They arrive back at the jail and report Nicole’s findings to the other deputies assembled before Mr. Jackson returns with a few men to advise that they haven’t had any luck with their own searches.
Nedley doesn’t tell them about the confectionary shop, or the other potentially linked missing person, and Nicole supports Nedley’s decision wholeheartedly.
To tell them now, without further information - or, Nicole thinks begrudgingly, any information - is to risk widespread panic. And as much as that will likely put the person - if there is a person - on alert, it could also hasten their hand into actions that are much worse.
He leaves with an assurance that they’ll do a last sweep of the town and nearby farms before nightfall, and they’ll meet in the morning to discuss any findings, or if they’re successful in their search, will return the young woman to her father immediately.
As much as Nicole wants to think this is nothing more than a coincidence, it’s becoming clearer and clearer in her head that it is not, and that the two are not randomly missing, but rather connected somehow.
She watches Jackson leave with his men, dejected, but still hopeful, and she feels sick because she knows even now that they’re unlikely to find his daughter alive. And it makes her heart pull, too, for the woman who owns the confectionary shop, potentially missing for two days without a single family member to sound the alarm for her.
And then she thinks of Waverly, of sweet, kind, flawless Waverly, who looks like a maiden fair; who looks like a virgin sacrifice from the Greek tragedies she sometimes reads; who, if there is someone, could very well be in danger, too.
Not if I have anything to do with it, Nicole thinks with clenched fists as the watches the last of the men file out the door into the early evening sun. They’ll take her over my dead body.
“Right,” Nedley says, turning to the three deputies assembled in front of him, missing only one other, at home, sleeping off his night shift. “I want the three of you to start patrolling, ask questions, start lookin’ for anything that might help us, or that, god forbid, points to anyone else having gone missing, alright? I’m going to stay here in case Jackson comes back with any news.”
With any bad news , Nicole finishes in her head. The kind of news that the Sheriff alone can communicate to the town.
“Yes, sir,” the three of them echo before Nedley steps towards Nicole, picking the MISSING PERSON sign up off of the desk nearest to him.
“Take this to the printing press, will you, Haught?” Nedley asks of her specifically. “Have a good look around town while you’re walkin’, too. Do you think you have a good idea of who’s who yet?”
“I think so, sir,” Nicole nods to him as he steps closer to her. “I mean, there might be a few I haven’t seen, but I recognise most already.”
“Good,” he says gruffly, watching the other two men walk out the door together before they climb up onto their waiting horses and head out to scout the nearby surrounds for any signs or clues. “Anyone that looks unusual, or anyone you haven’t seen in the few days you’ve been here, I want you to question them, okay? See if others recognise them, if others are talkin’ to them.”
“Yes, sir,” Nicole answers seriously. “And, sir... Did you want me to call on Gus, too? See if there’s been anyone stayin’ there that she hasn’t seen before?”
“If you’re passin’, that’s a good thought,” Nedley says approvingly, pleased with her initiative. “But if she’s not around, just mention it to her when you head back tonight, alright?”
“Of course, sir,” Nicole replies with a nod. “Is there anythin’ else? Anythin’ else we can do?”
“Just keep our eyes open,” Nedley says with a growl, and Nicole can tell that this is affecting him more deeply than he’s letting on. That he’s upset at the fact that this is happening on his watch, and they hadn’t realised until they were two missing persons down. “Keep your eyes open and pray to god that we don’t have another visit like this one tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir,” Nicole replies solemnly before she turns to leave, giving Chrissy in the corner of the room a farewell wave before she walks out into the street.
It’s eerie, she thinks as she makes her way back towards the Inn and Waverly’s shop, a few places up from the printing press. This morning, this street had felt safe, secure, welcoming, and now, with the events of the day, it feels changed .
It’s subtle, nothing more than the feeling of someone walking over her grave or the hairs on the back of her neck standing half-high, but the undercurrent of malignancy, it’s there .
Nicole shivers, and the sensation slithers down the back of her neck like a snake before she tilts her head to the sun and tries to will the warmth to banish the sense of dread weighing her blood down.
As if drawn to it by some rope or thread, her body sensing the need for light, Nicole finds herself face to face with the window of Waverly’s shop, where Waverly is talking, happily ignorant, hopefully, for now, to whatever black-blooded threat is moving through the town unseen and unnoticed.
Waverly catches sight of her, as if drawn by the same thread, so Nicole gestures quickly to the paper in her hand, and her intention to return momentarily, before Waverly smiles her beautifully soft smile, and Nicole floats, all stress drained, to the printing press a few doors down.
She speaks to the printer quietly, making him aware of the situation and asking whether he had seen anything unusual, to which he shakes his head, advising that he’ll make copies of the sign Nicole hands to him as a priority before she makes her way back to Waverly’s shop.
She raises her hand to shield her eyes from the sun, casting her gaze up and down the street as Nedley had asked, looking for anyone unfamiliar to her eye, but she doesn’t see anything.
She spots Gus down the way, busy talking to a man outside the cobbler’s, so Nicole makes a mental note to talk to her later, and makes straight for Waverly’s shop instead.
It makes Nicole feel faintly sick, the thought that she has to tell Waverly what’s been going on, or rather what they think might be going on, but Nicole knows that Waverly needs to know. More than just to keep herself safe, she deserves to know. This is more her town than it will ever be Nicole’s, after all, and who is she to withhold something like his from her?
“Good evening, Deputy,” Waverly says with a light-filled smile as she waves her last customer out the door, and Nicole steps aside to accommodate the departure before she walks through herself. “I wasn’t expectin’ to see you until much later. Is everything alright?”
Nicole doesn’t say anything for a moment, and she regrets it, because Waverly’s face falls and her hands reach for Nicole’s immediately.
“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” Waverly says as she ducks beneath the counter so she can stand face to face with Nicole. She pulls Nicole a little closer so she can inspect her hands before she runs her eyes up and down Nicole’s body, checking for any visible signs of harm. “Did somethin’ happen?”
“I’m okay,” Nicole replies calmly, taking Waverly’s hands into her own properly so she can run her thumb soothingly over the bump of Waverly’s knuckles. “I’m okay, I promise. It’s…we’ve had a few things happen today, and I wanted to come tell you myself.”
“What is it?” Waverly asks quickly, and Nicole can feel her brimming with nervous energy. “Is someone hurt, or…?”
“No one’s hurt,” Nicole says carefully before she looks around them to ensure there isn’t anyone about to walk into the shop. “Well, not yet, anyway.”
“What do you mean, not yet? Wait…” Waverly breathes as she cuts herself off. “Does this have anythin’ to do with the confectionary shop? Did something happen to her?”
“That’s the problem,” Nicole replies, her fingers running over the fine bones of Waverly’s hand without conscious thought. “We don’t know, because we can’t find her. She’s missing, Waverly.”
“ Missing ?” Waverly repeats disbelievingly. “Missing in Purgatory? But no one goes missing in Purgatory. It’s been safe for years.”
“We’re thinkin’ it might not be so safe anymore,” Nicole says, trying to remain as calm as possible so Waverly feels as though Nicole has it under control. So she feels safe and not panicked. “Because we think there might be a second person missing, too.”
“A second…” Waverly says, trailing off again. “But…”
Nicole can see her mind spinning as she tries to take the information in, and before she analyses what that means for her own physical safety, Nicole interjects.
“Waverly, I didn’t tell you to scare you. If I thought it would make things worse, I would have waited, but I want to make sure you know you’re safe,” Nicole reassures her. “I won’t take my eye off you, as often as I can, okay? I just…I know you’re already careful, but just be extra careful, alright? Don’t go out after dark, don’t open the door to anyone. If you feel afraid, I’m sure Gus would have a room for you at the Inn.”
“Who is it?” Waverly asks when her eyes clear once Nicole stops speaking. “Who else has gone missing?”
“Mr. Jackson,” Nicole says carefully. “The farmer on the outskirts of town? His daughter didn’t come home last night. He rode into the jail this afternoon and alerted us.”
“Have you…” Waverly asks, inclining her head out the window, and Nicole knows she means the confectionaire.
“Nedley and I have had a look around, and we can’t see anythin’ that would suggest foul play. She’s just gone . Almost into thin air,” Nicole says as that cold ominous shiver moves across her skin again.
“Jesus,” Waverly breathes, and Nicole can feel a slight tremble beneath the warmth of Waverly’s hands in her own.
“We’re all lookin’, and I’ve got notices on the way at the printing press. I just wanted to come and see you before anyone else did,” Nicole offers quietly, squeezing Waverly’s hand gently and prompting Waverly to settle her gaze on Nicole properly. “It’s gonna be fine. I’ll make sure you’re safe, okay?”
“You will?” Waverly asks with a small voice, and Nicole can see the ghost of her past move across Waverly’s heart. “I mean…”
“I’ll make sure of it,” Nicole says firmly, looking into Waverly’s eyes. “I promise , Waverly Earp.”
“Thank you, Nicole… I…thank you,” Waverly replies with a shaky voice, and Nicole wants so badly to pull Waverly to her and hide her with the sweep of her shoulders from the world, but she doesn’t want to push, she doesn’t want…
She’s scared .
She’s scared of pushing too much or too hard, to prompt Waverly for contact she’s not ready for or doesn’t want, but then Waverly does something that takes her breath away.
It happens quickly and in slow motion, all at once.
They’re standing close, so it’s not that much for Waverly to move a little closer, to step further into the warmth of Nicole’s body.
And Waverly does.
She looks up to Nicole with watery eyes as she takes Nicole’s hands to her chest, before she folds herself into Nicole’s front, her own balled fists resting against Nicole’s heart.
She feels the organ stop mid-thump, and she’s frozen still for about a second - not long enough for Waverly to even notice, she doesn’t think - before her body reacts as though this is something that’s happened a thousand times, that it happens on a daily basis and it’s not the single most important moment of Nicole’s life thus far.
Her arms move around Waverly’s shoulders, accepting the gift of Waverly’s presence, sheltering her against the invisible storm to come, as easily as breathing. She pulls Waverly close to her, gently, reassuringly, and her marrow sings when she feels Waverly relax entirely into the curve Nicole’s body creates for her.
“It…” Waverly mumbles into her front, and Nicole pulls back slightly to put just enough space between them so she can hear what Waverly’s saying properly.
Waverly looks up at Nicole before she draws a handful of Nicole’s vest in her fists and she sets her head back against Nicole’s chest, her ear over Nicole’s pounding heart.
“I’m scared,” Waverly admits when the expression on her face is hidden and she can speak to the safety of Nicole’s body. “It… this makes me feel scared. Is that…?”
“It’s not silly,” Nicole answers as she tightens her arms and holds Waverly closer. “It’s smart to be a little scared in times like this, but you don’t need to be afraid.”
“Times like this?” Waverly asks, her voice still masked a little by Nicole’s chest. “Does that mean…?”
“I’ve been around things like this before,” Nicole says carefully, not to scare Waverly even more with the fact that this isn’t unheard of, but to reassure her. “Not often, but this isn’t foreign. And I know it’s scary, but I promise you, the good guy always finds the bastard responsible, if that’s what’s happening, okay?”
Because they do, Nicole knows they do, she just omits what she’s seen happen when that doesn’t happen fast enough.
“And you’ll…” Waverly asks, lifting her head off of Nicole’s chest before she misses the security of Nicole’s heartbeat and sets her head back down. “You’ll make sure I… you’ll keep watch for me? You’ll…”
“With two eyes and every inch of my ability,” Nicole replies firmly, drawing circles between Waverly’s shoulder blades with her thumbs. “I promise , Waverly.”
They stand together in the quiet of Waverly’s shop for what could be a minute or an hour, Nicole has no idea, as her hands soothe and her chin rests on the top of Waverly’s head, and she tries to hold the world and it’s worries out for a moment longer.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” Nicole breathes clearly when Waverly pulls back to look up at her. “Even if it takes a little while to get there, everything’s gonna be okay. I promise. You trust me?”
She doesn’t mean to ask such a loaded question, and could kick herself for it the second it leaves her mouth, so she’s not expecting much of an answer, but Waverly looks at her, into her, and without a second’s hesitation, says yes , as though it’s the easiest thing in the world.
“I trust you,” Waverly says with crystal clarity as their eyes lock , and it stops Nicole’s heart all over again. “I trust you, Nicole.”
The next movement of Waverly’s hands doesn’t do much to assuage that either, because they move from resting over Nicole’s heart to run down her stomach before they clutch Nicole’s belt for a second and then drop.
There’s a breath’s-length reprieve before one of Waverly’s hands moves for her again, resting ever so lightly over the lip of her belt at one of her hips, like Waverly’s loathe to break the contact altogether.
She looks up to Nicole with slightly hooded eyes, and it’s the first time she’s seen Waverly look at her with hunger , like she wants something from Nicole, and she finds that she doesn’t mind. Not at all.
She can’t deny the heat it brings to her palms where they now rest on Waverly’s hips, too, nor the flush it brings to her cheeks, and the world seems to stop still around them.
Waverly’s asking a question gently with her eyes, she’s saying is this okay as her touch wavers, ready to pull away, and Nicole answers yes as her own touch tightens at Waverly’s side.
She smiles, a smile that seems to take up the entire length or her body, and Nicole hazards a glance around before she reaches to tuck a loose strand of hair behind Waverly’s ear. She wouldn’t dare risk a kiss, not out in the open like this, no matter how empty the street is outside, and not without more of an inclination that Waverly would permit one, too.
But she wants to. God , she wants to.
And she thinks maybe - just maybe, if the blush on Waverly’s own cheeks is anything to go by - that Waverly might also want to.
She’s not sure how on earth she’s going to bring them out of this moment they’re locked in, because she doesn't want to move for a herd of wild horses, but then a movement outside Waverly’s shop does it for them.
It’s Champ, having walked into a barrel outside the door.
Champ, who can see how close they’re standing together, and where their hands are placed.
Champ, who looks at them like he knows .
And Nicole expects Waverly to jump back at his arrival, but she doesn’t.
Her hand only tightens on Nicole’s belt as she meets Champs gaze evenly.
And Nicole knows it’s not the smartest idea, and that it could come back and bite them in a big way, but for the moment, she couldn’t care less.
Because she’s been in the mirror of this position before, only her first love hadn’t held tight, she’d flinched away, and that had been the beginning of their end.
But Waverly doesn’t flinch, she holds , and it makes Nicole’s heart sing.
His gaze doesn’t shift off of them for a second as his eyes move up and down and up again, and it feels more intrusive than Nicole knows it should. Like he’s devouring the moment for his own ends, and it makes her skin crawl, so she drops her hands in an extremely measured way, letting them linger before they fall, and she turns to Champ in a way that shields Waverly from him.
“What do you want, Hardy?” Nicole asks, all pretence of pleasantry gone, because there was none on his side before, and there sure as hell won’t be now. Not now that he can see Nicole has the thing he wants: Waverly’s attention.
“Just comin’ to see my future bride,” he says as he eyes Nicole maliciously.
“She’s not your bride, Champ,” Nicole returns with a little more fire in her voice now.
“What, do you think she’s yours?” he asks derisively, almost laughing before setting his hands on his hips and jutting them forward. “That’s disgusting .”
There’s a revulsion in his tone that Nicole’s more than familiar with, sadly, but she’s almost positive Waverly won’t have heard it drip from someone’s words before, not even towards Wynonna, so she looks to her, expecting to find her hurt or scared, but she’s not.
She’s upset, that Nicole can tell, but she’s rigid with anger, not fear or hesitation.
“Leave, Champ,” Waverly says coldly, walking to Nicole’s side, not bothering to step away from the warmth Nicole’s body offers.
“I’ll be back,” he says ominously, and the thought of him coming to claim Waverly makes Nicole’s stomach roll with revulsion. “I know what you need, Waverly Earp. You need the touch of a man . I’ll be back.”
“My answer’s not going to change, Champ,” Waverly says coolly as she straightens up beside Nicole, and it makes her proud, how willing Waverly is to stand up for herself. “Do us both a favour and don’t bother.”
“So she can have free reign at you?” he asks, throwing a dirty look at Nicole again. “Not a chance.”
“She’s not having free reign at anything,” Waverly replies with a quietly seething calm. “I’m my own damn person, Champ. I’m not an object, and if I’m anyone’s, I’m certainly not yours .”
“For now,” he says finally, before he turns roughly on his heel and stomps down the street, the dirt giving way and stirring dust into the air in his wake.
They don’t say anything for a moment, both caught watching him storm away, ensuring he’s actually gone before they turn back to one another, and Waverly sighs heavily as she leans into Nicole a little.
“I’m sorry,” Waverly says, her voice exhausted as she rests her head on Nicole’s arm. “I’m sorry you have to deal with that. I know it isn’t your cross to bear.”
“Your crosses are my crosses,” Nicole replies without thought as she watches him disappear from sight. “I mean, I shouldn’t assume, Waverly. I’m sorry. If you’ll let me shoulder that burden with you.”
“It doesn’t make you want to run hide and tail in the other direction?” Waverly asks with a tremble between her words, and Nicole can tell how worried she is at the prospect that it might.
“I’ve dealt with worse than Champ Hardy for less,” Nicole says with a reassuring smile, running her hand down Waverly’s arm and turning back to face her more fully. “If you want me, I’ll be right here, by your side. But if you don’t, all you have to do is say.”
“Don’t go,” Waverly answers quickly as she reaches for Nicole’s hand, tethering them together. “Please, I mean. Stay. If you want to.”
“Never wanted anythin’ more,” Nicole whispers, and she doesn’t mean to leave the double entendre there, but she doesn’t mind, not with the way she feels Waverly shiver beside her.
And she knows they will need to talk about this, amongst a score of other things, if this tentative friendship is to bloom into something more - about what it will mean , and what people will say - but it’s not a worry or thought she wishes to leave Waverly with today.
Waverly looks to her as she bites her lip, and for a moment, Nicole thinks she might just risk everything to close her eyes and lean up on her tiptoes, before reason interjects and she exhales shakily, tightening her hand around Nicole’s instead.
The world stops still again, and Nicole has to fight hard against every urge that’s telling her to move , because now isn’t the time. Because she wants to kiss Waverly more than she wants to breathe, but now isn’t the time .
“As much as I really don’t want to,” Nicole says, heavily reluctant to break the moment. “I need to get back to the jail in case the others have any news.”
“What if I smile extra sweetly?” Waverly asks with a devilish grin that Nicole hasn’t seen before. It’s new, bold, as is the hunger curling her hands around Nicole’s, but she’s definitely not complaining. “Will you stay a little while longer?”
“I think I can spare a moment or two,” Nicole replies with a similarly bold grin and a slow drawl as she dares to run her thumb over the top of Waverly’s hand. “Only for you, ma’am.”
Waverly positively glows, and she lets out a small sigh of contentment beneath Nicole’s simple touch, and Nicole thinks just wait, just wait until we can be even freer with our touch than a concealed glancing of our hands like this.
She feels as though Waverly reads her mind for a second, because she shivers again, unprompted, somehow reading the anticipation in the bend of Nicole’s body, and she looks at Nicole with a hunger all over again.
The setting sun coming through the window draws Nicole’s attention away finally, before she turns to Waverly with a soft frown
“I really must be gettin’ on,” Nicole says quietly, as though keeping their voices low will hold the outside world at an arm's length.
“I know,” Waverly replies easily, although her hold on Nicole doesn’t ease yet. “Will you…do you think you could call by before you retire for the evening? If it’s not too much of an inconvenience? I understand if it is, of course, and I realise I’ve already asked enough of you today…”
“Yes,” Nicole says with a quick, keen, exhale, watching the way Waverly breathes in relief at her answer. “I’d love…I mean, if you’ll admit the visit, yes. Absolutely, yes.”
“Go on then, Deputy,” Waverly offers as she frees Nicole’s hand with the promise of another visit safe between her fingers instead. “Away with you.”
Nicole drops an expression of mock-horror at Waverly’s playful dismissal before she smiles and takes a step backwards, unable to tear her eyes from Waverly just yet.
“Stay safe until then, okay?” Nicole says with a tip of her hat. “I’ll see you before long.”
“It already feels too long,” Waverly admits, raising her hands to rest against her own heart as if trying to hold the lingering warmth of Nicole’s touch there.
She knows it’s fast, too fast and too hard and too deep, but Nicole looks at Waverly, to Waverly, into Waverly, and she falls .
Hard and swift and irreversibly, she falls.
Faintly, Nicole wonders again what the briefest time someone has fallen in love with another heart is, because she thinks this must be a record, surely.
The early evening sky has a special glow to it when she steps outside, an aura Nicole has never seen before, and it’s almost enough for her to miss something off , but she catches it.
At the edge of her vision, she catches it.
And it’s so brief that she’s not even sure it’s real, because one second it’s there, a figure at the end of the street she’s sure she has never seen before, with a dark halo, a shadow on them she’s also sure isn’t real, and the next, it - no, they - are gone.
She blinks and shakes her head as she takes step after step in the figure’s direction, or what she thinks the figure’s direction was anyway, but it’s gone.
No figure, no shadow, no halo.
If it was even there to begin with.
It could be the heat, and it could be her hunger, or it could be the weight of the day, but Nicole is sure it was real.
She walks in the direction she thinks she saw it, blindly, ignoring everything else on the street, lest it distract her before she reaches the end, next to the jail, with nothing more in her line of sight than dust and a low-setting sun.
“You alright there, Deputy?” Nedley asks as he steps outside to meet her, having seen her approach.
“Yeah,” Nicole answers vaguely, still looking around. “I thought I saw something, but I think I’m goin’ mad, because I sure as hell can't see it now.”
“You sure?” Nedley questions further, his eyes narrowing before they sweep around the street, following Nicole’s gaze.
“Yeah,” Nicole says, looking to him properly. “Whatever - or whoever - it was is gone now.”
“You keep that eye peeled, alright?” he says gruffly before he gestures inside. “Come on in, we’re debriefin’ before nightfall.”
They discuss quickly the lack of new information and the plan for tomorrow’s search before Nedley releases them for the day. Nicole assures she’ll keep watch and report back after discussing things with Gus this evening, as well, before she walks down to the baths via the Inn to collect a lighter, softer change of clothes.
As much as she wants to run back to Waverly this instant, she's desperate to rid herself of the dirt and sweat of the day before the baths shut their doors for the evening, and the activity has the added bonus of presenting Waverly with a cleaner version of herself, too, so she heads there first.
She pays the small tariff and takes an extreme pleasure in peeling off the layers of dusty, dirty clothing, trying to smother a groan as she slips into the hot water of the bath.
She’s used to long days riding and being on her feet, but her bones ache with a heavier fatigue tonight, and she finds her eyes fluttering closed after only a few minutes in the hot water.
Determined not to fall asleep and drown, she sets herself about the task of washing her hair out in an attempt to keep her wits about her. She pulls the leather tie off the end of the braid, running her fingers through the ember-red strands before it falls long, well past her shoulders.
She takes a breath and sinks under the level of the water, allowing her back to slide easily along the curve of the steel tub as the water crawls up her cheeks, beneath her eyes, until Nicole is fully submerged.
She stays under the water for a moment, until her lungs start to burn, before she brings her head above the waterline and gasps in a deep breath of relief.
The oxygen makes its way back into her fingertips as she works her hair into a lather using one of the small bars of soap left for her, and it takes her a moment to recognise the familiar smell, but when she does, she blushes.
Waverly , she thinks as she scratches at her scalp, trying to clean her hair as thoroughly as possible. It smells like Waverly.
Not exactly like her, but soft and light and vaguely botanical. She must make the soaps and sell them to the bathhouse , Nicole thinks as she leans her head back against the slightly cool metal of the tub.
She stills for a few minutes, breathing in the soft smell of the soap as she allows her mind to wander to the day, to the moments spent with the young woman. Her behaviour had been a little different today, more charged , almost as though she’d found some boldness or courage at the homestead with Wynonna the night before.
Not that Nicole minds - in fact, it’s a clearer signal than she was hoping to receive so early on - that Waverly appears to be interested in her on a level different to the one the outside world would perceive.
They’d touched before, quick glances of their hands or their shoulders bumping together gently, but holding Waverly had been something else entirely, and Nicole can’t help but marvel at how perfectly Waverly had fit into the curve of her body.
Because it was perfect, everything about the moment had been, from the way she had curled her hands over her own chest and given herself over to Nicole’s embrace, to the way her hands had held the lip of Nicole’s belt.
She’s not sure if that had been intentional, or rather, she’s not sure if Waverly had realised the intimacy of the gesture, or how thoroughly it had stopped Nicole’s heart, but it hadn’t been an accident, or mistake, because she’d done it twice.
The thought of her touch low on Nicole’s body and the way the back of her hand had brushed over Nicole’s stomach sends a hot wave into her belly, and deeper , before she tries to stop that train of thought, lest it get too far ahead of her.
Because she wants that, she wants everything with Waverly, but it doesn’t feel proper to think such things without Waverly’s permission to, or rather some signal or sign that she might entertain the thought of…
Stop , she thinks to herself. Later. There’ll be time for this later .
If Waverly is as interested as Nicole thinks she is, as interested as Nicole is reading from the way she reacts to Nicole’s touch and her presence. There’ll be time later.
She slides beneath the level of the water again, running her fingers through her hair gently as she attempts to untangle a few knots while her hair floats eerily soft around her face, before she raises herself up again.
Running her hands right against her scalp, she wrings as much water out as she can before she lathers the soap in her hands and scrubs one last time at the dirt of the day.
Nicole is pleasantly weary by the time she climbs out and redresses using the lighter items she had fetched - trousers and a light cotton shirt instead of the heavier woolen alternatives, and no vest, to save overheating with her post-bath flush.
She winds Waverly’s bandana around her wrist rather than her neck, reluctant to part with it, before she walks out towards Waverly’s shop and the Inn.
The few top buttons of her shirt are undone, allowing the cool evening air to kiss her hot skin, and she sighs happily at the feeling as she makes her way down the street, the holster and her hat her only other accessories.
She doesn’t bother with her hat, reluctant to get it wet from her still-damp hair, which she’s wound into one long ringlet draped over her shoulder, so she holds it in her hands instead.
She knows it’s not exactly proper to be seen not formally dressed, but the evening light is low now, and there are only a few people left wandering the street, none anywhere near her.
She gives the street one long hard look on the off-chance that she catches sight of the shadow or figure she’d seen earlier, but she can’t. There’s nothing to be seen, save the odd slow-walking person, but no one resembling the shape of the thing she thought she had seen before.
Nicole shakes off the ghost whispering at the nape of her neck before she takes a breath and walks towards the white of Waverly’s storefront.
She’s busy wiping down the countertop, her face flushed from the exertion of cleaning up, when Nicole walks in, and honestly, Nicole doesn’t know who’s more taken aback, Waverly or Nicole.
Nicole, because Waverly looks beautiful like this, a little out of breath with a soft blush from activity, not shyness or embarrassment, that Nicole knows is not dissimilar to the one that rises during…
And Waverly at the soft sight of Nicole in her cotton attire, lighter and quite different to the image of Nicole she’s used to seeing.
She watches Waverly’s eyes move over her hair, flicking to the small sliver of skin on her chest where her shirt sits open, as she stills in her movement, apparently at a loss for words.
“Good evenin’, ma’am,” Nicole says softly, such is the feeling of the air hanging suspended around then both.
“Hi,” Waverly replies a little roughly, still not bothering to hide the unashamed way she takes in this version of Nicole. “You’re…you…”
“Look different?” Nicole offers for her, eyebrow raised in amusement before she feels a small spike of insecurity and self-consciousness settle between her hands. “I hope it’s not too improper. I didn’t think…”
“I love it,” Waverly says quickly, quashing that thought immediately. “You look…”
She pauses for a moment as she looks and looks and looks at Nicole, before her gaze finds Nicole’s and holds , the light filling the space behind her eyes as she comes to her senses.
“Lovely,” Waverly finishes with a shy smile as she bites her lip and bows her head. “You look lovely , Nicole. If I may be so bold.”
“Of course you may,” Nicole says, returning Waverly’s blush, dropping her gaze to her hat in her hands for a moment as he collects herself before looking up to Waverly. “You can be anythin’ you’d like.”
“You know, with you, I feel like I can,” Waverly returns with a vaguely thoughtful expression before she moves, ducking beneath the counter so she can stand closer to Nicole. “Be anything, I mean.”
“I’m glad,” Nicole replies, holding the urge to reach for Waverly’s hand, not wanting to present herself as too forward, or to assume familiarity unless Waverly wants it. “I hope for nothin’ more than for you to feel as though you can be whoever or whatever you wish around me.”
“How does it feel like I’ve known you a lifetime already?” Waverly asks distantly as she moves forward to touch Nicole’s arm briefly, looking to assure herself that it’s alright to do so before Nicole smiles and she takes another half-step closer.
“I don’t know,” Nicole returns, watching Waverly’s eyes move over her, as if looking for the answer to her question there, too. “But the feeling is mutual, I assure you.”
Waverly looks to her and smiles in soft recognition, and Nicole swears she can feel something old and deep move beneath their skin where Waverly’s touch lingered a moment ago.
“Your hair’s so long,” Waverly breathes as she reaches to touch the wet end of it over Nicole’s collarbone. “It’s… I’ve never seen anythin’ like it before. The colour, I mean. It’s beautiful.”
“It’s just hair,” Nicole shrugs shyly, even though she knows she could argue the merits of the fact that Waverly’s own is anything but just hair for hours.
Waverly fixes her with a look that says as much before she reaches forward and winds the final curl of it around her finger in a way that’s the boldest yet, and Nicole’s breath catches with an audible hitch that she knows Waverly hears, too.
She tries to smother her reaction, afraid to make her intentions known so openly before she’s sure Waverly is ready to receive them like that, but she knows she can’t hide the sum total of it.
She can hide parts, if she needs, small pieces of the whole, but she can’t hide it all .
Not what it does to have Waverly so close to her, or how much it increases her heart rate, how much the hunger burns in the pit of her stomach, how hard her pulse skips. Or how tensely her fists ball in an attempt to stop from reaching for something she doesn’t know for sure Waverly wants to give her.
And it’s as though Waverly can read her mind in the next moment, can read Nicole’s internal conflict, because just when Nicole is scared to put her soul on the line, Waverly offers her own.
With open palms and the warmest smile Nicole has ever seen before, Waverly offers her hope .
“You can, too, you know,” Waverly says as her fingertips slip off the end of a ruby-gold strand of hair, and she flattens her palm ever so lightly against Nicole’s chest. “Be yourself, I mean. Around me, you don’t ever have to be anything but yourself. Because you, just you, it’s…”
She can’t breathe, because Waverly’s hand is so light over the place where her soul resides in her body, and not because the touch is oppressive, it’s because she thinks this is Waverly saying yes to the unsounded question, of do you think about me in the same way I think about you?
Do you dream of me in the same way I dream about you when the moon is as high as my hope?
Do you dream, do you dream, do you see ?
She feels as though she waits an age for Waverly to finish her thought, not that it matters, because when she utters it, Nicole knows she would have waited a lifetime to hear what she says.
“You don’t ever have to be anything but yourself, because it’s beautiful , Nicole,” Waverly says finally, barely above a whisper. “The loveliest thing I’ve ever seen, in fact.”
“It is?” Nicole asks in a tone more delicate than she thinks she’s ever uttered before, her hand reaching to rest over Waverly’s own.
“Yes,” Waverly breathes as her smile fills with light at Nicole’s touch. “It is .”
It tugs below her navel again, the urge to lean down and press her lips breeze-soft over Waverly’s own, but she knows it’s not quite the right time.
Closer, now. But not yet.
They breathe the same air for a minute more before Waverly sighs, and she knows they need to draw this to a close, or she’s never going to be able to take herself away.
She doesn’t voice the fact that she needs to take her leave of Waverly for the final time today, because she already knows. From the air that leaves Waverly’s lungs, Nicole can tell she knows .
“You’ll be okay here for the night?” Nicole asks, and she wants to offer to sleep on the floor of the shop, like a hound guarding the door, but she knows Waverly would ask, if she were in need.
“I’m going to bolt the door behind you,” Waverly replies softly, smiling at Nicole’s thoughtfulness. “And you’ll be just across the street?”
“Just across the street,” Nicole nods in affirmation as her hand moves over Waverly’s atop her heart. “At your beck and call, alright?”
She hears Waverly’s breath catch just the same as her own had the second her touch meets Waverly’s, and she can’t help the small, satisfied smile at having garnered the same reaction that Waverly had drawn from her, too.
It might not be the right time for them to kiss, but Nicole feels as though she needs to leave Waverly with something, some small token like Waverly’s bandana around her wrist, only made of contact.
She casts a quick, but subtle look around her before she takes Waverly’s hand with an exquisite slowness and presses a kiss to her knuckles.
“Good evening, Miss Earp,” Nicole says softly, not bothering to smother the charm she knows she’s capable of producing, watching it bring a fresh blush to Waverly’s cheeks. “Until the morning.”
And it could be stepping over a line drawn between them, but she doesn’t think it is, not with the way Waverly bends toward Nicole, nor the sound that escapes her lips.
“The morning,” Waverly breathes, her eyes following the path of Nicole’s lips as she leans back from Waverly to put some small distance between them.
Her hand tightens beneath Nicole’s, as if to hold her close for a second longer, because she knows what that means, that Nicole has to leave when she wants her to stay .
Nicole runs her thumb over Waverly’s fingers where she holds their hands together before lowering it gently to Waverly’s side and taking a proper step back.
She gives Waverly a wink before she turns, scooping her hat off the counter, before her heart compels her to plant her feet and stay , and she glows at the way Waverly follows her step for step to the door, as if her own body were compelling her to follow this new light in its orbit.
She walks through the door, waiting for Waverly to close and bolt it behind her before she bends forward to bow slightly, giving Waverly one last parting smile as she turns on her heel and walks towards the Inn across the street.
Every step away from Waverly makes her heart beat in anticipation of seeing her in the morning, and she’s taken maybe ten before she can’t stand to not turn and catch the sight of Waverly one last time.
She’s waiting with her hand resting against the glass at hip height, as though reaching for Nicole, and she offers Nicole the softest smile she’s ever seen in her life before raising her hand to wave shyly.
Nicole returns the wave with an equal softness, drinking in the sight of Waverly standing like some sort of deity or queen with the sunset glowing off the glass around her and the botanicals hung from the ceiling before she drags herself from the sight, and walks finally to the Inn.
“Good day?” Gus asks with a wry smile as she watches Nicole walk towards her at the desk.
“What?” Nicole replies vaguely, her attention entirely focused on the vision across the road, known by the name of Waverly Earp.
“I said, good day?” Gus asks again with a wider smile as Nicole narrowly avoids walking straight into the desk.
“Oh,” Nicole says when she stubs her toe against the front of the desk. “Pardon me, ma’am — ah, I mean Gus, sorry — I was just…”
“Distracted?” Gus finishes for her, her eyebrow raised in amusement.
“Yes,” Nicole returns, shaking her head to clear the fog of Waverly, Waverly, Waverly. “Yes, I’m sorry. My day, it was good, great... and actually darn terrible, too.”
“That’s a heck of a lot of emotion for one young woman,” Gus says with a laugh. “Care to talk about any of ‘em?”
“Oh,” Nicole asks, a little surprised at the simple idea of someone wanting to hear about her day. “Sure, I mean, if it’s not a bother, or you have somethin’ else you need to be doin’?”
“Wouldna’ asked if I did,” Gus replies, smiling at Nicole’s reaction. “Tell me all about it, Deputy.”
Nicole recounts her day to Gus with a warm feeling in the palm of her hands, because she can’t remember the last time she had an interaction like this with someone, genuinely interested in her day.
She tells Gus of her morning with Elias and his cattle, to which Gus replies with a similar sigh of relief at her assisting the small boy that the others had, before she comes to the activity surrounding Mr. Jackson.
“Actually, there’s somethin’ I need to talk to you about,” Nicole says with a frown as she threads her fingers together and rests them on the desk in front of her. “You might’ve noticed the confectionary shop closed again today? Well, Nedley and I went and had a look around, because Mr. Jackson came to see us this afternoon, sayin’ his girl hadn’t come home last night.”
“Lord, really?” Gus asks, taking the information in. “That girl’s as placid as a sleepin’ hound. She wouldn’t have taken off with some young thing. No way. If she didn’t come home, somethin’s wrong, alright. And you went to look through the shop, does that mean…?”
“We think they could be connected,” Nicole replies solemnly. “We all had a look for them both this afternoon, but no one came back with so much as a scrap.”
“Good lord,” Gus breathes as she looks to Nicole.
“Nedley asked me to inquire as to whether you might have seen anythin’ out of the ordinary?” Nicole asks, watching Gus’s face carefully. “Anyone out of place or new to town that you hadn’t noticed before? Anyone stayin’ here you haven’t met before now?”
“No,” Gus says, shaking her head, her forehead creasing in a frown. “Not a soul. The ones we have stayin’ are all faces I’ve seen before, apart from your own. And I ain’t seen anyone in town out of place, neither.”
“I thought you might have mentioned as much to Nedley if you had,” Nicole replies with a sigh. “You’ll keep a watch, though? And let one of us know if you do?”
“Of course,” Gus says seriously. “Of course, I will. Missing? Two people missing? Lord help us. And there was nothin’ at the shop?”
“Only sign is that wherever she went, she wasn’t plannin’ on being away long,” Nicole returns, worrying her lip as she puts her mind back into the shop. “She left in her shift, I think, judging by the clothes she had laid out for the next day. And there was a cup of tea untouched by the side of the bed.”
“Nedley didn’t pick up those details, did he?” Gus asks with a hint of wariness in her voice. “The man’s a good Sheriff, but he’s no Pinkerton.”
“Oh. No, ma’am,” Nicole answers with a blush, her gaze dropping back to her hands. “It was…I was the one that noticed them.”
Gus’s eyes find hers, and she smiles with a look that says she’s caught Gus by surprise at her talent, and Gus nods, seemingly impressed.
“Well, I’ll be,” Gus says, appraising Nicole. “You’re a details girl as well as everything else, huh? He did an even finer job of hiring you than I thought.”
“I’m sure he woulda’ found them eventually,” Nicole tries to reason in an attempt to cool her embarrassed cheeks.
“Probably,” Gus says with a shrug. “But we could’ve been more than a few days down the track by then, and in who knows what state with more missin’ people. I thought we’d seen the last of trouble when Del Rey’s gang left town after Ward died, but obviously not.”
“You don’t think it could be them, do you?” Nicole asks suddenly. “The ones that were responsible for…”
“No way,” Gus says, shaking her head with a confidence that reassures Nicole. “Those men couldn’t keep themselves hidden like this. Bobo runs on active fear. On bein’ present . He isn’t one for subtlety. Besides, they were criminals, but even they weren’t sick enough to make a business out of takin’ girls. Willa was an accident. We know that shook even Bobo enough to take his men and run. They wouldn’t dare come back while any of the Earps are still alive and there are people around to remember what happened.”
Nicole hadn’t really thought it could have been them. Even with her minimal knowledge, it doesn’t sound like their style, and she’s sure Nedley wouldn’t have let something like them being suspects pass him by if there was any chance they could have been involved.
“Does Waverly know?” Gus asks Nicole with a frown. “Is it a good idea for her to be alone over there with god knows what happenin’ in the dark?”
“I told her just before,” Nicole replies, nodding as her mind wanders across the road again. “I didn’t want to scare her, but I want her to be…I didn’t want to hide anythin’ from her. If there’s danger, she deserves to know so she can do everything possible to keep herself safe.”
Nicole’s ready to defend herself further if necessary, but she needn’t have worried at the thought, because Gus holds her gaze for a second before she nods approvingly.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Gus says, looking to Nicole. “If there’s danger about, that girl needs to know. She and Wynonna both. She isn’t no child, she doesn’t need anyone makin’ decisions for her.”
“I’m glad you agree,” Nicole sighs in relief, the tension in her palms dissipating. “I just…I didn’t want her walking around with some horror in the shadows and her unaware. This way she can be vigilant, just like the rest of us will be.”
“And she was okay to stay by herself even after you told her?” Gus asks curiously.
“I did try and suggest she come over and stay where you could watch over her a little more easily, but…” Nicole says, rubbing at the base of her neck with the heel of her palm. “I waited for her to bolt the door. And I told her all she had to do was holler if she needed me.”
“Stubborn as a mule, our Waverly,” Gus says affectionately, smiling. “That’s alright, Deputy. If she was worried, she’d be over here, and it’s not that she’s naive to the danger, she’s just…”
“Sick of letting fear rule her?” Nicole finishes for Gus, thinking back to Waverly’s actions in front of Champ earlier, putting two and two together, wondering if maybe she had known the danger, but had chosen to show their closeness irrespective of that.
“I think so,” Gus replies, watching Nicole carefully, evaluating the appreciation of Waverly’s character that Nicole seems to have so early on. “You’ve got a read on that girl, huh?”
“Uh,” Nicole blushes heavily at Gus’s forwardness before she drops her gaze again. “I mean, I’m sure I could spend a lifetime and not know it all, but I think I have a start.”
“A lifetime,” Gus says, eyeing Nicole and continuing her evaluation before she frowns. “You plannin’ on sticking around that long, huh?”
“If she’ll have me,” Nicole replies humbly, and she hopes Gus realises how much the power is so very much in Waverly’s hands, despite her own keenness. “Only if she wishes it.”
“Not that it’s any of my damn business, but I think you’ll find she does,” Gus returns with a wry smile, and her words make Nicole’s heart jump in her chest. “If there’s one thing I know about that girl, it’s that she doesn’t quiver in the face of something she wants, be it a path or a purpose…or a person.”
She’s not sure how to even begin to address a comment like that, because - and she could be very wrong, but - she thinks this could be Gus giving Nicole her permission to pursue whatever relationship Waverly will permit.
And she knows Gus won’t want to be privy to anything beyond knowing that whatever happens will be Waverly’s choice, because she may not be crossing herself as they speak, but Nicole knows her tolerance is only due to her fondness for Waverly, and doesn’t mean acceptance of the inclination on the whole.
She’s not interested in making Gus any more uncomfortable than she likely already is, but she does want her to know that Waverly’s safety is paramount for her, regardless of what choice Waverly may make.
“I think your niece’s safety is your business, if you’ll permit me to say,” Nicole says respectfully. “And I want to give you an assurance that it’s just as important to me. I’ll keep both eyes on her as often as I can to ensure it, you have my word.”
“I know you will, Deputy,” Gus replies thankfully. “I know you will, and I will, too. And I’ll be sure to advise you and the Sheriff if I see anything untoward.”
“I’d appreciate that,” Nicole says before a yawn rips its way from her lungs.
“Away with you,” Gus growls kindly as she throws her head towards the kitchen behind her. “Go and get some food and sleep, Deputy. You won’t be good to anyone half-dead tomorrow.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole returns with a little bow, picking her hat up and pressing it to her chest as she takes her leave of Gus. She turns at the last second with a small smile on her lips before she addresses Gus one last time. “Thank you, Gus.”
“For what?” Gus asks, raising an eyebrow in question.
“For takin’ an interest,” Nicole says a little shyly. “It’s been a long time since anybody cared to ask about my day. And for…”
“I know,” Gus returns with a nod. “You don’t need to thank me, but you’re welcome, Nicole. Thank you for keepin’ my girl safe.”
“Always,” Nicole replies finally, giving Gus a goodnight before she dips her head and makes for the kitchen.
She sits and eats in her own company before thanking Gus for the meal and retiring to her room.
It feels different, being in here now, with the knowledge that Waverly stayed here, too. That she slept here, that she dreamed here.
She wonders what Waverly used to dream of as she pulls her shirt over her head and exchanges it for a lighter sleepshirt, dropping her pants before she takes a look out the window to her shop.
Did she used to dream a young man on a horse would ride up and take her away from all of this? Or a young woman with red hair and a kind heart, instead?
The street is wide, but not so wide that she can’t see with a reasonable clarity the figure of Waverly walking around in a nightdress of her own that Nicole can see finishes at the knees.
Even so far away and through a small glass window lit only by a small number of candles whose glow Nicole can just make out, she’s still the most beautiful thing Nicole has ever seen.
As if she can feel Nicole’s attention across the yawning distance between, Waverly looks up and sets her eyes on Nicole’s window, and by some miracle their gazes meet.
She raises her hand and gives Nicole a shy wave, almost identical to the one she had offered earlier in the evening, and it fills Nicole with a warmth that spreads to the tips of her fingers. She returns the gesture softly, and it’s too difficult to know for sure, but Nicole thinks she sees Waverly beam in response.
Waverly waits for a moment, reluctant to take her eyes off Nicole, but she does, sensing perhaps Nicole’s desire to let her know that she’s safe, that she’s being watched over, that Nicole won’t let anything happen to her while she’s sleeping.
She moves around the room, giving Nicole one last look before the room goes black as she blows the last candle out.
Nicole waits for a while, watching the dark street, waiting for any movement or sign of anything malevolent watching for the death of light to appear and take, but nothing comes.
Satisfied of Waverly’s safety, for the moment anyway, Nicole falls onto her bed, her limbs heavy with wariness and the day’s activity, and before she can register another breath, she’s asleep.