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We'll Break Till It Gets Better

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Seven hundred and thirty six days.

Nicole isn’t sure why the detail pops into her head first. There’s a noisy cadence of other thoughts crowding her brain, begging for acknowledgement, yet she’s stuck on a number.

Seven hundred and thirty six days since she last laid eyes on Waverly Earp. And now, one simple fact is staring her in the face in the form of wild brown eyes and ash smeared cheeks.

There won’t be a seven hundred and thirty seventh.

Waverly pushes up into a sitting position, looking at the scorched ground all around her. Her fingers dig into the blackened earth, picking up a handful to watch it sift through her fingers back to the ground. There’s a slight shake to all her movements, and her eyes are wide when they finally land on Nicole.

Holstering her gun Nicole takes a tentative step forward, afraid she might be dreaming. “Waverly?” She whispers.

Waverly crawls back a foot, clearly nervous at Nicole’s approach.

Nicole holds her hands up in an attempt to soothe her. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you. I swear.” Her throat is tight when she swallows. “Do you know who I am?” She asks, taking a small step forward.

Waverly finally meets her eyes, and hers widen as they hold. “N-Nicole?” Her voice is rough, and she sounds nothing like the Waverly Nicole remembers.

Nicole nods before kneeling down, partly to put Waverly at ease by getting on the same level, and partly because she’s pretty sure her legs are about to give out.

“That’s right. Do you know where you are?”

A deep V forms between Waverly’s eyebrows. She licks at her chapped lips as she takes in her surroundings beyond the immediate area. Tears well up in her eyes when she tries to speak. “Am I-” she has to swallow, “Am I home?” Her voice cracks on the last word, and Nicole feels like all the breath in her lungs evaporates.

“Yeah.” She responds, voice thick with emotion. She wipes at the tears in her eyes she can feel threatening to spill over. Her heart is pounding in her ears so loud she almost misses Waverly's next words.

“What happened?”

*****

Waverly pulls the wool blanket a little tighter around herself in the passenger seat of Nicole’s patrol car.

“I was gone for over two years?” She asks dully, and Nicole doesn’t blame her for the shock. She’s battling a mighty bout of it herself.

“As of six days ago, yes.” Nicole answers, and she can feel the way Waverly stares at the side of her face. “Do you remember anything about where you were?”

Silence fills the car and Nicole sneaks a peek at Waverly only to find her rubbing a temple.

“It’s...hazy. I remember a lot of fire, and fear, I remember feeling fear.” She says quietly before continuing. “I can’t remember how I got there. The time before...I can’t remember it very well.”

Nicole’s grip on the steering wheel is firm at the words. “Are you sure you don’t want me to take you to the hospital first?”

“No, a hospital can’t help me. I just want to go home and take a shower.”

Nicole’s jaw works as she contemplates exactly how much she should tell Waverly about the situation at home these days. She doesn’t want to overwhelm her, and she doesn’t feel particularly right about being the one to fill her in on certain occurrences.

“We’re almost there.” She says, instead of the hundred other things that want to come spilling out of her mouth.

They fall into silence the rest of the way, Nicole’s stomach twisting in knots the closer they get.

Waverly leans forward in her seat as they pull onto the homestead property. “Is that my jeep?” She touches the windshield, eyes taking in her vehicle they keep parked by the barn.

“Yeah, it’s your jeep.” Nicole answers. She doesn’t feel the need to mention it still runs, or that Wynonna sometimes takes it out for a ride when the ache in her chest becomes too much.

A light shines on the porch, a familiar sight to Nicole at this point.

She parks in her usual spot and turns the car off. A necessary deep breath fills her lungs before she can turn to Waverly. “You ready?”

Waverly nods, her eyes tracing over the home she’s been away from for so long.

Nicole gets out and heads to the passenger side of the car, opening Waverly’s door for her and waiting.

Her eyes flicker back and forth between Nicole’s before she mutely climbs out, blanket still pulled tight around her shoulders.

Nicole shuts the car door as softly as possible and they slowly walk to the front door. Her fingers fumble for the house key on her keyring, an action she can normally execute in her sleep. She knows because she might as well be asleep after some of her more eventful double shifts.

The house is quiet and still when they enter, and Nicole is relieved to find it that way. She doesn’t want to think of the alternatives they could have come home to.

Waverly looks around the house with heavy eyes. “It looks familiar, but different.” She says quietly.

It is different, in some ways, Nicole thinks. “You’ll be used to it again in no time.” She reassures, even though she doesn’t have any business doing so. “Do you want something to eat before you shower?”

Waverly shakes her head. “No, I need hot water and soap first.”

“Okay. There’s still a dresser of your clothes in-” Nicole cuts herself off, swallowing before she continues, “in your room, for when you’re done.” She finishes.

Any hope she has that she made a smooth transition fades when Waverly eyes her curiously. But instead of asking any of the questions Nicole can see in her eyes, she nods. “Will you still be here when I’m done?”

Nicole almost asks if that’s what Waverly wants, but she thinks better of it. “Yeah, I’ll be here.”

Nicole watches her climb the stairs, her nerves jumping at the idea of Waverly noticing the differences in her bedroom. She breathes through her nose and reminds herself there’s nothing to be done about it now.

That’s when the reality of the situation finally hits her. She sags back against the front door, rubbing a hand over her face. She can’t even begin to sort out the variety of emotions coursing through her.

Luckily she’s interrupted before she decides it’s a good idea to try.

“Everything okay Nicole?” Wynonna asks, pulling her robe closed around her.

Nicole stares at her, unsure of where to start.

Wynonna tilts her head to the side. “Are you drunk?” She must notice the sound of running water then, because she looks up the stairs before turning back to Nicole with eyebrows raised. “Did you bring someone home?”

“No.” Nicole’s eyes widen when she realizes the truth. “Yes, but it’s not what you think.”

Wynonna crosses her arms over her chest as she narrows her eyes. “What is it then?”

“You should sit down.” Nicole tries, but Wynonna is having none of it.

“Nicole, tell me who is in our shower, right now.”

Nicole opens her mouth to answer, but she’s interrupted by a whimpering cry.

“Mama.”

Wynonna sighs before pointing at Nicole. “Stay there.” She leaves for a minute before returning with a fussy two year old in her arms. “Now, where were we.”

“Wynonna?”

The color drains from Wynonna’s face when she hears the voice. She blindly sets the child in her arms down, pushing her gently towards Nicole before she turns slowly towards her sister. Her hand shakes when she points at Waverly. “Nicole, I did not have a single drop of alcohol tonight, so please explain to me why I’m hallucinating.”

“You’re not hallucinating, Wynonna.” Nicole tells her, stroking a hand over the hair of the child now clinging to her leg.

Waverly’s eyes dart from Wynonna to Nicole to the child and back again. She seems unable to decide which person to direct her attention at.

A shaky breath leaves Wynonna before a small sob sneaks out, and she covers her mouth with a hand to try to hold it back. She manages to find some composure before removing her hand and speaking. “Waverly. Is it really you, baby girl?”

Waverly’s attention snaps fully to her sister. “I think so.”

It breaks Nicole’s heart to hear how unsure Waverly sounds. She wants nothing more than to wrap her arms around her in comfort, but she doesn’t think it’s her place right now. Her stomach churns at the idea of it never being her place again.

Wynonna is on Waverly then, holding her so tight in a hug that Nicole has serious concerns about both of their abilities to breathe. They finally step apart, Wynonna holding Waverly's face in her hands for a beat before she drops her arms.

“’Cole.” Nicole looks down at the child tugging on her pants.

Waverly stares at the child again, her throat bobbing as she swallows.

Wynonna wipes at the tears on her face. “Waverly, there’s someone I want you to meet. This is Weslyn.” She holds a hand out for the child to come, but she stubbornly stays next to Nicole.

“Is she yours?” Waverly whispers.

Wynonna nods. “Yeah. Spend five minutes with her and there’s no denying that.” She holds out a hand again, but she gets a head shake in return, her daughter’s eyebrows drawing down in a way that is far too similar to Wynonna.

“Weslyn Waverly Earp, you come here right now and meet your Aunt.”

Something unmistakably painful passes across Waverly’s face then, and she snaps her eyes to Wynonna. “You know what? I’m really tired. Exhausted, actually. Maybe we could do this in the morning?”

Wynonna stares at her, and Nicole thinks maybe she’s afraid if she lets Waverly out of her sight she won’t come back again.

Nicole understands the feeling.

Finally, Wynonna nods. “Of course, I can’t even imagine.”

“Okay.” Waverly says quietly. “I’ll be in my room.”

Wynonna cuts her gaze to Nicole at the words, but Nicole just gives the slightest of head shakes and hopes Wynonna doesn’t say anything.

“Sounds good, baby girl.” She says as Waverly makes her way by, and the pain that cuts across her face again at the words is obvious.

They both watch as Waverly climbs the stairs, waiting until they hear the door shut to talk. Even then their voices are hushed.

“What the hell?” Wynonna hisses, and Nicole slides her hands over Wes’ ears. Before she can offer any kind of explanation, not that she has much of one, Wynonna turns on her heel.

“You know what, I need a drink.” She takes off for the kitchen, the sound of glass clinking and a bottle opening follows soon after.

“Hey Wes,” Nicole says softly, picking the girl up in her arms, “it’s time for you to go back to bed sweetie, okay?”

Wes shakes her head, but her eyes blink heavily, and Nicole knows she’ll be fast asleep again in no time. She presses a small kiss to the top of her head before she drops her off in her crib on the way to the kitchen.

Wynonna pushes a glass of whiskey towards her when she walks in.  “Explain, now.”

Nicole swirls the amber liquid in her glass as she tries to decide where to start. “I happened to drive by the park on my way home after shift.”

“Of course you did.” Wynonna mutters, but Nicole doesn’t acknowledge it. She doesn’t need to. They both know the truth about Nicole’s daily routine.

“I saw it again.” Nicole squeezes her eyes shut. “The same ball of fire splitting the horizon open. Just like when she disappeared.”

A pained expression flits across Wynonna’s face. “And this time she appeared instead.”

Nicole nods, swallowing thickly against the memories.

Wynonna stares off while she rubs her bottom lip, taking the information in. “Holy shit.” She finally whispers, and Nicole understands the sentiment. “Holy fucking shit.” She says again, louder this time.

She pours herself more whiskey and downs it just as quickly. When Nicole raises her eyebrows Wynonna shrugs. “You’d think I would be better prepared these days to have a sister return from the dead, but apparently I’m as shit at it as ever.”

“Wynonna.” Nicole warns, her voice shaking with emotion.

Wynonna shakes her head slowly. “I don’t know why I said that, I’m sorry.” She sighs. “And you’re sure it’s her?”

Nicole pauses with her glass halfway to her mouth. “It’s definitely her.” She answers.

“How do you know? It’s not like Peacemaker was there to confirm she isn’t a demon impersonator.”

It’s fair to ask, Nicole knows that. Hell, she would ask the same question in cop mode, yet her voice is tight with conviction when she speaks. “Because I know.”

They stare at each other for an intense moment before Wynonna relents, nodding her head. “I trust you.”

A silence fills the room, making it clear neither one of them knows what to say next.

A yawn forces it’s way out of Nicole then, and she realizes just how exhausted she is.

“Look, why don’t we reconvene in the morning, figure all this out when Waverly is up for talking?” Nicole ignores the sinking sensation that suggests Waverly might not be up for talking anytime soon, if ever. It’s impossible to know. “I keep clothes and what not down at the station, I can crash there tonight.”

Wynonna’s eyes are sharp when they fall on Nicole. “Like hell you will. There’s a perfectly good couch here, and you’re going to sleep on it. Not like it’ll be the first time.”

Nicole’s eyes drift away at the mention of her first six months living here, before it became far more practical to take the bedroom upstairs.

Waverly’s bedroom.

“Okay.” She responds quietly, finishing her drink before setting the glass in the sink. She’ll have to sleep in her clothes, since her sleep wear is upstairs, but it won’t be the first time for that either.

“Nicole.” Wynonna stops her as she’s about to leave the kitchen. “Is she really back?” She whispers.

Her heart thuds in her chest, and it’s an effort to push the words out past her burning throat.

“Yeah, she’s really back.”

*****

Three weeks after Waverly disappears Wynonna goes into labor. Nicole drives her to the hospital in the cruiser, lights flashing and sirens blaring.

Doc and Dolls meet them there.

Wynonna is already well dilated and flushed from the effort of breathing through heavy contractions when they push her wheelchair into the delivery room. Her eyes are frantic, bouncing around before they settle on Nicole.

Nicole knows then what she needs.

Wynonna squeezes her hand so hard in the delivery room Nicole thinks it might break. She doesn’t care.

She ignores the quiet knowledge it shouldn’t be her in this room; that someone else was meant to feed Wynonna ice chips and let her curse loudly at them.

It takes Wynonna two days to settle on a name. Nicole has to swallow past the lump in her throat when she hears it.

Wynonna thinks Waverly will like it. She tells Weslyn she’s going to love her Aunt Waverly, whenever she gets back to them.

*****

Nicole wakes the next morning to Wes’ demands to be let out of her crib.

She rubs at her eyes, heavy and sunken from little sleep, before she gets off the couch and retrieves her.

“I’m getting up.” Wynonna mumbles from her bed.

Nicole starts the coffee and puts Wes in her highchair before she starts on fulfilling the toddlers request for pancakes.

Wynonna trudges into the kitchen just as the coffee maker finishes brewing. She drops a kiss on her daughter’s head on the way to fulfilling her need for caffeine. 

“You want some of these?” Nicole asks, gesturing at the pan with a spatula.

Wynonna shoots her a look. “What kind of question is that?” She mumbles.

Nicole piles the pancakes onto a plate in batches, dropping a few off to Wes on a dinosaur plate.

“Do not give her the whole syrup container Wynonna, she’ll have it all over the place.” Nicole states when she notices that is exactly what Wynonna is about to do.

“Fine, spoil sport.” Wynonna tells her. “Auntie Nicole is a big ‘ole pair of bossy pants, isn’t she babe?” She tells Wes, who laughs at the face her mother makes to accompany the words.

Nicole just shakes her head, used to the entire spiel by now.

“Bossy you may be, but you know we love you, Haught.” Wynonna tells her, stopping to give Nicole's cheek a noisy kiss on her way to the coffee pot for a refill.

Nicole is halfway to muttering ‘gross’ when she freezes at the sight of Waverly in the kitchen doorway.

Her eyes move between Nicole and Wynonna, and the questions there are obvious before she even speaks.

“Are you two…?” She trails off.

Nicole stares at her mutely, unsure how Waverly could even think such a thing possible. But then she realizes how upside down everything must seem to her right now. Nicole wishes she could set everything right again, and her heart aches with the knowledge she can’t.

“What?” Wynonna asks, not sure what Waverly is asking at first, but when it dawns on her, her face screws up over her coffee mug. “Ew, no, never in a million years.”  She takes a sip of her coffee before addressing Nicole. “No offense. You know I think your ass is great.”

Nicole rolls her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, you’re all about my ass.”

It’s a typical type of banter between the two of them; easy and sarcastic and familiar. Waverly takes it all in and doesn’t look all that relieved by the exchange.

“Okay.” She says quietly. Her stomach lets out a loud gurgle and she presses a hand over it in embarrassment.

“Dude,” Wynonna says to Nicole, “make her some food, she’s probably starving.”

Waverly meets Nicole’s eyes briefly before drifting off again. “You really don’t have to. I can do it.”

When Waverly stares at Wes shoving pancakes into her mouth, Nicole thinks this all might be a bit too much for her, but she doesn’t know how to make it better in the moment. Making food will at the very least give her a distraction.

“I don’t mind. I’ll make some eggs and bacon too.” She turns to the refrigerator before Waverly can protest.

A car door closes outside just as Nicole is finishing up making Waverly’s breakfast, and she knows who it is.

Wynonna does too. She points at Nicole and then at Wes. “Watch her.”

Nicole rolls her eyes. “Yes, because normally I just ignore her while she runs around with a pair of scissors.”

Wynonna gives her the middle finger as she walks out. “Heh, you said scissors.” Nicole hears her chuckle before she’s out the front door.

“Is everything okay?” Waverly asks, eyes staring at where Wynonna walked out of the room.

Nicole tries for a light tone as she presents Waverly with her breakfast. “I’m sure it is, you know how Wynonna is, all crazy impulses and clandestine meetings.”

Waverly doesn’t verbally respond, just nods her thanks for the food before ducking her head and keeping her focus on the plate in front of her while she eats.

They don’t speak again while they wait for Wynonna to return. Nicole focuses on Wes to distract herself from the ache radiating from the center of her chest.

Finally Wynonna returns, Doc in tow.

His face goes through a complex series of emotion, heart break and a glimmer of hope clear in his eyes as a smile spreads on his face. He takes his hat off to press it to his chest.

“Well I’ll be. Waverly Earp has finally come back to us.”

Waverly pauses with a fork full of eggs over her plate. The smallest of smiles plays at the corner of her mouth, and Nicole thinks it’s at least something.

“Hey Doc.”

His chest rises and falls with a deep breath, and Nicole can see the way he fights back tears.

Wes finally notices the new visitor and decides to throw her fork on the floor in greeting. “Doc.” She gets out in her own garbled way.  She points a finger at him and jerks her chubby hand upward as she blows up her cheeks to puff out a breath of air.

Doc sets his hat back on his head. “Hello there, little darling.” He makes a pistol with his fingers and fires back at Wes, much to her delight.

Waverly takes all of this in with a blank face while she finishes her food. She eats it all, and Nicole is thankful she at least seems to have an appetite.

Doc and Wynonna go over the plans for his day with Wes while Waverly cleans her plate in the sink.

She peaks over her shoulder at them before she asks Nicole in a hushed tone “Is she his?”

Nicole wants to give a straightforward answer, but it’s not that easy, and she really thinks Wynonna should be the one to share the information. “It’s...complicated. Wynonna will fill you in when she has the chance.”

Waverly holds her gaze for a beat before returning it to the sink. “I noticed some of your things in my room.” She states quietly, and god, Nicole feels wholly unprepared to be talking about any of this.

She knows Waverly must have a million questions; aches to give her simple answers to ease the anxiety she can only imagine Waverly feels; but the truth is, nothing feels simple anymore.

“Yeah, I uh, sleep in there sometimes.” Nicole tries for a casual tone.

“Sometimes?” Waverly asks.

“Well, for about the past year and a half, I guess.” Nicole admits.

She doesn’t bother to mention it was Wynonna’s idea. Nicole would rather forget about Wynonna telling her she was getting in the way of taking care of some primal urges by always sleeping on the couch. Nicole asked if Wynonna wouldn’t rather have the bedroom upstairs with Wes, and the broken look that flashed across her face at the question still haunts Nicole.

“I can clear everything out today, give you your space back.” Nicole tells her, and for half a second she thinks Waverly might try to dissuade her, part of her hopes she will, but then Waverly is nodding her agreement and Nicole is ignoring the way her heart feels like shards of glass against her ribs.

Doc takes Wes for the day after that, Wynonna goes demon hunting with Dolls, and Nicole numbly puts her things in a box and carries it out of Waverly's bedroom.

She quietly tells Waverly she has work to do before she leaves the house. It’s a lie, today is her day off, but Waverly clearly needs some space. Nicole doesn’t blame her, she can’t imagine what’s going through her head right now.

So she leaves, deciding it’s a good thing to not be so close to the one thing she’s been desperate to have back for two years, because now she might just have to let it go for good.

*****

One month after Waverly disappears, Nicole stops at the homestead after her overnight shift to check on Wynonna.

She follows the sounds of Wes’ cries into the kitchen where she finds Wynonna staring at a coffee pot filled with steaming clear liquid.

“I forgot to put the coffee in.” She mutters. Her eyes are wide and brimming with unshed tears when she turns to Nicole. “How am I supposed to keep this town safe from demons if I can’t even function like a human being?” A single tear falls down her cheek. “How am I supposed to figure out a way to save her?”

Nicole’s heart breaks a little at how helpless Wynonna looks. She steps forward with her hands raised, nodding towards Wes. “Let me take her for a little bit. You go get some sleep.”

“She needs to be fed.” Wynonna tells her, like she thinks it will change Nicole’s mind.

Nicole gives her a reassuring smile. “I can handle making formula. I’ll take good care of her, I promise.” She reassures her.

Wynonna presses a kiss to the top of Wes’ head before handing her over. “Thanks.” Her voice cracks a bit before she stumbles out of the kitchen.

An hour later she comes into the living room, eyes wide with panic. When her gaze lands on Nicole a sigh visibly moves through her.

Nicole gives her a small nod, afraid to wake the sleeping baby in her arms by talking.

Wynonna goes back to bed and sleeps for another two hours.

They don’t formally talk about it, but Nicole starts sleeping on the couch each night. She plans on staying until Wes is regularly sleeping through most of the night, when Wynonna won’t need her her help as much anymore.

It doesn’t take long for that plan to become a distant memory.

*****

Nicole sleeps on the couch five nights in a row. Her body aches in protest at the cramped quarters, but each morning she shakes it out without a word of complaint.

Currently her makeshift bed is occupied by a two year old passed out in the middle of her and Waverly.

Wynonna is out with Doc on demon business, and Nicole handles Wes’ night time routine with an ease born of doing it so many times now.

Wes is starting to warm up to Waverly a fraction, no longer displaying a complete mistrust of a stranger in her midst, but she still clings to Nicole out of familiarity.

Nicole hates the broken look it puts on Waverly's face.

When she picks Wes’ sleeping form up to move her to the crib she can feel Waverly watching her the whole time.

Two days later Nicole tells Wynonna she’s moving into the apartment above Shorty’s for the time being.

Wynonna does not take it well.

Nicole expects the reaction, and she’s well prepared to withstand any arguments and harassment that comes her way.

“Fine, go, for now,” Nicole doesn’t bother to disillusion her of the temporary aspect of the move, “but I’m telling you right now dude,” she points a finger in Nicole’s face, “if you ghost on my kid, I will shoot you in the ass.”

“I would never do that, Wynonna.” Nicole tells her emphatically, and she means it.

Wynonna eyes her as if she doesn’t quite believe the declaration, and it hurts more than Nicole thinks it should.

“Look, I was thinking maybe I could have Wes sleep over one night a week at the apartment, if you were okay with it.”

“A baby in a bar? How very Earp of you.” Wynonna responds.

Nicole shakes her head. “Yeah, sorry, that was stupid, I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Nicole,” Wynonna’s voice is firm, “I was kidding. I think it’s a great idea.”

The relief Nicole feels is no small thing. Her relationship with Wes is important to her, and out of all the changes she knows are coming, she can’t bear to think about not having her as a regular part of life.

“And you,” Wynonna turns her attention to Doc leaning in the doorway of the kitchen, “I’m mad at you for this, you know. You’re the one letting her live in that stupid apartment.”

Doc tilts his head, keeping his good humor in spite of the accusation. “You’re mad at me for something? Why it must be Friday.”

Nicole interrupts before they can really get going on a back and forth spat. “Will you tell,” her throat suddenly feels far too tight, and she has to swallow before she can speak again, “will you tell Waverly?”

Wynonna’s eyebrows draw down in confusion. “You didn’t tell her yet?”

Nicole shakes her head. Truth is, she’s been making sure to give Waverly lots of space the last few days. She figures Waverly will let her know if she wants her around.

The fact that she hasn’t yet is something Nicole tries not to think about.

“Just tell her.” Nicole gets out before she ducks her head and strides out of the house.

She can’t bear to look in her rearview mirror until she’s miles away from the homestead.

*****

Two months after Waverly is gone Doc comes striding into the house. His eyes hold a sadness that never seems to quite go away, but his face is full of determination.

Nicole knows why he’s here. Everything about his stance and general air screams that he’s ready to run. But then he watches Wes vomit all over Wynonna, who tells her daughter thanks for reenacting a highlight from one of her past one night stands, and his face crumples.

The keys in his hand slide back into his pocket.

It’s then that Nicole knows none of them are making it through this without the others. They can’t, they’ll never survive.

They institute a family dinner night on Wednesdays. Doc and Dolls come, sometimes Jeremy and Rosita too.

A sadness hangs in the air every damn time, but it’s better than the alternative.

*****

Nicole buries herself in work, both of the mundane and not so variety.

She gets updates on Waverly from Dolls, who tells her a similar variation of the facts each time she asks.

Waverly still doesn’t remember much about where she was, or from the time right before she was sucked through a portal.

They’ve done a series of tests to ensure she is, in fact, Waverly. The results clear any suspicion for the others, but Nicole’s known all along. She doesn’t need any tests to tell her what she knew the second she touched Waverly.

Dolls always ends the briefing with a look that says he wants to say something more, but thankfully he curbs the urge. Nicole already knows what it is.

Wes stays over for the first time at the end of the week, and the way she yells “’Cole!” and jumps into her arms when Wynonna drops her off is enough to get Nicole through a few more days keeping all her doubts at bay.

She thinks what she’s doing is for the best, but it still feels like going through a divorce of sorts. The slow, painful kind.

Word of Waverly’s return spreads through town fast. Everyone is delighted by the town prodigal daughter’s return from her trip abroad.

Wynonna is the one who made the decision to spread that particular story a couple weeks after Waverly disappeared, when it became clear she wasn’t coming back to them right away.

Nicole felt hollow every time she encountered a sympathetic and knowing look from someone in town. She didn’t have to try very hard to play the role of heartbroken ex-girlfriend who’s love took off to see the world. Nicole thinks she would have preferred that scenario. Anything but the truth would have been better than the reality of the last two years.

There’s a late spring chill in the air when Nicole leaves the station for Shorty’s, and she looks forward to crawling into bed to seek out the sleep that’s been so elusive of late.

It’s peak bar time, so Nicole isn’t surprised to see a multitude of bodies coming and going through the bar door, but when she sees one person in particular exit the building her stride comes to an abrupt stop.

Nicole slides her hands into her pockets to keep them from getting cold. She’s perfectly content to watch Waverly from a distance unnoticed,  but then their eyes meet.

She feels sucker punched.

Waverly blinks at her, and Nicole is quite certain her own name falls quietly from her lips.

Nicole takes slow and steady steps forward that feel in direct opposition to the erratic beating of her heart. She stops with a respectable distance between them, even though her body strains to keep moving.

Their breaths puff out into the night air as the silence stretches between them, and Nicole searches for something, anything, to say.

“Hey Waverly. You here alone?” She finally settles on.

The corners of Waverly’s mouth turn down a fraction. “No, Wynonna is inside settling the tab.” Her eyes drift down to the pavement between them. “I just needed some air.”

They stand there long enough for Nicole to identify the faint scent of alcohol emanating from Waverly. “It’s nice that you guys could spend some time together.” Nicole says in an attempt to keep the conversation from lapsing into silence again, afraid of what might slip out if it does.

“It was Wynonna’s idea. A little sisterly bonding in a bar.” Waverly says, but it doesn’t sound particularly happy. “I shouldn’t be surprised, Wynonna thinks alcohol is the way to deal with everything.”

It’s a harsh comment, one that isn’t as true as it used to be since Wes was born, but Nicole doesn’t think mentioning that right now is a good idea.

“But I imagine you have lots of experience with that by now. You guys probably had a lot of best bud drinking nights over the last two years.”

Nicole sucks in a breath at the sudden stab of pain the words cause.

It must show on her face, because Waverly squeezes her eyes shut. “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for.”

“Waverly...” Nicole trails off. She has no idea what to say. The feeling is becoming all too familiar.

She watches on silently as Waverly tilts her head back to stare at the night sky. “My niece is two years old, Gus moved out of the Ghost River Triangle, I can’t remember where I’ve been and everything is so confusing right now.”

“Hey, it’s going to be okay.” Nicole reaches out to place a comforting hand on her arm, only to stop herself inches away from contact.

The way Waverly looks down at the gesture has Nicole pulling away immediately.

It’s all too familiar, and Nicole feels like she’s in her squad car again trying to offer Waverly comfort, back before they crossed a line that can’t be erased from memory.

Sometimes Nicole wonders if the last two years could have been avoided if they’d stayed just friends, if a different path could have been struck. One where Waverly never leaves them, and Nicole doesn’t lose an essential part of herself in that fiery portal.

“Where have you been?” Waverly whispers to her, and it nearly breaks Nicole.

Everything in her screams to tell Waverly that whether they’re talking about the last couple weeks, or the last couple years, she’s been right here, waiting for her. But she can’t say that; can’t add to the pain and confusion she knows Waverly already feels.

She’s saved from avoiding the truth when Wynonna barges out of the bar.

Nicole takes a small step back from Waverly in reaction. She has no idea why.

Wynonna notices her right away. “Nicole, you hag, come back to the homestead with us for a drink, you’ve been gone far too long.” She says, forgoing any sort of proper greeting.

Waverly rubs at her arms, looking away from the conversation like she has no part in it. She couldn’t be more wrong, because the move convinces Nicole of her answer.

“I’m beat Wynonna, but thanks for the invite.”

Wynonna rolls her eyes. “Lame, but fine, if you show up for dinner Wednesday night.”

Nicole toes the ground with her boot while she tries to decide how to respond.

Waverly must notice the pause because she levels Nicole with a curious gaze, and as much as Nicole wants to find some indication there that she wants to hear an affirmative answer, she can’t.

She feels a prickle behind her eyes, and Nicole fights to keep it from growing. “Sure, Wynonna, I’ll try and be there.” She says finally.

Wynonna narrows her eyes at the noncommittal response. “Do or do not, there is no tr– ooooh my god, I’ve been spending too much time with Jeremy.” She sounds so disgusted with herself. After a firm head shake she tells Nicole in a pointed voice that they will see her Wednesday.

Nicole nods in lieu of a verbal response before they part ways.

A short while later she crawls into bed and finally succumbs to the tears. She fists a hand into her pillow as her body shakes and curls in on itself, the weight of the situation closing in around her.

She cries herself to sleep eventually.

The dream comes then. The one where Waverly smiles at her from across the park.

Every time Nicole tries to run to her, tries to reach her outstretched hand before a ball of fire splits the horizon and sucks her in, leaving nothing but scorched earth behind.

She never makes it in time.

*****

Three months after Waverly disappears the gang is gathered in the Black Badge room at the station. Not that there is a Black Badge Division in the Ghost River Triangle anymore, but the name sticks.

Wes is in one of her fussy moods, and they take turns passing her around, until she decides which pair of bouncing arms will calm her.

Today it’s Doc.

“So we go in hard, with heavy artillery.” Dolls finishes going over the plan.

“Soooo, does that mean I get a gun this time?” Jeremey asks with hope.

Everyone avoids eye contact with him as they make non-comital noises. Finally Wynonna takes one for the team.

“Dude, you’re a shit shot. I prefer not to lose an ass cheek in friendly fire, so we’re gonna leave you in charge of keeping the get away vehicle warm, okay?” She claps him on the shoulder as she walks by.

“Fine.” Jeremy sighs out.

Dolls opens the armory locker to arm Nicole with something heavier than her deputy issued pistol. “Shotgun for you.” He says absently, handing the first one he grabs to her,  but she doesn’t take it.

He follows her sightline to the gun in his hand, and realizes the mistake immediately. He sets it back in the locker and grabs the one next to it without a word.

Waverly’s shotgun still sits there untouched, waiting for her return.

*****

Nicole tells herself she really should make a concerted effort to go to dinner at the homestead. She knows she should do it for Wynonna and Wes, at the very least. She misses her time outside of work with Doc and Dolls too.

She hangs on to that conviction until the afternoon, but then she’s confronted by a sight as she walks by the school playground that freezes her in place.

Nicole can hear Wes’ gleeful shriek as she flies down the slide, and she smiles in response. She suspects Wes will share her mother’s penchant for adrenaline spiking activities.

The thing that really catches her interest though is Waverly. It shouldn’t surprise Nicole anymore really, because Waverly’s had a firm grip on her attention since the moment they met.

Nicole is looking at her profile, but she can tell a small smile curls her lips as she watches Wes play. A slight breeze moves a strand of hair along her cheek, and when Waverly tucks it back behind her ear Nicole takes in a shaky breath.

The warmth moving through her at the sight, the feeling of good, is something that’s been a distant memory for so long. Nicole thinks she might deserve for it to stay that way.

Waverly turns and catches her watching then. The small smile on her face fades, but she gives Nicole a tentative wave that she just barely manages to return.

Waverly looks pointedly at Wes before returning her gaze to Nicole, and it’s a clear invitation for Nicole to join if she wants.

She wishes she could.

Instead she gives a small head shake, well aware that regret and something else is showing all over her face. She takes a couple steps backwards, committing the sight to memory, before she turns on her heel to leave.

The back of her neck prickles, and she knows Waverly watches her walk away.

So instead of Wednesday dinner, Nicole finds herself sipping on a fifth beer while Rosita starts the process of shutting down the bar.

Nicole thinks she should be upstairs by now. A voice in the back of her mind reminds her that she should actually be returning from dinner at the homestead, but she forces it away.

Rosita lets her sit in silence well past the time all patrons should be gone.

It was unexpected, but somewhere along the way during the first year Waverly went missing, they found an easy rapport. They’re not necessarily friends, but they share a silent understanding.

They came close to ruining it all in a single night, but they don’t acknowledge it, never speak of it, and for that, Nicole is grateful.

Nicole hears the bar door open behind her.

“We’re closed.” Rosita tries, and Nicole knows exactly who it is based on the tone she uses and the look on her face.

“Not for me, you aren’t.” Wynonna tells her, and the next thing Nicole knows she has company on the stool next to her.

Rosita rolls her eyes but she slides a beer in front of Wynonna without a word.

Nicole keeps her focus on her beer bottle, tapping the pads of her fingers against the condensation gathering along the outside. She tries to work up the nerve to turn and face Wynonna, but it’s surprisingly difficult.

“You missed dinner.” Wynonna states once it’s clear Nicole isn’t going to start the conversation.

“Hell of a work day, completely slipped my mind.” She takes a long pull from her beer bottle knowing Wynonna won’t let her get away with such an obvious lie, but she has to try.

“Bullshit.”

Her shoulders slump as the word hangs in the air between them. She sets her beer down on the bar with a slow breath before she finally turns to meet Wynonna’s eyes. “Look, Wynonna, I really am sorry.” Wynonna’s face softens a fraction at the apology. “How was it?” Nicole asks, even though she thinks the answer might scare her.

“Good.” Wynonna answers immediately, her tone oddly casual. She takes a swig of beer before screwing up her face. “Awkward as fuck.”

Nicole hates the answer. “It’ll get better.” She makes sure to sound far more certain than she feels.

“Will it?” Wynonna asks, and her eyes are so unsure, so laced with fear, that Nicole doesn’t know how to begin to reassure her.

She puffs out her cheeks. She doesn’t know if it’ll get better, not really, but she has to believe it will. She doesn’t think she’ll survive the days ahead if it doesn't. She traces a groove in the bar with her finger tip as she answers quietly. “I hope so.”

She can feel Wynonna’s eyes boring into the side of her face.

“You know, I understand that I am actually a mom now, but I really resent you making me be the mom friend.”

“What?” Nicole asks, not following the comment.

It’s Wynonna’s turn to sigh. “Look dude, I get it, you’re scared. Me too, obviously, but disappearing isn't going to help a damn thing.”

Nicole hates the way the truth cuts through her. For all her confidence, the self-assuredness that laces its way through her everyday life, she is beyond scared about this. When she opens her mouth to speak, the alcohol in her veins forces a truth out that Nicole intended to keep buried indefinitely. “I couldn’t save her, Wynonna. Again.”

“No, you couldn’t.” Wynonna says, and it hurts to hear someone else say it out loud. “And neither could Doc, or Dolls, or Boobs McSeltzer over there.” She gestures across the bar.

“I heard that.” Rosita mutters from where she’s counting out her drawer.

“And neither could I, even with this.” Wynonna touches the holster on her hip where Peacemaker sits.

Logically, Nicole knows Wynonna is right. It was a shit show that night in the park, everyone scattered and frantic to stop the town from being leveled in a demonic ceremony. A portal opening to another dimension is not what anyone was expecting. It came and went so fast no one had time to react.

The knowledge doesn’t change the way her feelings twist in her gut every time Nicole thinks about that night. There’s too much else wrapped up in it.

“I just,” she starts, trying to find the right words, “I just want her to focus on the important things right now. Bonding with Wes, spending time with you.” Nicole shakes her head. “She shouldn’t have to deal with anything else right now.”

She shouldn’t have to deal with someone else's emotional baggage, Nicole thinks, but she keeps that part to herself.

“Nicole,” Wynonna’s voice is firm, her gaze locked on Nicole’s, “she needs you.”

Nicole swallows, not entirely sure she believes it, even though she desperately wants to.

I need you.” Wynonna adds.

Nicole ducks her head at the admission as her throat constricts painfully. She knows how hard it is for Wynonna to say it. They’ve needed each other the last two years, but admitting it out loud has never been part of their dynamic.

She takes a slow breath before nodding. “Okay.”

“Okay?” Wynonna asks, ducking down to catch Nicole’s eye. “Okay, what?”

“I’ll start coming around more.” Nicole answers. She can’t promise any more than that right now.

Wynonna regards her for an uncomfortable minute before she decides the pledge is sincere. “Fair enough.”

She finishes her beer, sliding the bottle towards the end of the bar for Rosita, before she claps Nicole on the shoulder on her way out. “Night, Boobs.” She calls to Rosita.

“Oh my god,” Rosita mutters, “Yes, I have boobs, I get it. You win a prize for noticing.”

Wynonna makes an appreciative noise. “How did you know positive reinforcement is my kink these days?” She doesn’t wait around for another retort, heading out the bar door before Rosita can hurl something at her, the way Nicole suspects she wants to.

“Your friend is really something else.” Rosita tells her before grabbing the cash bag and heading to the back office.

Yeah, Nicole thinks, she really is.

*****

Four months after Waverly disappears Wynonna nearly beats a demon to death with her hands.

Peacemaker is lit up on her hip, but she ignores it. Instead, she keeps punching the demon over and over, his head lulling about like a rag doll since he lost consciousness moments before.

Nicole feels a detached sort of acceptance as she watches, fully willing to let Wynonna keep going, but then Dolls pulls her off of the demon and bears the brunt of Wynonna’s rage until she finally deflates.

That night Nicole puts her first through a wall at the house.

In the morning she picks up the supplies necessary to fix it at the hardware store, and by the next day it’s like it never happened. 

The bruising and cuts on her knuckles take weeks to fade.

*****

Nicole turns down the street to the park on autopilot, just like she has so many days before.

She pulls to a stop when something catches her eye, but she doesn’t turn the engine off right away. It takes her longer than she’d care to admit to make a decision, but after the conversation with Wynonna a few nights before, she doesn’t think there’s any other choice.

Her walk is slow towards the bench; slow towards her.

Waverly is clearly surprised when she approaches, eyeing Nicole in question.

“Hey.” Nicole greets softly.

“Hey.” Waverly mirrors back. Her eyes drift back to the open expanse in front of them.

Nicole is careful to leave a comfortable amount of space between the two of them when she sits.

“What are you doing out here?” She asks, even though she already knows the answer.

Waverly shrugs. “Just thinking about things.”

“Yeah? How’s that going for you?” It’s not at all what Nicole wants to ask, but it’s the only thing she’s comfortable saying.

Waverly shakes her head. “Not great. I still can’t remember anything from when I was gone.”

Nicole is starting to think maybe that’s for the best.

“But, I’m starting to remember other things…from right before.” She looks at Nicole out of the corner of her eye.

Nicole knew this moment would come, it had to eventually, but there’s dread curling in her gut that makes her want to run.

She wonders when she became such a coward.

“We fought, before I disappeared, didn’t we?”

Nicole’s hands twist in her lap as she stares down at them. “Yeah, we fought.” She confirms in a quiet voice.

“You didn’t want me to go on the hunt. You asked me to sit this one out, and I refused.” Waverly tucks her hair behind her ear, even though it doesn’t need it. The action makes Nicole think maybe this conversation is as difficult for Waverly as it is for her. “I accused you of being overbearing and trying to control me.”

Nicole squeezes her eyes shut as she takes a shaky breath. The accusations cut through her now just as easily as they did the first time. “I just had a bad feeling about this one, you know? Maybe I was being overprotective after the whole Mikshun thing, I don’t know. My gut was telling me you shouldn’t come here."

Waverly takes that in, eventually turning to Nicole with a sad smile. “On the bright side, you now have the biggest ‘I told you so’ in history.”

“Do you think that matters to me at all?” Nicole’s voice shakes. She can’t imagine anything she’s less likely to care about.

Waverly drops her gaze. “Sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry.” Nicole tells her. She hates how hard this is, wishes they could talk openly about everything, but she’s afraid they might damage each other too much.

“You know,” Waverly speaks again, “I’ve started to think maybe I was too hard on Willa. This whole losing time thing is shit.” She shakes her head. “But then I remember she shot you, and I’m back to thinking she kind of sucked.”

Nicole manages to huff out a small laugh. She never thought getting shot by her girlfriend’s maniacal sister would feel like a light and easy topic, and yet that’s exactly the case.

“I don’t even feel like I was gone that long and yet everything is different.” Waverly admits quietly. “I promised I would be there for Wynonna, but-” her voice cracks and Nicole has to dig her fingers into her legs to keep from reaching out, “life went on, and here I am trying to catch up.” Her chest rises and falls with a breath. “Did–” she audibly swallows, “Did anyone try to find me?”

The question positively breaks Nicole.

A breath rushes out of her in response to the sharp pain twisting in her gut. “Oh, Waverly.” Her eyes well up as she tries to figure out where to even begin explaining what it was like.

“We tried for months. I’ve never seen Wynonna go on a tear the way she did. She threatened everyone in sight, kicked down every possible door, looking for a way to get you back. Dolls called in every favor he had stock piled, Doc even offered to free the Stone Witch from the salt flats if she could give them a way to bring you back.”

She wipes at a tear running down her cheek as she tries to control the quiver in her lip. “I drove by this place every single day you were gone, looking for something, anything, we might have missed; some sort of clue to bring you back.” She shakes her head. “I still can’t stop driving by this place every day.” She admits. She sucks in a shaky breath before her next words. “We didn’t move on without you, Waverly, we all just tried to find ways to survive, because we didn’t know what else to do.” She finishes.

Waverly’s eyes flicker between her own, searching for something Nicole suspects is easy to find, because she’s never been able to hide her feelings from Waverly.

Finally, Waverly gives the smallest of nods before she looks back out to the field.

Nicole sits in silence with her as the minutes pass by, unsure of where to go from here.

“I’m glad you were there for her.” Waverly whispers after awhile, her hand slowly moving over far enough to touch her pinky to Nicole’s.

The touch is feather light, barely there, but for now, it’s enough.

*****

Nicole makes sure to attend the next Wednesday night dinner, even though nothing about it feels easy.

Dolls fist bumps Wes when he enters, rubbing at her shiny locks starting to curl at the ends. “That’s my girl.” He tells her, and Waverly actually smiles.

Nicole commits it to memory.

She winds up sitting next to Waverly at the cramped table, a detail Nicole is pretty sure Wynonna went out of her way to make happen.

It shouldn’t be a big deal, yet Nicole can feel something hanging in the air between the two of them. She refuses to let herself dwell on it.

They both reach for the green beans at the same time, hands brushing together. They pull back at lightning speed, as if the touch is physically painful.

For Nicole, it kind of is.

Nicole excuses herself after dinner as soon as it’s polite to do so. Waverly watches her quietly as she shrugs on her coat and kisses Wes on the head before she leaves.

Doc is smoking a cigarette on the porch when she lets herself out. His eyes are doing that thing where they bore into her, and she just knows he has something to say.

She slides her hands into the pockets of her jacket and waits him out.

He blows a stream of smoke out as he contemplates the orange glow at the tip of his cigarette. “She just needs a little more time, is all.”

Nicole isn’t sure if he’s trying to reassure himself or her.

“I know.” Nicole tells him. She thinks he might be done, and she’s taking a step to leave when he speaks again.

“Of course, all the time in the world won’t matter a lick if you don’t figure out how to forgive yourself.”

Nicole sucks in a breath at the statement.

Sometimes she forgets just how observant Doc is. She has no idea what to say to the comment; no idea where to begin actually doing what he’s suggesting, but he saves her the effort when he crushes his cigarette under a boot heel and tips his hat in good night before going back inside.

She thinks about his words the entire drive back to Shorty’s.

It takes her a long time to fall asleep that night.

*****

One year after Waverly disappears, Nicole gets drunk.

Each time she signals for another beer or shot Rosita delivers it without a word, her face soft with understanding and concern.

The bar closes but Nicole doesn’t leave.

She’s not entirely sure how they end up on the couch in the back office. She just knows that Rosita’s lips feel different than Waverly’s. They’re not as soft, and they taste nothing like hers. It makes Nicole press into the kisses even more, determined to feel something, anything, at all.

Wynonna figures it out the next morning, piecing together the broken words in between Nicole’s sobs as she sits on the bathroom floor.

She holds zero judgement in her eyes, and Nicole thinks that’s worse somehow.

Nicole and Rosita never do talk about it afterwards.

There’s nothing to discuss.

*****

A knock on the door signals Wynonna’s arrival with Wes.

“Just a sec!” Nicole calls as she slides a tray of chicken nuggets into the oven.

Her greeting dies on her lips when she opens the door to find Waverly standing there, Wes in tow. She scrambles to recover from the unexpected sight.

“Hey.” Waverly greets, and it’s clear by the way she looks down at the floor as she tucks a strand of hair behind her ear that she’s nervous. “Uh, Wynonna had a demon emergency and asked me to bring Wes over to you. I hope that’s okay.”

The fact that Waverly sounds so unsure helps Nicole recover from her initial shock. “Of course.” She opens the door wider, inviting them in.

She scoops Wes up into a hug before accepting the overnight bag Waverly holds out to her. The tension in the air between them is still there, and Nicole hates it. She doesn’t know how to make it go away, but she’s starting to think maybe it has to start with her.

“You off to play demon-hunting wingwoman?” She asks in an effort to make conversation.

Waverly shakes her head. “No, Dolls is riding along on this one.” Her eyes drift past Nicole to the set table.

Nicole licks her lips, deciding whether or not she has the courage to ask what she’s thinking. “Do you maybe want to stay for dinner?” She manages to say before she can talk herself out of it.

Waverly cuts her gaze back. “Really?” She asks, and something twists in Nicole’s gut at how surprised she sounds.

“Yeah, of course. I mean, it’s only chicken nuggets and broccoli, so don’t get too excited.”

Wes claps happily when she hears two of her favorite foods listed.

Waverly raises her eyebrow. “Really kid, broccoli?”

Nicole laughs. “Yeah, Wynonna was convinced for awhile that her kid really was demon spawn when that little development occurred.”

Waverly gives her niece a soft smile, a light shining in her eyes Nicole hasn’t seen in such a long time. “Okay, I’ll stay.” She answers.

Nicole tries to ignore the flutters in her stomach at the response.

Dinner goes surprisingly well. Everything seems a bit easier with a toddler in the middle demanding all the attention.

Nicole goes through the overnight bag Wynonna packed for Wes while Waverly finishes drying the dishes she insisted on cleaning after dinner.

“Score.” Nicole says to Wes, holding up the DVD she finds.

Waverly eyes the movie with amusement as she dries her hands with a dish towel.

Nicole tries not to stare at the action.

“Home on the Range?” There’s teasing in her tone.

“This is an underrated cinematic classic, I’ll have you know.”

Waverly raises her eyebrows in doubt, a sparkle of humor clear in her eyes.

Nicole shrugs as she ignores the tug low in her gut. “Wes likes the talking cows.” She admits.

“Ah.” Waverly understands. “Well,” she starts, setting dish towel on the counter. “I should probably get going.”

Nicole speaks before thinking. “You could stay for the movie, if you wanted?” Her stomach plummets when Waverly looks down at her feet. Nicole mentally kicks herself for pushing too hard and making her uncomfortable. It's just so easy to react to the unmistakable feeling of good Waverly Earp has always been able to make her feel.

“I’m pretty tired.” Waverly tells her, and Nicole starts to panic that she’s completely undone the small bit of progress they’ve made, but then Waverly gives her a grateful smile. “But maybe next time?”

“Yeah, maybe next time.” Nicole echoes softly. They stare at each other for a beat before Wes is running in between them, demanding attention again.

Even after Waverly leaves Nicole can still smell her scent in the apartment. She tries to ignore the reaction her body has to it and focus on the foundation she thinks they might be building towards friendship.

Because that’s what they’re working towards, Nicole thinks.

She has no right to expect otherwise.

*****

The second Christmas after Waverly is gone is different from the first.

Wes is old enough to react to things, and so they decide on a tree and a family dinner.

Wynonna insists they have eggnog and fruitcake and play terrible pop versions of Christmas carols in the background, even though none of it is particularly the taste of anyone in attendance.

They all know who it’s for.

*****

One month after she returns, Waverly starts to smile more. It feels like the world is brightening before Nicole’s eyes.

Two months go by, and Wes is giggling as she leads Waverly on a chase through the house. Her affinity for her Aunt has grown at a rapid pace, and it’s everything to Nicole to watch their relationship develop.

Waverly stumbles coming around a corner in her pursuit and falls into Nicole, who steadies her with gentle hands. They stand in each other’s space for a beat too long with their gazes locked before Wes lets it be known she is not okay with the chase being over.

Nicole balls her hands into fists and slides them into her pockets, willing them to forget how it feels to fully touch Waverly.

Three months in and Waverly goes off on what amounts to a tirade for her about how the vegetarian restaurant they finally got in town is going to close if more people don’t give it a chance. It’s just so very Waverly, that Nicole can’t help the way her heartbeat picks up.

It feels like she’s losing a battle she never could learn how to stop fighting.

Sometime around the fourth month Nicole and Waverly lounge at opposite ends of the couch watching tv at the homestead. They’ve settled into a comfortable enough place where Nicole thinks they might actually be friends again.

Except, she’s not entirely sure they ever really were just friends.

Their small moments of eye contact and shy smiles feel an awful lot like the first few months they knew each other, only now Nicole has the bittersweet knowledge of what they can actually be together.

She tries to ignore the memories, insists the time has come and gone, while she tries to remember the reasons why she continues to hold back a small part of herself.

Wynonna comes to tell them goodbye before heading out to pick up Wes from her time with Dolls, only to make a disgusted noise when she realizes what they’re watching.

“Oh my god Nicole, Chopped again? Do you have some sort of food kink I don’t know about?” She snarks.

Nicole rolls her eyes. “It’s entertaining. The stuff they come up with the mystery ingredients blows my mind.”

“You seriously need to get laid.” Wynonna mutters.

Neither Nicole nor Waverly react. Their eyes stay fixed on the tv in front of them, but there’s a tension that takes up residence between them the moment the comment lands.

Nicole assumes they’re just going to pretend neither of them notices the way the air has shifted, but then Waverly clears her throat in that way she does when she feels awkward asking a question.

“So...do you have any new friends?”

Nicole knows what she’s actually asking, the way she says ‘friends’ makes it abundantly clear. Nicole might find it funny it if wasn’t for the answer.

“Uh, no, I don’t.” She answers carefully.

She can see Waverly looking at her out of her peripheral vision, but she can’t bear to meet her eye.

“Really? Two years is a long time.”

Nicole chews at her lower lip. She knows she’s going to tell her, there’s no reason not to. It’s what happens after she’s afraid of.

“Once.” It comes out as a whisper. She needs a steadying breath before she can continue. “It was exactly a year after you disappeared, I was drunk, and it meant absolutely nothing to me.” She finishes quietly.

Silence settles around them again, and Nicole is too scared to look at Waverly, so she stares at the tv while she waits out whatever the response is.

“Rosita, right?” Waverly asks.

It’s not at all what Nicole is expecting. Her eyebrows crinkle in confusion as she turns to Waverly in question. “How–?” She cuts off.

Waverly shrugs one shoulder. “You work with all men, except for Doris and Marge, who are both a little too geriatric to catch your attention, and outside of work I only see you interact with our circle of people. Since I know it wasn’t Wynonna, that really only left one option.” Waverly states casually, as if she’s explaining the solution to a word problem.

Nicole turns back towards the tv, unsure where to go from here. She wants to pretend the conversation isn’t a big deal, that she hasn’t carried a weight around every day since that night, but it would be a lie.

“Hey,” Waverly says, drawing her attention again, “I understand. Two years is a long time, and you didn't know if I was coming back.” Her tone is so gentle, her face so open in its understanding, that Nicole finds herself swallowing against the lump in her throat.

“Thank you.” She whispers.

Their gazes stay locked together for a long time before they both return their attention to the tv.

Nicole can’t help but notice the way Waverly sits just a bit closer when she comes back to the couch after using the bathroom.

It feels like everything is shifting underneath her again.

*****

Two weeks before Waverly returns Nedley tells Nicole his intended retirement date. It’s a year and a half away, but he wants to know if she’s still interested in the Sheriff's position.

Nicole tells him of course, that nothing has changed.

His eyes bore into her. “It’s a long term commitment, Nicole. An important one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. So if you’re thinking about moving on from Purgatory at some point, tell me now so I can start looking for a suitable replacement.” His tone isn’t unkind, and Nicole might feel the need to ask the same thing if she was in his position.

Conviction laces her voice when she tells him she’s not going anywhere.

*****

Wynonna finds Waverly and Wes asleep together on the couch one night. After she covers them up with a blanket and leaves a note, she comes knocking on Nicole’s door for drinks downstairs.

“I have to work in the morning, Wynonna.” Nicole tells her, but Wynonna looks lighter than she has in years, and she decides it’s worth a drink together.

One drink turns into three for her, and a couple more than that for Wynonna, but Nicole doesn’t care. They actually laugh several times, usually at the expense of another bar patron and whatever insult Wynonna levels at them, but if feels good.

Nicole feels like she has three quarters of her heart put back together, and it’s honestly enough for her. After everything, three quarters is far more than she ever expected.

Wynonna makes a weird noise in her throat, narrowing her eyes at something over Nicole’s shoulder. “I think I just found a volunteer to break your cooking show addiction.”

“What?” Nicole asks, not quite following. It’s not an unusual experience where Wynonna is concerned.

“Twelve o’clock, blondie with a rack that would make a twelve point buck cry, keeps checking you out.”

Nicole passes her a look. “Twelve o’clock for me would be over your shoulder, Wynonna.”

Wynonna rolls her eyes. “Okay, nerd. Just look over your god-damned shoulder and behold the woman looking at you like she wants to eat you alive.” Her eyebrows crinkle. “Maybe she does. Should I check her with Peacemaker?”

Nicole stops her from reaching for the gun. “Not necessary, Wynonna. I don’t care how she’s looking at me, demonic or otherwise, I’m not interested.”

The grin that spreads across Wynonna’s face makes Nicole squirm. “And why is that?”

Nicole looks away before she answers. “Because I’m here to have drinks with you. It’s rude to bail on a friend.”

“Uh huh.” Wynonna clearly isn’t buying it for one second, but Nicole is not even remotely going to talk about it, so she changes the subject.

Luckily Wynonna lets her, but there’s a knowing light in her eyes that refuses to leave, and it drives Nicole absolutely crazy.

An hour later Nicole drops Wynonna off at the house, not willing to get one Earp sister back just to lose another. Wynonna puts up no resistance, well aware she’s had too much to drink.

Waverly steps out onto the porch as Nicole corrals Wynonna towards the front door.

“Waves!” Wynonna lights up when she sees her sister, and Nicole feels something warm take hold in her chest.

Waverly chuckles at her sister. “Wynonna, how much have you had to drink tonight?”

It’s a testament to how happy she is to have her sister back that Wynonna doesn’t give a snarky answer. “More than I should have, but don’t worry, Nicole had my back.” She slings an arm around Nicole’s shoulders.

A soft smile curls Waverly’s lips. “I know she did.” She responds, and there’s a weight to her words Nicole can’t miss even if she tries.

Wynonna looks from Waverly to Nicole and back again in such an exaggerated manner that Nicole has to cough in order to hide her laugh.

“Maybe we should get you in to bed Wynonna.” Nicole suggests.

Wynonna waves a hand, disengaging herself from Nicole’s side. “Got it covered. You two talk, or whatever it is you do these days.” She winks at Waverly on her way into the house.

They stand in silence for almost a minute after Wynonna leaves. Then Nicole clears her throat as she slides her hands into her back pockets. “Well I should probably–”

“Do you want to–?” Waverly speaks at the same time.

Nicole dips her head as she smiles. “Sorry, what were you saying?” Even in the faint porch light Nicole is pretty sure Waverly is blushing.

“I was just going to ask if you maybe wanted to come inside for a bit.”

They hold each other’s gaze, and god, everything in Nicole wants to say yes. The more time she spends with Waverly these days, the less she remembers why she’s holding back. But something in her whispers that she’s not quite ready, and her eyes drop to the ground as she declines.

“I better not, I have work in the morning.” She’s worried Waverly will be upset, but when she looks up again there’s nothing but understanding.

“Okay. Night, Nicole.” She tells her with a little wave and smile before turning for the house.

Nicole takes a step backwards towards her cruiser. “Night, Waverly.”

Something takes hold in Nicole’s chest on the drive home, and it feels an awful lot like hope.

*****

Wynonna takes Wes on a day trip to visit Gus in the next county.

Violent thunderstorms blow into Purgatory in the early evening, and Nicole gets a phone call that they’re going to stay overnight and come home in the morning after everything blows through.

Nicole marvels at how very adult Wynonna can be these days now that she has a kid, but then Wynonna tells her to make sure her kitchen is stocked with a shit ton of booze when she gets back because she’s gonna need it after spending so long with Gus, and Nicole thinks maybe nothing has changed at all.

Lightning flashes outside her apartment followed immediately by a boom of thunder, and all Nicole can think about is Waverly alone at the homestead. She knows all too well how often the power goes out there during storms.

She walks out the door with keys in hand before she can talk herself out of it.

Even though Nicole parks her cruiser close to the front porch and runs for the door, the torrential downpour still manages to seep into her clothes.

She walks in without knocking, pausing just inside to catch her breath from the mad dash.

Waverly stands in front of her, candle in hand, with eyebrows raised.

“Hey.” Nicole greets as she runs a hand through her wet hair, feeling droplets run down the sides of her neck.

“Hey.” Waverly responds back, her eyes traveling down Nicole’s body and back up again.

Nicole pretends not to notice the weight of Waverly’s eyes, or the pulse low in her body as a result. “Wynonna called, said she was staying at Gus’ with Wes for the night. I know this place tends to lose power during storms, so I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Waverly’s lips curl up. “That’s really sweet.”

“Yeah,” Nicole tries for casual, “no problem.” The soft glow from the lit candle makes Nicole acutely aware of the particular kind of energy drifting between them.

Waverly inclines her head away from the front door. “I’m just going to light a few more candles, come on in.”

Somehow the simple invitation feels loaded with something more. Maybe it’s the way Waverly’s eyes dip to her lips before she turns to leave the room.

Nicole debates whether or not it’s a good idea to stay. She came here to make sure Waverly is okay, and she appears to be, so she really should leave.

Except, now that she’s here, Nicole thinks that’s not why she came at all. She suspects Waverly is well aware of that fact, too.

She follows after Waverly into the kitchen like it’s the only choice, because it is.

Waverly looks around with narrowed eyes. “Any idea where Wynonna keeps the extra candles these days? I checked the cabinet where we used to keep them, but they weren’t there.”

“Oh, yeah, we moved them to make space for Wes’ baby food. They’re over there now.” Nicole points over Waverly’s shoulder, taking a step to get them, only there’s not enough space between Waverly and the table to fit by without getting very up close and personal.

Waverly looks over her shoulder to where Nicole points before she turns back. “Can you show me?” She asks, but she’s not moving, and she doesn’t look all that interested in candles.

“Sure,” her response comes out on a breath, “I just need to get by.” She finishes in a more even tone, determined to get a grip on the situation.

Waverly makes a low humming noise before she takes the smallest of steps to the side.

Nicole turns sideways and inches between Waverly’s body and the table, careful not to make any contact while ignoring the amusement she can see on Waverly’s face.

She pulls down the candles from the top cupboard one by one, handing the last one to Waverly with what she hopes is a casual and friendly smile. “There’s extra lighters in the drawer by the microwave.” She’s pretty sure that’s where they kept them before Waverly disappeared, but it’s something to say.

Their fingers brush together when Waverly takes the candle, setting off an electric spark through Nicole.

They both freeze with their hands still on the candle between them, their eyes locked together. Nicole can’t help but think about how pretty Waverly looks in the candlelight.

She swallows thickly, willing her body to pull away and put some distance between them, but then Waverly is pulling the candle out of her hand to set it on the table and stepping into her personal space.

“Nicole.” She says with purpose.

“Yeah?” Nicole responds absently as her eyes drop to Waverly’s lips in full-on defiance of her demand to stay in control.

“Kiss me.” Waverly whispers.

A shaky breath leaves Nicole as her eyes connect with Waverly’s again. What she finds there makes her knees weak.

Her body strains to lean forward and give in to Waverly’s request, but she holds back. It all feels too good to be true after everything they’ve been through, and for a moment Nicole wonders if she’s dreaming.

But then Waverly slides her hand along Nicole’s cheek, fingertips feather light against her skin, and she realizes it’s not a dream.

“Are you sure?” She asks as she feels the vestiges of her restraint start to drift away.

The candlelight flickers across Waverly’s face as the corners of her lips curl up at the question, and it steals the remaining breath Nicole has.

“Some things never change.” She murmurs as her fingers find their way into the damp strands of Nicole’s hair. “I’ve never been more sure about anything.”

Nicole isn’t sure if she’s talking about the kissing or her. She can’t help but hope it’s both.

She moves forward in increments, one of her hands finding its way to the side of Waverly’s neck to stroke softly as their lips brush together.

The contact sets off a powerful reaction in Nicole, and she has to pull back almost immediately. She knows she’s shaking, tries desperately to stop, but the emotions coiling through her make it impossible.

Home.

That’s the feeling the brief contact elicits in her. It might terrify her if not for the wonder she sees clear on Waverly’s face.

Nicole squeezes her eyes shut and touches their foreheads together. “So, not just me then?” She asks with a breathy laugh.

Waverly shakes her head against Nicole’s forehead. “No, definitely not just you.”

Nicole waits until the shaking subsides, feeling the way Waverly’s breath crashes against her lips, until she can’t take it anymore.

She lifts Waverly’s chin with her index finger to kiss her again, this time longer and more firm, but still achingly slow.

When they pull apart for air it’s clear what Waverly wants, the desire is evident in her eyes.

“Let’s go upstairs.” She whispers.

Nicole can only nod, afraid her voice will break if she tries to speak.

Waverly leads their way upstairs by candlelight, guiding Nicole by the hand behind her. She sets the candle on the desk across the room before drawing Nicole towards the bed, stopping to face her just before they reach it.

Outside the storm is still raging, but inside something far more powerful is building between them.

Nicole runs a thumb over Waverly’s lower lip, sucking in a breath when she turns her head to bite down gently on the end.

Their eyes connect and Nicole can’t hold back anymore. She pulls Waverly into her by the hips and kisses her like she’s drowning. When their tongues slide against each other she thinks she just might.

She’s aware of the next few minutes in a haze of flashes. Waverly undoes her belt; she slides Waverly’s shirt up over her head, fingers brushing against her sides as she goes; they both desperately chase each other’s lips.

She picks Waverly up in a single motion, pausing to hold her there for a moment before taking the final steps to the bed.

Waverly runs her thumbs along her jaw as she looks down at her with the most beautiful expression Nicole’s ever seen.

She knows what the look means. She was certain not all that long ago she’d never see it again.

She moves then, lowering Waverly carefully to the bed, and it doesn’t take long before they’re skin on skin.

Nicole’s touch is reverent in the candlelight, and she doesn’t even realize she’s crying until Waverly cups her cheeks and brushes away her tears with the softest of looks.

Nicole blinks hard in an effort to clear her eyes. “Sorry, they’re happy tears, I promise.”

“I know.” Waverly tells her. Her eyes are so soft, her touch light against Nicole’s face.

Then she’s holding her gaze and speaking with a sureness that makes Nicole’s heart pound. Even with the rain beating against the window she thinks Waverly might be able to hear it.

“I love you. I’ve always loved you.”

Nicole takes a slow breath to ensure her voice is steady when she returns the sentiment. “I love you too, baby.”

Then they’re kissing again while their hands explore what they’ve been without for so long.

They can’t make up for lost time, they both know that, but it doesn’t stop them from trying until the storm breaks and early morning light filters through the window.

*****

They lay entwined with each other when the sounds of a toddler running downstairs wakes them from their sleep.

“They’re home.” Waverly murmurs, lips brushing against Nicole’s sternum from her position tucked under her chin.

Nicole hums out a response, fingers brushing up and down the plane of Waverly’s back. “Does that mean we have to get up?”

Waverly sighs. “Wynonna knows you’re here, the cruiser is parked out front. If we don’t go down there, she’s eventually going to come up here.”

Nicole winces as past memories come to mind. “You’re right.” She stretches her body, moving against Waverly in the most delicious of ways.

She untangles their limbs enough to roll Waverly onto her back. “But maybe we could wait a few minutes before getting out of bed?”

The smirk on Waverly's face sends her pulse skittering.

“I’m willing to risk it if you are.” She whispers against Nicole’s lips.

It’s another forty five minutes before they leave the bedroom.

Wes’ face lights up when they both come down the stairs. She points at them while nodding her head emphatically. “Yeah.” Is all she says.

Nicole has no idea what it means, except then she thinks maybe she does.

The corner of Wynonna’s eyes crinkle with her smile when she sees the two of them. She wiggles her eyebrows at them over her coffee mug. “Bow chica wow wow, huh?”

“Wynonna,” Nicole warns, “not in front of Wes.”

Wynonna rolls her eyes. “Lighten up Haughtstuff, she has no idea what I'm saying.”

Nicole’s heart swells at the nickname. It’s been far too long since she’s heard Wynonna use it.

Unfortunately, it seems Wes understands at least some of what Wynonna said, because she bounces around the room yelling “bow wow wow.”

Nicole gives Wynonna a look, but she just shrugs.

“What? She’s my kid, did you expect anything different?”

Nicole supposes she has a point. “Who wants pancakes?” She asks loudly, trying to distract the toddler still bouncing and yelling around them.

“Me.” Waverly smiles at her.

“Oh yeah?” Nicole asks, completely forgetting the purpose of her question. “And what incentive do I have for doing such work?” She leans in closer.

“I’m sure we can work something out.” Waverly tells her.

They’re an inch from kissing when Wynonna makes a gagging noise, reminding Nicole that they are not alone. She still can’t bring herself to pull away.

“Oh my god,” Wynonna whines, “I liked it better when you two were all angsty and tortured.”

Waverly rolls her eyes, but she leans in to kiss Nicole anyway.

Nicole knows she’s sporting the goofiest grin when they pull apart, but she can’t bring herself to care.

Wynonna sweeps Wes up and over her shoulder. “Come with me, my little hellion, we must get away from this disgusting display before we catch a case of cooties!”

Wes shrieks in delight as Wynonna carries her into the kitchen.

The smile on Waverly’s face is breathtaking, and Nicole just has to kiss her again then and there.

“Come on,” she tells Waverly once they pull apart, “let’s go have family breakfast.”

*****

Nicole moves back in a month later.

Waverly never does remember her time in another dimension. Nicole thinks it might be a blessing.

Sometimes Waverly wakes in the middle of the night shaking from nightmares she can’t explain. Nicole holds her tight and reminds her she’s not alone.

Nicole occasionally suffers from her own nightmares, waking to find Waverly whispering against her temple. “I came home to you. I swear baby, I’ll always come home to you.”

Wednesday night dinners continue, getting more boisterous and laugh filled as time goes on.

Two years after Waverly returns they have a simple ceremony at the homestead.

Waverly wears flowers in her hair, and Nicole can’t stop smiling.

A picture hangs on the wall soon after, in a spot it holds for years to come.

Nicole has Wes on her shoulders, hands securing the girl around her ankles. Wynonna stands next to her holding one of her daughter’s hands, Waverly holds the other from her position leaning into her newly declared wife. Doc, Dolls, Jeremy and Rosita are crowded in around them sporting grins of various sizes.

It’s that same picture Wes brings in to school two years later for family picture day.

When Bobby Harper raises his hand and asks which people in the photo are her actual family, she smiles wide and tells him the truth.

“All of them.”