly could hear her own heartbeat through her skull. She could hear Nicole’s breathing, the small whimper (was it hers?) she made when the thing stood and changed. She could feel her blood sprint cold through her body and her legs tense. The pressure behind her eyes made her feel like she would explode, or perhaps her soul would literally leave her body in fear, and she was left desperately wishing the ground to swallow her whole. Her primitive brain took over.

Fight…

… Or flight?

A branch snapped under its foot, with a resounding crack that was far too loud in the stillness, and that’s all it took.

"Run.” Nicole rasped, throat sounding constricted with fear.

They tore through the undergrowth, heedless of obstacles as they ran for their lives. Each step sounded like a gunshot against the dead silence of the forest around them. Their passage was a cacophony of branches and unfortunate leaves and desperate panting of two exhausted humans.

“But,” Waverly panted out in between bounding steps, “That woman could be back there!”

“That’s not a woman, Waverly, and she doesn’t need our help!” came the response. Nicole slowed briefly, only to latch onto Waverly’s wrist and begin tugging her up to speed.

“What do you mean? I heard her --”

“You heard wrong!

Waverly almost stopped, almost tugged Nicole to force her to stop or tear their arms, but she glanced behind her.

Nope. That lady’s dead. So are we.

It was fast. Too fast. Waverly couldn’t believe she thought it was a bear. The way it loped awkwardly along on strange legs, running from tree to tree to stay half-hidden behind them, causing her mind to whisper terrible thoughts about why it moved like that, like a hunter or a stalker or something in a category of its own.

She whipped her head back forward so fast she strained a muscle.

Don’t think about it. Think about anything else, anything else! Run!

Waverly stared straight ahead at the back of Nicole’s head, focusing on one leg after the other, trying to keep her broken camera from thumping painfully against her chest with each bounding leap. Her thoughts raced, as if trying to outrun her.

How fast a runner can apply pressure to the ground is directly affected by how much time it takes for the fibers in the muscles to contract.

In theory, a human body could support a run of speeds up to forty miles an hour.

‘That’s ridiculous.’

‘That’s theoretical science, Wynonna.’

An agonized scream rose from the forest left of them. A man's desperate yell, reaching high into a scream before suddenly cutting off.

The sound was so sudden, so startling that they both froze. The two clutched at each other without realizing it, eyes searching, breath panting.

"That," Waverly breathed, "was not a fox."

Movement. More branches snapped behind them, catching up rapidly. It was large and crashing through the trees with terrible noise that couldn’t be made by a fox, not at all.

And they were running again, not daring to glance back at what it was. They both already knew. The only thing that would come of looking back would be certifying that it was too fast to outrun.

Humans are not built for speed, they are built for endurance. They are remarkably slow when compared to other animals. Even a common cat can reach thirty miles an hour, beating the human record of twenty seven miles an hour, Waverly thought, trying to ignore the sounds behind her. These thoughts were not helping. Humans were endurance runners and she was very quickly running low on endurance.

Tears blurred her vision as her legs (and Nicole’s momentum) carried her forward at a brutal pace, trees flashing by as they desperately outran their pursuer.

Slowly, slowly, it felt they might be gaining ground. Each fallen tree they dodged, each hole they leaped, only seemed to slow it down. Its strange gait seemed at odds to the environment.

It could have been minutes, or an hour, or a lifetime before they finally stopped.

Nicole raised a hand and they slowed to nothing, collapsing against nearby trees and sucking air desperately. Neither dared sit down, for fear they might not be able to stand up again. Birdsong rose from the wilderness around them. The forest rustled and whispered as if speaking again now the danger was gone. They looked behind them, straining their eyes, but by all accounts the feeling of being hunted had evaporated.

Waverly pushed a hand through her hair and ignored the disappointment that struck her when Nicole dropped her wrist. Her nerves were frayed from the reckless sprint and she needed to focus on something else.

(Her nerves were destroyed, honestly, she might not sleep for weeks if she was being realistic.)

Don’t think about whatever that just was. If I think about it, I might go crazy.

“Once, I was camping up the Appalachians,” Waverly started, to fill the silence. Anything to fill it. She spoke before catching her breath, heedless of her own exhaustion. “I was hiking alone. Not smart, I know. Whatever.” She threw a leaf at Nicole’s disapproving face, trying to relax the fear from her body. “I camp for the night and I wake up, and there’s these huge, massive tracks. Cat tracks. Cougar tracks.”

She pulled a water bottle from her pack and took a full thirty seconds of drinking. Nicole opened her mouth to comment but Waverly raised a hand.

“So, I continued on. I didn’t have a walking stick back then, so I found the largest branch I could. That’s what they tell you, right, look as big as possible, get a stick, et cetera… But I didn’t have much. I had enough food to reach the next point and a tent. That was it.” She sighed and wiped sweat from her eyes before continuing. Her heart had almost returned to normal. “I got this feeling. I mean, I knew it was behind me, right? But at the same time, I could feel its eyes. Sometimes, if I turned around slowly or quickly enough, I could catch a glance of its eyes, maybe a tail, a shape… anything. And you know what I did?”

Nicole shook her head, listening curiously.

“I started singing. Like, belting out. Loud as I could, I swear birds flew for miles. I was singing Stayin’ Alive. And the worst part was, I didn’t know half the lyrics.” At this, Nicole let out a cackle of laughter and Waverly struggled to fight her own and continue. “It was the only one I could think of at the time! It felt right.”

“Did it work?”

"I guess it did. I’m still here, aren’t I? I made it to the next point and met a few other hikers there and warned them.”

After they finished their laughter, coming easily from relief and nervous exhaustion, a comfortable silence fell. The forest still thrummed with life around them and Waverly struggled to relax. She desperately wished her camera was working. The sun slanted and caught Nicole’s red hair, setting it ablaze in the light, worthy of a photo (or two).

Damn, if she wasn’t covered in mud, bleeding from half a dozen cuts, and covered in bruises...

Waverly felt a pang of guilt. “Sorry for hitting you, by the way, I was just… scared.”

Nicole winced, giving herself a once over and coming to the same conclusion as Waverly. “It’s fine. I probably would have had the same reaction.” She stood up and brushed the leaves from her pants. “We need to start walking again, find the trail.” Nicole reported, pulling out her GPS. Then she froze.

“What?” Waverly asked, putting her water bottle away and stepping closer.

“Uh.” Her mouth hanging open in a way that was almost funny.

“Nicole, what? ” The smaller woman stomped over and snatched the GPS from calloused hands.

It was dead.

Then Nicole unhooked something from her pack and Waverly collapsed against a nearby tree in relief, sliding down to sit leaned against the trunk. “A radio. You had a radio and you waited until now to pull it out.” She covered her face with her hands and found herself fighting back tears. They could leave. Get someone else to drive up and take them away from whatever that thing was.

Nicole only answered with a frown as she turned the dial and was answered with quiet static. Empty static.

Not in range static. Nobody’s here static. Nobody is coming with a car and refreshments and maybe a nice movie  static.

Waverly gritted her teeth so hard they creaked. When she finally could speak she asked, “I suppose that’s not a good sound, is it?”

“Nope.” Nicole shook her head, “Out of range. Sorry to get your hopes up, but this part of the forest isn’t explored much, even by rangers.” She pulled something from her pack and held out a hand for Waverly. She glared at it for a while, as if it was Nicole’s fault that Waverly had chose this place to hike.

“You still didn’t explain why you were out here,” Waverly said, narrowing her eyes at the other woman.

“Saving pretty girls isn’t a good enough reason?” Nicole responded easily, then continued in seriousness when Waverly shook her head, “Does it really matter right now? We need to get going.”

Waverly decided to keep a close eye on Ms. ‘Search and Rescue.’ Eventually, she surrendered to the burning pain in her legs and took the hand, hauling herself to her feet.

Puppy dog eyes, that’s it. I blame them. Nobody could look that cute and not be a vicious killer in disguise.

Nicole’s handy-dandy compass put their backs to the sun as they headed off again into the forest.

 

It was calm - Picturesque, even. Birds flitted from tree to tree as the pair stomped their way through the forest, avoiding fallen trees and poison ivy. A deer sprang from the undergrowth at their approach, prompting Waverly to stop and watch as its white tail vanished into the treeline. A bitter taste rose in her mouth at the realization how much taking a picture had become part of her routine, her habit, her instinct when she saw something beautiful. Now I’ll have to get a new one, if I can afford it.

Wait,” Waverly hissed, and Nicole whipped around, half pulling her rifle off her shoulder. She stopped and reslung it after seeing what Waverly was referring to.

It was a bird, high above them, perched proud as a princess upon its personal branch.

Shh. I think I remember what kind it is,” she whispered as Nicole moved a bit too loudly to join her in staring.

“It looks disappointed,” the redhead commented drily. The bird took insult and fled.

Look what you did! ” Waverly cried, smacking Nicole firmly across the chest, trying to wipe that cheeky grin off her face. Ow. “Of course it looks disappointed. It’s because you’re here, making all sorts of noise and insulting it and you smell terrible. I didn’t even manage to see what it was.”

“I smell terrible?” came the response, that infuriating grin still present, “And what do you smell like? Head and Shoulders: In the Woods Waverly edition?” She leaned in with a wink, “I like it.”

Waverly blushed, flustered and confused. Anyone else, it would have been incredibly creepy, perhaps even repulsive, but Nicole grinned again with that disarming smile, now smug with her victory at causing Waverly to stumble and turned to lead them again.

“It was an Evening Grosbeak, by the way. We’ll see more of them, I hear them up ahead.”

Is she flirting with me?

She shook her head, bemused, trailing after the taller woman.

Keep your head straight, woman! She could be a cannibal!

Waverly started to relax, but the lack of familiar landmarks made her uneasy. It must have been around four o’clock, judging by the sun’s position. They fell into another silence for about twenty minutes, just walking next to each other and glancing about at anything that moved. They did see another Grosbeak, which Nicole pointed out, and they watched it silently before continuing their trek.

“It’s polite for you to share a story of your own now, too, you know,” Waverly pointed out as they cut through particularly thick brush. The bugs were driving her insane. Any conversation would do, as long as it distracted her from the biting. And the feeling of being watched.  She shook her head, dispelling the fear. The forest was still filled with noise. They had left it far, far behind. In a few minutes, they should be somewhere familiar, close to the trail. It was the only thing that made sense, passing in this direction for so long they were bound to hit it.

“Let’s see. Appalachians, right? I went there once. Hiking along the C&O Canal. Did it often, too. I wrote down all the trail names I heard and I heard some… interesting ones.”

“Like what?”

“I paired up with this cute girl, uh, I mean she was on the same trail as I was, and she was cute -- But anyway ,” Nicole stated heavily, avoiding Waverly’s curious look, “Her trail name was Neil Degrasse Tyson. Loved him so much. It was entertaining, watching her introduce herself as Neil.”

Waverly giggled at that. “And what was yours?”

Nicole muttered something under her breath.

“What was that? Didn’t hear you.” Waverly caught up to the taller woman, a grin at how she blushed in response.

Nicole heaved a sigh, “Officer Dimples”

Waverly cackled so loud it echoed. Nicole cracked a smile and god, yes , those dimples --

In a flash her face went hard, haunted, all sharp edges and cold eyes. “Waverly, don’t look.”

This is it, we’re done for.

She snapped her head around to what Nicole was referring to and immediately regretted it.

High in the treetops, three deer corpses hung free, impaled like shrike prey on the branches above the two women. The faces were half-rotten, buzzing with heavy flies, and rigor mortis in a terrible and almost comical expression of surprise.

And the smell -- to say it hit them like a wall was cliche, but Waverly took two steps back when the first wave of it struck her. Before she could even fight it, her stomach revolted and she was forced to lean against a tree, horribly sick.

Nicole unslung her rifle and approached the corpses, inspecting the trees and bushes nearby.

“No marks.” She reported, inspecting the nearby trees. “Nothing else is here. No broken branches, no scratches, no blood trail, nothing.”

Waverly knew that made absolutely zero sense. None. 

Before long Nicole was back, cool hands holding Waverly’s hair as her breakfast, lunch, and honestly everything she’d ever eaten was given up. “Here,” She said, holding a water bottle, which Waverly accepted gratefully.

“We need to get moving,” Nicole said quietly, feeling watched.

It was all Waverly could do to nod, following Nicole away from the clearing and back eastward towards the trail. She couldn’t shake the feeling of revulsion. They weren’t even eaten, or otherwise damaged, just left to hang there. Uselessly. They died for nothing. Waverly would have screamed in the face of a hunter who dared do that to his deer. To treat life like some kind of plaything. But somehow she felt that a hunter had not done this, that without pulleys and ropes, no man nor woman would be able to haul those bodies up there without leaving some marks behind.

“What is -- What could have done that,” Waverly gasped in between heaving breaths. Their pace was harsh, almost a jog, and it was taking its toll. You could only sprint terrified so many times in a day before the body started aching like mad. Whenever she shut her eyes to wipe away the sweat, she would see the corpses, hanging there, swinging in a rotting wind.

“Haven’t you done any research in this area, before you went solo hiking in the middle of nowhere?” Nicole asked, almost offended by the question.

“I did, a lot actually -- maybe a bit too much, but the stories, they’re just stories -- “

Nicole whipped around so fast Waverly almost ran into her. Considering she had a gun and a hard look on her face, that wouldn’t have gone particularly well. Her frown deepened as she watched Waverly closely. “You can’t honestly believe that.”

“Believe what, Nicole? Huh? That something back there is… not right? Or that we may have left an injured woman, crying for help, back there starving and in pain --” Waverly ran a hand again through her long hair, pushing the sweat coated strands back. Her panic threatened to overtake her.

“I told you, that wasn’t a woman, Waverly.”

“Yes, you told me.” She replied, poking a finger at Nicole’s chest, tapping against the sternum, then continued before she could stop herself. “You and your gun and your dimples, and your charm, honestly ‘search and rescue,’-- If the stories are real, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were the monster.”

“Excuse me?” Nicole huffed, reslinging her rifle to point an accusing finger at Waverly. “I saved you! I pulled you back from that cliff you were running off of, right into where it wanted you to be? And what do you think that thing was, huh, a bear?

“Maybe it was! We didn’t get a good look, did we?” Waverly was right in her face now, almost tiptoe to be in Nicole's space. “but what do you think it is, Nicole? Huh, you want me to say it? I’ll say it.”

“No --” Nicole backed up, hands raised in surrender.

“I’ll say it, right here. I know exactly what it is, or what you think it is.” Waverly was relentless, her finger tapping against Nicole again.

“No, Waverly, don’t -- “

“I will. You want me to say it? Here goes. I’m saying it!” Waverly danced back from Nicole’s outstretched hands, trying to silence her. “Skin--”

You’re really cute! ” Nicole almost screamed.

They both froze and stared at each other in equal parts confusion and surprise as birds fled from the noise.

What? ” Waverly asked, dumbfounded.

Nicole took a deep breath, trying to dispel her blush. “That’s not something the monster would say, is it?” Waverly paused, thoughtful. “Listen. You’re really cute, I’m gay, and I can tell you’re really smart, too smart to be making bad decisions right now. Let’s leave it until we find the trail, okay?”

She thinks I’m cute.

Get it together, Waverly. Life or death time. You still don’t know why she’s out here.

  But she’s gay.

  She could be a gay serial killer.

 “Okay,” Waverly squeaked, abashed, still not sure how to process all this new information. They headed off again and the silence stretched between them.

  ...merely speaking its name could draw its undivided attention…

 Waverly shivered with equal parts fear and regret. She was starting to believe, and fast, and she wasn’t liking what she was believing in.

Then she heard it. It was as welcome as singing angels. Balm for the soul.

“A river!” Waverly broke into a run, a second wind filling her sails as she grabbed Nicole and half-dragged, half-lead her towards the noise.

The stream was picture perfect, a sight for exhausted eyes, it gently rolled downhill in the center of a comfortable clearing. If Waverly hadn’t been -- Don’t think about it, don’t -- she would have taken a photo. They approached the stream and inspected it critically. After seeing the corpses, it was better safe than sorry.

When Nicole had declared it safe they cleaned off their clothes and their faces in the crystal clear water. Tiny fish darted around them in frustration at the intrusion.

“Does this look familiar to you?” Waverly asked, slightly hopeful.

“No, it doesn’t, I’m sorry.”

They both settled into setting up camp a few yards away, uphill to avoid possible flooding. It was too good a spot to pass up, and they were both exhausted from the sprinting.

“So…” Nicole began, with a glance at Waverly. She answered with a stern look. Don’t. We’re not talking about it.   “How did, uh, how did you choose this place to hike?” She said, trying not to look at Waverly as she set up her own tent.

It was a long time before she answered. Nicole had already accepted she wasn’t going to answer at all, then --

“My boyfriend chose it. Said it would give me the best photos, was out of the way, but still safe if I brought bear spray.”

“Your boyfriend?” Nicole responded, voice strangely high before she cleared her throat and tried again, “Why isn’t he here?”

Waverly shrugged. “Business trip. I usually go hiking when he leaves, to get out of the... Be alone, all that.”

“You like it? Being alone, I mean.”

“Kinda.” Another shrug as she finished her small tent and pulled her backpack closer. She started to rummage through it, hoping Nicole wasn’t watching too closely. “Sometimes I wish for a partner, but he doesn’t really do this kind of thing. Says it gives him the creeps.”

What she didn’t say was that out here, it was the only time she could avoid his suffocating presence. Even when he left, she still felt… trapped. She didn’t like talking about it, or him, not in the slightest. It always ended in arguments with her sister.

Sensing it was a sore spot, Nicole changed the subject. “School?”

“University. History, mostly.” Waverly stopped and sat on a stump, watching Nicole work. “No money, though. Had my dad’s old hiking gear and,” she waved her hands and cracked a strangled smile, “that was it. You?” she questioned, pointedly. Narrowed eyes and all.

“Search and Rescue, like my dad, before...” Nicole looked away and down back to her own tent, though it was complete.

A long silence fell. It was Waverly who broke it first.

“So when are you going to tell me the truth?” Waverly gripped the handle of her until-now hidden weapon hard, hands going bone white with the tension.

Nicole didn’t bother asking what. She simply turned, rifle in her lap, staring back at Waverly, not even remotely surprised to see her holding her own gun. “What do you want to know?”

“Are you planning to kill me?” Waverly asked, serious. 

“No.”

They stared at each other for a long time, inspecting the other for signs of anything worthy of their suspicion.

“Are you planning to kill me ?” Nicole asked, after a period of heavy silence.

“No, no -- what?”

“I mean, what is that? A .45 colt? Why would you bring that in a forest?”  The question was coated, barbed. Suspicion was well and settled on Nicole’s mind, judging by the narrowed eyes and readied shoulders.

It was so ridiculous Waverly almost laughed.

I’m the one asking questions here, Ms. Leave An Injured Woman Behind with A Bear Monster .” Waverly replied, equally drenched with suspect. “Tell me the name of your best friend, if you’re human.”

“Uh, Chrissy, she --”

“Do you have a pet?”

“Yeah, a cat, named --”

“How do you order your coffee?”

“I don’t, I like tea, which is funny because this one time I was so nervous I --”

“Do you really think I’m cute?” Relief from fear made Waverly giddy, bubbly, almost.

 “Uh.” Nicole blushed red, giving the answer away, but fired back -- “Do you think I’m cute?”

 “That’s it. I’m certain you’re the monster,” Waverly joked, feeling the tension leave her body. They smiled at each other, then --

"Shit, " Nicole barked, springing up like a catapult so fast Waverly almost fell over in surprise. "The sun!" She cried, pointing at the horizon.

"But it was barely noon!" Waverly shouted uselessly, staring in disbelief at the rapidly setting sun. "It's the middle of summer! There's no way it's been that many hours!"

A flock of birds rose in the sky, fleeing towards the mountains as the sun fled the day. It was impossible. They had not been running that long, nor talking that long, for there to be any mistaking the time lost. Now half of the day, perhaps a whole six hours even, had gone missing with no chance of recovery.

"Fire! " Nicole said, running towards the trees. "I'll get the wood. We need fire!"

The call to action snapped Waverly out of her paralysis. She put her gun aside and dragged her bag towards her, ripping it open and frantically pushing aside items. This was all happening too fast. She pulled out her pocket knife and power bars, almost sending the matchbox flying in her panic. She grabbed it and put it aside, pulling out more items from her pack.

Flashlights. Gotta have flashlights. All of them.

One of them, apparently. Damn it, Past Waverly!

Nicole returned, carrying an assortment of wood, leaves, and small branches. She dropped the pile and began building the fire, her practiced movements coming easy from habit. “Here, I got it.”

Waverly nodded and took the matchbook in her shaking hand and pulled out one. Her gaze was firmly fixed on the splash of colors that announced the sunset.

Strike. Strike. Then it lit, and she nearly let out a sob in relief.

Waverly dropped it and watched it go out. She almost burst into tears at the pure frustration. “Shit .”

Her hands were shaking too badly. Then, two cool hands covered her own and again --

Strike, strike, light. Nicole led their match to the waiting fuel and watched it crackle to life.

It rose and they both settled back, leaning against each other in their shared anxiety. Nicole unpacked her radio and sat there as the sunset, tuning and calling desperately into the unanswering static.

"Is anyone out there?" Nicole repeated, voice heavy with exhaustion, "Anyone at all?" She leaned her head against her knees. "Please?"

Nothing.

Night fell. Waverly watched the color wash out of the forest with a dim feeling of dread. The stars began to appear, rebelling against the night, but it would not be enough to see by.

“Listen, we get through the night, all right?" Nicole said, at last putting the radio down. "I’ll take first watch. We wake up, we find the trail, even if we don’t, I have a flare gun. Okay?” Nicole scanned the treeline. Waverly glanced at her and saw the cracks under her facade. Nicole was absolutely terrified of the night, and perhaps only speaking reassurance to reassure herself.

Waverly felt a pang of understanding and put a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Okay. Just through the night, then tomorrow we’ll be sipping coffee with pissed-off rangers. Or tea, in your case.”

Nicole smiled at that and Waverly felt her own face answering. She turned and slid into her tent, setting up her sleeping bag while Nicole took up sentry by the fire.

Waverly had never been one to fear the dark. It was a nice place to hide, get away, see the stars. She would sometimes sneak out of the at night just to watch the heavens, away from her sisters and father. Just be herself, alone. She knew the constellations almost by heart, even had her own favorite star.

She thought back to when she was hunted by the cougar. Even then, she had the hope that it would choose something else, that she wasn’t high on its list of food. It had been a good year and it couldn’t have been that desperate. She still had hope.

Now, with the fire right outside and Nicole on watch, she was grasping for that hope again. Whatever it was in the forest -- No, she had a perfect idea what it was, -- it would not stop stalking them until they finally reached safety. And safety could be any number of miles or hours away, flare or no.

Nicole could abandon you, make a run for it herself while it’s distracted.

 She pushed these thoughts away. No one was that good a liar.

The darkness was nearly absolute. Even with the fire, they could see only an approximation of shapes, a guess of trees, an assumption of small bushes in the tall grass. The stream still bubbled behind them, a sharp contrast that grated instead of relieved.

Like it didn’t get the memo, Waverly thought, and almost laughed.

Nicole pulled her own bag close, pulling out her box of ammo and carefully tending to her rifle in the light of the fire.

That peculiar quiet had fallen again as the forest held its breath. The animals had gone, the wind had followed, and nothing remained except the two women and the silence. If the thing was here, it had followed them relentlessly and effortlessly through the forest, for the trail of their startled flight had hardly been subtle.

Waverly coughed, trying to break the uneasy tension. She felt like if she had to suffer the silence any longer she'd scream. "So…”

“My dad went missing.” Nicole interrupted quietly, not bothering to tell Waverly she should rest, stay in the tent, she could go it alone.

Waverly looked at her feet, confused and surprised by the turn. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it was -- He did search and rescue for years. He went missing in these woods, two years ago.” Nicole finished preparing the rifle and her ammo case, cleared the safety, and stood staring into the trees though they both knew she couldn’t see a thing. “He knew these woods. He found so many lost, rejoined so many families - and sometimes, sometimes there isn’t a happy ending. They wander off the trail for two minutes and they’re gone forever.”

Waverly huddled closer to the fire, watching the shadows play on the other woman’s face. It gave her far too many hard edges. Was she looking for somebody out here? Is that it?

“We had a lot of experienced hikers go missing. Something, whatever it was, caused them to abandon the trail and strike out on their own. We found bodies every now and then, but other times we didn’t. We brought in the hounds sometimes, but the trail would stop suddenly. Sometimes in the middle of nowhere, or at as sheer cliff, the trail would be gone. Vanished.” Her voice grew quieter. “But I heard, I was around. I read the reports and heard the arguments. You don’t talk about those cases. You don’t talk about the weird stuff, ever. You accept the stories and you put them away, you go back out there again and find the little boy or little girl who’s gone this time.”

Nicole's eyes didn’t move from the stand of trees. “One time, he didn’t come back. That’s what goes on in these woods. Even the locals will tell you well enough that you don’t come here alone, ever. Weird stuff happens,” she turned to Waverly then, her eyes narrowing. “But nothing as weird as your boyfriend telling you it’s safe here. Nobody could make that mistake. Nobody.”

Waverly almost didn’t hear her, she was so startled by the change. What?

"Listen," fear crept into Nicole voice, "He really didn't tell you anything about it, at all?"

"No." Waverly said, pulling out her gun and checking the ammunition. Just in case. She pulled out her extra box and set it aside.

‘This gun will save your life one day.’

A monster of a gun -- carried into the wilderness with a singular purpose: Be strong enough to stop a charging bear in its tracks. Or a monster. Or a weird woman in the woods questioning my boyfriend’s motives. She had never used it, never needed to, until now.

"He just said it was photogenic. Turn left on the trail, up to the foot of the mountain then up. Follow the trail back past the sign, and you’re in the clear."

'I don't mean to scare you,' was one of the worst ways to start a sentence. It must be number three under 'We need to talk.' and 'No offense, but... '

"I don't mean to scare you," Nicole began, "But I'm pretty sure your boyfriend wanted you to die up here."

'You're kidding me, right?' also ranked pretty low, next to 'Are you serious?' and 'Is that really what you're wearing tonight?'

"You've got to be kidding," Waverly said, standing to face the other woman, angrily pushing aside the tent flaps (causing one of them to awkwardly bounce back and strike her full on the mouth) and striding into the firelight, clutching the gun in a wholly unsafe manner. “You want to bring my boyfriend into this?” Her voice rose, unheeding of the stillness of the night.

Nicole raised a hand, eyes pleading for her to understand. “Waverly, please. Just listen. This part of the woods, no - these woods in general - they are no-go zones. They take experienced rangers, and even then they go missing. Why would he tell you to go here? Why so specific?”

Waverly was enraged. She was not going to be lectured about her boyfriend by some… some pretty redheaded woman in the middle of the woods! While they were in danger, even!

Champ wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box, but he wouldn’t lie. Not like that, anyway. Not a cunning, dangerous, deadly lie - something that couldn’t even be considered yet somehow made sense

  Nobody was that good a liar. But one of them was. Who?

 Help me!

Waverly almost screamed but shoved a fist in her mouth to silence it. It was the same voice as before. It was the same voice. Nicole’s face had gone as white as death. How could..?

  Behind her. The sound was behind.

 She turned slowly, reluctantly, peering desperately into the dark for any sign of... anything. Yet there was only darkness there and the shapes her mind was attempting to process. Trees. Bushes. Sticks. Branches. Leaves. There was no sound but the crackle of the dying fire and the stream that still bubbled joyfully through the horror of the night.

“I guess there’s absolutely no chance that’s just the injured woman, right? Followed us across the forest somehow?”

“None.”

“I thought so.”

“The fire, Waverly!” Nicole hissed, taking up position and aiming into the darkness. “And a flashlight!”

She knelt frantically and blew on the fire. Tears, hot and fear-born, ran freely down her face as she fanned the flames back to life.

  He said it was perfectly safe, heard it directly from a friend. Head up the mountain by yourself and reach the top, you'll see the heavens like you've never seen it before. You love being alone, it would be perfect. Far from any sign of civilization. Way out beyond, untouched and beautiful.

  She wasn’t lying. She thinks I’m cute.

  Focus! Focus!

 Her memory was tainted now. The close nights on the couch with him seemed predatory. His promises seemed hollow. His eyes no longer looked caring in her mind's eye, she saw them as cold as chips of ice. Was he pretending that whole time? Had her own fear of abandonment allowed her to make such a terrible mistake?

Nicole did not even spare a glance to Waverly’s work. Her eyes were locked onto whatever lay beyond the firelight. When Waverly handed her a flashlight, she took it and immediately pointed it towards the noise.

Nothing.

Waverly hugged her own gun to her chest and sat too close to the fire. The heat did not bother her. The darkness did. It was suffocating. Even though they were in a rather large clearing, Waverly felt boxed in. Trapped. Caught.

 

Waverly didn't know how long she sat there, building the fire and tending to it like her desperate hope, Nicole standing frozen and silent like a statue sentry. Eventually, she stopped crying. When the fire began to fade and she had no fuel left, her hope followed it quickly.

The fire would not last the night. It would falter well before the sun rose. She rocked back and forth, trying beyond all probability to keep the fire alive. The fire was the last thing that would keep it back. It would be the only thing deterring it from entering the clearing, guns be damned. They wouldn’t be fast enough.

“The fire won’t last, Nicole. It won’t,” Waverly admitted, voice brittle.

“We can’t get more wood. If we lose sight of each other, it will take advantage of that."

“But if we lose the fire --”

"Listen,” Nicole said, kneeling beside Waverly and putting a hand on her back, “We’ll get through this, okay? Together.” The fear in her eyes said she didn’t believe they would survive this. Not without fire.

 She still might leave. It would be the smartest move to survive, Waverly thought, but then felt a slash of guilt. Nicole had plenty of chances to leave her behind, and she didn't. Now they would make their final stand together, that much was certain.

Waverly nodded, terror refusing her words as she pulled a flashlight close, clicking it on and holding it under her gun hand to steady it. Her adrenaline had faded long ago and she was exhausted. If she was going to die, she was taking it with her. So, they waited.

The fire fell to embers. Then the embers fell to nothing.

 They waited.

 Waverly could feel sleep in the back of her mind, dragging her muscles and her brain down. Her head began to ache from the effort of peering into the dark. The wind rustled every now and again and she started each time, and each time had to fall into deep breathing to keep herself steady. The dull sound of empty radio static buzzed just loud enough to induce a headache as they sat by the dead fire.

 They waited.

 Her flashlight faded. She tried another. Dead. All of them. Nicole’s went out as well. The moon, a pitiful sliver, had risen on the edge of the horizon and approached its peak. It would do nothing to help them.

  Of course. It’s just like those TV shows. Ghosts always take out technology first. Light goes out, boom. There goes the heroes. Except there’s no film crew to flee to, not this time.

 They waited.

 Nicole tried to start a conversation but couldn’t get past the first syllable. Instead, Waverly latched an arm through hers and tugged them together. The strength of her grip was sure to bruise and might even break the skin, but Nicole gripped back just as hard.

 They waited.

 The moon briefly peaked out behind clouds, casting shadows in the forest, before retreating. Nothing moved. Then, the wind would come, rustling the trees. It was unlike the sound of the daytime, it was less like the living whispering and more like the rattle of dead things. The moon passed its peak and vanished behind the massive expanse of clouds. Waverly stared upwards at Polaris, the North Star, her favorite star, the star that guided so many home, and watched with a dull sense of acceptance as that, too, was swallowed by the overcast sky.

They waited.

The legend stirred in her mind, catching the wind of worry. A skinwalker -- someone who had committed a crime so against humanity in trade for horrific power, unspoken of in fear of it listening, waiting, watching. No one spoke of them. Out of respect, out of fear. 

But they weren't real.

Were they?

 They waited.

 God, she was so tired. Too tired to pray. Too tired to keep turning to watch the tree line. Too tired to keep the gun steady. Exhaustion was sinking deep into her bones and she could feel Nicole slumping against her, barely keeping her eyes open in the darkness.

 But not too tired to hear the twig snap sound of a footfall in the forest. She shot up before Nicole, holding the gun steady towards the sound. There, again! Yet it was a few yards to the left. Again! To the right. Another behind her! How many could there be?

 “Wolves?” Waverly whispered. Nicole shook her head without taking her eyes from the treeline.

 “No wolves up here,” Nicole reported, hands white on the handle of her rifle.

 You’re really cute!” called a voice from the treeline, echoing Nicole’s words from earlier with eerie tones. Too deep, too strange. As if it was speaking around teeth too large for words. The very sound sent beetles of goosebumps rushing up Waverly’s spine as she pivoted towards the sound, her gun shaking madly in her hands. It had listened. It had watched them, even when they couldn't feel it.

 Waverly's heart thudded in her ears as she heard the thing move closer. A heavy footfall in the grass. The last grip of a brush. The whisper of branches being brushed aside.

"Get back!" She cried bravely into the darkness. "I've got a gun!"

 Nicole pressed against her back, a reassuring presence. Together.

 "Get back! " Cried her own voice from the trees as it mocked her with almost perfect mimicry. "I've got a gun! "

 She heard its footfalls press against the ground and the crackle of dead leaves as it pushed past the undergrowth. Closer now. She choked back tears and tried to quiet her desperate breathing. Her heart sounded like thunder in her ears. Her vision blurred, obscuring the last of her view of the creature.

 “Steady,” Nicole said, pressing against her back to keep her sane.

 Help me! ” It cried back a few dozen yards ahead of her. A figure came into view, lurching towards them. A human shape separating itself from the shadows of the treeline. “Please, Waverly!”

 Waverly almost relaxed, but then, “God, Nicole,” She breathed, wiping her eyes clear of tears, “The legs.”

 The legs were bent back, awkward shapes, ending too strangely to be human.  What the hell?

 Help me, please! ” It called. No - it wailed, a twisted sound, coming from inhuman lungs. A plea from a predator. How could she have ever mistaken that for anything else? How could she have thought an innocent woman could produce such a sound? It was much too high, much too empty of feeling; the only emotion it carried, which she had first mistaken as need or desperation, was hunger. “Please!”

 And then she fired without thinking, without warning Nicole.

"Thassa .45 Caliber, girl! The recoil’ll wreck you!’ A voice from her past whispered, years ago on the range.

‘Watch me.’ was how she had responded, before hitting the target dead on. He had never called her ‘girl’ again.

 Once, twice, three times, four times did she fire towards the sound in the space of a sentence. Waverly emptied her clip into the darkness. Her hand shook from sheer exhaustion, the gun jumped so viciously her wrist ached, and she knew with dreadful certainty she had missed every single shot.

 She knelt and grabbed the box of ammunition, reloading. Nicole jumped aside, firing towards the thing as well. The sound rang in her ears so loud she could only hear her own breathing.

  157 decibels. Pain threshold at 120. Never fire without ear protection...

 Waverly's hands felt around her backpack desperately for batteries as she flew into mindless panic. She reloaded the flashlight and clicked it on.

 It lit up the thing before her briefly before going out.

 She saw in a flash the twisted face and long hair, the mangled teeth that stretched too long for lips to hold, the caved in chest of a starving creature and the protruding bones of something long dead. Dark matted fur covered its body, an unholy mixture of man and beast, an aberration that belonged only in campfire stories and carefully whispered myths. The claws, oh god, the claws were thin and long, too long, too long to believe or think about or consider or --

 It slapped her and she stumbled backwards across the embers, kicking them and causing her pants to alight. Blood ran down the left side of her face, covering her eye as she raised her gun once more and fired. It jerked back from the shot as blood ran from a hole in its shoulder. It leaned over the fire, hissing as it knocked the gun aside.

 She screamed and kicked at its legs as the pitiful flames clinging to her struggled to stay alive. It backed away with a roar, almost tripping over its own hoof-like feet. Fire bad.

  Nicole, Nicole, Where’s Nicole! --

  She’s gone --

 The beast opened its mouth and let out an angry scream and twisted as a rifle shot reported through the air.

 Get away from her! ” Nicole screamed, firing three more times in incredible practiced speed. Waverly could just make her out, standing on the other side of the clearing, trying to draw the beast away. She stood like a soldier facing the frontline, ratcheting the bolt back and reloading in a breath.

 Get away from her! ” shrieked back the creature as it thundered towards her and sent her flying into the darkness with a blow so hard Waverly could hear it. The creature did not follow Nicole, instead choosing to turn back and finish what it started.

 Waverly leapt to her feet and scrambled towards the gun, only to find it lost in the darkness. She panicked and sprinted in the direction it fell regardless. With a yell she fell into the river, the fire clinging to her pant leg going out with a hiss.

 Darkness closed in and gripped her lungs tight as she heard the strange hoof falls as it lurched closer towards her. She gasped for air and backed deeper into the stream. The water barely covered her prone body as she crawled backwards towards the other shore.

 A twisted scream rose suddenly and she clasped her hands over her already-damaged ears. In her barely recovering night vision she saw two bodies collide, a human-sized one pulling at the strange creature that towered over them. Choking noises rose in the night as it twisted this way and that, trying to get at the pest. It collapsed into the river, roaring.

 "Shoot it!" Nicole screamed, barely audible over the terrible noise. She was trying to defeat it with rope.

 "I don't have the gun!" Waverly cried in response. There was no hope to find it now, somewhere in the dark grass, it would be no help to waste time looking for it.

 "My flare gun! By the fire! " Nicole replied desperately before the creature finally caught her in the side, causing her to slam against the rocky shore with a dull thud.

  The stories… God, they are real…

  She stayed! She stayed! Save her!

 “Hey asshole!” Waverly called, and it turned looking… offended.

 Hey asshole! ” It cried back. Then Waverly ran for her life.

 She ran to her walking stick and twisted it, breaking it in half with clever positioning and adrenaline fueled strength. She snatched the Flare Gun and looked at it dumbly.

  This is not a signal gun. This is a weapon.

 Stop staring, stupid!  Load it!

 She could feel the beast behind her, hear its horrendous lurching gait as it followed her. She fumbled around and found two canisters, loading and turning to fire almost too late. The hungry dark greeted her eyes, the shape too indistinct to know. But the terrible mass rose in her vision as an emptiness and Waverly aimed with a fierce, last-ditch fire of a human that very much does not want to die.

 She shot once, the powerful flare gun lurching in her hand, and it struck home with a dull smack of flesh. A howl ripped through the night as the thing backed up, confused by the heat from the wound. It was buried deep in the flesh of its hip, and must have hurt like a bitch.

Nicole yelled a curse and threw a rock at the creature. It paused momentarily, stunned at the useless gesture, then turned and rushed her, too fast for Waverly to shoot the second canister. It raised one blade-like claw to strike.

  Too slow, Waverly thought as she sprinted across the clearing, so she aimed, though knowing she might miss completely, to distract the beast. She fired the gun again and this time it bounced harshly against the back of the creature before falling uselessly to the ground, its brief stunning light casting harsh shadows and revealed the extent of their nightmare.

 It also revealed on the injured Nicole, raising a useless hand in reaction to the next blow.

 Then the creature turned in reaction to the pain, only to be momentarily blinded by the flare’s last insult and howled again, piercing already damaged eardrums with its anger and frustration. It let out a hiss as its vision focused on Waverly, still running towards it with reckless courage.

 "Die up here, Wav-er-ly,” It whispered as she approached.

 ... which story was Nicole talking about? How did it end? ...

  No more flares. She’s losing blood. We’re going to die.

 It rose up to hits terrible height, and in the flickering remains of the flare she could see the true form if it. She could see the scars of past victims who had put up a fight. The skin stretched and bones protruding hard against its starving form, thick and grey and caked with brown. The matted fur coated the neck and its face, god, its face was almost human. It was twisted and broken by a mouth filled to the brim with dagger sharp teeth and slick with gore. Its claws, thing and long and stained with their blood, and its maw - it yawned wide with a sickening scent of death and a coppery smell of blood.

  It has to be the right story. With one glance to Nicole’s fallen form, now terribly still -

 "Champ Hardy!” She screamed in its face as it rose to strike her down.

 It paused. She could see herself reflected in those terrible orange eyes, which seemed filled with confusion and deadly intent.

  Fuck the stories! Fuck everything! Fuck this!

 In that second of hesitation, Waverly pulled out her broken walking stick and slammed the stake past its ribs and into its heart.

 With a final gasp of surprise, a whispering rattle from its desiccated lungs, it fell over.

 Dead.

...speaking the true name of the creature can defeat it…

  Or a stake to the heart, apparently.

There's no way that's actually my boyfriend. But it worked!

 Waverly almost snorted, looking at the miserable pile before her. All that was left of her terror....killed by a single stake in the heart. Her ears still rang from the noise and she staggered blindly into the flareless darkness before she heard it.

  “Waverly…” She blindly felt for the voice, splashing through the stream and almost tripping over Nicole. She knelt so fast her knees cracked and she hauled the fallen woman through the stream, back towards the remains of their camp. “Leave me…Run...

 “Shut up, Nicole,” Waverly replied, blinking back tears. So stupid. So brave. So bravely stupid. “We did it, you hear me? We did it. Together.” She stopped by the fallen tents and faded embers.

 She pulled Nicole close, feeling for her injuries. Her right arm and her leg were twisted at awkward angles. Her ribs felt bruised, some of them broken. Her breathing was too fast, too labored. Blood. So much. Too much.

  Some of the bleeding could be internal. Waverly thought as she fell into the practiced habit of first aid. She wasn’t one to go unprepared into the wilderness, even though the only person requiring first aid might be herself. Her overpacking might save Nicole’s life, as she pulled a too-large emergency kit from her pack and set to work.

  I should have trusted her from the beginning, we could have worked on a plan together.

 “We did it?” Nicole whispered, still dazed.

 Yes . Yes, god, yes.” Tears fell from her face, splashing against Nicole’s. “We did it.”

 Waverly was too scared to leave Nicole and attempt to resurrect the fire. Instead, she pulled both sleeping bags into one tent and made a nest like structure with their supplies. She'd have to wait until morning to venture out for their weapons. For now, The night cooled their damp clothes and Waverly stacked all of their extras against their bodies, huddling close to keep warm.

 After emergency bandaging aided by a lucky recovered flashlight, they lay there, Nicole’s head cradled in Waverly’s arms, waiting for sleep to finally come. Both of their injuries were non-fatal, but they would have to signal rescue to avoid succumbing to infection.

 Ah, ah, ah, ah… ” Nicole’s lips moved and her diaphragm jerked with the effort.

 “Nicole, what ?” Waverly responded, leaning down. Seizure?

 Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive...

 Waverly laughed, high and clear, shaking with the joy of it, too relieved to chide Nicole for speaking. They had done it.

They fell asleep like that, exhausted, injured, and half-delirious from the events of the night, clinging together to share heat and remind each other yes, yes, we have survived! Outside, the dull noise of night life in the forest continued around their tent.

Chapter Text

 

 THREE YEARS AGO

 

The information all added up to one conclusion: there was something evil in the forest.

Standing in front of her corkboard, Nicole Haught felt like one of those basement-dwelling conspiracy theorists. A map lay in the center, decorated with thread and notations, sticky notes covering it with anecdotes from fellow rangers. The rest of the board was covered with reports: false ones. Ones that didn’t add up. Missing notices that didn’t make sense. Morgue results that she shouldn’t have her hands on (you could get anywhere with two cups of coffee and a clipboard, she had found out) and officer reports meant only for the garbage can.

The newest report was the crowning achievement: a 'dog' attack.

If that thing was a dog, I’m a fucking unicorn, she thought bitterly.

Nicole herself had been a witness to the strange creature responsible for the happenings. She had experienced first-hand how it was swept under the rug and forgotten about. It didn’t matter that two others had seen it clearly and it had literally run into her, the victim’s parents were still told the same, practiced lie. 

That burned. Nicole's fists curled, thinking of how hard it was to watch the lies sink into the mother's mind. No, your child didn't fall off the cliff. He was pushed. She had stepped forward to comfort the mother, only to notice the smooth black suits of strangers watching her.

That had confirmed it. Among the regular folk who simply wandered off the trail, there was something going on. She had been onto something from the very start when her father had gone missing and the rangers had told her a whole bunch of lies.

Nicole wasn’t a stranger to bullshit. You encounter it daily when working with kids, little lies that little consequences that are easily corrected. Encountering a lie this big, this jarring and off-kilter, one that sounded repeated enough so the person telling it almost believed it to be true - that was enough to get her to investigate.

And now the results were speaking to her from every report, every note, every whispered conversation she had overheard: something is wrong, and we’re ignoring it.

Now her cat was staring at her with open disapproval as she finished packing. Nicole leaned the rifle against the wall and glanced at her. “Shut up,” She admonished before petting the judge. The meow in response was heavy with distaste for the current sequence of events. It was as if the cat knew she was leaving and might never be coming back. “You’ll be fine. They’ll coddle you like the baby you are.”

There was a knock at the door.

Nicole opened it and came face to face with a rather large man in a full black formal suit, sweating under his collar in the summer heat. “Ms. Haught?”

“That’s me,” she replied evenly, inspecting him with a critical eye. Government type. Another one of the 'Black Badge' who had shown up a few days ago. “How can I help you?”

“I was told it attacked you?” He lifted a black medical box for her to see.

“It did.”

Then he was pushing past her into her cabin, not waiting to be invited. “We don’t have time to waste, then.” He sat down at the table as she closed the door to keep the AC in. She thanked her past self for having the sense to hide the board in her small bedroom as she sat down across from him. He steepled his fingers and looked at her over his glasses. “Did you have the bite properly cleaned?”

What bite? “Yes,” she lied, and as he opened his box she realized she had to ask, even if she knew the answer already. “You planning to do anything about the creature?”

“‘The creature’, Ms. Haught? You mean the dog you mistook for something else?”

“You and I both know dogs don’t stand six feet tall and have hooves.”

“What you and I both know is that there has been an unfortunate increase in rabies events in this area, nothing more.”

“So that’s it, then? Not going to stop it?” Nicole leaned forward slightly but kept her voice even, her eyes narrowing, fists clenching under the table. He was way too calm about this, he sounded as if he had rehearsed the lines in front of a mirror before coming here.

“Stop what, Ms. Haught? Would you have us in the forest, following a rumor from a stressed ranger?” His tone dismissive. “It is alright to admit the heat caused you to mistake yourself.”

“I saw what I saw,” she said, unable to stop the increase in volume, “and what I saw was a monster.”

“Enough, Officer Haught.” He waved a hand, dismissing her claims completely. “Hand me your arm and let us forget about this nonsense.”

There was a thump and a rustling of paper.

The man had a gun in his hand before Nicole could blink, pointing it down the hallway towards her bedroom. “Is there someone else here?” He hissed, suspicion rising.

Her heart almost beat out of her chest, thumping in her ears. “I have a cat.”

With growing anxiety she watched him debate in his head before putting the gun away. “Cats are such silly creatures, aren’t they?” He said cheerily, pulling a too-large syringe from the box. That was definitely not a rabies shot.

Then Nicole heard the pitter patter of cat feet and a dragging sound made only by a sheet of paper. With growing horror she heard it come closer and closer to the kitchen, knowing that it might be the key to blowing her cover. It was like that Edgar Allen Poe story, the Tell-Tale Heart , except instead of a body under her floorboards she had a cat hell-bent on ruining her plans.

He watched her face closely with growing interest. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Nicole lied, hearing the cat enter the kitchen.

There was a rustle and a gentle pressure on her boot.

Nicole looked down and her face went slack. The man leaned forward and glanced under the table in following.

There, smug as a rich thief, sat her cat, presenting her with a ten-year-old missing poster half-torn from being pulled from the board. A sticky note was still attached, and the damning evidence was her own handwriting, scrawling a message of “The mother claims to have heard voices calling in the forest.”

There was another still moment where Nicole and the man simply stared at each other, waiting for the other to make the first move. Everything came to a stop and the beats of her heart seemed to rush and slow at the same time. She watched as his face changed from confusion to a growing understanding then, three beats later, it was resolution.

He stood -- no, he launched from the table with his gun out and he was striding down the hallway with singular purpose.

Shit. Shit. If he finds the board, I’m done for. He’ll try to stop me, or even get rid of me, now that I know the truth.

Nicole grabbed the whiskey bottle and was two steps behind him when he entered the bedroom and turned to see the wall. His eyes darted from the pack, to the gun, to the wall, and then back. His mouth opened in an o of surprise and he half turned to her, full ready to do whatever it was he planned to do, the gun turning with him, and she felt her heart almost leap of her chest.

She only had one decision left to her.

She slammed the whiskey bottle against his head, sending him toppled onto the wood floorboards.

Shit. Shit! I just made this situation ten times worse!

Already he was groaning, recovering from the attack. She grabbed her things and her hat, running to the kitchen and grabbing the case of syringes. She whipped out her cellphone and dialed as she left the screen door banging behind her.

“Yes, hello, I need a medic to my cabin, please. Door’s unlocked. Don’t let the cat out.” Next she texted Nedley a brief apology and a plea to take care of her cat.

He would understand.

The entire drive up to the end of the road was spent battling her guilt and trying to maintain the rage that brought her to this point. She felt guilt for leaving her cat and Nedley behind (And hitting the guy, honestly. He was a dick, but she still felt bad.)  but the anger she felt at how everyone seemed to dismiss what they had seen remained. Nobody was willing to discuss it or even look her in the eye. Then she had realized that this wasn’t the first time, that this wasn’t a new experience, that they had dealt with this before and knew better than to cause a fuss.

Then the government men arrived. Black Badge. She gripped the steering wheel tight at the thought of how dismissive they had been. The man in her cabin hadn’t been the first to simply wave away her claims.

Nedley would be upset, yes, but he would understand. He might suggest a search party but the others would talk him out of it. She had no intention of leaving an easy trail, just as she had no intention of sitting around, waiting for the next call, the next victim, the next crying mother. No more.

She left the keys and a note on the seat and passed the RESTRICTED AREA: NO TRESPASSING sign.

 

It took Nicole two hours of hiking to realize her mistake.

She opened the box the man had brought and saw no labels, no explanation, no easy How-To: Strange Creature Bite Treatment guides. Just three syringes tucked neatly away, filled with some weird liquid she didn’t have a clue how to identify. For all she knew, they might just cause her heart to explode or something equally strange.

Nicole decided to avoid getting bitten.

The first week passed easily as she made her way around the mountain towards where they found the boy. She slept in trees, kept her fires brief, and lived off anything she could find, careful to keep her emergency supplies for an actual emergency.

She double-backed and obfuscated her trails as much as she could. She knew Nedley would think like she did and would know exactly where she was headed. The only chance she had was to arrive after he passed over the area.

It was midday when she reached the spot they had encountered the creature. It was beautiful in a word, an incredible display of nature in a sentence. A blue lake stretched to the left, and the mountain rose to the right. She stood on the cliff that had claimed the boy and tried to catch a trail.

The screams filtered through her memory, causing her to shiver. The forest seemed to sharpen around her, the shadows somehow deeper. They had been searching all day when they'd heard the boy cry out. It had turned at the sight of the officers who had sprinted fast enough to witness. It did not attack, no, it only screamed like a dying man and collided with Nicole full-on. Then it vanished into the trees, leaving her wondering if she had simply gone temporarily insane.

She found the remains of its passage easily. Heavy hoof prints lead her deeper and deeper, down to the parts of the forest where the sunlight is only a guest, the host is the thick blanket of trees. It seemed reckless, obvious, and Nicole felt a sinking feeling as she followed the signs in a circle.

She frowned at the obvious attempt to throw off pursuers. It was rudimentary at best, but still whispered some kind of cunning that left Nicole restless.

 

Nicole followed it for perhaps a week as it wandered further and further from civilization and past the shadow of the mountain.

According to her journal, it was day sixteen when she found the remains of the herd of deer.

Judging by the trails it seemed a complete stroke of luck that the creature stumbled right onto the deer. It seemed about four of them had met their end in the clearing, strewn about like butcher’s confetti in a way that was wholly wasteful, the meat uneaten and the deer simply killed for the crime of living.

Is this creature some sort of maddened vegetarian? Nicole wondered. The meat did not seem overly rotted, she supposed she must be close behind it, perhaps gaining on it though she was taking her time.

She was stacking stones for a marker when she heard the call. The thing that could take experienced rangers off the trail faster than a storm wind  -- A cry for help. Deep and echoing, a man's plea for assistance called up from the forest. Her heart tugged painfully. She had to follow it.

Nicole marked trees as she passed them, following the voice deeper downhill into a valley. She did not respond to the voice. Something told her not to. Something seemed off about the way the shadows fell on the leaves, the way the birds said not a single word, the way she saw no life other than herself. The only sound in her ears was the pounding of her heart and the crinkle of leaves beneath her boots. Her breath thundered in the silence.

The calls continued for a full five minutes before stopping completely.

Nicole halted in confusion, then with a growing realization understood. This was not an unlucky man somehow miles from civilization, this was a play by the cunning creature she followed. Of course. Such a skill could easily throw rangers off and drag them into traps. It was so clever she shuddered at the thought, hand brushing sweat from her forehead as danger settled on her shoulders. Shit. The reports had even warned her, and she'd fallen for it easily.

All right class, time for a choice. Behind door number one, we continue in the general direction of the voice. Behind door number two, we turn around, follow our marks back to the trail, and continue from there.

If it wanted her to take door number one, then she would take door number two. She turned around and began following her marks back.

It came as a growing sense of apprehension, her subconscious noticing a pattern before she did, some sort of instinct telling her deep in her gut something very small was off, but it might as well have been huge.

Haven’t I seen that rock before?

Nicole ignored the feeling. She simply decided to make another row of marks under her originals and continued her way backward.

When she passed the rock a second time she simply sat down. She stared wide-eyed at the familiar surroundings with a sense of dread and numb acceptance. That's it. She was done. She's checked out, she's lost it, send in the dancing women and the show host -- she's been pranked. Cut to credits.

When the camera crew failed to leap from the trees, Nicole stood up and began again. All she had to do was find the tree with one mark now that the circle was marked by double marks.

There it was, a tree with a single mark. She breathed a sigh of relief and started back on the trail before she realized something that almost broke her right then and there.

Every single tree near her was marked.

Every direction, it seemed to go on and on. Her brain seemed to turn into one of those old-time slide-show movies, each thought taking too long to be fully understood, always slipping back to one black slide with white lettering and sticking there: Where would a monster get chalk?

Again and again the question seemed to ratchet through her mind, and again and again she was forced to face the fact she had no idea. It’s not like it could shop at Michael's. Those claws maybe could push a shopping cart, but they absolutely could not have the dexterity and control to use chalk.

Maybe it could. Maybe that was the secret to killing all those hunters and rangers before her - a secret arts and crafts stash. She smiled at the joke but the frown returned with the increasing sense of being watched. Another question took the screen, and that was what is it waiting for?

It was a rustle of leaves that gave it away, or perhaps the tell-tale inhale of a steadying breath, or maybe just some instinct that remained from the early days of man, some kind of sense that was unnamed but not unnoticed. Nicole turned just in time to see the rifle scope catch the light of the sun and the shot ring through the air.

The bullet slammed into the tree next to her and her heart continued beating. She turned on the man, enraged, “Do I look like a deer to -- ?”

Two hollow pits containing beady black eyes regarded her without emotion. A deathly gaunt cast had taken hold of his face, almost as if he had starved to death and risen out of pure malice. He may not have had hooves or claws or fur, but the man raising the gun to fire again was a monster all the same. A zombie. A literal dead man stood a few yards away, raising his gun again and aiming to shoot her. 

Run.

Which way, which way? Another shot made the decision for her and Nicole simply sprinted downhill. One part of her mind was still catching up, still stuck in a haze of confusion, still asking stupid questions like Can a zombie use a rifle? Can it think enough to use chalk? Did it shop at Walmart?

But what she knew is that something like that, something like the man that pursued her, would not stop. It would not rest. It did not require sleep or food or anything other than the pure will to move forward. It would follow her to the ends of the earth unless she thought of some way to deal with it.

She spotted a rock formation to her right and she turned, sprinting uphill and climbing it as fast as she could. A bullet slammed into the rock next to her hip. It's got shit aim.

But it only had to be lucky once.

Nicole rolled as soon as she reached the top, unslinging her rifle and flipping off the safety in one smooth action. She found a nearby bush and watched through her scope as the man came into view.

She took a deep inhale as she aimed her sights over its pale head, the hair seemed to be falling out in clumps, then she let the air out in horrified surprise as it turned and looked at her.

It was no zombie, but she could not be blamed for thinking so at first. Blood oozed from a dozen cuts from the chase as the man turned and gazed up at her through the scope, revealing a familiar face.

At first she thought it might be her father and she almost screamed, but no, it was one of the other rangers who had gone missing, who had been declared dead and never heard from again, it was Levi, the Levi she had mourned alongside his boyfriend in the night they finally gave up, the night the search parties came back and declared the trail had died out. Levi, who had sung drunk around fires and danced with the shadows, hooting and hollering on his birthday. Nicole remembered giving him a watch.

Now she could only watch in disbelief as the rifle raised yet again to a face devoid of recognition or any emotion vaguely human, no, just a blank face staring down the scope and one ghost-white hand pulling the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Did he not shoot? Or did the gun jam?

Then the rifle was sailing through the air with all the speed of a thrown dagger and the same accuracy, she jerked backward just in time as it collided painfully with her shoulder, almost breaking it with the sheer force of the blow. Her gun fired against her will but the shot went wild.

Holy shit.

Then Levi took a jumping leap at the rockface, scaling it easy as a monkey after a banana, but she was the unlucky banana.

She raised her rifle to fire then realized her heart could not withstand pulling the trigger. She could not live with herself, not without knowing, without understanding what it is that had happened to him.

Adrenaline stole away the pain in her shoulder as he reached the top and pulled himself up. “Levi!” His head snapped towards her, whether in recognition or simply because she had made a noise Nicole could not tell. “Levi, stop !”

Unless stop suddenly meant go, he did not hear her. He stepped towards her with a sureness born of a singular idea: he intended to kill her.

“It’s me! Nicole! Your friend!” They had spoken occasionally. He had told her about his boyfriend. What was his name? What was his name? “ You had a boyfriend, remember? He misses you.” She was still holding the gun, it was still pointed his way, as he stepped closer she still had time to fire, still had time to stop him, to put him down for good, to avert the inevitable conclusion.

He took another step, his face uncomprehending, his eyes hungry. The opening was still there, she had a chance, she could stop him --

The moment passed. She did not shoot him.

I-- I can’t. I can’t do it. I can’t shoot him.

She was forced to let go of the gun or break her fingers as he tossed it aside like driftwood. His hand latched onto her throat hard as a vice and she felt the ground drop away.

“Hungry,” Levi declared, voice like cracking glaciers.

 The grip tightened, he intended to snap her neck like a stick, one-handed in his strange strength, her air closed off with no hope of escape, he lifted her regardless of the weight of her pack, the weight of her in general , his arm simply flexed with the strain and that face remained blank, empty, and she was forced to act or die.

Nicole chose to act.

She pulled her pocket knife and slashed the tendons of his wrist, forcing the hand to slacken in the complete lack of muscular response, blood escaping in a flood as he stumbled back in surprise.

The ground shifted unexpectedly and he fell backward, without a single sound, off the cliff.

“No!” Nicole screamed, a hand outstretched uselessly as his form fell beyond hope of the catch and the thud announced his landing.

She glanced over the edge and saw his body, him laying on his back with his face turned to the sky in that expression of shock. His head had struck a rock. The amount of blood signaled he was most definitely dying.

Nicole shut her eyes, counting each breath so she wouldn't be sick. She forced herself to retrieve her rifle. Nobody could help Levi now.

Tears made it very hard to descend. Every second she took to be careful was another second hearing that strange rattle-whine as Levi’s body caught up to death.

He had gone completely still when she reached the bottom.

Nicole stared for a long time, utterly stunned. Reality blurred with tears that rolled down her face. It was true. Something was out here. Something was wrong with the forest.

She had to decide what to do. The sun would set soon, far too soon, and she had precious time. Nicole dragged him over to the grass, took two sharp, flat rocks, and began to dig a grave. She would not think of anything else except the sound of the dirt moving and her own breathing. Still, a worm-like thought survived, throwing her off balance with fear and anxiety. Why? What had caused this? What could drive him to this?

When she pulled his body free she inspected him closely, like a mortician would, her emotions forced to low-volume as she searched for a clue. The familiar emotional walls settled in. Just another missing body found. Find the hints, find the clues. Like there’s going to be a sign or some sort of chip, some sort of note in his pocket that read I BECAME A CRAZED KILLER BECAUSE ___, SINCERELY, LEVI.

Her instincts told her the animal bite on his shoulder was a clue. She no longer ignored her instincts. She stared close at the white scars that reached towards his collar bone with a critical eye, only to sit back in confusion. She had seen many bites in her life and many photos of injuries, caused by wolves or coyotes, bears or cougars or even dogs, but none looked like this did.

But the familiarity of the bite drew her to inspect it again. She had seen it before. Before, on a body, in the morgue, with the marking on the report saying RABIES.

“Just show me the bite and hand me your arm, and let us forget about this nonsense.”

Well, it didn’t take a detective to put two and two together. The bite drives you insane.

Honestly, I’m not even surprised. The monster could have a rocket launcher and I wouldn’t be phased. Next thing you know it controls the goddamn sun.

She had the antidote, right there in her bag! If she had only figured it out sooner...

‘There are many things you can change, Nicole,’ said her father, years in the past, ‘but death ain’t one of ‘em.’

So Nicole turned her guilt into anger, into pure determined fury. She would stop this.

She buried him in his makeshift grave and stacked rocks on top. She laid a few flowers and remembered a sea shanty he liked, singing it off-key and hoping ghosts weren’t real because he would haunt her for how badly she butchered it.

That night as she slept in a tree, far from the grave, and dreamed he was aboard a ship. He was saying something to her, she didn’t remember. All she remembered was how flat the sea looked, like a mirror reflecting the night sky, how it looked like they were sailing the cosmos itself.

 

The sun rose just as it always did. Nicole decided to follow Levi’s trail. It seemed a better idea than wandering in a random direction, anyhow. Maybe the beast would call again and then she would follow it again, perhaps be able to shoot it. Or maybe the two had stopped together, had a Monster Tea and talked about eating people.

She heard no calls. She found no tea.

She followed the trail as it meandered through the forest without a real direction. Levi apparently wasn’t headed anywhere fast. She soon became bored. She looked at some trees. Some birds. Some deer, some plants, some rocks. No matter the sights of the forest, it was all colorless. It was an intermission. It was a waiting.

Nicole skipped rocks on a lake she barely recognized and thought about heading back. Maybe she’d tell Levi’s boyfriend what happened. Maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she would just move to a city and do something else. No, a small town. Become a cop. That sounded good. Maybe a cute girlfriend, smart too. Braver than her coward partner who fled from the forest.

She threw a rock wrong and it fell into the water with an unsatisfactory plop.

She knew there was no chance she could forgive herself for turning back. She could not go home safe to her cabin, awaiting the next report of the newest victim, the newest parents without a child, the newest friends who would never meet again, the newest boyfriend taken forever by the creature in the woods.

Is that what drove her father up the mountain? The day he sat her down and said, ‘I’ll be right back, put the tea on.’ and never returned? Did he hear a cry for help he couldn’t resist, or did he know its true nature? Is it her inheritance to be so unable to stand on the sidelines, to be forced into the street to attempt to block the truck with herself alone?

It had been two years and she still kept making an extra cup of tea. Even after they buried him.

She hoped her friends would not wait for her to return. They would read the note, they would be upset, but they would understand. They would love her cat and spoil her and the little ball of anger probably wouldn’t even miss her. She loved the judgmental shithead more than anything, but she held no illusions of her cat’s simple tolerance of her presence. She had found her abandoned in the woods. The cat responded to the name ‘cat’ and disliked everything except food and naps. She and her cat had a lot in common.

Nicole beat her record of skips and decided it was time to leave.

 

The following day Nicole heard the cry for help and she was almost relieved.

She followed it for half the day before it lead her to a clearing. The calls stopped.

The feeling of being watched told her without a doubt that it would strike tonight, and it was in this clearing she would face the beast. She made her fire in record time and stationed herself next to it, waiting for it to fade so the encounter could finally begin.

She leaned against a tree and watched the fire. She thought about her dad. She thought about the bullshit claims that time healed all wounds. It made her forget, but when she remembered, she was hit again with the pain that took her breath away.

The fire faded and the wait began anew, now including an unwelcome sense of dread.

Strange wails rose in the night from around her, circling and circling, on and on did it go as the moon rose. The whisper of intelligence that tactic gave made Nicole tighten her grip on the rifle and grind her teeth. The psychological effect of wearing a victim down with the waiting, the waiting. Clever.

Or it just has a fun time wailing.

She watched the moon rise and pass the apex, then an owl hooted. Nicole looked for it in the darkness but didn’t find it. She supposed an audience was fitting.

And now, for the main event, we have... a...

She must have closed her eyes. That must have been it, she must have slipped into sleep somehow, against her will, her own body had declared a coup and betrayed her so easily she hadn’t even noticed.

Either way, Nicole found herself being dragged by the leg away from her gun. It had its teeth deep in her ankle, pulling her along and causing the skin to tear and the bone to grate. Pain left her gasping for air and sanity.

Well, there went rule number one: don’t get bit.

Also, rules number two through five, which all say don’t let your guard down.

She reached for her gun and felt it slip beyond her grasp without an ounce of surprise. It was fitting death, an ironic one, just perfect in how her life had been going so far. As far as she was concerned, it was a downhill rush from that one time in kindergarten she held hands with another girl without a single worry in the world. But not yet, she was not dying yet, she wouldn't let the bastard have the satisfaction.

She twisted and ignored the agony of the jaw locked on her leg, winding up an awkward punch that connected with a thud, a wide chance in the shifting black that hid its true form from her.

It stopped briefly, staring at her with an almost human confusion. Its look, hidden in the crude dark but those yellow eyes burned like headlights, seemed to ask 'Did you really just try to punch me, little girl?'

Nicole punched its inscrutable face again with an angry cry and it opened its jaws to hiss at her, claws outstretched to resume the attack, but Nicole was already running, limping along as fast as she could.

She hit the tree she had been leaning against and almost tripped over her pack, landing a hand on her gun just as she was hit by a truck. No, not a truck -- the beast itself, colliding with her like a linebacker and causing her to slam against the ground with her breath knocked from her lungs.

She responded with brutal strikes to its face, courtesy of the stock of her rifle. It leaned back again, turning its whole body in preparation for the killing blow, and Nicole seized her chance.

She shot it in the face.

It did not howl or roar, it screamed -- It screamed like a human being in its pain and confusion, backing away from Nicole with hideous speed. All that remained were splatters of blood and the ruined ground.

And just like that, it was over.

She listened for another hour, cleaning her leg and bandaging it as best she could in the darkness, listening as the wails faded as it returned to the forest. Then there was a silence, a waiting, a pregnant pause where she waited for the trees next to her to erupt into screams.

It did not come.

Again her body committed mutiny and she slept fitfully under the clear night sky, hands still tying the bandages, one laying atop the unopened box.

 

She woke up to the sun in her eyes. She had slept far too late as she sat up to the afternoon birds singing. She was starving.

No, literally starving. It felt like she hadn’t eaten for days, weeks. She ate everything in her bag in a fit of feverish hunger before gathering her supplies and deciding to follow the beast’s trail. She put weight on her bad leg and was surprised by the lack of pain. She had been so focused on her own hunger she had ignored the bite.

She lifted her torn pant leg and pushed aside the bandages, expecting infection.

There was no infection. Only a few pale scars where it had bitten her.

Nicole felt the scream building in her heart but it didn’t come. Instead, she simply stared at the marks in horrified confusion. What does this mean ? What does it do? She must have known, at some point, but now there was only fog.

Shit, I’m a werewolf. That’s what it does. Was it a werewolf?

No, dumbass, werewolves don’t have hooves.

She followed the trail the beast left. That seemed important. The blood became less, perhaps it was healing or clotting or whatever happened to wounds. There was still a trail. Nicole was following it. That was important.

Then she saw a deer.

Kill the deer.

No, I don’t need to kill the deer. What would I do with an entire dead deer?

Kill the deer. Eat the deer.

No, I should follow the trail. I don’t need the deer, I don’t even have a permit.

Kill the deer. Do it. Need to do it.

Why, though? It’s cute.

This is wrong, this is very not good, some part of her mind thought as she raised her rifle. I shouldn’t do this. Something has gone terribly wrong but I don’t remember what it is.

Her ears rang and her hands hurt from the recoil, but she didn’t remember the decision to fire. She lowered the rifle and looked with a mixture of regret and hunger at the fallen doe.

 

There was a river.

Her hands were sticky with something as she tried to get firewood. She lifted logs and threw them like they weighed nothing into rocks, picking up the shards and building the fire by mechanical memory. She did not think of anything except how the fish in the river would taste roasted over the fire.

She caught sight of herself in the reflection of the water and felt completely numb at the sight. She looked like the undead. Her eyes were hollow and her face was absolutely covered with browning and flaking blood. Something has happened. Something is wrong. It is very important that I focus.

For a while, she stared at the fish in confusion. Why am I not eating the fish? What was I thinking about?

She washed her face in the river and tried to remember. Anything. Why she was here. Where she was. What she had been doing for the past… how many hours had it been? How long?

There was a blank void as she looked back in time. An indeterminate amount of experiences she just didn’t recall. It took her ten minute’s mental battle to turn from the river without fishing from it.

I need a stick. A sharp one. Or the gun.

She had to remember something, anything. Think of something besides the hunger. Something in her pack. There must be some kind of clue. Why was she so hungry? She stumbled towards her pack, full of confusion and scattered thoughts.

She felt empty. No, she felt bottomless. She noticed that not a single piece of food remained in her bag and there was a first aid box messily stuffed in the wrong place. There is something inside it, something that she needed. Something she had forgotten. Something had happened, something very terribly wrong, something that must have caused her to turn away from the river and come to her bag.

Fishing pole?

I hit somebody with a bottle. I was driving. No trespassing.

She pulled the box out and stared at it like it was some kind of alien technology. It might as well have been, for all the sense she could make of it. It wasn’t food. I should put this down. Get the fish. No. Inside the box. Open the box.

Something to do with guns. Something to do with the forest. No trespassing. Dad. Where's my dad? Dad's missing.

But her rifle was still leaning against the tree nearby. She stared at it, thinking about shooting the fish, then turned back to the box in her hand in confusion.

Focus on the basics, Nicole. Kick your fear out of the van and get to work, her father said somewhere in the past. You don’t have time to panic. They need your help.

But she didn’t feel fear. She didn’t feel anything. Somebody needed her help. Somebody needed her to drive the van. But who? Did I forget them, too? Where are they?

She opened the box and stared at the three syringes inside. These are important, her mind whispered. We must use them to save someone. We are running out of time.

Then we can eat the fish.

Yet there were no instructions for her to read and no sign of how to use them. She ignored the rumble of her stomach. She needed to figure this out. This was important.

She closed the box.

She stared so long the bugs got curious. The sun moved. The river called to her.

She opened the box.

She picked up a syringe and tried to remember. Her cat, looking on in judgment as she left. Somebody was at the door, knocking. Let him in. Open the door. Open the door, Nicole.

She opened the door.

‘Hand me your arm and let us forget about this nonsense,’ said the man in the suit after he sat down. 

“Here you go,” Nicole said to the empty clearing and injected herself with the syringe.

 

Nicole woke sometime later to the same afternoon birds. She sat up and felt dizzy, but otherwise unremarkable. She had no idea where she was.

Her fear was back, but so was her clarity. She examined her situation closely as she cleaned off the rest of the blood in the river. She was lost. She had no more food and would have to live off the forest. She was succumbing to a strange kind of sickness, one that gave her hysterical strength and a mind-consuming hunger and made her forget, all in one neat little package of bad.

I read about this somewhere. Her memory still seemed foggy and spotted at best. She found her bag nearby and repacked it. She burned her clothes and pulled out a new set.

She knew what she was after, what she still had to do.

She knew that the shot to the face would not have killed The Beast. She had missed the vital point of the skull. It would still be out there somehow. She didn’t know if the injection had cured her, but it did not matter. Either way, she was running out of time. She had no trail so she simply walked towards the mountain.

Nicole marked her trees but still kept going in circles. The forest seemed wrong. Perhaps her memories of the forest had been lost, or she was just far beyond anything she had seen before. Still, no matter how hard she tried, she would end up in a circle that took her days to complete.

Weeks passed without her noticing. To her, it was days. Nothing made sense, not when she kept going in circles.

One day it began to snow. Nicole had not seen the leaves fall, but the trees around her were bare. She wondered if she had completely lost her mind. Maybe that crazy lady on the block had been right. She'd gone to hell at last. 

Hell was freezing, and it was a miracle she found shelter for the night. She half expected the cave she came across to be filled with bones or bears, but it was empty. She made a fire and slept, thinking about if this was hell for gays then why isn’t anyone else here?

When she woke again the snow had vanished.

That’s it. I’ve gone insane. Absolutely nuts, unless I’m a bear.

Honestly, to her, being a bear would be refreshing at this point. She walked through a forest that by all accounts was in full spring. She tried to stop and birdwatch, one of her favorite pass times, but that bothersome fear kept creeping back in whenever she let her guard down. She couldn’t even recognize the birds. Nicole, panic rising like background off-key violins, ignored the strangeness of the feeling and instead focused on the one thing driving her forward: She had to stop the Beast from killing others before her time ran out. She suspected that the continued routine of going in complete circles had simply broken her. Perhaps she had been here quite a long time and not remembered, but that made no sense whatsoever. She still felt as if it had been only weeks since she had passed the sign, not months.

No matter how much Nicole angled by the sun and walked up, she always seemed to end up down.

She shuddered at the thought, but it still made no sense. Perhaps that was another one of the beast’s chosen side effects, that things stopped having any up or down or left or right. They just had forward.

More circles.

She started marking down the days. She supposed about a week passed before the strange hunger returned and she had to take the second shot before she lost herself again. She spent the time wandering, still looking for something familiar, only having those brief moments of remembrance that were so slightly off it made her ill each time it happened.

So an indeterminate amount of time plus a week between each shot. Perfect. This is just excellent. This is the greatest experience of my life. So great.

More circles.

It was like everything in the forest was backward. Sometimes she would stop in one place, frozen with something half remembered, half thought, almost like waking after a dream, but then it would vanish. Maybe she had died. She did not know. The forest she knew, the forest she had learned and memorized and lived in, was completely unrecognizable. She would walk forward again.

Another circle.

“Look, class, another rock formation I don’t recognize,” She snarked to the forest in general as she passed a cliff face. She eyed the surrounding land critically, still holding out a useless hope. There were markings, yes, but hers? Not a chance.

She tested the radio and was not surprised at all to find it full of empty, out-of-range static. She did not bother trying again.

Two more circles.

“On your right you’ll see trees,” She told her imaginary tour, “and if you step right this way, you’ll also see some trees on your left.” She pointed at a plant. “That’s a plant.”

She supposed that it had become early autumn at some point. She only noticed by the increase of leaves on the ground ahead of her. She rarely looked up, not anymore, not after the strange birds had stared at her and she had stared back uncomprehending, as if they were alien visitors, but something in her mind stirred so heavily it made her sick. The birds were familiar, but she could not identify them no matter how hard she tried.

That night she slept in a tree and considered a plan. The beast had not appeared again after that night that must have been a very long time ago. What was it waiting for? How many circles must she complete? How many things will she forget? The forest and the beast must be one and the same. Something about the two, about their connection, she was missing.

The next day (hour? week?) she had an idea.

She sat down and took the third syringe. She needed all of her senses for this. No more fog. This would be her last chance - To kill it, or lose herself trying. She cleaned her rifle. She changed her clothes. She missed her hat.

She did not wait for sunset, she didn’t have the nerve.

She called out to it.

"Help!" Nicole shouted, birds scattering, "Help! I'm lost!"

The silence settled uneasily on her shoulders. Time passed. Nicole called again, her voice raw and pleading and delicious, "Help me, please! I'm lost!"

A third time before she heard it call back with an echoing wail that seemed to fill the whole valley. Immediately, she plunged into the forest in its direction and knew without a doubt that she would not go in a circle. She would find the beast.

For some reason, it was not coming towards her. It was leading away.

The calls paused for a long time, but she had the direction. She found a trail, broken sticks and clawed trees marking its passage. It didn’t matter if this was a trap or not, she would go forward regardless.

Sometimes, during the day, she could hear it ahead of her, crashing through trees and sometimes letting out that terrible wail. It was on the trail of something and it wasn’t Nicole.

During the night she slept in the trees and prayed it didn’t turn around. She ate some of her reserves and knew she had to catch up soon, this chance would slip away if she let it.

What’s it tracking?

But it did not matter, not really. All that mattered was killing the beast. Perhaps if it found its victim and Nicole caught it while its guard was down, she could fire the killing blow. Each step she thought of the names of those missing under mysterious circumstances. The results that never made sense. One plus one equaling three without a note where a number had come from.

It’s a forest. You lose people, that is unavoidable. But the kills and remains and sightings, these had to stop. These could not continue, no matter the consequences. Nicole knew full well that without the syringe she would have to find a way to stop herself before going insane if she did not die to the beast itself.

No more circles. This beast had to die.

She heard the sea shanty in her head again as she passed a cliff. Voices together, all of them the dead, harmonizing in her head. 

The false calls of the Beast began again, the pleas for help raised to the waiting air, perfect bait for a perfect prey.

She slowed to almost a full stop, carefully picking her way towards the beast, knowing that just one turn around this hill would put her face to face...

Then there was a different voice, calling in response. It sounded weary and intelligent and real, a kind heart being lured towards certain death.

“Hey! Can you hear me? I’m on my way!” How kind of them, to have given Nicole this chance. She did not wonder where they had come from or who they were. She thought only of the boy falling from the cliff, pushed off by the beast.

Nicole loaded her rifle and noticed the truth of the situation almost too late.

The beast would lure the victim off the cliff to certain death, of course. That was its plan, but Nicole stood between the victim and the cliff and the beast. She had to choose.

I have my chance! I have to take it, shoot the beast! I might not get one again!

But she’ll die, whispered her heart, low as a muted song through two steel walls. Walls she must have built, somewhere between Levi and the thirtieth circle. While you turn the corner and fire, she will plummet to her death.

What does it matter! I die regardless! The Beast never eats again! No more circles! People are saved!

But she could live. She doesn’t have to die.

BUT THE BEAST WILL LIVE!

Hey! I’m coming!”  called the approaching victim.

Nicole was already running up the hill, feeling her humanity rush back to her side with every step. She could not let this occur. She heard the woman approaching, the calling promises of safety to comfort a voice in need. Nicole might already be too late. But she could not stand by and let this happen. Wasn’t that why she entered the forest in the first place? What had happened to her, to make her hesitate?

She could live. I save this woman, I get her off the mountain. She could survive this if I intervene.

“I’m here! I’m coming!” Faster now, closer. 

Her legs did not burn, but she knew she could damage the muscles if she overworked them. Her brain seemed to have lost its sense of limitations as if she was full of adrenaline constantly. She thundered uphill just in time to see a flash of brown hair step off a cliff.

Nicole threw herself forward with all her new-found strength, gripping the woman’s pack handles and throwing her back several yards to safety. A cracking sound announced something had broken, and for an instant Nicole panicked, but when the woman turned and stood with fire in her eyes, she realized it was only the camera around her neck.


Whatever happens, I need to her to survive. That I promise.

Chapter Text

Waverly dreamed of whispers. She woke up with the strange feeling that someone had been speaking to her, murmuring secrets and insults in her ears, telling her things that made tears sting in her eyes and despair crush her to pieces. The last vestiges of the dream left, and all she had to show for it was a horrible headache. Feelings of dull anger and hurt followed her to consciousness.

Her head felt like a washing machine on high with a brick inside it.

Waverly didn’t know where the description came from, but it felt apt. Each morning bird call added another brick and she wished desperately for the off button. Something had pulled her out of her deep feverish sleep and woken her. It was a sick feeling of anxiety, perhaps the equivalent of waking up in the middle of the night and remembering you left the oven on, or remembering that you completely forgot to clean your wound before falling asleep.

When she opened her eyes (eye) she realized the depth of the problem. Or, more specifically, could not perceive the depth of the problem.

The pain in her skull actually resided on half her face. A hand raised to her heated cheek confirmed it: the wound she had taken last night had become swollen and infected overnight. It made her left eye completely useless. She wouldn’t have much time before new symptoms appeared.

She rolled over and flopped onto someone else. She strangled the scream before it came, realizing it was only Nicole. She didn’t blame herself for her initial fear - Nicole was pale, almost gaunt, and looked very not good at all.  A thundering pulse rate told Waverly she didn’t have a lot of time.

Looking at her there, perhaps on the edge of death itself, and she wanted nothing more than to curl up into a ball and cry. They had beaten the beast itself, it lay dead outside, perhaps already rotting, but they were both succumbing to their injuries. What a beautiful irony.

She refused to give up so easily. She leaned over, checking Nicole’s arm splint and bandages, and decided on a plan.

Fire first.

Waverly stepped outside the tent to greet the morning with a quiet curse.

The aftermath of the battle had left their things scattered hurricane-like around the dead fire. She spent precious minutes gathering their supplies and working out a way to get enough wood. She hummed to herself and tried to dispel the lingering unease. She saw herself working mindlessly, as if she was taking a back seat on a boat, a boat tugged along by a rope pulled by a stranger, her mind drifting in and out of focus as she continued through her short plan.

Still, anxiety plagued her.

Unable to take it anymore, she ceased her wood gathering and picked up the radio.

(Not yet,) a whisper in her mind told her, prickling through her brain like frost, (put that down. Later.)

The rope pulled her boat off course, promising that they had just missed a rock, but she saw it was only a wave. Why? Why not use the radio now, why not try to tune the frequency and call for help-

(Put it down,) the whisper told her.

Waverly put it down, brow furrowed and mind clouded by fever.

(Continue work on the fire. Forget the radio exists,) it commanded.

Waverly nodded at the thought and got back to work, completely forgetting the radio.

The forest watched her. She could feel it in every breeze that shook the trees, in every distant call of an animal, in every blade of grass she stepped on to repair their campsite. Waverly felt if she might turn fast enough or look quick enough, she would find eyes watching her from the treeline. Every time she checked (and she was embarrassed at how often she checked) there was nothing there.

She kicked at the fire, angry that the smoke wasn’t dense enough to show very far. She had gathered a ton of wood, but it wasn’t enough. “Think, Waverly. Think.” But it was hard with infection pounding in her skull. Leaves. Leaves on the fire so the smoke would show. She felt a mental tug towards the line of trees. It made sense, so she followed the thought.

Her spine was bristling with unease without obvious reason. It felt like she was in the eye of a storm and the wall was coming, she could taste it on the wind, and though the sky was clear and blue, every time she looked up she expected it to be a broiling gray.

After stacking four armfuls of leaves onto the waiting fire, she decided to check on the body of the Beast, just to make absolutely sure it was dead.

Waverly steeled herself and marched towards it.

It was still huddled there in a pile, strange matted fur covering an emaciated body. “Hey there, Ugly,” Waverly greeted the miserable corpse. It didn’t respond, it couldn’t. The chest did not rise and the stench of rot confirmed it was well and truly dead.

She inspected it in the bright sunlight. How different it appeared! She knelt, trying to apply basic biology to the creature, but it didn’t appear to make sense. It looked like it had been starving, but it had killed deer and left them in trees. Surely, a beast this fast and powerful had plenty to eat here, where deer were so numerous they were almost a plague.

And it looked old. Fur tinged with gray, far too many scars, wrinkles set deep in its twisted face. Something about the beast screamed that it was ancient, eternal, and had roamed this forest for decades or perhaps centuries.  

Okay, so the monster being my boyfriend theory is out.

But it paused…

It had made sense at the time. The local legend she was relying on seemed to fit, but it didn’t, not anymore. This was no Skinwalker at all.

An idea struck Waverly and she laughed. Maybe it had paused out of sheer confusion. A fatal mistake caused by her boyfriend’s dumb name.

“Nicole, get this --” But she stopped, surprised by herself. She’s unconscious, dummy. Waverly stood, hurried, aware that delirium would be fatal.

But it bothered her that she had been wrong. That didn’t happen often at all if she was feeling honest and a little self-confident. Something in the rush of the past day had led her to believe such a thing, and now to find that she was incorrect almost didn’t make any sense. In fact, if she was still being honest, things hadn’t made sense since she woke up. It must be the fever.

But if it wasn’t what she thought it was, then what was it? The headache split her skull. Some part of her mind was clinging to her earlier assumption of the Beast’s nature like the last rung on a too-short ladder. The drop terrified her and she didn’t know why.

(It’s dead. Don’t over think it.) Waverly stood and brushed her hands together as if washing herself of the worry.

Yet she stood looking at the corpse for a bit longer. It looked almost disappointing in the daylight. Smaller now that the dark wasn’t messing with her imagination. A stench of rot rose from it, but not just from the body, she saw as she leaned down, but from the ground. A tinge of frost and death had touched the ground beneath it. It was a good thing it wasn’t laying in the river.

(It’s dead. Leave it to rot,) suggested a familiar whisper in her head. She felt herself agreeing with it. It was right, after all.

Waverly shuddered nervously and left it there, walking back to the campsite and focusing on the next item on her list: Food. If she passed out from hunger or weakness, she would damn their chances of survival.

Working the fire once more, she watched the smoke curl into the sky. It would have to do for now. She ducked into the tent and paused, just watching Nicole breathe. She knelt down beside her and gently checked her vitals -- better. She seemed to have hit a stable point, though she still seemed twenty steps from death.

She grabbed some of her granola bars, sat down next to Nicole, and began to think. Waverly ate carefully, to avoid upsetting her stomach, and grew restless.

Symptoms.

Rapid breathing, chills. Rapid heartbeat. Momentary Confusion. Sweating. Headache.

She didn’t have nausea yet, which was a blessing. She downed some water and ate as slow as she could stand, trying to remember the word for her condition and feeling it slip from her grasp like a wet fish. She gave Nicole some water, careful as she could, because Nicole was still out like a light.

Slowly her emotions and worries seemed to wash up to her and crest, no longer dammed behind the wall of constant action. She sighed and curled up close to herself. A bone weariness knocked on her door and let itself in, and she relaxed against the packs next to Nicole.

“I’m trying to think what I should do once we’re rescued,” Waverly said to the quiet tent after she couldn’t take it anymore. She paused to eat. Nicole remained asleep. “I have a bucket list, you know? Not much to do in a small town, really. So I’d just add and add, all these things that scared me and excited me, like skydiving.” She brushed manners away and talked through her chewing. She was talking to herself, after all.

Autumn light filtered into the tent, giving it a surreal feeling, like a dream. Almost as if everything outside was different. They were camping together and there was no Beast, no Monster, no getting lost, no injury. They might go fishing, or bird-watching, or even take a photo together at the top of the mountain.

“I want to finish my degree,” she spoke into the silence of the tent, “I love hiking, but… I’m not sure I’ll be able to return to the woods for a while. Is it weird I don’t want to stay away forever? It feels weird. I mean, not here, of course not here, I mean that would be ridiculous but I,” she breathed, “I just like it. I don’t think I’ll ever go alone ever again. Maybe I’ll pack more weapons.”

She laughed. It was small, but it made her feel immensely better. For a long time, she chewed and watched the sunlight play shadows on the floor of the tent. She listened to Nicole’s breathing and found it oddly soothing. She almost nodded off a few times, but woke herself up at the last moment.

“Maybe I should go home,” she whispered to keep herself awake, “but it’s never really felt like home. My dad and my eldest sister are dead. My other sister ran off when I was young. I was raised by my aunt and uncle.” Tears arrived, unbidden and unwanted. She hadn’t cried over this for years, but the stress of the situation got to her. She continued, slowly, choking on her own words, “Sometimes I just wish I had something in my life that would stay still for one goddamn second. Even I can’t seem to.”

That’s why she had Champ. With a stupid legal name and a stupid idea about safety. Cheating, messy, ignorant Champ. But he was a rock in a world of liquids. He was there. But, Waverly realized, she was clinging to him out of sheer nostalgia. Outside of High School things had changed. Champ would leave often, just like the others in her life.

She turned to hiking, to photography, to history and obscure knowledge. Anything to escape.

She was staring at the roof of the tent, blinking back tears, when something touched her hand. She bit back a scream before she glanced down and realized it was Nicole. Her vision blurred but she could make out Nicole’s gentle and concerned gaze.

Then she really did cry, big heaving sobs into the small tent as Nicole rubbed her hand soothingly. She covered her face with her arms and heard shifting. An arm came around her, pulling her close, and she cried into a shirt.

“I’m sorry, it’s stupid --”

Nicole shushed her gently, rubbing soothing circles into Waverly’s back with one arm. “It’s okay to cry,” she whispered into Waverly’s hair.

What a silly thing to cry over , Waverly thought darkly. We just killed a monster and I’m crying over my family.

But Nicole when held her tighter and whispered quiet words of comfort to her, nothing else seemed to matter.

Waverly did not care that they both stank to high heaven, coated in sweat and grime and dried blood. She did not care that Nicole’s splint made it awkward and borderline uncomfortable. She did not care that outside, the Beast’s corpse rotted in the sunlight. She clung to Nicole like a lifeline, careful not to irritate her own injury, and cried.

 

Long moments passed as they held each other. Nicole held her loosely, protectively, and ignored the whispering in her head and the hunger in her body. Waverly was upset, and god damn it if anything could stop her from comforting her new found friend. And if it was a bit too fond a friendship, that was just right, for it helped her concentrate on what mattered.

(eat her eat her by god kill her and finally stop the hunger just do it so easy just kill her do it)

I swore to myself to see her survive this, she thought, like a lone knight on midnight watch.

Nicole knew such thoughts would not be enough, that the time would come that she would be forced into decision before free will was taken from her. She was prepared, she had been prepared the first time she stepped past that NO TRESPASSING sign, Nicole had known in her bones that her life was over.

It had been three or four months, she reckoned, since she had gone missing. That was enough time to mourn, but she would leave almost no one behind.

Waverly’s tears faded to nothing, and Nicole held her as she rested. She deserved a break. After all, the beast was dead.

At the far edge of Nicole’s hearing, just under the audible level, it was more an impression than a physical sound - she could hear it laughing. A headache cracked itself open as she felt her mind twist.

No , she thought desperately, Waverly was right, she had been right in the forest with the name she had been about to say, she knew exactly what it was and now it is dead and finished and --

Stop lying to yourself! You know exactly what it is! You knew the whole time, and you misled her intentionally to think the wrong thing! You could say the truth if you could only fight it, you weak coward! YOU played along!

Nicole bit back a sob of frustration and guilt, unable to identify what was her or the sickness, what she had done herself or read from a script, what she had been nudged and convinced to do or what she wanted to do. Every time she felt the need to wander off the path she was forced back onto it and the path was leading her the wrong way.

If she opened her mouth and said the wrong thing, it would punish her, she felt it in her bones. Or did she feel anything? Did she even have bones or feelings? Wait -- What did she know? What did she want to say?

Already her grip on reality was slipping again and hunger gnawed at her.The beast’s laughter was running through her veins like a scream from a night terror.

The growing unease she had felt creeping around the tent seeped in through the fabric and she shivered. The woman she held muttered in her half-sleep. The trees around the tent rattled and the temperature inside dropped like a dead man - quick and boneless, causing goosebumps to crawl up her arms. She held on tighter.

(I made you lie I will make you forget I made Levi--)

Shut up! I saw you die!

( -- pull the trigger I will make you pull the trigger do it do it)

“Hey” Nicole said quietly, exhausted from the mental war that was being awake. Time seemed to be running out, and this person had to wake up, or things would go Very Wrong.

“Five more minutes,” Waverly said blearily into Nicole’s shirt.

Adorable stranger.

(kill her)

Nicole swallowed hard. “You are dying ,” Nicole stated. And it was true, she could feel it like the temperature in the room and the heat of this person’s skin -- the infection was burning deep in the smaller woman and time was running out.

“Shit, that’s not good,” Waverly said, blinking awake and rubbing a hand over her face. She yelped in pain and Nicole felt a lurch. “Shit, that’s very not good.”

 

Waverly came awake with a bitter battle and extricated herself from Nicole’s arms. The woman slumped over, murmuring quiet ‘ no ’s. Waverly felt her heart pang with concern and checked Nicole’s condition. She was asleep again, her pulse slightly too fast, her skin still clammy.

After double checking, Waverly swallowed a ball of worry. She couldn’t do anything for Nicole except find help. It was time to get to work. She took a deep breath and steadied herself among her fear, her unease, and exhaustion. She stood up and went outside.

She forced herself to focus on gathering leaves and wood, building the fire higher and higher, working herself to the bone with each trip. It had to be visible. It had to work.

It was a haze, a heady fog. Waverly felt half-awake as she worked, moments of time spent in complete confusion interspersed with clarity.

Then she froze mid step as she felt like she wasn’t alone. She turned around this way and that, searching for the source, but she was alone. Her delirium was getting worse and it seemed to be getting colder as the sun passed its apex. She had to hurry.

She worked mechanically, checking off the mental list. Firearms: Check. Fire still burning: Check. Still alive: Check. If she let her mind wander she felt like she might cry, or worse, give up. She gathered more leaves and piled them on, desperate for anything to do that wasn’t trying to answer the endless questions that sprinted through her.

She clung to the last rung of the ladder. Nicole was in shock and the beast was dead. She had to focus.

She shivered and her blood seemed to buzz with cold. Time was almost up. She stumbled towards the tree line just in time to lose what she had already eaten, putting their situation from ‘pretty damn bad’ to ‘dire.’ She forced herself to slow down and try and get liquids instead.

Septicemia? Symptoms match. Oh, no. I am dying.

It was a bizarre feeling, how calm she felt.

She paused, drinking water like her life depended on it (which it did) and observed the word around them. It looked normal - Birds fluttered through the sky, the trees moved and swayed in natural rhythm, she could see bugs and plants busy with living. But it felt, or almost tasted , wrong. A painting with a secret behind it , she thought. The secret is behind a door that she hadn’t the key to, she must have misplaced it, somewhere along the infected thoughts of her brain, somewhere she was clinging to something that wasn’t letting her see the truth.

(It is time for the radio, now. Go to it,) something ordered.

What radio? Then she remembered, like a curtain in her brain being drawn back.

Waverly found herself at the radio without being aware of the space of time in between. She lifted it in her hand and held it as it squawked and bickered at her, regardless what dial she turned. It was as if the thing was alive and pissed.

(Nicole will know.)

She took the angry device and entered the tent. It seemed an intrusion to bring the thing in here, but it stopped its tirade as soon as she stepped inside.

Nicole muttered in her sleep and turned over as Waverly sat down. Her eyes fluttered open and stared at Waverly in confusion. “Who are you?” she asked quietly, surprisingly lucid, an eyebrow raised in question.

“Uhm.” Waverly said, momentarily stunned at the change, “Waverly?” She fiddled with the radio nervously, though unsure the source of her blossoming anxiety. This seemed… entirely new. The earlier chill had receded.

Wow, ” Nicole breathed reverently, almost as if it hadn’t been meant to be said aloud, staring at Waverly like she was a constellation instead of a dirty, frightened woman. Waverly stared back in open bemusement. Nicole seemed flustered . The blushing woman swallowed hard, shaking herself out of her momentary awe. “I-- I’m, I’m Nicole. Nicole Haught.” She stuck out her uninjured hand for a handshake.

Waverly stared at it in confusion for a full ten seconds. Then she gently took it. This is absurd, Waverly thought as they shook hands, she’s acting like we’re on a city street and not dying in the woods. Waverly met Nicole’s stare and something fluttered in her chest. Soft brown eyes regarded her with such friendly charm she found herself playing along. “Hi,” she replied nervously.

“Hi.” Nicole grinned and Waverly forgot words. “Why are you in my cabin? Not that I mind.” Nicole swept her eyes over Waverly, just brief enough to hint at the meaning. Waverly was used to it, she had worked at a bar during her college days, but the way Nicole smiled at her and her eyes contained a hint of something deeper made her blush and shift nervously. This was different, and not just because Nicole was a woman. It was nice.

Immediately Nicole’s expression softened with concern when Waverly fidgeted, “Is something wrong? I’m sorry, did I--”

“No -- the radio,” Waverly rushed out, thinking quickly. She wanted to say No, nothing is wrong, not when you look at me like that. She swallowed, closing her eyes briefly, “It’s... not working.”

A soft, warm hand dotted with calluses gently wrapped over hers. Waverly opened her eyes to that same kind expression that took her words away, and now it stole her breath and caused her already rushing heart to sprint and try to fly.

“Let me,” Nicole offered, whisper quiet, running her palm gently over Waverly’s hands to convince her to release her death grip. Waverly bit her lip, letting go slowly, regretting the loss of Nicole’s hand immediately. This is confusing on so many levels, she thought.

She stared openly as Nicole’s long fingers turned the dial. This is the fever, most definitely the fever, Waverly thought , this is getting ridiculous.

“... has been spotted, appears to be man-made...” reported the radio.

“There,” Nicole said with a bright smile of triumph that made Waverly’s ribcage feel filled with birds, “You just had the wrong frequency.”

“...consider investigation… confirm, over...”

A cold ran into the tent like a burglar, stealing the moment and leaving fear behind. It was as if a third person had entered, bringing a rush of frosted air with it.

“Wait,” Nicole hissed, face going hard and voice finding an edge, “ Wrong one .” Confusion and pain marred her face as she twisted the dial again and the static changed. She glared at the thing as if her gaze alone could be transmitted.

“Here.” Nicole almost shoved it in Waverly’s face. “Try it now. Signal them ,” she said -- No, she ordered.

Waverly swallowed, looking back at wide and feverish eyes. Her mouth felt like a dry canyon as she decided whether or not to comply. Slowly, as if not to spook the other woman, she wrapped her hand around the radio. Her skin brushed Nicole’s and goosebumps ran up her arm. She was freezing.

After she managed to get her muscles responding again, Waverly keyed the mike, unsure what could be on this new frequency. “Hi.” Her voice cracked and she winced. “Requesting medical assistance, please.” She paused, unsure. “Over.”

She expected the frequency was empty, that she was speaking into the void. Then a few seconds later, a response.

“How did you get this frequency, over?” A dumbfounded voice responded, all radio etiquette out the window at this new development.

There was a pause as Waverly swallowed hard. That did not sound very rescue-like. With Nicole staring at her like that, she could not tell the truth. “We need urgent medical help, over,” she stated, trying not to let her voice shake too much.

“Civilian? Where are you located, over?

Then Nicole was in her face, leaning forward and gripping the radio. Waverly swallowed a surprised scream, she hadn’t even seen Nicole move. Their breathing came out as mist in the tent. The muscles in her jaw simply gave up.

The fevered woman lifted the radio and spoke into it, with a rapid-fire series of numbers and words. Waverly did not catch them, she was too busy trying not to pass out as her heart threatened to quit and go home early. Just when she thought things couldn’t get any more disturbing, they go and surprise her.

“10-4, ETA forty-five minutes, over.”

Did she just recite exact coordinates? Waverly thought, astounded and terrified at the same time.

Crack!

Waverly let out a shriek and crawled backward frantically as the radio exploded in Nicole’s fist. Nicole stared in anguished horror at her hand, skin torn and bleeding from the sharp plastic. “ What just happened?” Nicole cried out, on the verge of complete panic, “Did I just destroy the radio?”

Waverly fainted.

 

A fever dream came, hot and laced with nonsense, in which she and Nicole were playing chess against the beast. It couldn’t move a single piece, its claws were too long. It knocked over its own king and wailed in despair. It was almost human in the way it ran its hand against its face and fought to keep its cool.

A silent forest watched the game.

Nicole had her hand on a rook and was filled with indecision. Waverly eyed her curiously, struck by an odd idea that Nicole wouldn’t save their queen, and would instead rush headlong across the board into a trap and lose them the game.

Then the beast wailed again, trying to move a pawn and knocking over its remaining pieces in the process. It did not give up, no, it persisted . Eventually, only six pieces remained on the board and the beast looked genuinely upset, almost as if it might cry.

“It’s okay,” Waverly said gently to the poor thing, “Just find someone with smaller hands.”

 

A cool cloth rubbed soothing circles on her face as Waverly came to. She kept her eyes shut. No more. She refused to wake up to the nightmare. She quit, she was done, she was putting in her two-weeks notice and she wasn’t coming back.

“Waverly,” a sweet voice whispered. If that voice could talk to her forever, things would be all right.

“No,” Waverly responded, almost petulant. Leave a message after the beep. Waverly is not home. She is on vacation in Italy, thank you very much, and she doesn’t intend to return anytime soon. You will receive a postcard.

“Don’t make me resuscitate you.” The cloth did not cease its movements. It carefully avoided the hot, sensitive skin of her wound, instead wiping away dirt and sweat everywhere else.

If she kept her eyes closed, she was by the pool in the sunlight and a beautiful attendant was helping her. If she moved her right hand she’d pick up a glass of something expensive. Cognac? Champagne? She had a book on the table she was halfway through.

“Mm.” Waverly smiled, still not opening her eyes. “Brush your teeth first,” she teased.

“I’m holding you to that,” Nicole replied slyly. Her voice became quietly serious, “Waverly.” A hand brushed away her hair from her face. “You need to get up, I-I, I can’t do this without you.” She swallowed audibly, “I only have one functioning arm.”

That is not something a pool attendant would say, Nicole, she wanted to chide and grimaced. It was time to get up.

Waverly sighed and opened her eyes, taking in Nicole like a long drink. She wished desperately to have met her in any place but this. She was breathtaking, even in the dim light and dirty clothing, something both enticing and terrifying, and Waverly clung to these thoughts, even though they scared the pants off her, because if she didn’t she would have to think about The Situation.

The Situation, as it were, which made no sense:

  1. Nicole had been in shock and two steps from death the night before.
  2. Not… anymore? What even was happening with the other woman?
  3. What is happening in general?
  4. What was the monster, if not what she had originally assumed? (dead it’s dead)
  5. I am gayer than I originally thought. (Put this away, Waverly. Get it together.)
  6. Who did we signal on the radio? (and how did Nicole go all hulk-mode Exorcist?)
  7. How long do I have left?

She stared reluctantly at these puzzle pieces. The infection was causing the pictures to blur and the pieces to shift under her mental fingers. She had never felt so… inadequate . Her planning and intellect, which she had relied on so many times before, was inhibited.

Frustration as she seemed no closer to figuring it out. Nicole needed her.

Step by step , she thought, just one at a time. Focus on what is happening right now.

Right now Nicole needed her arms for something. “What do you need me to do?” Waverly asked, sitting up slowly as to not immediately faint. Everything seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for the next step, waiting for the next scene in the play to take place. Afterward, a standing ovation. But first, the players had to take the stage.

“I can’t say,” Nicole replied, voice almost strangled.

“Show me?”

Nicole gently assisted her out of the tent and into the sunlight, limping slightly but showing no other signs of her dire injuries. Waverly ignored the little voice in her head that told her she should be scared of Nicole, of how her illness seemed to be changing her. Waverly was running out of energy to be scared of things, so something might as well remain calming to her. The fever made emotional reasoning sound like dollar store logic, but it made sense to Waverly and that was what mattered.

They had defeated a supernatural beast together, after all. That shit bonds for life .

She was jostled out of her thoughts at the sight of the Beast, lying dead at her feet as they had finally reached it.

“Do you know what this is, Waverly?” Nicole asked, whisper quiet. They were both breathing fast, remembering images of the night before. The wind rose like music.

The question was loaded with something Waverly couldn’t put her finger on.

Waverly was struck by an absurd thought. What’s my line? She felt the urge to ask, what’s my motivation for this scene? Director, here please! I need my cue!

Distant chopper blades came into hearing range to join the orchestra. Waverly stared at the beast, thinking hard. Myths and legends. Local Southwestern stories. They all blended together in a mush as her fevered brain ran through names.

(It is dead, why bother?)

But such things have never stopped her from seeking answers before. She wouldn’t be put off with such a weak excuse from her fevered brain. She clutched her head and tried to ignore the headache and growing unease.

The rot had spread, the temperature seemed to have dropped several degrees in that single area of the clearing.

Step by step she ran through her original thinking when she first entered the forest. “I need gloves,” Waverly requested, and Nicole limped off to comply. What I need is an axe, she thought. See if cutting it open would reveal any of its secrets.

She leaned down closer to it, keeping her hands to herself, unwilling to touch it. She could see her breath misting the air in front of her. Why did Nicole need her to know what it was? It was dead, wasn’t it?

Unless we should do something with the corpse.

Waverly stepped back.

Something like burning it, instead of letting it rot in the open.

She shoved a fist in her mouth to stop an outright scream.

Leaving it would, if was a completely different and particular type of mythical beast, cause mayhem.

But of course, it’s not that type of beast because you have believed the wrong thing for the past day and a half, leaving it to rot in the open, letting it do what it wanted, instead of finding the truth. That would be a big mistake, a very, very, very big mistake.

Oh my god! ” Waverly shrieked, stumbling back from the body. “Nicole!” Nicole did not answer, her line wasn’t up yet. She was off stage right, completing her own scene.

The cold, the voices, the possession - Oh, no. Oh, no no no no.

It’s been telling me what to do!

She turned her head and watched in horror as Nicole stamped out the last of the flames. The helicopter came into view, the roar of air buffeting them both and panicking the grass, the sound coming to crescendo.

Nicole! She screamed uselessly over the thunderous noise. The fire was well and truly dead, and Nicole wouldn’t hear her even if there was no helicopter. It could possess her at will. Waverly remembered the stories. All of them.

She turned back to the beast and felt sick to her stomach. It seemed to whisper smugly at her, a voice familiar to her, the seemingly sensible ideas that she now knew were not the fever or her subconscious --- it was the Beast. (You were too late to figure it out,) it mocked, (you cannot stop this from happening.  I have found someone with smaller hands, and that someone is you.)

(Your next stage direction is this: Run.)

It was a northern spirit, one she had thought of last simply because the location was wrong, one that would drive a person to insanity by a bite alone. Cannibalistic psychosis.

Spirit, not Beast. And they had just let it out! They had been mislead, their time wasted, and now time was running out to destroy it for good.

She could feel the rot crawling closer to her, following her feet as she sprinted across the clearing. The helicopter screamed into a landing and ceased its engine, silence filling the space and leaving Waverly deaf.

“You have to burn it!” She cried at the men who disembarked. They raised their rifles, mouthing words that she couldn’t hear, but she did not stop her heedless, headlong rush towards them, “You have to burn the body!”

But they won’t, no, they were called for this exact reason. They will take the body, they will take me and Nicole, and the Beast will ride along like a stowaway with the black plague.

When the tranquilizer struck her shoulder she collapsed to the soft grass, sobbing.

Flourish! Exeunt!

It had played them like a pack of cards. Her mind fogged, her reliance on Nicole manipulated, she could trust nothing. She fell forward into blackness, the rapid heartbeat in her ears sounding like applause.

 

Chapter Text

The second day after the body arrived, things started to change.

A few workers found themselves waking up, getting ready, taking the long commute to work, suffering the dense traffic on the main highway, passing Security and into their favorite parking spot, getting out of the car, shutting the door and locking it, and finding themselves deciding there wasn’t anything in the world that could make them go into work today.

So they would get in their cars and go home.

At first it was peculiar as the absent slips started pouring in. Distant relatives suddenly died, doctor appointments became first priority, different sicknesses struck about seventy-five percent of people on the third and seventh floor. But somebody’s cousin’s brother’s neighbor said he was a graveyard digger, and he swears it picks up in winter and it’s nothing to worry about. Another person’s doctor says it might be flu season, allergies, a cold going around. The guy in office nineteen swears somebody cursed the whole damn office, but nobody likes him so that rumor fell flat.

In Building One, which held the cafeteria, rumors circulated like the false flu. About eight people at the Favored Printer (the one that almost never breaks down) witnessed three different people start spontaneously crying. Four others broke out in a fist-fight. Pregnancy, someone suggested. Bill can’t get pregnant, someone else interjected.

No one noticed that the cafeteria itself seemed to have more and more people and less and less talking.

After the fourth week it became routine. If an employee hears somebody sobbing in the bathroom again, they know not to pay attention. A worker fainted again, just put them in the recovery position and get back to work. That little old lady secretary that has been dealing with the Second Floor Shitheel for the past week suddenly snaps and tears his throat out with her purple painted fingernails, don’t worry; It’s just stress.

Stress doesn’t explain the flickering lights, malfunctioning microwaves, strange misspelled emails, and computers opening google docs and typing ‘ eat eat eat eat eat’ over and over again. Lost tempers and hissed words of vague warning became commonplace. Everyone started bringing in coats and jackets as the newly-installed heating system failed in a catastrophic event that left half of building two uninhabitable for two weeks.

It was as if a deadline was approaching that the whole facility was waiting for.

A rather perceptive woman noticed that no one in Building Three was having the same problems, so she called in help.

“No gas leak,” said the surveyor after he had examined all of Buildings One and Two, “Could’ve sworn it would be carbon monoxide, but it ain’t. Isn’t, I mean. Anyone else hungry?”

“Maybe them radio waves we working with,” supplied a helpful man from cubicle thirty-five, unaware that they had been working with them all year and it didn’t make sense for the sudden change. The man in the next cubicle politely informed him of this and called him a dumbass.

“I guess it must be the weather,” the man who repairs the printer said.

“Somebody said it might be a ghost,” the office gossip said nonchalantly. Who believed in ghosts anymore? Not her, certainly. “Maybe someone should ask a marshall.”

On the same floor, about twenty seconds after her comment, a meeting abruptly ended with every single person inside falling asleep.

“Are you kidding?” asked The Easily Upset Printer Repair Man, “No one, and I mean no one, is going to bother the marshalls about something this small. Seriously, guys, just chill, it’s the early snow.”

All six quit their jobs at the end of the day. When asked, they all said the same thing: “Something told me it was time.”

The transfer date for the corpse of the beast passed without response. All inquiries from Black Rock went directly to voicemail or the bored intern in Building One. The corpse remained sealed in its temporary home in the basement laboratory of Building Three.

Deputy Marshall Dolls, who had intentionally moved his office to Building Two for the duration of his visit, was bothered from the first day Doc came into his office, mustache twitching, saying they had received two victims and a never-before-seen ‘beastie.’ Dolls watched and waited for the victims to wake. He had a lot of patience and Tylenol.

Halfway across the country, Wynonna Earp received a call on her recently bought replacement phone. “Your sister, Waverly Earp, is gravely injured,” the man on the line said, “The address has been provided, along with the time of your appointment.”

She was on a plane within the hour.

The few who had held out hope for three entire years had a slip arrive in the mail stating Nicole Haught’s body had been recovered. There were four typos, the address was invalid, and the font was Papyrus. Her cat, who was agitated by almost anything, had a particular dislike for these notices that caused three stitches and two furniture replacements.

Champ Hardy found himself on a plane to Colorado without knowing how he got there. He was headed to an appointment, but he couldn’t remember how or where. He simply went.

Robert ‘Bobo’ del Ray, a disgruntled employee of Building Three, found himself sleeping less and working more. Whenever he could, he assigned himself to researching the Beast. When it came time to investigate a hands-on approach, he was the first to volunteer.

It was a Tuesday morning. Forty-five people had not shown up to work. Twenty had left during the morning shift citing personal reasons. A meeting room on the second floor had frost in the windows. The bathroom in Building One was flooded with ice water. Three-fourths of the janitorial staff was on strike, citing strange goings-on that were disregarded by higher-ups. Conversations were hushed and quiet, seeing as the manager on floor six had died of a heart attack just that morning, complaining of being ravenous.

Every single employee in Building Three showed up exactly on time for their shift.

That Tuesday morning, three different doctors called Deputy Marshall Dolls requesting he show up that day for a very important all-day appointment. Vague relatives he hadn’t spoken to in decades called at absurd hours of the night demanding he schedule a vacation and come and see them. His car had broken down. His keys had gone missing. His bank called him and said charges had been made to his card that weren’t his. His suits had somehow gotten stains all over them, each a different type. He made it to work two hours late, after finally finding someone who was actually showing up and could take him along.

That Tuesday, at about six AM, Waverly Earp’s sedatives wore off and she woke up fully for the first time.

 

At first, the sedatives kept her under and she dreamed of the forest.

Waverly could not remember details, but she remembered the emotions, the pain and the darkness lingering on like dust in a passing train; the dust caught in her lungs and she forced herself to cough, to try again and again and again to clear her body of the fear and dread but there was a tube, there was something blocking it, hands holding her down and yelling and this beeping, the beeping would drive her back to the forest clearing and the waiting.

And again she would dream.

In and out like breathing or a broken light switch that worked half the time. Questions. For a while they went on without response, then she felt herself answering them. It sounded like nonsense to her, but clarity returned slowly and with it came its new best friend, despair.

“Name?”

“Waverly Earp.”

“Age?”

“Twenty-four.”

That was how far they would get as she woke up fully and blinked away the bright lights and the dust of the dream. They would try again sometimes, “Where do you live?”,”Why were you past the sign?”, “Who is your closest relative?”, “How do we contact them?”

But the answer was always, “Where’s Nicole?”

The hushed whispering made her ask again and again. More fading in and out.

A condescending man with glasses once sat in the corner on the chair like a lawyer dictating to the jury, saying words like “dead,” “passed,” “unfortunate circumstance,” “dog attack,” but Waverly sat up and looked into his eyes and saw The Beast staring back at her.

Orange eyes full of cunning. It was mimicry, just like the cries for help, but except this time it was saying such terrible lies that Waverly could feel her teeth itch. So she screamed and screamed, “Get out! Get out !” and he looked so surprised at first, as if his ploy had worked so many times and he didn’t understand why it suddenly didn’t work now, but Waverly knew the truth.

The man returned a few times, a literal super villain in tow. They looked at her in a distant and disconnected way, as if she was a table lamp and not an injured person. Why was that man’s beard dyed? She would fall asleep to this question and wake to it.

More lies, marching past her one by one. She’s dead. She’s gone. Unfortunate, how unfortunate. What a brutal attack by a bear, a dog, a rabid deer. Rabies, that’s it.

Waverly wanted to punch him, but she was handcuffed to the hospital bed. Maybe she had tried before.

 

That fateful Tuesday morning, Waverly opened her eyes to a complete stranger.

He had glasses, yes, but this man was entirely different. The main difference that instead of a tight regulation suit, he relaxed in casual clothing, lazily perched on the chair instead of stiff-backed professionalism. He was reading a book and looked entirely engrossed.

She noticed she was no longer restrained to the hospital bed, nor did she have a tube in her mouth. White walls and harsh fluorescent lights greeted her, and she considered whether she was in hell or a very boring hospital.

A desert of hot garbage had taken up residence in her mouth. “Hi,” she said quietly to the man reading and winced at how out-of-use her vocal cords sounded.

The bookmark shifted into place and the man looked up. “How are you feeling?” he asked, putting those adorable glasses away. He looked quite intimidating without them, Waverly thought. A military man.

The events of the incident returned slowly to her. Feelings and impressions first, then pictures. Vivid flashes of the Beast that caused her to close her eyes lest she start screaming. But the last thing she wanted to do was stay in this room any longer than necessary. “Better.”

The man raised an eyebrow.

“Who are you?” she asked quickly.

“Deputy Marshall Dolls.” He set the book aside. “And you, Waverly Earp, showed up with a corpse in tow.”

Corpse? Her heart cracked. “A woman?”

“No, the woman you were with is in recovery, asleep. I am talking about the animal.”

Relief hit her so hard she almost missed his wording. “You mean the thing with two hooves, sharp claws, and a human-like face?” She shot up like a weasel. “Did you burn it?”

Dolls considered her for a long moment. “Why?”

“It can…” She paused, thinking about how crazy it would sound. But she had to try, didn’t she? “It can do... Things .” Very eloquent.

“Things?” He leaned forward, immediately interested.

She swallowed the lump in her throat. “Suggest... Things.” When Dolls gave her a flat look she tried again. What exactly had it done? What part of it was the Beast, and what part of it was the fever? “Tell you to use a radio or put out a fire or --”

“...not come into work?”

“Yes! Exactly. Stuff like that,” Waverly confirmed eagerly. She winced and looked at Dolls, expecting him to look at her like she was crazy, but no, he looked as if he believed it. Not only did he seem to believe it, he seemed genuinely worried behind that poker face of his.

“Clothes on the chair. Shower in the bathroom. Five minutes.” Dolls was out the door before she could ask why it would bother to tell someone not to come into work or how he considered five minutes an appropriate amount of time for a shower.

“Oooo-kay then,” Waverly commented to the empty room, then hurried to comply. Her legs felt wobbly and underused, but it was nothing that she couldn’t get past. A bandage on her face greeted her as she slipped into the bathroom and out of her clothes.

Heaven descended upon her in the form of a shower. She swore angels were singing a chorus as the water washed away all of the leftover grime in her hair. If she kept her eyes open and turned her back to the shower head, it could have been the best experience in her life.

Except, whenever she closed her eyes, the Beast was waiting.

The shower quickly turned into a fruitless struggle to keep from closing her eyes, so she quickly dried off. She stopped before the mirror, wondering whether or not to glance under the bandage. It was large, it covered nearly half her face, and the thought of what lay underneath made her want to cry.

So she scrubbed at her teeth instead, desperate to get the taste of antibiotic out of her mouth, but it was a doomed effort. She put the clothes on (her own, washed) and walked out the door right into Dolls.

“Eight minutes, Earp.” He glowered.

“Sorry,” she lied.

 


 

Nicole Haught’s shower experience was less than heavenly.

She found herself shocked awake by hands pushing her into freezing cold water. Soap was given to her by a disembodied arm and a sharp voice. She washed and tried to ignore her growing concern about what lurked outside the shower curtain, instead trying to concentrate on remembering who she was and where she had been.

Answers came slowly. They escaped like birds into the night when she was shoved in plain white clothes and told to throw a ball at a target as hard as she could.

It obliterated the target, and then itself when it struck the wall behind it.

Nicole Haught, she thought as she was asked to run as fast as she could on a treadmill, Search and Rescue.

Nicole Haught, she thought as her reflexes were tested again and again by dissatisfied looking hazmat suits, Search and Rescue.

Nicole Haught, she thought as she finally received her food for the day. It tasted like home and blood, comfort and savagery, like Thanksgiving with relatives who just crawled from the grave, and she ate all of it. It was the only thing that did not taste like ash. Search and Rescue.

 Tuesday morning came without Nicole’s notice. It was no different than any other day. She was to follow instructions and go through the tests. She did not remember much about herself, only her name and former occupation.

“Subject,” spoke the speaker. It sounded eager today. “Report for clearance.”

Stand in a corner and await orders, it meant. She stood in the corner of the white-walled room and waited, repeating her name and job until it sounded like nonsense.

While she waited it seemed to grow colder than usual. The door to the Outside opened slowly and without a hazmat suit to accompany it. Familiar whispers came with it, an undeniable pull. She swallowed hard.

“Exit the cell.” This was an order she had never heard before.

Nicole Haught, she thought as she regarded the hallway that lay beyond the door. There was a pile of civilian clothes waiting for her. She put them on and stepped out of the cell. Search and Rescue.

People were in the hallway, but none of them looked at Nicole. They looked everywhere but Nicole. A few who walked too close looked at the ceiling instead. One stopped and tapped her shoulder, causing her to jump slightly. “Elevator’s that way,” the man said, pointing.

She headed for the elevator.

 


 

“Where am I?” Waverly queried as the walked through the halls.

“Government facility,” Dolls replied. A man of many words, Waverly thought. They passed empty gurneys before turning a corner into an office-like hallway.

Dolls’ phone buzzed and he answered before Waverly had time to register it had rung. He pointed to the room marked MEETING ROOM. “In.”

He very nearly shoved her inside and closed the door behind them. Waverly began to ask what was going on when he interrupted her. “Hide under the table.”

Waverly looked up. “I have a better idea.”

It was not a better idea.

After standing on the table, then standing on Dolls, then slipping past the dusty ceiling tiles into the space beyond, she realized this had worked a lot better in her head. She held onto a pipe with sweaty palms and her legs were on a pipe that was absolutely frigid. If she shifted, the tile would move, and dust would probably fall. Dolls helpfully shoved the tile back into place.

Before she could change her mind and get down, the door opened.

“...Deputy Marshal Dolls? What in the world were you doing in the meeting room?” a smooth and vaguely threatening voice asked.

Her hands were losing their grip. She shifted, wincing and praying that the tile did not move, and laid her entire forearm over the pipe. It creaked ominously. Please, she begged it, please.

“Del Rey.” Dolls replied flatly.

“Please, call me Bobo.” Waverly barely suppressed a nervous giggle. Seriously? Dolls? Bobo? Who was coming up with these names?

Footsteps. They circled the room and a voice drifted along with them, “Have you seen our guest?”

“Which one?”

“The smaller one.”

The pipe shifted under her legs. Waverly froze, both literally and figuratively. Burn marks would certainly mark her legs for weeks to come. Please hold. Please! She had no idea who this man was, or why he wanted her, only that she very much did not want to get caught by him.

“Why would I know?”

Sweat was running down her arms, forcing her to put more and more weight onto them as she tried not to shift. Her muscles screamed in protest.

“They have been... misplaced. If you see them, bring them to me.”

The vent next to her groaned with the pressure change and caused her to startle, shifting the tile. She held her breath. She was most certainly done for now. He probably wanted her for some sort of invasive testing, or something equally dramatic.

The pipe moved a half-inch, threatening to break under the weight.

Below, Bobo ran his hand through his hair absentmindedly, brushing the dust off of it. He did not notice. “I would stay in your office if I were you.”

“Advice noted.” Dolls gave him a nod and Bobo swept dramatically from the room, glaring, off to do whatever it was he had planned.

Waverly let go of the pipe, feeling it was about to snap and make a noise, her shoulders hitting the tile and causing it to bend. She shifted her legs, trying to keep her weight off of the tile, but she fell through the ceiling as she bit back a scream.

Dolls caught her.

There she was, covered in dust and sweat, in his arms. He scowled at her. “He looked under the table,” he muttered.

“Why is he looking for me?” Waverly asked while adjusting her clothing and brushing off the dust.

Dolls put her down as fast as he could, brushing the dirt off his own clothes, but only accomplishing in spreading it around. He sighed before answering. “No idea.” Dolls responded. “Let’s go. Don’t look at anyone. Don’t attract any attention.”

He handed her a lab coat and a hair tie. Waverly expected to be found out immediately, but once they were walking the halls the worry vanished. Employees and workers drifted aimlessly through the halls, muttering incomprehensible words and carrying boxes to and fro.

If this was a Government Facility, and they didn’t burn the body, then they were in a whole heap of trouble. Waverly felt her heart sink the more people she witnessed walk into walls and doors. It was cold and she knew it wasn’t the thermostat; It was the Beast, free to roam in a place with who knew how many weapons, experienced individuals, and disastrous resources.

They encountered two heavy sealed double-doors, which was peculiar since they were on the Sixth Floor. Dolls swiped his clearance and they were through, walking on an elevated bridge between buildings.

“That was Building Three,” Dolls stated, “this is Building Two.”

While it was still chilly, it looked altogether incredibly different. In fact, it struck her as a perfectly normal office, cubicles and all. People bustled past and chatted quietly, a few even muttering a brief recognition of the Marshall. They seemed overall normal if a little distracted. This did nothing to ease Waverly's growing anxiety. 

A few more turns and Dolls pushed open the door to what appeared to be his own office. It was dominated by a mahogany desk and a comfortable leather chair. Two other chairs took up the rest of the room, which was wallpapered by reports and information.

A mustached man looked up from his file at their entrance, putting it aside and standing. He tipped an invisible hat. “I’m Doc,” he offered his hand and Waverly accepted it with a smile. “Welcome back to the land of the awake, Miss Earp. Well, some of us are, anyhow.”

“Waverly,” she replied, confused as to why he sounded like a southern cowboy and not a medical professional. “What’s the plan?” She asked, eyeing the information around the room. She spotted something and darted forward before Dolls could answer. “You found this?” She pointed to a familiar looking monster.

Dolls quickly blocked her view with his body and stared her down. “Strictly classified.”

Waverly rolled her eyes. “I killed the thing. I think I have clearance.”

His mouth opened to respond then shut as he struggled to find words. Waverly slipped behind him and read the reports, thoughtful. “Is this some kind of X-files type government facility?”

Dolls gave her a flat look, which she didn’t notice, she was still staring at the photos on the wall. “Black Badge. Top secret, supernatural investigations.”

“Which one of you is Scully?” Waverly grinned.

“He is.”

“He is.”

Both pointed at the other, glowering.

“I’ll be Scully. You can both be Mulder,” Waverly suggested, half distracted. The research was pretty thorough, but something was missing.

“No, no. You are a civilian, you aren’t in this division.” Dolls stated, arms crossed. “First thing we do is get you out of here.”

The last thing Waverly Earp liked was being told to stay out of a fight.

Dolls, who did not know this, was unprepared for the onslaught that awaited him. Waverly Earp stood to her full height of 5’4 as if she was six foot and two hundred pounds of raw muscle. She might as well have been. The sheer force of her anger must have raised the room temperature a dozen degrees of stifling hot rage. She had faced down a supernatural beast of legend and won. Not only had she won, she had survived. She was not going to stand for being treated like some... child to be protected. Not when a bunch of innocent people were in danger, not when Nicole might wake up to this nightmare, not when she could make a difference.

Waverly Earp does not stay out of a fight. Waverly Earp does not hide.

“I have a better idea,” she began evenly, turning away from the reports and pinning both men with a steady glare, “ I explain how I killed the Beast the first time, what it can do, what it is, and how we will ultimately get rid of it.” Dolls opened his mouth to reply but Waverly raised a hand, stopping him, eyes blazing. “You haven’t accomplished anything except your half-baked attempts at identifying it. So far, on your watch , the super-secure ‘supernatural Black Badge’ facility, where I’m pretty sure you were supposed to know how to deal with this, has fallen under the spell of an ancient beast while you two just let it happen . So maybe I’ve given you two a bit too much credit. As the person who has successfully dispatched the beast once before , I should take point. Any objections?”

Total silence answered the rage of Waverly Earp.

The two men looked like the sun had dawned and it was screaming bloody murder. Doc had the biggest grin on his face as if he was a child in a candy store and Waverly had just handed him a toy gun. “I like her,” he commented to Dolls after a full minute of silence, “I like her a whole damn lot.”

It was a long time before Dolls said anything. His jaw tensed and relaxed as he mentally battled.

“Welcome to Black Badge,” he managed, still not happy with the situation.

 


 

Nicole Haught was thinking about elevators. The sign next to it said “YOU ARE HERE: BUILDING 3, FLOOR 0” But where was here?  She pressed the button again as if it would magically work. She stared at the wall for a long time, feeling nothing. Rescue and Search. Search and Rescue. Somewhere to her left, a feeling of intelligent menace. She wanted to get as far away from it as possible, but it was whispering to her quietly, enticing her to come to it.

Thoughts and memories were returning to her, slowly, ever so slowly, too slow. Vitally important knowledge lurked just at the edges of her brain, taunting her with shadows of their presence. She needed to remember.

“Oh there you are, sweetie!” an ecstatic voice called. Nicole turned, confused, only to see a rather short and happy doctor woman bustling over to her with the biggest smile on her face. “This way, this way.”

She found herself being pulled along, away from the elevator (Nicole Haught ) and down the hallway. (Search and Rescue )

It was a few turns before they arrived at a door that looked like every other door. The woman pulled it open and gently pushed Nicole into a room filled with guns.

Guns. All types. Military grade. Rifles, shotguns, explosives. Automatic and non-automatic. Nicole did not know names, but it seemed as if every type under the sun was represented somewhere in this room.

Nicole Haught. Search and Rescue.

The woman was talking again, Nicole almost missed it she was too busy staring at the assortment of weapons. “--and you’re going to be wearing this,” she said, bringing out a pile of clothes like it was a fabulous dress. It appeared to be a security uniform. “Here, put it on, slowly now, dear.”

Nicole complied, dumbfounded.

“No, no, no. Don’t button the shirt. Here, this first.” A bulletproof vest was pushed in her face. Nicole took it gently, carefully, as if it was an explosive. It might have been, for all the sense the situation was making. “Put it on, sweetie.”

Nicole Haught. She did and then the woman buttoned her shirt. Search and Rescue.

“Now here’s the belt.” The woman eyed her critically as Nicole put the belt on and tucked her shirt in. “You look great in uniform, honey. Now, you’ll need this --” A grenade. “And this too --” A knife. “And this!” A small regulation pistol. All were strapped to her person in various holsters.

The woman skipped over to a side table and lifted a gun about half the length of her tiny body. She kicked a footstool over and hummed to herself as she strapped the hunting rifle to Nicole’s back.

Extra magazines were placed in every pocket the small woman could reach. She adjusted the shirt and belt multiple times before she was satisfied. “You are going to look perfect ,” she commented, brushing Nicole’s hair and swatting her with the brush if she so much as opened her mouth to ask a question.

She was shoved across the hall into a bathroom where the woman brushed her teeth. Somehow, this managed to make Nicole even more scared. The situation was absurd, it was as if she was being present for picture day, except the photo would be the one displayed at her funeral.

“Why am I --” Nicole managed after the woman was done, but she was pushed once again out of a door.

“Out! Out! You’re on your way! Go take a right, then a left, then another right. You’ll be at the vault and it will all make sense then!”

Fat chance that, Nicole thought. ‘The Vault ’ sounded suitably threatening and vague, but she knew what it really held. What had been calling her since she had awoken in this place. What had crept in her thoughts like a stalking animal, waiting for her to turn her back to it. She could feel it in every step she took, she was walking downhill and gravity was pulling her, except she knew in her heart it was The Beast and it wanted her desperately.

 


 

Dolls let the report fall to the desk with a dull thwack . “This is what we found, the only thing remotely similar to what you… retrieved.” Waverly gently opened the file and prepared herself.

Wendigo, it read. But that wasn’t right at all. Waverly had some idea of what the Beast had looked like, and the shoulder-to-waist ratio was off. The faces were slightly different, the one she fought had more teeth and sharper claws, and the most glaring difference of all - the Wendigo that was displayed on the page did not have hooves.

Yet Waverly compared it as one compares a pump-action shotgun to an automatic shotgun - they were both a shotgun. These were both a thing, but Wendigo was Wendigo and Beast was Beast .

“Looks sorta the same, kinda,” Doc pointed out eloquently, “But it’s missin’ the hooves.”

“The skin texture, the starved look, the color and shape - it all lines up,” Waverly stated, showing the two men. “But the glaring difference is a big problem. You’ve never caught one of the new kind before, right?”

“No, ma’am,” Doc said with a wink, causing Dolls to roll his eyes.

“We can assume it works mostly the same way, being that they look like they have common ancestry,” Waverly proposed, “but seeing as the Beast looks like it was an upgrade, we can probably infer that it might be... Wendigo Plus.” She finished dramatically.

“I’m not calling it that,” Dolls said with crossed arms.

“Wendigo Squared,” Waverly tried.

“No.”

“The Wendigo Double,” Doc suggested.

“No.”

“Wendigo two-point-oh,” Waverly tossed back.

“Absolutely. Not.”

“The Beast,” someone new suggested.

“Sure.” Dolls said, before catching himself. “What?”

They hadn’t even heard the door open, or even seen it move. It simply was open, the room simply was below freezing, the lights simply were off. Complete and total darkness greeted Waverly’s unprepared eyes and she squealed involuntarily, stumbling backward into the wall and falling to the ground. A sound of bodies colliding nearby filled the room along with grunting.

Somebody was laughing.

It was high and mad, not a good sound, the kind of laughter that accomplishes the opposite of the whole point of laughing, it made your skin crawl together and your hair stand on end. You could hear it in your bones that whoever was making that sound was absolutely out of their mind.

Waverly crawled backward in the darkness and knocked into something. She gripped it and realized it was a stick of dynamite.

Before she could do so much as make a half-baked plan, a gunshot rang out and she screamed.

The lights turned back on. “Goddamn, you got ‘em! Nice shot, there, Dolls, my boy.” Doc said with a celebratory slap to Dolls’ back. Waverly couldn’t see what they were looking at, the desk was in the way. Embarrassment gripped her at her own reaction and she blamed it on the fading medication.

Her ears rang like mad as she stood and reluctantly looked over the desk. A man lay there, dead to a single gunshot wound to the head, with a look of crazed surprise stuck forever on his face. Waverly gripped the desk hard as a feeling of nausea swept over her. A corpse. A human corpse.

“That’s Jim,” Dolls said, astounded, “From the office next door.”

Footsteps outside. Dolls took one step out the door, flashed his badge, and the footsteps retreated. Not worth it, it seemed. He shut and locked the door before turning back to the body.

“Have you seen this happen before?” Dolls asked as he knelt next to the body to inspect it closer. “Seen it do this? Control random people?”

“Yes -- No, I mean no. It hasn’t -- It doesn’t outright control you, that’s ridiculous, only if you’re bitten.” Waverly said. The thought of it being able to just pick someone and control them was... terrifying, to say the least.

“Well fine Jimmy here went and got himself bit, then,” Doc said, replacing the dynamite, “Case is closed.”

“Not so sure,” Dolls replied, ripping the man’s clothes right off. Waverly looked away. Was it impolite to look at a naked man if he was dead? She didn’t know. She would prefer not to. “No obvious wounds, besides the,” he gestured, “Gunshot to the head.”

“Well, hey-ho, look at this,” Doc said, grabbing the man’s leg. Waverly looked and immediately regretted it. He was naked. Completely naked. All out there. Just a dead naked man. “Does Jimmy strike you as a rebel, Dolls?”

“No, no, no. This is familiar.” Dolls stood and went to his computer, gently pushing a thoroughly revolted Waverly to the side. “I’ve seen it before.”

Naked dead man. Oh, lord, help her forget. It was just all out there, wasn’t it? Had to be, right there. Whew.

Dolls made a sound. It was like a grunt, except it was as if the air in his lungs compressed in a single push, a sound like surprise and disbelief and maybe a little bit of refusal. “This has got to be a joke.”

Waverly stared over his shoulder at the screen. It was an email.

From: Bbaker2

CC: ALL

SUBJECT: !!FRE TATTOO!!

BODY:

$$$FREE TATOO$$$

BUIDING TWO

OFICE SIX

FLOOR SEVN

GET NOW!!!

It was on a sickly yellow background and contained a single image, the supposed tattoo design itself. It was rather simple, a bunch of straight lines combined into almost a brand-like symbol.

I’ve seen that before, Waverly realized with a growing sense of understanding. On Champ. But that didn’t make any sense at all - The Beast would have been in the woods at that time, far from anything that could send an email or a letter. So who would give him the design?

(Unknown to her, or anyone else in the building for that matter, an internet cafe worker had to take a month of personal time after his doctor declared he had experienced a hallucination born of stress. The man reported seeing a ‘thin white dead guy with super long teeth’ who had looked like he had ‘crawled straight from the grave, man’ and had a grievous injury on the back of his head. The ‘zombie-monster-dude’ had sat at the computer and sent an email using one hand. The worker did not request payment. No one believed him, so he took time off and they scrubbed the dirt from the keyboard.)

“When was it sent?” Waverly asked, voice quiet. She read over the email, then checked the book, as if to find an entry there that stated ‘ Beast might offer free services. ’ No such luck, there was not even a symbol that matched was displayed in the entry. This was entirely new, and entirely frightening, territory. All sorts of mischief could be caused by an access to the internet.

“A month ago,” Dolls replied. Doc shifted closer to see the email and let out a short laugh.

“Is the time on your computer right?” December? I left in early autumn, Waverly thought.

“Hm.” Dolls stared at the time, thoughtful. “I don’t think so.”

Waverly sighed with relief but it was stopped when Dolls continued the thought with “I think it’s two weeks late, don’t you think, Doc?”

“I’d reckon it’s a month off. Ain’t it November?”

“No, it’s January,”

“November,”

“January.”

“Nov--”

“Enough!” Waverly snapped, angry and afraid. “We need to figure out our next move. If the email was sent a while ago, that means the whole office could have seen it. ”

“Why, let us go get some 'Fre Tattoos,’” Doc suggested, “We could bring guns.”

 


 

That Tuesday morning, the security booth was empty. Wynonna circled it three times, considering the jail time for simply going past it towards the facility’s parking lot. Fifty years? Sixty? Life? Too many. Yet it stood empty in the cold wind, mocking her, empty as a… something empty. The morning sun reflected off it and hurt her hungover eyes.

She had already passed one NO TRESPASSING sign on the automatic gate leading to the booth and felt herself losing patience. She was here on important business, the most important business: her sister.

Wynonna grabbed her rented motorcycle helmet and smashed it against the window. Once, twice, three times did she hit it to finally get it to crack. It must have been the frost that allowed her to do so; after all, these things were supposed to be bulletproof. She broke it open with two more hits.

“My appointment was today,” she told the unoccupied chair. “I need a pass,” she commented as she stole one.

As she sped away, the gate rattled closed behind her, groaning on its automatic wheels.

She found a parking spot easy. No alarms sounded, nobody shouted her name, nothing happened. It remained deathly quiet as she approached the doors of Building Two, which was marked Main Office.

It wasn’t where her appointment was, but she couldn’t see the proper building from here. She thought to ask somebody, but as she opened the doors and entered the lobby, she knew that wouldn’t get her anywhere.

Everyone was either asleep or staring into space.

She pulled her coat tighter as she approached the nearest man. He was dressed in security clothing and was staring at a plant. “Uh,” She poked his chest. “‘Scuse me.”

No reply. “Helluva plant, eh?” Wynonna suggested, elbowing the man in the side. Nothing.

Wynonna looked around the upscale lobby when the man didn’t reply. The only sound was the trickle of the fake waterfall and the gentle snoring. Three businessmen lay on the ground. Both secretaries were slumped against the desk. The four other security guards were also staring at objects around the room.

The waterfall frosted over and ceased its movements, but Wynonna did not notice. Instead, she kicked the man in the groin.

No reply. He did not even move from the kick.

“I need to see my sister! ” She declared in his face. “What the hell is wrong with this place?”

Oh, Wynonna Earp, ” said the man frostily, without turning or moving anything other than his jaw, “Welcome, the woman of the hour .”

“That’s the name, don’t wear it out,” she muttered. “Listen, I just need to know where Building Three, Floor Zero is. Pronto, creepy.”

“Here, take this, ” He handed her his security badge. “That will get you past the door. Go to the sixth floor of this building and walk across the bridge between. Use the card on the door. Go to the back elevator and use the card again. Take it to floor zero. Someone will show you to the vault. Did you get all that?”

She had already taken the security badge and hustled off before he could direct her.
Wynonna had also stolen his gun.

Chapter Text

That Tuesday morning at eleven forty-five, it began to rain.

Water slapped against the window of Dolls’ office, but the occupants were too busy to notice. Three people were huddled together, leaning forward and staring at a digital clock. The air ran with the tense expectation that builds with collective waiting, the seconds counting behind the lightning for the approaching thunder.

That Tuesday morning, at eleven forty-four, all three of them began to panic.

“Well butter my ass and call me a biscuit, she was right,” Doc muttered, pacing back and forth.

“It could be a computer mistake,” Dolls replied evenly.

“You’re so full of shit , Dolls,” Doc hissed back, ripping off his wristwatch and nearly throwing it at the other man. “ All of the clocks are misbehaving.”

Waverly did not join in the bickering. She was sitting, leaning on her hands and staring at the numbers on the screen. It was no use trying to connect to the internet and check the time that way, the internet was dead as a doornail. The phones were down. Cell signals were non-existent.

Nobody noticed that time seemed to have essentially stopped. Waverly had walked around the office just outside of Dolls’ room, and everyone was working as if it was a normal Tuesday. When she had tried to casually glance at computer screens or documents, the employees had become suspicious and downright hostile to her presence, only relaxing when she put distance between them.

They were working hard on something and Waverly didn’t know what. When Waverly had asked what time it was, the response was always “almost noon.”

This was slowly driving her absolutely nuts. It wasn’t the fact that for the past fifteen or so minutes of watching the clock tick, the two men had been bickering nonstop about what move to take next. Waverly could feel they were running out of time, but how could you tell? The clocks were wrong. The sun was hidden behind rain clouds. Nobody could settle on what month or day it was, only that it was Tuesday and it was ‘almost noon.’

The rain picked up as the clock turned to eleven forty-five for the sixth time since they had begun watching it.

Waverly put her head in her hands, trying to block out the argument that now had turned to questions of experience. Experience . Waverly was an experienced hiker, an experienced photographer, an experienced historian (well, almost.)

Here she was, trying to foil a plot made up by some supernatural, super powerful monster, and all she wanted to do was cry and give up. It had to be some twisted, sick kind of karma that the only time she had disobeyed the law she ended up in a horrific situation that could put hundreds of people in danger.

Or thousands, her guilt whispered.

But she and the two bickering fools were in a position to do something, or at least try.

So Waverly picked up her fear, her doubt, her guilt, all of it. She packed it away in the closet and closed the door. As the two men gripped each other’s shirts, moments away from escalation, Waverly Earp stood up.

“Enough!”  She snapped, almost not recognizing her own voice, how hard and finely edged it was that it seemed to stab through the air.

Both men halted in confusion at the smaller woman’s rage.

Waverly leveled them with a stare before continuing. “We’ve already established that time isn’t working. So we should stop wasting it. I need some paper and some bullets. We’re going to discuss everything that has happened up until now and figure it out.”

Doc was first to complain, “We should go and burn the goddamn thing.”

“There’s half an army between us and the Vault,” Dolls retorted, “Unless you have a nuclear weapon --”

“Sit. Down,” Waverly commanded. She was a little bit tired of being surprised, but the fact that both men slowly obeyed her was a pleasant one. She wondered if it was because they were used to orders and following them, and whoever it was who usually gave them might be… somewhere else. It didn’t matter.

What mattered was they did what she said.

A few probably-minutes later, they had a makeshift map of the clearing and the forest, with bullets representing Waverly, Nicole, and the Beast. Step by step Waverly ran through the events, leaving certain details out that were important only to her heart, and answering questions as they came.

“The first story that came to my mind was one about a monster that could be a human and an animal.”

“A skinw--”

“Don’t,” Waverly snapped, finger inches from Doc’s face, “I was wrong, but you still shouldn’t say the name. Now Nicole,” she felt a flash of guilt for throwing her accomplice (dear friend) under the bus, “lead me along to believe the story as well. In fact, I outright assumed the beast was my boyfriend.”

Nobody laughed, but Doc’s mustache twitched. Waverly pushed down her annoyance at her own mistake and continued to explain the fight.

“In the end, I followed the story. The way to defeat it would be to say its true name, so I thought about a name and I said it.” She pushed her own bullet towards the Beast. “It worked,” it paused , “and I killed it,” not really.

She knocked the bullet over.

Silence from the two men. Neither asked the question that hung in the air and Waverly glanced up at them, suspicion growing in her heart. But why had it paused?

Both of them had excellent poker faces so instead she discarded her nerves and continued. “I left it there,” because I didn’t know , “and the next day we both had a fever.” Her hand drifted up to the bandage on her face and she felt a pang of irritation at her past self. “Nicole was unconscious so I had to signal for help.”

Waverly watched the expressions on their faces as she continued to the last of the story. “It used us to use the radio. It changed the frequency and recited exact coordinates. Forty-five minutes later, men with tranquilizer rifles showed up and took the body here.” It was almost as if the Beast had planned it, Waverly surmised. She eyed the two men closely for them to come to the same conclusion.

It was the way Dolls pretended to look surprised. Something about how slow his eyebrows rose and how pained his expression appeared, instead of his usual flat look.

Then Doc glanced at him, and Dolls shook his head slightly.

Waverly loved to see the good in people. That was something she was at once irritated with herself and proud of. But the feeling of suspicion was too strong, the stakes too high. What if they were bitten? What if they were holding back key information that could save Nicole, save all of them?

Waverly then took a flying leap into the oblivion of assumptions to fish for an answer. When one has lived with a liar and a drunk for a father, one learns how to pull information from the guilty. There are two words spoke with force and belief, and with those two words one can achieve a confession from the toughest liar who feels he has underestimated your knowledge and is ready to be corrected, ready for confrontation, ready for it all to be over with: “You knew .”

She was ready to be wrong. Ready for them to look at her in confusion and bafflement and deny, deny, deny. Ready to see the good.

“Well, we had some inklin’ of an idea of…” Doc began and Waverly’s heart sank.

Dolls gave him a look that said, if you say another word I will shove it back down your throat.

“...its existence before this here incident.”

There was a long period of silence before all three of them began at once.

Waverly was first. “No, no no no no. You don’t get to do this. There are hundreds of innocent people in danger here, and you’re withholding vital info--”

Dolls stood up, the chair flying back. “You are just a civilian , you shouldn’t even be here--”

Doc, late to the party, leaned in with hands raised. “Now, ladies, ladies, please, I’m sure we can settle this like adult--"

There was a knocking on the door.

All three paused, fingers frozen midpoint, chests mid-heave, mouths open. Who was at the door? They glanced at each other, as if they might find a reason there, but none came.

Another knock. “Hell-ooo?” a voice sang through the thick wood. It didn’t sound at all like the Beast, but now that they knew anyone could be under its thrall, they only grew more afraid.

Both men grabbed their guns and unholstered. Waverly snatched a letter opener and brandished it like a sword, heartbeat already thundering with adrenaline.  

“Deputy Marshal?” the voice inquired. Dolls began slowly moving towards the door, each step barely a whisper on the carpet, and he reached out and grabbed the handle.

He motioned with his hands, Three.

Two.

One.

He opened the door and aimed his weapon at a little old lady. Waverly dropped her weapon in surprise.

“Oh, you’re in today, dear. I thought you had gone home.” She shoved a box of files towards him, completely ignoring the gun in her face, “You know I went down to the desk at Building Three to get you these files and the lady there, she has a son my grandson’s age, was completely asleep! Just completely conked out, droolin’ all over the keyboard. So I took her little key and left her a little note and went and got the files myself, now, didn’t I?”

Dolls took the files, unable to stop the onslaught of words coming from the tiny woman.

“So I was standin’ there at the door and thinkin’ about all this trouble I could get into, and the security man was starin’ straight at a picture! It was that awful modern art thing they buy these days and put up all around. It had to have been the worst thing I’d ever seen in my life, I tell you, he was starin’ straight at it!”

“Mrs --” Dolls tried, but was interrupted when the lady pulled a cart into view, more boxes stacked up, papers overflowing,

“You know how they make them all digital these days, but the lady down the hall is obsessed with hard copies so I managed to get all of the files you asked for, and the security man didn’t even notice me!” She stated happily as she shoved the cart towards Dolls.

“Mrs. Hems--” He tried again, but there was no stopping the avalanche of conversation.

Doc stepped forward and helped the woman with the cart, and the lady kept going . “I just kept thinking about you helping my Johnny with his training and how he had -”

“Mrs. Hemsworth, thank you. ..” Dolls refused to give up, desperately pushing files onto the desk.

“- Missed all those tests and you went down and helped him out right proper, so I was just doing you back a favor, you really are my favorite, don’t you know that, Xavier?” Mrs. Hemsworth stepped into the room and turned to Doc with a bright smile and a handshake. “Oh, you’re in today too, aren’t you dear? Oh, bless your heart, you still haven’t shaved.”

“It makes me look dashing--” Doc insisted.
The woman patted his hand in condolences. “I’m sure, dear, I’m sure.”

Dolls tried again: “Mrs. Hemsworth, maybe you should lea--”

“And who’s this?” The unstoppable old woman pushed on, bustling past the desk and taking Waverly’s hand. “Such a bright young lady!” She pulled on the hand and Waverly leaned over, the woman whispering to her conspiratorially loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, “Have these young men been rude to you at all? Just mention Xavier and his romance novels --”

“Mrs. Hemsworth, please! - -” Dolls shouted in denial.

“-- and Doc’s small figurine collection --”

“I do object , I do not have! --” Doc stated firmly.

“-- and they’ll tidy up.” She let go of the hand at last and patted Waverly’s shoulder. “It’s about time someone got these two into shape. I’m sure you’ll do fine, dear.” She turned and hustled out, “I do think I should go home today, something’s been telling me I should bake a cake, do be good…!”

And just like that, it was over.

Waverly lost it. She fell back into the chair, crying with laughter and relief, as the two men stood in stupefied confusion, halted, unsure how to continue with their lives now that a little old woman had knocked them off balance.

Slowly the two men returned to action, moving the boxes with a bit too much force, slamming files on the desk and generally being children about it. Dolls took a third of the boxes and shoved it at Waverly, who was still trying to catch her breath.

“Make yourself useful. I’ll explain everything.”

 

That Tuesday morning, at maybe-probably eleven forty-five, Nicole Haught, Search and Rescue, could feel it before she turned the corner.

The deep, penetrating cold that coated her bones and drew cracks in them. The lingering smell of rot and dead leaves and snow, the feeling you get in the middle of a silent and waiting forest at the darkest part of winter. She could feel the darkness and its cloying grip, even though the harsh fluorescent lights covered her skin and made her look pale as death.

So Nicole slowed down. She could not stop moving, but she could delay the inevitable. But when she allowed herself to think, the floodgates of guilt opened and crushed her, leading her to step faster. She wanted it over with. She had already lost everything: her father, herself, and even Waverly.

Beautiful, smart, courageous Waverly, who could be anywhere and nowhere. She had shoved happiness into Nicole’s tainted and desperate heart and Nicole had barely been with her a day and a half. If they had met somewhere else, if everything hadn’t occurred -- How tragic, to remain as if’s and maybe’s .

Part of Nicole wished that Waverly had left the facility, left the Beast and Nicole and the Forest behind, but a small voice told her that she was trapped here, too. Nicole had failed her in the end, unable to tell her the true nature of the Beast, unable to act and prevent what was happening.

Was it selfish that Nicole hoped that Waverly would not abandon her? Yes, of course, it was. Nicole belonged alone, that was that. That was how it had always been; she had given herself nothing, not since what happened to her father. He left, just like the rest of them, because Nicole wasn’t good enough.

It started in her head like static, an interfering radio signal, and as Nicole approached the end of the hall it increased in volume. Her thoughts trailed off as the cold dug deeper into her skin.

(come here come here come here) it said.

Nicole Haught. Search and Rescue, she thought to counteract the noise.

(need you need you need you)

Nicole swallowed hard before she reached the corner, expecting to find the Beast there waiting, stretching high to the ceiling at its full height, ready and waiting to tear and rend and kill. Her hand hovered over her newly-acquired weapon and she turned the corner.

A crowd was watching through a window. Surprise made her stop mid-step, considering. They looked perfectly normal and in fact, awake. They were chatting to each other quietly and a few were taking notes. But there was nothing between Nicole and the people who gathered there, no; it seemed she was expected to just walk up to them.

Nervous fear entered her heart at being so close to others, especially ones that were so, so weak and, had frail limbs and -- No, not to think of that now, she had to keep her head clear. She was Nicole Haught, Search and Rescue.

Nicole approached, unable to see beyond the window just yet, but deadly sure what was behind it.

(yes yes yes)

Nicole stopped at the edge of the crowd.

“Nicole Haught! Woman of the hour!” called a familiar voice. The crowd of people parted, faces giving her polite smiles, and a man stepped forward with his hand outstretched.

(just stay and watch behold witness observe)

Nicole Haught, Search and Rescue.

A pair of glasses and a warm smile greeted her. What. The hell, Nicole thought. She took the hand and shook it, baffled. Some memory stirred at the back of her brain but refused to come forward and reveal itself.

The man reached an arm around her shoulder and steered her through the crowd up to the window. Beyond the thick pane of glass lay the Beast atop a metal table, surrounded by hazmat suits. They were preparing what appeared to be a briefcase filled with assorted materials. The Beast looked small and sad under all the lights, a husk of what it once was.

Bulletproof glass? Nicole hoped so. Being so close to the beast, even separated by the window, made her nervous. Itchy. The thoughts of the Beast bothered her like flies.

(just watch and listen)

“I can hardly believe it!” The man exclaimed, glancing around at the others present in the hallway. “Three years gone by and she finally brings it back to us.”

Three years? Three years of what? Bring it back? The Beast was here before, Nicole realized. The world dropped away beneath Nicole’s understanding and the people around her began to clap as if she had just had a good putt on a golf course.

“Hey, Richard, take a photo wouldja?” The man said, spinning them both around and pasting on a smile. Nicole winced as a bulb flashed and ‘Richard’ gave a thumbs-up. “There’s a doll.” He clapped Nicole on the shoulder again, which was more than a little irritating, and continued his spiel.

“I’m sure you’re very confused, Ms. Haught, so I’ll try to run you through the summary.” The man pointed. “You see that box right there?”

Nicole nodded, swallowing her nerves.

“You’re looking at the future!” The man exclaimed, “A million dollar defense contract future. We call it the Accelerant .” He pointed at the body of the Beast as the hazmat suits measured and photographed it, “It is a superior kind of Wendigo. Better than any we've ever seen. In fact, we're not even sure it is a wendigo. It could be an entirely new species!

(spirit of the lonely north is the story I have chosen to hide behind)

“We were pushing its genetic limits at the time we discovered the bite could cause.” The man with glasses paused to grin and Nicole clenched her jaw. “You know, enhanced strength, speed, all that, at the cost of losing your sense of self, time, and all ability to recognize things around you -- The basic results of all bites by Wendigo. But this one... So similar, yet so different.”

(all you can eat is human flesh)

Circles in the forest. Nicole swallowed audibly at the mention of the psychosis and the memories the word brought. The men behind the glass still worked studiously, preparing a number of devices for some unknown purpose.

(you’ve eaten it too haven't you)

Nicole felt sick. She had eaten it while in that room, hadn’t she? The only thing that didn’t taste like ash… How could they have done this to her and had the nerve to have her pose for a picture?

The man continued, waving his arm and letting his expensive watch catch the light. “But this one is entirely new. It was incredible, the differences, and what we could do with it… took us years, and the damn beast escaped, but we did it. You have first-hand experience of the benefits of what we created, of course, so I’ll skip to the good parts for you.”

Nicole looked around at the others present. They were writing notes, nodding along, completely into it. You’re insane! You let it escape?!  She wanted to yell, You’re crazier than I am!

“We weren’t planning on retrieving it when it escaped. We already had the Accelerant and the location of an honest, true born Wendigo, which unfortunately didn’t match up to this creature. Bureaucracy and legal troubles got in the way of any recapture attempts, anyhow. You know how hard it is to fund a superweapon? Harder than it sounds, and the IRS -- But I digress. Sometimes we would send a ranger up there, just to try and see if they could bring the thing back. When I heard what you were up to, I had to see you personally.” He turned to her then, fixing her with a bright toothy smile.

Nicole felt a stirring in the depths of her confusion -- It was rage. The man kept talking, ignoring the look on her face in favor of smiling and nodding at the people behind them.

“I knew you weren’t bitten, Nicole. I knew what the beast was and I knew how you would react. I just hoped you wouldn’t outright kill me on accident. In fact, I was hoping you would just steal the accelerant and run, not hit me with a whiskey bottle. But, the ends justify the means, as it were!” Laughter from the man and those around him. 

Oh. It was he who had entered her cabin and lied to her. The man who stood before her was the man she had met that fateful day. They had done this , Nicole realized. They had caused all of this. Allowing it to escape, falling to recapture it, doing strange and sick experiments with unknown consequences. How many years did they let it roam free? How many deaths were on this man’s hands? And for what, a weapon, more killing? Or was it money

“Of all the people we sent into the forest to kill it, you were the only one to succeed. Congratulations!”

More clapping and echoed compliments.

“My dad,” Nicole whispered, thoughts spinning, but the man heard.

“Oh yes, he was one of the first ones. The Beast had just escaped then. He found one of the victims and we sent him up there.” He patted her shoulder as if he didn’t just drop truth with the force of a nuclear bomb. “We’ll give you a settlement. You’re going to be very, very rich, Nicole Haught.”

(your father died screaming and alone)

All that time I assumed I wasn’t good enough for him to stay, thought Nicole, that he had to leave because of me, just like mother and everyone else…

… Now to find out they had sent him to die…

Nicole Haught… Search and … Rescue.

There was more clapping. The man stepped forward and spoke into a radio, “Destroy the body, please. Burn it.”

(I set this up for one reason) the beast told her as those inside the vault began the slow process of preparing to burn the body.

(to allow you to achieve revenge)

(he did this to you)

(he is responsible)

(five years ago he set me free)

(all of those children who died are because of him)

Nicole Haught… Search… Nicole tried to remember the phrase, but her thoughts were fading, scattering in the wind as her anger rose. She stumbled forward, hitting the glass to steady herself as rage, hot and stifling, ran through her veins. Hunger bent every muscle in her body and she bit back a groan.

Uneasy murmuring took place behind her among the observers. Some part of their minds must have sensed the change, that the chicken who had just entered the hen was not a chicken at all...

“You all right?” asked the man with glasses. “You received the cure, didn't you?” He laughed as if the thought she had not was impossible. Nicole did not hear him.

She didn’t even know his name. Didn’t even know his goddamn name and he sent her father to die. He sent them all to die!

(who will punish this man if not you)

Her breath fogged the window as she panted, struggling to contain herself. How could he sacrifice so many innocent people? Had he not witnessed the bodies left behind? She had. She had spoken to the families. She had told parents that their children had perished. It had pushed that little boy off that cliff!

Tears streamed down her face as she remembered the horrible noise the mother had made. It was as if she had died with her son and it was her final cry, her death rattle. And Nicole heard it, even now, so long past. Echoing.

“What’s the matter, Haught?” The man queried, oblivious, “We’ve revolutionized warfare! Tomorrow I’ll be on a plane to D.C. to present this to the board. Do you want to go? Is that it?”

Nicole wanted to laugh aloud. He would not be getting on a plane tomorrow, or any plane in the future, that was for absolute sure. She could not let him leave with whatever the Accelerant was. If the thoughts and orders of the Beast still buzzed inside Nicole, that meant that anyone who took part in his creation would also be under threat of control.

At that realization, Nicole felt despair grip every muscle in her body and loosen them. She sagged against the glass and screwed her eyes shut, no longer able to hear the difference between her own thoughts and those of the Beast.

The frost struck her heart and ran it cold. She could feel it now, the wind howling against her soul, stirring her upwards out of hopelessness and back into her fury and terrible action.

(Scream!)

(Just like that boy!)

(Just like his mother!)

(Just like your father!)

Nicole screamed and the Beast began to move. Its chest heaved once, twice…

But Nicole did not notice. All she could see was the man with glasses and his expensive watch, the man who had caused her so much grief and pain.

“What the -- “ the man in glasses cried, before keying the radio, “Seal the Vault!

(He did this to you!)

He did this to me! What was in that syringe? What was it! What am I?

(He must answer for his crimes!)

He has to answer for this! All of it!

Two of the Hazmats inside the vault were traitors. They attacked the others, who fell quickly. Violent cries shattered the air in the Vault.

Still, Nicole screamed. The audience stumbled back, holding their ears, cowering in fear. Nicole could taste it. The man with glasses stared at her with growing realization and horror.

It was a fox, the crowd realized, a fox had entered the henhouse.

Former… Search and Rescue…

...I found him. I will rescue him...

Nicole pulled her handgun and leveled it at the man. Behind them, the crowd silenced itself in shock.

(Kill him)

...By killing him outright.

“What did you do to me? ” Nicole demanded. She was too far gone to notice how her own voice was nigh unrecognizable and hoarse with strain. The air was so cold she must have been shivering, but the barrel of the gun did not jitter, did not shake; it remained still as it aimed at the face of the man before her.

The man started to cry. “We gave you the accelerant then we cured you of the bite!”

“Liar!” Nicole roared, startling everybody in the room. She had been kept in a solitary room and tested like some animal!

The eyes behind the glasses went cross, focusing on the barrel. “No, no. Please. We chose you because…”

(he did this he did this)

Nicole took a step forward, forcing the man to step back. The screaming behind the glass faded and the people around them began to exchange glances, unsure how to proceed now that guns were in play.

(Do it. Do it. Do it.)

“...Because you’re many things, Nicole Haught. You really are. B-but you... you aren’t a murderer . You wouldn’t shoot anyone, you don’t have it in you!”

I don’t want to shoot him, Nicole realized.

“You’re right,” Nicole responded coldly, “I would never pull the trigger.

The man relaxed as Nicole replaced her pistol, but he could not hear the wind or feel the drop of temperature.

I want him to suffer, Nicole decided, and the Beast said nothing: it didn’t need to. It had already won.

She leapt at the man, slamming him against the floor, and began to assault him. The first thing she did was shatter his glasses with her fist. The rage was not incoherent, no, far from it: it was calculated and cold. She did not strike him with the full force of the blow, she wanted to draw it out. She wanted him to pay for what he had done.

The crowd fled. The fox had chosen a chicken; it was time to cut the loss and run.

The Beast! It had been his creation! They had sent her father to die at the hands of it, and Nicole had given up everything to follow her desire to get revenge. Now revenge was her, beneath her, begging her for mercy! How his fear saturated every part of the air, how his guilt was non-existent, well, Nicole could change that...

Nicole stopped and with one hand shattered his forearm. How many bones until the guilt that ruined her settled into his heart? He screamed, his vocal cords straining with the agony of his cry.

How the mother had sounded just like that! Nicole knew at once that the woman would never live again. It had pushed him off! It had pushed him off! That little boy, his bones had broken from the height and he had drowned!

She leaned her full weight down on the man, choking him. Her hands were slippery with blood. “ This is your fault ,” Nicole growled at the man beneath her, his remaining hand grasping her thin arms but unable to break the death grip. “ You did this to me .” She only saw the man beneath her, struggling, scared, suffering. Only felt the chilling rage that filled every part of her, the hunger that desired, needed to be sated...

The man used his good arm to slap at her’s in pure desperation. She loosened her grip, intending to let him breathe, just enough, then deny it again. Just as the boy had drowned, so he too would suffocate slowly, painfully.

After all this time, her revenge was finally at hand. And when it was done, when it was all finished, she could…

...she could what?

What, when it was all over, would remain?

(just end it)

What lay beyond this point, this sign? This… murder?

(what is taking so long)

She could never be the same. No one would look at her and see anything but a beast, a monster. A killer. No different from the Beast itself. No, exactly the same. How would Waverly…

Waverly.

(No! She is meaningless!)

But Waverly could never be meaningless to Nicole. Her friend. She ignored the Beast and choked on air, her senses returning. She had to get up. The man was sobbing, crying, his glasses shattered and blood running down his face. She could smell it. She could taste it. Nicole scrambled off him, standing and desperately wiping the blood off. The nameless man, the murderer, staggered to his feet and ran, leaving Nicole alone in the empty hallway.

(No!)

Oh, god, Nicole thought, suddenly sick. She dry heaved her empty stomach and bent against the wall. Oh, god, I almost killed him. I almost murdered him, and I wanted to.   It did not matter that she had not completed the crime; Nicole was done and gone and she prayed to whoever was listening that Waverly would survive without her, as she should. Her bloodied reflection stared blankly back at her. A monster.

He was just a pawn, just like me, Nicole realized in her new clarity. He must be; no man in his right mind would have done what he had. The man had run out of usefulness and the Beast wanted Nicole to get rid of him. But no -- The plans, the orders, all of it was far too intelligent. Far too advanced. There was no way The Beast could have thought this far ahead. Not without human help...

...Right?

Shuffling steps. Nicole could not turn to look, but in the reflection of the window she could see him, the hazmat suit falling away to reveal that it was Levi . Or it had been, at some point, because he was not just dead, he was a monster. His teeth were sickeningly long and she almost didn’t recognize him, short of the way one of his hands hung useless at his side, the other curled in a claw-like gesture. His clothes hung like rags on his dirt coated body, bright colored pins adorning the worn fabric and jangling as he shambled. Some of the grime had to be blood, it was a different color and stained his shirt. A hat was jammed on his head, a disturbing counterpoint to his person, tan and emblazoned with large letters.

How? Nicole thought, mind spinning off its axle. How was he here?

But nothing compared to the full-blown terror she felt when she heard the hoof land on tile.

All of her thoughts turned to Oh, god, it’s alive. It’s really alive.

Still Nicole could not turn to look, her muscles rigid and locked in place by mindless fear, and could only stare straight ahead, shapes moving at the edge of her watery vision as tears ran hot down her face. She could feel the forest, just out of sight, rustling with the death of winter and the oncoming freeze.

Again and again, she heard the sound of it step across the marble tile, closer and closer. The shadowy mass blurred now on fogged and frosted glass slowly came to a stop right over her shoulder.

It inhaled deeply. The exhale brought the full stench of death. Nicole choked back a sob.

“Mine, ” said the Beast.

 

Meanwhile, in Building Two, at maybe-probably Eleven Forty-Five...

“We used to call him the Judge,” Dolls said, looking over the file.

“Slicker than owl shit, that man is,” Doc mused, “Don’t think that man could tell a truth to save his own life.”

A grim man with glasses started at Waverly from the corner of a page. Doctor Cryderman. He was familiar. Waverly traced her finger thoughtfully over his face. “I’ve seen him before, I think. When I was sedated.”

“You would have. He’s in charge of Building Three and the research team.”

“He had a crackpot plan to make a weapon,” Doc said, lighting a cigarette. He was stressed and frayed at the edges, Waverly could tell. Something was really getting to him. “Some sort of miracle serum for military use.” Eyes full of regret met hers over the smoke.

“Did he make it?”

“Of a sort,” Doc reached over and turned the page, another picture stared up at her. It was a wendigo. “Told us to take the damn psychosis-fever and change it. Didn’t tell us where it came from, why it was so different than the others. We did, sure as the sun rises, but it wasn’t enough. There were still side-effects, bad ones. We made it worse in some aspects. Whenever we administered it, the patient would go into a single-minded rage. Then maybe the heart would give out and they’d go belly up or they would…” He tailed off, looking distant.

“Do something much worse,” Dolls finished. “The project was discontinued.”

“Well,” Doc said, gesturing, “Obviously, it wasn’t .”

Before Waverly could consider the frightening ideas of what that project might cause if continued, Dolls was talking again. “Five years ago, something escaped from this facility and I was reassigned here,” Dolls continued, turning the page and revealing a report that was mostly black boxes of redacted information, “We didn’t know what it was, only that we had no authorization to retrieve it.”

“The Beast,” Waverly whispered, “It was here, used for research.”

Puzzle pieces began to fit together in Waverly’s mind. The Beast, five years ago, knowing the existence of the facility. Escapes. Then, she and Nicole come along. It dies, with full knowledge it could return to this exact building and overtake it.

But why? For what purpose would it die and need the government facility?

“What is this facility for?”

“That’s classified,” Dolls replied, almost automatically.

“It’s a broadcast and research station,” Doc explained, “It monitors communications in the southwest for mentions of specific supernatural activities, as well as containing a vault for brief holding of experimental creatures.”

Curious ideas came to her. Did the Beast know of the results of the research? Was that possible, that it could have an idea of what was created here in the lab? If it did, that meant it could use that it was far more intelligent than they had assumed. But the plan it used to get here already told Waverly that she had underestimated its ability reason and predict. Perhaps this wasn’t too much of a stretch to consider. Yet time seemed to be running out, regardless of the fact it had apparently stopped.

Waverly mentally looked over their situation and allowed the question that had been at the forefront of her brain to finally hit the air, “Where is Nicole being kept?”

“Building Three,” Dolls replied. Doc shifted nervously and Waverly threw him a dangerous look.

Waverly hated the way she couldn’t trust the two men anymore. She hated how she felt so cynical and distrustful when she had been so happy before. A family that had constantly disappointed her and a boyfriend who had, in the end, betrayed her, worked quickly in disabusing her of the notion of human good.

They had withheld information once, they could no doubt do it again. She had only one person to trust, and that person was locked somewhere in Building Three, but even that trust was being pecked at by relentless doubts.

“Where?” Waverly asked harshly, scared of her own growing cynicism.

Doc shifted and took a deep drag of his cigarette. “She was moved,” he mumbled.  Dolls said nothing.

Where. ” Waverly demanded.

“Floor Zero,” Doc replied, louder. “She’s on Floor Zero. She was moved while I was working half over hell’s acre, trying to figure out why strange things kept happenin’.”

Waverly bit back a wave of ‘It didn’t occur to you ’s and ‘you should have ’s.

“We should focus on what we can change,” Dolls stated, “It’s likely she’s dead already if our assumptions about the Beast’s nature are factual. We have no way of reaching Floor Zero, that’s where the Vault is. There are about a hundred employees, most likely under control of the beast, between us and the elevator. There’s no telling what they managed to make down there.”

Of course , Waverly thought, ignoring the spot of pure rage that came with Dolls’ assumption of death. The Beast would desire to keep Nicole close, seeing as she was bitten and very likely a tool. That meant she still might be alive, but also still infected.

Or, a doubtful voice whispered in her ear, it would like revenge for the resistance Nicole had shown, that she still exists under all that psychosis , and killed her outright. Waverly had glimpsed the woman behind the bite, and felt a deep sadness at the thought she might be dead. Not just sadness, despair. Heartbreak , she thought, and was scared of the connection she felt with the other woman.

And perhaps a little hopeful. Their teamwork had come so naturally, easy as breathing, and the thought that it might just be true and not a lie built by the Beast made Waverly want to fight for it. Good hearts might still exist. She did not let herself consider that Nicole might not feel the same way or that it might be an illusion. They both needed to survive first, then Waverly could figure these feelings out.

Dolls was talking again, “We should investigate the tattoos first, then decide on action when we’ve uncovered who’s behind it.” While Waverly was lost in thought, he had retrieved a pair of handcuffs and snapped them home before Waverly could react.

“Hey!” Waverly cried, jerking at the handcuff that held her to the arm of the chair and then lunging at the man. The chair she was cuffed to was heavy, large and awkward, and must have weighed a good amount of pounds. “What the shit!”

“You’re staying here. It has no reason to search you out specifically while we investigate.” He unholstered his gun and nodded to Doc, who had put out his cigarette on the carpet. “Doc, let’s go.”

Waverly thought of Jim, his corpse lying in the next room, and glared at Dolls. “I have no weapon.”

“Third drawer,” called Dolls as the two men vanished behind the thick oak door and left her alone.

“Shit,” Waverly muttered, seething.

 

Meanwhile, outside the Vault at Floor Zero, at Maybe-Probably Eleven-Forty-Six...

Another man appeared, striding purposefully in his hazmat suit before finally reaching Nicole. He removed his suit and revealed the worst hair she’d ever seen in her life. It would have been featured on the cover of Villain Hair Monthly : a single brushed down mohawk with a matching ridiculous facial hair. His tired and empty eyes regarded her without emotion, but Nicole sensed that this man did not like her at all.

He opened his mouth and the Beast spoke through it.

Go and retrieve our guests ,” the Beast told Nicole, “ Then take them to Building One for the main event. I no longer require the vault, but I do require an audience.

“Which guests?” Nicole asked, focusing on the man’s goatee and not the changes of the hallway they inhabited. She could see the dead branches overhead, the black void of a starless and lifeless sky, the wind stirring her hair and catching it in her face. They must have been in the hallway, of course, and still on Floor Zero. But the mere presence of the Beast brought with it a disturbing twist on her perception.

Is this it? Is this the purgatory she was doomed to inhabit at the side of the Beast?

“The only two that matter: Waverly and Wynonna Earp.”

Her breath caught, halting the fog. Waverly . But the distant warmth of the thought stayed beyond her reach, dimming into the forest like a dull ember.

“Why them?” Nicole asked.

The man glared at her, “I wouldn’t question the plan, if I were you. It’s smarter than the both of us combined --”

Why do anything? Revenge, of course, ” the Beast interrupted, causing the man to halt mid-word and change his tone, “You understand this. Go and escort them, they will trust you. They hide on the sixth floor of Building Two.”

Nicole felt the order click home in her brain and felt despair. She stood, a henchman of Hades, prompted to rise to the surface and drag, drag the heroes down, down into the Styx and into the grasp of Undeath.

Nicole, who had chosen Waverly over the Beast, who was now doomed to be forced to undo that choice and betray her sworn promise to see the woman survived the ordeal. Tears, not born of fear this time, ran freely down her face. Nicole would fail again and again, just as it had always been.

“Yes, that is true,” The Beast continued, “I do expect you to fail. But I have brought you a dear friend.”

The snow underfoot crunched as Levi lurched forwards toward Nicole, breaking her out of her self-pity and back to the nightmare.

“How?” Nicole breathed into the foggy air, gazing at the once-dead man. His mouth opened and closed and his new elongated teeth scraped against each other in a creaking noise that drove Nicole’s hairs on end.

“Take the elevator to Floor Six and cross between buildings. I have kept them there, just for you. He will go with you, and you will learn that death does not stop our hunger; it only makes it worse.

Well shit , thought Nicole. Levi staggered forward again, worm-like lips pulling back into a smile. Nicole swallowed hard as the smell of rot mixed into the air.

“Go, now. I have much to do before I finally have my victory, after all these years of planning and waiting.”

Nicole felt herself turn and march through the snow, towards wherever the elevator might be, trying desperately to think about anything, anything at all, that wasn’t the Beast and how it could have planned such a complicated revenge plot.

The two of them finally reached tile and the hallway returned once more. Nicole could hear Levi, staggering and fumbling along behind her, feet hitting the ground awkwardly and adornments clattering. His breath was a rattling noise, as if his vocal cords had been crushed, and it hissed in and out.

Why’s he breathing if he’s dead? Nicole wondered idly as they finally spotted the elevator and their feet landed on tile. The illusion faded. Someone, perhaps one of the panicked observers, had finally managed to get the lift working again. They saw no one else as they approached it and pressed the button.

The gears shifted and rumbled as it replied to the request to lower to Floor Zero. Levi huddled near Nicole like she was a fire. It was so irritating that soon the chill had eased its vice-like grip, all Nicole could consider was the stupid way it rattled when he inhaled.

“Can you stop making that noise?” Nicole hissed, nerves frayed to dust. They had little time before the Beast finished whatever it was it was doing and decided to follow them.

Levi stopped making the noise.

Nicole was so surprised she hesitated as the lift doors opened. She stared at Levi, curiosity plain on her face. He stared back with dull eyes, hat askew and lungs not moving. “Thanks?” she managed, finally stepping into the elevator.

Levi shuffled after her, the circular pins rattling and Nicole glanced down at them as she pressed the button for Six. There was a brightly colored pin that read I HEART C.O., another that was a pride flag, and dozens of others that had various catch phrases and images on them, mostly to do with the city of Denver. And the hat itself was one of those ugly ones that tourists would buy by the truckload. It declared proudly that I LOVE COLORADO .

Nicole furrowed her brow, unable to resist as she brushed a bloodied finger on one with a marijuana leaf emblazoned on it. The lift groaned as it approached the sixth floor. “Where… where in the hell did you get these?” It was surreal. He must have gotten them after he had risen from death.

Levi could not answer, his vocal cords had stopped working some time ago, but the answer lay in various social media accounts across the city of Denver. The original owner of the hat had been sitting on stairs outside of his apartment and had spotted Levi first. He had accosted Levi for a photo and lent him his hat and when he had tried to retrieve it, Levi had not-so-politely pushed him back on the concrete stoop. Then people couldn’t get enough of the man in the excellent zombie monster costume and ugly hat, stopping him in the street and taking photos with him, slapping pins on his shirt and stickers on his back.

But no one in the building knew this, as Levi could not tell them about his adventure of slowly shambling through the city, relentlessly pulled by the will of the Beast and dazed by the brain damage of the fall. It was possible that Levi would not have made it except for the kind strangers who stopped him from walking the crosswalk before traffic was halted by red lights.

The elevator doors opened and Nicole had not received an answer. They stepped off into the Sixth Floor and Nicole saw there wasn’t anyone to stop them.

They were all asleep. Security, the employees, even the interns and secretaries who manned the desks Nicole passed, all were in a deep slumber. The phones buzzed relentlessly, and when Nicole picked one up it was a stressed man who seemed to be in another part of the office. So, somewhere, people were awake. And here. Where the Beast was.

Nicole hung up on the man who insisted he needed records for a certain frequency and tried to dial 9-1-1. Nothing. It seemed outgoing calls went nowhere. Levi hovered over her, looking around with unseeing eyes, and picked at his pins.

“Levi, can you wake these people up somehow?” Nicole asked, craning her head and searching for an alarm of some sort.

Levi opened his mouth, jaw creaking and teeth grating, and let out one quiet gurgle. It was barely audible. So much for that.

Nicole frowned, both at his lack of noise and his seeming willingness to follow her orders. As she noticed, he only drifted next to her, unwilling or uncaring to attack the dozing and defenseless people around them. What the hell , Nicole thought with acceptance, weirder shit has happened. This might as well be happening, too.

Nicole finally spotted the fire alarm and pulled it, wincing as it shattered the air. Papers flew as people jerked awake and frantically began running. Now Levi seemed to wish to follow, tripping over himself as he reached a top speed of a quick shuffle. Nicole grabbed him by the collar of his ratty shirt to stop him and tried to ignore the voice in her head that told her to follow and kill the fleeing people. The alarm kept her awake.

It made sense, uncomfortable sense, that fleeing pre-- people , would set her ‘off.’ She screwed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose, refusing to breathe in the stench of fear. Hunger curled within her and she was disgusted with herself. She did not open her eyes until the footsteps finally died away towards what could only be the stairwell and the alarm had driven a clarity-bringing headache to her skull.

The alarm abruptly stopped and Nicole grew increasingly uncomfortable remaining in Building Three. There was no telling how much time they had before the Beast finished whatever it planned to do and took the elevator.

Nicole approached the bridge between buildings, Levi doddering along behind her.

 

That Tuesday morning, as Waverly, Doc, and Dolls discussed their situation and Nicole was headed for the elevator with Levi behind, Wynonna was staring at a spreadsheet.

Chad, the manager, was talking to her and explaining what she would be doing for her newest job at the facility. Wynonna was pretending to listen because Chad had a gun.

Earlier, Wynonna had gone up the elevator to Floor Seven. She had been determined to investigate from the top down, and decided there wasn’t anything that would entice her to step into the pitch black, dark, abandoned offices that had been up there waiting for her. Waverly had to be somewhere else, so Wynonna tried Floor Six.

Phones rang and people chatted quietly as Wynonna had slipped into the main office. Chad had been waiting for her, smile on his face and horrible tie on too tight.

The helpful twenty-something-year-old nerd pulled a weapon on her and forced her to give up her own. What followed was a tense tour around the office and meeting with many cheerful people who didn’t mention the fact Chad had a fucking gun.

It wasn’t that it hadn’t happened to her before, being held up by a gun. She had been to many, many rough places and been in interesting situations. But this was different than a dive bar with too many drinks: she was listening to someone explain Excel while holding a pistol to her face.

“Can you show me the print option, Chad?” Wynonna asked, twirling a pen. She had no more time for this nonsense, Waverly was somewhere in the building and might need her.

Chad leaned forward and pointed.

Wynonna grabbed his arm and stood under his armpit, throwing her strength into a move that sent him over her shoulder, upside down and back-first onto the desk, shattering the monitor. Chad groaned as Wynonna released him and dived for the gun, thankful of her bar-fight moves.

Unfortunately, Cheryl, from the cubicle next to her, also dived for it.

Wynonna punched her in the face and dodged a trash can thrown by Jason from the cubicle across from her. Trevor had also risen from his seat and now wielded a hole puncher as he charged to join the fight. Wynonna’s hands grabbed the gun just as Trevor slammed into her, causing the gun to fly under a desk beyond her reach.

Mr. Harrison, assistant manager for the floor and sixty pounds overweight, was approaching with his Best-In-Show dog trophy in hand.

What the fuck is going on ?” Wynonna yelled as she slammed her hand into Trevor’s sternum, causing him to stumble back into Cheryl, sending them both toppling to the floor. No one bothered to answer her question.

Still phones rang, but the amicable conversations dribbled to a stop as more and more people rose from their work to try and join the fight. Wynonna, running on adrenaline and bar-fight instincts, was at a strict disadvantage.

Then Mr. Harrison swung wide as he came up to bat, and Wynonna dropped to the floor to dodge as the base of the trophy came with a hairsbreadth of hitting her. She slammed her fist into his crotch and he dropped like a sack of potatoes without a sound.

Wynonna finally had a chance to breathe and noticed that the entire office was approaching her. Most of them appeared to have been absent today, but those that filled the sparse cubicles were rushing her way with assorted office supplies in hand, randomly grabbed weapons raised menacingly.

Wynonna rushed the stairs, hurdling the dividers and dodging the zombie-like mob that followed her. Papers, pencils, phones, anything and everything sailed in the air as they tried to stop her.

Gunfire cracked through the air and bullets soared by her. Someone had found the pistol.

“Everyone down on the ground! ” thundered a voice, full of authority. Two men broke into the room in between Wynonna and the stairwell.

Nobody listened.

“God lord in heaven,” Doc breathed, taking in the scene. Dolls swore under his breath.

Then the wave of under-exercised and over-stressed office workers broke over them, enfolding them into the chaos.

 

Meanwhile in Building Three...

Nicole Haught, Search and Rescue, kicked open the doors on the sixth floor and stepped into the hallway that served as a bridge between buildings. She had neither time or a plan, but she did have a gun.

She needed to find Waverly, not just because the Beast had ordered her to, but because it was Waverly and she was in grievous danger. Angry buzzing thoughts of doubt followed her as she approached Building Two, telling her that Waverly wouldn’t even look her in the eye if she knew the whole truth.

Did she know the truth about the Beast, about its nature, about Nicole?

And about how you nearly killed a man? The doubtful voice whispered.

Waverly Earp was whip-smart and damn clever. If anyone could figure it out, it was her. Nicole didn’t know if this made her feel better or worse.

And if not, Nicole would tell her. Everything, no matter what it meant.

It was with those dark thoughts that she walked through the heavy double doors into the most ridiculous scene she’d ever witnessed, ever.

There was a full-scale brawl on Floor Six. Office supplies flew through the air as constant rain as man and woman collided in a desperate effort to combat. It was not safe for work in the most literal sense of the phrase as they tried their hardest to beat each other senseless.

There’s no way this is actually happening, thought Nicole as her jaw hung useless, I’ve died. This is a surreal dream of some sort, a kind of hell.

Two men and a woman struggled in the hail of chaos to break up fights and survive. They were remarkably lucid as they battled the pencil-pushers for dear life. As Nicole watched, a keyboard struck one of the men in the temple and sent him down, shouting curses in a thick southern accent.

“Put that down !” The other man cried as he dodged a middle-aged overweight woman who had a stapler in a sock. The makeshift weapon barely clipped his ribs and he tackled her in response, sending them tumbling into a desk and shattering a computer monitor.

The woman in the motorcycle jacket had tried to use the printer as a weapon. Ink flew through the air and struck a few combatants, turning them into a sick rainbow of office crusaders.

An office chair followed by a charging sixty-year-old rapidly approached Nicole; she sidestepped and grabbed the man by the shirt before he could injure himself with his own momentum. In response, he hit her with the chair legs to the back of her skull, scattering her confused thoughts like broken glass.

Before Nicole could do so much as regain her footing, the man was flying through the air and breaking through a thin cubicle wall. The buzz and snap of electronics breaking followed his impact with a computer. Levi had thrown the man across the room, hat flying off with the force of his one-handed toss.

Nicole found herself, for some reason, retrieving the hat. She put it back on his head as she tried to orient her senses to this new situation.

The struggling trio were obviously losing, but Nicole hadn’t the time to stop and help. As she watched, a few office employees gathered ethernet cables and phone cords, intending to capture the intruders. It was either stay here and risk everything, or go find Waverly. Where was she?

 

Minutes after the duo had left, Waverly escaped the handcuff.

Well, what did one expect? She had a hooligan for a sister and had picked up a few tricks. Wynonna, her sister, had gone off the metaphorical rails following the car accident that had claimed their father and eldest sister. The following years as young children struggling with grief had led them down separate paths: Waverly towards solitude and reading through her grief, Wynonna towards wayward rule-breaking and general troublemaking.

Waverly had picked up a few things along the way. The victims of this recent maneuver were a number of pens and a phone -- but she was not one to reveal her secrets.  

The gun hidden in the desk drawer was shoved in her waistband -- which was quite dangerous, she knew -- but the files on the desk had her main attention. Form Thirty-Two was missing from its rightful folder. A dreadful thought came to Waverly: It was the key to the whole thing.

Rapidly approaching footsteps.

“Shit!” Waverly hissed, running to the door and locking it. Seconds later, something heavy collided with it.

A second later it tried again. The door frame shook and groaned with the impact, implying something very large was trying to get in. Horrible ideas of what it could be arrived, each of them worse than the last. The Beast was out of the question, it was dead, but what if it was something else?

Again the thing slammed into the door. No sounds other than Waverly’s panicked breathing and the wood complaining of the strain ran through the air, letting her imagination run wild with theories. She pulled the weapon from her waistband and checked the safety, wondering if she could pull the trigger if it was a human. She couldn’t hesitate, but she didn’t know! Could she?

Anything could have been in this facility. What had Doc said? Supernatural creature research? Oh, no…

The thick wood cracked and Waverly gripped her gun tight enough for her hands to ache. The hinges slowly snapped free, letting the door weaken and break with the final impact. It fell to the floor with a dull thud, revealing the enemy.

It was a middle-aged man holding a dog trophy.

His wild eyes locked onto Waverly and he charged, holding it by the ornamental poodle and swinging the base like a hammer.

Self-defense lessons and muscle memory saved Waverly’s delicate skull. She jerked back and dodged, allowing the man’s momentum to continue unanswered as she tripped him with her foot. He slammed face-first into the desk and didn’t get up.

It was so smoothly executed that Waverly could not suppress the wave of pride that rushed over her. All her life she had been underestimated and designated ‘the brains’ of any operation, all the while she was just itching for a chance to prove that assumption wrong. If only she had gotten to unleash her fist fighting skills...

The man groaned, prompting Waverly to action. She hurried and picked up the handcuffs then snapped them home on the man, forcing his hands behind his back. He did not stir again from his position on the cheap carpeted floor.

Waverly winced and felt guilty. “Sorry!” she told the fallen man. Sure, he tried to kill her, but that wasn’t exactly his fault, was it? He would survive, probably.

The apologetic thoughts faded to nothing as another person stepped into view and pushed past the remains of the door.

It was a six-foot tall mountain of a man. A chill wind followed him in and rustled the papers on the walls as two chips of ice watched her under a bush of eyebrow. The small primal voice in Waverly’s brain began to scream incoherently at how wrong this man seemed, how it was something else in human skin.

All of Waverly’s muscles went slack as her gaze met his and the gun slid out of her hands. In the corner of her vision, she saw it tumble uselessly to the floor and lay there, behind her reach as if it had been across the room. She could not retrieve it. She was paralyzed in fear, her own body betraying her.

“I need you to scream, ” requested the man, but it was the Beast.

Waverly screamed.

 

It struck Nicole like lightning before she could decide. It splintered through the air, driving every fiber of her being to fire. In horror, she watched as the three lucid individuals froze at the sound and were overcome while distracted.

Waverly. I must get to Waverly!

“Levi, stay here and get those three free of... whatever is happening.” It didn’t even matter if he obeyed her or not, what mattered was Waverly.

Search! Nicole sprinted down the halls and took a turn too fast, slamming into a wall and knocking a motivational poster to the ground. She did not stop. Her feet sounded like thunder as she pushed herself as fast as she could possibly go, unable to stand the mental images of what she might find.

Waverly, dead, torn to pieces before Nicole could help her… But no!  She was too clever, too resourceful, too strong to die, surely.

Rescue! There it was, taunting her, the edges of the door she could not see into as she flew towards it. The orders of the Beast stirred in her brain, fallen leaves of suggestion rustling into the air and clouding her judgment.

No. She shut the door firmly. She was Nicole Haught, Search and Rescue, and someone needed her.

The sight that awaited her was almost worse than what she had imagined. A brick wall of a man gripped Waverly by the throat and ignored a letter opener that was stabbed through his arm. He was grinning at the way the brunette struggled to get free and glared back with fire in her eyes.

Waverly. It almost surprised her how warm simply confirming she was alive made Nicole feel. As if survival, or even redemption, may yet be possible.

Relief cracked to rage, fire-hot and quick, a flare lit by a violent hand into a chill night. Red ringed the edges of Nicole’s vision as she raised her gun and stared down the barrel at the man across the room.

“Let her go.”

Nicole almost didn’t recognize her own voice, how steady it sounded. Both of them turn to regard her and Nicole felt a stir, a slight summer breeze, at how relief seems to color Waverly, too.

Fury returned and she almost fired right then and there, but the man looked at her and everything else dropped away. The cold gripped her like a vice and her hand began to shake, the gun barrel jittering in her vision. The frost...

The man lifted Waverly off the ground by the throat, causing her to grunt in pain and grip the arm that held her. “It’s time to fail yet again, Nicole Haught,” the Beast whispered through the man’s mouth, teeth bared, “We will take her to building one, where she will die screaming.”

(put the gun down put the gun down)

“Let go.” Nicole said, quieter this time. She could hear the branches brush against each other. She could smell the death. The gun began to shake harder in her hand as she struggled to keep it aimed at the man. No. It cannot have Waverly. Not after everything that had happened, not after all this time. She had to pull the trigger, she had to, she had no choice!

“Drop the gun.”

(drop the gun)

Nicole dropped the gun with a gasp as her muscles lost tension of their own accord. She almost collapsed, but leaned back against a bookshelf in horror as the gun tumbled across the carpet. Useless.

Waverly’s eyes widened with the growing realization that Nicole was not free.

“Stay there and watch.”
(stay there and watch)

Nicole obeyed. Disobedience was in her heart, but it was like wrestling an avalanche. There was no use. Failure yet again.

The man barked at a laugh, harsh and quick. He slowly turned his head towards Waverly, smile wide, face expectant and hungry, “I want to watch the hope die in your --”

CRACK!

Great Expectations flew through the air and slammed spine-first against the man’s temple. His whole body jerked with the force of the impact, grip going limp as he was knocked unconscious by a romance classic. Waverly sucked in an inhale as the hand that held her let go and the man collapsed to the floor.

“Oh, my god,” Nicole breathed, body still turned with the follow through of the excellent throw, “Did I just kill a man with a book?”

But Nicole could hear the heartbeat of the man steady into sleep and relaxed.

Then Waverly was in her arms and the world halted.

“Waverly,” Nicole breathed, brunette hair rustling with it. Waverly smelled so sweet, so right , and the warmth of her embrace was running up and down Nicole’s skin like lightning. She was alive and well and she was in Nicole's arms. With just a hug, Waverly felt like sunshine running down the cracks of her heart and banishing the last of the snow. The water escaped and ran and then Nicole was crying, sobbing openly. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Waverly said and thought, Now I am .  She dug her nose deeper into Nicole’s hair and tried to ignore the thundering, fevered pulse inches from her ear and how cold the taller woman was. She swallowed hard at the lingering stench of death and coppery smell of blood; her thoughts spiraling into what the Beast may have forced Nicole to do, what it may yet still force her to do. She tried instead to think of what it meant that they were together again, a team capable of defeating the Beast once and perhaps capable of ultimately thwarting its plans.

Snoring startled them both. It was loud enough to rattle the windows; the man had gone to sleep.

They both fell apart with relieved, nervous laughter, Nicole brushing away tears and Waverly still grasping at the other woman to confirm her existence.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Nicole asked again, gently tucking a brown lock back behind Waverly’s ear, looking her over with soft brown eyes for the twenty-seventh time and counting.

“Yes,” Waverly repeated, brow furrowing as she realized Nicole was splattered with blood, half covered in it. “What… are you okay? What happened you?”

Nicole looked down and remembered everything, her jaw opening and closing, trying to find words and failing. Oh, yeah, Nicole thought sarcastically as her mind buzzed with excuses , just happened to almost kill a man -- how about you?

The silence drew on and Waverly reached the same conclusion. Her eyes flickered from bloody hands to bloody face, trying to interpret the amount. Arterial blood? She did not know the difference. “Who was it?” Waverly asked quietly, so quiet, almost too quiet to hear.

But Nicole could hear Waverly’s heartbeat, could taste her anxiety. It made her ill and she shut her eyes. “No, he’s alive -- I, I couldn’t  -- the --”

Nicole’s words tapered off. If she opened her eyes, if she saw fear in Waverly’s eyes, she might just jump from the window.

Then a stench of rot fell over them both and Waverly jumped in surprise, catching sight of a monster in an ugly hat. “What the shit?” she screamed, scrambling back from Nicole, who turned her head and regarded Levi with a seriously, dude? look. It was lost on Levi, who didn’t have the awareness to consider himself serious or a dude. He shuffled in and looked blankly at the two of them, just standing there and scraping his teeth together.

“Waves, Waverly ,” Nicole said, reaching a calming hand towards Waverly and a halting hand up at Levi, “It’s fine, he’s a …” What was he? Nicole thought fast. “Harmless...thing.”

“Nicole, he’s dead! ” Waverly cried, grasping for the fallen handgun.

No! I mean yes , he is, -- Levi, could you stand outside or something -- Waverly, it’s okay, I think,” Nicole said hurriedly, still trying to calm the brunette.

Levi tottered out the door just as Waverly finally had her hands on the gun. “What the shit, Nicole, you can’t just show up with a zombie --”

“Waves, we don’t have time!” Nicole stated a bit too sharply, “The Beast will be here soon, just trust me on this. It’s alive.

That single word hit the air with all the force of a bunker-buster.

The Beast was alive.

And its powers of control remained.

Worst of all -- It was approaching.

Waverly also stood, mind momentarily blank with fear. She shook herself and snatched the pistol off the ground and jammed it into her waistband, safety be damned. Trust could not yet be given, not until the other woman was cured. “I wish I could,” Waverly whispered. She really did.

“Then I’ll do the trusting. I trust you, Waverly,” Nicole replied, trying to keep the heartbreak she was feeling out of her voice, “There’s fighting outside and we don’t have time before the Beast will be here. We need to think of something.”

Waverly took a deep breath then nodded, “Okay. Let’s do it.”

Nicole held out her hand and Waverly took it without hesitation. Both women had their breaths hitch in their throat at how right the contact felt. Neither knew why it felt as if they were two puzzle pieces that fit together into something beautiful, but they had no time to figure it out. Outside, somewhere in the building, the Beast awaited them.

At that moment, all around the building that Tuesday morning, the clocks changed to Eleven Fifty-Nine.

It was almost noon.

Chapter Text

That Tuesday at eleven fifty-nine...

The deep sound of flesh hitting against metal bars resounded through the hallway of Floor Zero. Cries and screams decorated the air like an anguished celebration. To Bobo, it was beautiful in its depravity. The work of an entire team for over a decade to construct the peak of human engineering: turning men into controllable beasts with the power of the Wendigo.

The Beast was pleased, ridiculously so. It kept looking over the hallway with a kind of reverence, one that is reserved by artists for fellow artists. Or in this case, fellow sadists. This was something it had hatched in its mind and given to the humans, an idea that had wormed into their hearts and taken root as a promise of profit. The Beast was the source, the blueprint, the prime.

Oh, yes, Cryderman had considered it his own idea. He had done all of it himself, believing that moving the whole project to the soutwhest would ‘confuse the dumb thing’ and remove all ability to influence others.

It was a nice try, but he didn’t write the script he was reading so diligently from.

The program didn’t exactly have a name other than the Program. The same way that the Beast was ‘the Beast’, the Program was ‘the Program’. Spoken in low, knowing tones by folks who glance over their shoulders one too many times.

Talking about ‘the Program’ was strictly prohibited outside of Floor Zero. At least three subjects for the Program had been selected because of this rule breach. Considering the 94% fatality rate, the rule remained an effective way of keeping mouths shut.

The other reason the secrets remained a secret was Cryderman. He was nicknamed the judge but he was also the jury, the executioner, the courtroom itself, and had a mean streak a mile wide. One did what he said unless you wanted an all-expenses paid trip to the grave because you’ve been charged, found guilty, and punished for committing treason.

But the true reason was that every single person on staff recognized that the Program was for the greater good. Taking the fringes of humanity, the most desperate of souls, and elevating them to something stronger, better, faster. How many conflicts could be ended in minutes instead of hours? How many lives could be saved with the sacrifice of one individual? Billions spent on defense and an army that could be cut into a third of its current capacity because its soldiers could be unstoppable.

The Program may have vastly paranormal missions and research, but the most paranormal thing about it was the way it could get money like nothing else. Speak the words “superweapon” to an American politician and you might have them sweating.

Speak the words ‘unpaid taxes’ to the IRS, you might have an early bankruptcy and a nervous breakdown on the way. It wasn’t just anyone who tipped off the monstrously efficient government tax service, it was Bobo himself. Untrustworthy and vengeful, his admission into Floor Zero had spelled disaster from the first.

And when the Project was discovered, well. That was quite a mountain of legal fees because it turns out it’s hard to harbor human beings against their will in the court of law.

Bobo had taken one look at the prisoners and made a phone call. Cryderman didn’t deserve the fruits of his efforts. Bobo did.

Now here he was beside the Beast, who happened to be the entire reason for the Program in the first place, and second only to the monster itself. With Cryderman soon to be out of the game completely and no one left to take the reins, Bobo was the top human.

He stood at the entrance to the hallway, putting enough distance from the Beast so it couldn’t read his mind outright. He had learned that the hard way. If it figured out that Bobo was planning to intentionally waste its time down here, then, well...

The Beast stopped at the first set of bars. The first cell was a man. Or at some point, it had been. It sat in the corner keening and scraping its hands against the wall, eyes wide and unseeing as its jaw snapped open, taunt muscles straining as it made that horrible cry.

“What’s he thinking?” Bobo asked as he, too, came upon the first cell.

(Nothing you could understand. How many before this one?)

“Quite a few. These six are the only ones left.”

(Tell me about who this man was.)

Bobo stopped and picked up the clipboard in the slot beside the cell. “Henry Mcsherry. Age forty-three, caucasian, born in Maryland --”

(Does he have a family?)

“Wife left him, looks like. He’s got a kid, though.”

(Where is the child? Did you take it as well?)

“No, what would we do with a kid? Must be with the wife or something. Not listed.”

(He remembers the child, he believes it is alive. This is why you failed.)

“Failed? Look at him!” Bobo exclaimed, gesturing at the man. It was trying to climb the wall still. “There’s nothing left!” Nothing remains of any of the prisoners in the hallway. All were too far gone; since the first injection they had been torn from the cradle of sanity and into something wholly different. A kind of hell where the only solace is eating human flesh. A kind of hell that could be unleashed as a weapon.

(Oh, but there is...)

“Die,” said the Beast. The thing began to choke. Bobo turned away as the cries changed in pitch, walking away from what was surely happening. The thing stopped making noises. Bobo considered that death might be a mercy at this point, though each prisoner was extremely expensive.

(Are the other five just as disappointing? Who was it who failed to capture the child?)

“Cryderman.” Bobo wasn’t lying, per se. He just wasn’t telling the whole truth. The one specifically responsible was in a grave.

They reached the second cell: This one had been a woman.

(I suppose your imagination for cruelty is tempered with a tendency for failure,) the beast commented as it inspected the next specimen. (This one is much better. Did you uncover the secret behind the infection?)

It hissed, hanging from the ceiling. It was almost unrecognizable as a human being. Orange eyes stared from an upside down position, an expression of rabid hunger frozen across a face that was far too grey, far too stretched and twisted, to be considered human.

“No, we haven’t been able to reproduce that yet.”

(I’ll show you the secret.)

Bobo sighed. What was it with the Beast and being so damn cryptic?

(Because it’s much more fun that way.)

 

 

That Tuesday morning at eleven fifty-nine…

Champ Hardy was not a good man.

He had never been. He had never tried, never attempted, and never cared to be. He wasn’t a bad man, either, no -- that would require too much forethought and spite. He had drifted through life on good looks and false charm, his own short-sighted ignorance hidden under a facade of selfish happiness.

Champ Hardy did not deviate from the plan out of spite or vengeance, he did it because it was the better choice for himself in the long run.

He did not load and conceal the gun because he was evil, he did it because things would be easier this way.

And sending his girlfriend to the shadow of the mountain was not because he wanted her to die, he did it because he was bored and had a better future in mind. Whether or not she lived was inconsequential, it only mattered that he was no longer tied down to one woman who offered him nothing. She was good in bed, but once it became one sided it lost its fun.

It certainly didn’t hurt that there was money involved. Not just money, no, but power. It is always power, isn’t it? The power of jet fuel took him to Colorado, gasoline took him to the office building, but the Accelerant took him inside. And money was just the grease that held them all together.

It is better this way, he thought as he pushed home the syringe. He discarded it like the others and regarded his instructions with a dull eye. They directly contradicted the orders he had received minutes past, but he didn’t care.

How terrible, the things we do for love, and Champ Hardy had never loved anybody but himself.

So it was he who had woken up that fateful week and seen an email filled with instructions and promises of power. His ‘business trips’ paled in comparison to this new project. The decision had been ridiculously easy. Tell Waverly where to go, get money. Who wouldn’t have done the same?

The second step had just as easy. Finding the damn thing with the ugly hat had been less of a challenge then he had thought. Had a crowd following it, too. What a string of excuses it took to finally get the dead celebrity into the van. And then it had outright refused to bite him! He had to tie the damn thing and shove his arm in its foul mouth to finally achieve the infection.

Now, as he stepped out into the open office area of Floor Six, he did not think of the lives that would be lost. He did not care. He had to fix something and he had vicious thoughts on his mind.

This plan is nothing short of ridiculous. It has an absurd fascination with the former search and rescue officer Nicole Haught. She is a problem it refuses to deal with - Kill her and take over. I’ll buy you as much time as I can. You’ll get Waverly, and we’ll get whatever it promised the redhead. You’ll be my second in command. 60-40 cut.

-DR

Well, he planned to remove del Rey as well, but that was something that could wait.

Now as he exited the bridge between buildings, quiet frantic whispers slowed to a stop. A crowd of office workers stared into space and swayed to some inaudible tune. They surrounded three captured individuals, tied up tight with ethernet and phone cables.

Champ did not recognize the scrappy doctor with a mustache or the larger army type, but he could spot Wynonna Earp anywhere. A grin split his face at the look of recognition she gave him as he knelt down before her, ignoring the zombie-like office employees who looked on.

“Well if isn’t Champ Hardly worth it,” Wynonna quipped from behind a black eye and a lock of brunette hair, “If you’re looking for Waverly, she finally left your dumbass and is currently in Paris.”

Champ only grinned wider. “Nah, she’s somewhere in this buildin', scared to death and injured, and you’re tied up here.” He glanced around at the milling office workers who tried not to look as if they were possessed and commanded to stay still and were failing miserably. “By a bunch of fuckin’ pencil pushers .”

“Pardon me, but who in the hell are you?” asked the mustached doctor.

“Just a useless sack of shit from Purgatory,” Wynonna replied.

Somebody was suddenly very scared. God, the smell of it . Champ leaned forward into it, expecting it to finally be Wynonna, but it was not. It was the doctor. He frowned, furious at the thought that Wynonna was still not scared.

“Wynonna, your big mouth just won Waverly a broken arm,” Champ replied evenly. There it was, the fear. He must have more of it. “Me and her going to have plenty of alone time .” Yes, it was working. But he was running out of time, he could not linger here and enjoy the look of horror and fury in Wynonna’s eyes.

“Go,” Champ commanded the workers.

Most of them staggered forward to comply, but one didn’t. He spun around and stared at his weaponized keyboard in confusion. “Why are we doing this?”

Soon enough a few others were stopping and looking around as if they had the same question in mind. Champ ran a hand down his face in frustration. They might need a little reminding, Bobo had explained, give them something their brains will accept, they won’t be thinking clearly. “Money,” he barked.

“Money,” said the first to question and he nodded as if that explained everything. He had student loans to pay off, of course he needed the cash. So he would obey the voice in his head because that was entirely reasonable and a good idea.

“Money,” the employees echoed. They looked at each other and nodded in agreement. Yes, a raise would do. They had children to take care of and retirement to consider. And all sorts of things could be done with “Money,” they said again. And repeated. And repeated. And repeated...

“Shut the hell up!” Champ yelled. “Move!

They immediately complied and Champ stood, moving away from the captured trio and formulating a plan to kill his opponent. The Beast’s orders rang in his ears, but he didn’t intend to follow them. They were stupid.

“Purgatory? She did say Purgatory, right?” the doctor was whispering furiously to the other man as they were forced to stand. The other man did not reply.

Champ Hardy watched them leave with a smile on his face. He knew where Waverly and the redhead were, what they were currently doing. He stopped a possessed woman and took her aside, heading for the hallways. If Waverly yet lived, she was his and his alone. He deserved this prize.
Champ Hardy was not a good man.

 

That Tuesday morning at eleven fifty-nine…

“We have to hurry, there was fighting in the office area,” Nicole explained as she tugged Waverly back the way she had come. Terrible modern art glared at them from the dull colored walls of the hallway and reflected images of the strange pair.

Something was wrong. Nicole could feel it in her bones that something about their situation had changed, she just couldn’t pin it down yet. It felt like waking up after a night of troubled sleep and finding car keys a foot from where they were placed last. The subtle differences had her mind itching with possibilities, each worse than the last.

“Did one of them have a mustache?” Waverly asked.

Nicole did not hear her. She was too busy trying to listen to the silence ahead of them and trying to figure out why her instincts were telling her that something had changed. She sped up, long strides to reach the end of the hallway and get back to the office.

“Or was the other --” Waverly was interrupted by Nicole’s back when she slammed into it. The taller woman had stopped and was breathing hard, fast.

Silence, except for the ever-present scuffle of Levi’s battered shoes, the beat of the rain against the building, and the sounds only Nicole could hear. No, Nicole thought, this is wrong. Where is the poster I knocked to the floor? Where is the indentation my shoulder left?

Then Waverly was whipped around as Nicole changed direction, taking them back along the hallway towards the other corner at a punishing pace.  Waverly almost had to run to keep up.

“Nicole, what’s going on?” Waverly panted as they reached the opposite side of the hallway. Then all of her muscles went slack in disbelief, her hand slipping out of Nicole’s as it rose to her mouth and covered it. “Oh my god.”

“Oh my god,” Nicole repeated quietly. The hallway before them was the same as the hallway in the opposite side, down to the trashcan in the corner and decorative plant, except the ceiling lights were out. At the end of the dark hall, the same modern painting of five dots taunted them. I’m the same, it said, but different.

The hallways had changed, Nicole realized.

Nicole grabbed Waverly’s wrist, gentle but firm, and led them back the other way. Now she knew what was wrong, the buzz of computers and the sound of fighting and movement from the open office was no longer present. It was too quiet. It was almost as if --

Then they had reached the other side and gazed at the same hallway in open disbelief. One of the lights had gone out, leaving the three others flickering. The ominous light couldn’t hide the fact that it was exactly the same as the other side and completely wrong. It shouldn’t be there.

“We don’t have time for this!” Nicole growled at the hallway that shouldn’t be there. “We have to get to Building One!”

The empty space did not respond. Waverly squeezed Nicole’s hand, trying not to panic herself. “Why building one?” she managed to ask. “There’s something on Floor Seven, an email --”

“No, we -- We have to --” Nicole took a deep breath, leading them into the half-lit hallway. Another breath in, another breath out. She had to keep her cool. It was hard, as the strange light cast their skin pale and fevered colors, to prevent herself from losing her mind outright. “-- The Beast, it wants you and someone named Wynonna in the cafeteria.”

Waverly stopped and so did Nicole, lest she cause the other woman to fall forward. “Wynonna? Did you say Wynonna?

“Yes?” Nicole said absently, looking at the door next to them. How strange . She ran her fingers along the wood, thinking hard. If this hallway wasn’t supposed to be here, perhaps the rooms could hold a key.

“Is she here? Nicole? Nicole!” Waverly called, tugging on Nicole’s arm, trying to get her attention. It would be impossible. Wynonna was across the country, getting drunk in a bar, with no idea what was happening. No idea that her sister was in grievous danger. But if she was here, that meant she was in danger as well, and that was one more person that needed saving or Waverly might lose her mind.

A long pause as Waverly waited for a response from the woman who was intently staring at the door next to them

“Shouldn’t this be numbered?” Nicole whispered, her fingers tracing the wood grain. The golden numbers dictating the office number were not present, and not even a pale shadow remained. It was smooth and untouched.

Neither of them spoke. They both stood under the angrily buzzing, flickering fluorescent light and stared at the numberless door. They did not ask the question that lingered in both their minds aloud.

What was behind the door?

Nicole swallowed hard, letting her hand drift down towards the handle. “Your sister, what does she look like?” she asked as if trying to pretend she wasn’t about to open the door. Anyone could be on the other side. Anyone could be listening, behind this door or the others.

“Long hair, unless she cut it. Brunette, angry,” Waverly said quietly, watching the slow progress.

Nicole’s hand wrapped around the cool door handle. A beat, two. A calming breath in, a calming breath out. “Would she wear a motorcycle jacket?”

Waverly swallowed, nodding a bit too quickly. Her mouth had gone completely dry with apprehension. “Yes.”

Nicole’s hand settled over the motionless handle.

She jerked her hand quick, intending to throw open the door and surprise whoever inhabited the room.

It wouldn’t budge. “It won’t turn,” Nicole stated in disbelief, letting her hand drop limp. The handle hadn’t jiggled or moved, it was as unyielding as the door that stared at them and mocked them with its wrongness.

A raised hand stopped Waverly from speaking.  Nicole leaned against the door and listened. Agonizing seconds of silence passed, announcing that there was no reassuring sound of rain hitting office windows on the other side of the door. It didn’t make sense. There was no possible way that the room on the other side of the door did not have a window. It was a physical impossibility.

Nicole could hear her own heartbeat raging in her ears and Waverly’s anxious staccato. She could hear Levi’s pins shifting as he swayed back and forth in one spot. Then Nicole started counting the pairs of lungs that inhaled, exhaled in her audible range.

One pair of lungs, quick and barely controlled. Herself.

Two pairs of lungs, equally panicked. Waverly.

...Three pairs of lungs, calm and slow. Someone else.

Waverly shoved her first in her mouth, stopping a whimper at the way Nicole’s face went rigid with fear. Someone’s there, Nicole mouthed silently and nodded to the door, brown eyes locked with Waverly’s in a mutual search for some kind of comfort and reassurance.

Neither of them found it. They were both scared out of their minds with the possibilities of what lay beyond the door. Would it be another hallway? A hidden room? Or worse… complete darkness , an empty void, begging to be stepped into, asking for them to jump into it and let the blackness take them away.

And there was the question of who was breathing on the other side. Or what was breathing on the other side. With the Beast alive and able to manipulate time, there was no telling what else it could be capable of.  It could very well be behind the door, just waiting for the perfect time to dig its claws through the wood and take them both.

Waverly tugged Nicole’s hand. Get away, she mouthed. Nicole nodded in agreement and slowly leaned off the door. Whoever was behind the door was probably not friendly.

Nothing happened. Nothing continued to happen for the next thirty seconds as the two women came to terms with the fact that things had stopped making sense.

Panic and anger wrestled for control of Nicole’s mind as she stared at the dark wood. With a handle that didn’t work, it could be a false door. Or, it could hold the secret to this whole maze, the reason for the physically impossible duplicate hallways.

Nicole stepped back again and Waverly took two as well, worried.

How do I do this? Nicole cast her mind back to the past, back to an abandoned cabin with a locked door. Don’t use your shoulder, her father had said years ago, use your foot near the lock and lean into it.

Nicole swallowed hard, mind still imagining what might be behind the door. She lifted her leg uncertainty and immediately her father chastised her. She had gotten it wrong then and had to have her father do it. But he wasn’t here now, and he wouldn’t have been here anyway.

Rage fueled from loneliness raced through her and caused her to move so suddenly Waverly let out a short scream. Nicole slammed her foot into the door, leaning into it with perfect posture, and used all of her weight, all of her rage, all of her strength.

It didn’t move.

Fuck you, Nicole thought and tried again. And again. And again. Still her actions had no effect and her anger went unanswered. The unyielding mahogany mocked her: Your strength is useless! You are stuck, lost! Forever!

Waverly watched in confusion and worry at the other woman. She seemed furious. Waverly backed up slightly, only to bump into a staring Levi. He seemed rather unconcerned with the changes so far. Waverly, for some reason, felt herself leaning towards him rather than away. He seemed safe and calm, which was the exact opposite of Nicole at the moment.

“Fuck you!” Nicole growled coldly and slammed her foot into the wall next to the door. Drywall was nothing compared to the wood, but it didn’t break either. Her furious kicks didn’t even scuff the paint, leading her to pull the nearest painting off the wall and slam it against the opposite side. Glass flew, almost cutting into skin, but she was too caught up. She tore the motivational poster that read PATIENCE into incomprehensible scraps and did the same to the next one.

Someone was calling her name but the trash can was a satisfying target. She crumpled it like a leaf and threw it against the tile with a resounding BANG! Her vision was red, blurred, focused on all the things she could break.

No one would call Nicole a violent person in the slightest or even a person who would use violence in anger. Showing them this would have driven them in confusion. Are you sure that’s Nicole? Nicole was calm and controlled, focused on de-escalation and communication. She was a people person, a magic worker, a kind and empathetic individual who could connect with anyone. Her life was dedicated to the protection and service of others.

But Nicole was destroying the decorative plant as if it had insulted her mother. It struck the wall and the plastic container shattered and dirt flew like rain. The fake leaves were torn from fake stalks and the whole thing was scattered across the hall. She was not done. She needed more. More paintings, more trashcans, more destruction, something to take the anger away. Something to stop the pain and loneliness. Something fragile and yielding. Something that could scream.

Waverly watched Hurricane Nicole as she physically assaulted the hallway around her and felt a stir of fear. Waverly had lived in the shadow of a drunken man, a poor excuse for a father with a temper like nothing else. His rage never broke his own property, no, it was always Waverly’s. Always.

To find Nicole -- No, it must be ‘ not Nicole’ . It must be the psychosis, here again, in the hallway. Within feet of her. Waverly was suddenly very aware of the weight of her gun and the weight of her own knowledge of fighting in enclosed spaces. She wouldn’t be able to shoot Nicole. No, that would be out of the question. In the dark and in a scuffle, she would hit a vital spot almost certainly.

But overpowering someone who could pull you apart like a twizzler?

That was another thing entirely.

Waverly watched in horror as Nicole obliterated yet another painting. It would be so much easier to make a plan if Nicole didn’t look so damn hot when she got physical.

“Nicole!” Waverly called yet again, but Nicole wasn’t listening. She had reached the last decoration in the hallway and mercilessly destroyed it, just like the others. Waverly thought about reaching out and touching Nicole, but was considering how much her arms meant to her in general.

Then Nicole stopped at the end of the hallway, staring at the wall and panting. The longer the silence grew, the heavier the tension. Even Levi had stopped moving and instead stared at the door Nicole had said was hiding someone.

“Nicole?” Waverly asked, and Nicole snapped her head around. Eyes glittered in the half-dark and cast Waverly back to a familiar memory -- turning her head on the trail and seeing a cougar in the bushes. “Shit.”

Then the expression softened into one of confusion and concern. “Waverly?”

“That’s me,” Waverly replied then laughed nervously. Her spine was still stiff with apprehension but soon loosened when Nicole took a deep breath and uncurled her fingers from harsh fists. Her friend was back from where ever she had been.

“Uhm?” Nicole turned, inspecting the hallway. “What?” This was incomprehensible. She didn’t lose control. Never. She would never allow herself to -- but now you do , a traitorous thought in her head whispered, because you’re a monster and you act like one.

Soft hands covered hers and Nicole snapped her eyes back to Waverly’s. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s going to be okay,” Waverly said.  Guilt threatened to crush Nicole at the fact she had lost control and put Waverly in harm’s way. Now she was cradling Nicole’s bloodied hands like she wasn’t a… a…

“You’re not a monster, Nicole,” Waverly said firmly. She saw the look of horrendous guilt in the other woman’s eyes and shivered. The psychosis was tearing Nicole apart, and Waverly had to keep her together or they were doomed.

Waverly allowed a sly smile slip past and pulled on the taller woman’s shirt, implying she should shift closer. Nicole complied and leaned her head down. “The hallway deserved it,” Waverly whispered conspiratorially.

Shy smiles were shared, then open grins, then nervous and relieved laughter. Tension evaporated like water as the two of them took a moment to breathe. Nicole stared in open awe at Waverly. How could such a wonderful person exist? It was just like the hallways: a physical impossibility.

A door slammed, somewhere in halls nearby, and both froze.

The following quiet stretched long and uncomfortable. There were no footsteps.

Nicole cleared her throat, the sound almost like a gunshot in the silence. “So. About Wynonna,” she started awkwardly as they began walking again. They headed towards the end of the hallway to see what might be waiting at the end of it.

“You saw her?” Waverly managed through her tight throat. “Is she all right?”

“She was with two other men, fighting office workers.” Three feet from the corner.

“Did you help? ” Waverly asked, worry rising.

“I didn’t have time, I had to --” Nicole stopped again, but this time Waverly managed to avoid colliding with her. “Oh, no.”

“Shit,” Waverly hissed.

This time, the hallway had no lights at all and the doors had no handles. Behind them, yet another hallway stretched into impossibility and held no lights or ceiling tiles within it.

“No,” Nicole said firmly, “No. I’m not dealing with this today. I don’t feel like getting lost in a maze.”

“Neither am I,” Waverly said, nodding. Yes. This should definitely stop. Very soon, in fact.

They retraced their steps, avoiding Levi who spun like a marionette and followed them. They half-jogged back towards the light at the end of the hall and spun, ready to be furious and afraid.

It hadn’t changed. The open doors of Dolls’ office might as well have been the light of their sanity as they avoided the rocks of losing their grip. Almost instinctively the two women found themselves back inside the office, pacing next to the two unconscious men and thinking hard.

“Okay, well at least these two are still here,” Nicole commented drily.

“Why didn’t you help my sister?” Waverly asked quietly, staring out the window at the sheets of rain.

“What?” Nicole asked, stopping mid-pace and mid-thought.

Waverly responded with a flat stare. Had Nicole been told to, or had she decided to?

“I heard you scream!” Nicole exclaimed, gesturing. “I had to get here first. I had no idea what could be happening to you, who you could be fighting. There’s something…” Nicole ran a hand through her hair, trying to order her thoughts into useful information. She paced. “...something about the bite, and this thing, it’s called the Accelerant, and it makes people fast and strong and --” inhuman . “-- it just. I couldn’t know . I couldn’t stop and help, but I don’t think she’s dead. Not yet.”

Still, Nicole did not look at Waverly, did not see what expression she might have, she charged on, words coming fast and scrambled, “There was this vault, floor zero. I was in a room, trapped, I couldn’t get out, I don’t remember. Then the door opens and I’m told to go places and wait for things and there were these people -- standing around as if it was time to observe a play of some sort, they were just standing there and letting me walk up to them, they didn’t know, I mean --”

The tears came before she could stop them, but still she pushed the words out. “There was this man. Saying things. Something about the Accelerant, about a defense contract, about something else and I just, I couldn’t hear him any more. All I could think about was all those people that died because of what he did and my dad, my dad, I…” A long pause.

Waverly’s heart wrenched with pain for Nicole. She didn’t want to imagine what she herself would do if bitten, infected, and forced to do things against her will.

“The Beast,” Nicole said the word and it lingered like a bad smell. “It was there, it told me instructions. I take you and Wynonna to Building One.”

Then Nicole could feel the imprints in her fingers, the yielding bone snapping as she effortlessly twisted. She sank to her knees and pressed her hands against her own face, as if she could remove the feel of his flesh and the blood and the feel of his heart beating against her slick palm and --

Someone was holding her.

Waverly held the sobbing Nicole, just as they had done in opposite on the morning of their rescue. It was a long time that they sat together as the rain and thunder echoed in the background. “It’s okay to cry,” Waverly echoed. “We’ll get through this. Somehow. I’ll think of something.” Waverly ignored the little doubtful voice that whispered that she didn’t have a very good track record so far.

Nicole pulled back reluctantly. “I should tell you… I know you don’t trust me, Waverly, and you shouldn’t, because of…” She swallowed. “...I just wanted you to know that I…” I think I’m in love with you.

“My father was the only one who hadn’t left,” Nicole said quickly, covering the gap. “I was gay, tall, a redhead -- so I didn’t really... connect with anyone. My mother left, as did the rest of the family, and it was just me and my father. He wasn’t -- really, he loved me and I miss him like hell, but he wasn’t around.

Waverly nodded, remembering her own father, her own childhood of being an outcast.

“So I’ve pretty much been alone my whole life. When he died, that left Nedley and Nedley is my boss .” Nicole brushed her hair back, looking at the ceiling and trying to keep herself from sobbing again. “So when I met you in the forest, I thought that maybe, maybe I didn’t have to be alone anymore. I wish...”

Waverly took Nicole’s hand. They sat in silence before it was Waverly who broke it. “My father died in a car crash when I was six. He was an alcoholic, he was driving drunk,” Waverly explained as if she was describing the weather, “My eldest sister was in the car. So when Wynonna dealt with her grief and ran away, I was left alone. I eventually got a boyfriend, an aunt and uncle to care for me, but I was always alone.” She entwined their fingers, ignoring the dried blood in favor of the soft feel of skin on hers. Surprised brown eyes met Waverly’s and she lost herself in them and how it felt so much like safety. “I wish, too.”

It was a moment that could have become beautiful in any other situation. With time racing against them, both women took a moment to breathe and look at each other.

Waverly was angry. She was pissed. If the Beast thought it could do this, make her care so much then tear it all away, then it had another thing coming. She was Waverly Earp. She knew Krav Maga and could shoot a card at thirty meters with a handgun. She could list the roman emperors in alphabetical order and won every single trivia game anyone had ever allowed her to play.

One thing was certain in Waverly’s mind: She was going to kill the Beast a second time. Hopefully with a flamethrower.

But Waverly’s thoughts trailed to a stop because those soft brown eyes were regarding her with something like awe, as if she was a sunset or a goddess come to life. The clouds that had drifted over it before, and would have to drift over it again, were not there. Nicole, the real Nicole, was staring at her as if she had just constructed the pyramids by hand. Waverly’s mind cast back to those brief moments in the forest, in the tent, and oh, she understood.

It did not matter that they were in a life or death situation since they had met, or that Nicole was covered in blood and would eventually betray her, or that Waverly was pushing herself too hard to survive and would rather break than bend, no -- it didn’t matter, because Nicole definitely had a crush on Waverly Earp. Head over heels. Completely gone.

And Waverly was thinking she might have a crush back, too. How else could she explain the feeling of coming home? Then she was angry again, furious , as if the pure force of it was enough to set the Beast aflame wherever it currently was. The pure possibility of friendship or more with Nicole Haught was enough to spark a wildfire of definitive rage deep within.

She gripped Nicole’s hand hard. “Let’s kill the shiteater.”

Nicole grinned, her dimple showing. “With pleasure.”

They both stood, as if by some inaudible signal. This time, Waverly lead. Levi stopped playing with pens and shuffled after them.

Waverly took them right this time, to the hallway they had rejected before. Once there she stopped, considering. “Maze, you said?”

Nicole nodded. “Labyrinth? Maybe the office is at the center.”

“Which one of us is Theseus?” Waverly asked absently, inspecting the dark hall before them and considering the pros and cons of just making a run for it.

“Didn’t he dump the chick on an island and run?” Nicole asked, offended. “You’re pretty enough to be the goddess Ariadne, though.”

Waverly turned with an accusing finger. “This is no time for flirting! Give me your shirt.”

The raised eyebrows and answering smug grin made Waverly huff angrily and step into Nicole’s space, fingers working the buttons.

“Well, if that’s all I needed to do to get you to take off my shirt,” Nicole said with a lowered voice, “Then I must be doing quite well.”

You. Are. The. Worst.” Waverly popped a button with each word.

Soft, long fingers enwrapped her own. Waverly’s heart sped up at the way it felt like fire, the way her chest did a fluttering flip-flop at the way Nicole was looking at her. Those eyes flicked down, then back up, and there was another emotion that entered them. Desire. Some part of Waverly was betraying her, was screaming yes, god yes, at the way those hands softly took her fingers off the button and how close they were, how she could just reach up on her tiptoes and --

Nicole took a step back, releasing Waverly’s hands, and the moment was over. Waverly felt embarrassed at the flash of disappointment. A kiss would not have been fair for either of them. But then that dimpled grin was back and Nicole was saying, “Let me get that,” shrugging the rifle off her back and tearing her own shirt off.

Jesus, thought Waverly as the buttons of the security uniform scattered onto the tile. She felt her face warm as the sleeves fell away to reveal long, toned arms and --

“Is that a bulletproof vest?” Waverly asked sharply.

Nicole looked down as if she had forgotten what she was wearing. “Yes.” She glanced at Waverly like she had an idea. “Yes, actually, it is.” There was a ripping of velcro was Nicole began to take it off.

Waverly began to feel nervous for a very different reason; the vest was an uncomfortable reminder of both of their mortality and the current danger. Then the vest was held out to her and Nicole was left wearing a plain green t-shirt. Waverly glanced with narrowed eyes between the vest and the redhead. If Nicole felt she needed to be coddled and protected, then she had another thing coming.

Nicole furrowed her brow at the brunette. Waverly looked offended. “I just, if you -- I don’t, -- “ That raised eyebrow was dangerous. Nicole knew she had to word this carefully, “If we’re going together, I thought you might have a bit of help when we get into a situation with... guns. Because they have them. Quite a few, actually. A lot them. All sorts.” That look was deadly. It burrowed under Nicole’s defenses and sent her stumbling over her words like a nervous teenager. “You’re a better shot than I am,” Nicole added quickly.

“What about you?” Waverly asked warily, taking the vest with one hand.

I’m not important, Nicole almost said before she bit her cheek. Instead, she simply said, “Please, Waverly.”

So they spent the next minute swapping clothing and weaponry, Nicole giving Waverly the vest, the grenade, and the hunting rifle, and Waverly giving Nicole her false labcoat.

“At least keep the handgun,” Waverly insisted.

Nicole could not tell Waverly that the very thought of holding a gun made her want to scream. But Waverly was standing there, looking nervous, and all Nicole could say was “As you wish.”

A nod. “Now,” Waverly instructed, “We need the ball of thread.”

“Levi, come here a minute,” Nicole called, fiddling with the lab coat. When Levi finally shuffled into range, she pushed the cloth down one of his long, thin teeth and pulled back, tearing the fabric. “Thanks, buddy.”

Levi’s lips twitched as he tried to smile and Waverly tried to hide her lingering disgust. He wasn’t so bad, really, but the teeth were a big issue.

Nicole lead the way as they returned to Dolls’ office. One thread from the shirt went around the door handle twice, three times, four. The chunk of door that held the handle was shoved between a bookshelf to keep it still so it wouldn’t be pulled along with them.

Nicole barely suppressed a chuckle when she realized what they were doing.

“Don’t you dare say it or I will leave your ass behind!” Waverly warned as they finished tying the knot.

“Have you seen my ass?” Nicole fired back after watching Waverly test the strength of the string. She grinned wide at how Waverly ducked her head to hide a blush. “Oh, you have .”

“Yeah, yeah,” Waverly muttered behind a smile, “Let’s see how much you flirt when we find what’s at the center of the labyrinth.”

“Tea and cookies,” Nicole guessed as they both began the long walk back to the end of the hallway. “Or maybe a television crew. Surprise! You’ve been pranked!

It was then that the lights went out.

Both women froze. Levi walked into a decorative plant in confusion.

“...Surprise?” Nicole whispered, eyes searching the hallway for clues. Waverly stared wide-eyed into the darkness and clamped a death grip on Nicole’s thin arm.

A door slammed, somewhere in the hallways behind them.

“We should go,” Waverly insisted. Her muscles didn’t get the memo. There could be anything before her feet, anything waiting for her to set her weight on it. She couldn’t see a damn thing.

Nicole swallowed thickly and lead them forward, tearing the shirt as they went into thin strips of thread. It forced them to go slow, agonizingly so. Nicole kept whipping her head back, searching behind them for something, only to find nothing there except the ever-following Levi. The motivational posters mocked them. Keep Going, one said. Don’t Give up! declared another.

“Can you see?” Waverly whispered. The dark before her swirled with false shapes and dull impressions.

“You can’t?” Nicole asked as they reached the first corner. She could read the words on the posters, see the details on the doors.

“No! I don’t have super vision! ” Waverly hissed back angrily. “Tell me if you see something.”

“I see a hallway.”

“Nicole, please.”

“Sorry. This hallway has an upside down picture,” Nicole murmured as they tiptoed down the tile. They both felt like they might wake those beyond the numberless doors if they were too loud. The only sound was both of their lungs trying to get enough air for their scared bodies, though Nicole kept trying to identify any possible noise behind the doors they passed.

The end of the hallway revealed two choices, both equally dark. One hallway had no handles, the other had no doors.

“No doors or no handles, Waves?” Nicole whispered through brunette locks. They were basically on top of each other, trying to avoid the suffocation of the darkness around them. Nicole hated to admit it, but she was slightly claustrophobic.

“No handles. Wait-- No doors.” Waverly replied with a mouthful of green shirt. “Actually, wait. Pick a wall. Left wall. Let’s follow the left wall.”

“That’s no handles. Are you ready?”

Waverly nodded, dragging the shirt with her. “Yes.”

It took two elbow nudges to get Nicole to move again and they set off down the hallway without handles. Each door they passed loomed over them like a disapproving teacher finding them out past curfew. Not a sound came from any of them. The silence mocked them every time they broke it with panicked breathing that was deceptively steady and footsteps that were too slow and too careful to be anything less than apprehensive.

The next hallway was exactly the same, except for one difference that was clear as they passed the halfway point.

Nicole halted, causing Waverly to bite back a surprised whimper. There was a single marked door among the unmarked, but it didn’t have a handle. It loomed over them with promise, a break in the pattern that had driven itself to monotony, a bump in the road that might just be a human body.

There it was again: the third pair of lungs. This time, it was heavy, panting, wet and loud. It came from behind the strange door, like a Halloween speaker misplaced in the void.

“What is that?” Waverly whispered in a hiss. She could hear it, too.

Nicole stretched out a hand and leaned into the door, trying to open it. It didn’t budge. “I’m guessing it’s just an illusion,” she said loudly to dispel her own choking fear, “Meant to scare us.”

“I’m not scared,” Waverly commented quickly.

“Neither am I,” Nicole said.

They both knew the other was lying. They stared at the unusual door for a few moments, getting used to the disturbing sound and easing their minds the longer it went unchanged. In, out. In, out. The same beat of two seconds between breaths. The door still did not open.

Nicole did that throat clearing again and Waverly jumped. “Let’s talk about something and keep walking.”

“Like--” Waverly swallowed heavily as they turned the corner into a new hallway.

The next choice was no doors or no paintings, but they followed the left wall. No doors. The walls were completely smooth and bare, no identifying marks upon the bland paint. No motivational words. No shitty modern art. Not even a plant or a side table. The emptiness was almost worse that the hallways with doors.

“Like what?” Waverly tried again.

Nicole grit her teeth against the feeling of being watched. “Bucket lists.”

“Skydiving,” Waverly said into Nicole’s ribs.

“That’s a good one. I’d --” They turned a corner into a new one with paintings that were all solid black. Nicole instinctively tightened her grip on Waverly as her claustrophobia attacked again. “Horseback riding,” she managed.

“They have a few ranches where I’m from,” Waverly replied as her nerves eased a little with the monotony of their journey. She found herself reassured by Levi’s shuffling. Perhaps, if anything were behind them, he would do something. “Swimming in the Pacific, far enough you can’t see land.”

They continued, passing into the next hallway that had all motivational posters featuring a whale. WORK HARD the posters encouraged as the two made their way down it. A door slammed, somewhere far ahead, but both of them tried their best to ignore it. It was just like the rest: a part of the background. It couldn’t hurt them or it would have already.

“Yours are all better than mine,” Nicole murmured, deep in thought. “Mountain climbing.”

“This one’s dumb so don’t laugh,” Waverly warned. They passed into a new hallway, just as dark as the last. “Eating geoduck.”

Nicole laughed despite the warning and it echoed back across the numberless doors. Waverly playfully swatted at the other woman, embarrassed. Nicole laughed harder and caught her breath, speaking a bit too loud: “Isn’t that the one that looks like a ---”

“You did this!

A shadow fell across the far wall, twisted in the low light and stretched into an inhuman silhouette.

Cold fear washed over both of them as their throats closed in shock. Waverly could hear the pure rage and pain in the voice as it echoed around the corner and down towards them. Nicole could see the way its shadow washed across the wall as it turned into their hallway and stopped, staring them down from yards away.

Nicole’s mind and body halted in open disbelief. It was the man with glasses. Or more accurately, without. His blood face stared with open fury at Nicole and he raised his good arm to point directly at his assaulter. “It was you!”

He lurched closer, throwing himself forward with growing speed. “You did this to me!”

Waverly turned, swallowing a scream and pulling the stunned Nicole back along their path towards a different corner. She couldn’t see a goddamn thing, but Nicole wasn’t responding.

“You took everything from me!” it screamed with the voice of a man.

The hallway they took was the first dead end they had come across. Renaissance paintings covered the walls as Nicole stopped Waverly. “Those are closed doors, not hallway openings. It’s a dead end.

The Mona Lisa grinned down at the panicking duo as they realized they had to face their follower.

It was Nicole who lost her cool. “Shit, shit. Shit, shit.” The two openings at the end of the hallway that had appeared to be more directions were closed doors, mocking her. The darkness, the walls, the unyielding doors -- the footsteps following them. No windows to relieve the feeling that she couldn’t get enough oxygen in her lungs, she couldn’t stop the pounding of her heart that she swore was fast enough to stop entirely. “Shit.”

Waverly clung tighter and squinted in the dark. She had never been particularly afraid until now, seeing as most of her childhood was hiding in dark places. Now every inch of the impenetrable darkness held their follower, their unknown monster, who was approaching in a thunderous noise of footsteps. “The minotaur,” she breathed.

“YOU RUINED EVERYTHING!” It bellowed.

“Shoot it, Nicole!” Waverly cried, shaking the other woman as the footsteps found the corner.

“I-- I can’t .” There was no way Nicole was putting her hand on a gun again. “I-- I did this.” He’s come for revenge and I deserve it. I did this to him. “It’s my fault.”

The man stared them down and paused before entering a reckless sprint. Just as he passed Levi, the deadman latched onto a scrap of clothing and tried to stop him. He sent his good fist into Levi’s jaw, sending the poor guy back and down with the momentum and force of the punch.

So much for that.

“You did this to me, you ungrateful animal!” the man screeched, slowing down to a determined stride as he zeroed in on his objective.

Nicole’s back hit the wall. But Waverly did not falter, no: In one rapid, practiced movement she twisted the rifle from her back into position. Muscle memory took over as she held the Winchester in her hands and waited for the next yell.

“We should have killed you outright ” The man cried and sped up. “We made you something better!”

Waverly held steady and fired once into the dark at the location of the sound. She thought for a moment that beyond the ringing she could hear the sound of fleshy impact. The footsteps faltered, stumbled, then kept going.

Nicole watched in horror as the man took the shot to the chest like it was nothing.

Waverly didn’t lose a beat. She strode confidently forward to close the distance and heighten accuracy as she shot three more times in quick succession at the source of the footsteps.

Shoulder, chest, chest. The man slapped the gun from Waverly’s hand and shoved her aside, going for Nicole. “ I’m dead because of you, you dumb mongrel!”

The world slowed to a stop as Nicole realized the man before her was dead. His heart had ceased beating and he stank of rot, a smell she hadn’t noticed over Levi’s. She sank backward against the wall in terror and raised a hand to her face. He was dead because of her and was here to punish her for her sins.

Waverly jumped his back, throwing an arm around his neck and tightening the grip, regardless of the fact the man was already dead and was nigh unstoppable. Her constricting maneuver did nothing but put her flesh in range of his teeth. His infected teeth.

No!” Nicole yelled and started forward too slow, unable to do anything but watch as the dead man gripped Waverly’s arm with his good hand and forced it away from under his jaw. He peeled back his lips and sank his teeth into waiting human flesh.

Then her vision was a mist of blood as Waverly shot him in the back of the head at point-blank range. Waverly jerked her arm from his mouth and stumbled backward away from the man who collapsed like a sack of potatoes.

Nicole physically shoved the falling man aside to get to Waverly, mind writhing with horrible ideas of Waverly being turned into someone like the man or Levi, forever trapped in undeath and pain and darkness. The voice of the man rang in her eyes. You did this!

Waverly dropped the gun, face splattered with blood like a serial killer as she stared wide-eyed at the man who did not get up. Her ears buzzed and her hands and shoulder ached with the kickback, but she could feel nothing but tingling numbness from the rest of her. She sat down heavily and tried not to vomit at the feeling of slick brains sliding down her face.

The Mona Lisa was repurposed as Nicole tore it from the frame, kneeling beside the fallen Waverly and wiping blood from her face as best as she could. The remains of the shirt went around Waverly’s arm, trying to find the marks, trying to find the tell-tale signs that Waverly was doomed to inhumanity and death.

There it was - the bite. He had broken the skin. Already it was crusted over and an angry red.

Teardrops mixed with blood as Nicole struggled to get enough air, enough oxygen. Her vision was narrowing and all she could hear was Waverly’s heart. Thump thump, thump thump . It was frantic and full of adrenaline. It would never slow down again.

“Waverly!” Nicole shouted, panicking. Waverly was the only one who could get them out of this mess. The deteriorating sanity the bite would cause would spell doom for the both of them.

“Huh?” Waverly asked, still staring at the unmoving corpse.

Nicole settled her hands on Waverly’s shoulders, forcing the other woman to look at her. “Do you recognize me?”

“Uhm, yeah?” She finally peeled her eyes off the man and met Nicole’s concerned gaze. “Nicole.”

“Okay. Okay, that’s good. That’s really good,” Nicole said, glancing around and thinking hard. It didn’t mean anything, the infection didn’t work that fast. Did it? It was hard to remember.

Nicole moved her attention to the corpse of the man, her eyes drawn to the holes in his suit. Someone had shot him multiple times in the back, and it wasn’t her. Someone else had killed him. Brief relief filtered through clouds of guilt.

“We’ve got to go,” Nicole stated. Levi had gotten to his feet and was shuffling towards them. They were now in a race: Get out of the Labyrinth before Waverly succumbed to the bite. No big deal. Easy squeezy. Not as if the odds were already stacked against them, no. Definitely not.

A soft hand tangled with Nicole’s, stopping the spiraling thoughts of sarcastic bitterness. “Let’s get moving,” Waverly said quietly.

And so it began again.

 

Four hallways later…

“What’s your name?” Nicole asked yet again as they passed a modern painting that was all red. She had to test Waverly’s memory and recognition.

“Waverly Earp,” Waverly replied flatly. This was getting boring. She didn’t feel any different at all.

“Who was the president during world war two?”

“Presidents ,” Waverly corrected and rolled her eyes. “Roosevelt and Truman. Ask me something harder.”

“That was the hardest one so far!” Nicole complained as they entered a hallway with no ceiling tiles. “You’re a walking Wikipedia. Remind me never to bet against you.”

“Damn right,” Waverly said proudly with a small smile.

 

Seven hallways later…

“What’s my name?” Nicole asked for the thirtieth time, dodging a decorative plant that was wilting even though it was fake.

“Nicole-- Shit ,” Waverly cursed as she tripped over said plant in the dark. Nicole caught her easily. “Haught.”

So far, so good. “Hm. W--”

Waverly halted Nicole with a finger to her lips, but she missed and it hit Nicole’s cheek instead. “This better be a hard one.”

Nicole grinned wide. “Oh, I can give you a hard one.”

Waverly sighed.

 

An unknown number of hallways later…

“Whats--”

“Waverly ‘getting really tired of this’ Earp. Nicole ‘asking stupid questions’ Haught,” Waverly snapped. The same pitch-black hallways time after time was grating her down to the bone. “The capital of Sweden is Stockholm, American landed on the moon in 1969, and I’ll put your ass six feet under if you ask again.”

Nicole grinned in the dark, taking the anger as a good sign. Waverly had no symptoms. Maybe her assumption was wrong, maybe the man with glasses couldn’t have infected her. Maybe it had to be the Beast itself.

They had to start using the second shirt in a hallway with no doors or paintings. Waverly had to tie the strings together in the dark because Nicole kept dropping it and apologizing. Levi looked like he was having a great time. He was the only one who was.

A door slammed and Waverly dropped the shirt in surprise. Two hallways back, footsteps.

“I hear footsteps,” Nicole whispered, craning her neck back and staring at the end of the hall. Closer, closer, and all she could do was stare, waiting for whoever it was to come into view.

“What do we do?” Waverly whispered back, reaching for the other woman and clutching a shirtsleeve. The blackness mocked her weak eyes and she clung to Nicole like a lifeline. Which she was.

“Run?”

“Run.”

They ran as fast as they could, which was a harsh jog while Nicole tore the shirt more and more. The next hallway had upside-down frames, each holding a motivational poster that read RUN.

SLAM!

They halted as a door at the end of the hallway before them slammed shut.

“What was that?” Waverly whispered, not losing her locked grip on Nicole’s arm.

“I don’t see anything,” Nicole murmured, “It’s probably nothing.”

Probably something was the door opening again, slowly, its wood disappearing from view to be replaced with inky blackness.

It was then that the second Minotaur of the Labyrinth stepped into the pitch-black hallway. Nicole’s mouth went dry at the fact it was another person, not a beast. And this person was very, very infected. She could see in the low light a flushed face, matching grin as the man realized that Waverly couldn’t see and was very, very human. Hunger flashed in those eyes and Nicole felt her stomach drop to her feet.

“Oh, shit.” Nicole flipped Waverly into a fireman’s carry and ran the other way, following the tiny string that would lead them back to Dolls’ office.

“Put me down!” Waverly cried, slapping at Nicole’s back. “Seriously!”

“There’s a man following us! Again! ” Nicole responded, ducking into the next hallway. Doors with no handles. None of them open, none of them promising safety. She must run.

“Nevermind!”

The man behind them was gaining ground and shoved past Levi, ignoring the dead man in favor of the two fleeing women.

Waverly clutched Nicole with a death grip, almost cutting off important circulation as she stared into the overwhelming darkness. Footsteps were getting louder over the sound of her harsh breathing, and each shadow whispered that it might be him.

Then he was close enough, and in the light of a dying bulb, she could see the angry set of the jaw, the maddened eyes, and the familiar hair of her boyfriend. Baby-faced Champ Hardy, a useless boy from Purgatory, was chasing them like a fat man after a food cart and waving around a handgun.

Champ vanished behind a corner as they entered a hallway with no handles. Sickly light filtered from the bottom of a few of them, sending false shadows writhing across Waverly’s vision as she strained to glimpse the insane, improbable fact again. It couldn’t be him.

The fact became very probable as he rounded the corner at a reckless sprint, dull reflections glinting off his raised gun. The crack of gunfire shot through the air and bullets whizzed past, the distance too great to allow accuracy from a handgun. Waverly screamed, ducking and covering her head with an arm.

Doors rattled madly in their hinges, slamming open and closed in anger at those within the hallway as the goose chase continued. Lights buzzed and flickered like annoyed strobes, illuminating the scene and forcing lowered visibility as eyes adjusted and were forced to readjust rapidly. All that was missing was Yakety Sax.

“Nicoleit’smyboyfriendhe’sfollowingushe’sgotafuckinggun!” Waverly cried as they passed an upside-down Van Gogh painting. She slapped at Nicole’s back, as if that would make her go any faster, and tried to keep herself from panicking completely. It didn’t work. They were going to die!

“Comin’ for you, Waverly! Gonna make you scream my name!” Champ called, the baring of his teeth audible in his voice. Another light passed over him, revealing his open mouth and gleaming canines.

Could this get any weirder? Nicole wondered as her ears rang with Waverly’s cries. “That’s domestic violence!” she responded, shouting over her shoulder, “See your ass in court!”

“Fasterholyshithe’sgaining!” Waverly shrieked.

Nicole turned the corner and realized her feet were making strange noises. She was no longer walking on tile, she was walking on the ceiling.

“Holy shit we’re upside down!” Nicole cried as she looked at the ceiling -- floor now, it was tile and had trash cans hanging from it. The dizzying effect almost caused her to stumble, but she caught herself before she could and turned the corner.

They passed over a struggling light and, like a delayed flash, it illuminated their follower briefly before wrapping them in darkness yet again. Seconds were left to make a decision before Champ was in fatal distance of shooting accuracy. The slapping of his clumsy feet was getting louder and louder, meeting the beats of Waverly’s rapid heart.

“Stop runnin’, redhead! You’re dead either way!” Laughter, high and wild, trailed his threat.

Waverly reached behind her, grasping for her gun, when her fingers met something else entirely.

A grenade.

A grenade! Waverly let out a mad laugh at the idea of finally getting to throw an explosive, but this time it would be in a life-or-death situation in an upside-down hallway in an attempt to stop her crazy boyfriend. Vague wisps of information stirred in her brain, inaccurate numbers of fatal and injury distances. She realized with a sinking feeling that she had no idea how powerful or dangerous the grenade might be.

Waverly pulled it free and felt along it for the mechanism. How did it work? Pull the pin and throw, right? It was simple, straightforward, done dozens of times in movies. Pull pin, throw, duck. Boom.

“Eat shit!” Waverly cried with victory, pulling the pin and tossing it through the air towards the human-shaped shadow behind them. She imagined herself, far in the future, telling someone about her breakup with her boyfriend. Yes, she was saying to whoever it would be, He turned violent, then it was quite explosive.

Click-clack was the response as it rolled across the flo-- ceili- floor that was previous the ceiling.  Nicole whipped her head around, ready for the explosion, which didn’t come. Long seconds passed that turned expectation into confusion.

“Well, that was anti-clima--”

They were on the ground. Nicole’s breathing was thunderous and she could feel cool tile beneath her. It was too bright, much too bright, and her ears pounded like mad and blood was on her fingers as she tried to ease the ache.

Waverly? Nicole tried to ask, but her words were nothing against the ringing. She felt among the smoke and grasped a leg. Oh, no. But the leg was attached to a hip, which was attached to a Waverly, who was moving.

Waverly gazed up at the bright lights above them and winced in confusion. Oops, we’ve died. Someone was clutching at her, dragging her closer. She couldn’t lift her head, couldn’t see. Her head, it hurt. Her skull ached as if she had struck it hard against something. Turn out the light , she tried to say. Nothing was audible over the constant ringing in her ears.

Finally, after great struggle, Waverly sat up and immediately regretted it. Her stomach churned and her vision swam and she had to squint to prevent herself from being sick. There was a lot of smoke, and an equally shell-shocked Nicole was trying to come to her senses while trying to pull at Waverly’s leg.

The grenade, Waverly realized as her brain caught up to the situation , it went off. They had not reached death, not yet, but the hallway appeared to have. Waverly pressed a hand to her forehead, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. They appeared to be in the original hallway, the one with the single open door - Dolls’ office.

Illusion? Waverly wondered. She couldn’t trust anything; not when the floor seemed to be swaying and her head felt like mush. She watched Nicole try to get on her feet, only to stumble and crush the drywall. Waverly laughed and couldn’t hear it.

Waverly’s inaudible laughter stopped when she began to remember what had proceeded this situation. Dark hallways and chases. Bared teeth and bad paintings. Shit. She had thrown a grenade at her boy-- ex boyfriend. Could she go to jail for this? I’m sorry, your honor, he had a gun and I had a grenade. It was a pretty straightforward argument, typical of young couples.

And to think Champ had it in him to betray her. That spoke of intelligence he just didn’t have. Well, it had definitely turned out to be a very stupid move indeed. But how? Hadn’t he been in Purgatory on a business trip? Well, Wynonna had also been somewhere else. Both of them had ended up here, somehow. Maybe an email.

Business trip . The words sounded far too ominous now.

Are you okay? Nicole was trying to ask, hands on Waverly’s shoulders, trying to get her attention. Waverly nodded and tried to stand. Nicole caught her as she swayed towards the wall and began to lead them away from the wreckage. The hallway before them was entirely different, entirely real. Half open, properly numbered doors. Lights not misbehaving. Paintings properly ugly.

Waverly’s hearing returned first. Slowly, slowly , she could start to hear the footsteps over her own breathing, heart, and the ringing. She had to halt and vomit into a trash can, though. Her stomach was churning worse than her emotions. She was filled with relief that she was being held with care by Nicole, or she would have run into the wall a dozen times.

Speaking of Nicole, there was blood crusted around her ears that Waverly noticed as they limped towards the open office. That would mean the sound hit higher than 195 decibels for her. Damn. The situation went from bad to worse. If Nicole was deaf for the… the thing. The happening, whatever they were walking towards. Building One. Noon . They would be at a severe disadvantage.

Tears of relief ran down both of their faces as they saw the long, ceiling-to-floor windows of the open office area. They had made it. Beyond all odds, they had done it. Rain still lashed against the windows and the light was gray and poor, but it might as well have been paradise. Various supplies littered the floor and not a single cubicle was untouched by violence.

“We made it!” Waverly cried aloud, not caring to be silent. Nicole let out a childish whoop and pulled Waverly in for a hug. Then, on impulse, Nicole led them towards the windows to look outside through one of the windows.

The view was of the half-full parking lot. For a while, they stood there watching the freezing rain pound against the windows. It was eerily beautiful.

Neither of them wanted to break the silence. Waverly drifted her view from the wind-thrashed trees and found Nicole was staring at her.

It was that same familiar stare again and Waverly furrowed her brow. “What?”

“You’re beautiful,” Nicole blurted out before mentally slapping herself and looking away. She was a useless lesbian around Waverly whenever they weren’t fighting for their lives. Waverly still had smudges of dried blood on the edge of her face, for god’s sake. This was a completely inappropriate time. They had to get to Building One.

Waverly stared at the blushing woman in confusion. First of all, Nicole shouldn’t be able to hear at all. Second of all, Nicole was the beautiful one. Seriously. That hair was just the icing on a really fine but unfortunately bloody cake that made Waverly question why she even bothered sticking strictly with pie. “Nicole.”

“What?” Nicole didn’t look away from the suddenly intriguing raindrops.

“Look at me.”

She did and Waverly met her gaze head on. She searched Nicole’s eyes, looking past the surface and trying to find the chill she had glimpsed before, anything to signal that the Nicole next to her was not the real Nicole.

Concern ran through those eyes and Nicole started to apologize. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, I --.”

Fuck it, thought Waverly. They were most likely going to die anyway. What a romantic thought . She pulled Nicole closer and surged up to meet her lips, cutting off an apology into one of the cutest noises of surprise Waverly had ever heard in her life.

It was supposed to be quick, chaste, a promise of a future but Waverly felt herself grow desperate the second Nicole started kissing her back. They were going to die and Nicole was really, really good at kissing. If Waverly shut her eyes tight enough and held on hard enough, she could imagine sun-warmed skin under her palms instead of the cold and smell the sea, not copper and sweat.

And Waverly was caught up in the way Nicole was So . Fucking. Gentle. Soft hands cradled Waverly’s face as if she was precious and she fought to keep herself from losing her goddamn mind at the way she wanted this moment to solve everything.

But it solved nothing. After all, hadn’t their choices and devotion to one another caused all of this?  So they kissed as if it was the last chance they would ever get.

Are you serious? ” a voice asked.

The two of them leapt apart like two teenagers caught by a cop. Except this wasn’t a cop, it was Champ Hardy.

Champ? ” Waverly asked, incredulous. She could not see him, but Nicole could. The stormlight could not penetrate the far end of the room or the opposite opening to the halls he must have escaped from.

He was holding a weapon and a hostage; a woman pinned against him by a strong arm and a gun.

“Get off my girl, redhead. She’s mine.” Champ warned.

“Put the gun down. Waverly doesn’t belong to anyone,” Nicole responded. She tried to step in front of Waverly, who tried to step in front of her, so they settled for standing next to each other.

“Waverly,” Champ called and pushed the gun hard against the woman, causing her to whimper. “Come here.”

Waverly looked at his direction, baffled. Did he really expect her to just obey? She held tighter to Nicole, who was locked rigid with anticipation.

“There’s no need for that,” Nicole stated evenly, “Let’s just talk this out.”

“Do I look like I want to talk this out? Give me Waverly, or I blow this woman’s brains out.” Champ shoved his gun into the woman’s temple. “I don’t want to hear lip from two people who were just walking back and forth in a single hallway for the past hour.”

Nicole and Waverly shared a stunned look in the dim light. What?

“The fuck did you think that was? Did you actually think it was -- Were you scared?” Champ laughed as the two women didn’t respond. “That’s rich. That’s real fuckin’ rich.”

Waverly ran her fingers over her arm and felt at the bite. It was still there. Her shoulder throbbed and her hands ached from firing the rifle. It had been real.

“At least you managed to kill a man. Not surprised you’d sink to murder, Little Miss Perfect . You're gonna sink to somethin' else real soon.” He sneered. “Now come here, or I kill this woman.”

There was a long silence, filled only with the noise of minds racing to figure out how to gain an edge. It was Waverly who broke it first.

“No.”

“What?” Champ asked in disbelief.

“No, Champ. You wouldn’t pull the trigger,” Waverly stated with finality.

Nicole swallowed hard. Champ just laughed. It peeled through the air, high and maddened, and Waverly Earp knew she was wrong.

“All right, if I can’t get you to come over here, then I’ll just get redhead ,” Champ said as he pulled the paper cutter from his waistband, keeping the gun level. “I think you’ll really enjoy this, Waverly. Haught’s worse than both of us combined, and not just because she’s a dyke lesbian. I’ll show you.”  

Just focus on how nice it will feel to sock the boy in the face, Nicole thought as she shut her eyes. Just concentrate on something, anything other than what he’s about to do.

Waverly was thankful she couldn’t see when the woman began to scream. Nicole took a step back, forcing Waverly too as well. Waverly looked at the other woman, trying to observe a face in the dim light, and saw Nicole’s eyes screwed shut. Of course . Champ was hoping the psychosis would take over. Waverly gripped Nicole’s hand hard, trying to sooth it and failing.

Nicole swallowed and regretted it. She could taste it; the blood that was in the air was heavy on her tongue. She knew exactly what Champ was trying to do and her heart tore itself to pieces when she realized it was working.

“Waverly, Waverly, Waverly,” Champ chided over the screams of the woman. “Only you would be stupid enough to trust a monster .”

“I am not a monster!” Nicole thundered at Champ. The pure fury in her sparked and hit sub zero, causing the temperature in the room to drop like a brick.

The very small part of Waverly’s brain, the one that had existed since the dawn of man and other such unfortunate circumstances, was taking over. It wasn’t allowed to operate heavy machinery, let alone decide Waverly Earp’s actions, but right now it was committing a military coup and putting a tyrannical rule in place.

The first order: It’s time to be afraid. Very afraid. Because there is a very large predator nearby and we’re very likely going to die.

Incoherent rage filled Nicole as soon as Champ released the woman and lowered his gun. She pushed past Waverly, who stumbled back in dazed fear, and approached Champ Hardy. She did not notice anything but the smell of blood and the fantasy of feeling the man screaming in pain beneath her.

Champ laughed, not bothering to shoot her, only intent on watching her reaction. He felt the cold but didn’t know what it meant, he could feel the frost but had no idea the danger. He was invincible. He was stronger, faster, and he had a gun. All Nicole had was… nothing.

The wrong person had stopped screaming. They stood, turned their back to Nicole, and ran.

What a terrible idea.

Nicole found herself across the room and holding the struggling unknown woman before she could even think to stop herself. The woman screamed. Nicole dropped her in dull shock and horror at her own actions, all too aware of the blood that now coated her hands.

“Freeze, Haught!” called Champ. “Knew you wouldn’t be able to resist that.”

Haught froze, letting the woman scramble away towards Building One. She knew without turning around that Champ had Waverly and that her plan had failed the one important objective: Protect Waverly Earp.

“I swear, Champ, I will --” The words stifled to muffles as Champ covered Waverly’s mouth with one meaty hand and grinned. Nicole turned and threw a glare that should have killed a weak man like Champ, but he was too busy reveling in his victory to notice the deadly promise.

“You really are a dumb bitch, aren’t you?” Champ asked the furious Waverly as he leveled his gun at Nicole. "See how wrong you were about everything?"

Nicole forced herself to stand still. Why did everybody have to have a gun? It became much harder to prevent deaths when they entered the equation. But her own death was an accepted fact, one she had come to terms with days before making her way past the sign. But Waverly’s death was an unacceptable fact, a flaw in the very fabric of the universe. It simply couldn’t occur.

Then something shifted behind Champ…

“You and I, Haught, we’re monsters . But at least I accept it. And that’s why you have to die. Whatever the Beast promised you, I want it for myself,” Champ declared and grinned wide at Nicole’s confusion.

Champ’s grin stopped when Waverly broke his nose with one angry fist. Her foot found the delicate part of his instep and stomped it while she brought her teeth down on his hand, but he ignored all of this. He could not feel pain. He merely laughed and laughed, loving the way Waverly struggled against him just as she had before.

How terrible, the things we do for love, and Nicole loved Waverly more than she could ever love herself.

So Waverly watched in dull disbelief Nicole charged, heedless of the gun, heedless of the pressure Champ put on the trigger, heedless of the bullet that ripped towards her faster than the sound could reach.

Nicole made it halfway before the bullet twisted her with its impact and she fell to the floor. Waverly screamed over Champ’s fingers and struggled with all her strength. No! No! This could not be happening!

Champ backhanded Waverly, causing her to stumble and fall with the force of it, and laughed when a stench of rot fell over the room. “Did you shit yourself? ” he asked, towering over the fallen Waverly. A red imprint was growing on her cheek and blood was trickling from her mouth. He loved her fear and how well the taste of despair coated it all. He was going to enjoy this very much.

“Fuck you, Champ Hardy,” Waverly hissed and pulled the gun from her waistband, only to have it snag on her shirt. Champ kicked the gun from her hand and let out another laugh. Waverly looked up at her ex boyfriend and glared, aware she was going to die but not ready to show her fear. Champ grinned with victory and his eyes promised pain.

Then he died.

Champ’s limp body crumpled to the floor, useless and empty, as Levi released his spine and hissed into the dead air. His claws removed themselves from the skin of Champ’s back with a damp sound as Waverly watched in wide-eyed horror.

Levi gurgled with victory. He had finally killed Bad Man who had put him In The Moving Box and stolen his Favorite Item. It was Time to Sit.

Ears ringing, Waverly stayed on the floor. She was alone with a walking dead man. Her ignorant but well-meaning boyfriend had turned out to be a psychopath and her crush had tried to save her from him.

Now they both were dead.

Emotional shock buzzed through her. What was she to do? Kill the Beast, of course. Somehow. She just had to think, damn it! Not cry . Certainly not cry, she didn’t have time for this. She needed to formulate a plan. Avenge them. But crushing loneliness crept upon her like a lion and stabbed her in the heart.

It was just her versus the insurmountable odds. All she had was a glock and her wits, but neither would be enough to put the Beast down.

Waverly was alone.

Someone was groaning and it wasn’t her or the dead man.

“Waverly?” mumbled Nicole with a mouth full of cheap carpet. “Are you okay? I think I broke something.”

Waverly started to laugh. It was painful and not at all appropriate but she just didn’t give a shit. That’s it, she thought, I’ve broken completely. This is it. Hallucinating. Just like the hallway.

“Taking that as a yes,” Nicole called, still face down. She must have hit her head hard, but that’s to be expected when you try to dodge a bullet. She had needed to distract Champ from the sounds of the shuffling behind him. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But the fact that she had a hand in the death of Champ Hardy would be a secret she took with herself to the grave.

It would not be long now...

Still Waverly was cackling and rolling, slapping the carpet as she laughed hard enough for tears to stream down her face. It was over, over! All over. She was alone and had finally gone insane, finally broken under the strain, finally let every single person who relied on her down. Just as her father, just as her eldest sister, just as the Beast had promised.

Nicole groaned as she finally sat up only to be faced with a growing stain of blood. Oh, she really did get shot. “I think I’ve been shot,” she said aloud.

“‘Course you did!” Waverly called, “You’re dead! Dead! ” She laughed again, high and breathless.

Dead? But this wasn’t hell. It was an office. Nicole began to crawl towards Waverly, head spinning and thoughts shifting back and forth on the slanting deck of her brain. She was Nicole Haught, Search and Rescue, and she was in an office with Waverly Earp.

“Just like the rest! All because of The Beast! ” Waverly shouted with joy. And the Beast would crawl from its grave and take her, too. She would drown in the dirt and her throat would be deliciously raw with screaming, her hands aching as she tried to grip the earth and prevent the descent which could not be prevented because she could feel the slip-slide of her little bones breaking and her fingernails shifting because she was destined to die in agony and the forest watched it all, gazing down like doctors on a dying patient, ‘ we’ve lost her!’, and her heart will stop beating when it is crushed between the sharp, blade-long teeth of the Beast itself and she will finally --

“Waverly,” Nicole urged, soft hands tapping against feverish cheeks. “Waverly, please.”

Just like that , Waverly thought, they will beg at my grave. ‘Waverly, please!’ but I would be six feet under and permanently deaf. And finally, finally --

“Waverly, please. Waves .” Nicole plead, nudging the muttering woman. Waverly slipped in and out of consciousness as Nicole tried to keep her struggling form still. “I’m here, Waverly, I’m here .”

Waverly slipped under into the dark, the forest enwrapping her mind in choking vines and promising peace. Her limbs went limp and Nicole let out a strangled cry of disbelief.

“I can’t do this alone, Waverly, please,” Nicole wept into the sleeping Waverly’s neck, “You were always the stronger one.”

The chill crept, bandit quick, and stole the heat from Nicole’s bones. The Beast had reached Floor Six. Even through the twin set of heavy-duty double doors, Nicole could hear the clack of its hooves as it struck tile and began its maddening, unstoppable approach.

Levi rocked to his feet and made desperate hissing noises as the shadows around them shifted. It was as if a madman had taken control of the thermostat and invited Winter to come and stay. In cubicle three, a decorative thermometer shattered into frozen pieces. Abandoned cups of water became chunks of ice.

“Oh, god,” Nicole breathed. The mist was almost snow-like in its condensation. She could see Waverly’s desperate puffing breaths and her blue-tinged lips struggling to form words.

“It’s here!” Waverly was rasping in her sleep, “It’s here! It’s here! It’s here!”

Nicole shifted Waverly, holding her closer, but it felt as if her own bone marrow was cracking and shifting into frost. It was here. It was here. Her blood was glacial water and her mind was burning with the cold of it, the strangling and sharp air scraping her lungs as she panted desperately. She had to go, leave. Get Waverly somewhere, anywhere --

It reached the first set of double doors and crumbled them like paper.

Tears were the only source of heat as Nicole bit back a scream. She stood with effort, snapping her muscles into motion and desperate to escape the oncoming winter. She had to go, go now , or they would certainly die.

Levi was keening, low and soft, a mournful sound. It was if he knew, deep down, somewhere in his damaged brain, that what was coming was worse than death itself.

Each step was agony that Nicole shouldn’t have been able to feel. She was powering through invisible walls of snow and ice as she struggled across the carpet. Keep your eyes on the ground, her father said years in the past, long hikes will be easier.

She could not flee to the office hallways, it had changed them before and would change them again. The only option was to reach Building One. The double doors to the bridge taunted her from across the room, closer to the Beast than to her. There was no way she would make it.

Step, step. Five of her steps to one clack of the hoof. It was almost to the second set of double doors and Nicole had to get closer to it. Her eyes had adjusted to the dark but everywhere the shadows of the forest danced and watched her struggle.

Branches rustled overhead as she was almost within reaching distance of the doors to Building One.

(How did you escape the maze?) a distant voice in Nicole’s mind asked. 

“Shut up. Shut up. Shut up,” Nicole chanted and held Waverly tighter against herself. The wind sliced her skin without breaking it. Her teeth chattered and she could barely see past hot tears born of terror. “Shut up. Shut up .”

(Why are you injured? What happened to the vest I gave you?) the voice whispered closer. It was the Beast.

Nicole was not going to have it end here, not after all they had been through! She could almost place her hand on the cold metal of the push bar. Just a few more steps and they would finally be free, finally be safe. “Shut up, shut up.”

Levi was behind her, scraping his teeth together as he tried unsuccessfully to shuffle at top speed.

(Something has gone WRONG!)

(WRONG!)

The voice ripped through her brain like a plow through paper and Nicole halted. She gasped into the air, trying to remember what she was thinking about. Her confusion deepened as she heard the crumpling of heavy metal and the rush of frigid air. Shut the door , she felt like saying, You’ll let the heat out.

(SOMETHING HAS NOT GONE ACCORDING TO PLAN,) a thunderous voice echoed and shattered all of Nicole’s thoughts to dust. (AND I WILL FIND THE ONE RESPONSIBLE.)

“Freeze,” ordered the Beast aloud. The words dripped from its mouth like gore and settled into Nicole’s spine. She froze obediently, holding someone Important. She had to stand still and Not Look at the Thing in the doorway. Someone shadowed it, a human person with bad hair.

“It must be her!” Bobo cried, “She was always the fault in your plan.”

Bobo fell to his knees, cradling his head and releasing an anguished cry as he tried to cover his ears from a sound only he could hear.

Must stand still, Nicole thought, Must not run. As if it was possible to do so with limbs replaced with concrete. The Very Important Woman stirred in her arms and muttered nonsense. She must remain still.

The Thing was coming over, its strange stepping noise accompanying a distasteful smell. It grew closer still, breathing hot against Nicole’s cold skin. She must not allow it to have the Very Important Woman, but she couldn’t move. Stand still. Stand still. It leaned forward and those orange eyes blinked.

(Who shot you?) the beast asked in her mind. Nicole could see herself in its viciously intelligent eyes, feel it looking through her brain and searching. She could see the moisture on the air and on its glinting teeth, the pull of its facial muscles as it turned its head like a curious deadly puppy.

“Champ Hardy,” Nicole said aloud. Her brain registered it as nonsense. Then the Thing backed away, hot breath leaving. Her heart unsqueezed and began to beat again, quietly but fast, as if trying not to attract attention.

“Watch,” commanded the Beast.

Nicole obeyed, limbs moving mechanically. The VIP stirred in her arms and clutched closer, shivering. They might die in this weather. Cold was bad. Need heat.

“Understand, ” the Beast ordered as it moved deliberately, no stride wasted. It crossed the dark office and lifted the body of Champ Hardy like a ragdoll and showed it to the three who watched.

Nicole blinked hard, thoughts returning slowly but limb control remaining out of reach. Waverly was still alive. They might still have a chance. But her legs would not move and all she could do was watch. Her thoughts wouldn’t rebel and all she could do was obey.

Levi keened softly and Bobo shifted from one foot to the other.

(Those who feel the need to disobey simple instructions will be punished with extreme prejudice,) the Beast declared.

“Rise.” 

The word stirred the air like tumultuous winds, sending papers and pens fluttering madly through the air. Office supplies rolled like tumbleweed. Even the gray light filtering through the storm clouds outside retreated as if knowing it had no power here. The shadows around them danced like mad and the Forest became almost visible, branches rustling just out of audible range.

Champ Hardy sucked in a breath and began to scream. He did not thrash, he did not move. His spine was snapped. There was no way he could be alive, but he was , and his face was twisted taunt with that horrible noise he was making. Nicole could hear the flesh of his throat rending itself raw with the sound.

What unimaginable torture could summon that sound from a dead man?

Nicole wanted to shut her ears, but she couldn’t. She was frozen. Even if she could have moved her arms she would have been forced to drop Waverly. Now, as she stood and listened -- no, she felt the sound running across the air, she prayed to whatever was listening that Waverly couldn’t hear it.

Waverly was dreaming of screams and forests, snow and nighttime. The Beast was talking to her, whispering that she was alone, and she believed it. The sun rose and set, gravity was always in play, and Waverly Earp was alone. The facts of the universe.

Those awake stood there for what felt like hours until Champ Hardy no longer screamed. Oh, he was still trying, yes, but the only sound was a frantic hissing as his lungs emptied themselves onto non-responsive cords.

(Do you understand what happens when things do not go according to plan,) the Beast did not ask, (or would you like a reminder.)

Nicole could not even shake her head no. Her spine was locked in place.

“Continue, ” the Beast said aloud, and the chains holding Nicole in place ceased.

And the Beast told Waverly in her fitful and feverish slumber, the form of it standing tall in the kneeling forest as a god before its disciples, “I have crawled from beneath the depths of Purgatory to finish what I started so long ago. You and your sister will finally end the line of Wyatt Earp and death will find you as a blessing. I need you to awaken so it will end how it began..."

And Nicole heard deep, next to her heart, the traitorous weasel of infection that had wormed its way into her soul, the voice of the Beast telling her, “You will be my masterpiece. Your place at my side is as inevitable as your abandonment by the one you hold close. All of your loneliness, all of your pain, that will make you the perfect monster...”

And it declared aloud in the dark office with that same harsh and frigid voice, “Follow.”

All around the office, every single clock turned to twelve o’clock. It was noon.

 

Chapter Text


 

PART ONE: DECEPTION

 


 

NOWHERE, VIRGINIA. BLACK BADGE HQ.

 

A couple miles out from Langley, Virginia and a few backroads away from civilization, there’s a fence that won second place in ‘Most No-Trespassing Signs: Government Property Edition.’ Area 51 had doubled its efforts and won first place the last four years in a row. Nowhere, Virginia got its name from the lack of existence on the map as well as the fact “Call Langley” already had over six different meanings depending on which government department was asking the other and there wasn’t any space left.

 The Director at the time had demanded space near Washington, D.C., and, well, the answer ‘there’s nowhere nearby’ was accepted thanks to a mistranslation courtesy of an intern.

 

At the time of the office party, the Black Badge Director, in charge of all operations, was staring at an email he had received weeks ago.

It was actually a rabid bear with mange, not a monster, we picked up. Whops.

‘Whops.’ He had been sent an email by a person with a Ph.D. that had not only the word ‘Whoops’ in it, but it was misspelled.

The day he had received the email he called the Colorado facility.

“False alarm, sir,” said the man at the desk. “Nothing to worry about.”

“But according to this report of that day, you admitted two patients in critical condition,” The Director explained, voice patient, “Can you tell me if that was a ‘whops’?”

“A what? The records say they were transported to the nearby citizen hospital. As I said, sir, false alarm.”

“Hm.” End call. Wrong, wrong, something’s wrong, his instincts whispered. Go about this carefully, his rational mind spoke, ‘make mistakes and get replaced.’ Dial new number. “Get me Xavier Dolls, please.”

“Something is wrong, sir,” Dolls reported, “You were lied to. There are two patients in this facility but I can only access one.”

“Then make sure they wake up. They might not be drinking the damn false alarm kool-aid.” The Director took a deep, calming breath. “Call me back the instant you have something concrete, you understand? I want to know what they’ve got, who they’ve got, and why I’m being lied to.”

Of course, that was the last the Director heard from Dolls. He had been forced to sit on his hands for a while now. With nothing more than suspicions, he couldn’t send anyone else in their already-strained roster. Just when he thought things could not get any worse, they did.

But all that was before the old woman showed up, fresh off a plane, and handed him a cake. By the employee records, she was a worker at the Colorado facility.

But the cake was not all she had.

“Where did you get this?” The Director said, turning over Form Thirty-two. “This should be in a hole in Black Rock. Not in my hands.” He looked up at the knitting Mrs. Hemsworth. “ Where did you get this?”

She smiled at him as if he were a child. “Building three, dear.”

“Mrs. Hemsworth,” He replied patiently, hands folded on his desk, “I don’t need to impress upon you the dangers of lying in our profession. I want you to answer me clearly, directly, and with the entire truth. This form you provided me is the work of a man who is now dead. All copies of this form should have been sealed, and by my own reports, they were. Now. Where did you get this?”

Mrs. Hemsworth tittered. “Don’t ask questions you know the answer to. Isn’t that what you always say?” She winked. “I think you should read it again.”

The Director stood and began to pace instead. Not possible, not possible.That project was shut down entirely years ago and the rat it was hiding behind expelled to a very dark hole. But no -- No, there were more rats, there must be, crawling all over his organization. What was true? What was a lie? Lucado. He had suspected her from the first. He had been wrong to give her a second chance.

“Leslie, you’re pacing again. Sit down and eat your cake, dear. I’ve told you over and over again, there’s nothing to be worried about,” Ms. Hemsworth reported cheerily.

The Director sighed at his real name, pressed one hand against his face, and finally nodded. He reached over to take a slice.

The phone rang, startling him so badly he dropped the knife. He had the phone up in seconds. “Yes? You got through yet?”

“Sir, you were right,” the man on the line said. He was a fresh hire, recently vetted, and eager to do well. “There is something wrong. I managed to get the people who didn’t call in today and get their perspectives. They don’t remember anything out of the ordinary. I kept calling the intern who was screening the phones for the last ten minutes and almost got through to him that something might be wrong -- But the signal’s gone.”

“The signal can’t be gone,” The Director explained, rubbing his eyes in frustration, “It is a broadcast facility, son. That would be like missing a max-volume boombox in a barn.”

“Sir, I know that. That’s why I called the police, sir. They’re searching right now, they have been for a while, but they keep getting lost.”

The Director’s eyes flicked from the form, to the phone, and up to the gun that was pointed directly at him. Realization dawned.

“Call off the search, dear,” Mrs. Hemsworth said spritely, “There’s no need to cause a fuss.”

Rats.

 


 

SOMEPLACE, 12:00

 

Waverly watched a snowflake drift from the gray sky and hit the grass. It melted.

Across the clearing, the homestead loomed. Taunting her. Waverly sat alone at the base of a fir tree, staring at it resentfully. There was nothing else. Not the shed, not the road, not a car or sign. Just the house, the fading grey sky, and Waverly.

“No, I’m still not going in there. You can’t make me,” Waverly muttered, voice choked with dried tears. Snow began to drift down like dreams, and the mysterious light behind the sky began to fade. She was tired. So, so tired. Everything had gone wrong.

Tears. She thought she had cried herself out and here they were again, the bastards. Why did it have to hurt so badly?

You know why, a little voice in her mind said.

Waverly groaned into her hands, willing herself to wake up. As it had the last twenty times, it failed.

Well, asked the rational part of her brain, you’re alone. What are you going to do about it?

Sit here. Waverly narrowed her eyes and set her teeth petulantly. Freeze to death. Why not? Sounds fun. Part of her knew that the road before her would cost her. Entering that, facing those memories -- or simply just sitting here? The choice was easy.

The hair on the back of her neck stood up. The wind had begun to sound eerily like someone calling, moaning, some meaningless words that reached high and spread out against the muffling snow.

Shit, considering her luck, it probably was a guy moaning.

Be brave, Waverly.

Waverly barked a bitter laugh. Fat lot of good ‘being brave’ had done. She felt different, changed as if she was a candle that had been snuffed out. She wondered if she’d recognize herself in the mirror or if she met her past self. Don’t be so naive, she’d say, these people you believe in -- they’ll let you down. They’ll leave you. And if they don’t, well, you’ll do the abandonment.

When everybody needs you to be the hero, you’ll fail.

Waverly sobbed into her palms again.  Then, after a long moment, she stood and began to move to the homestead.

She would keep going.

It didn’t feel heroic. There was no change, no epiphany, no rise of glorious music, only the inextricable movement of her legs that would carry her to the end, whatever it was. Waverly didn’t know why or how or what she was thinking of doing, the pall of despair remained and certainly the odds and facts remained unchanged, only that she must keep going. She felt an unbreakable part of her take over, a part that had resisted bullies of all shapes and sizes: herself.

Think, Waverly. You didn’t sustain any injuries, you can’t be dead. The simplest reason for this should be an illusion just like the last one: Waste time. Maybe it’s concerned you’re a threat.

But a threat? A ruse? Why -- Why would it need her alive? It would be useless, completely useless… Unless her friend was alive. Unless she was being used as bait, right now, out there in the real world.

But the illusion before had been shattered by a grenade in close quarters. But was it required to be an explosion? And the words of Champ haunted her: “Walking back and forth in the same hallway. ” But the effects of the illusion, the man she had killed -- or rather, re-killed -- had been real.

But was this an illusion? Sure, she could feel the bite of the cold, the sting of her new wound, but it could also be a dream, couldn’t it? She remembered falling asleep, not walking. Waverly supposed she must be unconscious, but if something was purposefully keeping her here, leaving might not work.

Frustration. She didn’t know what this was, or what sort of rules it obeyed.

A chill wind brushed the hairs on her neck to attention. Waverly turned around, sensing something on the edge, but not really knowing what it was just yet.

Thunder.

No, no. Gunfire.

“Frost,” Waverly said, disbelief coloring the sound. “Trees freezing instantaneously.”

The cracks rose in volume and approached wickedly fast. Waverly broke into a sprint, the wind turning to howls and rattling the shutters of her home. She bounded up the porch and wrenched open the door.

Inside she darted, seconds before the wave of frigid cold, and slammed the door back so hard the walls rattled. She swung the bolt. Good lot it would do in case of the Beast, but it would have to do for now.

Home. It hadn’t felt that way for years.

The first thing Waverly did was grab the coat off the hook and put it on. She stood there, shivering, waiting to warm up, for what seemed an eternity. The coat smelled of dust and old familiar scents that stirred emotions that should be six feet under.

The world outside had turned into the pitch black of the dead winter. Her breath frosted in front of her and Waverly drew deeper into the blackness of her former home. It had its wish, then. She was inside her old home. Step one: find a wea --

The light was on in the kitchen.

Waverly peeked around the corner and her face muscles simply gave up.

Her sister sat at the table. No, an important correction: Her dead sister was sitting upright in the chair at the kitchen table. And she was older.

Waverly inhaled sharply, hit by many emotions at once. Willa had resented her from the instant she had been born and had never given her youngest sister an instant to forget it. It was a childish hate, born early, and nourished for years before the fateful accident.

As much as Waverly would never admit it to herself or speak it aloud when she had gotten the news of death as a young child, her first reaction was relief.

Now Willa sat at the kitchen table, wan light bringing out the haunting edges of her face, the skeletal thinness of her frame. Worst of all were her eyes and their flat, penetrating stare. Waverly anxiously attempted to ascertain what lay behind them and found herself failing.

“Well, finally,” Willa remarked, sounding bored. Not just any sort of bored, but the deep cold bored of familiarity, the depressive numbness that comes with someone so familiar with Bored they might as well be married with children. Flat eyes peeled Waverly apart like a diagram: The dishevelment, the scar, the coat.  “You’d better sit down.”

Waverly turned around and walked back out of the kitchen.

A chair scraped back on the floor, and Willa’s voice followed her. “Waverly, where are you going?”

“I don’t have time for this,” Waverly declared as she started up the stairs. “I’m getting Dad’s gun.”

“At least talk to me first!”

Waverly turned midstep, eyes hard. “And say what, Willa? Nice to see you? You know what, Willa, it’s not nice to see you. Wynonna is out there dying, and I have to get out of here.”

Something in Willa’s eyes changed at the mention of Wynonna. She sighed and looked to decide on an action. “The gun is still up there, where it usually is. There’s a man outside you might want to talk to.”

 


 

THE FACILITY, BUILDING ONE. TUESDAY, 12:00

 

Our other friends did not get a nice, relaxing nap.

Fun fact: Zipties are extremely uncomfortable. Next came handcuffs, of course. But nothing quite matched the strange feeling of being bound with ethernet and phone cables.

Definitely a new experience that defied traditional ranking.

Wynonna had her face pressed to the cool tile, her view made up of a Panda Express and half a dozen pairs of legs. On her other side was Doc, then Dolls, and perhaps a hundred office employees. The cafeteria was made up of a large open space, half dominated by tables, and the other half space for lines for the food court. Various popular restaurants had cooling food out on trays. Waiting.

None of them said a word. The silence was eerie. Occasionally, there was a rustle of clothing or a shuffle of moving feet, but the employees mainly stayed in place like a field of dead crops.

Dolls was busy bickering with Doc in a barely audible whisper.

“Chad,” Wynonna croaked, tired of waiting, “Chad!”

Whispering ceased and someone moved closer to Wynonna, a pair of sneakers stopping before her eyes. She traced them up to the face of Chad and craned to get a better look.

“Chad, buddy.” Wynonna gave a winning smile while pressed against the tile. “Let’s negotiate.”

Doc sighed. “They ain’t listenin --”

“You don’t understand,” Chad whispered, kneeling down, face taunt. “I have a girlfriend.”

“Well,” Wynonna responded, thinking. “That wasn’t necessarily what I was implying, but --

“I don’t want her to die,” Chad continued. He looked over his shoulders at the others who were still staring blankly. “She will if I don’t do what it says.”

“What?” Wynonna asked flatly, “Do what now?”

“He’s talkin’ bout the Beast,” Doc supplied helpfully, “An ancient creature of legend we captured and experimented on.”

“The what?”

“No, the genetically enhanced superbeast currently controlling the entirety of this government facility,” Dolls said flatly, glaring at Doc. The What Was It? Debate continued.

“The what currently what? ” Wynonna almost shouted.

“It’s time,” Chad said, stepping closer to the stairs and looking up through the windows at Building Two. “The party is about to start.”

“What.” Wynonna had reached the end of her patience. “What the hell are you talking about? Is anyone here actually sane?”

And of course, because life had a way of following patterns, the lights went out. Wynonna did an awkward take on the worm to shimmy to the side, changing her meager view to one that could see the shadowy balcony that overlooked the cafeteria.

“Okay,” Wynonna muttered into the tile, “Where's the cameras? Very funny, guys. Very fuckin’ funny.”

Someone in the crowd was sobbing wretchedly, “I have children,” the man gasped, “And a wife, and a mother -- “

“How close are you with your restraints?” Dolls asked the two of them.

“Need about thirty more seconds,” Doc reported.

Wynonna herself was perhaps a few aching minutes from being free when the crowd began to shift and move. A squeal of moving tables took over and the captured trio found themselves being manhandled again.

“Hey! Paws off!” Wynonna said as she was unceremoniously forced to her feet.

Chad stepped up with the other managers. A helpful intern provided a handful of kitchen knives and the managers accepted them with shaky hands. Chad looked pale, grave, and turned to the trio.

“It’s waiting for us,” Chad sobbed. “We must do what it says.”

“No, you don’t!” Wynonna growled, “Stop being a coward , Chad.”

“You don’t understand.” Chad was shaking. The other managers looked sick, hunched over, trying to warm themselves up in the chill of the room. They stepped closer, intent. “But you will.”

“Then explain, jackass!” Wynonna struggled as best she could, but she was out-numbered.

“I order you to let us go,” Dolls stated evenly, putting his whole military experience behind the words.

A few people winced, unsure, but none stopped. Two workers to each person, and a third with the knife. Wynonna unleashing a string of harsh curses as a manager carefully carved a symbol into the back of each their left hands.

Chad began to cry. “We have to watch you,” Chad said, pulling Wynonna away from the pair of other captives, “Because you might be immune.”

“Finally, some good news,” Wynonna muttered.

“Is this what I think it is?” Dolls asked, turning so Doc could spy his hand.

“I do believe so,” Doc replied. He sighed with defeat. “Well, Marshall Dolls. It has not been particularly nice in any sort of definition of the word, but it has certainly been interestin’.”

“Shit.” Dolls strained against the bindings again, but it was futile. “I should have gone to that doctor’s appointment.”

 


THE FACILITY, BUILDING TWO, TUESDAY 12:00

 

One instant it was there, then the next it wasn’t.

It was much like waking from sleep paralysis. Nicole could move and she did, right downward to the carpet in utter surprise. She caught herself on her hands and realized that Waverly had seemingly teleported a foot away to the carpet, eerily posed like a corpse in an open casket. Nicole crawled over, leaning her head over her mouth and waiting.

An exhale. And a tiny, weak, heartbeat. She was still alive, after all. Nicole shook her gently, tapping her cheek. Nope, still out like a light. But alive. First came relief, then came panic.

Where did it go? Nicole strained, listening, every atom of her at attention, trying to find it. Trying to sense the wrongness that preceded its presence. There was the dull sound of the blizzard outside, the tick of a stalled clock, and someone complaining. But also the feeling of being watched, as if something inside a door she couldn’t see was peeking out at the trio. Waiting.

“Oh, jesus. Oh, jesus fucking shit , Hardy,” Bobo moaned, running his hand over his face to clear the fog. “Nooo.”

“What just happened?” Nicole asked and turned to look at Bobo, body shaking from the sudden relief of the cloying presence of the Beast and nerves frayed. She felt at the bullet hole -- or where it had been. It was gone. “Where the hell did it just go?

Bobo had his face screwed in thought, hands palming his forehead and running through his hair, making a hissing noise that Nicole realized was actually words: “I don’t want to do this,” quickly, quietly, over and over.

Nicole felt a sting of pity. After all, they were both prisoners, weren’t they? She moved over to him, hand outstretched, voice soft and reassuring, “Hey, it’s going to be --”

“You ignorant bitch!”  Bobo roared at Nicole as if she had just broken something. He grabbed the shocked Nicole by the collar and pressed her up against the glass windows and leaned in, their faces inches from each other. “You’re going to listen. Very. Fucking. Closely. All right? Okay? Or we both find out how it just did that to Hardy.” He pointed to the spot where Hardy had been, but the corpse was gone. “You’re going to do everything I say because you have absolutely zero fucking choice in the matter, understand?”

Nicole felt herself nodding. This man was completely unhinged.

“Now you have to remember that if you try anything, you will lose and people will die. Because of you and your fucking mistakes. Got it? Understand? Because I’m very willing to demonstrate just exactly how harmless you are to me.”

Another nod. He was right. He hadn’t done more than walk around looking smug, and Nicole was exhausted.

“Right, right. Now.” Bobo tapped the glass, motioning toward Building one. “That’s the cafeteria. That’s where the people are. We both want the same thing, don’t we, redhead? You want those people to survive?”

A nod.

“Here’s the plan. We get the Body to the People . That’s step one. Step two… I give the orders. You follow them and everybody has a good time. Do you understand so far?"

Okay, Nicole did not understand any of the plan. Regardless, she nodded.

Don’t nod if you don’t fucking understand! ” He screeched in her face, spittle flying, “I don’t know what the fuck it is, okay? I don’t know what the fuck it is or where it is! None of us do! So we’re going to be very good little monsters and do exactly what it wants. Do you understand that? ” He narrowed his eyes, waiting. “Or do you want to go ask Hardy ‘what just happened?’” he mocked her voice with near perfection. “I think he’ll have a very fucking good answer, don’t you?”

Nicole hesitated a second too long. Bobo pressed her harder against the glass, not asking a question, just waiting with those wide, crazed eyes, his limbs trembling, his teeth bared.

“Yes!” Nicole nodded vigorously, “Yes! Yes, okay, I understand!”

“Good,” Bobo stated simply, stepping back and releasing her. She fell gasping to the floor. “You and I are going to get along just great.” He gestured to Levi. “Oh, and bring the guy in the hat, too. I like him.”


SOMEWHERE, 12:00

 

Waverly shoved aside a pile of dusty boxes and uncovered her father’s bolt-action rifle. She drifted a hand slowly across the length of it, a trail in the dust left behind. Boxes of ammunition lay beside it.

“The man outside.” Waverly turned her head to look at her sister, who lingered in the doorway. “What does he look like?”

“He doesn’t come close enough,” Willa replied, “And I can’t hear what he says. He’s been here as long as I have.”

“But you just know he’s saying words?”

Willa nodded and left the doorway. Apparently, question time was over. Waverly picked up the rifle and checked the bolt. Memories of holding this gun on Saturdays under Wynonna’s watchful eye, when her sister had finally had enough of her begging, swamped Waverly. She put them back in a box in her mind. Not now. Maybe not ever.

A question drifted: If she simply shot herself, would she wake up?

Waverly banished the question and settled it as Plan B. Plan A was only a misty idea, but it was better than what may simply be suicide.

Something’s wrong, her instincts whispered. Where had Willa gone? Waverly slowed her steps, toeing silently down the hall, before peering down the stairs at the front door.

Willa was there, arms crossed, eyes boring into Waverly. Waverly halted at the top of the stairs. Hairs prickled at the back of her neck, and she was not going to ignore her gut. Not anymore.

“Sorry. You’re not leaving,” Willa stated evenly, leveling a revolver at her sister. “And before you ask, you really don’t want to know what happens when I pull this trigger.”

Instincts: 1 Waverly: 0

“What? Willa, no. ” Waverly flicked her eyes around, looking for an escape, an idea, but none came. She could not aim her rifle before Willa pulled the trigger. She turned a pained gaze back to her sister. “Willa, listen , we can --”

“Look to your left, Waverly.”

Waverly obeyed, looking to the left. There were tally marks on the walls. They stretched up, back, side-to-side, there were hundreds , some deep as if clawed in desperation. There were words, too. PLEASE and HELP ME were popular favorites, but one glaring phrase in red paint was spelled, DO NOT LOOK UP.

“I lost count,” Willa commented flatly. She tossed a dulled knife to the top of the stairs and it clattered against Waverly’s boot. “I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to keep time.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Waverly begged, heartbreaking, “My friends are in danger out there. Please, Willa. We can work together and get out. I have a plan.

“I’d apologize, but I’m not sorry at all. I made a deal. There’s only space for one of us.”

Waverly gasped, the breath driven from her -- BANG! -- and she was staring at the ceiling, clawing at her throat, trying so desperately to get air. Thoughts scattered like marbles. Air. Air. She needed air. Dying.

Steps. Willa was leaning over her, her face blank, emotionless. “You’ll wake up again, Waverly, and I won’t be here. But you will. And you’ll find there’s nothing out there for miles but trees and trees and trees. Oh, and a lake, but you won’t enjoy it. It reflects the sky .”

Waverly clawed at Willa’s pant leg, words escaping her but making no sense. Oxygen was very important and she was currently receiving absolutely none of it. Dying. The pain was excruciating.

“I wonder who’s out there, Waverly. Who would pity you enough to be a friend. Well, they won’t be able to tell it’s me. I wonder if they’re bulletproof.” Willa moved her revolver, thumbing it, and pointed it at Waverly’s face. Her eyebrows furrowed, revolver lowering an inch in curiosity. “Why aren’t you --”

Instincts kicked in. Waverly slammed her boot into Willa’s chest, sending her flying down the stairs in a painful clatter. She sat up, sucking air into starved lungs, her ribs on fire. Bruised? Cracked? It hurt like hell.

“Bulletproof vest, ” she gasped, internally thanking Nicole for being such a chivalrous idiot.

Waverly flew down the stairs, kicking away the revolver from her sister. As painful as the fall had been, Willa was madly determined. Another knife appeared, but Waverly was trained, practiced, and her muscles responded instantly to the threat regardless of her shattered nerves.

Willa cried out as her wrist was twisted painfully and the knife fell harmlessly to the floor. Waverly repaid the attempt with a knee to the sternum that made Willa gasp as the wind was knocked from her lungs.

“Yeah, how does it feel now ?” Waverly asked, but her question turned into a pained cry as Willa found her injured ribs with a sloppy, desperate punch. Waverly retaliated, almost without thought, by slamming the butt of the rifle into Willa’s temple. It hit home with a resounding CRACK and Willa slumped over and did not rise.

Then it was just the wind and Waverly’s panting. She brushed hair from her sweating face. With a start and a hint of guilt, she realized she had been waiting to do something like that for a very, very long time.

There was no time to think about this. She dug through the closet and retrieved an ice pick with some mittens, ignoring the buzzing thoughts running through her mind. Waverly opened the door and stepped out into the night, an insane plan was coming together. She would find the moaning man and get answers. It was time to act.

 


 THE FACILITY, 12:00

 

In the dark windows of the bridge between buildings, Nicole could make out a faint reflection of herself. Harsh shadows painted her face, her features were gaunt, and her red hair hung lifeless around her sickened face.

The harsh sound of rain striking the windows turned to the rattle of freezing hail.

“Keep up, redhead!” Bobo slammed open the next set of doors. “Can’t be later than we already are!”

Behind her, she could feel it. Nicole kept looking back, only to find Levi alone, but her mind howled that there was something else, someone else, lingering back there. Following them. Urging them forward.

So she went.

Once through the doors, Nicole looked down from the balcony at the cafeteria below. The normally bustling space between the tables and the restaurants was empty. The audience stood by the tables and chairs, waiting and watching, all the way down on the first floor. Perhaps a hundred or more of them. Some doctors, some interns, even a pack of secretaries.

What hit Nicole like a freight train was the smell of food. Hot food, grilled food, spicy food, all kinds of food. It had been a fully functioning cafeteria until now, and the smell lingered so strongly that Nicole had to shove her face in Waverly’s damp hair to muffle it. Things… Things were not good.

A brief moment passed, the two of them surveying the room from the railing. “What now?” Nicole asked, eyes roving the room for a plan that wasn’t suicidal or would lead to the deaths of countless innocent people. No results found. She had to find out what the Beast wanted and start from there.

Bobo turned, eyes narrowed, “What did I say about questions?” He hissed, “Follow me and try not to trip over your own feet.”

Del Rey scuttled down the staircase, leaving Nicole staring down at the cafeteria on her own. Should she run? No. Can’t run. Innocent people would die.

Levi stumbled toward the stairs, but Nicole stopped him with an elbow and Waverly’s feet. “Maybe you should find an elevator or something.”

“Yeeearrghh,” Levi said. To Nicole’s surprise, he actually seemed to listen and avoided the stairs all together to search elsewhere for an elevator.

“Redhead!” Bobo called, “If that body isn’t down here in thirty seconds, I am going to start eating people. And you know I am absolutely one-hundred-percent capable of doing so!”

It was even stronger on the ground floor. Nicole’s limbs shuddered and a full body shiver took over her, pain starting in her stomach then rising behind her eyes. Stay steady. She mentally balanced on a beam between mindless hunger and keeping herself intact. She could do this. She could absolutely do this.

“Put the body over there.” Bobo pointed to a table.

Someone screamed, struggled, and the sound of bodies hitting the floor filled the room. Nicole turned sluggishly, trying to identify who it was, only to see the black-leather-jacket type fighting with the fury of ten men. Even with her hands tied behind her back, she was a match to the dazed workers who tried to obey orders they hadn’t received recently.

“Hey!” Bobo barked, striding over to deal with it, “Hey!”

Now was Nicole’s chance. She laid Waverly on the table and silently moved behind the distracted Bobo.

Bobo, however, saw through the terrible plan and grabbed Black-Leather-Jacket by the leg and yanked the woman close to grab her by the throat. Nicole still had a yard to go when he turned and pointed a finger at her.

“I swear it’s like working with a child,” Bobo said casually, “Back to where you were or the woman dies.”

Nicole had no choice but to take five slow steps backward.

“Easy does it. Now. That wasn’t so hard. See? Nobody died. Wow!” Bobo dropped Wynonna, who managed to keep herself standing. She jerked forward to attack him only to be dropped with a left hook that resounded in the silent cafeteria.

“Deal with that.” He pointed at the fallen woman. More of the crowd surged forward to tie the woman down.

Bobo had found another table and stood atop it. He cleared his throat. “Listen up, all of you. And don’t interrupt me. I’m Bobo, and this is my redheaded friend. You won’t be listening to her. Just to me. Our third friend didn't make it.”

Nicole swayed in place, shaking Waverly’s shoulder. Wake up. Please. A plan? Maybe. Hard to thought. Think! Hard to think. And it was getting harder by the heartbeat. Think, think, why was she here? Why was Waverly still alive? What was the point of all this? Nicole barely registered the fact Bobo was talking.

“All of you are going to die very soon,” Bobo stated, smooth as silk, like a weatherman telling the week was all shine, all the time.

The crowd nodded. Yes, of course, death. A normal Tuesday occurrence.

“None of you will understand why. There will be no closure. You will be afraid, then you will be killed, and then you will possibly be eaten or you might get up again. I don’t know if that is the correct order.” Bobo halted, looking thoughtful. “It honestly depends.”

Nicole watched the crowd, silently urging them to wake up. Do something. Act. None of them did.

Unless some very specific things happen.”

Missing, missing. Nicole glanced around at the crowd, scanning faces. No Beast. But why? Why not be here?

“Oh, I forgot to mention -- We technically, to the outside world, don’t exist. Your families are worried sick, but they won’t find you. They’ll search and search and search, but they won’t find us…” Bobo thought hard, glancing at his wristwatch. He looked over, “Hey. Redhead. How many minutes ago do you think it was? When the thing disappeared?”

Nicole blinked and realized she didn’t know.

“Whatever. Doesn’t matter.” He jumped from the table and went over to Haught. “Okay, listen closely.” He steered her away, away, toward the empty space between the crowd and the restaurants. “I’ve got a plan . All right?”

Nicole stared at him, face blank. Too late she realized he had masterfully steered her away from everyone, from Waverly.

Bobo shook his head. “Why do you have to make everything difficult? I can tell you’re going to do something stupid.” Bobo turned around, still not taking his hands off Nicole’s shoulders. “Carl! You’ve got a gun, dontcha buddy?”

Bobo turned back to Nicole, grinning. “There is a reason I told you that you have no choice in the matter, remember?” He tapped her cheek gently with his fingers. “Good girl. Now --”

Nicole went for the element of surprise, a simple sloppy attack by someone who didn’t fight ever, but her reactions were lethargic from her exhaustion. She wasn’t immortal, nor all-powerful, and Bobo had been horrifyingly right.

So Bobo caught her arm and dislocated it. “I take ‘Bad Fucking Idea’ for a thousand, Alex,” he hissed in her ear, “I warned you. I might just have him pull the trigger right now on that nice old lady next to him, how about that? Hmm?”

“No,” Nicole croaked, “Please.” No pain, but nerves buzzed in a way that was close.

Bobo giggled. “You asked nicely, so I won’t. I was warned you’d be difficult.” He leaned in closer again, his foul mouth so close to her cheek. “Look up, Redhead.”

Nicole looked up. A small sound escaped her.

There were five shapes up there, like reverse spiders, looking back at them. At one point they had been human and resembled a rough idea of humanity, but there was something abhorrently wrong about their bony elongated limbs and taunt skin, their beckoning teeth and latching claws. The gift of night vision allowed Nicole perfect clarity. She could see how their eyes flickered over the crowd, searching for the weakest, the most delicious. They were fast, strong, and disobeyed death.

Nicole swallowed hard, wondering what they had once been. Who they had once been.

“They move if you do. Just telling you now.” Bobo stood up and strode over to the table where Waverly’s body lay, grinning wide as his eyes never left Nicole. He was humming the Jeopardy! theme.

There was no other choice than to stay absolutely still.

“Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, welcome to our show. Today, our friendly redhead will be our contestant. There is only one category and one price.” Bobo announced, his arms spread wide, a grin plastered on his face like a cheap mask. “You all die if she doesn’t do exactly as she is told. If she complies, well. Your chances of survival rise above zero!”

The audience clapped politely.

“Now! The category is…” He turned with a flourish back to Nicole and pointed. “She’s going to make the both of us vanish into thin air .” He narrowed his eyes, his disgusting hands wrapping around Waverly’s throat. “At the count of ten, Haught. You know, I went to medical school. I am pretty certain that if I snap her spine, she dies. And all these people die, too, from various fatal wounds by our friends on the ceiling.” He wiggled his eyebrows, flicking his eyes up to make his point.

What he requested wasn’t possible in the slightest.

“Don’t,” Nicole called across the floor, fists clenched, “Don’t do this. Please.”

“Better learn magic, then. Ten.”

“It’s not possible!” Nicole shifted forward but the movement out of the corner of her eye stopped her. The ceiling creatures had shifted slightly, too. “It’s not possible!”

“Nine!”

Wynonna snapped into motion a second time, disarming Chad and slamming her knee into his face. He dropped with a dull sound, only for other workers to swarm and take the fighting Wynonna down. She was screaming. Nicole could still hear it, long after the workers gagged Wynonna.

“And the audience goes wild! Eight!”

Nicole looked around. Levi. Where was Levi? But he was nowhere to be found. Unless he could fly, or teleport, then he wasn’t going to save her a second time.

“Seven!”

Why is this happening?

“Six!”

No, no, no. This couldn’t be how it ended. After all this, it couldn’t be. They had come so far, so far , only to die after everything they had done to survive. Do as he says. Do as he says. But how? How? How was she going to save all of these people without knowing how?

“Five!”

“I’ll do anything!” The words came in a rush, falling from her mouth, “I’ll do anything! Just don’t!”

“Follow directions, redhead!” Bobo laughed. “Four!”

A hand on her shoulder and things became muffled as if a curtain of snow had snuffed it out. Nicole could still see the people in the room, yes, but as if from behind a waterfall of slowed time.

She turned to her left, taking an hour, a minute, a millisecond, the bite on her leg as painful as it was the day she received it.

Slowed down like a dying VCR. “Three!”

Nicole’s breathing was louder than anything else, even her pounding heart. She met those orange eyes and seemed to fall into them, forward, drowning, grasping, clawing for breath and not finding it, all she could find was it and its stare and the boy falling from the cliff and the mental image of her father’s broken body -- which she had mercifully never seen but had imagined at night -- tossing and turning in nightmares that never faded, never released her, and she would wake up panting like she was now , turning on the light and expecting it to be there -- there like it was now -- standing beside her with all of its features hidden because all she could see where those two head-light eyes and herself reflected in them back.

Waiting. For her. Of course.

Thoughts fled. Only decision remained, a false one , a lie, her mind whispered, this was wrong, something has gone terribly wrong and beyond anything I must not say:

Let them live," Nicole whispered, "Let them live and take me instead. I will do anything.”

(Deal.) replied the Beast.

The cliff, standing at the edge. “Two!” Bobo’s voice called.

Jumping, not falling, not pushed, and though her hands hit tile her mind was hitting water and shattering.

“One!”

“STOP!” The word came from her lungs but Bobo heard it in a thousand different ways in a thousand different places, and he Stopped.

 Bobo removed his hands from Waverly, his expression turning to one of intoxicated glee, and he scuttled forward. His eyes were fixed behind Nicole. “Amazing,” he said, awed. He pushed past her.

Nicole shuddered violently, almost retching. The feeling of wrongness rattled her bones and made her feel as if she was in a pear jiggler. She felt… violated. Not herself. As if someone had walked through her soul, paused momentarily, and walked out again after leaving something behind. She stood, swayed, and turned.

It didn’t make sense.

Nicole had at least maintained a high B, low A in Geometry and wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty with math problems, but this was not a math problem, not 1+1=2 but 1+1 can also equal big spooky forest in the middle of the cafeteria that seemed to stretch beyond the limits of the space it could conceivably occupy, if, hypothetically, a forest was transplanted inside the building, which is impossible.

“Nobody else can see this, you know?” Bobo asked. “Just us . You did it, redhead.” He laughed and clapped his hands together. He leaned over to whisper loudly, “You’re absolutely fucking adorable, you know that? You think these people are just going to be let go? I envy you, honestly.” He patted her on the shoulder and Nicole didn’t respond at all. “When we come back out, they all die.”

Too late now. Nicole could not take it back.

Turn around. The cafeteria, the people standing and shifting nervously, apparently confused but at the same time unable to do anything about it. Turn around. Forest. It hurt to look at, physically and mentally, the scar on her leg still thrumming, as if Nicole could feel the poison sliding through her veins.

Bobo del Rey went in first, then Nicole. They had vanished, completely and utterly, for those inside the building.

The creatures on the ceiling remained still and patient. They wouldn’t have to wait long.

 


 SOMEWHERE, 12:00

 

It was a lot harder than Wavery had expected. Every part of her instincts demanded she look up and attempt to catch sight of the stars, to navigate, to find her way. Guided by the distant wailing from up ahead, Waverly placed her palm above her forehead like a hat so she wouldn’t fall to temptation.

Slowly, painfully slowly, Waverly managed to get through the newly-fallen snow. Every breath hurt. One of her boots had a hole in it. She focused on the pain and the cold, and the urge to look up faded to the back of her mind.

Waverly reached the top of the incline and halted beside a tree, using it for cover. It wasn’t needed. The source of the noise was most definitely a man. As Waverly watched the hunched, sobbing figure shuffle in a circle, she felt her fear be washed over with anger. This was an unimaginable level of cruelty. 

“Ward…” She squinted. “Or Wyatt?”

She had a vague idea who he was and slid down the incline toward him.

The man moaned and turned in his circle. He had a view of Waverly but didn’t react as she approached. He dug his fingers into his matted scalp and shuffled endlessly.

“Hey,” Waverly called. “Hey!” The man didn’t respond except to sob with the wind.

Waverly pushed at his shoulder. The man made that awful noise again, off track of the circle, but shuffled back into position without acknowledging Waverly. Next, she tried to stand in his way, but he pushed her aside easily and kept going. Around, around. One step at a time.

The man was most certainly dead. His skin was desiccated, some of his bones protruding, and his feet were bare and mangled. He had been walking for a very, very long time.

Waverly did the only thing she could think of. She backed up in her own trail, took a deep breath, and threw herself at the man. Both of them fell to the snow and the man immediately began to shriek with surprisingly intact lungs, by the piercing noise of it, and it carried for miles in the snow-waste.

Waverly shoved a mitten in his mouth and held it down. “Shut up!” She snapped. “Shut up!”

Wrestling with her dead ancestor was something she did not expect.

“Waverly!” A familiar voice called. Willa. “Get back here, Waverly!”

“Shit-shit-shit,” Waverly said as the man writhed wretchedly and her eyes were drawn to the looming trees. Nothing. No sign of her yet.

Waverly turned back and slapped the man with her open hand. Over. Over again. Finally, the man stopped his muffled scream and began to cry. Waverly only felt angrier as she ripped her chewed mitten from his mouth and got off the man. By the mustache, it was Wyatt Earp himself. Or what was left of him.

He was remarkably light as Waverly tugged the man to his feet and pushed him forward. “Walk, jackass.” After all, he was the reason she was here, wasn’t he?

It was almost impossible not to see the sky out of the corner of her eye if Waverly wanted to keep moving in the appropriate direction. The tree line no longer blocked it from her sight and she could make out stars in the corner of her vision. The urge to look became stronger. What was so bad about stars?

“You can’t just leave me here alone, Waverly!” Willa cried desperately. Closer now.

Waverly closed her eyes. I don’t have a choice, she thought, I don’t. I’m sorry.

Wyatt was mumbling something, taking Waverly’s mind off the question. “I didn’t. I couldn’t I couldn’t.” He stopped and turned, grappling with Waverly. “I’ve got to go back! I’ve got to go back!” He yelled in her face with rot on his breath. “I have to find a way!”

Waverly slapped him again, feeling silly. “Shh!” She looked back at the pitch black treeline. Her eyes couldn’t make anything out and she resisted the urge to stare any longer. She turned back to Wyatt with fire in her eyes. “What do you know about this? Where are we?”

Wyatt’s eloquent response was a long, drawn out, ‘ nhhnnnnnhngn.’ Waverly sighed, knowing the man’s mind was completely gone. He would be very little help, but she shoved him forward regardless. She had a plan. If she couldn’t get her answers, then she would just have to deal. Waverly looked forward to explaining this later to whoever was left to listen. Oh, yes, I met my ‘heroic’ ancestor and shoved a mitten in his mouth and called him a jackass. Wynonna would be so proud.

They made good time. Soon they were out in a clearing, the treeline retreating, and Waverly stared intently at Wyatt’s back to prevent herself from looking up.

Wyatt hadn’t gotten the news.

He stopped, his mouth opened, and he began to scream. Waverly pushed at him, trying to get him to stop, but he shambled forward out of her reach.

He began to howl in earnest, the noise tearing from him with such agony and pain that Waverly stumbled back, hands over her ears. Wyatt screamed and screamed and screamed, hands clawing at his face, and Waverly was helpless to stop him. It was if Wyatt was pushing his entire life through his lungs, tearing out hell on his vocal cords, releasing everything that had once been within him resembling sanity, now piercing to the heavens that frightened him so. His body was locked in this action, the sound never wavering, never weakening -- not for an instant -- and continued even as he shredded the skin on his face into pieces that fell into the snow.

Waverly knew that she would never forget that scream.

Another voice screamed too, closer this time. Much closer. Fear drove Waverly into action and slammed the butt of the rifle into Wyatt’s face, sprawling him into the slow. Deja vu. He sobbed and made sick retching noises, still pulling at his own face. Black liquid oozed across the snow, melting it.

“Look,” Waverly said to him, pushing him over to get a good look at him and immediately regretted it. She swallowed back her rising urge to be sick. “I’m sorry. Okay? I’m sorry about this. But you really need to shut up.

“It’s coming!” Wyatt moaned, voice hoarse and almost completely gone. “It’s coming!”

“No shit!” Waverly responded with a shake of his collar, her mind reeling with panic. “Get up and walk!”

Mercifully, the man obeyed and wobbled to his feet. He didn’t look up. Waverly glanced behind, just for a second, and heard something in the trees. It was close, too close! And they were not yet to the center of the clearing. Wyatt was making the progress terribly slow.

Abandon him, a little voice in her mind said.

No, I won’t be doing that , Waverly responded, I need answers from him.

She counted her pained breaths and focused on her feet. Yards from the finish line. How close was her sister? She glanced back.

Willa was sprinting in their trail, rifle in her hands.

“Oh, shit,” Waverly said, her face going slack.

Nope, nope, nope, no-no-no, Waverly’s mind scattered before her legs did. No, this was just an illusion, it wasn’t real, it couldn’t hurt her, this was a --

Willa fired, an ace shot even at the hundred yard line. The shot just barely missed her shoulder, instead scraping across the vest fabric, but the distance could close fast. Willa didn’t have to shovel snow out of the way.

Waverly pushed Wyatt forward, sending the man into a stumbling run. “Run! Run! Run!” She ordered, her feet pushing through the snow with painful slowness.

They reached the center of the clearing and Waverly immediately slammed the butt of her rifle into the snow. “Dig!” She ordered Wyatt, and he mercifully complied.

Waverly turned and spied her sister.

Who was the better shot?

Waverly, the youngest, lifted her bolt-action rifle, aiming. Holding her breath with broken ribs. All those times she had to do what Willa wanted. All those times Willa had been cruel for cruelty’s sake. She would not waver now. If her sister thought Waverly would die easy and remain here for eternity to shuffle circles in snow, then she was wrong.

Seventy yards? Sixty?

Willa, the eldest, the precious child, the cared for, who had cultivated an implacable and childish hate for the child who had returned instead of their mother -- Mom out, baby in. Baby at fault. Simple math. -- also raised her rifle.

The Earp sisters leveled their rifles as one and neither hesitated to pull the trigger.

A slap of flesh, a thump of a body, and Wyatt was no more.

Waverly’s gun had jammed.

“You really think I would let you go with a working gun, Waverly?” Willa barked a sound that must have been a sort of laugh, but it came out flat.

No. No. Waverly turned Wyatt, knowing at once that it was useless. The man who could unravel the mystery was dead…er.  She fell to the hole in the snow and unsheathed the icepick. Wyatt’s body would work like a makeshift barrier. Working like mad, she began to dig in the ground. Yards. Willa had yards to cover. Waverly had time.

“You’re not getting out of here!” Willa cried again, closer.

Another shot, another impact.

Chunks of the ground flew in Waverly’s face, and she brushed it off with her upper arm. Long scoring marks and deepening holes marked the spot. How deep? How deep?

Twenty yards and closing. “You can’t kill it, Waverly! We already tried!”

Waverly could hear it -- Couldn’t she? Possibly -- The pull of the bolt, the snick of the bullet, and the rustle of arms leveling it. But what she didn’t need to hear was the ground shifting, breaking, groaning -- It gave way beneath her and she was gone.

 


 THE FACILITY, BUILDING ONE, 12:00

 

At first, Waverly felt certain it hadn’t worked. The cold hit her like a freight train, sending her gasping at nothing, clawing for breath and consciousness. True blackness pressed against her, called her like home, told her to turn back and return to the bliss of sleep.

“Waverly!”

Wynonna.

Someone was shaking her forcefully. Reality came in waves lapping against the shore. Finally, it broke over her, and Waverly opened her eyes to came face to face with the sister she hadn’t seen in years.

Wynonna stole her breath with a hug. “You’re alive. You’re alive .”

Pain. Ow. "Ow.” Waverly pushed at Wynonna, trying to get refuge from the pain in her ribs. “Ow. Ow, ow, holy shit ow.”

Wynonna pulled back and frowned, still holding Waverly by the shoulders. “What happened to you, baby girl? Are you okay?”

Are you okay?

Waverly almost laughed. Is she okay?

No, I wrestled with our ancestor and got shot by our dead sister.

No, since this morning I’ve been fighting for my life.

No, I don’t know who I am anymore.

They were interrupted by yelling. “The doors are locked!” a man shouted. “Is it the same on the other side?”

“Yes!” Came the response. “The phones still have no signal!”

Waverly furrowed her brow and looked at the confused crowd. “Wynonna. Wynonna, I need you to tell me what happened.” Then she noticed the horrifying bruise that covered the side of her sister’s face.

As Wynonna explained the happenings with far too many curse words and barely controlled disbelief, Waverly inspected the crowd for a plan. Her arm itched and she scratched at the bite, thinking. Then she turned.

Waverly’s daze faded as she caught sight of what no one in the room could see. It all made sense, with startling clarity, and she swallowed hard. She pushed away from Wynonna, who said her name, but Waverly didn’t hear.

It was the forest.

It was here. Or at least part of it. And Waverly was absolutely certain that she could step into that forest and feel those trees.

Waverly turned back to Wynonna, who had a concerned and confused look on her face. She couldn’t see it. Of course. She wasn’t bitten.

Waverly nodded to herself, plan decided. “Listen, Wynonna. I need that ladies’ coat, that man’s Beanie, that other ladies’ purse, a gun -- anything useful you can find, just shove it in the purse and hand it to me, anything to keep me warm I also need. Okay?”

“What, why--”

“Don’t! Not yet!” Waverly raised a hand, deadly serious. Wynonna nodded, still confused, but humoring her sister. “Do what I say. Please.” She didn’t wait for Wynonna’s response, she was already headed for the kitchens. She needed fire.

 


 SOMEWHERE.

 

Robert ‘Bobo’ del Rey, approximately thirty-two years old, died in the span of two resting heartbeats. He had gone to medical school, and had lasted under the loneliness of his cruel heart and graduated with a passing grade, regardless of the professors who tried to stop him. A knife in a spoon drawer, waiting for the wrong hand.

So his statement of the purpose of the human spine was true. Nicole proved it.

The pair had walked for awhile, pulled forward by strings, and then Bobo del Rey had stopped. He turns, his mouth open, his face confused -- almost pained -- because the plan hadn’t told him what to do next. He had realized, quite spontaneously, that he wasn’t involved in the next part of the plan.

Nicole didn’t see it -- didn’t know it, didn’t mean it -- but she felt it. She felt the spine under her fingers, she felt the shift and snap, beautifully easy, unfortunately painless, and the body hit the ground. No more to blame than the blade of a guillotine drawn by gravity, she had just about as much choice in the matter.

Nicole’s eyes grew wide as he fell and she caught him, leading them both into the snow. It immediately soaked her pants, but it didn’t matter because she had just murdered a man. She pressed her fingers to his crumpled throat, knowing that there wasn’t any pulse there.

No sound but her own breathing, her own heart. She stared blankly at him. Some part of her knew she had to get up and had to make sure he didn’t, but some other part of her wondered why she felt absolutely nothing at all.

Afterward… After what? Something only her muscles remembered. Nicole walked. Forward, pulled. Go.

The voices -- her father, the boy, his mother, all of them, all of the bodies they had found broken, all of the rangers that had gone missing -- were calling her name.

So she went to them. No longer tired at all. There wasn’t any choice involved -- Nicole was lost.

 


 THE FACILITY, BUILDING ONE, 12:00

 

Waverly skidded into the kitchen of the barbecue place and began to steal.

Wynonna came with the items as requested. Waverly tried not to worry so much about how she had gotten them so quickly and instead focused on thinking what she would need.

“This shit is real, isn’t it?” Wynonna asked as Waverly grabbed a mop.

“Yeah,” Waverly said quietly. “I’m sorry. This is… this is all basically my fault.”

Wynonna watched her little sister and her heart broke. The younger girl was bloodstained, scarred, haunted. She moved with visible exhaustion but she seemed intent on continuing.

“What do you need me to do?” Wynonna’s words were barely audible.

Waverly turned to her sister and almost burst into tears. They needed to talk, to reconnect, to be sisters again -- but Waverly had no time. “I need you to keep everybody quiet and don’t let them panic. See if you can find a way out, or a way to communicate to the outside world. Okay?”

Wynonna nodded. “Okay.”

Next, Waverly turned on the gas burner and placed the first pot she could find on it. Then, quickly, methodically, she broke every kitchen safety rule she could remember.

Kitchen grease over the fire. It reached its ignition temperature and flared, hissing, gasping into the air, heat slapping at Waverly. She grabbed an oven mitt and broke off the round end of the mop, sharpening it and fire hardening it. Then she thrust the head of the mop into the flames.

A deep breath. Too much running. This was all too much, but she wasn’t going to give up at the finish line.  When she made her way out of the kitchen, Wynonna was there, giving her a significant questioning look. Mop to Waverly. Waverly to mop. No words.

Waverly took a deep breath. “Wynonna, I want to tell you everything. But my friend is in serious danger right now, and I have to go. And I might not…”-- come back --“I might not be okay when I’m back again. I need you to be there.” Their meetings had been too brief, too chaotic. “Please.”

When Wynonna opened her mouth to respond Waverly hugged her. It was admittedly awkward, seeing as she had to hold the torch at an angle as to not set them both aflame, but it would do.

“You’ve always been the best of all of us, kid," Wynonna murmured into her ear, “Good luck on your hero quest.”

When Waverly vanished as well, a choked sound came from her sister’s throat.

Nobody noticed the elevator ding! open and Levi shuffle out. In his confusion, he had struck every floor button. Now, he tottered toward his final goal with the determination of the undead.


 

PART TWO: TRUTH

 


SOMEWHERE.

 

The moment Waverly stepped into the forest, it wasn’t the cold, nor the darkness, nor the overwhelming sense of impending doom that struck her first. It was the absolute knowledge of being lost.

Most human beings have an internal clock. It can be sharpened, honed, but even in its roughest form, it is there. It’s a subtle sense of direction that isn’t often called attention to due to its inaccuracies and the widely available range of clocks. Ask those in the office and they will respond, “Why yes, the clock is stopped, but it’s certainly still 12:00.” Which 12:00? Both. At the same time. Or, neither.

But for Waverly, the time was now, was, and will be. Time, for all intents and purposes, no longer gave a shit.

“Honestly,” Waverly said, voice quiet in the damp silence, “If I survive this, I’m writing a paper on how freaking cool this is.”

It was perfect, fitting, to end it all where it began: Lost in the woods. Now all she needed to do was find Nicole at the end of the trail and figure it all out from there.

Teeth chattering, eyes squinting in the dark, Waverly pressed on. She ignored the full body shivers, the slight pressing metallic taste of the dark, the way the shadows seemed to slide like silk across her skin. It was pitch black emptiness, and the only indication she still existed at all was the pale reflection of her light on the snow. Trees appeared as barely-lit trunks and pine branches, vague impressions in her peripherals, that taunted her with their stillness. It seemed that if she dropped the torch the world may stop existing, and she might step into the void and fall forever.

One minute she was squinting at the trail, and the next there was a leg.

“Huh,” Waverly stated dumbly before understanding that the leg was still attached to a person. Her flame lit what was left and she turned away sharply, not interested. Not interested in the slightest. She had to pause a moment to regain her cool, her breathing, and her determination.

Waverly dragged the body into the center of the clearing and without a word set him aflame. For a long time, there was dead silence except for the crackle of flame, but even that seemed muffled as if heard from a distance. The utter silence played tricks on Waverly’s auditory center, creating the illusion of voices just out of earshot, just out of understanding, who spoke to nothing and asked questions without answer.

She was more terrified than any other time she had been in her life so far, but she had to keep going because it was the right thing to do, dammit, and her friend needed her.

“Come on, Waverly,” she told herself as she stepped forward back to the trail, “Time to get it over with.”

Waverly did not dare call out. Fear of who would answer drove questions buzzing in her shocked mind. Even her thoughts seemed distant, except for the thunder of the name in her head.

Time passed only in the crunch of the snow under her feet and the pounding of her heart.

Fifteen steps later, there was a presence beside her. Waverly swallowed hard and cast her eyes to the side, only to see Wyatt Earp.

Not the man who had been shuffling in circles, no-- the real Wyatt, the law bringer. The dark stopped sliding against Waverly’s skin and seemed to back off from the fire, as if cautious.

They walked.

“Have you been here before?”

“No,” Wyatt responded. “Not alive.”

As ten more steps passed, Waverly sighed internally at her ancestor's amazing social skills. She cleared her throat. “This is the part where you explain everything, right? What this place is, why I can see it, all that.”

“Buried it beneath the backyard and your father dug it up,” Wyatt offered instead. “Expected that to happen.”

Waverly stopped, baffled. “Expected? What? You just buried it there and thought it was a good idea? Hey, let’s have my kids deal with it! Hurray! Not my problem! The shit, dude?” Waverly gestured around the two of them. “What part of set it on fire did you not get, huh?”

Wyatt simply stared at her. “It comes back. I needed time, I made our lineage immune to its enslavement. It returns again, each time more hateful, but fate demands an Earp stands against it. Someone better than I, more clever, more able. Someone who could open the door.”

Waverly lifted a finger. “Say that again? Because that sounded like you said it comes back, and that can’t be real because if it comes back, then how the shit do we kill it?”

Silence. Waverly turned and cast her eyes at the shadowed planes of the dead man’s face, the flame flickering between the two. She could see his eyes glittering the dark, his expression betraying pain, regret -- But Waverly had run out of sympathy.

“You’re an Earp. Fire is the key, but only here. Only now,” he offered as an explanation. He pointed ahead into the inscrutable dark. “From here on, you go alone. Won’t expect it. Won’t expect you.

A hand on Waverly’s shoulder. She eyed it distrustfully, but her body was a traitor. It actually felt comforting instead of intrusive. Ward had never, and Curtis had often. But that was a long time--a lifetime-- ago and before Waverly could blink she stood alone. The poison that slithered in her veins dulled to muted itching. Wyatt had offered her relief -- for now.

Shuddering breaths muffled in the cloying darkness. She had to keep going. Even with the dim warmth of the fire, the cold lingered against her fingertips and threatened hypothermia.

Something up ahead, Waverly’s instincts whispered. The grip on the mop tightened.

The feeling of being watched sprinted across her skin and Waverly cast her eyes about on the edges of the firelight, but nothing was there. Nothing she could see.

It wasn’t until five steps later that she realized the trail had stopped, and she was making her own. Whoever made this trail had either gone above or backtracked without Waverly noticing.

Waverly halted and tried to control her breathing. It was loud in the deep silence and even the illusion of possible voices had stopped. Something was out there, watching her. Waiting. She drove the hardened stake of the mop into the ground and pulled out her gun.

Thump.

The sound came from behind her, back on the trail. Rustled branches followed it -- Whatever it was, it jumped from the trees. Waverly turned and leveled her gun at the sound, barrel jittering. Mouth dry.

Footsteps.

Part of her knew before they came to a halt who it was, who they belonged to, but she still struggled not to say a word as Nicole stepped into the firelight. The flame brought the differences to light -- the starved look, the sunken face, the hard edges -- and dread settled in Waverly’s stomach. Waverly did not dare to lower the gun. The silence burned as Waverly noticed her friend was absolutely covered in blood.

“God, Nicole,” she breathed, “What’s happened to you?”

No response. Waverly became increasingly aware of the differences--of the subtle hints that whoever this was, they were not her friend. Those eyes seemed to be picking her apart, seeking weakness. Not even a hint of recognition remained in them. One arm hung uselessly and her former friend moved not as a human would, but as a hunter. The fire messed with Nicole’s shadow, spreading it wide and huge, almost a thing itself.

Whoever this was, this wasn’t Nicole Haught.

“Don’t move or I’ll shoot,” Waverly promised -- or, to be honest with herself, lied.

Nicole took a single step forward and Waverly took a single step back. Fear, real fear, not the acceptance of her own death, but the possible consequence of having to take her friend with her, came to the forefront. Running wasn’t an option. No plan came to mind.

It was just her, the gun, and Nicole. Genius, really, that Waverly recognized: the perfect obstacle she wouldn’t be able to get past.

“Nicole, please. Listen to me. Wake up.

A glint of reflection alerted Waverly that Nicole held a knife. Shit, who gave her all these weapons?

Some hint, some pattern Waverly’s brain recognized -- perhaps from the instant in the hallway -- and Waverly felt her body turn in reaction before her thoughts caught up. Only the burn on her neck told her she had dodged the knife. One second her hand reached up to feel at the wound…

… And the next second she was hit by a truck. Waverly was on her back, Nicole atop her, and not in a good way either, in a your friend is not here right now, leave a message after the pained screaming sort of way.

No time for thinking. Her former friend slammed Waverly’s shoulder into the snow with her knee and held her wrist in her good hand. Waverly had to drop the gun or risk losing the whole arm. With the other she snaked her hand into her purse, grabbing something. Waiting - Painful waiting -- as her friend considered Arm as Possible Food Source before Nicole finally opened her mouth and allowed Waverly to shove half a pound of overly-salted raw beef inside of it.

The effect was immediate and better than Waverly had hoped -- Nicole threw herself backward, choking, retching, fumbling and confused at the new development. Waverly leapt to her feet and grabbed the gun, finding she was absolutely out of ideas.

Run? No. Tree? Tree.

Before she went three steps, Waverly lost her breath as she was football tackled by a refrigerator.  Pain lashed up her ribs and she gasped for air into the snow. Ripping and wrenching moved her this way and that as her mindless opponent tried to tear through Waverly’s coat.

It might be stronger than me but it’s not very bright.

Waverly sent a practiced elbow back into a delicate nose. Nicole’s head snapped back along with her weight and Waverly swept over to her front with a left hook driven by momentum. Nicole caught it easily and bared sharp teeth, only to be stopped by Waverly’s foot to her sternum.

They broke apart and retreated steps from each other to size up the situation. The odds were more or less stacked against Waverly, though Nicole moved slow enough and with only one arm as to allow her to survive contact.

Then, Nicole simply turned and walked out of the firelight.

Wait, what?

No, it made sense -- terrifying sense -- to Waverly. Why fight with food and risk further injury? Why not just wait until food falls over from exhaustion? Obviously, the adrenaline would soon run out, and Waverly would be left too sluggish to stand a chance.

Shit.

Waverly moved back to her physics-defying fire and tried to keep her thoughts away from the fact that her plan was terrible. Awful. Just walk in here and expect The Beast to what? Play fair? Stand all still so she could set it on fire?

She needed to draw Not-Nicole out, draw it toward her. Outsmart it. But after all this… had Waverly even gotten close to doing so? Well, sure, she had gotten herself awake, but then decided ‘well, you know what, living just isn’t cutting it. I’m going to enter this big spooky forest and hope for the best. Later, Wy. Don’t wait up.’

Waverly shuddered as a footstep made her aware of her watcher again. She had tramped in here like a knight against a dragon, only to realize the dragon had her friend’s face. Good luck on your hero quest.

Driven by frustration and fear, Waverly gathered up a snowball and sent it flying into the dark in the vague direction of the sound.

It came back at three times the speed and twice the accuracy, slapping Waverly right in the forehead and sending her cursing to the snow. “Nicole, you ass!” Waverly didn’t know why she kept repeating the name. Her friend wasn’t there. God, it hurt.

Then she remembered something Champ had said.

“But at least I accept it,” he had explained, “And that’s why you have to die. Whatever the Beast promised you, I want it for myself.”

A slow clicking in her head as Waverly thought. Things began to snap into place but not enough and Waverly realized she still lacked any sort of plan at all. But the truth was she was beyond time for plans and ideas. She needed to act and quickly.

Waverly shoved the gun in her purse and kicked some snow aside. Then, she simply laid down and didn’t move.

It stepped forward with intentional sound to test her reactions. When Waverly still didn’t move, it came closer. She schooled her breathing to even but her heart betrayed her. When it reached her, it kicked her. Hard. Waverly felt like she should get an admission to Juilliard for the fact she didn’t make a sound and instead bit the inside of her mouth hard enough to draw blood.

Closer. It leaned down, inspecting her. Waverly kept herself limp even as her mind reeled in horror at seeing her friend like this. It had to take the bait. Come on, come on. If only she had a taser. Damnit. This was a stupid gamble. Take the bait. Take the bait.

Sure enough, it took the bait. It shoved Waverly over so her face looked upward and Waverly shut her eyes as to not give away the trap it so readily expected. She opened them slightly and spied it using its one working arm for leverage as it leaned over her, seeking the neck wound. Good so far.

Now for the hard part.

Waverly swung her free arm in an arc and slammed her forearm into her former friend’s throat. Those empty eyes narrowed as the arm met the neck, expecting the retaliation but not expecting Waverly to pull it closer.

Sorry about this.

It was the worst reunion hug in the world -- a chokehold. Nicole slapped at Waverly’s overcoat with her one good arm uselessly as Waverly kept the well-practiced, if awkward based on positioning, lock steady. Sharp teeth bit just out of range of skin, tearing at vest and coat with desperate madness. Waverly kept on, even wrapping her legs around its waist for more leverage.

At first, she was worried their positions wouldn’t allow her plan to work, but it became weaker and more frenzied as it realized it was losing.

“Stop fighting me, damn it!” Waverly swore as a leg kicked somewhere painful. It lifted them both off the ground and dropped them back down to drive the breath from Waverly’s lungs, but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, the choking noises subsided and it went limp.

Waverly pushed Nicole off her and caught her breath. Then, she got to work.

An unknown but brief amount of time later, Waverly sat on her extra coat next to a small fire of pine branches. A few yards away lay Nicole, now awake and having a furious tantrum against the multitude of bindings. After a few minutes of struggling, Nicole stilled and simply glared. Waverly was glad Wynonna had been clever enough to pack handcuffs.

Waverly let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. Her risky gamble was going well. So far. There was the problem that the claw marks on her coat didn’t match Nicole’s hands, but that would be information best not thought of.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Waverly chided Nicole half-heartedly as she warmed her hands, “You started it.”

Nicole didn’t respond. Throughout all of it, she hadn’t made a single sound. It worried Waverly.  She looked closely at her former friend but those formerly soft brown eyes were devoid of everything resembling coherent thought.

“Really wish you’d wake up sometime soon.” Waverly sighed. “I sort of figured it out. Maybe. I don’t know. It wants both of us, apparently.” She shivered even though the fire warmed her. “So yes. I’ve taken you hostage. I’ll make it up to you. Buy you, uhm…” She realized she had no idea what Nicole even liked as a gift. “Something… cool, I suppose. Like a hat.”

No response. Waverly didn’t expect anything spectacular since she had to gag Nicole to prevent those teeth from being an issue, but there was no indication the woman had even heard her speak.

Waverly tried to focus on something else. She warmed up a bit of snow and cleaned her own face of blood and who knows what else. God, how long had she been awake? How long had she been fighting? Treacherous exhaustion threatened to settle in her bones.  Waverly scooted her legs up and laid her head down. It wasn’t the worst idea of the day. Night? Week? Year? Honestly...

“Wake me up if it arrives,” Waverly muttered with a point tossed in Nicole’s direction. Then, she slept.

 

Somebody (perhaps Wyatt) was on her side and Waverly dreamed of nothing. She woke, somehow feeling more rested, to insistent nudging. It stopped for a moment, then somebody body checked her hard enough to wake her completely.

“Jesus shit!” Waverly shouted and scrambled backward away from Nicole. The bindings still held. The other woman appeared to have fish-flopped over to Waverly and was now writhing pitifully in open fear.

It was here.

Waverly hurried over and shook Nicole’s shoulder. “Nicole. Nicole , are you there?” Her answer came in the form of an attempted headbutt. Her friend was still intent on trying to kill her. Waverly stepped back and drew her gun.

A sense of resolution washed over her. Whatever happened next, no matter the outcome, it would be over. There would be no more running. No more fear. There was nothing left for it to take from her. Waverly had lost everything -- given everything -- and it would all end here. For whatever reason, Waverly had been placed here, chosen, for death and agony or victory, it both mattered and didn’t at the same time. No reason to worry. Not anymore. The plan would work, or it didn’t. The end.

“Hello, Waverly.”

It had chosen her father’s face, her father’s voice, and at an earlier time Waverly may have been fooled into thinking it was her father, but it wasn’t. It was just a lie, like everything else. All of it. The only truth: This was the Beast, and she was Waverly, and she was no longer afraid.

It stood just outside of the firelight and watched her.

“Are you going to give me back what’s mine?” the Beast asked.

Waverly stood, back straight, unbowed. She knew why it wanted her -- revenge, to put it simply, because Wyatt had been hunting for a way to kill it ever since he trapped and buried it. But she didn’t know why it wanted Nicole. “Tell me what you want with her.” She didn’t really expect an answer.

“Because she’s kind.” It took a single step forward, but Waverly didn’t take a step back. “Just like you.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Waverly didn’t know who to aim the gun at. She settled for keeping it at the ready.

“You father was not a kind man nor a clever one. When he accepted the deal, that’s all he wanted to do. Kill children.” It narrowed its eyes. “Boring.”

“Wait, whoa, back up a second,” Waverly said, holding a hand up like a dork. “My father wasn’t a murderer. And what deal?”

It pointed to Nicole. “She isn’t, either. But who do you think was at the wheel when Willa died? Me, or him?”

“Anytime you want to make sense, that would be great.” Vague memories of the crash: drunk driving, a tree, sixty miles an hour. Could the Beast have...?

“It’s not supposed to, not to you. But to her it does. She’ll see your killer in every face. She’ll do anything to avenge and protect those she cares for. She even hunted me so desperately for her father and those children -- I wonder what she’ll do for you and all those people in the building as well.”

Waverly didn’t respond. Didn’t know how to respond or what to say to that. It made horrifying sense in a crude way, in a monstrous way, to use someone's goodwill to do evil things.

“Give her to me.”

“What?” Waverly asked, baffled. “You expect me to just hand her over?”

“Of course.”

“What? Why would -- No. I’m not doing that.” Waverly shook her head and aimed the gun at her father. “No. Now show me your real face.”

“Oh, Waverly.” It feigned sadness. The bite on Waverly’s arm seared like a blistering sunburn and she struggled to keep the gun steady.  She could feel it in her veins, behind her skin, slithering in her like live poison. “Here is the truth: Your father and sister hated you since you were born. Your sister left because you tore the family apart. She couldn’t stand you.”

“Shut up,” Waverly said. It was lying, trying to mess with her. Wynonna had returned.

“Champ felt nothing for you but revulsion. Nicole accepted the deal voluntarily. Wyatt can’t protect you here. He chose you because you’re expendable, not because you’re heroic.”

“Stop talking!” Waverly gripped the gun like sanity. She didn’t know why she didn’t just pull the trigger. It was trying to hurt her, trying to --

“If Nicole Haught leaves these woods or I die, she dies. She accepted the deal. She and I are one, Waverly Earp. You know, in your heart, that I speak the truth.”

Waverly felt winded. No, no -- It was lying. It had to be. Waverly raised the gun again and shook her head. Rage filled every inch of her. “If you think I’m just going to roll over and die, you’re wrong. Show me your real face, you shiteater. Stop hiding from me.”

It pulled her father’s face into a cruel smile and Waverly grew concerned. Mildly. Only a little. It’s not like she was in any danger currently unless she had been aiming the gun at the wrong --

Oh.

“Shit,” Waverly hissed.

With the fire behind her, she could see clearly as the second shadow she hadn’t noticed took a step forward. The only thing Waverly felt was dim frustration, a feeling described as god damnit, not again, because she had, in fact, had her friend try to kill her not just once, but now twice, and it was really pissing her off.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t wish to join us, Waverly?” it asked.

“Eat shit.”

Waverly fired once, twice, using three of the four bullets, but her father was gone. The metal of the handcuffs drifted down her vision like snow and hit her neck. Nicole pulled her back, off balance so Waverly couldn’t get leverage.

So instead Waverly launched the both of them backward to stop the attempt, only to find the both of them falling into the fire. Which was hot. Very hot. You might even say it was… Quite hot.

Waverly’s stomach bottomed out as they both fell. Time seemed to stretch. Somebody screamed inaudibly but it wasn’t her and it wasn’t Nicole. It was something else. Nicole tried to twist herself mid-air to stop the inevitable, briefly cutting off Waverly’s circulation before simply throwing them both into a roll off to the side to prevent being lit on fire.

It hurt.

“Ow.” Roll. “Ow.” Roll. “Ow.” They ended up with Waverly facedown in the snow, Nicole atop her (still not in the good way) and ribs still not getting a break. Waverly groaned. “Geddoffa me, ” she muttered into the snow and elbowed whoever was above her. It, Nicole, doesn’t matter. Move.

No response. Waverly elbowed harder. “Get off.”

Still nothing. Waverly shifted and groaned again, getting her hands into the cold snow and figuring out a way to get disentangled. She managed it, eventually, about a dozen multi-lingual curses later. She pushed the unconscious woman over and cursed again. The fire had gone out, but the mop was still lit.

Waverly returned to Nicole with the mop and kicked her boot. “Wake up.” Still nothing. Waverly shifted the torch until the fire hovered in front of Nicole’s face. “I will toast you, Nicole Haught.”

Nicole blinked awake. “Fire.” She tried to scoot back only to be stopped by the awkwardness of the handcuffs, “Handcuffs.” She blinked rapidly as Waverly shifted the torch from her face. “Waverly.” A grin of pure joy dawned on her face and melted Waverly’s fears of her friend still being possessed.

Waverly had to stake the mop into the snow because the next thing she knew she was in the air, her ribs were screaming (somebody please help), and Nicole was laughing and hugging her and spinning in circles. Fire is the key, Waverly thought.

“You’re alive!” Nicole said, mercifully letting Waverly stand on the ground, but still not relinquishing her from the hug. “You’re alive.”

Relief washed over like the tide. Human contact had never felt so comforting. Waverly wanted to stay here, hugging Nicole, forever, honestly. All she had to do was ignore the smell. First order of business after all this: Long baths. For the both of them. Hot baths. Burning hot baths. And then a nice bed. A real bed, with soft pillows and huge blankets. Sleep sounded amazing, honestly.  Emotions threatened to well up in her eyes and Waverly hugged tighter.

“I can’t believe it,” Nicole’s voice was choked with the same relief. “I can’t believe it. You’re alive. You saved me.” Waverly felt Nicole’s body shake as she sobbed openly.

Honestly, Waverly felt pretty fine. Count your blessings, Gus said one time. Well, her short life span had been temporarily extended and she wasn’t alone anymore. Instead, she had her newest best friend who was also under the control of a cannibalistic monster spirit, and they were both going to fight a thing so evil it predated the word evil and may have even been the inspiration. And they were lost.

Nicole pulled away first, eyes furrowed. She lifted her arms away from Waverly, still being handcuffed, and shifted away from her. “You saved me,” she said with same tone of ‘you passed a no-trespassing sign, partner, and you’d better turn around.’ Now Nicole looked to be coming to the terms that Waverly was here, also lost, and that wasn’t as good as it had been a second ago.

“Shhh.” Waverly said, finger on Nicole’s lips. “Later. Much later. I need you to concentrate and answer some very important questions, okay?”

Nicole nodded.

“First: What’s the last thing you remember?”

Nicole thought hard. “Everything’s hazy. All of it. Only flashes are clear. You were smiling at me. Then there’s… the hallway. Champ.” Waverly winced. “You were unconscious. Wouldn’t wake up. Then there was a man telling me what to do.”

“What did he look like?”

“Bad hair. His name was... God. I can’t remember. There were people. Clapping.” Nicole held her head and let out a groan. “I had to do something. Something impossible.” Realization. “God, Waverly,” she said quietly, so quiet. So small. “I’m so sorry, I said yes, I --”

“Focus, Nicole. What is the Deal? What does it entail?”

Nicole shook her head. "I don't... It felt like..." Nicole pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes, groaning. "I can't remember," she gasped, "I can't remember, only being so scared -- then nothing. It was like I... I was lost. Completely, utterly. No time, no nothing, I was... empty."

Waverly laid a hand on Nicole's shoulder, squeezing gently. "Okay. What matters is you're here, now, and you can think clearly. Is there anything else you remember? Anything it told you?"

“No. No, I don’t remember anything except being lost.”

Waverly nodded, unsurprised. She took a deep, steadying breath. “I’ll tell you what I remember first, then.”

After Waverly finished, Nicole was dumbstruck. “You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met in my life.”

Waverly blinked, surprised. “What?”

“I’m completely and utterly serious. Anyone else would have given up a long time ago, Waverly. But you kept going. And going. God, Waverly-- When you could have run, you didn’t. You walked into its home and decided to kill it. Even when you believed you were alone. And you could have shot me at any time, I wouldn’t have blamed you -- I know you would have brought a gun, you’re smart like that -- and you didn’t.” Nicole paused, looking at Waverly like she was incredible. “You saved me,” she said at last, awed. “At every turn, you’ve done the impossible.”

Waverly blushed furiously in the dark. She had been called smart by passing locals, cute by pawing bar patrons, but never once had anyone called her strong. That just wasn’t a Waverly word. Weak, passive, doormat - Waverly words. And here was this person she had just met -- it seemed they had been through enough for a lifetime -- who came into her life and called her strong.

Waverly found some words. Three of them, in fact. “Stay with me.”

Nicole furrowed her brow, a tiny shake of her confused head. “What?”

“After all this is over.” Waverly entwined glacial fingers with her own. “Stay with me.”

Neither commented on the large probability of death. It was a time for hope.

“I promise,” Nicole whispered. In the dark, Waverly could not see the brief flicker that flashed across Nicole’s face, the flicker of despair, of knowing that only one of them would make it out alive.

 

After freeing Nicole from the handcuffs and relocating some bones, the pair stood by the torch and compared notes. It was the same: The Beast intended Nicole to kill Waverly, show up for a tacky ritual, and become the de facto host in place of Ward. That appeared to be the Deal, based on the rough conversation between Waverly and the Beast, and what Nicole could gather. It made sense. Why not simply kill Nicole and be done with it? No, it wanted her for something, and that must be some kind of host. It could be a parasite. That may be why Waverly was never allowed to see Ward's body, not the pale excuses the patrolmen gave her. Ward didn't leave a body in Purgatory: it walked and talked here in the woods.

“I still can’t believe it,” Nicole said quietly, bathing in the warmth of the fire. “I was so worried. The creatures on the ceiling -- I couldn’t do anything. Say anything. Except come here.”

Waverly turned to Nicole, trying to hide her hysteria. “The what on the what.

Nicole turned to Waverly. “The creatures on the ceiling. The ceiling creatures. The things that were on the ceiling of the building when I was taken. The things that intended to kill everybody in the room as soon as possible. You did get rid of them, right? Waverly. Waverly, stop looking at me like that and tell me you got rid of them.”

Silence.

“Shit,” they both said.

“Wait, wait,” Nicole began as Waverly started to pace furiously. “Wait. No, your sister is fine.”

“What?” Waverly said, close to hysterics. “My sister -- who I left alone with a bunch of brainwashed freaks and half a dozen monsters -- is not going to be any sort of the definition of fine, Nicole.”

“No, because -- Because, ” Nicole tried to get Waverly to stop pacing with a soft hand. “I’m supposed to kill her.”

Waverly paused, baffled, her expression going on a journey. “Are you trying to be reassuring? Because that was the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard you say, ever. And I’ve heard you say some creepy stuff, Nicole, not going to lie to you -- Well, not that you were sane at the time -- What I mean is, please tell me you didn’t just say what I think you said.”

Nicole’s jaw worked, face almost hilariously confused. “Uhm.”

“No, wait, you’re right. That makes sense,” Waverly interrupted, making the discussion ten times worse. “It would match its M.O. of cruelty. We can assume that the people in the building are safe, for now, because what we’re going to avert is what’s going to kill them.”

Nicole nodded rapidly, head spinning from the topic. “Right.”

“Yeeaarrrgghh,"  Levi greeted.

“What the SHIT,” Waverly nearly shouted. She cleared her throat and stepped away from a surprised Nicole, who almost had to catch her entire body weight.

Levi stumbled down the hill toward them, jingling. Both watched in stunned fascination as the undead man tripped over himself and fell forward, only to catch himself, get up, and keep going.

“Hat-guy,” Waverly said quietly, “From before.”

“Levi. He was a ranger,” Nicole murmured, voice filled with regret, "He was my friend." Levi stumbled to a stop before the pair and stood there, teeth scraping, and stared straight ahead, uncomprehending.

Waverly eyed him curiously and cautiously poked his shoulder. Levi turned and made a small noise, but otherwise did nothing. “Why isn’t he...” She gestured dramatic violence with choppy hands and exaggerated movements. “You know.”

“Uh… He hit his head, I think,” Nicole supposed, gracefully avoiding any comments on Waverly being a massive, massive dork.

Waverly patted him on the shoulder. “Right. Okay. This totally makes sense.” She took a deep breath. “Three on one. Good odds.” She laughed nervously as Levi looked at her blankly. Waverly cleared her throat, stepped back, thinking.

Hoofprints in the snow lead away into the dark. Waverly turned to Nicole, resolution in her heart. “Ready?

“For what?” Nicole blinked.

“We’re going monster hunting.”

 

The trail lead them forward. To avoid detection, Waverly decided it would be best to have Nicole guide them and put out the mop. She stored it on her back, ignoring the terrible feeling of its weird dreadlock-like and slightly singed tassels. She felt much like a ridiculous knight of ancient times, in heavy coats instead of armor and armed with a mop instead of a sword. And some various potions, of course, in her side satchel. Or pink frilly purse, depending on your perspective.

The pair walked for a while, Nicole taking the lead and pushing through the snow in complete silence.

“You’re loud,” Nicole teased after a while of walking.

“Well excuse me.” Waverly winced at the loud crunch of her boot. She didn’t think much about her next words. Too focused. “I don’t get cool monster powers. Unfortunately, I have to obey the laws of physics.”

They both stopped. Dead silence as they both stared at each other in the faint moonlight. Nicole’s expression of shock was replaced by betrayal and hurt.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Waverly said. Holy shit. If only she could rewind time to Never and just not exist, that would be great. It wasn’t the first time her mouth had gotten away from her.

“How did you mean it?” Nicole asked, eyes averted as she worked her jaw and flexed her fists in an obvious effort to control her reaction.

“I meant -- Shit, Nicole.” Waverly pushed a hand through her hair and cursed the tie. “I’m an asshole. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?” Nicole’s voice was harsh, uncompromising, a stark contrast to her normal tone. Soft eyes were hard with hurt. “You’re just being honest, it’s in your nature.”

It landed like an insult and Waverly bristled. “Nicole, that isn’t -- You’re not -- That’s not you.

“Isn’t it?” Nicole bit out, “I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t even think there’s any of me left. I tried to kill you, Waverly, because I’m starving .” Waverly shivered, opened her mouth to speak, only for Nicole to continue. “The only food that doesn’t taste like ash is human flesh. I crave it.” Waverly resisted the urge to step back. Something beyond Nicole was speaking. Something whose shadow stretched back further, wider, and who had claws that ripped through coats. “It takes every ounce of my restraint not to focus on the smell of your anxiety, Waverly. You know what it smells like?”

Waverly swallowed, mouth dry as desert sand, watching the shadow haunt her friend.

This must be what happened to my father.

“Food,” it hissed.

Every atom in Waverly’s body urged her to take a step back from the Very Dangerous Creature but Waverly would have none of it. She stepped forward instead and raised her hands to Nicole’s bruised neck, soothing the cold skin of her cheeks, trying to ground her. “Come back, Nicole.”

Nicole’s expression melted to concern and confusion. “Waverly,” she breathed in a familiar way, filled with affection and gentle awe. She immediately took a step back and Waverly forced herself to respect it. “I’m sorry. I didn’t -- I’m sorry.” Nicole looked down at her hands then shuddered violently with her eyes shut tight. “I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t think of you like that, Nicole. Whatever it’s done to you doesn’t matter to me. You’re my friend. I care about you. I’m anxious for you because I want you to be okay.”

Nicole seemed to fold into herself, crossing her arms and looking down at the snow. Her brow furrowed and Waverly longed to soothe it but kept the distance between them.

“What if there is no cure?”

The words were so quiet and vulnerable Waverly wanted to cry.

“Nicole, look at me.” Waverly wanted her to know she was telling the truth. Nicole met her gaze with misted eyes. “I’m immune."

"You are?" Nicole's eyes widened, hope filling them.

"Yes, thanks to my asshole ancestor." Waverly shook her head. "We’ll figure it out. There must be something that can be done for you. Something in my blood they can give you.”

“How can you be so sure?” Nicole visibly swallowed and flicked her gaze there and back again. “I don’t want to live like this.”

Waverly didn’t know what to say so she moved closer, unable to resist putting her arms around Nicole and pulling her into a hug. Nicole went stiff then gradually relaxed and returned the embrace. The unspoken implication lingered like ice on a warm day.  

“I have an idea, but you’re not going to like it,” Nicole said into brunette hair after a long moment of shared comfort.

Waverly groaned and pulled back to fix Nicole a warning stare. “If you’re suggesting what I think you’re suggesting, there’s no way in hell I’m doing that.”

 

She was.

Nicole Haught strode soundlessly across the snow, Waverly Earp clinging to her back.

“But it doesn’t make sense is what I’m saying,” Waverly whispered fiercely. “By all known laws, it should make sound. You’re displacing it, obviously, you have footsteps. But there should be sound.”

Nicole just sighed. “If I had the answer, I’d tell you. Didn’t really get a chance to ask questions.” She added a small hint of a smile to let Waverly know the topic was all right with her. “There wasn’t any tutorial, either.”

Waverly fell silent in thought. The moon glared down at their progress and she shuddered, clinging tighter. She’d been thinking hard about Nicole’s affliction. Possession by cannibal spirit had been her original assumption, along with some sort of physical change brought on by whatever the hell the Accelerant was. But the more time spent here, the more the change seemed to be thrown forward into the What the Hell Are Rules zone and the more Nicole became something… else.

Everything down to small details -- the way Nicole smelled wrong -- seemed designed to be offensive to human senses. Not just repulsive like rot or blood, but there was an underlying scent of glacial ice that spiked Waverly’s brain like a bad fever.

“It’s been a long day, but is it really that bad?” Nicole asked. Waverly realized she must have been audibly sniffing.

“Uhm. No, just -- Thinking. Yeah.” Waverly winced. “About… things.”

Nicole nodded. “Uh-huh. Right.” She looked slightly over her shoulder. “It’s adorable when you try to lie.”

Waverly swatted Nicole’s head, face burning. “Look where you’re going.”

The most concerning was the realization that Ward had been the host of the current Beast. That meant, with a new host, Nicole was intended to… become whatever it was. Which terrified Waverly, because she didn’t exactly know how to stop it.

Nicole accepted the deal voluntarily. In her words, Nicole had no viable options, and of course, The Beast wouldn’t have allowed her to have any. In this situation, Waverly didn’t blame her an inch.

The deal must be like giving in. It bypassed Wyatt’s protection, as seen in the fact the Beast was currently Ward, but what else could it bypass? Resistance? Waverly cast her thoughts elsewhere. If it did, then they were dead. Simple. No use to worry, but she did.

“Hey, are you okay?” Nicole shook her head slightly. “Dumb question but I meant… I don’t know what I mean.”

“How can I make this easier for you?” Waverly bit her lip. The plan relied on Nicole’s sanity and a whole lot of luck. Best to get the controllable parts out of the way.

“I --” Nicole faltered midstep, caught off guard. She continued a few steps and Waverly at first thought she wouldn’t answer. “Just be you, Waverly,” Nicole said at last.

 

They passed the time with quiet conversation, Waverly sinking against Nicole. Something about the other woman made her feel safe, even though they had less than a ten percent chance of survival. Whether it was the relief of no longer being alone, or the fact Nicole was wondrously kind and smart and funny and Waverly was getting lost in these compliments and she had to get back on track. The point is, she felt something. Something nice. Their friendship made her feel… something.

Clouds passed the moon. One moment Waverly could see the forest around them, the next it was utter darkness except for the feeling of Nicole’s body beneath hers. (Still not in a good way, but better this time.)

“Sleep first,” Waverly commented as they crossed another small clearing. They’d been debating what to do first as soon as they were found.

“Disagree. Definitely a bath first. God, it’s caked in there, isn’t it?” Nicole asked, dismayed. Waverly grimaced as her wandering hand hit a particularly matted part of Nicole’s hair. “Yeah. Exactly. We’d have to burn the sheets afterward.”

Waverly hid a mischievous smile and took her chance. “‘We?’”

Nicole actually faltered midstep. Bingo, win for Waverly. “I -- I, wasn’t trying to imply anything, I --”

Waverly took pity on her, though she secretly adored flustering the usually confident Nicole Haught. Though it seemed, in the course of everything, that confidence had diminished slightly. “I’m just messing with you.”

Moonlight illuminated the pair. Nicole nodded and turned her head slightly. “You know what would also be a good idea?”

Waverly swallowed, trying to figure Nicole’s game. Oh well, might as well go with it -- It would be nice to see her get her confidence back. “What?”

Nicole met Waverly’s eyes in the moonlight. Here it comes. “Conserving water,” Nicole husked in a whisper. Her expression gave no doubt as to how they would be achieving such a goal.

Shit. Goddamn cocky Search and Rescue officer just flirted with her in this weird hellscape and it worked. Nicole smirked at her and Waverly cursed her body for betraying her. Her heartbeat was making a damn racket and her thoughts were being assholes, dragging forth memories of how Nicole looked in the forest sun, making dishevelment look sexy, how it would feel to have Nicole clean and soft and warm beneath her in a bath.

“You win this time, Haught,” Waverly said at last, resisting the urge to bite her lip. That would have been the last nail in the coffin of embarrassment. Friends, yeah. Friendship. 

“Oh, I always do,” Nicole responded, sounding much like herself again.

They walked on, discussing anything and everything. Idle fantasies of trips to exotic places, childish wants and experiences, but the majority of the time was spent focusing on the future. Both knew in some part of them that if hope extinguished, they would die.

“We’re close.” Nicole halted and Waverly stopped her rambling, ignoring the burn of her thighs. Seriously, they ached like a bitch .

“How close?” Waverly whispered. The moon hid and she could see nothing. The lighthearted mood vanished completely.

“Close enough,” Nicole said. “This tree up ahead looks like the one you wanted.”

They prepared in utter silence and even laughter failed to make an appearance as Waverly fell on numb thighs and Nicole had to catch her. Waverly didn’t step away. She just stood there, listening to Nicole breathe. Nicole said nothing either.

A whole damn lot of things remained unsaid.

Waverly would swear she was just waiting for Levi, but she did not want to leave the safety of the ground, of being near Nicole, that bizarre sense of safety brought on by someone who represented the exact opposite.

Levi shuffled over, teeth scraping, waiting by the tree for his part of the plan.

Fuck it.

Waverly gripped Nicole Haught by her shirt collar and pressed her lips against cold skin. It was like kissing a flagpole on a winter morning, honestly. A friendly flagpole. An attractive, friendly flagpole who needed to stay sane or they’d all die. The kiss was brief but the contact wasn’t, and Waverly felt smug about the look on Nicole’s face she could feel, and stepped back.

“Think about that bath.” Waverly saluted in the dark and grabbed a branch. “I’ll see you.” She heard Nicole take a deep, shuddering breath and could still see in her mind’s eye the big grin on her face. She climbed in the dark until the moon shifted, allowing light to illuminate the arena.

A black mass moved steadily away across a massive clearing. It paused, as if hearing something, and turned. A smaller shape, Nicole, approached slowly before stopping.

Waverly held her breath as her friend fell to her knees, all the image of an apparent supplicant, and waited. The clouds passed again, distorting the details her brain needed to make sense of just what the Beast looked like, only that it was larger here.

It stared for a long time as if speaking to Nicole inaudibly. Waverly became downright religious in her prayers. Thankfully, Nicole stood again and turned, walking back down the path as if to lead it the place it wanted to go. The plan was on. It was go time.

Waverly double-checked her already finished preparations and waited with bated breath. Closer now. Levi made more noise as the pair approached, scraping his claws down the tree and clacking his teeth, covering the sound of Waverly’s heart.

Then something went wrong.

Nicole paused midstep, yards from the tree and Waverly’s trap. The Beast lurked closer.  Waverly couldn’t see in the moonlight Nicole’s expression, but her shadowed form was stiff as a board, frozen, pulled tight as a bowstring. Nicole turned slightly to the Beast, who lingered behind her and appeared to discover something interesting… like, perhaps, Waverly was still alive and Nicole was, in fact, pretending. Shit.

Then Nicole sprinted to the tree and Waverly’s trap.

Waverly didn’t have a second to calculate. She lit the mop and jumped.

Nicole swung around at the base of the tree like a suicidal matador, causing the Beast to slow slightly lest its momentum be used against it. Waverly fell through the air soundlessly, swallowing her scream, preparing herself for a catastrophic landing. The vegetable oil struck the Beast’s mass and shattered, spreading the flammable fuel across it. The mop’s flame persisted in the fall.

For an instant, hope won out and their plan fell together seamlessly as the Beast stopped almost entirely beneath Waverly. It was the perfect angle, the perfect attack, Waverly would survive the fall and Nicole would catch her, the flame would ignite and end the nightmare, except for one thing: they had lost the element of surprise.

Waverly’s stomach bottomed out as she was flung across the clearing like a toy and her scream escaped her. She rolled in the slow as pain burned across her side.

The mop turned end over end and landed nearby, extinguished with a sad, disappointed hiss, leaving only the light of the shy moon.

Agony. Waverly sat up, groaning and felt at her side. Her hand came away warm and damp -- blood. She was bleeding. Four long furrows from infected claws dragged across her coat, vest, skin. Three had been deep. One looked like it almost brushed her lung.

“Shit,” Waverly muttered, realizing they were all going to die. Blood oozed from her wound at a curiously slow but dangerous (due to the fact blood was mostly needed to be kept inside at all times) pace.

Laughter. Big, galloping, whooping laughter, from massive lungs (of torn sails flapping desperately and cracking trees falling into abysses and stones breaking open in a freeze) and bountiful space for all that air to go. It echoed into the forest and came back, running over itself in its pure entertainment. It was maddening, guttural, skin-crawling, wrong.   The cords of the noise strung through Waverly’s brain like a terrible guitar solo, too high, too tense, it was all too much of that senseless hyena laugh bounced around her brain and hit her heart like a machine gun and made her soul want to leave her body.

It ended mid whoop with a sound of a collision. It was like two football players trying to inhabit the same area of space at the same time, multiplied by holy shit. Waverly sat up, groaning, and almost decided to lay back down again and bleed out then and there.

There were two.

A connection Waverly’s brain refused to put together: Nicole was missing from beneath the tree, and there were now two. If she put them together, Waverly felt like she might lose her mind and give up. The shadows played tricks on her eyes and disallowed her from identifying which was which, or even the size of the two (both appeared to be human sized in one instant or car volume the next), or anything defining other than ‘black mass moving fast, times two.’

One slammed the other into a tree so hard the snow cascaded. The thrown one got back up again. Fist fights usually last only seconds or moments, but the fight between the two things in the clearing had no signs of stopping. They wordlessly ripped at each other, unable to feel pain, unable to stop until one of them died, and Waverly had a sick feeling about the reward that awaited the winner.

Waverly tried to get to her feet and failed once, falling back into the snow. She tried again. She had to get up -- they still had a chance, if only Waverly could find it. This wouldn’t be the end. This couldn’t. Her friend needed her.

Waverly managed to get sort-of to her feet, using her hands to catch herself on the snow a few times, and tried to find the mop. It was nigh impossible in the near dark. “Come on, Waverly,” she said to herself. Her throat burned but her lung wasn’t punctured. Good. That would be bad, probably. Things weren’t exactly clear in the No-Rules zone.

I need to get the mop, then…

Then what? She couldn’t see a damn thing except for faint impressions. Brief moments of light came when the clouds decided to move. Dare she risk lighting the torch, alerting the two to her existence? She could trust neither based on her knowledge of It.

Levi. Levi could tell… Probably. It was the only shot she had.

Waverly staggered forward in the direction of the trap, seeking the undead man. She didn’t know what to do once she got to him. In fact, it was probable that he might turn against her, seeing as she was now bleeding and probably delicious.

Sure enough, Levi was where they had left him. He stood staring at the melee and picked at his shirt in a motion that seemed anxious. He swayed in place.

“Hey.” Waverly stumbled a step and winced at the flare of pain. “Hey, Levi.”

He turned to the noise and shuffled in her direction. When Waverly leaned on him to stop his approach, he didn’t force himself on her. Good.

“Levi,” Waverly panted, “Which one is she?”

Levi patted his hat and Waverly narrowed her eyes. Meanwhile, in the fun area of the clearing, a reverberating crack announced something important had broken. Waverly peered uselessly into the dark, trying to discern the cause, unable to know for sure if it had been tree or bone.

Levi pulled at her coat and patted his hat again.

“Hat. What about your hat?” Waverly looked at it. “It’s too dark.”

He took his hat on and off.

Waverly turned back to the fight. “Hat. As in… head?”  Levi shook his hat in her face to get her attention again. He took the hat on and off and offered her the hat. “No, thanks.” He put it back on and pointed, trying to get his point across.

“You’re saying one of them is wearing a hat,” Waverly thought aloud. Another snap across the clearing, but no sound, no scream followed it. Part of her recognized the sound was closer than the last.

Levi nodded rapidly.

“Is the hat important?”

More nodding. Sounds closer now.

“So I should get the hat?”

His signature item fell from the nodding and Waverly picked it up for him. She patted him on the head before she could stop herself. “Uhm. Okay, well, thank you, then.”

Levi shuffled forward and tried to bite her. Waverly took a single step back and the man fell into the snow, a low whine coming from his lungs.

Waverly winced in sympathy as the man failed to get the leverage to stand. “It’s okay, buddy. I don’t blame you. I’m kind of irresistible, apparently.”

A black mass flew so closely that Waverly’s hair whipped her face and she ducked into the snow. She began to crawl away, unable to stop the sharp gasps and groans that fell from her. Regardless of the physics-defying slowed bleeding, it hurt.

Waverly stopped, realizing the sound behind her had halted. She turned, slowly, so slowly she thought she could hear her neck muscles creak, and stared back at the four eyes that bore into her like headlights.

“Okay, wait,” Waverly panted, hand leaving her injury and searching her purse as the two watched her. She still couldn’t tell which was which. “That’s just not fair. ” Seriously. Two on one and her side had less sharp teeth and claws than the other and could actually see in the awful dark.

Both took a cautious step forward.

“Wait! Wait, wait.” Waverly pulled two items from her purse and managed to get her bloody hands a good grip on both. She would probably die, but she’d been waiting for this moment since the first time she’d discovered the wonders of fire as a small child with a match. She nodded to herself and channeled her inner Wynonna. “Okay, I’m good. Let’s do this.”

Both threw themselves forward as one, racing from the same side though separated by yards, closing the gap with a speed that made Waverly sick, she felt at the lighter and clicked once -- slipped -- clicked twice -- slipped -- a third time and fire awoke in the night.

Handy-dandy tip: Kitchens are full of fun, flammable items such as aerosol cans of various materials that love to be ignited and Waverly had created a functional flamethrower.

Glorious fire and light cracked the dark and, before it could be dimmed by the suffocating shadow, it illuminated the difference between the two masses who skidded to a halt inches from her to avoid incineration: Hat. Only one of them had what appeared to be a yellowed skull of some sort of deer ancestor. The other had a face Waverly found indescribably horrendous, a face only a mother would dare glance at for more than a moment, something so hideously inhuman that she dropped the can.

The dark returned, and with it, truth: Her friend was gone.

Shock. The dark only made it worse. The image of what had happened to her friend was burned into her and Waverly could do nothing in the force of it. She shut her eyes against it and waited to die.

A shuddering scream that Waverly pressed her ears against, her hair waving in the rank wind, and she could taste the pain and hopelessness and despair in that noise. It was joined by another sound, a ripping collusion of flesh that announced the melee had begun anew, and Waverly was spared.

“Oh god,” Waverly breathed, realizing the effects of the fire. The sound continued feet from her in the dark. “Oh, god, no-- I made her sane, I made her aware.”

Which was worse: Being a monster and not knowing, or being completely aware of it?

The moon peeked from its hiding place. One of the masses hit the tree and did not rise. The sound stopped.

The other rose in Waverly’s sight and she clicked the lighter back on, holding it close, though the moonlight revealed the details her eyes needed to finally see, to really see, what it was that they had tried to hunt.

It loomed massive, about fourteen feet tall. To compare it to Wendigo is to compare a weasel to a tiger. Its arms stretched too long to consider, the sheer lean muscle underneath always dragging the mind kicking and screaming into considering how it could peel large, man-sized prey like a lemon. Its claws were cruel in length and scraped the snowy ground, the jagged edges still entrenched with whoever came before, now rotted and guaranteed to cause infection. And its head, the crown of the horrid king, was a bony remnant of something once alive, two antlers peeling back from the base of it to frame the visage into a monstrous silhouette that seemed all at once familiar.

Hair, unclean and matted, covered it with a pelt that caught leaves and leftovers in equal measure. It did not bathe. The stench of an eternity of hunting followed it like the shadow that pressed beyond it, giving it the dubious illusion of massive proportions.

Lingering alone in the wild places when the forest is the only speaker and our presence is trespass, then one will know its true name. The name comes from decaying leaves and rotting moss, branches scratching at each other when the wind howls and takes the remains of life away and beckons the living to desolate sleep. It is the absolute stillness of the wilderness, the true reason things crumble in winter because they do not wish to be alive to witness the thing that stalks awake during the moonless frigid nights.

Those who know its name are the ones who have gotten lost so beyond civilization they begin to see it out of the corner of their eyes, the shadowy humanoid figure that has followed our ancestors for centuries, far too large, far too wide, and something that shouldn’t be, not really, should it not be a tiger or a bobcat or a cougar who your brain perceives as the ultimate fear? Should it not be an animal? But it is, of course it is, it is the Beast and the effects of its hunt have ridden down generations of genes and instincts that it stalks us in our primeval memories, our deep and engraved fear of the deep wilds that is carved into each one of our bones that is left behind when we inevitably starve, broken and alone, in the grasp of it.

Her brain simply fled. Hundreds of generations in her DNA were all flipping their collective shit, throwing thoughts around like flaming basketballs and hitting all the emergency buttons at once. She had been prepared for something, anything, but not this. She gripped the lighter with bone-white fingers and bit her lip, concentrating, resisting. She would not fall prey to the same tricks.

“I’m not afraid of you,” Waverly said, her voice shaking from rage. The Beast appeared heavily injured. Nicole had almost kicked its ass.

And I thought I was cruel ,” The Beast mocked. “But congratulations, she’s now useless to me.” It shifted closer, the anger in its tone growing. It gripped Waverly’s leg and she bit back a scream, holding the lighter close so it wouldn’t put it out. “I’m going to peel you apart for this -- slowly. For ruining everything. She would have been perfect if not for you.” It tightened its grip and the claws bit the skin.

“Go to hell,” Waverly spat through shuddering teeth. The cold seeped into her heart. She could feel it in her veins, the poison, gnawing at Wyatt’s protection. Waverly surged forward with the lighter, seeking the vegetable oil, only to be stopped as it wrapped its claws around her throat and twisted.

Waverly screamed long and loud as her bones complained. The lighter fell into the dark.

“Tell me how!” It roared in her face, “She should have killed me, she should have become, tell me how she did not! Tell me how you made her weak!”

Waverly’s answer burned in her throat and strained her vocal cords. She couldn’t speak, only scream from the pain. She knew. She would die knowing that fire was the key to a door. But she would never, ever tell it just what that door was.

“I will kill your sister with your corpse! Tell me how!”

Waverly went limp and her head hung back, staring up at the moon as her vision tunneled to nothing. Stars stared at her coldly, dispassionately, as the Beast tugged harder and a bone dislocated.

The stars. They’re different. They’re looking… Like eyes. I can’t. I can’t.

“I’ll tell you how,” a soft voice said. Nicole was alive.

Waverly sobbed with relief as the tide of pain receded to manageable levels and she took her gaze from the sky. The moon illuminated the clearing again but Waverly couldn’t bear to look, couldn’t bear to see her friend this way, and she shut her eyes and focused on the feel of cold metal in her purse.

“How?” it demanded.

The gun. Did she have a bullet left? Surely she should.

Nicole failed to respond and the grip tightened, stealing Waverly’s breath but not her grip on the gun. She lifted it, her arm burning with the strain.

“You cannot disobey.” Was it just Waverly, or did it sound desperate? “You accepted the deal. Now tell me. Is this Wyatt’s doing?”

“Wyatt has nothing to do with it,” Waverly said. Those eyes swung back and refocused, but it was too late. Waverly pulled the trigger and the final bullet ripped through its left eye. It reeled back, howling, and dropped her to the snow and staggered blindly, flailing for Waverly, missing entirely.                                           

Waverly hit the snow and collapsed, almost blacking out. She kept conscious, determined. “Nicole!” she called breathlessly. “Nicole, the skull!”

Nicole obeyed, though the Beast would no longer be trying to lose, and threw herself at it. Waverly realized she could identify the difference now lay in the distinct difference of size and how they moved. The Beast moved, well, like a beast, but Nicole moved in the wrong way that told Waverly she didn’t have very much time until her friend lost.

Waverly tore her eyes away from the fight, searching the clearing during the moon’s blessed freedom.

Levi -- He was running to the melee with the mop in hand like some ridiculous Olympian runner who hadn’t noticed his torch was gone out.

“Levi! Here!”

The dead man turned and fortunately kept his footing, now headed toward Free Meal with Shouty. The injuried and slowly dying Shouty Free Meal got to feet and took his weapon and commanded him: “Go help her, now!”

Levi spun around and went to complete his mission, to save the Shanty-Friend who was losing quite badly.

Waverly panted against the mop, grabbing the fallen lighter and clicking it to life. The torch went up with a whoosh and Waverly cried in victory.

A horrendous scream ripped the air apart and Waverly leaned heavily on the mop, almost falling. Her ears rang even at the twenty-yard distance.

The skull, torn free, tumbled through the air and landed nearby. It looked the size of her torso and Waverly began making her way toward it, ignoring the brief burst of laughter that followed.

 

Nicole tore off the skull, her mind reeling at the wrongness of her bones, and threw it toward Waverly. She couldn’t even tell how she did it. There were gaps in her awareness, gaps in the sense of things, how they looked strange and felt even stranger. Nicole could feel her brain evaluating everything and discarding that which would break it. There lay, beyond the gap, an understanding that would destroy her utterly if she sought it.

So she simply didn’t.

Nicole fought and didn’t think about it.

 

Every inch Waverly moved closer to the skull, the more her soul wanted to leave her body behind. She moved forward as if against a blizzard but there was no obvious resistance, only the skull and the power it held over her fear.

But Waverly was no longer a slave to fear. She had hunted the Beast here, and her friend needed her, and now was not the time to worry about small things like death. Waverly’s breathing grew loud, almost painfully so, as the sounds of the fight diminished. The skull pressed the dark closer against her and Waverly waded through it.

(Do you want answers?) asked the skull. No one else existed to ask.

“No,” Waverly responded, driving herself forward against the odds, “I want to get rid of you. You took everything from me.”

 

Nicole lost without knowing how. One minute she faced the bloodied visage of the Beast, and the next she lay on her side in the snow, unable to move.

Hello, said her brain, just letting you know that what we assume to be the spine has been broken. Call back later. Good luck.

What is wrong with you?” The Beast asked, "You belong to me. You are mine. You will rise and you will do as I command."

Nicole began to laugh.

 

(I only made them what they really are,) the skull insisted.

Waverly came closer. A buzzing sound overwhelmed her senses and Waverly could have sworn she heard the voices again, louder, unintelligible still but now desperate and pleading and demanding, she didn’t need to hear them to know their meaning: Help. Help us. Please. Whoever is out there, help us. We’re lost.

“Levi!” a distant voice yelled. The noise that followed made Waverly ill. She kept going.

(It is hopeless. There is nothing left of the life you fight for. Your sister will die. Your friend is beyond help and even now dying. Should you kill me, your life will be meaningless, covered in fear, and you will never escape my shadow. Accept the deal, it's the only smart choice. No one will blame you for stopping all that pain and loss. You will never grieve again.)

“No,” Waverly said with her heart, “You’re desperate because you know you’ve lost.”

 

It threw Levi’s body into the dark. “Did that look like victory to you?

“You don’t know,” Nicole responded, breathing hard. The hat still lay in her vision. I LOVE COLORADO. “You’re just guessing.” She started to laugh again. Guessing this whole time. It didn’t know. Oh, it knew that two minus one leaves an angry remnant, but it didn’t understand why. Love had no meaning to it, only a weapon to cause pain and anger, not something that could redeem. Something that was worth sacrificing everything for.

It knew what it meant to be lost, but not to be found. That was the secret. Nicole knew exactly where she was and who she was. The Beast had no power over her anymore.

You’ll tell me eventually.” Then, the Beast simply killed her.

 

“Waverly!” Nicole’s voice was a pained cry of defeat. Could it be real? But the goal was here, now, and Waverly couldn’t find out even if she wanted to.

It did not respond with a taunt. (Why do you resist?)

“Because you’re wrong. We’re not monsters.” The fire threatened extinguishment, as if afraid, but it persisted. Waverly was five steps to victory. “Just human. But if you want to go by the stories, by the myths, then I’ll tell you the truth. There are monsters, there are heroes. And there’s something you should know.”

The shadows fled from Waverly as she reached the skull, the heart of the Beast. “Heroes always win,” Waverly whispered fiercely in the dark.

Waverly put the skull to the torch, watching in wonder as the shadows seemed to catch and burn.

 

 

 

Light.

 

 

 

 

 

Something... screaming.

 

Gone, gone.

 

 

 

But the light.

 

 

 

Blinding light but Waverly couldn’t move. Her vision was flame. Voices overwhelmed her, overlapping, their tones changed to something like seeing land at sea. Something like hope.

All Waverly could remember was this brief feeling, the warmth growing hot but not uncomfortably so, of looking into the sun and not being blinded but seeing, really seeing, and hearing as a woman whispered her name and Waverly felt loved. More voices -- Ward, Wyatt, Willa, a woman who was familiar but she’d never met before -- calling in relief at redemption. Waverly had saved them and they loved her. Found. They had all been found, at last, after being lost for so very, very long.

Waverly swore she heard the sound of the sun rising.

Arms wrapped around her, gentle, grounding her, but there was nothing to be grounded to, only floating, only the presence beside her, and they fell into nothingness together, coming apart at the seams, trying to be found again in a place that had no meaning at all. 

“Are you dead?” Waverly asked, feeling the warmth of the skin under her fingertips. Irony. She felt a thread of something real. Waverly must still be alive, but it felt weak. Her mind felt foggy. Only her heart said anything. Waverly marveled at the feel of this... place. This state. The forest must have been destroyed, the heart of it set aflame, and they must be dying with it. But this didn't feel like dying. Shouldn't it be painful, frightening? But there was no fear here. Only one singular feeling.

“I think so,” answered the woman who had lost her name.

“Please don’t leave me,” Waverly begged quietly. She could not lose her friend, who she had fought side-by-side with through impossible odds and against impossible forces. Not now. Not when her heart felt whole. “You promised.”

“I don’t know if I can stay.”

“Nicole, please, don’t go.” Waverly held on with all her might, sobbing or at least the equivalent. Speaking, moving, in this place, felt strange. Emotions shuddered through her. Not like echoes, but like the source. Her heart spoke: “I love you.”

The skin under Waverly’s fingers felt almost real.

“I love you, too.”

All that remained, a feeling: home.

 


 

BUILDING ONE, THE FACILITY, COLORADO, FEBRUARY 3RD AT 4:54 P.M.

 

Momentous happenings are often announced by the sound of cell phones. Hundreds of them rang at once, blaring, their ringtones overlapping. The lights came back on.

All around, workers were pulling phones from their pockets and answering them -- “ Yes, Mom, it’s me, I’m all right, yes,” “Well I can’t really explain, I don’t know, but I’m alive,” “Uh. Yes, sir, right away,” -- All of them talking and rejoicing at once, because yes, they had survived against all possible odds, they were alive.

Wynonna was yelling.  “You have to tell me how the fuck my sister vanished into thin air and where she’s gone or I swear I will rip off that mustache and shove it so far up your ass you cough whiskers, cowboy man.”

A ripping noise from the ceiling.

People looked up. “What the FUCK,” asked a secretary.

Five smacks in rapid succession as twisted monsters fell from the ceiling, dead on the tile, and didn’t move.

Dolls stared straight ahead at the corpses, his normal poker face ruined with a look of utter surprise. And, you know, because life just wasn’t on his side, it was ruined further when over two dozen people randomly appeared in the space where the three people had vanished.

“Hola,” a small child greeted from the pack of people.

Silence as the office workers stared uncomprehendingly at the surprise people who were dressed in a variety of clothing. Hikers, tourists, rangers -- all stood looking dazed, except for the kid who was having a wild time currently, thank you for asking, because it was just like his comic books. It was certainly not everybody who had been lost, most looked near death from cold, but perhaps most of those who had gone missing currently had miraculously appeared.

Dolls reacted first, his training kicking in. He pointed to a random worker. “Call Headquarters and get the Director on the line if you can.” He picked another. “You. Call Search and Rescue and see who they’re missing currently. I have a feeling we just found a whole lot of them.”

“Hey!  We have injured!” called a man in the back of the hiker group. The crowd parted and Wynonna sprinted across the tile to her fallen sister.

Wynonna halted, a small sound escaping her at the sight. Waverly lay against a redheaded woman, both unconscious and obviously gravely injured. Blood. There was so much of it. So much blood. She knelt to her sister, taking a cold face in her hands and sobbing. No.

Dolls came, leading the pack of doctors who had also been trapped. He gently took Wynonna away, who was in a state of complete and absolute shock, and tried to hold her as she fought him with the force of a cornered animal.

“We’re going to save her,” Dolls promised. The agony on Wynonna’s face was plain as day. “They’re doctors. We’re going to help.”

“You did this to her!” Wynonna said, voice cracking with helplessness. “ You did this!”

The doctors reached a consensus after long panicked discussions of lacerations, broken bones, blood loss, and hypothermia. “Both alive, barely. Somehow. Need to get them into Building Three an hour ago.”

“It’s a fuckin’ miracle,” one of them said aloud.

Wynonna sagged limply in Dolls’ arms. He called over her to the doctors, “The redhead. Check her.”

The doctors reached a conclusion. “Seems to be afflicted, can't be sure.”

Dolls opened his mouth to make his decision. As long as Nicole Haught lived, everyone in the room was in danger. She had to die. Not just die -- She had to burn.

His phone rang. He handed Wynonna to Doc and pulled it out.

“Deputy Marshal Dolls responding.”

“Lethal force is not authorized,” the Director said in lieu of a greeting.

“Sir,” Dolls said heavily. He motioned for the doctors to continue stabilizing the both of them. “There’s one of them left."

He had to wait as the Director spoke to someone else in the room, telling them to take care of someone and call a medic.

“Tell me exactly who it is you want to kill, Xavier.”

Dolls tensed, frustrated. It was a necessity. It was the only reasonable option. “Haught. Nicole Haught. The second patient who arrived at the facility. Also infected for an unknown amount of time, sir, and the only one left, if we get rid --”

“No.”

“Sir.” Dolls was fuming. Everyone in the building was at stake, and for what? This could not happen again. No loose ends. He would not have innocents die for some experiment. He stooped and picked up a hat, inspecting it. I LOVE COLORADO.

“No, Xavier. I order you to keep her alive. Do you know why I’m ordering you to keep her alive?”

Dolls didn’t respond. He stared down at Nicole Haught’s gaunt face and grimaced internally. This went against every inch of his training. He kept the hat, not really knowing why, just that it was important. Evidence, perhaps.

“Because it’s the right thing to do. We did this to the both of them. We may not have known, may not have been directly involved, but we did this . No more victims will be added to the roster, Deputy Marshal.” The Director sighed audibly and softened his voice, “You’re a good man, Xavier, but this job makes us hard. Stop looking at her like a tactical weakness and look at her as an innocent woman who deserves a chance at the normal life we took from her.”

Dolls took a moment to think. “I don’t think we can undo what’s been done to them.”

“We’ll find a way.”

“And if they testify? Go public? Leave?

The rush of doctors moved, taking the patients with them to the facilities small hospital. Wynonna trailed after, an unstoppable force.

“We’ll let them, but we’ll offer them something better. Tell me your assessment of their conditions.”

“There are half a dozen doctors in the room and part of the facility functions as a hospital. They’ll both live, for now.”

“Good. Get them stable, then prepare them for a flight out to D.C. It’s three and a half hours to Denver and I have to listen to Agent Lucado complain the whole way there. Don’t ruin my mood any worse than it is. Now, tell me exactly what’s happened and start from the beginning.”

Chapter Text

Nicole died.


The black void was (                                   )

 

                                                              Nicole drifted.

 

                                                                                                           A distant doorway -- light.

                                                                               (Not for you,) it whispered.

                                                (you and I are finally together)

                      (if I cannot have you in life)

   (then death will have to suffice)

 

The stars watched her as eyes did. That wasn’t the worst part, no -- They observed with such monumental indifference to her existence that Nicole felt as if she might go mad.

                                    Nicole began to scream.

                                                                        The blackness felt wet against her skin.

(good hearts are a dime a dozen)

             (we could always find more, you and I)

(and perhaps a body, too)

             Drifting under them forever.

 

                                Where…?

                                                       Shifting slightly. Nicole avoided the stars, looked elsewhere.

 

                                                                                                             Screaming.

 

                                                                           There it was, her new home. Yes. She’d expected something like this.

                                                  The endless boreal waste at the edge of humanity’s knowing. Past the signs, past the range of radios, past the range of sanity. The home of all things lost, forever, and she among them. How could she have possibly thought victory could happen? How could they conquer something so vast and unknowable, something that existed on a scale beyond scales? Beyond pitiful, constrained reality? There was nothing here except the wind and the one who walked it, and beyond that the mountains, above it all the stars and the watcher.

                                                              (All of eternity would end here)

 

                                                                                            Drifting further.

 

                                                                                              Her voice caught then silence snuffed it out.

 

                              The blackness clawed at her, surrounded her, and stripped her name and began to eat at her heart. Nicole fought desperately, no scream coming from her lungs to meet her raw vocal cords, because her body slowly became a distant memory.

                   Lost, forever: Her heart fuel for the deepening, greedy, jealous void.

 

                   (do you know how long I have waited)

                                                            (to not be alone?)

                                                                         (I like this ending better)

                                                       It fed on something within her, that existed without her, something hers and not hers that it had sought across time. A bond. An endless source of food.

                                                Delicious.

 

                            Further she drifted, drowning as it invaded her and tore at her edges. Her name slipped from her fingertips and she reached for it, only to find the cold dark.

 

        When she asked for answers, the void gave them.

 

                     Where am I

                                (No where)

               Who am I

                         (No one)

          Must find it.

                     (must)

 Must find a heart.

                   (take one)

      Take one.

                 (took one)

    Not enough!

               (never enough)

      (never enough)

(we will bring them all here and we will never be alone again)

       Yes....

  We would never be alone.

 

 And we would take a body.

 

This body.

The body standing in the void, flames curling pitifully atop a mop. Dying, injured. Delicious.

But… this body was resisting. Powerfully. Such an impossibility, but...

How curious. They felt the need to know more about such a thing that could be stronger than the dark. And they felt… drawn. Something there. What was it?

They must know why they can’t understand how beautiful the dark is.

(Why do you resist?)

“Because you’re wrong. We’re not monsters,” the body said, “Just human. But if you want to go by the stories, by the myths, then I’ll tell you the truth. There are monsters, there are heroes. And there’s something you should know.”

“Heroes always win.”

 

Something screamed in terrible pain, Not Nicole could feel it in her lungs and not her lungs, something torn from her by fire, leaving her raw and gasping and --

There!

The shadows pulled back and she reached for the thing that was hers and not hers, grasping it though it burned. A name. Not hers, but --

Waverly.

Feeling her. Alive, alive, alive. Waverly existed within this place of light and heat and peace. From here, the shadows were for naught. From here, the mountains disappeared from view. It was too bright to see, to know anything but the light.

“Are you dead?” Waverly asked. Her touch brought the shadows pain. Instead of feeding so obviously they recoiled in disgust of the truth of the thing they sought, that it must be somehow stronger. Memories of the void vanished. Voices in the distance -- calling, rejoicing. Found.

Somebody -- a man? Who -- calling her name. Happy.

Feeling Waverly there like a burning sun in a faceless solar system. A thread of something real.

But… No lungs. No heart. No body.

“I think so,” answered the woman who had lost her name.

The black chewed at her feet. (Come back,) it whispered, (you have already become one of us.)

“Please don’t leave me,” Waverly begged quietly. “You promised.”

“I don’t know if I can stay.”

(This is trespass,) it whispered, (you will carry our mark forever.)

(you will be a beast by moonless night, nameless, lost, and all around you will fear)

So be it.

(when she knows, how will she love you? The beast that you are will tear you apart)

I am willing to take that chance.

(the bond will break)

(You don’t even have a name!)

She will give me one.

“Nicole, please, don’t go.”

A name!

Who am I? Nicole Haught. Search and Rescue.

(come back to us!)

(she doesn’t love you! Who could ever love you but me?)

Nicole stayed. 

“I love you,” Waverly said, the truth of it burning away the last of the lies. The Beast died alone.

It hurt. Nicole felt her hands, her lungs, her heart. Living hurt so very badly.

It was worth it.

The answer to the final question.

Where am I?

“I love you, too.”

Home.

 

All else faded as the burn of living returned to her lungs, the whispers sliding from her mind to nothingness, and the final curse of the beast lost from her remembrance. Only a single phrase remained: I love you. I love you. I love you…

Sleep came, and with it dreams of soft green leaves and spring sunshine, a vision of her father’s fading smile, and the stars that finally made sense.

 


 

THE FACILITY, COLORADO

Wynonna slowly came to terms with the fact that the first time she’d reunited with her sister in three years, she had allowed Waverly to walk into danger and almost die.

There had been shouting and pushing, so much that Wynonna’s throat ached and her arms were bruised from being held in restraining grips, and now she sat in a borrowed chair in Building Three, mentally awarding herself the Worst Sister Ever award. Exhausted, she willed herself to stay awake.

Then there’d been the people who’d tried to help her fight the workers: a doctor with a mustache who looked like he’d never told the truth a day in his life, and some stoic military muscleman with the emotional range of a brick wall.

Mustache Man sat next to her, pretending to not be ready to grab her at a moment’s notice, watching the nurses swarm the hallway in full emergency mode. Brick Wall was elsewhere, doing who-knows-what, wisely staying out of combat range of the distraught Earp. The storm outside had petered out and sunrise approached.

“Nicole Haught, age twenty-nine, last seen on the day of September fourteenth…” a nearby doctor drawled, eyeing the report. “Stable. Classification: Paranormal-slash-human, pending survey.”

“Waverly Earp,”-- Wynonna almost jerked out of her seat, but stood and fell back slightly, her muscles aching -- “age twenty-four, last seen on the day of November twenty-third… Stable. Classification: Human.”

Relief.

“Information’s sent,” called a staffer. “D.C. is ready for intake and plane’s in prep. Director on site in two minutes.”

Wynonna put her head in her hands, trying to will away the headache that threatened her skull.

The Mustache Man didn’t look much better. In fact, he looked worse. He kept palming for a smoke that wasn’t there, flicking a lighter he didn’t have, and making an awful nervous sniffing noise.

Wynonna jerked her head up as another nurse collapsed. Additional staff carried him away gently, sitting him down and getting him a bottle of water.

“The hell is wrong with everybody?” Wynonna asked. This image repeated itself.

“Besides post-possession disorder from being controlled by an ancient creature for nefarious purposes?” Doc asked dryly. “Long day, I reckon.”

Wynonna nodded vaguely. Another doctor burst into tears, sobbing into her hands over the lack of x-rays available. Her colleagues lead her gently away.

Wynonna glared at the ‘doctor’ she was sitting next to. “Shouldn’t you be helping?”

Doc didn’t respond.

“Director on site!” called an anxious staffer.

The exhausted workers gained a brief second wind, backs straightening and hands nervously adjusting. The double doors snapped open and a man, shorter than Wynonna expected, strode in. She read him with the skill of one who needs to find friend from foe, fast -- a tool to survive having grown up as she had.

The face of heart trouble and grandkids, the cold and analytical gaze of military experience, the dangerous frown of bureaucracy, and the sharp suit of authority -- it all added up to one thing: Enemy.

Wynonna stood up to her full height and pushed past some doctors. The man drew up short of her.

“You’re in charge,” Wynonna guessed.

“That I am,” the man said tiredly.

Wynonna punched him in the face, both glad and disappointed he wasn’t wearing glasses.

Half a dozen drawn guns revealed themselves from various suits around them and hands roughly grabbed Wynonna. “You bastard!” Wynonna shouted, “You let this happen!”

The man gestured for the others to stop. “Let her go.” He winced and rubbed his jaw. “I deserved that.”

Surprised, Wynonna simply jerked her arms from the grip of the retreating security and glared.

“You’re the sister, then?” The man asked, thumbing his split lip. He sighed at Wynonna’s nod. “Welcome aboard the crazy train.”

Dolls appeared like disapproval summoned him. “Sir --”

The man waved a hand at Agent Dolls. “You have options, Ms. Earp. Your sister has just entered the world of the supernatural and brought you along with her. Either you join our team and learn how to defend yourself and her, or you can go about your life, trying to forget the horror that she’s gone through.”

“Or I could kick your ass,” Wynonna growled, looking ready to do just that.

“I’m not human. How would you do that if you don’t yet know how?”

Wynonna considered that a good point.

“I take it that you will give it some thought,” the director said, adjusting his tie, “For now, I am sure we can simply adjust to you being by your sister’s side as she recovers.”


 

 

VIRGINIA, UNITED STATES.

An unmarked plane landed in utter silence at Langley Air Force Base, before a sleek black car and an ambulance made its way through the quiet back roads to Nowhere, Virginia.

The Black Badge Headquarters readied itself for intake, the space in the hospital cleared for their recovery, notices pasted on walls warning of ‘Peculiar Voices’ and ‘What To Do When You’re Possessed: A Guide,’ and a few more individuals than necessary posted as security.

It braced itself for intrusion, for the slick-back voices slithering in ears and promising seductive wishes, the strange perceptive shock that came with the Beast’s presence, for they knew its type down to the numbers, down to the facts -- but most of all they knew that they could never know or understand, and that singular fact kept them safe.

It was a fact that Colorado had forgotten, and it had paid the price dearly.

Now, they carried the last of its influence into the heart of Black Badge in honor of the rescue of twenty-seven missing persons and countless innocent workers.

Those same workers were given time off and mandatory therapy. It was straightforward work: the physical effects dropped entirely, and all answered the same when offered the choice between a hamburger and a raw steak: “I think I prefer to go vegetarian.”

Cleaner crews worked to destroy all traces of what remained, only to find the rumored ‘accelerant’ had turned to ash. The doctors who had worked on the programme -- good people who had been influenced to do very, very bad things -- were dealt with on an individual basis. Some sought redemption. Others simply found they had enjoyed it, and were subsequently thrown in jail.

All of these facts and more found themselves tucked away in filing cabinets, hushed backroom discussions, and orders to never, ever ask too many questions.

Armed security stood at the entrance to the hospital, standing as if watching a funeral procession. They eyed each other distrustfully for signs of possession as two gurneys were passed between them.

Nothing happened.

Nothing continued to happen for hours afterward, and Lucado dismissed them with a sigh of relief. She didn’t understand, but didn’t seek to understand. That was the path to insanity. She would simply have to live with the fact that the two young women had somehow conquered the unconquerable… and now lived to tell the tale.

All that remained was the paperwork.

   

For Wynonna, all it took was three hours staring at Waverly breathe through a tube.

“Teach me,” Wynonna demanded, pulling Dolls aside by the collar of his shirt, “Teach me to make this not happen again.”

Dolls bit back his response of why? You’re a civilian, because he read the look in her eyes perfectly well. The grief and terror had culminated into a single shard of determination that he could sharpen, that he could use.

He nodded.

Distrust faded to a whisper as Wynonna watched nurses work tirelessly, eyes shining with gratitude.

“She’s healing remarkably fast,” a short, middle-aged Indian woman who introduced herself as Dr. Navalar stated for Wynonna’s benefit. “We’ve re-socketed a few joints and she has two broken ribs… but, outside of the four lacerations, there’s nothing to worry over. In fact, whatever’s healing her is doing an excellent job. However, her status is complicated.”

“Complicated how?” Wynonna had learned fast the staff here had high tolerance for her attitude, but she found herself respecting them more and more. They seemed genuine.

“It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes post-possession syndrome can be fatal in the hours following. Sometimes, the possession is the only thing keeping them alive. They become reliant on it. She’s passed the window, her body is trying to rest, recover. Rebuild itself now something so large has been taken from it.”

Nobody said anything about the sleeping redhead. Wynonna wasn’t stupid. Dr. Navalar, an anesthesiologist, had been hovering over Nicole Haught ever since they’d brought her in. Seeing the woman who had been a monster lying there , within arm’s reach of her sister, gave Wynonna the urge to drink.

 


 

 NOWHERE, VIRGINIA

Nicole’s first thought: Ow.

Living hurt.

Slowly, the world returned to its axis. Nicole blinked awake under the harsh light, wincing at the horrid taste in her mouth. Her body ached and she inhaled bitter hospital smells. Her head pounded furiously as she focused in on the doctor hovering above her.

“Miss Haught?”

Nicole’s eyes focused on a face before her and she narrowed her eyes. The world swam in medication haze, but cautious anger sliced through it. Who? Where?

“I’m Doctor Navalar.”

Waverly, Nicole tried to say but her jaw felt trapped by something.

“Forgive my colleagues. They are idiots and have kept you under.” Hands removed the restraint and Nicole cracked her jaw in a yawn, polite gesture impeded by yet more restraints on her wrists. Catching Nicole completely by surprise, the doctor undid those, too. “There’s no reason for you to be here.”

Nicole said nothing, rubbing feeling back into her wrists. Distrust kept her from speaking. She knew how things would go, how they would work. She’d be threatened, postured, used.

But…

She felt warm. Alive. The heartbeat monitor ticked evenly if a bit heightened. The only smell was the hospital and the only presence in her head was her own -- if a bit fuzzy. Medicine, must be.

Nicole felt human. She looked at Waverly -- she looked so small in that hospital bed -- and felt human.

Dr. Navalar began removing the IV.

“What are you doing?” Nicole managed in a croak, “I almost died. No, I…”

I did die. I was dead. It broke my spine.

How am I alive?

“You’re perfectly healthy, Miss Haught. No need to have you taking up a bed,” the doctor said casually. Nicole flexed without much thought, noticing no injuries.

How?

Waverly... Did she do something?

Something itched in her mind. Something about… light. It slipped through her fingertips like time, but three words still stuck in her head, warming her heart.

“Sign this. I know the medication is still in your system, but we don’t have time.”

Nicole snapped back to attention as a clipboard and pen were thrust into her space. She read cautiously.

Dr. Navalar busied herself putting things back. “It signifies that you are right of mind and human. I’ve signed it, my colleague has signed it, and you will sign it. It gives you your rights back. It’s protection, even if they insist upon trying to test you more than they already have.” Nicole kept her silence. The doctor gave her a significant look, eyes flicking between the two hospital beds. “With this, you’ll be able to stay unimpeded by her side.”

“And what do you want in exchange?” Nicole asked quietly, flashes of the time before running through her head. Flashes of being trapped in a room, echoing voices. Needles. This must be Black Badge, no true facility would have taken them in.

The doctor paused, eyes widening slightly before she sighed. “Clever supposition. However, my colleagues and I intend on asking you, unlike the two parties currently contesting you like some scientific breakthrough.” Nicole’s expression darkened, her suspicions confirmed. Dr. Navalar removed her latex gloves with a snap and a wry smile. “I believe you will say yes, as do my colleagues. We have no need to threaten.”

Nicole rubbed at her wrists, flashing back to her time on Floor Zero. Hot anxiety grew in her chest. “To what?”

“Getting out of my bed and stopping the waste of my resources.”

Nicole honest to god laughed before groaning,“There’s…” She leaned forward and pressed her hand to her temple, fighting the headache that felt like an icepick had been removed from her bones.

“Post-possession syndrome,” Dr. Navalar said gently, “It’ll pass soon. And as you’re well aware of the supernatural, then let us just settle that I know things. I’m not simply an anesthesiologist. I know something big died, and that it took both of you. You saved my daughter-in-law.”

Nicole only blinked, feeling a bit dizzy. The doctor seemed to understand and gestured to Waverly in silent question. Nicole nodded lightly and stood, moving slowly and with a bit too much wobble across the room to Waverly’s bed. She eased onto the bedspread, careful not to touch Waverly. She stared.

“She’s doing fine. She just needs rest.”

Nicole nodded, then -- unable to stop herself -- she gently tucked a strand of slick hair behind Waverly’s ear. She let her hand drift down soft, clammy skin, before finding the pulse skipping under her fingertips.

Nothing else mattered but that pulse.

Alive, alive, alive.

Nothing mattered except the fact that soon, Waverly would wake, Waverly would recover, Waverly would be alive and smiling and laughing and free -- Because they had won.

They had done it.

Sure, there would be hardship for a time. But Waverly was strong. Nicole had done this before -- or, something like practice but that felt like a lie -- with her job. She’d seen broken bodies. Broken families. How to manage. How to keep going.

Nicole didn’t know if Waverly had the same experience. The same knowledge of how trauma cracked people, left them different -- there was no going back. Only coping with sweaty, sleepless nights and scars that ruined the skin around them and the body beneath them.

Nicole tightened her grip on Waverly’s thin, pale hand. They’d just have to keep going.

“They’re suspicious of you already. They noticed you have no injuries, no sign of infection that should have taken you.” Dr Navalar offered the clipboard again. “I cannot promise you safety of any kind here.”

“I didn’t expect any,” Nicole said heavily. She signed. “Thank you.”

Dr. Navalar nodded. “I should be the one thanking you. ” She pointed. “There’s real clothing in the bathroom, there, and a shower.”

Nicole didn’t need to be told twice.

 

Heaven is a shower after a long week camping. Eternal paradise is a warm, secluded shower after months of going without. Though her skin itched when she closed her eyes to wash her hair, it was the first time Nicole could breathe without feeling the impending doom of a fight. Worry remained (This was enemy territory) but it felt good to rest and enjoy the sensation of having survived take over.

After, she stared at her reflection, blinking rapidly in the light. A little underweight but otherwise the same, her own face looked back at her, her red hair back in a ponytail, her skin only paler due to the terrible lighting. No injury in sight, though the scar of the bite remained.

Human.

Something she had thought she’d never experience ever again.

Nicole rested her palm against the cool glass, a smile rising on her face at the pure, giddy relief of their survival. Human.

                                                                                   -- teeth digging into her spine and snapping it --

Gasping for air, Nicole stumbled back from the mirror, groaning with swirling nausea. A wave of bizarre sensations washed over her. Her fingers probed at her teeth. She felt fuzzy, like a pilot of someone else’s body.

Why am I alive?

Nicole knew in her bones she had died. But now she was alive . Something about the end of it…. Something about those three words…

No, stop. She couldn’t worry about that now. Not yet. The facts:

Nicole was fine physically and human .

Waverly needed to recover.

They were in hostile territory.

Focus. It was so hard to focus! She needed allies, first and foremost. Call Nedley. Work with the doctor. Protect Waverly, that’s the priority.

Easier said than done.

Moments after Nicole pulled a grey t-shirt over her head after stepping out of the small shower, Wynonna walked into the hospital room with a donut in her mouth and food in both hands.

They stared at each other.

Nicole studied Wynonna, taking in the casual uniform (canvas pants and a black t-shirt), the TRAINEE badge, the acceptance of the situation. Someone had adjusted fast, quite fast, but her loyalties were unknown except for one.

Nicole looked over her shoulder at Waverly, lying in the bed, vulnerable, before looking to Wynonna. “I love her,” she admitted openly, unashamed.

Wynonna’s eyes maintained the same distrust before she set the food down on a table. “Yeah, I used that excuse, too.”

The phrase hit like a slap in the face and Nicole averted her gaze, swallowing back emotion. “I’m sorry. For not doing enough --”

“Dolls explained you were bitten.” Wynonna crossed her arms. “That you had no control.”

“Dolls?” Nicole asked, rubbing her face. “I --”

“What do you want with my sister?” Wynonna cut across, glaring unabashedly. Nicole stamped down her initial offense and eased back her shoulders, glancing to Waverly -- so small -- still asleep in her bed.

“Staying until she tells me to go,” Nicole answered, hoping it would be enough. The medicine made it hard to think. “I promised.”

A few moments passed as they stared at each other, Wynonna’s face unreadable, before a miniscule nod made Nicole almost sigh aloud in relief. Then Wynonna stepped into her space, grabbing Nicole’s hand and lifting it up to the light. Nicole had to resist the initial panic the quick movement put her in.

“Uh…” Nicole covered her panic with a playful expression. “That’s my hand, those are my fingers, I have about ten of them…”

Wynonna grabbed the other one. “Jesus, dude. Don’t you remember?”

“Remember what?”

“You had claws, ” Wynonna said with wide eyes, not afraid, no -- excited like a kid in a candy store.

Nicole snatched her hand back as if burned, her fear bubbling to the surface. Perspective, she reminded herself, the Beast preyed on perspective . Warping it as it saw fit. Nicole hadn’t actually had claws…

Had she?

“Not anymore. I’m human.”

“Bummer,” Wynonna said under her breath.

Before Nicole could return the snark in turn, Waverly stirred.

 

Waverly groaned at the horrid taste in her mouth and opened her eyes, only to squint in the harsh fluorescent light. Everything hurt and her head pounded like a bitch. She clawed at consciousness and it came easily, a thin film of medication overwriting her thoughts and leaving her slightly ill. Had she fallen?

“Waverly?”

Waverly’s eyes adjusted slowly and the world spun. “Argh,” was all she could manage.

A small, beautiful laugh greeted her ears. “Here. This should help.” Waverly blinked at a redheaded woman sitting on the bed beside her, brown eyes startlingly soft with affection and a huge grin dimpling her face.

Very pretty face.

Like a Norse goddess out of a story with a simple ponytail and a grey t-shirt, so casually... “Beautiful.”

The woman tilted her head and Waverly realized she’d said part of that aloud. “Are you okay, Waves?”

Waves.

Waverly rubbed her face, a headache crawling into her skull. “No. I… Do I know you?” Her eyes drifted over the others in the room: Her sister, Wynonna, who she did remember, and some doctor she’d never seen before in her life. “I must know you… You’re…” Waverly shook her head. “Somebody.”

The woman looked like she had been slapped but recovered quickly, the smile returning like a cloudy sun. “I’m Nicole Haught. We....” Nicole rubbed her neck. “We’re friends and you got hurt. Very hurt. That’s why you’re here.”

“Right,” Waverly said before wincing. “My ribs…”

“You bruised four of them and sustained lacerations on your right side along with two broken ribs,” the doctor said patiently, “from which an infection has taken hold, but you’re under antibiotics and painkillers. That’s why you can’t remember.”

“Oh.” Waverly’s head lolled, exhaustion crawling back up her body. She shook her head and rubbed at her forehead, feeling… floaty. “Wh… How?” But how? What had happened? Waverly blinked blearily, “What was I doing?”

Waverly remembered walking in the forest but then everything went… blank. The more she searched for what came beyond, the more her head felt like crushed glass.

Nicole shook her head, Wynonna looking a bit pained. “Later, Wave. Focus on recovery.”

“Hey, baby girl,” Wynonna said, brushing away some tears of her own, “I got you some donuts, but the doctor said you can’t have solids yet.” A glare was tossed to a woman in a doctor’s coat, who responded with a blank look.

“Wynonna.” Waverly propped herself up and fought to stay awake. Images. Blurry. Need something. “Stay.” She pointed at the stranger. “You, too.”

Nicole and Wynonna exchanged an unreadable look before Nicole spoke with a soft squeeze of Waverly’s hand, “One or both of us will always be here, Waverly, while you get better from this infection, okay?”

Waverly liked looking at the redhead. For reasons. And it wasn’t just because she was phenomenally pretty and oh, I believe I might be just a little gay , but it was because…

She felt important . Like a tugging sensation in Waverly’s heart every time she looked at the tall woman who watched her with such care. So familiar. And the way the woman looked at her, like she was the moon and stars combined.

Waverly liked th -- Nicole. Nicole was her name. She had to remember.

Who was she again?

Waverly’s chest felt tight. “Don’t leave,” she mumbled, blinking back unconsciousness, “I’ll… kick your ass…”

Nicole leaned in, whispering to a Waverly already slipping back to sleep, “I’ll always come back to you. I promise.”

Losing her grip, Waverly slept.

 

“How long has it been?” Nicole asked, adjusting Waverly’s blanket. She tamped down her worry over the memory loss. The medication did strange things. She’d heard of memory troubles from septicemia before.

“You two showed up four days past. Today is the seventh of February and the time is two-fifteen in the afternoon.”

Nicole let out a deep breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Time. Time moved forward here.

“Hey.” Nicole looked up at Wynonna, bracing herself. Instead, Wynonna offered one of her donuts with a nod. “Want one?”  Nicole took it gingerly. “It’s not a bomb, dude.”

Nicole glanced to Doctor Navalar, who looked on with disapproval. Silence. Nicole took the donut and ate it as if it was no big deal, mentally preparing herself for the ashen taste of wrong .

Instead, she got chocolate and cake batter. Nicole fought back a gasp of surprise and ate far too quickly, ravenous for something real, something normal.

In that moment, Nicole decided she was going vegetarian.

“So, uh… How did you two..” Wynonna gestured vaguely and Nicole raised an eyebrow in response. “Meet.”

“Oh.” Nicole rubbed her arms though the room was warm. Think. What would Waverly want to tell her? “I was...uhm, Lost.” Nicole nodded. “Lost in the woods. Waverly, she saved me. Then…” Nicole rubbed her neck. “We were taken to that facility you saw. The creature -- The Beast, it wanted Waverly because she’s an Earp, like Wyatt who tried to kill it the first time. And your father --”

“I knew it,” Wynonna said with a bright grin and a pointed donut. “I knew the car crash wasn’t an accident.”

“Uh.” Nicole tilted her head. “You… had some idea before?”

Wynonna snorted. “Enough to get me locked up in a crazy house.”

Nicole shook her head. “I can’t imagine what that must have been like, being so young and it… It laying there, under the soil. Waiting.” Nicole noticed Wynonna looked uncomfortable and changed the subject. “I was a forest ranger, a Search and Rescue officer. It got out and hid in our range. It started taking kids.”

“Jesus,” Wynonna breathed.

“Yeah. I… I saw it. That was when I knew something was out there causing it. And I…” Nicole took a deep, steadying breath. “I followed in my father’s footsteps. Set out and hunted it.” She gazed at Waverly, knowing she looked a little lovestruck and not caring. “She found me.”

Dr. Navalar cleared her throat. “About that.” She offered a file and Nicole hesitated before taking it. “This is your missing person’s report, and all records we have on hand. I think it’s best if we give you some time alone.”

Nicole stared at the file in her hands. “Thank you.”

Wynonna moved to leave, but stopped beside her and settled a hand on Nicole’s shoulder. A terse nod between them. We’re on the same team. Waverly's team.

They left Nicole alone with the sound of Waverly’s heartbeat monitor.

She opened the file. For minutes, she gazed with empty eyes at the date of the LAST SEEN.

Have you seen me?

Her own face stared back at her, a reassuring smile and that damn hat on her head.

Nicole turned the page, fingers dancing along the paper to make sure it was real. Her obituary, her headstone. Buried next to her father. Lots of words and newspaper clippings but it all ran together in one mess of blurry text and Nicole couldn’t stand it anymore.

Three years.

Three years.

Nicole put her head in her hands and cried.

 

Waverly woke up to the woman sobbing on her bed. Without really knowing why, she scooted closer and wrapped her arms around Nicole, who tensed. It seemed so familiar, the way Nicole finally fell into her arms and cried, the way her name sounded, “Oh, Waverly,” -- how looking at Nicole made her heart pull somehow -- So Waverly cried, too. Something had happened.

But Waverly didn’t remember.

Even after they had cried themselves out, Waverly didn’t let go. She liked the soft hospital smell of Nicole’s hair, the gentle breathing in her ear. The warmth of human touch. Her body craved it, as if it had been touch-starved.

“Tell me what happened?”

“Wave…”

“Please?”

Nicole sat back, eyes shining, and Waverly had the strangest urge to kiss her. She didn’t.

“Three years ago, I went missing,” Nicole began quietly, “I had gotten lost…”

Waverly listened for as long as she could, holding Nicole’s hand between her own because it felt right.  Her heart ached in a way Waverly hadn’t felt before --- or had she? -- and she wished desperately to remember.

“You saved me,” Nicole breathed at last, “You saved me, Waverly.”

Waverly opened her mouth, throat tight, but nothing came out.

“I… can’t remember.” A headache tinged the edges of her vision and the exhaustion returned. Waverly pressed hands to her eyes, trying to relieve the pressure. “It hurts.”

“It’s okay.” Nicole ran her hand along Waverly’s forearm, causing her to shiver at the magnitude of feelings it caused. “Sleep, Wave.”

“Will you stay?”

“I promise.”

 

Midnight came around and Waverly hadn’t woken again. Nicole struggled to stay awake in the chair by the window, but the battle was lost.

“You can’t sleep here,” Dr Navalar chided.

“I won’t leave her.”

The doctor gave an exasperated sigh. “Come with me. We have a nurse’s station with beds in it.”

They walked through nightshift staffed halls. Men in suits passed often, trying to blend in like a horse among couches.

“FBI,” Dr. Navalar said suddenly. Nicole hid her surprise as the doctor tossed her a raised eyebrow. “They flooded this place as soon as the call came in. Dozens of arrests. You should have seen it.” Nicole pressed her lips together. Dr. Navalar shook her head and gave an exhausted sigh. “Children. Always thinking government conspiracies. That’s next door.”

Nicole stayed silent.

“That’s your cue to laugh -- Don’t you get it? No?... Really? The CIA headquarters is next door. CIA? MK Ultra? Not a single bell --”

“Why doesn’t she remember?” Nicole asked quietly, eyes still tracking the few employees who passed.

A long beat of silence. “The thing you fought… it devastates the mind, as I’m sure you’re aware.” Quiet as a group of nurses gave grateful nods before passing. Nicole offered a ghost of a smile in return. “Just as physical injuries scar, so does the brain. Remarkably resilient, however. I’m sure it will heal.”

Nicole nodded, some tension falling from her shoulders.

“Besides. Memory has no effect on soulmates. I wouldn’t worry.”

 

                                  ---- The indomitable forest, all encompassing, her home for eternity to come. The Beast, following her, believing her to be under control.

 

                            (you and I can feast for years)

 

                                          (how beautiful to kill the soul tied to yours)

 

                                                          Freezing in shock, disbelief, almost understanding --

 

“Nicole Haught, return . Breathe. One, two, three, four...”

The hallway returned. Dr. Navalar hovered in her face, hands reaching up to hold her shoulders.

Nicole flexed her hands and felt at her teeth, blinking back images. Her chest heaved and she listened to the doctor count, nodding furiously.

“Where did you go?” Dr. Navalar asked quietly, almost as if she hadn’t intended to.

Nicole opened and closed her mouth wordlessly, unable to articulate the feeling of being nowhere at all. The memory sank beneath the surface.

“Come. You need sleep.” The doctor lead the way again and schooled her tone to casual. “I, like many in my profession, have a gift of sight. I can See her, Waverly Earp. But… I cannot see you. You are a black hole.” She stopped at the nurse’s station. “The third alarm on the left is her room.”

Nicole nodded gratefully and moved to step past, only for a hand to stop her.

“I know you don’t like us, Nicole Haught. What we’ve allowed to happen -- what we’ve done … But you have allies here.” Dr. Navalar met her gaze evenly, honestly. “Please let yourself rest.”

Nicole looked to the room, then looked back. She nodded once. “I’ll try,” she lied.

 

Nicole stared at the ceiling. Three years. She could walk out the front door, take a plane, and arrive at a gravestone with her name on it.

Three years. Nedley and Chrissy and Fish --

God. Fish. What would she tell Fish ?

Nicole sat up, acknowledging she wouldn’t find any sleep, and snuck out into the hall. She searched high and low until she found it: Paper. The secretary stared at her in awe.

She hated this hospital, how it reminded her of her time on Floor Zero.

“Can I borrow some paper and a pen?” Nicole asked the tired nurse on desk duty. The woman nodded with wide eyes.

“It’s you, isn’t it?” the woman asked as Nicole basically stole all her usable writing paper, “The one who saved my friend.” Nicole paused, unsure what to say, but the woman continued in almost tears, “Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Nicole didn’t know quite what to say. She thought of her small book on her nightstand where she kept her tally: LOST to FOUND.

The times she had been thanked were woefully outnumbered by the tearful, grieving insults. She knew to take this brief moment of happiness by the reigns and hang on.

“I didn’t do it alone,” Nicole said at last and pointed up the hall. “Waverly Earp is the one you should be thanking.”

The secretary only shook her head and stood, bringing Nicole into a huge hug and mumbling thanks over and over, eventually going into Spanish. Nicole fought tears at how unused to being hugged she felt, and hugged the woman back.

When she managed to break away, Nicole returned to her room and commandeered a table. In smooth, practiced lines, she wrote down their entire account from her point of view. She kept back things she didn’t want to revisit. Things she herself had seen and heard in that Vault, or what the Beast had told her. She stuck to the facts. Waverly didn’t need any more burdens. The truth could wait, for a while, while she recovered.


 

DAY 1

 

...It was just us and the monster. You were brave. So brave. You could have made me bait or something, I don’t know. But you trusted me to stay and I did.

We fought it together somehow. It was dark, awfully dark. I missed half my shots but you… you took a flare gun and ran right up to it. You thought it was a skinwalker and you did what the stories told you to do. Cleverest thing I ever saw.

You shot it and then you stabbed it with a stake like some sort of vampire slayer out of a movie.

That was the first time you saved my life...

 

Nicole walked into the hospital room munching a vending machine bagel, pausing to knock on the doorway. The Earp sisters both turned to look, Wynonna giving a donut salute and Waverly a reserved frown.

“I thought you were him,” Waverly said with a tilt of relief as Nicole approached, handful of papers clutched in one hand. Waverly shook her head, looking down at the bedsheets. “He’s not coming, is he?”

Wynonna shrugged. “When has that dick ever shown up for you?”

Waverly looked down, cowed, as if she hadn’t fought a giant monster three times her size and lived. Nicole’s throat felt clamped with the urge to shout and throw things. One, two, three. In, out. Waverly moved her legs in silent consent and Nicole sat, collecting her thoughts.

“Hi,” Waverly said with a shy smile.

Nicole tensed her jaw. “I know this is going to be… a lot. But Champ is… Well.” Nicole offered the papers. “He wasn’t the boyfriend you thought he was.”

Waverly took the papers, looked between them and Nicole. “I knew it,” she said quietly, “I knew it.”

Nicole tried to resist the urge to pace as Waverly read the account.

“I did this?” Waverly asked, “I did this?”

“It’ll come back to you,” Nicole said firmly. Waverly looked dubious. “It will. It has to. And when it does, we…” This was too much. Waverly looked at her like a stranger and Nicole again suppressed frustrated tears. “You’ll remember.”

 

After a few hours, an aide came and told them to dress and prepare to meet the director. Waverly, at danger of fainting due to low pressure, was regulated to a wheelchair which Nicole pushed regardless of protests.

“You guys are on your own for this one,” Wynonna explained as they neared his office. “Try not to make fun of his height.”

Nicole nodded vaguely, trying to ignore the stares. “Right. Of course.”

“Also, I may have punched him, so he might be holding a grudge.”

“Wynonna!” Waverly admonished with a light slap on the arm.

Nicole felt a grin split her face and she met Wynonna’s eye. A look passed between them, an understanding. They were both here to protect Waverly, first and foremost, regardless of Wynonna’s apparent loyalties. Nicole felt herself relax an inch further.

‘Allies here,’ indeed.

 

Smooth wooden doors opened to an office straight from Bureaucracy Weekly: The smooth mahogany desk, framed diplomas from esteemed universities, and bookcases filled with orderly tomes. The man behind the nameplate labeled DIRECTOR stood, showing up shorter than reasonable, and nodded in simple greeting. A military man, gone soft around the edges from too many days signing people’s lives away.

“Leslie Daniels. Black Badge Director.” His grip held firm. “The honor is all mine.”

Waverly gave him a tight, practiced smile and shook his hand. Nicole abstained, settling for a glare borne from barely restrained fury.

“As I understand, you both need time to recover.” He cleared his throat and sat down. “You two have been given a room in the dorm. Just ignore the trainees. Your wing is on the far side and you shouldn’t have too many problems.”

“Thank you,” Waverly said with a smile. Nicole only frowned deeper, mind running with conspiracy.

“You are free to stay for the duration of your recovery.” He leaned forward, studying them with folded hands on his desk. “In one week’s time, we will reconvene and discuss what has occurred to both of you.”

“And if we choose to leave?” Nicole spoke up, causing Waverly to frown.

“If you wish, you may. We will not follow you.”

“I don’t believe you.”

The director shrugged and looked to Waverly. “I wish you the best with your recovery. Our medical team is at your disposal. You have the gratitude of all of us.”

Waverly swallowed, fidgeting under that iron stare. She didn’t remember. It felt like a lie not to say anything. She settled for a quiet, polite, “Thank you.”

“Your sister is already making progress with Agent Dolls. If any need should arise, report to him and he will assist you to the best of his abilities.” The director leaned back and the discussion was over.

 

“Are you okay?” Waverly asked as they passed through marked doors in the dorm building, “You’ve been kinda… quiet. More than usual.”

Nicole let out a small breathy sigh. “Just… suspicious.”

Waverly patted one of the hands that gripped the handle of the wheelchair. “I really think we could do good here. Make a difference, you know? Now that we know all about the supernatural, it just seems right.”

Nicole blinked and almost stopped. “You want to join them?”

“Why?” Waverly looked over her shoulder, concerned, “You don’t?”

Nicole looked away, refusing to meet her gaze for a moment, before apparently deciding something. “I just thought you’d be done. With all the…” Nicole gestured with a hand uselessly. “It was hard , Waverly. Terrifying.”

Waverly sat back in thought. “I don’t know if I can relax on a beach knowing there’s monsters out there hunting people, you know?”

They reached the dorm and Nicole had her mouth open to reply, but both women forgot about the conversation after opening the door.

Gifts, they had been given gifts.

“Wait here,” Nicole said unnecessarily as she ghosted into the room, casing it like a thief.

Waverly held her smart reply in check, instead staring in confused and guilt-ridden wonder at the mass of flowers and wrapped packages they’d been given. She wheeled inside once Nicole had moved her search to the adjoining bathroom.

It was cozy, with a small bathroom and two beds. Waverly frowned at the setup in a way that told Nicole she had an idea, but a blush fled to her cheeks. “Uhm,” Waverly started quietly, fidgeting. “Nicole, I…”

“You want me in a separate room?” Nicole asked, checking under the bed.

“No!” Waverly answered a bit too sharply, prompting a curious look. Waverly swallowed her next words, fighting for reasons.

Nicole moved over and knelt by Waverly’s side. “What is it?” She leaned forward, putting her hand over Waverly’s nervously fluttering ones. “Anything,” Nicole said with emphasis.

I’d do anything for you, she meant.

Why? Waverly wanted to ask so desperately.

Waverly swallowed the lump in her throat and blinked rapidly. “I just don’t want to sleep alone,” she said in a small voice, before slumping forward in embarrassment.

“Hey,” Nicole said with a small smile, one finger hooking under Waverly’s chin, “I kinda don’t want to, either.” She leaned forward conspiratorially, “I’m afraid of the dark... and I’d sleep really well knowing I have a monster slayer next to me.”

Waverly laughed and batted her hand away, already feeling better.

 

They changed into bland pajamas, tossing a few simple jokes back and forth borne of nervousness, before settling with an extra large polite distance between them.

Nicole didn’t sleep easy. She kept watch as the clocks in their room moved forward relentlessly and the shadows failed to whisper. Emotions broiled in confusing waves that felt like numb disbelief.

They did it. Waverly survived. The best possible outcome.

But… Why couldn’t Nicole relax? Feel happy? Hadn’t they won? Yet Waverly had lost her memory and they were stuck in hostile territory.

Her worries circled and circled, until -- against all odds -- she fell asleep.

 

                                                                     -- The sea of eyes watches her sink to her knees, the Beast looming high above her. Its crown torn from its face, lowering toward her, whispering -- (yes, come to us, you are at peace, this is your home now, let the forest take you) -- and the trees, always silent, always watching, and the wet darkness that enveloped her took her humanity again, and all she saw was blood and death and --

 

“Nicole!”

Nicole snapped awake, gasping. “Waverly. Waverly, oh my god, Waverly --”

“I’ve got you.” Arms snaked around her heaving chest, pulling her into an embrace that felt like safety. “I’ve got you and I’m not letting go.” Nicole blinked in the dark, smelling nothing but the floral shampoo Waverly adored using, no fear, no blood, no nothing. Still, her teeth felt strange in her mouth -- not large enough -- and her fingernails weren’t the proper length of (claws). “Shhh. It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”

Nicole let go, sobbing in broken, heaving gasps that hurt.

“It’s dead and we aren’t. Nicole. We won.” Waverly held on tight. Moments passed. Minutes, maybe. “You were… screaming.” Nicole held her breath and Waverly nuzzled her face in red hair, trying to comfort. “Do you want to talk about it? It’s okay if not, really. I understand.”

Nicole felt boneless. “Not yet.”

“Okay.” Waverly ran her hands along Nicole’s back. “Sleep. I’ll keep you safe. I promise.”

 


DAY 2

...We were both hurt, just in different ways. It tricked us, used us. Hid as the wrong story so we wouldn’t get rid of the body. Free flight to a billion-dollar research facility filled with people. Horrifying, right?

Spoilers: You saved them, too...

“We have enough baked goods for the apocalypse,” Nicole commented the next morning as they cataloged everything they had received.

“This feels…” Waverly shook her head. “Not right.”

“Why?” Nicole said, mouth full of cookie. Waverly smiled lightly at the sight.

“It all feels like a sham. I don’t remember any of this.” Waverly set a box down a bit too hard and Nicole moved over, sitting beside her. A headache rumbled into existence and Waverly groaned with the pain of it, pressing hands to her eyes. “It’s like a void where the memories should be.”

“Hey, let’s give it a few days, okay?” Nicole said, offering a cookie. Waverly took it, wondering if Nicole really was human or if she was some kind of magic fairy who could always make her feel better. “Come on. The doc said you had to start walking again.” Nicole turned over a brightly colored pamphlet. “After all, we’re in a different world now.’”

 

WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF THE SUPERNATURAL!

Have you encountered things that you couldn’t quite explain? Have you seen something that didn’t make any sense to you? Chances are, you have encountered evidence of the supernatural.

Welcome aboard. Something, or someone, has brought you into the light of knowing there is more out there than regular old animals. You are in a different world now. The rules are not the same. It will be a tough time of transition, and it is recommended you call the counselor’s number on the back of this pamphlet.

Q: ARE VAMPIRES/WEREWOLVES/WITCHES REAL?

Yes, and they are your coworkers. Please see page five about respectful social cues for talking to the supernatural.

Q: SHOULD I BE AFRAID?

No, you should be reasonably cautious. Contact your supervisor to discuss life insurance plans so your family will be well compensated in the event of tragedy. With appropriate caution and adherence to a strict set of rules, you will experience no more danger than in a regular day job as a police officer.

If you are still afraid, please call the counselor’s number on the back of this pamphlet.

Q: CAN I TELL SOMEONE? SHOULDN’T THEY BE AWARE?

With thousands of employees under the Black Badge federal programme, there is always a chance of word getting out about ‘the supernatural.’ It is important to understand that the general public does not want to know about the supernatural and will not believe you if you tell them. It is for the best they do not know what you know because panic can and will take hold. It is your job to safeguard them not only from the forces of the supernatural, but also their own fragile understanding of this world.

As a government employee and having signed the contract 891.E, revealing Black Badge secrets counts as a felony and can result in a treason charge in times of war.

Q: WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?

Hundreds of vocations are available for you to choose from depending on your degree of interest. Scholarships are also available for those who wish to return to university and seek further education before returning to Black Badge. Speak with your supervisor to talk about career options for you.

Q: WHAT IS THIS PLACE?

Welcome to Nowhere, Virginia, located a few wrong turns from Langley. This headquarters was first built during Theodore Roosevelt’s time as a president and was constructed with specific, long-lost techniques that make our facility unique in many ways.

It is highly suggested you do not attempt to wander off the grounds anywhere other than the entrance and exit to the facility. If you have specific concerns, please speak with your supervisor.

Q: WHAT DOES BLACK BADGE DO?

We protect humanity at large from the supernatural. Our mission is to ensure the safety of every American from the threat of supernatural death and panic. The world is not yet ready to come to terms with the vast amount of unknowable threats that linger beyond the line of science. It is our job to stand on that line. It is our job to help those who cannot help themselves.

Welcome to your new home!

 

They wandered the facility, noticing how expansive it appeared to be for something supposedly hidden. The Research building contained a massive library. A hospital overlooked the three other buildings, with the largest being the main building which contained everything from the Director’s office to the training rooms. The dorm lay to the side, next to the outdoor training areas and sprinting tracks.

They ate in the sun, only eating inside when it fled before dinner. Nicole could still feel the eyes upon them, the dubious humanity of their fellow trainees pressing on her mind like an ice pack. The tension didn’t go unnoticed by Waverly, who leaned into her side and whispered, “It’s going to be okay, I promise.”

One after another, complete strangers came up to the pair and thanked them.

Waverly smiled politely every time, but the pain of not remembering struck her each time like a physical blow.

 

The library, of course, was their first stop. It loomed high, one of the older buildings on the property, with two stories of massive rows.  

“There must be something here, something about what did this to us,” Waverly said as she strode past the front desk. Nobody stopped them.

“I hope so,” Nicole said, solemn as she shadowed Waverly. The scant few employees gave respectful nods as they passed by, but otherwise kept their distance. The dim silence grated against her nerves as they made their way deeper and deeper into the stacks.

 

“Mythology!” Waverly declared in a victorious whisper. “This way.”

Nicole dutifully followed, a few books in hand already that Waverly had deemed important. Waverly moved like a storm, ducking up and down, reading titles with the speed of lightning and whipping books off shelves like the wind.

But this aisle… Something wasn’t quite right.

“Hey.” Waverly looked back and forth across the shelves. “Isn’t it a bit weird there’s all these open spaces?” Waverly leaned forward, squinting. With one curious finger, she tested the empty void on the shelf.

No dust at all. There had been a book there, perhaps within the last hour.

She moved up and down the cases, growing more alarmed as the tests came back the same.

Someone’s taken them just before we came here.

“Nicole?” Waverly frowned at the silence and turned. “Nicole?

Nicole, standing completely still in the middle of the aisle, was elsewhere.

 

                  --- The wind carried her words into the black forest. “What are you?” she screamed desperately, the hollow lack of echo driving her nerves to the edge, “What are you!” and the wind answered with     howling silence, the cold cutting her courage to the core, nothing remaining in her spine as she sunk to the snow. “Leave us alone!”

 

“What are you, Nicole Haught?”

(what are you)

 

“Human!” she said hoarsely, the sound swept away, “Human!”

 

“Leave us alone!” It mocked.

 

      (such hypocrisy from trespassers!)

                 The creeping fatigue blurred her vision and the numbness took her conscious mind away, leaving behind teeth --

 

“Nicole!” Waverly shouted heedlessly in her panic. Nicole returned, panting, blinking, touching -- heat. She could feel heat, pain, and her heart felt strong. Human. Human ! “Nicole, hey.” Waverly’s hand cupped her face. “Are you okay?”

Nicole nodded, catching her breath. “Yes… Yes. I think, I think I --”

“Breathe.” Waverly searched her eyes for something. “It’s okay. Whatever it is, it’s okay.” Nicole blinked, trying to remember, but -- “Nicole… how did you get that?”

Nicole hadn’t realized she held a book in a death grip until Waverly peeled it from her hands.

The Book of Symbols. ” Waverly flipped it open, buzzing through the pages. “How did you…?”

Nicole, lost, shook her head. The memory sunk beneath the surface once more. “No idea.”

Waverly looked it over, back and front -- “Do you think we have to check this one out?”

“Maybe not.” Nicole shook her head, still catching her breath. “I mean… I guess it’s technically mine, isn’t it?”

Waverly smiled and squeezed Nicole’s wrist. “Very true. Let’s go.”

 

Nicole stood beside the table, flipping through her handwritten account. Outside the dorm window, the sun had just begun to set behind a stand of Virginia trees.

“Something specific,” Waverly mused from the bed, eyes locked on the book, “Something… symbolic.”

“Try ‘labyrinth.’”

“Hm.” Waverly dutifully searched, only to pause. “There’s something here. Listen to this.” Waverly lifted the book, aware of Nicole’s interested gaze and hiding her blush. “‘The purpose of the labyrinth’s frequent inclusion in initiatory rites is to temporarily disturb consciousness to the point that the initiate becomes confused and symbolically loses his way, or his rational, linear frame of orientation.’” Waverly peeked over her book, eyebrow raised. “Maybe some sort of cult worshipped the creature?”

“Maybe,” Nicole responded as she watched the sun sink below the horizon.

Loses his way...

Waverly sat up. “Wynonna just texted. She wants to do dinner.”

 

“Whaddup reclusive losers!” Wynonna shouted as she kicked the door open, two bags of takeout in hand. “Good. You two are keeping it PG.” She let the bags hit the table with a thunk and dove into some of the leftover baked goods.

“Hello to you too, sis.” Waverly rolled her eyes and began to sort through the boxes. “Nicole, behold the true nature of my wrecking ball of a sister. I hate her so much.”

Wynonna stuck out her tongue but smiled genuinely.

“I had suspicions,” Nicole said with raised eyebrows as Wynonna put her feet on the coffee table. She cleared her throat, trying for serious. “Jumping headfirst into a supernatural organization to support your sister is… damn good family.”

“Waverly can’t have all the glory and hot chicks,” Wynonna quipped. “Speaking of --”

“Hello.” Dolls let himself in the room, clicking the door shut behind him. Nicole stood immediately, fists clenched and jaw tense. Dolls stood his ground. His eyes flickered to Waverly. “Good to see you again and in one piece, Waverly.”

“What?” Waverly said under her breath. “Oh. Of course. Nice to… see you again.”

“You’ve met?” Nicole asked, eyes not leaving Dolls.

Dolls took Waverly’s silence in stride. “I’m Agent Xavier Dolls. Waverly’s insight was invaluable and confirmed most of my suspicions about the goings on in Colorado. I’m training Wynonna, and I’ll be training you both if you choose to stay with us.”

Nicole nodded, but a memory struck her -- “It was you. Fighting the office workers.”

Dolls broke his poker face with a frown of almost embarrassment. “Yes. That was me.”

After that, dinner passed in easy minutes. Nicole avoided any kind of meat and stuck to noodles and rice. Waverly vacuumed down what she insisted was Heaven’s gift to her taste buds: sweet and sour soup with just a scoop of peanut butter.

 

Topics stayed light and trivial: Wynonna tossing less than appropriate stories from her travels, Dolls muttering about his co workers, or Waverly talking about Purgatory. Nicole defrosted eventually, talking about her career as a search and rescue officer and offering the light side of things. She watched Dolls like a hawk, noticing the way he eyed Wynonna for too long sometimes, but his gaze wasn’t malevolent, it was… something else.

“There are some issues being worked out between myself and a few fellow agents,” Dolls said, his eye contact making no question about the issues. Waverly fidgeted. “Most of them are grateful. Some…” Dolls gave the ghost of a smirk. “Are not as grateful.”

“Are we in danger here?” Waverly asked. Nicole frowned and crossed her arms, opting to stand by the window.

“No. I’d tell you immediately. But there may be people watching you since you’re citizens. Of course, should you choose to actually join us as agents...” Dolls glanced to Wynonna and Nicole narrowed her eyes. “Your sister is an incredible agent so far.” He nodded at Waverly. “I’m wondering if it runs in the family.” He stood to leave. “See you tomorrow morning at oh-six hundred hours, Agent Earp,” Dolls said to Wynonna as he slipped out the door.

“A day only has twenty-four hours!” Wynonna shouted, but he was gone. “Idiot.” Munching sounds. “Cute, though.”

 

“...Tomorrow I can see if I can find the doctor, ask her if your suspicions are correct about the bookshelves having spaces in them...”

Waverly stared at the moonlight slicing across the ceiling. She was smart. She had read hundreds of romance novels and she knew her symptoms, thank you, she didn’t need WebMD. This sort of fluttering in her chest, the shy smile, the awful quick-dance of her heart… Enough. There was a certain cruelty in their situation that made Waverly furious because she didn’t trust Nicole. Not with this. Not enough to form attachments.

“...CIA is next door. Government and conspiracy go --”

People might have unclear motives, might say they care, but if anything in Waverly's life held true: They always left. Waverly wasn't falling for it this time. The pain brought tears to her eyes and Waverly snapped.

“Why are you doing this?”

Nicole paused midway folding a shirt, tilting her head like a puppy. “Huh?”

“Why are you doing this?” Waverly asked sharply, sitting up.

Nicole shook her head, unable to understand, "Doing what?"

"Why are you staying?" Waverly demanded, "Why would you? Why? My memories are gone, Nicole. There’s nothing left of you in my head yet you’re here . I can barely walk a mile without passing out. I get dizzy when I stand up.” Her voice rose, as did the pain in it. “I don’t feel like myself anymore!”

Nicole’s face softened and Waverly tightened her fists on the edge of the bed

“Why!” Waverly shouted, “There’s no reason for you to stay! I know you hate it!”

Nicole looked away briefly, tensing her jaw. She opened her mouth but Waverly pressed on.

“I see how you watch the people here. You hate them and you hate every goddamn shitty second of being here!” Waverly ended on a thick breath, swallowing tears.

Nicole stayed silent, gazing determinedly at the floor. 

“Is it guilt?”

Nicole recoiled as if slapped.

Waverly narrowed her eyes. “Did you do something and you’re trying to make up for it some how by pretending to care about me --”

“I promised!” Nicole said fiercely. Waverly fell silent in shock. “I promised to stay, Waverly. And I would never break that promise. Not now, not ever.”

Instead of comfort, the grief of it all urged Waverly onward. She couldn't handle this. She couldn't handle someone being so nice to her, not when there was so much wrong with her to be discovered. People always left when they found out the truth: Waverly Earp was no hero at all.

“Then consider it un-promised!” Waverly pointed at the door and Nicole looked as if she had a stool kicked out from under her. “The door is right there!”

Nicole tensed her jaw but made no move to leave. “I’m not leaving.”

“You should. You said it yourself. I have trauma and I won’t ever be the same again.” Waverly wiped tears from her cheeks, refusing to back down. “I don’t need you to baby me back to health. I don’t need your ‘protection ’ either!”

“Waverly.” Nicole only looked terribly sad, her shoulders slumping as Waverly dissolved to tears. “Please, Waverly. I’ve been…” Nicole looked like she wanted to say something but decided against it. “I just want to help. We went through a lot together and I -- I’m dead to the world. You're, you're all that I... It’s not that I’m here to baby or protect you or -- God, Waverly. I would never…” she sighed heavily, seeming to hold something back, and her voice held only defeat, “I’ll go. If you want me to, I’ll go.”

Now that she had what she wanted, Nicole gone, Waverly could see the future: Crushing, debilitating loneliness. She stared down the barrel of truth and saw that she very much did not want Nicole to leave.

And she heard what Nicole had held back, what she had almost said:

You're all that I have.

“No,” Waverly said and Nicole looked up, hopeful. Waverly shook her head and crumpled like a house of cards, her words whisper quiet and almost too low for Nicole to hear -- “Please. Please stay.” The words tumbled out against her will, leaving her far too vulnerable, “Please don’t leave me.”

Waverly fell into herself, sobbing. Out of the corner of the eye she spotted movement before two arms encircled her, holding her close against a chest and a steady heartbeat.

“I won’t,” Nicole said quietly, “I promise I won’t.”

This felt new. It felt different. Waverly remembered vaguely being held by Gus or Curtis. The feeling of safety, of home, echoed the same.

They fell asleep, not bothering to keep up the charade of distance.

 




DAY 3

..There’s a lot of gaps in my memory, too. I don’t know where I was, but you were in a hospital room. You convinced people to help you and you must have told them the truth about everything, got together a plan. That’s just what you’d do.

I showed up again just in time to make things worse. There was a labyrinth...

 

Waverly woke in bits and pieces, coming together in a comforting puzzle. Somebody soft and delicious smelling held her close, the warmth of their body a sanctuary instead of oppression. Couldn’t be Champ. She cuddled closer, too sleepy to think too much, and hummed as the arms tightened around her in response.

Her body drank the contact greedily as if it had been starved of it.

Eventually, Waverly realized she wasn’t getting back to sleep. She opened her eyes and fought the urge to jerk back, realizing Nicole was still technically a stranger she’d known for two days and here Waverly was, almost on top of her. Slowly, carefully, Waverly extricated herself. Midway, Nicole huffed a huge, sleepy sigh and flopped over, still dead to the world.

Waverly smiled, a thought occurring to her. Something that never failed to lift the spirits.

 

Waking before sunrise was not exactly Nicole’s favorite activity, but one her body was unfortunately accustomed to after years of her SAR training. Waverly dragged her outside, nearly skipping in excitement, and they stopped on a broad lawn off the side of the dorm in the pre-dawn air.

It was tranquil. Nicole relaxed slightly, letting herself catch the smile on Waverly’s face, slowly letting her muscles release their tension.

Waverly unfolded a towel and flopped down on the grass. “Sit!”

Nicole sat.

They watched the sun rise as they lay on the grass, stupefied as nothing came to attack them, that the sun simply rose without any danger or screams or pain. Soon, they’d shed their heavy coats and bring in spring properly. But for now, it would do.

Just peace.

Waverly rested her head in the crook of Nicole’s arm, frustration at the jacket that blocked access to nicer areas. “You never told me what you went through.”

Nicole turned her head in the grass with a crinkle. “Yes, I have.”

“No.” Waverly pulled out the journal. “There’s all this stuff about me. But you don’t write anything about yourself. I know you were bitten, but all the details are…” Waverly stopped, noticing Nicole turn slightly away from her with an expression of pain. Waverly, instead, brought up a hand and gently ran it down Nicole’s jawline, finding the pulse there. “It’s okay. I’m sorry. I just wanted to let you know that I know you went through a lot and… I’m here for you.”

Nicole softened into a smile and Waverly felt her heart skip. “Thank you.”

“Let’s do this every day,” Waverly said, and so they did.

 

“Ladies. Gentlemen.” The Black Badge Director addressed the conference room. “All nine board members are here. Agent Lucado will be speaking in favor of execution. Agent Dolls will be advocating for the defense. This is Joseph Gurino from the Federal Bureau of Investigations.”

The man stood and adjusted his tie.

“He has graciously offered to be the mediator in our voting sessions.” The director sighed heavily. “We have voted five to four to move forward with the trial without accepting testimony from Waverly Earp or Nicole Haught.”

Lucado smiled.

God help them, the Director thought.

“Whatever occurs here does not leave this room.” He motioned to Lucado. “We now open the floor to discussion on the fate of Waverly Earp and Nicole Haught. Agent Lucado, if you would please.”

Lucado stood, that smug look never fading. “As we are all well aware, the creature of this category directly affects the perception of those afflicted on even the smallest level. This boardroom has voted unanimously to remove all traces of the Colorado facility, the research created there, and the remains of the subjects who perished during the duration of the incident to ensure the safety of the world at large. The last surviving piece of evidence is Nicole Haught.”

“Objection.” Dolls stated calmly, “Nicole Haught is human and has no trace of infection.”

“That’s never stopped us before.”

“It should stop us now.”

Lucado prepared to snipe back but the Director put his head in his hands, letting the words drone on. He couldn’t vote on the outcome. Only the board. A headache rallied on the borders of his skull. God help us all. This was going to take days.

 

The trio walked around the sprint track. Wynonna jeered at the trainees as they passed, shouting innuendos that made Waverly push her off balance in exasperation.

“Guess where I ended up next?” Wynonna asked proudly, Waverly hanging on every word.

“Not rehab?” Nicole asked, mouth half full of apple. Hey, once you lose your ability to eat real food, you never take it for granted again.

Wynonna only tossed a smirk in return. “Venice.”

“You’re kidding,” Waverly grumbled, “That’s on my list.”

“List?” Nicole asked and Wynonna rolled her eyes at the love-struck look that had become painfully obvious to her, but not to Waverly.

“List of places I have to visit,” Waverly clarified, coming to life, “I have almost eighty, but Venice is twenty-three.”

Wynonna groaned dramatically. “Oh, god, here we go --”

“We could go there,” interrupted Nicole, causing Waverly to halt in shock.

Really? ” Waverly asked loud enough for some trainees to turn their heads.

Nicole blushed. “I’d have to, uh, get a passport and undo the fact I’m legally deceased and have a headstone, but yeah. We could. I wasn’t a ranger for the money, Waves.” She frowned. “If I could figure out if I still have it. I don’t really know how it works but I’d find a way to -- oof!”

Waverly slammed into her chest, hugging her tight. Nicole buried her head in her hair and held her.

Neither noticed Wynonna’s guarded look of melting distrust, born of seeing her sister’s hopes dashed again and again and again.

 

They both stood together on the dorm’s balcony, watching the night sky.

“Alpha Ursae Minoris,” Waverly declared, “Polaris.”

“May I ask why?” Nicole turned, leaning on her hand. The stars had nothing on Waverly. Sappy but extremely accurate.

Waverly looked distant. “So many people found their way home by its light.”

Maybe they were both sappy.

“Yours?” Waverly asked, dreamy, leaning forward a little into Nicole’s space.

“Schedar,” Nicole replied instantly and pointed vaguely at the sky. “ Boob.”

Waverly burst into laughter and Nicole’s heart felt a little more whole.

 

Waverly giggled.

“I am treating a monstrous wound here,” Nicole said, eyes dancing with amusement that clashed with her serious tone, “I’d appreciate you stopping the giggles.”

Nicole dabbed more of the solution on and Waverly flinched, a strangled laugh coming up her throat. “It tickles. And it's making me laugh and it hurts to laugh but that makes it even funnier.”

The four long lines that marred Waverly’s side. A reminder of the near-fatal mistake Nicole had made -- the words of the Beast still echoing in her mind, making her freeze and give up the charade -- but then again, they were healing.

The ribs under her fingers jerked with inhales and she could feel the pulse that beat within. Every beat screamed the truth: beyond all odds, Waverly had survived.

It didn’t matter how the world seemed so colorless, how disconnected Nicole felt from it all -- three years, a woman out of time -- because Waverly was color. And not just that, no --Waverly was the promise of more color.

So they laughed, and Nicole wrapped the wound as taught, and they slept without the illusion of distance between them.

 

“Shh. Dude.” The trainee peeked around the corner of the dorm. “Clear. Let’s go.”

Three more giggling boys followed the one in charge. It was a quarter past three in the morning as they crept down the dark hallway toward the room where the two women slept. They adjusted their masks for their hazing, tossing thumbs-up back and forth.

The game was on.

Now, four werebeasts slunk forward to ambush the sleeping women in what would surely be hilarious, only to halt.

They saw before them something utterly familiar, something they’d seen before, but not something they remembered. No, all that remained upon waking was the faint strain of muscles from running, panting, screaming. Then, that too is gone, and the day is somehow darker for no reason at all.

The fear overrides all thought within the mind. Thoughts are too slow and every nanosecond counts.

They ran.

Nobody even bothered to make fun of the one who turned and fled first. They all fled, throats tight with terror, wasting no breath on screaming.

Tradition, they decided, wasn’t worth it.

They did not notice how the piercing, steady gaze only watched them flee without following. Those eyes held a promise of violence, a curious intelligence, but no trace of hunger.


 DAY 4

 

...I wouldn’t call your boyfriend. I don’t mean to shock you, but he’s dead. He was bitten and was a monster. He worked with the Beast and did terrible, terrible things, but he didn’t have a choice.  We fought him together, you and I, but things just kept getting worse.

It was 12:00 by the time everything really got bad. You were out, asleep, probably making your way through its trap of some kind. It loves that, let me tell you. When you remember, would you tell me about it?

I’ll tell you what I saw. People were afraid, trapped. I couldn’t do much to help. I made things worse. But then you woke up and you entered the gates of hell armed with a mop and a frilly pink purse, determined to save all of us...

 

“No evidence has come forward of any intrusions of thought or loss of time,” Dolls read from a doctor’s report. “There is no support for your argument that we are in a supernatural level of danger from a human being .”

“It’s only a matter of time,” Lucado said. She tapped her report. “This creature is capable of much more devious plots. We could already be under control.”

“By that logic, this trial is a sham --”

“Peace.” Joseph Gurino, FBI, raised his hand for the twentieth time that day. “Lucado, your statement is void. Please continue with the rest of your argument without implying we are all insane . Thank you.”

“With all due respect,” Lucado said without any respect whatsoever, “I hardly think we can have a mediator who has no experience with the supernatural. We have had years of experience with this creature, firsthand --”

“Do you have any evidence? ” Gurino said flatly.

Lucado pressed her mouth in a thin line.

“I thought so. Continue with arguments supported with evidence when we consider the execution of a human being, please.”

Lucado began her spiel again but Gurino leaned over to the director, “Is she always like this?” he muttered under her breath.

“Always,” he mouthed back and slammed back more advil.

 

The days almost melted together. They spent time walking, stretching their legs, and delving into the shelves of the library through the books that weren’t missing. Research consumed Waverly’s time as she fought to connect pieces without triggering another headache.

Waverly spent spare moments as she searched to watch Nicole, to study her properly. The signs of trauma Waverly could see from a mile away. Nicole stood with her back too straight, her head on too wide of a swivel, almost as if she was prepared to fight for her life at any moment.

But when Waverly made jokes, made Nicole laugh or smile, it was like seeing the bottom of a clear pool. The real Nicole, who she had been -- charming, funny, kind, and above all, so confident and happy -- before the shadow returned and someone else stood in her place.

The door never opened, no matter how many times Waverly knocked. ‘Are you okays’ were answered with ‘of course, Waverly,’ as if Nicole hadn’t gone through any of it. Except she had. And it was obvious as a gaping wound, the psychological damage a mile wide and not healing. Waverly had read the account obsessively, over and over, but Nicole’s experiences had been left out. She was hiding something from Waverly, something painful, something that caused Nicole to stare at her with such drowning despair when she thought Waverly wasn’t looking.

Waverly watched. Always. She had to. She felt, not a sense of obligation, but a deep desire to care for whoever Nicole was, both parts of her.

 

Sometimes they separated, but never for long and Wynonna often filled Nicole’s place at Waverly’s side.

Irritated, Waverly spoke up during one of the ‘shift changes.’ “I’m going to take a walk. On my own.”

“Wave --”

“Alone, Nicole,” Waverly said with a pointed finger. Nicole swallowed her next words and simply nodded stiffly. “You could use some time alone, too.” She patted Nicole’s shoulder, who blushed. It was true. They spent a ridiculous amount of time together. “I’ll see you both for lunch, okay?”

Wynonna nodded. “Later, Waverly. Try not to get lost!”

Waverly flipped her off behind her retreating back.

Wynonna wiped a fake tear from her cheek, beaming. “That’s my girl.”

Nicole paced not-so-subtly in one of the hallways of the main building.

“You wanna work that off?” Wynonna asked casually and pointed. “Training room.”

The requirement was Nicole had to change out of her shirt into a more exercise appropriate outfit, one that unfortunately left far too much skin bare.

“Neat-o scars, dude. Fight a bobcat?” Wynonna said appreciatively with a whistle. Nicole stiffened and Wynonna put up her hands in surrender, conceding the topic as unapproachable.

 

Waverly wandered close to the forest’s edge, feeling comforted by it in a way that struck her as extremely ironic. After all, the Forest she had been lost in should have etched itself in the fear center of her brain. She couldn’t sleep alone. She jumped at sudden sounds. Yellow was her least favorite color.

But why did she feel at peace here?

Waverly rested her head against a trunk, fist coming up to thump against it. She didn’t remember. She pulled out the journal and flipped through the pages, pushing down selfish irritation at Nicole’s not-very-good way with words and the fact that beyond the four long lines that marred her stomach, none of it felt real.

But it made sense. The whispers she had heard as a kid. The car crash. Champ's strange behavior. It all seemed to fit in one confusing pile of disturbing .

She skipped to the end and read it again.

... Everything just stopped. I was distracting it, and you vanished. I’m sorry. Sorry that I can’t tell you what happened, or what you did, because I didn’t see it.

Waverly, I was dead. I don’t remember anything about it. Just that it was dark and cold and pretty lame.

Then there was this light but God, it’s like I can’t remember either. You must have done something amazing, because now I’m alive again and so are you.

Along with everybody else.

When you remember, would you tell me? I’d love to know.

You don’t remember, but I made a promise.

Where you go, I go.

Nicole.

Waverly sat against the tree and traced the words over, how Nicole wrote her name, how it all came together in the least satisfying ending she’d ever read.

 

Dolls took in Nicole’s presence as if nothing was out of the ordinary finding two trainees instead of one. “Right then. Let’s get started teaching you that you don’t know a damn thing.”

Wynonna proceeded to kick Nicole’s ass three ways to Sunday. The search and rescue officer couldn’t keep up with the moves that disarmed her, threw her off balance, and sent her head-over-heels. Whatever powers of speed and adrenaline had been given to her in the facility were gone. Nicole hadn’t known it would be so hard to actually hit someone and mean it.

Nicole sat up, panting, after losing round five. “Again.”

Wynonna frowned, but Dolls had a small smile on his face. “Do it.”

Round seven lasted three additional seconds, Nicole finding a rhythm out of beginner’s luck, and Wynonna broke it open like china with a question more curious than accusing: “You screwin’ my sister, Haughtstuff?”

Nicole halted mid dodge. “What? No!”

Wynonna kicked her in the chest, sending Nicole back on the mat with a thump. She stood over her, waiting patiently for a response with a raised eyebrow and a sarcastic smirk, “ Really ?”

Nicole reached for a towel and wiped her face of sweat. “Yes, really . I --” Nicole threw the towel. She knew Wynonna was just messing around, but the thought made her bristle. “We’re just friends.”

Wynonna nodded in disbelief and sat down on the bench, leaning back against the wall. “Uh-huh. The looks you give each other are about as platonic as public sex.”

“Jesus, Wynonna!” Nicole said sharply with a furious glare, taking a water bottle in one hand, “I’m not putting any pressure on her, she doesn’t need that from me.” She sighed heavily, slumping her head as she got her breathing under control. “We’ve been through a lot together, that’s all.”

A mustached man entered the room, tipping his outfit-clashing hat to Wynonna before moving to speak to Dolls. Nicole caught his eye and he stopped to reach out with one hand.

Nicole shook it, only for the man to jerk back as if stung. “It’s you,” he said in complete and utter surprise, confusion and fear present in equal terms.

Nicole frowned at the reaction, stomach souring at his fear. “Yeah. Nicole Haught, Search and Rescue, I was under control of the... are you all right?”

The man seemed to collect himself, running one hand over his mustache. “Right as rain and pleased to see you in one piece,” he said a bit too smoothly, only to bow with his hat in a gesture old as time. “Agent Henry, at your service.”

Letting it go, Nicole nodded to him as he turned tail to talk to Dolls. Wynonna slung herself over Nicole’s shoulder, “I think he’s got a cowboy kink. Down for another round of getting your ass beat?” Nicole opened her mouth to respond with something equally witty, but Wynonna pointed. “Could I have some of that ice water?”

“I don’t have any…” Nicole stopped and looked at the water bottle in her hand. She froze -- or rather, the water had frozen -- and her brain simply ceased to respond to any command other than PLEASE PANIC and CONSIDER RUNNING.

Shock ran through Nicole’s entire being at the chunk of ice in her hand that had once been lukewarm. No. Impossible. She was human . This couldn’t happen.

“I have to go,” Nicole announced to the room, before fleeing, one hand coming up to feel at her teeth.

“Wow, rude!” Wynonna shouted after her, “Losing points of approval!” The men, too busy to have noticed over their appraisal of some very large and manly weapons, glanced at Wynonna. She waved it off. “Probably running to her girlfriend.”

Nicole, a monster slayer, a search and rescue officer, someone who had at least three bravery awards on her desk, ran away. She fled. She didn’t know from what, only that it was important that she not stop, that she keep going, that she refuse to think about anything strange like frozen water bottles that didn’t make sense.

She ran until her lungs burned and her muscles felt like fire, the pain reminding her of her humanity. Employees watched her pass without much fanfare at all, besides minute nods and whispered thanks. The Redheaded Woman and the Smiling Brunette had saved their friends, their family.

Some shouted questions as she passed, worried about her. Worried.

No matter how they loved Waverly, how they smiled when they saw either of them, they were not her friends. Not her allies. Not after they had done so much wrong. Nicole wanted to scream at them.

But she didn’t.

Nicole hid in the dorm, staring in the mirror until Waverly returned. Her eyes tracked every one of her features and she counted each beat of the heart in her ears.

Human, human, human.

Something lay on the edge of her noticing, but her sanity relied on her denying it. Her brain protected itself, the consequences be damned, and decided the incident had never occurred in the first place.

The panic slid from her body, as did memory. Why did she leave again? Nicole rubbed at her face, trying to remember what had upset her so. She had been training, yes… Shook hands with Agent Henry… then left. Normally. Right.

Nicole shrugged and left the bathroom, the incident slipping from her mind like sand. It was almost time for dinner.

 

“It feels like a void,” Waverly said as Nicole dressed for sleep in the bathroom, “Like… an empty hole where it all should be.” Nicole entered the room, drying her hair with a towel, and Waverly almost lost her train of thought. But the pain was still there. “And it hurts.”

Nicole sat down, looking at her patiently, but that made the pain worse.

“I can’t remember…” Waverly pushed back tears. Not now. “And it hurts. They all smile and thank us like we’re heroes and I can’t even remember what I did. I just know because you told me.”

She reached for Nicole and found her. She breathed deep in the crook of Nicole’s shoulder, feeling safe. “You know what hurts the most?”

“What?” Nicole asked softly, running her hands through Waverly's hair, down her back, over her shoulders. Calming her.

“The fact I don’t remember you,” Waverly whispered.

Nicole only held her tighter and she soon fell asleep.

 

           --her claws tearing through the earth and flesh and tasting the fear on her tongue like satin against her skin, breathing it like oxygen, her teeth settling around something so soft and --

Nicole woke up in the woods, shivering like a newborn. The world around her slept on in the midnight dark as she struggled to her feet on the edge of panic.

What in the everloving shit?

“Hello?” Nicole asked aloud, pushing a hand through her hair. She still wore her sleep clothes and the cold winter air cut to the bone. Nicole turned and oriented herself, half asleep, back to home. She barely noticed that she couldn’t see the lights of the facility until a few minutes later.

The Virginia forest hid her secrets in the dark, and Nicole clambered barefoot through them without noticing the strange tracks beneath her feet, or the way her soles hit perfectly against the forest floor as if she had been created to walk them.

She passed the sleeping security guard and returned to the warmth of the dorm.

 

Waverly tugged Nicole closer. “You’re cold.”

“Took a walk,” Nicole murmured back, letting herself be pulled. Waverly snuggled into her side, humming her annoyance. “Sorry.”

“Came back,” Waverly muttered in her sleep.

“Always.”

 

“Anything unusual?” the radio buzzed.

“I had the weirdest dream just now,” the security guard replied as he watched the sunrise. “It felt real .”

“Uh…”

“Like I was taking a walk with my wife.” The man rubbed his face and opened his wallet, looking at her picture. A finger drifted over it. “I felt at peace.”

“Stevens.”

“I think I’ll visit her grave, you know?” He blinked at the trees across the road. “It was so strange… it was spring, Henry. Spring, not winter. It’s always been Winter and she’s always been so afraid.” He began to cry, letting the radio key shut.

“Okay, Stevens. It’s going to be okay, man. Take a few days off. I’ll call the supervisor.”


 

DAY 5

...You don’t remember, but you will. You’re strong. Clever as hell. Whether you believe it or not, you inherited such bullshit from Wyatt and somehow destroyed the thing that evaded him for years…

 

“I want to be alive again.”

Dr. Navalar turned with a patient expression. Nurses passed by with covert glances as the novelty of Nicole’s presence had yet to wear off.  “Good morning to you as well, Nicole Haught.” She smiled with annoying patience. “As far as I am aware, you are both alive and absolutely human.”

Nicole narrowed her eyes, the word still itching at her. She shook her head, pulling them aside and out of the way of passerby. “You know what I mean.” Nicole signed, pressing her lips together as she watched employees pass. “I want to exist again. I want to have some place to go outside -- I want to talk to my friends again.”

“And, as a side effect of being alive, it would be harder for us to make you vanish and put you in a very dark hole.” Nicole met her gaze and Dr Navalar’s expression softened. “It is all right to offer some level of trust to me. I am not your enemy.”

Nicole shook her head, jaw clenched. “Prove it.”

 

“We have evidence.” Lucado leaned forward onto the meeting table as her aide passed out a report to each board member. “Vivid dreams are a result of post possession syndrome, but Stevens Sullivan was never possessed. Ever. And suddenly his wording is spot on with other testimonies.”

The board members began to read, looking disturbed, and Dolls felt a punch in his gut. Stevens was one of their best men. Evidence on Lucado’s side and all he had… emotions. Ever since all of this had happened… was it the lack of sleep? The post possession syndrome? Meeting the victims first hand? Whatever reason, he couldn’t just let this slide, even if his argument was a weak, emotional stab in the dark for a target that didn’t exist.

The Board didn’t give a flying shit about feelings.

“I ask the board to remember this is a positive dream instead of a negative one,” Dolls stated neutrally.

“My opposition recognizes the evidence.” Lucado showed her teeth. Dolls tensed his fist against the sudden urge to punch them out.

“We’ll put it to a vote,” The Director said. “All those in favor of accepting this evidence into the proceedings, please vote aye.”

Dolls watched as the boardroom blind voted: Five in favor, four against. A horrible feeling settled into his bones, one he wouldn't have believed before all this. But now he cared, damnit, and it hurt.

His side was losing.

 

“Chrissy?” Nicole leaned over and rested her head on her hand, waiting for a response from the cellphone in her ear. Dr. Navalar stood a good distance away, pretending to smoke a cigarette.

“Who is this? ” Chrissy asked, voice laden with suspicion and what sounded like exhaustion.

What was left of winter rustled the leaves nearby. “It’s…” Deep breath. “It’s Nicole. Nicole Haught.”

Silence.

“Is this a prank?”

“No.” Nicole sat up. “No. Please don’t hang up. Please, It’s really me. I’m alive.”

Longer silence. Nicole almost thought Chrissy had hung up.

“He said you’d come back.”

“Wh -- Nedley?”

Voices in the background and the voice changed. “Nicole. Do they have you?”

“Nedley -- what? What do you mean?”

“The men.” Nedley’s voice dropped to a whisper.  “We knew they had taken you. That man in your cabin. He left in a hurry. More came. Where are you? Can you say?”

Nicole put the pieces together through her surprise. “I… I’m safe. For now.” Nicole watched Dr. Navalar wave off an employee. “I think so, at least. I’m with someone else who’s recovering from… an ordeal. But the missing kids should stop.”

Nedley seemed to accept it. “When are you coming home?”

Home.

“I don’t know yet.” Nicole thought about taking Waverly to the cabin, showing her the beauty of the forest she’d called home. “But I will. Soon. I promise.”

Dr. Navalar tapped her wrist in a universal gesture. “I have to go. But I’ll call back. Goodbye, Nedley.”

“Stay safe.”

Nicole stood, almost in a daze. She was alive. Well -- Not on paper. But now she existed outside of this box. A weight drifted off her shoulders, the feeling of being a walking ghost being easier to bare. There was still the fact she had missed three plus years of time, but small steps first.

“Gone well?” Dr Navalar asked.

“Yes.” Nicole smiled, taking happiness by the chest. “Can I ask you for something else?”

 

Waverly returned to the dorm, muscles aching. She’d run and run until she couldn’t anymore, pushing herself to the limit. She didn’t want to think. This recovery was fast -- remarkably so, insisted the doctors -- but not fast enough.

Nicole stood awkwardly in front of the bathroom but a smile bloomed across her face and Waverly’s heart fluttered like a bird. “Hey. I... You don’t remember, but there was something you wanted as soon as we got through it all. And I, uhm…”

Waverly stepped forward. Touching. She liked feeling Nicole’s warm skin under her fingers, the pulse running under her wrist. Now it skipped and jumped. “And?”

“Let me show you.” Nicole opened the bathroom door and Waverly gasped.

“Oh my god,” Waverly said in amazement, stepping inside and loving the way the steam embraced her. A bath. Nicole had set her a bath and her muscles ached and it would feel so divine -- “Thank you,” she breathed in awe. She turned properly to Nicole and forced herself not to kiss her. “Thank you so much.”

Nicole beamed like Waverly had given her the stars. “I’ll be out here if you need anything.”

I need you , Waverly almost blurted but stopped herself. She nodded instead, speechless, as Nicole left her to heaven.

Waverly sank into the water with a barely restrained moan. She spent the whole time considering silly excuses to call Nicole in for, but overthinking ruined it. What if Nicole didn’t want her that way? What sort of crushing defeat it would be. And the nights after the rejection… cold and alone, or warm and awkward?

I’m a monsterslayer. I can do this.

Except I don’t remember…

Cold water forced Waverly from her thoughts and out of the bath and into her clothes. She returned to the room, drying her hair, having found no solution to her problem.

“Was it good?” Nicole asked, head tilted. Her braid made her look like a puppy. Waverly crossed the room with a bit too much sway in her hips, smiling innocently as she wrung out her hair. Nicole’s brow furrowed ever so slightly, eyes full of concern as she assessed Waverly.

“It was amazing,” Waverly reassured gently and Nicole nodded with a breath of relief, that brilliant smile returning. Waverly leaned forward ever so slightly, brushing her fingertips across Nicole’s shirt sleeve. “A bit lonely, though.”

Waverly, ever studious, noticed the hitch of breath and slight part of Nicole’s lips as the line registered. Nicole blushed and looked away, grabbing a box and putting it between them. “Here.”

“No way.” Waverly took the box and nearly tore it open, frantically prying cardboard out of her way. “No way, no way -- Oh, my god.”

A camera.

Nicole had gotten her a camera.

Professional grade, worth hundreds of dollars, something out of Waverly’s past, her interests, she must have mentioned it somewhere and Nicole had remembered -- “How?”

“I called in a favor and -- Wave, I’m sorry, is it --” Nicole caught Waverly as she crumpled forward, crying with the box between them. Huge, racking sobs rocked her as Waverly let years of pain out in the form of tears. Nicole held her close, rubbing soothing circles when she could. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Do you want me to --”

“No.” Waverly tucked her face into Nicole’s neck. “No. No, I just... I love it.” She pulled back, wiping her face, “Oh, god, I just cried all over you.”

Nicole smiled gently and held up a tissue box. “That’s what I’m here for.”

Waverly cleaned herself up, laughing slightly. “Are you sure you’re human?”

Nicole’s smile faltered slightly but Waverly didn’t notice. “What?”

“You’re like… a unicorn.” Waverly ran her fingertips down Nicole’s jaw. “Or an angel,” she whispered. Her thumb rested at the edge of Nicole’s lips and Waverly, transfixed, narrowed the space between them to centimeters. “Nobody’s ever done that for me.”

Nicole didn’t pull away. “You’re worth it,” she breathed. Her eyes fluttered shut. “Waves, we shouldn’t.” The name fell like a plea and Waverly brought their lips together.

The first feeling after the initial shock of pleasure was familiarity. It ran through Waverly like lightning and she pulled back, stunned and breathless. “Wait.”

Nicole’s eyes were a mixture of shock, fear, and pain.

“Wait -- We’ve…” Waverly put the pieces together, still running her fingers over Nicole’s face but remembering distantly a feeling. “We’ve done this before.” Nicole looked away. “Have we?” Waverly forced her face to meet her. “Have we done this before and you didn’t tell me?”

Nicole looked torn. “Waverly, I --”

“We’ve kissed.” Waverly shook her head, dumbfounded. “We’ve kissed and… What else haven’t you mentioned?”

“Just that, I swear,” Nicole said desperately as Waverly stood and put distance between them. “I didn’t want to put any pressure on you and I was afraid that if I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. You’d think I was a liar trying to manipulate you or pressure you into something you didn’t want.”

Nicole was right but god it all felt so overwhelming and Waverly paced, running a hand through her hair. “How many times?”

“Waverly --”

“How many times have we kissed?” Waverly asked sharply.

“Twice.” Nicole looked down at her hands. “Twice. You kissed me after we left the labyrinth. Then you kissed me again before --” She took a deep breath, appearing on the edge of tears herself. “Before we fought it for the last time.”

Waverly covered her mouth with her hand, bottling in an explosion. Holy shit. Nicole had kept this from her. She had kissed Nicole. Twice. They weren’t just friends.

The overly familiar headache jittered into her head again and Waverly pressed fingers to her temple. “Did I say anything about it? Don’t lie to me.”

“Waverly,” Nicole warned.

“Don’t lie to me!” Waverly shouted, the pain driving through her. “Did I say anything to you?”

Tear tracks caught the light of the lamp as Nicole shook her head, looking away to try and fight openly weeping. “You said…” Nicole swallowed thickly. The words were so quiet Waverly had to strain to hear: “You said you loved me.”

Waverly’s hand dropped against her pant leg with a thwap that sounded like a gunshot in the silence between them.

I loved her. Did I? I said I loved her. Do I love her now? I said I loved her and she didn’t tell me.

She didn’t tell me.

“I need to go.” Waverly turned and opened the door. “Don’t follow me.”

The door slammed shut behind her.

 

Waverly cried in a janitor’s closet, hugging her knees to her chest. She didn’t think she could cry any more, but here she was. Weeping again. Because Nicole didn’t tell her. Because she couldn’t remember. Because she was an emotional bomb just waiting to go off.

I loved her.

Do I still love her?

How did love work? Waverly didn’t know. She had never loved Champ. She had never wanted to go to his arms, to fall asleep in them, to be held and comforted. She rarely ever let him see her vulnerable.

She didn’t know anything about love. All she knew was that it was so cold in that closet and she longed to return to the room, to cry in a pair of arms that had always opened to her, even when they had been friendly strangers.

Champ had always taken. But…

Nicole had given. Nicole, who had been at her side quietly, patiently, like a rock throughout all of this. Always catching her. Never pressuring her. Would Waverly have honestly believed such a thing without proof? She could see herself reading that first day, coming across it and guarding herself permanently. Never asking Nicole to hold her in the night. Never letting Nicole come near her.

Waverly didn’t know. But there were things she did know by proxy. The pain of all that, the trauma. Nicole carried the brunt of it, the real truth of remembrance. Of remembering a confession of love but not being able to say anything. Or do anything.

And Waverly had just left her there like -- “Shit.”

In the end, whether she had loved her or not didn’t matter, not yet. She didn’t know if she had lied or done things in the heat of the moment because Nicole needed her. And Waverly needed Nicole.

 

The room was dark when Waverly returned to it, edging open the door and bracing herself. The moon sliced across the bed, showing Nicole laying in the fetal position. Waverly’s heart broke. She drifted across the room and pulled up the covers from the floor, climbing into the mattress.

“Wav’ly?” Nicole mumbled, almost waking.

“Shh. Sleep.” Waverly shushed her and settled in behind Nicole, throwing an arm over her waist. Nicole relaxed into sleep. “I’ve got you.” Waverly tugged the blankets over them both and held Nicole close. “I’m not leaving you.”


 

DAY 6

 

Waking up next to a person you supposedly love but do not remember is a new level of awkward for Waverly Earp.

Breakfast came and they had barely said two words to each other. She squinted at Nicole through a headache, wishing beyond wishes to remember anything at all about her. The cold hugged her through her uniform jacket and she pulled it closer. Remember. Remember.

Nothing.

“Waverly.”

Waverly startled, realizing she’d been staring over the table for the past few minutes. She hid in her regulation pancakes, furiously embarrassed.

Nicole sighed. “I’m sorry for not telling you. I didn’t mean to --”

“Did you love me back?” Waverly asked suddenly, unable to stand not knowing. The question had run through her head since she’d heard.

Birds tittered in the nearby trees. Employees walked by, giving them space, as if sensing the terrible awkwardness of their situation, or perhaps still in awe. There wasn’t a single sound between them for a good minute.

“Uhm.” Nicole said eloquently, ducking her head. “I don’t want to --”

“It’s okay,” Waverly cut across rapidly, hand outstretched, “It’s okay. You didn’t. That… that’s fine. I mean, I was probably just reading too much into --”

“I did -- I do,” Nicole said, eyes filled with genuine affection. “I love you, Waverly, but I also don’t want to put any pressure on you. I’d never ask you to be anything you’re not. So how about we just… put off this discussion until you have your memories back?”

Waverly, stunned, tried for words between thoughts of relief and he would never have done that and shit I’m gay . “Oh.” Nicole smiled wide, head tilted, dimples cratering and Waverly lost a lot more words. “That’s… nice. I’d like that.”

Nice words. Waverly winced but Nicole just smiled again and nodded, the atmosphere returning to a relaxed silence.

 

Tired board members sank into their seats for what they hoped to be the last time.

“The Board has heard all arguments and has voted unanimously to begin the final votes.” The Director lifted his document. “Today, we vote concerning the fate of Waverly Earp. You may now cast your votes.”

Dolls stood off to the side, his shoulders firm and back straight. He knew he had lost… but how badly had yet to be seen.

“Your options are the following: Execution. Imprisonment. Citizenship. Or, if you are feeling particularly grateful, the Hero Act.” The Director eyed the room. "Which, in case you have forgotten because the last time it was used was in 1921, grants reward for heroic deed in the call of action for citizens conquering the supernatural." Unable to interfere, he simply let the implication linger.

It was going to be a long day of waiting.

 

“That’s awful,” Waverly teased, looking over Nicole’s shoulder.

Nicole sighed heavy enough to rustle the paper she was drawing on. “I am trying my best . I can’t… I can’t even remember it clearly.”

The Book of Symbols lay abandoned to one side of the coffee table, the rest conquered by scribbled on sheets containing ink sketches of something that could either be a dog or a goat. No matter how she tried, Nicole couldn’t get it right.

They had taken a quiet break from the nonstop throwing back and forth of theories from the scant books they had.

“Horns here…”

“But you said it didn’t have horns when you first --”

“Here.” Nicole crumpled up the paper and threw it against the wall with a tired sigh. It bounced once and hit a plant. “Let me try this again.

Waverly gently laid her hands on Nicole’s shoulders, rubbing them. “Okay. First, let’s try not getting mad and giving up.” Nicole covered her face with her hands. “Can you try describing out loud this time?”

Nicole groaned, rubbing her face. “The first time I saw it.” She picked up the pen again and began to sketch it. “It looked like a big... dog-thing. With hooves and a face that was.. All wrong.” The hooves hit the paper, the thin legs, the emaciated frame. “The face was... Damnit. It was too fast. I couldn’t see it clearly.“

“Try the next one.”

Nicole pulled out another piece of paper.  “The next time, it bit me.” Struck by an idea, Nicole lifted her leg on the table rudely and pulled up her pant leg. The scar lay red and ugly just like it always had. “The length of the jaw made it look more like an animal, less like a human. But I still got the impression it was small.”

“...The third time was in a hallway with the lights out, but it was significantly larger. Standing upright. Its chest and shoulders broader, the hooves more pronounced, the claws almost as long as my hand, and the face cruel and…”

“Shitballs,” Waverly whispered as the sketch grew more and more distinct. But the face still gave Nicole trouble. Waverly laid a hand on her wrist. “Try the next.”

“...The Forest.” This time, Nicole didn’t bother with the body. She drew fat, heavy, lines. “Its face. I couldn’t see its face because it had something on it. It was wearing this .”

When Nicole had finished, Waverly lined all three images up, urging them to be familiar. Nothing except a sharp pain answered her. Damnit. Not enough.

“We need those books.”

Nicole sighed. “Let’s look at what we have. Again.”

 

After fifty minutes, the board cast its final vote.

The Director gathered them and everyone held their breath. Lucado smiled behind a hand. “In regards to the fate of Waverly Earp, we have voted the following: One in favor of execution.” Dolls let out an explosive sigh. “Three in favor of imprisonment.”

Shit, shit.

“And five in favor of the Hero Act

Dolls let a grin break through, noting the strained look on Lucado’s face. Waverly Earp would live. Not only that, she would be rewarded . Somehow, beyond all odds, the cold hearts of the board had defrosted for Waverly. One down.

One to go.

“Now we will vote with the same options on the fate of former Search and Rescue Officer Nicole Haught.” The Director eyed the room. “You may now cast your votes.”

 

So far, they had dug up nothing but frustration.

“This is so stupid!” Waverly said after a solid three hours, throwing the book across the room. Nicole flinched in response. “How are we supposed to make progress if we can’t even research? We have nothing after days of pouring over the scant books we can see and for all we know the answer could be on page one of something they took!”

“Wave.”

“It’s all useless!” Waverly set a book down too hard and grabbed her notes. “It’s all nonsense! Incoherent! All of this is just complete and utter frickin’ bullshit --”

“Wave!”

And I can’t fucking remember anything! ” Waverly ended in a desperate shout, leaving her panting and embarrassed. She covered her face with her hand, trying to stop the sobs. “I can’t.” Nicole stepped forward and embraced her, taking her weight. “I can’t remember anything except being afraid.”

“It’s okay,” Nicole murmured soothingly.

Waverly pounded her fist lightly against Nicole’s chest. “ It’s not okay! I should remember! All of those people thanking us and treating us like heroes and I don’t remember a damn thing, Nicole!” She pushed away, brushing tears, and Nicole’s heart broke. “What if I never remember?”

Nicole shook her head. “No, Waves. You will.” Waverly looked away, obviously not accepting that answer anymore. “How about I ask around?”

Waverly gave her a disbelieving look. “What?”

“You know.” Nicole shrugged. “I have a friend. Who… sees things. Maybe she can help us.”

Waverly pulled Nicole close, humming a pleased noise when Nicole held her. “Okay.”

 

Four hours passed. One by one, the votes were cast. The only sounds were the tick of the air conditioner and the tap of Lucado’s heel on the tile. Every now and then, Dolls would pretend to turn a page in his book.

Occasionally, a board member would speak up with a question and begin a fifteen minute round of varied and conflicting answers. The Director circulated the books as the file containing the Beast’s information passed around the table like a hot potato. Nobody wanted to look at it for long.

Seven votes had been cast. Two members, both on opposite sides of the table, still had yet to vote. One was an elderly gentleman of military background who Dolls didn’t know, the other a shrewd business man with a heart of stone and a bank account he loved more than his wife.

Nothing had ever taken this long. Dolls didn’t know if it was a good or bad sign.

 

Dr Navalar regarded the two standing in her office with an expression of almost pity.

“You.” The doctor’s finger stabbed through the air, nailing Nicole on the spot. “Out.”

Nicole stood up straighter. “But --”

“Out!”

Waverly gave a subtle nod and Nicole huffed, but turned her head and left. The door slammed shut.

Idiots.

“You.” Dr. Navalar leaned back in her chair and gestured to the one across from her. “Sit.”

Waverly sank into the seat with a sigh, fidgeting slightly. “So can you help us?”

Dr. Navalar leaned on one hand and let her pen tap against the desk, thinking. “Fugue states can be treated with hypnosis… but.. .”

Waverly sat up.

“I’d like to do a simple test.” Dr. Navalar tapped her pen as Waverly furrowed her brow with effort. “Try and remember. Try as hard as you can.”

 

Nicole won a staring contest with the security guard at the end of the hall. The man looked down, pretending to receive an important text, and Nicole took the childish victory with a smug smile as she leaned against the cinderblock walls. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

Shopping first, certainly, to get out of these uniforms. Then… Museum? It was Washington D.C. There must be something historical around. Then dinner -- Wait. Where would they put the clothes? Back here? No, she’d book a hotel room and store them --

“Do you know what time it is?”

Nicole opened her eyes and fixed the security guard a suspicious stare. “Of course.” Nicole pulled out her phone and froze.

No. It can’t be noon.

 

Waverly leaned forward in her chair, squinting. “It feels…” Her hands shook and she lifted them to her temples. “Like.. empty. There’s… a void. But it hurts, too.”

“How bad? Is it sharp?”

“Yeah.” Waverly nodded emphatically, shutting her eyes to the pain. “Very sharp.”

“Try harder .”

 

 

“Are you all right?” the security guard asked, leaning closer.

Nicole dropped the phone, the world blurring on the edges. No.

                                                                           -- clawing forward through the snow, closer to the light, she must see the light of day again.  (I am a monster) --

I am human.

Nicole fell to her knees, eyes screwed shut and one hand holding her pounding skull. Human. She was human. That was the only way she could live with herself, survive. The only way she could be happy and free and alive. She was not a monster.

“Henry to base, Henry to base. Got a medic, base?”

-- could not stand to see herself there, in that hallway, tearing herself apart without knowing the truth that lay in her mistake, of closing the door. She had stolen the memories. She had put them away along with half of herself, beyond a door she frantically pressed against. Stay closed! Stay closed!  (I am not entirely human.)--

 

Waverly groaned. “It feels like…”

Dr. Navalar halted her tapping pen, moving to take a sip of her coffee before stopping. Had her coffee always been so cold?

“Almost like there’s whispering…” Waverly’s breath caught. “Wait -- No, I remember something. A feeling… but it’s like it’s sliding away, fighting me. Scared. I remember being scared...”

 

The radio hit the tile and cracked open.

“Oh my, God,” the security guard said, unable to move. His limbs had simply ceased responding.

 

“...More scared than I’d ever been in my life. Can’t breathe. Can’t move. Everything’s frozen and there’s this feeling, this absolute certainty of I am about to die. That’s all I can think, all I can feel, like it’s about to end and this is it. This is it …”

 

Nicole fell forward onto her (       ).

              -- close to the truth of it all, being a beast on moonless nights and being unable to leave Waverly’s side, weighing her down, holding her back, keeping her from being truly free. Bound for eternity to a monster capable of terrible things. Striking fear into the hearts of witnesses and being able to rend and tear with the strength of --

I am human!

Waverly is free!

Both sides pressed against each other without yielding as Nicole screamed soundlessly. The world around her blurred with hurt and confusion as she tried to figure out where she was, who she was, (what she was).

Nicole did the only thing she could. If the computer has a virus, unplug it. Shut down .

Like flicking an off switch, Nicole fell limp, succumbing to the sweet relief of sleep.

 

Waverly let out a deep, heaving exhale. “Shitballs. It’s gone.”

Dr. Navalar felt a bizarre rush of relief, as if she had been holding her breath. As if she had been afraid. Nonsense. She cleared her throat. “What do you think this lack of memory feels like to you? Can you describe the sensations?”

Waverly flopped down in her chair. “Like a void. Maybe a collapse? Or…” Waverly opened her eyes, head tilted. “A black hole, maybe?”

What?

Dr. Navalar furrowed her brow. Was it coincidence?

Coincidence didn’t exist in Nowhere, Virginia. Rapid, panicked knocking on the door. Dr. Navalar stood, confusion and horror rushing over her in equal portions. Could it be possible? No. No, Nicole Haught was human. Nothing could possibly… “Come in.”

The door opened and a security guard came in, tears running down his face. Meaningless words came from his mouth as he pointed insistently, blubbering.

“What?” Waverly rose, looking out into the hall. “Oh, no. Nicole.”

Nicole lay limp as the dead on the tile and just as pale.

Don’t touch her , Dr Navalar wanted to scream in warning, but the security guard rushed her for a reassuring hug.

Waverly rushed to Nicole’s side, gathering her up. “Nicole!” Waverly slid Nicole into her lap, hands running up and down her body for a pulse. “Please! I need help!”

Dr. Navalar sat the guard down and picked up her phone, dialing.

“Daniels speaking.”

“How did the Board rule?”

“Still in debate with two still considering their votes. Why?”

“We have a problem.” Dr. Navalar watched Nicole wake, blinking blearily and mouth moving to reassure Waverly. “A very, very large problem.”

 

Chapter Text

Guilt.

Guilt overwhelmed Waverly when she saw Nicole lying there, pale, possibly dead. She had noticed Nicole was hiding something from her, but she had done nothing about it.

So even when Nicole sat up, mumbling somewhat coherently, Waverly still sobbed openly on her knees in the tile hallway, holding Nicole close. Crying was a private thing, something to be hidden -- Champ would have scolded her for being such a baby -- but thoughts of embarrassment fell down to nothing.

“Wave --”

“What did you do?” Waverly asked viciously, staring up at the astounded security guard, clutching Nicole protectively into, quite accidentally, her boobs. “What did you do?”

The man held up his cowardly hands. “I, I don’t --”

“Easy,” Dr. Navalar said, gesturing for the guard to enter her office and sliding a phone away. “Easy. Let me see.”

Waverly reluctantly allowed someone other than her touch Nicole, gazing warily as the doctor patiently examined Nicole’s responses. The security guard obediently shuffled into Dr. Navalar’s office and out of Waverly’s worries.

“I’m fine,” Nicole grumbled, sounding exhausted.

Dr. Navalar frowned severely. “So it seems you have only fainted.” She cast her eyes to Waverly. “Take her to the dorm to rest. In the morning, we will finish our discussion.”

Nicole immediately began feeble arguments. “I don’t need --”

“Shh,” Waverly hushed. Nicole moved to stand and Waverly helped her up  -- good thing, too, because Nicole swayed forward dangerously, bracing herself against the wall and Waverly. “You scared the shit out of me, Nicole.”

Dr. Navalar eyed them before retreating to her office to deal with the guard.

“I’m sorry.” Nicole tried not to lean too much on Waverly as they made their way down the hall. “I can walk on my own, you know.” Nicole insisted quietly.

“I know.” Waverly cast a glance at Nicole. “But you don’t have to.”

 

 

“This is the tattoo we found on almost all present in Colorado.” Dolls stood before the boardroom again that morning, indicating the image projected behind him. “We theorize that its use allowed the Beast to influence its prey.” Dolls nodded. “If you see before you the interviews of workers, they all state that the mark is gone, that it faded a day after the events at Colorado. If Nicole truly is a remnant of the Beast, then she would be heralded by this mark.”

“You theorize ,” Lucado sneered.

Dolls snapped, raising his voice. It had been hours of arguments and he had hardly slept at all. “If you have any counter-evidence, by all means, present it to the board!”

Lucado rose from her chair. “I don’t know why you argue so vehemently for a clear danger to this organization. Maybe she has gotten to you, too. Need I remind the board how he was seconds from executing the subject on his own before the Director interfered!” Lucado gestured to the room. “How else to explain such a complete one-eighty of morality?”

“Maybe because my mind is clear enough to not blame an innocent woman for the death of your lover, Jean!” Dolls roared.

“She killed him and you know it to be true!” Lucado took a step forward dangerously, “If you would let go of your biases of the Colorado program, we could have a proper discussion about this murderer .”

“The Colorado Program was a mistake ,” He declared, taking an equal step, facing her down boldly in front of all of his bosses at once. “ Stop taking your mistake out on her.

“Enough.” Gurino stood. “Both of you return to your seats. Petty arguments are not worth the life that hangs in the balance.”

“She doesn’t remember, does she?” Lucado asked, a smile widening on her face.

“What?” Dolls asked, freezing in place. “What makes you say that?”

“The reason we haven’t heard her testimony.” Lucado looked to the Director, meeting his gaze head on. “Is because she doesn’t have one.

“There’s no evidence of that,” The Director said calmly, “We simply wish to avoid making her relive her trauma.”

“The both of you are terrible liars.” Lucado looked between the two. “How convenient,” Lucado said as she settled into her seat. “That the only one who could tell us for sure if Nicole Haught is dangerous or not… does not even remember .”

“I think we will adjourn for today,” Gurino announced, “Since both of you cannot follow simple instructions. We will all return tomorrow for another round of this, God help us all.”

 

 

Nicole was asleep before she hit the mattress, leaving Waverly with a confused riot of feelings.

I’m not letting anything bad happened to her, Waverly silently vowed, I just can’t.

A complete stranger. A complete stranger who loved her, but lied about it because she was worried Waverly would feel controlled or pressured. How could she not compare her to Champ? To Waverly, it had only been a few weeks since she’d seen him last, moments after brushing a kiss on his cheek while peeling his grabby hands from her hips. Besides some hesitant, extremely consensual cuddling, Nicole had never touched her like that. Ever.

Not that she didn’t want her to.

Shut up!

But beyond all of that, Nicole was teaching her something Champ had not. Trusting someone, being with them as a partner: that wasn’t supposed to hurt.

Waverly dressed in their gifted, bland pajamas and crawled into bed. For a moment, she just looked at how different Nicole was in repose: relaxed, innocent. So beautiful that Waverly’s heart ached and she delicately pressed a kiss to Nicole’s temple, unable to resist.

Nicole muttered in her sleep something that sounded like Waverly in a way that made Waverly melt beside her with a sigh, burrowing into Nicole’s arms. Chivalrous, even in sleep, Waverly had to be a little insistent about it before strong arms pulled her all the way in where she fit perfectly.

The familiar sigh that followed and the face nuzzling into her hair were all Waverly needed to fall asleep, completely at peace.

 

“Well?” Wynonna asked as Dolls stepped into the room, exhausted. “What’s the word from the Council of Villainy?”

Dolls let out a bone-shaking sigh and put his head in his hands. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Wynonna asked harshly, “How is that supposed to help? ‘Sorry, I don’t know whether or not my boss is going to murder my sister’s friend’ --”

“I don’t know!” Dolls shouted, “I have been arguing for days on behalf of your sister! I don’t know whether they’ll extend her the same miracle of gratitude, but I am trying my hardest to defend someone who still arguably might be dangerous .”

“Dangerous?” Wynonna asked, laughing in disbelief, “Nicole can barely throw a punch. What is she going to do against the government? Protest ? Stage a sit in ?”

“There are some things we found that don’t make sense.” Dolls pointed in the vague direction of their rooms. “When we tried to put them in separate rooms that first day, Waverly’s condition crashed . We have reports that someone dreamed of their dead loved one. Another saw something in the forest. Something big , Wynonna.”

“I dream of my mom all the time!” Wynonna countered. “That could be something else, a bear or --”

“And the fact your sister remembers nothing. Not a damn thing. She pretended to recognize me. That doesn’t just happen .”

Wynonna paced. “It could be the trauma. We forget stuff.”

“No. Her memories are gone .” Dolls steadied himself. “And there’s only one person with that kind of access to her mind.”

Wynonna stopped, her face twisting. “You asshole .”

He took a breath. “If the Agency decides Haught is a danger to the general public, I have a duty to obey that order.”

“I guess I was wrong about one thing.” She strode up to him, face to face, almost chest to chest. “You’re a coward , Dolls.”

Wynonna left the room, letting the door slam behind her.

“She’s right, you know,” Doc said over his cigar.

“Shut up.”

 


 

 

BLACK BADGE HEADQUARTERS, VIRGINIA. 7:55 AM. VALENTINE'S DAY.

 

Waverly stepped out of the shower the next morning expecting Nicole to be up and about, waiting, but Nicole slept on.

“God damnit,” Waverly said with her hands on her hips over a seductively low towel. Even being loud while getting her clothes and dressing produced no movement except for a deep, rattling snore.

Waverly had never felt this. Not for anyone and definitely not for Champ, who’d she seen naked, or that objectively handsome Perry Crofte, who had stopped by briefly. No. Nothing compared to how Nicole made her feel. Weird, fluttery feelings, hot skin, and racy ideas about where --

Nicole mumbled in her sleep, flopped over, and began to drool.

Sexiest woman Waverly had ever seen.

Waverly went out and brought back breakfast to a Nicole still in a sleepy coma. Sighing, Waverly brushed another kiss to Nicole’s temple and whispered, “I’ll be back later after I talk to the doctor.”

Nicole hummed an acknowledgment.

Outside, Black Badge buzzed with its usual rush. Waverly answered kind smiles and greetings to people she barely recognized but exalted in her presence.

But Waverly had begun to notice those who avoided her, casting distrustful looks and muttering to those beside them. The number had seemed to grow and Waverly hurried to the next building to avoid their judgment.

 

Dr. Navalar stood as Waverly entered, face grim. “Congratulations.”

Waverly looked up from her grey thoughts as she sat down. “Huh?”

“You are a hero,” Dr. Navalar said in a tone of voice that made Waverly question her thoughts on the matter, “Voted on by the board to receive full status here at Black Badge, should you choose to join us, and have your name on a very nice, rather gaudy plaque.” The doctor smiled, a little patient, a little cruel in a way that made Waverly feel like an unruly child, “You should feel very honored. This is entirely un precedented.”

Oh. Hm.

Waverly blinked. A strange mixture of relief and guilt overlaying mind-numbing shock. Hero. Voted on. Gaudy plaque.

(But Waverly didn’t remember.)

“Your friend is not going to be so lucky.”

Waverly jolted upright. “What?”

Dr. Navalar folded her hands on the desk. “If Nicole has not mentioned, I have the ability to See events in the future. I know the Board will end in a draw.” The way she said it might as well have been guillotine . “The Board is voting on her fate the same way it voted on yours. There will be four votes to pardon, four to execute, and one abstaining.”

“Pardon?” Waverly asked sharply, “Pardon her for what? Being injured? Being a victim ?” Hands clenched, Waverly felt ready to fight an army of werewolves with her new gaudy plaque.

Dr. Navalar raised her hands, “Peace. I am on your side, even though you infuriate me for a reason I do not yet know.” Waverly eased herself back in her seat. “I will explain from the beginning if you will listen. But it will not be easy to acknowledge the darkness that you do not remember experiencing for yourself.”

Waverly tightened her jaw. For all of Nicole’s suggestions otherwise, Dr. Navalar sure was a dick. “Try me.”

Dr Navalar gave her a flat look of appraisal. “Very well.” She pushed forward a folder and flipped it open, scattering papers across the desk. More pictures, this time sketches and various drawings of things that were absolutely not right at all. Things that looked beyond the limits of evolutionary adaptation -- what purpose could such a large mouth have? What purpose for legs long enough to fool those below it with trees?

They reminded her of the drawings Nicole had attempted. Strange shapes that were reminiscent of predators long gone but still present in half-remembered nightmares.

Oh. The answer, plain as day: Adaptations to hunt humans. Waverly could see it now, could feel it in the way she understood that in hearing a cougar she felt the vague fear of centuries behind her.

Those before her were at once devastatingly familiar and completely new.

“Most of these are all dead and gone. We know the Beast may have been the last of its kind, drawn out of hiding in desperation to have some sort of…child or…wife, or heir. It hides its true nature by meddling with perception, even going so far as to disguise itself as other creatures like it.”

More photos. These of victims, which Waverly winced at but refused to turn a blind eye to, strange deformed humans with limbs too long, and teeth too sharp.

“We told you what we know about its bite, but what it did to your friend we know to be unique because the scientists in Colorado -- those under the Beast’s control -- documented every miniscule detail. The Beast targets those with what we call an excess of humanity -- Love. We initially rejected this theory, but have obviously been proven very, very wrong.”

Dr. Navalar produced a blurred, hurried photo, taken in extreme distress, and Waverly felt the world fall away beneath her.

Nicole -- who looked like a fucking puppy for god’s sake! How could this be the same person? -- lunging at a bespectacled man with fangs bared and a clawed hand pulled back, absolute mindless fury contained in a single moment.

“Oh God,” Waverly whispered, looking at the photo with horrified despair at what it had done to her gentle, kind-hearted friend. Waverly fought her tears and lost.

Waverly couldn’t take her eyes from the photo, from the empty eyes of Nicole, filled only with mindless hunger and hate. Her fingers reached toward it, to feel the photograph as real, and she wondered distantly if her memories contained images like this.

“The Beast chose her because of her humanity. We suspect it bit off a little more than it could chew, given the connection between you.” Dr. Navalar watched Waverly brush away her tears with a rare, sympathetic expression. “I will tell you now, the votes to kill her are done out of cruel cowardice.”

“I meant what I said,” Waverly said under her breath, not speaking to the doctor. A mixture of horror and understanding came to her, but also hope. “I meant what I said to her. At the end.” Waverly looked up at the Doctor. “I think I might love her.”

Nicole had not lied to her.

Dr. Navalar put her head in her hands and sighed. She said a brief prayer for patience and mercy before looking up at Waverly. “Are you prepared for the next part?”

“Yes,” Waverly said.

“Your friend has stolen your memories.” Waverly recoiled as if slapped. Dr. Navalar raised a hand to stop her from speaking. “It may not have been intentional . Whatever strange happenings occurred, they still have a hold on her. We highly suspect she may be the psychic equivalent of a thermonuclear bomb, based on witness testimony.”

“You’re...you’re joking.” That was her first instinct -- that none of this was real, that her friend wasn’t in danger, because believing otherwise was impossibly painful -- but the doctor shook her head. “She’s not dangerous! I’ve been -- I’ve been sleeping with her and she’s never, not once --”

Dr. Navalar raised an eyebrow but pressed on. “We do not know what you saw, what you encountered, but we know that whatever you two accomplished -- it has bonded you together and somehow left your friend with the ability to bend perception. Especially yours.”

“No,” Waverly breathed absently, a much more feeble attempt to protect herself from the pain of belief.

“When is the last time you considered your injuries, Waverly?” Dr. Navalar asked, pining her with a stare.

“I can’t, I can’t -- I don’t…” Waverly put her head in her hands, biting back the urge to scream as her world shifted. Monsters realer than ever. Her friend both dangerous and in danger.

Nicole had stolen her memories.

“Why?” Waverly asked, lifting her head from her hands, “Why take my memory? What isn’t she telling me?”

“I do not know,” Dr. Navalar replied, “All I know is that Nicole is hopelessly in love with you and only you can solve what possible secret that Nicole, at all cost, will hide away.”

A growing sense of despair settled in Waverly’s gut. What could be so terrible that Nicole would do something she would never willingly do?

Dr. Navalar put a syringe on the table.

Waverly stared in horror. “Is…is this for…?”

“We must figure this out before she loses control of it all completely,” Dr. Navalar said. “This will put her to sleep. Either you can do it…or we can do it. You have little time to decide.”

“You want to...” Waverly felt disgusted. “Put her under? Capture her?”

“In a way and in a controlled setting.” Dr. Navalar picked it up and offered it formally. “Help all of us. Help you. And help her. We will keep her safe, this I promise.”

It made sense. Yes, logically, it was sound. Have the person Nicole trusted most escort her to a place where she would be safe…if contained. And Waverly had always prided herself on her logic.

But it felt wrong . She couldn’t do this.

Waverly raced to a decision that would risk everything.

Why? Why for a stranger she had just met?

Not a stranger. Nicole. Her Nicole. Hopelessly in love, honest from the start, unyieldingly patient Nicole, who needed her help.

Waverly felt in her heart an unyielding certainty: the doctor’s plan would not work. It would backfire. Waverly’s only choice was to steal Nicole away, take her to some place where she would reveal the secret on her own terms. To gain Nicole’s trust organically instead of betraying her and throwing her in a cage for something that wasn’t even her fault.

The plan made her sick to her stomach. Distrust tried to crawl onto her face but Waverly fought it down. Dr. Navalar was not her ally. Not really. If she was willing to throw Nicole in a cage, then she had her priorities in a bad order.

If Nicole hadn’t been lying, and Waverly was the hero…

Then it was time to act like it.

Waverly thought fast and decided upon her secret weapon: Appearing completely harmless.

“If you say it will help her…I’ll do it,” Waverly said with exhausted acceptance, brushing away tears and folding in on herself.

“It will,” the doctor vowed, “I am fond of Nicole. There is a valid reason the Beast sought her so desperately.” She pointed to the syringe. “There is enough there to put her out safely. Any part of the body will do. Trust me, we have spent millions to research a syringe usable on the large and unstable whether human or not.”

Waverly took it in her hands, felt the object of betrayal, and nodded. “Okay.”

They both stood, the conversation concluded.

Teary-eyed and distraught, the perfect image of innocence, Waverly hugged Dr. Navalar. “Thank you.”

The doctor bought it, sighing in relief with her stance easing. “You are --” The air rushed out of the doctor’s lungs and she stepped back, hand flying to her neck as Waverly stepped back out of her reach.

Waverly retreated further, mouth open as the doctor stumbled, leaning on the desk, fixing her with a dangerous glare while pulling the syringe from her throat. “Now I know why I never liked you,” Her breath misted the air and with a mixture of awe and despair, the doctor fell to her knees, already half unconscious.

Waverly stared at the limp body that covered half the floor, eyes wide. Holy shit. Holy shit. Waverly knelt and made sure she didn’t kill the woman -- yes, she’s alive -- but she had just -- Jesus! Christ! Shitballs!

Focus! Hero time -- Money. Money was the second thing Waverly needed. She pawed through the doctor’s pockets, wincing, before pulling out a wallet.

“I’m super sorry about this,” Waverly said as she robbed the unconscious doctor, “I promise I’ll pay you back somehow. But you said this was super, super dangerous so maybe I get like, a pass? Or something? If this works?” Waverly frowned. “You can have my plaque?”

The doctor failed to respond.

Waverly found it: a federally issued black credit card that had no limit and some car keys. Freedom .

A thought struck her before she left and Waverly snatched a pad of paper and a pen.

 

Hey! Stole your money, your car, and assaulted you, but I promise I’m solving that problem you told me about in a way that’s not dumb!

Hopefully, this all works out and you won’t be super mad about it!

Very sorry!! I will make it up to you!!

-xoxo Waverly

 

Now for the next part of her plan:

She was going to ask Nicole on a date.

 

TO: Waverly Earp

FROM: The Director

URGENT --

See me at your earliest convenience, which is now.

 - The Director

 

Waverly ignored it.

It wasn’t smart. But what was she going to say? Sorry, going on a date?

There were more pressing matters like reaching Nicole yesterday and ignoring the people following her and the others offering harsh glances.

Do they know already? No, preposterous. She’d set an “OUT TO LUNCH” sign outside Dr. Navalar’s door.

Next, Waverly called the one person who could still ruin everything.

“Hey Wynonna, don’t ask any questions, but me and Nicole are going off base for today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe a few days, actually, but we’ll be nearby. I need you to not ask any of the questions you’re about to ask, thanks!”

Wynonna’s “Hey, you --” was cut off as Waverly hustled across the lawn to the dorms, thoughts racing a mile a minute and fingers dancing.

“OK Google, what’s some good places for a date in Washington, D.C.?”

The walk gave her time to think about the details and make some reservations. She would take Nicole off base, into public where she couldn’t be murdered, and in the process gain Nicole’s trust. Then, somewhere safe, she’d finally ask the question:

Why did you steal my memories?

The question brought a wave of anger with it that Waverly had to take a moment in the reflection of a window suppressing. Calm. She could yell at Nicole when she wasn’t considered a thermonuclear bomb.

Waverly slowed down in the hall to their room, trying to steady her breathing. She smoothed down her hair and undid a few more buttons of her henley.

What if Nicole said no?

Hopelessly in love with you, Dr. Navalar had said. But that person Nicole loved was gone . The Waverly that was here was a hollow imposter with none of the memories that tied them together. How could she convince Nicole to give her a chance to make new ones?

But a fierce flare of confidence ripped through her. She was the Beast-Slayer, monster fighter extraordinaire. Her memories might be gone but she wasn’t.

The door opened, stealing away Waverly’s thoughts. Nicole, face torn with concern, filled the doorway.

“Wave, what’s wrong?” Her eyes searched and Waverly could tell Nicole was physically holding herself back from hugging her. “Are you okay?” A pause. Quieter, “Do you remember?”

“I…” Waverly shook her head.   How did she know? Did I make a sound?  “No, but…”

Nicole’s face fell while Waverly hesitated.

If I don’t do this, they’ll throw her in a cage.

“Go out with me,” Waverly blurted.

Nicole softened, that was the only word for it, the way her limbs relaxed and her face eased, her eyes holding such affection and grief -- “Oh, Wave,” she breathed with such regret that Waverly knew she might say no, not when you don’t remember me --

“Please,” Waverly said desperately, “I know I don’t remember, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop.” Nicole’s eyes shone in the dim light of the hallway. Waverly’s voice steadied. “I want to make new ones with you.”

Pure happiness dawned on Nicole’s face, a slow smile creeping into existence with hesitance. “Really?”

Caged. Treated like an animal.

“Yes,” Waverly said, smiling through her tears.

Nicole beamed like a full moon, wide and beautiful, and Waverly knew Dr. Navalar had told her the truth in at least one area. “I would absolutely love to.”

Waverly surged forward and crashed into Nicole, bringing their lips together a bit too hurriedly, -- an almost miss -- but Waverly held Nicole’s face close and brought them together again properly. The sense of deja vu made Waverly gasp, hot and desperate, tightening her fingers in soft red hair lest she float away. Butterflies rioted as Nicole settled her hands on low on Waverly’s hips and brought them closer together while kissing her like every moment that they hadn’t, Nicole had thought of nothing else.

They broke apart, Waverly trying to reign in the desire to climb Nicole like a tree with harsh mental reminders of the mission.

Nicole rested their foreheads together to catch her breath, that smile still creeping up like the moon. “Wave, I -- Can we go slow?” Nicole amended at Waverly’s confused frown, a small embarrassed laugh hitting the small space between them, “I was actually going to ask you out after you got your memories back.” Nicole grew distracted, thumb tracing Waverly’s lips like she was convincing herself not to meet them again.  “Are you sure you don’t want to wait?”

“Yes!” Waverly said a bit too fast, “I mean… Yes.” Waverly smiled now that her plan was in motion. “The doctor even agreed and gave us her keys. How amazing is that?”

“Really?” Nicole grinned. “You always know how to charm ’em, Wave.”

 

TO: The Director

FROM: Waverly Earp

Sorry! Going on a date!

 

Xoxo Waverly

 

Waverly bounced her leg, nerves making her antsy as she drove them up the winding, too-long-to-make-sense road that eventually lead off base. She almost jumped as gentle fingers laid themselves across her other thigh, easing her.

Nicole blushed, preparing to pull back, but Waverly caught her hand and held it. Like a date. A real date. Not a mission. Well -- the date was the mission.

Waverly struggled with that last part. She wanted to reach over and shake Nicole, yell in her face, demand answers. But she couldn’t.

(Thermonuclear bomb.)

The man at the gate looked over their IDs with a bored expression. “Yuh, y’alls go on through,” he said, before buzzing the gate open. His accent made it a little more like ‘go on thruh.

Waverly laughed with wild relief at not being stopped, tossing a look at a beaming Nicole holding back cackles, “Yuh,” Waverly mocked good-naturedly, giggling. “Y’alls go on thruh .”

Nicole threw back her head and laughed, before looking back and screwing up her face with effort. “ Yuh ,” she said with absolute perfect mimicry, “ Y’alls go on thruh.

Waverly’s mouth fell open. What the fuck. What the fuck. What the -- Nicole tilted her head, confused at Waverly’s reaction, so Waverly laughed nervously to cover for it. Holy shit, did she not even notice what the fuck she just did?

What the fuck!

“You’re pretty good at that,” Waverly said, glancing between Nicole and the road.  A sudden spike of a headache made Waverly wince and almost let go of Nicole’s hand. Almost.

Nicole snorted and rolled her eyes. “Hardly. Appalachian is hard.

She doesn’t know!

“Anyway,” Waverly said, dropping Nicole's hand to crank the heat up slightly. “It’s going to be, uh, a drive. So.” She took Nicole's hand again, entwining their fingers. “Can you tell me the story again?”

“Of course, Wave.” Nicole gave Waverly a small, reassuring smile, and the pressure in Waverly’s head began to recede.

Fuck.

Waverly listened for it -- because she couldn’t very well watch, could she? -- for any variations or lies, any obstructions, but nothing in particular stood out except for the brief moments Nicole shifted and scratched at her pant leg as if soothing a phantom pain.

As soon as they took the turn off of Nowhere onto Langley, it was like civilization popped out of… well, nowhere. Somehow they’d been deep in the woods, but when Waverly craned her head to see and her GPS began to work, there wasn’t anything there.

Spooky. Like magic.

“I just can’t remember those parts, in-between,” Nicole said dismally, gazing out the window. “I wish I could.”

“Nicole,” Waverly tried her best to not prod too indelicately, “Is it possible, in theory, hypothetically. Just as a possibility …”

“Wave,” Nicole said, squeezing her hand. “You can always ask me anything.”

Thermonuclear bomb.

Waverly began to sweat. She wanted to know. She needed to know. But the question couldn’t get past her throat. Her eyes were drawn away from the road, out to the Potomac River that wound lazily next to them. The city of Washington, D.C., rose behind it. Even now she could spy landmarks.

She could feel the tension in her shoulders, the way the leather on the wheel cracked under her fingers, the way cold seemed to seep into her skin.

Waverly felt like Pandora, given the gift of curiosity. Except this time she knew Nicole was omitting something from her story, had stolen her memories. Could it be the source of the nightmares that made Nicole scream at night? The Not Yet, Waverly, I’ll tell you later.

Did Nicole have any idea of what she was doing?

“You’re cured, right?” Waverly asked, unable to tear her eyes from the road.

Nicole became serious, squeezing Waverly’s thigh in reassurance. “Wave. Of course .”

“UNABLE TO CONNECT TO GPS.”

Nicole beamed, happiness and awe sinking into her voice, “Whatever you did cured me. I thought I’d have to live like that, but I don’t.”

Waverly still felt this strange tension that did not ease and couldn’t let her arms relax. Nicole noticed, she always did, and went into further detail.

“When I…” Nicole swallowed. “I could feel it. It was so cold. I… I was cold. You complained about it often.” Nicole smiled distantly. “And my heart was so fast… I’m still not sure if it’s been damaged, but the doctors cleared me. I can eat normal things again. Meat sorta makes me ill. I’m fine, Waverly.”

Realization dawned as Waverly could feel that Nicole was telling the truth.

Nicole had no idea what was happening. It was entirely possible that Nicole had no idea she had stolen Waverly’s memories and no idea that she was causing subtle changes in the world around them.

Jesus -- Nicole still believed with her whole heart that she was human. A suspicion crawled into Waverly’s mind and settled down: The evidence otherwise was slipping from Nicole’s mind. Talk about cognitive bias.

Waverly tossed a reassuring smile toward Nicole as terrible dread settled in her stomach. “That’s good.”

“SIGNAL RESTORED.”

Silence reigned for most of their drive down the highway as Waverly wrestled her worries under control. The most important objective was to give Nicole a fantastic date. Everything else came in distant second.

They drove into Washington, D.C., a brief moment of awe falling between them as they gazed in equal shock at normal, everyday people existing.

“Weren’t you a history student?” Nicole asked, gazing upon the distant Lincoln Memorial. She looked back to Waverly, trying to ease the tension with a change of topic. “Know any neat facts?”

Waverly blushed, ducking her head briefly. “All right. Did you know the Nacotchtank people lived here first?”

Nicole leaned over, propping her head awkwardly on the middle console to stare dreamily at Waverly. “You already know your brain turns me on,” Nicole said seductively with a dramatic eye flutter, “Tell me more.

For the first time that day (Oh, but it would not be the last!), Waverly laughed free and loud. Thankful for stopped traffic, she stole Nicole’s act with a kiss that made Nicole’s face turn red.

 

WASHINGTON, DC. 11:45 AM

“YOU HAVE ARRIVED.”

“Uh, Waves,” Nicole said as Waverly unbuckled her seat, “This is the Jefferson .”

The Jefferson, a high-end five star hotel that loomed over uptown Washington, D.C., greeted the pair with its historic beauty. Some of the oldest and most expensive of housing made up the ostentatious part of town around them where cars parked on the street were worth more than both kidneys.

The air might as well smell like money instead of car exhaust.

“Yep!” Waverly said brightly as the concierge skipped over to them. The deafening buzz of the city welcomed them as they left the safety of the car for the unseasonably warm February day.

“Welcome, Agents!” The concierge bowed ever so slightly, obviously flustered as he waved over the valet. “Please, allow us to take your car. Everything is ready for your stay tonight.”

Nicole stared at the man as if he was speaking Greek and Waverly covered for her easily, smiling politely and charming him instantly. “Thank you, Paul. I’m sure it’s perfect.”

“Nothing but the best for the Bureau!” He said, a line of sweat on his brow betraying his nerves as the valet took a second too long taking the car away. “Please, do you need anything else, recommendations? A taxi?”

Waverly, ” Nicole hissed, horrified, but Waverly only smiled wider at the man and patted Nicole’s hand.

“No, we can walk. Thank you both.”

Paul nodded rapidly. “Of course, of course, you need only call. You need only call. Have a fabulous Valentine’s day, agents.”

They made it a few steps before Nicole lost it.

“Waverly, you can’t let them believe we’re FBI -- This is a felony!” Nicole whispered fiercely as Waverly lead her away up the sidewalk. The city moved sluggishly in February with scant passersby, Locals caught up in getting to work or their own dates, not overhearing mentions of felony behavior.

“Don’t we have a history of those things?”

“I mean…” Nicole huffed. “I guess .”

Waverly gave Nicole a quick peck on the cheek and enjoyed how adorably Nicole reacted with a blush and shy dip of her head. This date stuff was easier than she thought.

“Let’s go shopping for some clothes that don’t scream Federal Agent.” Waverly took Nicole’s hand and let it hang between them as if it was meant to be there. “Totally normal date stuff. No monsters.”

Nicole began to relax, much to Waverly’s delight. She settled herself and offered Waverly a small smile. “Okay.”

“No, you’re not doing it right,” Waverly teased, bumping into Nicole playfully, eliciting a laugh. “‘It’s ‘okay, babe.’ Because I’m a babe, you’re my girlfriend , and we’re on a date .

Oh, shit.

Waverly had said the ‘g’ word.

Waverly held her breath as the silence between them lingered. Three minutes in the city and she’d already fucked it up somehow. Nicole hadn’t said a word. Fuck. The mission was blown.

“Waverly.”

Waverly didn’t take her eyes off the city around them, pointedly not looking at Nicole.

“May I kiss you?”

Much to the annoyance of a man with a briefcase, Waverly stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, taken completely by surprise.  Nicole stood patiently waiting for her answer, an apology on her lips, but Waverly tugged them out of the way of foot traffic until Nicole was basically pressing her up against a brick wall.

When Waverly replied with a quiet, breathy, “yes” she had expected something hard, possessive, hungry, but Nicole wasn’t anything like that.

Nicole gently lifted Waverly’s chin with one finger, eyes searching for any sign of distress, before kissing Waverly softly. Nothing that she had expected but everything that she had imagined, Waverly felt the small gesture all the way down to her toes. Nicole gave her a warm fuzzy feeling and kissed her like she meant something.

This was a kiss to write home about.

 

Dear Gus,

Nicole is very good at this kissing stuff. If this date goes well, I think I might be the only person in the world to fall in love with the same person twice.

Sincerely,

Waverly

 

Everything imperfect about it made it perfect. Butterflies, stars, the whole shebang, even a marching band was going around in circles under Waverly’s sternum. She half expected cupid to just be hanging out in a nearby tree with an extremely satisfied look on his dumb baby face.

Waverly tried holding onto the front of Nicole’s shirt to make it last longer, but Nicole pulled back with a goofy grin that was almost as good a use for her mouth. Their foreheads met and Nicole laughed in soft disbelief.

Strangers only spared glances, having decided that two FBI agents making out certainly wasn’t any of their business.

“I’d love to be your girlfriend, if you want,” Nicole whispered over the city, opening her eyes and looking at Waverly with such unbridled joy that she blushed with equal parts guilt and something else.

Waverly bit her lip, searching vainly for words. Nicole blushed furiously and made to pull back, taking it as a no, “Sorry, I just -- “

“Hey.” Waverly tugged on the front of her shirt, stopping her. “I liked that. I’m just a little…speechless.” Waverly dipped her head, embarrassed. “I’m not used to being asked,” she admitted, barely audible over the sound of the city.

“We can stop at any point, Wave,” Nicole said seriously, “We can just go as friends, or go back. It’s always your choice.”

Waverly playfully pushed Nicole’s shoulder. “ I asked you out and no, you don’t get off that easy.” She turned serious. “You know it’s the same for you, right?” Waverly traced her thumb against Nicole’s cheek. “Whatever happened, Nicole. If you get too anxious or panicked or whatever it is, I understand. That’s more important to me than any of what I planned. Okay?”

Nicole’s smile turned warm. “I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit anxious being around…” Nicole glanced both ways and lowered her voice. “After everything that happened. But I really, really like this. Thank you.”

“You’re wel --” Waverly blinked and caught a strange light in Nicole’s eyes that caused goosebumps to prickle up her skin. It’s hard to grasp the terrifying nature of the uncanny valley, but Waverly grasped it hard as her brain simply refused to say anything but

This is wrong!

Make it stop!

Make it go away!

Nicole leaned forward, hand brushing Waverly’s hair out of the way, lips nearing the shell of her ear. The breath that ghosted across her flesh was cold. Far too cold.

Absolute terror seized her spine and Waverly couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. She simply stood there, shaking in place like a leaf on the verge of falling, as Nicole’s face hovered just out of her vision.

“Please help me,” Nicole whispered frost in her ear.

A small, weak noise managed to escape Waverly’s lungs and she held her breath, staying so very quiet and still that this frightening thing might ignore her helplessness and leave.

Rational thought returned and Waverly realized she had to say something, anything--

“I will,” Waverly whispered hoarsely. She swallowed, trying to look at the shape in the corner of her eye. “I will, I promise.

It seemed to sigh in her ear in response, the frigid air brushing over the delicate, fatal parts of her neck in a reminder of how utterly vulnerable she was.

Waverly shut her eyes, taking in breath after shaky breath, almost openly gasping for air. The oppressive dread eased and Waverly opened her eyes to ones filled with concern.

“Are you okay, Waverly?” Nicole asked softly, eyes searching for a cause, some way to help.

Waverly slowly registered the pain that had been present in the desperate plea.

I think part of you just asked me for help in the most terrifying way possible , Waverly thought. She blinked rapidly, trying to re-orient herself. At least… I think it was you.

“I...I thought I forgot where the store was but I know where it is now,” Waverly said, trying to ease her shaking. She pointed. “Look! Doesn’t it look like a painting at this distance?”

Nicole frowned but obliged, looking to the distant Capitol skyline. “It sure does.”

It took a few minutes to finally remove the last remaining shiver in her step. Nicole, ever perceptive, reassured her silently of her presence, somehow sensing words wouldn’t be enough right now.

It only took so long because Waverly wanted it to be someone else.

Yes. She wanted Nicole to be possessed.

Option B, that her friend was trapped inside of herself , that was infinitely worse.

But damn her stupid smart brain for putting all the pieces together already. She knew now that Nicole had not only taken her memories -- but taken parts of herself along with them! -- and hidden them away somehow. The unimaginable pain she could hear in Nicole’s voice…some part of Nicole knew why this had all happened and needed Waverly to figure it out.

The only question that remained was why , and the only way to answer the question remained the same: Complete the mission. Remain in public places until later tonight where, in private, in a safe place, Waverly would ask for the truth.

So when Nicole offered a reassuring squeeze of the hand, Waverly gave her a bright smile in return, pressed her lips to a warm cheek, and commented on what a beautiful day it was for a date.

 

“Agents!” sang the attendant at the ridiculously high-end fashion boutique. “How can we be of service?”

Nicole winced at how obvious they were. Waverly raised the black card and the attendant nearly fell over himself in approaching, while others who had noticed also dropped what they were doing.

“We need some casual clothing for a nice night on the town, then some evening dresses for dinner at the Jefferson.”

Nicole’s jaw had lost function.

“Of course, of course,” the man said, leading the pair inside. Two others flanked Nicole, ushering her in through her dumbfounded trance, “Anything, anything. Perfection for you two tonight, that is what it will be.”

 

People pushing and prodding at her made her sweat, Nicole found. It irritated her beyond belief. Some memory stored away burned with the proximity of the attendants as they bickered back and forth. She wanted to push them away and leave.

But Waverly smiled at her from across the store and Nicole forced herself to relax and grin back. This was for a date, in public, where she was safe and human.

A date with Waverly.

Awe filled Nicole and she barely noticed the people around her shoving clothing in her hands and pushing her toward changing rooms. Nobody else got to date Waverly Earp tonight. Just her, right now, on Valentine’s day. She felt like a teenager again.

(Except Waverly didn’t remember.)

Guilt hit her like a two-by-four. But Nicole had made it clear that it was to be slow, stopped at any time, and Waverly’s choice. Each minute they spent together, Nicole felt more and more hope that Waverly might stay, even when she remembered…

Remembered what?

 

                                                                                                                                             --

So loud! Everything was so loud, inside and out. The dark around her seemed physical. Her limbs were far too large and thinking made things hard.

 

But the small, frail thing before her, she knew it was important, she knew she must reach it before The Other did. The Other hungered beyond all reckoning, but she would NOT ALLOW it to win, she would die before doing so! she would protect -

 

the    light of the     fire           illuminated         Waverly’s face    

 

  clearly, and Nicole saw the one thing she could not, under any                     circumstances,           

 

    handle.

 

                                                                                                     Fear.

 

                                   Waverly was afraid

 

                                                                                  of her

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   . --

 

Nicole woke up on the floor of the changing room, breathing hard. She edged to the wall and pushed against it, slowly climbing to her feet and to reality. The full mirror across from her reflected only her terrified, human face. She peered into it, even leaning against it, inspecting herself for something. Anything.

Nothing.

Nicole checked her phone: only a minute had passed.

“Everything all right in there?”

“Yes!” Nicole called, regulating her breathing. Confusion crept inside. What had she been so concerned about? Nicole shook her head and looked over the not-too-horrible selections the attendants had gifted her.

The dress they chose was beautiful beyond belief. Shades of purple that would do well matched with gold, but it was too restricting. Nicole felt trapped in it. She couldn’t sprint in these heels.

She poked her head out at the attendants. “Do you have a suit?”

“Yes, of course.”

“One that I can move in and some shoes I can, if needed, run in?”

The attendants shared a look, but nodded. “Yes, we’ll see.”

A few minutes later the suit arrived with the tailor.

The process took inside of an hour, but the tailor was an expert in the area. “What, you think you are the first to ask for something like that in Washington, D.C.? I do this for the CIA, the FBI, the NSA. You are maybe the thousandth to ask.”

“Oh,” Nicole said.

The suit fell away and they threw more clothes at her.

Nicole found herself facing down three attendants eyeing her with growing horror.

“I mean no disrespect at all,” Nicole said, keeping her commentary on just how bizarre their selection was inside. “But I really just -- don’t you stock jeans ?”

One of them looked faint.

“I have to walk around outside,” Nicole insisted, “Please. Just give me something simple. Something casual.”

It was work finally convincing them to relinquish their tanktop and jean selection. Nicole waved off her hair being messed with and settled for a ponytail.

“You almost look like a lesbian,” the tailor commented dryly as Nicole put on a plaid button up. “She will love it.”

Nicole waited for Waverly, watching at the clock tick by. Not out of impatience. She just loved to see time move forward steadily, at even beats, with the inevitability she saw as safety. She knew where she was. She knew what time it was. And she knew who she was.

It brought comfort to her heart to repeat it all over and over. Washington D.C. One fifteen PM. Nicole Haught, Search and Rescue.

She watched tourists pass and wondered at each person, what they’d do if they knew. The man in the suit -- what does he worry about? The woman pushing a stroller -- how close had she come to the supernatural and not noticed?

They did not know of the boy who fell from the cliff, of the truth of the forests around them, of the Beast. They were all so vulnerable.

“Hi,” Waverly interrupted like a ray of sun.

Nicole’s head snapped up and her heart stopped. Waverly walked up to her, wearing a blue blouse with cranes on it that did something to Nicole that she couldn’t quite describe. It was tied up, revealing the smooth planes of Waverly’s midriff. Jeans and the cutest hat Nicole had ever seen brought it all together so well that Nicole could hardly breathe.

She’s my date, Nicole thought in wonder , I get to go to dinner with her tonight.

I can’t fuck this up. She deserves the best.

“You’re stunning,” Nicole said, at last, to ease the worry on Waverly’s face. “I can’t believe I get to hold your hand.”

“If you’re lucky, you can do more than that,” Waverly said, tiptoeing to peck Nicole on the cheek. Again, Nicole found herself off-balance and uncharacteristically shy. Waverly had that effect and she doubted it would ever pass. “I’m taking you for cookies and cocoa, then we’re going to go ice-skating.”

They had the rest of their clothing sent to the Jefferson -- apparently a thing, but almost anything was possible when you had a black credit card, Waverly discovered.

 

Later, Waverly had herself tucked under Nicole’s arm on a bench near The National Gallery of Art.

They had stopped briefly to capture a photo together at the Washington Monument, sharing quiet observations of those they passed on a stroll through the National Mall. They spoke of nothing at all, simply being together, snapping photos and stealing chaste kisses, blending in perfectly with the couples around them.

Gradually, Waverly could feel Nicole relax further into it under her hands, letting herself enjoy the fresh air and normalcy. The moments where Nicole would tense as if to run and take a few moments to center herself became fewer and far between. Waverly’s heart grew with every smile she could tease onto Nicole’s face, every laugh she could lift from her lungs.

Though the day had only gotten warmer, they still decided to get cookies and cocoa in the quiet garden cafe among the outdoor exhibits, not far from the skating rink.

(Also the AMOR sculpture where Waverly had tried to sneak in some tongue but Nicole put a stop to that quickly; laughing low in a way that made Waverly hotter than the taste of Nicole’s mouth.)

She dreamed of doing this again and again and again, in different places. Venice. Athens. London. The place Nicole called home. Any place and any time in the future, when the pain that hid behind Nicole’s eyes was gone and the hesitant, ever-present anxiety of the mission dissipated.

“May I ask you something?” Nicole broke their comfortable silence, “About your plans.”

Waverly braced herself and nodded.

“Where will you go?” Nicole asked quietly. “Is there anyone for you in Purgatory?”

“My aunt,” Waverly said between bites, “Not related.” She turned her head, a soft look on her face as her eyes mapped Nicole’s profile. “Curtis was my uncle, but he’s passed. Gus, she raised me. She was as much a mother as she could be.” Waverly reached over to tangle her fingers with Nicole’s, who set her cocoa aside. “She’s going to love you.”

Nicole felt winded at the implications of a future. To be so certain she had none, then to survive, then for Waverly to stay with her -- the universe kept on being far too kind.

Nicole lifted Waverly’s hand and kissed it. “I’d be honored to meet the woman who raised you.”

Waverly got that look in her eyes, the distant one that Nicole couldn’t place. It held some emotion that eluded her definitions. Waverly leaned forward and kissed her then, stealing Nicole’s breath and her buzzing thoughts for a moment of pure bliss.

Insistent. A little less than appropriate. It warmed Nicole more than the cocoa she could taste on Waverly’s lips, the brush of a tongue making Nicole jolt and pull back slightly.

“Slow, right,” Waverly said apologetically.

Nicole nodded, unable to trust herself to speak.

“What about you?” Waverly asked, “Who’s waiting for you?”

Dull pain whispered in Nicole’s heart. She took a long drink of cocoa to gather her thoughts. “My dad…I told you about him, but you don’t remember. He died hunting…” Nicole took a breath, lowering her voice, “the Beast. I don’t have any other family, but…” A smile snuck up on her. “My boss Nedley. He always believed I was alive. And his daughter, Chrissy, a good friend. I’d love to see them again.” Nicole looked at Waverly, eyes shining with tears. “They’ll love you, almost as much as I do.”

Waverly leaned over, cuddling closer. Silence descended without awkwardness. Nicole drew patterns on Waverly’s back, expecting no answer.

“Thank you for coming with me today,” Waverly said quietly.

Nicole kissed the top of Waverly’s head. “Anytime, baby.”

“Oh, I do like that.” Waverly laughed.

Nicole beamed at Waverly like that laugh was music. She sipped her cocoa then frowned. “Why is this cold? It was so hot a second --”

Waverly panicked and snatched it from Nicole. “Must be a mistake.”

Nicole tilted her head at Waverly, lips pressed together. “Oh. A mistake.” And the incident seemed to slide from her mind, leaving Waverly with a cold cocoa and very large worries.

 

They skated together just a few meters from the Cocoa place. Sometimes, the light would catch Nicole’s hair just so and Waverly would just have to pull out her phone and capture it.

“Did you know the Director is a werewolf?” Waverly said out of nowhere as they cruised around the circle, dozens of other couples too caught up in each other to listen. Cute pop songs about love serenaded them.

“I didn’t,” Nicole said, focusing on her balance.

“There’s all sorts of werewolf advocacy programs that run through Black Badge. The supernatural community is larger than Black Badge, did you know that? It’s like a whole hidden world.”

“That’s incredible.”

“Non-humans face a lot of stigma, obviously. But it’s changing fast and --”

“Waverly,” Nicole said, stopping her adorable rambling with dimples , “Is this your way of asking if I’m a werewolf?”

“I’m just -- I’m just saying, you know.” Waverly patted Nicole’s arm. “If you were a werewolf, I’d be okay with it.”

“Well, I’m not.” Nicole tried to smile and frown at the same time, unable to be sure if she should be offended or flattered.

“I know you’re not, but I’m just saying, if you were --”

“Hey.” Nicole put a hand on Waverly’s, stopping her again with a reassuring smile that did more to stop Waverly by driving her speechless. Again. “That’s very nice of you, thank you.”

Another circle.

Waverly couldn’t help it. “I mean, if you were any type of non-human, I’d be okay with it.”

Nicole frowned contemplatively. “I don’t think I’d be okay with it. I think I’d do anything to be human again.”

Waverly slipped and almost face planted.

Nicole caught her easily. “Easy, baby. I thought you were the expert here.”

“Yeah, well,” Waverly thought fast as Nicole’s brow tightened with concern. She kissed Nicole’s cheek again. “Gotcha.”

Nicole laughed.

 

They drifted around the National Gallery of Art, taking in the beauty around them with almost silent reverence. Sometimes, Waverly would stop Nicole and take a photo of her in the light, trying to capture this image of her happy, forever.

Breathtaking.

“Perfect. We have to come back for the cherry blossoms, though. And with my new camera.”  Waverly skipped up to Nicole, showing off the photo.

“Absolutely. You got me good, Earp.” Waverly stole Nicole’s grin with a quick, chaste kiss. This time, Nicole managed a smoother recovery this time. “When did you first get into photography?”

Waverly’s smile faded and she looked around the atrium, distracting herself with the marble pillars. Nicole remained close, not oppressively so, and waited silently.

“I started taking photographs to send to my sister,” Waverly admitted, “I got into it after I saw I was good at it. But I…” Waverly took a deep breath. “I wanted to show her the good things about home.”

Nicole gently took Waverly’s hand, a silent reminder.

“I was always hoping if I took the best picture, she’d...” Waverly stopped, unable to keep going. Her mouth didn’t get the memo and moved soundlessly as tears threatened. Jesus. Crying on the first date. Waverly brushed away tears, fiercely embarrassed.

But Nicole only hugged her, trying to offer solace to a pain she couldn’t imagine.

“I thought she’d change her mind and come back,” Waverly whispered into the secrecy of Nicole’s embrace.

“She did,” Nicole said, “She did, Waves.”

Waverly cried harder for a few moments before pulling back, wiping at her eyes and sniffling. “God, I’m so sorry. I cried all over you on the first date and I’m ruining it.”

Nicole smiled, brushing tears away with her thumbs. “Wave. There’s no possible way you could ever ruin this.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.” Nicole chased the statement with a kiss that made Waverly’s mind stutter to a stop.“I know this is your date, but there’s someplace I wanted to take you,” Nicole whispered, “May I?”

Waverly, who had carefully planned every second, decided: well, fuck it.

Waverly smiled, freedom feeling strange in her lungs. “Sure.”

 

 

THE SMITHSONIAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, WASHINGTON D.C. 3:19 PM

“Thoughts?” Nicole asked, turning from the sign.

Waverly responded by jumping up and down, hands fanning herself, making loud, excited noises she’d never expect herself to make. She jumped into Nicole’s arms and Nicole spun her like a cliche -- just one of those perfect moments that Waverly deserved. 

“You’ve never been? Seriously?” Nicole frowned at the offense of the universe.

“Never had someone to go with.” Waverly shook her head, beaming, and hugged Nicole hard.

 

How to summarize the happiest Waverly had ever been? For the next two hours, Waverly felt free in a way she hadn’t remembered feeling in a very long time. The exhilaration of being with a partner in public, not being afraid to be absolute goofballs together, that was perfect. Nicole not only listened to the work Waverly had put in to her studies, she was also interested.

Waverly’s camera roll grew.

Nicole, standing with a hunch, face in a goofy recreation of the neanderthal exhibit.

Nicole, a butterfly landing on her face, making her eyes go cross.

Waverly in front of the iconic Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton -- “Come on, Wave! You have to. It’s a rite of passage .” -- with a brilliant smile and outstretched arms.

The pair of them goofing off in the kid’s exhibits, challenging each other to higher and higher scores.

And dozens more of them simply being together.

 

The Hope Diamond stood glittering before them.

“You know, now that I know all of this supernatural stuff is real, I wonder if it really is cursed,” Waverly mused, circling the glass case.

“If it is, that’s one thing we have in common,” Nicole said quietly.

“What did you say?” Waverly said, spinning on her heel. “Nicole -- What did you say ?”

Nicole frowned adorably. “I said that it probably is cursed, given what we know now.” She tilted her head. “Are you okay, Waverly?”

Waverly, absolutely not okay, smiled and took Nicole’s hand. “It’s nothing.”

“It’s nothing,” Nicole agreed.

 

The moment that Waverly realized her feelings, Nicole was looking somewhere else and making a face.

“What are you doing?” Waverly asked, laughter in her voice as Nicole pulled her lips down with her fingers.

Nicole pointed. “Look.” Waverly turned to see a baby giggling and clapping from a stroller, his guardians distracted by the whale exhibit, Nicole now lifting her whole face. Positively thrilled, the baby hollered and pointed at the entertainment.

“I --” Waverly shut her mouth on the words.

I love you.

Nicole kept making faces, unaware of Waverly’s maelstrom of gay panic.

Before she could comment further, Waverly caught sight of very obvious government agents approaching, clean suits and frowns giving them away like loud neon signs.

“Come on,” Waverly said, tugging Nicole from the exhibit.

Dead end.

Except...

Waverly pulled open a service closet and shoved Nicole inside.

“I need to talk to you,” Waverly said seriously.

Nicole, absolutely baffled, “Wha--”

“Not you!” Waverly insisted, “The other you.” Waverly leaned closer. “At least, I hope it’s you. It is you, right?”

Nicole narrowed her eyes. “What are you talking about?”

Waverly grabbed Nicole by the collar and pulled her close. “Do you trust me?”

“Yeah?” Nicole said, as if the answer was obvious but she was just a little bit worried Waverly was off her rocker.

“Okay.” Waverly reached up between them and tugged the light cord, drowning them both in darkness. “Stay quiet.”

It started with the dull pounding behind her eyes that made Waverly have to shut her eyes, leaning her head forward, desperate to ease the sharp ache. She rested against Nicole’s flannel and felt the stir of cold air.

“We’re running out of time,” Waverly whispered, “And I need to know if this is working .”

“No moon rises,” Nicole breathed in her ear, “Tonight, I am dangerous.”

Waverly furrowed her brow. “So you really aren’t a werewolf.” Nicole’s hand tightened ever so slightly. “Sorry. I know this is serious. But I can’t believe that there’s no way to solve this that isn’t a cage.”

“It is too late.”

“No,” Waverly said adamantly,“I’m going to show you that life is possible beyond what happened, Nicole.” Waverly pulled Nicole closer by the lapels of her flanel, lowering her voice to dangerous levels. “So I’m going to take you to a nice dinner and you’re gonna like it.”

Waverly pulled out her phone. “Now wait a second while I make a very angry phone call.”  She dialed and got a response in one ring.

“You impetuous little girl, do you not realize what you have done?” Dr. Navalar hissed.

“This little girl saved your Agency!” Waverly said fiercely, the fire within her well and truly lit, “And I am about to do it again . So if you try to stop me, I will make a scene. I have a very loud scream and I know Krav Maga. You’re going to watch while I have a nice date with my spooky girlfriend and defuse the bomb you’re so worried about. Understand?”

Silence.

“Understand?” Waverly asked sharply.

There you are!” Dr. Navalar said, palpable joy in her voice, “There is the hero we thought to be hiding. Go. My agents are called off for now. The vote is not yet done. You have until tonight, Waverly Earp. We will be watching.”

The line went dead, leaving Waverly vaguely annoyed. Still, victory in hand, Waverly proudly pushed open the door and lead a very confused Nicole into the hallway. She blinked at Waverly. “What were we just doing?”

“We were just…” It hurt to lie to Nicole, but hadn’t she done the same? “Fooling around in a service closet,” Waverly said, hoping her theory held true.

“Oh, that makes sense,” Nicole said agreeably and promptly forgot anything else, an adorable furrow on her brow as her brain did terrible, terrible things to patch the damage that made Waverly’s heart sick.

Please forgive me.

“It was really good,” Waverly insisted. At least she could help Nicole’s brain make it nice . “I behaved myself, but it was really, really good. And safe. Comfortable. Because I like you a lot and things are happy.”

Nicole smiled soft like new snow, leaving the memory behind her.

Waverly, slightly ill and eager to leave lest any agents not get the memo, led them back to the hotel.

 

THE JEFFERSON, WASHINGTON D.C. 5:15 PM

Waverly flicked on the room light and furiously blushed.

The hotel staff were absolutely certain that she and Nicole were having sex tonight. Rose petals covered the bed sheets. Wine bottles perched next to candles that were sure to be lit while the pair were down for dinner. Whoever was in charge of decor only loved one color: red.

They didn’t move from the doorway, both paused in mutual embarrassment and horror.

Thankfully, Waverly’s phone rang. “It’s Wynonna,” Waverly said with a frown, “How about you change while I answer this?”

Nicole nodded rapidly, apparently not trusting herself to speak, and retreated to the bathroom.

“Hey, baby girl. Why is everyone saying your name in a way that sounds really, really pissed off?”

“I may have broken a bunch of American laws,” Waverly said, peeking out the window. Were there that many black, nondescript cars there before?  “You should be proud.”

“Well, it looks like I’m on guard duty, Ms. President. Are you seriously on a date?”

Waverly smiled unintentionally, “Yeah.” She bit her lip, glancing over her shoulder at the door.

A long pause. “Is she good to you?”

“Yeah.” Waverly felt it in her soul. “Really good, actually. Like, fantastic --”

“Ew. No details, please.”

“Well we haven’t actually had sex yet --”

“Please. Mercy. I do not want this right now, thank you.” Wynonna took a breath as if bracing herself. “I just want to know she’s not like…” Wynonna paused.

“She’s nothing like him,” Waverly said fiercely.

The door opened and Nicole stepped out of the bathroom, adjusting her cuff.

Waverly stopped, mouth open. “I gotta go,” she said distractedly, barely remembering to hang up.

Nicole was wearing a suit.

A suit.

OhmygodNicolewaswearingasuit.

The suit fit her perfectly and -- true to tradition -- her shirt had almost too many buttons undone. Nicole looked almost divine under the hotel light as she fiddled with her cuffs and tilted her head curiously at Waverly.

Sweet. Baby. Jesus. Waverly had never felt so utterly attracted to someone before. She wanted nothing more than to take that suit off with her teeth if necessary. Holy shit.

“Wave?” Nicole asked, concerned, “Are you okay?”

Waverly shook her head, taking a few steps forward. She even did a circle around Nicole, just looking and admiring the way the suit perfectly hugged her body. She ended her circle by staring Nicole in the face, realization on her face. “I am so gay,” Waverly admitted.

“Okay?” Nicole said nervously.

“Can we skip dinner?” Waverly asked, half-seriously.

“Waverly,” Nicole breathed in admonishment and surprise as she ducked her head with a furious blush, completely taken aback by Waverly’s extremely obvious intent.

“Slow, right,” Waverly sighed wistfully. “I should go change,” she said, full of regret. “You don’t, though. And you wear that someday in the future so I can take it off you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole said with a low voice, some of that sexy confidence Waverly knew lay hidden under all that had happened surfacing. Waverly fiddled with Nicole’s jacket, unable to take her hands off her.

“Wait in the atrium,” Waverly whispered. Nicole tilted her head, confused. “Trust me. Or you’ll make us late.”

 

Oh, that’s just not fair! Nicole thought as Waverly appeared in a gorgeous green dress that made her look like a mermaid and left so much skin bare, hugging the rest in a way that made Nicole try hard not to groan in agony.

Waverly had made her wait here , in front of all these people , so Nicole wouldn’t pin Waverly to a wall and make them late. Nicole ached to destroy whatever had obstructed Waverly’s memory. Damn it for the fact that Nicole could not strip Waverly out of that dress and show her just how much she burned.

All of Nicole’s willpower held her back. Barely.

The sly smile on Waverly’s face told Nicole her thoughts were blindingly obvious. Waverly draped her arms around Nicole’s shoulders, pressing the most infuriatingly chaste kiss to eager lips.

“Waverly Earp,” Nicole said in that low way of hers, filling it with all the affection she felt in her soul, “You are a vision.

“Mmmm.” Waverly gave Nicole a private, seductive smile. “Now you know how I feel, seeing you in a suit.”

“Oh, Waverly.” Nicole traced Waverly’s jaw, leaning forward to whisper into her ear as a flush ran up Waverly’s face, “This is how I always feel.”

Nicole could hear the quiet hitch of breath and the subtle gasp that left Waverly’s lips. “We’re going to be late,” Waverly said hurriedly, trying in vain to hide her reaction, pulling Nicole off to the restaurant.

 

Nicole had done this before, so why was she so nervous?

Waverly had thankfully secured them a quiet, intimate table at the corner that must have cost an arm and a leg. The menu had no prices. Nicole had done this before as a kid, though her memories were vague.

Her skin felt hot and sticky under the suit.

“Are you okay?” Waverly asked over the candles. “You look a little pale.”

Nicole smiled weakly. “We gingers always do. It’s fine.”

It wasn’t fine, but Nicole forced it down. She ignored the feeling of her hands gripping the fork hard enough to bend it, how easy it had been to break things, how she just wanted to tear into the tablecloth just for the sake of destruction.

Too hot. Nicole shrugged off her jacket and wiped sweat from her brow.

Waverly looked concerned but lifted the menu. “You have to try the crab. If you go to Maryland, you try the crab …”

“...splendid morning at the Capitol...”

The scrape of a fork against a plate.

“...Every time we come here, it’s undercooked...”

The sound the waiter’s shoes made on the floor.

“...Heard from your sister lately?...”

A man clearing his throat.

“...Cost him his job by the docks...”

Drinks colliding.

“...Stop ordering rare, dumbass…”

The rattling inhale of her own lungs.

“...I slept with your friend…”

The blood pounding in her ears. Nicole could see her pulse in the back of her eyes as she closed them, held them, crushed them shut. Stop thinking about the screams of frightened people, the dark feeling of being utterly lost, the hopelessness of  --

“Nicole?”

The shatter of the glass in her hand and the shocked gasps that followed.

Silence.

Nicole opened her eyes and saw people staring. She could feel their gazes like the sweat crawling down her back. In jerky, inaccurate movements, Nicole stood without looking at Waverly and fled.

 

Dizzy and borderline delirious, Nicole stumbled her way into the bathroom. Other women were by the mirrors, chatting. Please leave, Nicole thought.

They did, looking frightened, but Nicole barely registered that fact as she made her way to the sink. She held a death grip on the marble, shaking, trying to maintain control. God, what if she lost it? What if she just totally, completely lost it? Just turned into a raving mad woman, screaming about monsters in the woods, telling people about this secret they were ignoring, what she had seen! How was she supposed to sit at a dinner and pretend that she didn’t see people die?

Deep end? What deep end? Nicole had flown right past it. Just completely nuts to think she could possibly be here at a nice dinner with her girlfriend after all that had happened. Being lost in the woods. Being something else. Seeing things no one should ever see.

Footsteps behind her. Nicole managed to turn on the sink, feel the water run over her shaking hands, before Waverly’s soft touch at her side drew her attention.

“Nicole,” Waverly said distantly, “Breathe, baby.” Gentle hands rolled up her sleeves and a cold towel pressed against her neck. “Panic attack?”

“We saw people die, Waves,” Nicole whispered, shutting her eyes, leaning her weight against the wall, numb fingers trying to get at her collar.

“Hey, let me help,” Waverly’s voice came clearer. Somebody else’s fingers at her neck, unbuttoning. Blessed cold air. The tightness in Nicole’s throat eased and she tilted her head back, a sigh freed from her lungs.

“I’m s-”

“Shh, don’t,” Waverly insisted, cool fingers still tracing comforting patterns on her throat. “Just breathe.” Seconds passed like minutes as Nicole breathed in, out. “We could go to some little sandwich place or go back to the room, or…”

“No.” Nicole shook her head and lifted it, looking at Waverly, beautiful and perfect. “I… I want to do this. I just need a minute.” Her breathing eased to normal levels and she shut her eyes again, feeling the weight of everything that had happened press against her.

“Baby.” Waverly urged Nicole to lean on her, holding her close. “It’s over. It’s done.” Nicole relaxed muscle by muscle as Waverly softly ran her hand over her shuddering back. “We won. We’re going to have a nice dinner because fuck the Beast,” she whispered into Nicole’s ear, “We won and then we’re going to cuddle tonight after watching a romantic movie.”

Nicole let out a low chuckle at Waverly’s language as the adrenaline faded and left behind a dull, ill feeling. But Waverly smelled so good and when Nicole turned her head to kiss Waverly’s neck delicately, lips trailing up a pulse that stuttered and quickened, she tasted even better .

A throat cleared. They both froze like deer in headlights as an elderly woman shuffled past them, tutting her disapproval. As the stall door slammed, Waverly started giggling and Nicole felt it wash over her like rain.

 

 

The pair returned to the table. A kind waiter had already gotten rid of the glass and no heads turned for longer than usual, soothing Waverly’s worries that maybe some of them weren’t actually civilians. They conversation started on easy topics as Waverly tried her best to distract Nicole from her nerves.

“I was a bartender before,” Waverly admitted with a duck of her head, ashamed, “Just a small town nobody.”

“Hey.” Nicole leaned forward, dimple appearing. “That 'small-town nobody' saved the damn world, as far as I’m concerned. And as far as a certain government agency is very concerned.”

Waverly blushed further, but the waiter appeared before she could respond. “Ladies.” He took their orders with a polite poker face and left to fetch wine.

“No crab?” Waverly asked, having ordered some delicious sounding seafood dish.

“Maybe sometime in the future I could stand something fishy,” Nicole said, frowning deeply, “But I don’t think I’ll be able to eat meat again. Ever.”

Waverly snuck her hand across the table, tangling their fingers together. Nicole offered a thankful squeeze. The waiter returned, presenting their wine before leaving them to wait.

Nicole watched with an eyebrow raised as Waverly took a rather large sip.

“One glass, I promise,” Waverly said, mouth curling upward. “You’ll have to wait to meet Drunk Waverly. She’s very, very handsy.”

Nicole laughed and the atmosphere cleared.

 

 

Fate is cruel, but bureaucracy is crueler.

The final vote had yet to be cast. The entire boardroom held an awkward standstill, the shuffle of papers still underlining the lack of voices.

The tired-looking man adjusted his red tie and set down his votes. “Abstain.”

Dolls rarely felt surprised, but he was thunderstruck. Lucado had sharpened her stance, mouth open to comment, but nothing came out.

The Director read the votes in a voice resurrected by utter shock:

“Four to spare. Four to execute. We have reached indecision.”

The boardroom erupted in a sea of outraged voices speaking at once.

“Vote, Baker!”

“You spineless son of a bitch --”

“She’s a human being!”

“Kill it now --”

But the neutral man’s expression remained devoid of emotion. Both sides merely became even more enraged, seats abandoned in favor of stabbing fingers and accusing shouts, all illusion of decorum discarded. Democracy had failed. It was time for anarchy.

“Gentlemen, please! ” The Director shouted, “We must hold order at the very least!”

But howling chaos unleashed itself upon the boardroom. Employees began storming out of the room and vowing to act out their own decision. Discreet text messages began filtering one by one, each caused by distrust -- if we do not act, they will - - and causing the greatest bureaucratic standstill in the agency since Colorado.

Orders raced their way around Headquarters and beyond into D.C., causing everyone from security to custodians to agents posing as civilians to pause and check their phones for their codes.

Capture Nicole Haught, Lethal Force Authorized.

Protect Nicole Haught At All Expense.

Some received both. Others received one or the other. All in all, a whole lot of shit happened all at once with the sound of a hundred plus phones going off.

 

The soothing background of violins shattered into the sound of text alerts and dropping utensils. Waverly sat up, going rigid, eyes wild, seafood forgotten. Nicole gripped her hand tight as her eyes scanned the room. Mutters of confusion faded to silence.

One by one, the patrons around them lifted their gazes and settled on the pair.

Waverly gave a trembling smile and wave. “Can…” Waverly swallowed. “Can we help you with something?”

Their eyes slid to each other, assessing. It was a middle-aged woman in a far too tight dress who broke the stillness by slamming a plate into the temple of the man next to her, then all hell broke loose. Couples who had once been chatting amicably were now wrestling tasers and knives from each other’s hands, some even falling to the floor in the brawl.

A gun went off, snapping Waverly out of her shock and her seat. She grabbed Nicole’s hand and tugged the absolutely shell-shocked woman into the hallway, sprinting in heels.

They ran until they found the empty elevators in the back of the hotel. Waverly pressed the up button far too many times.

Men skidded into the hallway, pointed, then frowned in a way that said Very Not Nice Things Were Coming. Their sole focus was Nicole. They discounted the woman in the dress as a threat.

Big mistake.

Waverly grabbed a nearby decorative table and slammed it into the leader with panicked strength, sending him tripping backward over his partner. Another managed to reach Nicole.

“Hands off my girlfriend, shitbucket!” Waverly hissed before slamming her forearm into his throat. He stumbled back, eyes wide, clawing at his windpipe.

Ding!

Waverly grabbed Nicole by her suit and pulled her into the elevator. She slapped the button a couple dozen times.

“Halt!” An agent appeared, blocking the elevator doors with his gun drawn.

“Nicole!” Waverly said urgently, unable to accept defeat. “Do something!”

Nicole did something. She grabbed the arm holding the gun, pulling it forward to seize the man by his throat and throw him out of the elevator into the wall with a dull thud.

“I don’t like guns,” Nicole said before the doors closed and the elevator began to move. Her body relaxed slowly and she shook her head to dispel the confusion.

“He changed his mind,” Waverly said. Nicole nodded, rubbing her face.

 

They scrambled down the empty hallways toward their room, frantically listening for any sounds of pursuit. None appeared.

The door locked securely and Waverly backed away from it, thoughts going a mile a minute. Nicole held her head and groaned out her panic as she paced the center of the room.

Waverly’s headache intensified. The room seemed to distort in subtle ways, her vision going blurry and unfocused, vertigo sending her almost tumbling to the floor.

Thermonuclear bomb .

“Nicole.” Waverly stumbled to Nicole, gently taking her wrists, pulling rigid hands from her face. “Look at me.”

Nicole, eyes wide, pain obvious, met her gaze with pure terror. “I can’t. I can’t, Waverly.”

“You can,” Waverly said, heart breaking into tiny shards as tears fell freely from Nicole’s sad brown eyes, “You can, Nicole. I --” Waverly felt for words. “Whatever it is, Nicole. You have me. Okay? You have me.”

“Waverly,” Nicole said, anguished, “You should be free .”

“I am free,” Waverly said, tightening her grip to enforce her words, “I am free with you .”

Nicole had not lied. Waverly had told the truth during the moment she couldn’t remember.

Waverly shook with the truth of it all. Falling in love. Twice.

“You give me the freedom in my life I’ve always wanted, Nicole.” Waverly took Nicole’s face in her hands, gently soothing over wet cheeks, “I love you and I’m not leaving you.”

Nicole looked at her and Waverly remembered.

A curtain pulled back in her head, revealing the horror she had endured. The horror she had conquered . The fear that had been her constant companion returned as a dull whisper in her mind, the steel she forged into her spine cracking with the heat of being back in normal life -- she had just been on a date! After witnessing such things no one should, after destroying what might have been an ancient being that had existed before humanity!

She had gone ice-skating!

She had survived the Beast !

She needed therapy!

(Good lord, her ribs hurt like a bitch!)

Waverly had lived beyond it, had experienced sunshine that she had felt certain she would never witness again, and she had Nicole --

“I’m so sorry, Waverly,” Nicole said desperately, “I was so afraid . I shouldn’t -- I didn’t mean --”

“Why?” Waverly asked, voice rising, “ Why did you take them, Nicole?”

“I saw you,” Nicole explained, tears running down her face, “I saw you and…and you were afraid of me. When It cursed me...I panicked. I swear I didn't mean to do it, Waverly. I would never take your agency away from you on purpose like that.”

“What curse?” Waverly whispered, frown falling away along with much of her anger. It still simmered beneath the surface -- But the moon had already set and the temperature of the room had begun to drop enough that goosebumps skittered up her skin.

“It couldn’t stop you from bringing me back,” Nicole explained with despair, “But it could make me come back different.” She pointed out at the city-lit sky. “Every moonless night, I change .”

Waverly stepped forward, cradling Nicole’s face in her hands, thumbs brushing tears from her cheeks.

“I’m so sorry Waver --”

The kiss was soft but true, life affirming and life altering at the same time, but the hug that brought them together afterward felt like being reunited after ages apart.

Nicole seemed to shut down, sobbing. Waverly held her close as Nicole slumped to her knees. “I forgive you, you big idiot.” Waverly turned her head, whispering into Nicole’s hair. “I love you.” She held tight, shutting her eyes. “We’ll get through this. Just like everything else.”

“I love you so much, Waverly Earp,” Nicole said against the skin of Waverly’s neck. She tensed. “Wave.” Nicole pulled back, eyes wide like she had realized something. “Listen to me. You can’t trust Black Badge.”

“Why?”

“They made--” Nicole’s words ended in a strangled noise of pain as her spine locked and she fell backward onto the floor, arching upward. She gulped air and made it onto her hands and knees before it struck again.

The perfectly tailored suit became the first victim. Nicole tore at it, shedding scraps of it, thankfully not taking any of her own skin with it.  The candles extinguished in a hushed, chilled wind that whispered from nowhere.

Though Waverly could not know, Nicole’s brain had started hitting all sorts of emergency buttons to make it not as painful as it appeared. It felt like freedom from confinement, finally breathing in a full breath of air after being reduced to shallow gasps. The exhilarating rush galloped through Nicole’s body, demanding she run and sprint and jump with her newfound freedom. In short: it felt amazing .

For Waverly, it was as if her brain simply forgot to record things with any sort of accuracy. Vague memories of black fur, enraged growling, and clothing decorating the floor in pieces. The lights short-circuited and the room remained lit only by the city outside, casting shadows that danced as Nicole fell, heaving, to the carpet: completely inhuman.

The black shape shuddered with pained, rattling breaths.

“Nicole,” Waverly whispered, taking a step forward. She wasn’t afraid. Not for herself.

The shape seemed to retreat with a low noise of despair.

“Look at me, Nicole.”

The shape turned, the light casting across sharp angles across what the Beast would have wanted, Nicole’s worst fear: to be terrifying .

The indistinct mass before her rose at least six feet on all fours. The face that looked at her might possibly be the result of a werewolf’s nightmare: broader, more angular, something older and far more dangerous. Hideously large teeth caught the light of the city outside. And the most bizarre mark the Beast had seen fit to grant her: Long, elegantly curved horns that stretched back from her skull.

And Waverly saw at once the clever cruelty in the way it had made Nicole unique -- Not a werewolf, a minotaur, a leshy, a skinwalker, or a wendigo -- A class all her own: No one would understand and Nicole would always be alone.

Anger tightened Waverly’s fist and furious tears blurred her vision, but one hand stretched to close the distance.

“We saw a lot of monsters, Nicole,” Waverly said softly as she pressed her hand to the long, beastial forehead before her, fingers vanishing beneath the fur. “I know what they look like. And you are not a monster.”

Waverly tilted her head. “And… you know what? You’re really, really soft.”

Nicole opened her eyes.

And promptly flipped the fuck out.

It must have come as a shock to look down and see claws engineered for cleaving flesh instead of short, managed nails. Waverly forgave Nicole immediately for stumbling into the coffee table, causing the wine to spill everywhere and the fruit to fly in wild directions.

“Nicole!” Waverly shouted, stepping forward, but broken glass stopped her.

Nicole made a confused noise, as if trying to speak past the fangs in her mouth, the almost bleating, plaintive sounds continued as she crashed this way and that, trying to understand why her legs were suddenly three times as large.

“Watch out for the --!” Waverly winced as Nicole made a hole in the wall. Jesus. She hoped Black Badge could cover this in their insurance plan. Paintings worth thousands were torn to shreds, lamps sent scattering, the rustic wooden furniture simply shattering from the weight that toured the room like a tornado.

“Oh, my god.” Waverly said, hands dropping to her sides. There just wasn’t a pamphlet for this. “I… I don’t know what to do. I just don’t know what to do.”

Nicole changed direction.

“Jesus --- Not the window!” Waverly cried before making a split second decision. Without even thinking about it, Waverly jumped in front of Nicole. Hundreds of pounds of flesh stumbled toward her, caught sight of her, recognized her -- and then moved in the other direction.

Knocking on the door. “Waverly! You in there, baby girl?”

Oh, no. Of all the times for Wynonna to -- “I’m fine!” Waverly shouted back as the sounds of destruction continued, the strange, inhuman noises of sad confusion definitely audible to the hallway.

“Uh. We’re coming in!”

“No!” Waverly called back in panic, “I’m naked!” She looked around in desperation before her eyes landed on a bed sheet that had been thrown, along with the mattress, at a wall. She pulled it off, gathering it in her hands quickly before it stuck. She tugged urgently. “We’re having sex!”

Nicole howled in confusion.

“Really kinky sex!” Waverly pulled the sheet all the way off and approached Nicole. “Oh, yeah!” Waverly said loudly and completely unconvincingly, “ Harder , Nicole!”

“Yeah, right, put some clothes on. We’re coming in!”

The door groaned with impact, weakening. Waverly leapt, throwing the sheet over Nicole and pulling her by the horns. “Shut it and let me hide you!” Waverly hissed. Nicole made a low noise of despair deep in her chest. “Please, Nicole. Just trust me!” She pushed Nicole to the ground as some sort of lumpy piece of furniture. It would have to do.

The door banged open and Wynonna charged the room with a gun drawn, Dolls behind her, Doc bringing up the rear. They stopped in surprise at no one there and destruction far beyond reasonable levels for a Valentine’s evening.

“Hi,” Waverly said, overly cheerful as the pair surveyed the ruins, “Good to see you, Wynonna! And Agent Dolls, Henry.” She waved awkwardly, leaning half her weight on Nicole’s head to keep her still.

“Where’s Nicole?” Wynonna asked, growing suspicion on her face.

“Uh…Bathroom?” Waverly winced. The bathroom door stood open and empty. Waverly’s skin felt hot with anxiety as she looked to Dolls, who swept the room with his gun drawn.

Wynonna holstered her gun. “Half the agents here have gone nuts, baby girl. They’re dead set on --”

“I know, don’t say it,” Waverly said through her teeth, smiling painfully. Dolls stared a bit too hard, his eyes seeming to penetrate straight through her flimsy lie. There was a giant, lumpy, sheet-covered mass behind Waverly and there was no hiding the fact it was breathing.

Dolls lifted his gun. “Move.”

“Please don’t!” Waverly begged openly, stepping in front of his gun sight with her hands raised in surrender.

“Hey! Whoa! I do not like you pointing that at my sister!” Wynonna said, hand on her own gun.

“What’s. Under. The Sheet ,” Dolls demanded as a rumbling growl started beneath it.

“Okay!” Waverly swallowed on the edge of tears. “It’s Nicole. It’s Nicole, please. Please don’t.”

Dolls’ eyes widened with fear but his gun held steady, he shook his head, his mouth open -- But Waverly’s admission stopped him: “I love her.”

Shock crossed their faces and Dolls slowly lowered his gun.

“Baby girl,” Wynonna said, distrust hinting her voice, “Are you sure?

“I-I remember,” Waverly said, growing confident without a gun in her face, “I remember, Wynonna. And we did this together. She’s…She’s not what you think. She’s my friend, my girlfriend -- I’m in love with her, Wy. Please.”

Wynonna crossed the room immediately, taking her sister in her arms. Waverly sobbed openly and a sad, deep sound crawled from under the blanket.

“I love her so much,” Waverly sobbed, feeling not like a hero at all.

But the sisterly moment broke as Nicole rose to all fours, a snarl rolling deep from her chest as the sheet fell away. Fear latched on and held tight to everyone save Waverly, causing them to shudder and move back involuntarily.

“Oh, shit!” Waverly immediately stood in front of Nicole, blocking her head and trying to shield her from view about as well as a picket sign in front of a pickup truck.

“Hooooly demon werewolf, Batman,” Wynonna said in awe, voice shaking with the urge to run. Dolls made a small sound in his throat and gripped his gun without raising it. Doc whistled, sweat breaking out on his brow.

Not a demon and not a werewolf!” Waverly said hurriedly.

Bounding footsteps announced incoming unwelcome visitors.

The Director entered the room, his agents in tow, Dr. Navalar hurrying alongside. “Secure this room!” He ordered and his agents circled in seconds before settling their sights on the only threat in the room: Nicole.

“Don’t shoot!” Waverly cried. Nicole made more terrifying growling noises, taking a step forward, causing Waverly to slide on the carpet. The agents moved their fingers to the trigger, fear overriding rational thought. “Please!”

Wynonna returned to Waverly’s side, face hard as she blocked the gun sights of a dozen or more men. Dolls looked to Wynonna and had an internal crisis of about three seconds. Then, he lifted his gun from firing position and stood in front of the pair, facing down his boss and the other agents. Doc stepped beside him, casual and easy.

“Agents, stand down ,” The Director repeated, voice quiet with obvious grief, “We must take Ms. Haught into custody.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Dolls said, “It’s obvious she has some control or most of us would be dead right now.” Dolls straightened. “She’s an asset, not an enemy.”

Lucado charged in along with her half of the Agency, “You gave me the wrong room number!” she accused, facing down the diminutive Navalar. “You traitor .”

Dr. Navalar merely shrugged. “It is almost as if I was never on your side in the first place. How interesting.”

Lucado ignored Navalar and took in the situation before drawing her gun. “I knew it,” Lucado hissed. “She is a threat!”

“No!” Waverly cried as Nicole’s mouth opened, the growling doubling in volume. The effect rippled through the room, many faces covered with involuntary tears. Though the dreadful sound spoke directly to their instincts and whispered nightmarish consequences, none fled.

“Nicole, please,” Waverly begged quietly in Nicole’s ear, “Calm down .” Nicole’s growling eased and Waverly moved to the side of her head, whispering quiet reassurances.

Everyone else fell silent.

“I’ve got you,” Waverly breathed for only Nicole to hear, running fingers through the soft fur around her ears. Nicole gradually relaxed, the anger in her eyes replaced by the confused fear  and pain that made Waverly’s heart ache. “It’s going to be okay. I promise .” Waverly pressed a small kiss to Nicole’s forehead. “I’m going to take care of this. I won’t let them take you.”

Waverly turned back to the quiet room, ignoring the mix of awe and fear.

“You voted me a hero,” Waverly said with her back straight, head raised, “Then you should know that I didn’t do it alone. I did it with her by my side and because of that, we won. We saved your agency. We cleaned up your mess.” Waverly settled her eyes on the Director, jaw set. “Either you help us, or we will never reveal that what we discovered.”

Even Lucado was speechless.

“My orders on the field are final.” The Director reminded all present, gazing around the room at the silent agents then looking to Waverly. “I have a duty to this entire Agency that I will uphold.”

Waverly curled her hands into fists and tightened her jaw. She would not be cowed.

“To pass up on what may be an incredible agent and an asset…” The Director looked to Nicole. “Would be a mistake .” Lucado tried to butt in, but his orders ran right over her. “Secure this hotel and think up some good lies for the civilians. Get a service elevator and a truck, we’re taking her to a secure location. And somebody, please , get our insurance guys on the line.”

Agents snapped into motion, filtering from the room, many openly relieved to be away from the source of their terror.

Waverly, exhausted, sank to her knees before Nicole and rested her head atop hers. “Hey,” she whispered, ignoring the heated discussions behind her. She shut her eyes. “It’s going to be okay, I promise.

Wynonna walked over, presumably after shouting down a few dissidents. “Glad we dodged that bullet. Come on, let’s get Nightmare Clifford and go.”

“Wynonna!” Waverly rebuked half-heartedly, knowing deep down that Wynonna’s jokes were simply silent affirmations of support.

Dolls came over, sheet in hand. “We’ll probably have to use this again.” He looked to Nicole. “No offense.”

Nicole sighed.

 

 

Curious visitors to the Jefferson that night weren’t allowed even close to where Nicole moved. No civilian caught sight of the ominous mass that moved on four legs hidden by a bedsheet, led by a woman in a beautiful dress.

They really did miss out.

Waverly ignored the armed escort, choosing to believe them there for protection rather than fear. She kept her head held high and her face steel even though inside, she was a riot of anxiety. The two people she had been were still trying desperately to merge into one. The fact that her girlfriend wasn’t there to talk about it? Definitely a downside. The fact that her girlfriend was now cursed? They could get through this.

They’d gotten through everything else.

Waverly would be there for her, just as Nicole had stood by her side with her loss of memory. Someday, hopefully soon, they would be able to do this whole dating-as-normal-people thing again.

Waverly smiled and Nicole bumped her head against her shoulder intentionally, seemingly wanting to know why.

“Just thinking about next time,” Waverly whispered in Nicole’s ear. “Maybe we should try the Ritz-Carlton.”

Nicole snorted happily, causing the agents around them shudder with fear. Waverly only smirked.

 

 

SOMEWHERE, VIRGINIA, 8:39 PM

 

The darkened interior of the industrial van rocked. Waverly almost dozed, exhausted by the day’s events and the fact Nicole was so. Damn. Comfy.

In the dark, the thin line of fear-born tears glistened on the face of their guardians. Their bodies tense, they glanced at Nicole every so often, but mostly sought to look everywhere else. They simply couldn’t understand how relaxed Waverly seemed in the presence of their worst nightmare.

Waverly whispered private things, happy nothings, and soothing sounds into Nicole’s ear. There was no telling what lay under the thick anxiety Waverly could feel, the hitch of the shuddering breaths that rose and fell, and the slight twitch of her body getting used to itself. Her words seemed to ease at least some of it.

Eventually, the van came to a stop and the door opened, slicing starlight across Waverly’s face.

“We’re here,” an agent said, standing aside.

“Where?” Waverly asked, gathering her dress and standing. The cold of the night seeped in and the Agent offered a bag of what would hopefully be clothing.

“A safe house.” The Agent tried hard not to look at the shape that lifted itself and moved behind Waverly. “The Director has returned to Nowhere to convince the Board to re-vote. We are under strict orders to protect you and your companion.”

“Girlfriend,” Waverly corrected. She patted the agent’s shivering shoulder and accepted the clothes. “Thank you.”

 

The fireplace roared to life, lighting the interior of the cabin with soft orange light. Waverly sat with Nicole on the floor as Wynonna lazed on the couch. Dolls paced. Doc smoked. The trio tried their hardest, for Waverly’s sake, to ignore the terror that seized them everytime Nicole made even the slightest of sounds.

“So can you talk?” Waverly asked, leaning against Nicole’s foreleg.

Nicole opened her mouth and let out a bone-chilling sound that made everyone in the room stop breathing.

“I will take that as a ‘ no ,’” Waverly said cheerfully, trying to stay positive for her girlfriend’s sake. Nicole only covered her face and groaned sadly. Waverly offered her some pats. “I’m going to change. Try not to break anything, okay?”

Nicole nodded but made no such promises aloud.

 

As Waverly slipped the loose sweatshirt over her head after a nice shower, she heard the distinct sound of something breaking.

“Hey!” Wynonna shouted. Waverly bolted back into the room, only to see a raw steak implanted in the wall. “That is a fine cut of beef you just ruined!” Wynonna admonished, stomping over. She peeled it off and inspected it. “Maybe.”

“Wynonna!” Waverly hissed, immediately going to Nicole’s side, who seemed rather amused with herself. “She’s a vegetarian.” She looked around, confused. “Where’s --”

“Off getting more steak, so now I have to tell them to get some fruit. Bleh.” Wynonna rolled her eyes, taking the steak to the counter. “Your loss.”

“Stop harassing my girlfriend!” Waverly gently tugged on Nicole. “We’re going to sleep. It’s been a long day.”

“She’s no fun anyway!” Wynonna shouted after the pair as they left down the hall, “She doesn’t even do fetch!”

The door slammed.

 

The bed ended up shattering to the floor under Nicole’s weight.

“Well, at least we know nothing is under it,” Waverly said before climbing onto the mattress and cuddling up to Nicole. Perfect fit, Waverly thought. Warm and soft, the perfect pillow, Nicole curled protectively around Waverly.

They didn’t sleep.

“Will you be back tomorrow?” Waverly lazily drew meaningless letters into Nicole’s side, trying to ease the shivers she still felt occasionally rippling across Nicole’s body.

Nicole pushed her head under Waverly’s hand in way that meant Yes.

An hour? Two? Time passed and the stars moved, but Waverly found no rest. The shadows in the room remained still. The silence, briefly broken by the return of Doc and Dolls, had settled in to stay. The steady rise and fall of Nicole’s chest, the comfort of her embrace, the safety it brought threatened to lull Waverly to sleep.

But there was still questions that hadn’t been answered.

Finally, Waverly snapped.

“Did you take the books away?” Waverly asked the dark.

Again, Nicole pressed her head forward, Yes.

“Why?” Waverly sat up, frustrated. “They had answers , Nicole! We could have solved this!”

Nicole looked up at her and moved her head back and forth against the mattress. No.

“What do you mean ‘No? ’” Waverly demanded, exhausted, furiously gesturing. “All we had was this Book of Symbols which told us nothing! It just gave us meaning for irrelevant --”

Nicole watched as Waverly stopped, arm dropping from the air.

Wyatt’s words returned.

Fire is the key.

“You said once you didn’t remember anything except being lost,” Waverly said, hand stilling. “No where...No when. No how, or why, or what. Lost.”

Waverly’s eyes went wide.

“It took you there to make you lose everything that made you human." Waverly met Nicole’s gaze, the soft gold lit with deep affection. “In a place where actions are symbols, where fire can represent clarity and sanity and awareness . Forests and Labyrinths to lose yourself.” Waverly’s eyes went wide, understanding breaking through. “But if getting lost has so much power…”

Waverly rested her hand atop Nicole’s head. A pleasing rumble started deep within Nicole’s chest as she shut her eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Then being found must have the same.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That night, Waverly dreams of the forest.


But this time, it’s spring.