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find a home, lonely heart

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She’s nervous - god she’s nervous - but she’s excited, too. It’s heightened by the fact that she’s been so busy that she’s barely seen Waverly at all today, and she’s only realising now, with the ability to slow down a little, how much she’s actually missed her.

 

The package is heavy in her hands, and the doubt is real enough, but the rational part is more present now, and it’s telling Nicole exactly what she just said to Chrissy, that as unconfident in it as she will be, she’s silly not to wear it at least once.

 

If for nothing else, than to see whether Waverly’s reaction is similar in any way to Chrissy and Miss Jessie’s, which, selfishly, she’s hoping it is.

 

She had planned on calling in to see Waverly ever so briefly, to assure her she’d be back before Waverly knew it, but when she reaches the shop, Waverly is busy with an early evening rush. She’s all the way down at the other end of the shop, serving a couple of women Nicole recognises as having met the first day she was in town.

 

She contemplates giving Waverly a quick hello, regardless, before she decides she’d rather not distract Waverly from her customers, so she casts one last longing look before turning towards the Inn instead.

 

The front desk is unmanned when she first walks in, so she runs up to her room instead of waiting, eager to get to the baths as quickly as possible. Ensuring she has everything she needs for the evening while divesting herself of extra things she doesn’t, with the small package containing the length of ribbon for Waverly securely in her pocket, Nicole makes her way down the stairs, smiling when she sees Gus standing there now.

 

“Good evenin’, Deputy,” Gus says warmly when Nicole steps off the bottom step.

 

“Good evenin’, Gus,” Nicole replies with an answering smile. “Good day?”

 

“Not too bad, thank you, Deputy,” Gus says, smiling a little at the bubbling nervousness she can sense in Nicole. “And yourself?”

 

“Busy,” Nicole replies with a sigh. “Fruitless in some ways, and fruitful in others.”

 

“No sign of the missin’ girls, then?” Gus asks, frowning at Nicole.

 

“Nothin’,” Nicole sighs in exasperation. “Not a damn thing. I had a hard ride to the homes near here, and still nothin’. You didn’t see anythin’ either today, did you?”

 

“No,” Gus says, shaking her head as her frown deepens. “Me neither, and I had a good hard look, too. I think the MISSING posters were a good idea. They’ve got folk talkin’, that’s for sure. And that ain’t a bad thing. Ought to put whatever scum is out there on guard that we’re lookin’ for him, too. Anyway, fruitful, that have somethin’ to do with whatever’s in that package?”

 

“Pardon?” Nicole asks, confused for a moment before she flushes red in embarrassment, even though Gus can’t see what’s in it. “Oh, this? Kind of… I mean, I-”

 

“Deputy,” Gus cuts across, stopping Nicole’s rambling.

 

“Sorry,” Nicole replies with a shy shrug. “I guess I’m a little nervous. No, ma’am. Well, yes and no. The main reason for the fruitfulness is… and I hope you won’t think I’m too mad, but… while I was out rangin’ today, I did find somethin’. Just not the somethin’ I was lookin ’ for.”

 

“And that was…?” Gus questions, raising an eyebrow at Nicole.

 

“A pup,” Nicole says a little more confidently as she thinks of Chrissy’s positive affirmation about the idea. “I found a pup, abandoned at the edge of one of the ranches. And I couldn’t bear to leave her there, so I brought her home.”

 

“We aren’t in the habit of allowin’ our customers to bring animals into their rooms, Deputy,” Gus offers with a little warning in her voice, and Nicole smiles because this is exactly the reaction she was thinking she’d get from Gus.

 

“Oh. No, Gus. She isn’t for me,” Nicole says by way of clarification, watching the frown on Gus’s brow ease. “I thought… I’m goin’ to ask Waverly if she might like the pup. As company, I mean, at night in the shop. It’s small now, but by the size of its paws, it’s not going to stay that way. By the looks of it, I think it’s a hound of some type, which means it’ll be less than quiet, even as a pup, if someone turns up that’s not supposed to be there. She may not abide the idea at all, I just thought it might be prudent to try and offer some other means of security, given what’s goin’ on?”

 

Gus is silent for a moment, and Nicole’s actually worried she’s going to lose her cool, or call Nicole’s idea ridiculous or stupid or worse, but thankfully, her face splits into a reluctant smile instead.

 

“I think dogs have a place in our lives, and it sure as hell ain’t inside with us, but I have to admit, I like the idea of that girl havin’ something else to watch over her during the night,” Gus replies with a wry grin. “And the girl has an affinity for animals, too, that’s for sure. I don’t think you’ll have a great deal of trouble getting her to agree to take the pup on.”

 

“I mean, if she doesn’t want her, I think Mattie will be more than happy to take her in instead,” Nicole offers as an alternative. “She’s out there with her now. Not that Mattie would admit it, but I think she’s a bit smitten for the small thing already.”

 

“I think you’ll have no chance of that, unfortunately for Mattie,” Gus says, laughing. “I think that’s a fine thought, Deputy. And good of you to worry for her.”

 

“Of course,” Nicole says enthusiastically. “Of course I do.”

 

“I know, Deputy, and I must admit, I’m more thankful for it than I thought I was goin’ to be,” Gus returns, looking to Nicole. “Especially with what’s goin’ on.”

 

Nicole smiles softly at Gus’s recognition, and she’s trying to think of an appropriate way to ask whether Gus has had a chance to set aside some food when Gus puts her out of her misery.

 

“Now, before you bounce right out of your skin, let me go and fetch this basket for you,” Gus says, throwing Nicole a teasing smile before she turns into the kitchen, not bothering to wait for Nicole’s reply.

 

“Thank you, Gus,” Nicole says sincerely as she looks over the beautiful selection of food hidden under a homespun cloth, and it’s clear from the effort Gus has gone to that she might not love their meeting each other like this, but she’s okay with supporting them in this one small way. “This looks… thank you.”

 

“Get out of here, Deputy,” Gus says to Nicole once Nicole looks up at her, smiling at Nicole’s obvious eagerness. “You be careful, you hear me?”

 

“As careful as I possibly can, ma’am,” Nicole answers respectfully. “You have my word.”

 

“Away with you, then,” Gus says, gesturing Nicole out the door, but it’s not dismissive, it’s playful, and Nicole catches the smile that slips out just before she turns to leave.

 

Because Gus might not like that it’s Nicole Waverly seems to have taken a liking to, and not one of the town’s eligible bachelors, but Nicole knows Gus would rather have Waverly happy, even if that means it’s Nicole that’s making her so.

 

Nicole throws her one last thankful smile before she scoops the basket up in her arms and heads for the baths.

 

Waverly appears to be engaged with another customer when Nicole walks out of the Inn, but she lifts her head at precisely the moment Nicole’s toe hits dirt, like she could feel Nicole taking a step for her, and she beams .

 

She looks down to the basket in Nicole’s arms, her smile widening impossibly, before her attention is stolen by the woman in front of her, gesturing to one of the bottles over Waverly’s shoulder

 

She returns to the customer, but she casts one last look across the street, blushing in answer when Nicole raises her hand to give her a small wave that says see you soon.

 

Positively elated at having seen Waverly, properly, Nicole floats over to the baths, setting the package and basket down carefully after she pays the woman at the door, sinking into the warm bliss of the bathwater a few minutes later.

 

It’s even better than the previous night, the water that folds itself around her body, and she’s hard-pressed to smother the groan of pleasure, conscious of not startling the attendant walking around the room, empty but for Nicole, when she dips her head under, too.

 

It’s tempting to stay and take her time in the fragrant water, to let the scent of Waverly wash over her until the water cools, but she has places to be tonight. And why would she linger here this evening, when she can have the real thing?

 

She scrubs the dirt and worry off of her body, taking extra care to make herself as presentable as possible, before she washes her hair, too, finally standing to let the water drip clean from her body as the scent of Waverly fills her lungs and warms her hands.

 

Drying herself off quickly, wrapping the provided towel around her middle, she sets herself dressing in her undergarments before she turns her attention on the wrapped brown package.

 

Eyeing it as though it were relatively unstable dynamite, Nicole takes one last steadying breath at the bundle before she unwraps her fate.

 

It’s as beautiful as she remembers, which she’s abjectly thankful for as she pulls it from its wrappings. If she’s going to look like a fool, she’ll at least look like one in a lovely dress.

 

She starts to pull the dress on and over her head before she gets stuck halfway, and panicking, tries to extricate herself before she feels the gentle touch of a stranger’s hands on her back.

 

“Easy there, Deputy,” the attendant says as she helps Nicole right her situation. “Let me help you.”

 

“My thanks,” Nicole offers, red-faced and flushed when her head finally comes through the neck of the dress. “Good Lord, these things should come with some sort of warning.”

 

“Not familiar with them?” the attendant asks Nicole kindly, helping Nicole smooth down the dress.

 

“Not at all,” Nicole grouses before she pats down the skirt of the dress with her palms, too, already regretting having chosen to try the damn dress.

 

“Well, for what it’s worth, you probably should be, because you’re a sight in this, I’ll tell you,” the attendant says with a nod of her head. “Would you like me to help?”

 

“Would you?” Nicole asks gratefully, the woman’s compliment settling her nerves a little. “I’d sure as heck appreciate it, if you wouldn’t mind. The last thing I want is turning up lookin’ even dumber, having put the darn thing on wrong.”

 

“Of course,” the woman says, moving behind Nicole, laughing softly, but not cruelly, at the exasperation in Nicole’s voice. “You really are a sight, I’ll tell you.”

 

“Thank you,” Nicole replies, trying to temper her blush. “The vote of confidence is appreciated, I assure you.”

 

“There we are,” the woman says a few minutes later when she finishes fastening the final stay. “All done.”

 

“You’re a godsend,” Nicole sighs in thanks when the attendant steps back.

 

“No problem, Deputy,” the woman replies, nodding as she looks Nicole over. “You’re goin’ to wear your hair down, yes?”

 

“I think so,” Nicole says as she twists her hair into a single large ringlet over one of her shoulders. “I mean, it’s a right pain, but…”

 

“Here,” the attendant offers, scooping up the length of ribbon the seamstress had added to the package. She gathers Nicole’s hair at her shoulder and ties the ribbon into a small bow, leaving Nicole with something that appears to be the best of both worlds: down, but out of the way. Formal, but relaxed, too.

 

“Perfect,” Nicole sighs when she catches a look at her reflection in the looking glass, because this is better, this feels at least a little more like her. “Thank you, truly.”

 

“My pleasure,” the woman smiles, standing back to survey her handiwork. “Now, get goin’ to wherever it is you’re goin’, and stop deprivin’ whoever it is this is for a second longer, will you?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole laughs and scoops up her clothes, tucking them under one arm as she loops the basket over the other.

 

The front door to Waverly’s shop is shut when Nicole comes out of the baths, but she can see Waverly moving around, presumably readying herself for the evening upstairs.

 

She makes good time getting out to the stables again, thankful for the largely deserted street and the fact that no one pays her mind, nor really even sees her.

 

“Look at you,” Mattie says, whistling when Nicole walks up to the porch of the house after having left the bundle of clothes next to Lady Jane’s stall to save her having to take them back with her. “Good Lord, Deputy, don’t you scrub up well.”

 

“I feel ridiculous, but if Waverly likes it…” Nicole mumbles quietly before she cuts herself off. “I’m sorry, Mattie, you don’t want to hear that.”

 

“Nonsense,” Mattie says dismissively. “Don’t matter to me who warms your bed at night.”

 

“I appreciate it,” Nicole replies, smiling shyly, and she does, because having an ally, or more than one person in town, is more than Nicole has had in a long time. “Truly, Mattie, I do.”

 

“No skin off my nose,” Mattie shrugs before she turns her body inside. “Wait here for a moment, will you? She must’ve fallen asleep again.”

 

Mattie leaves Nicole alone in the low dusk light while she turns to presumably fetch the pup, grinning widely with a far more presentable red bundle than the one Nicole left her with.

 

“She can’t seem to keep her little eyes open for more’n a few minutes at a time, but she’s clean and fed and watered now, at least,” Mattie says as she folds the sleeping puppy into Nicole’s arms.

 

“Mattie,” Nicole says, touched at the obvious effort Mattie’s gone through.

 

“It’s nothin’. I could hardly leave the wee thing covered in dirt like she was,” Mattie replies dismissively. “Even I’d be tempted to turn my nose up at that. By the way, Deputy, have you ever heard of a Redbone? They’re a type of Coonhound. I think that’s what our little friend here is. Won’t know till she’s a little older, but the red fur and build are a decent clue, for now.”

 

“I can’t thank you enough,” Nicole says, the warm body wriggling for a moment before it comfortably settles against Nicole’s heart. “And maybe we’ll have to have a wager on that breed, huh?”

 

“Don’t you go tellin’ anyone,” Mattie warns. “Can’t have anyone thinkin’ I’ve gone soft out here by myself.”

 

“My lips are sealed,” Nicole replies while trying to control the smile at Mattie’s obvious fondness for the pup. “I’ll ask Waverly to bring her out to see you, if she wants to keep her?”

 

“I mean, it’s probably for the best,” Mattie bluffs, attempting to come off nonchalant and failing miserably. “Just so I can check she’s growin’ alright and what not.”

 

“Of course,” Nicole replies with a serious look. “For the pup’s sake.”

 

Mattie offers her a softer smile that’s gone so quick Nicole’s not sure it was even there, before she turns, gesturing Nicole back to town.

 

“Oh,” Mattie says quickly, reaching into the work apron tied around her waist, drawing out a long length of soft looking leather. “Before I forget, will this do?”

 

“Yes,” Nicole replies happily, reaching to take the leather strap when Mattie offers it to her. “It’s perfect , Mattie, thank you.”

 

“You’d best get goin’ before you lose the light, Deputy,” Mattie says by way of a farewell, gesturing to the fast-setting sun, before she turns and offers Nicole a parting comment Nicole isn’t expecting. “Enjoy your evenin’, Nicole. You deserve a break, too. You won’t catch this asshole if you work yourself into the ground.”

 

“Thank you, Mattie,” Nicole nods before she inclines her head. “I’ll swing by tomorrow, if I can, pay Lady Jane a visit.”

 

Mattie nods in response, smiling after the pup fast asleep in Nicole’s arms before turning back inside, leaving Nicole and the pup outside alone.

 

Nicole takes a seat on one of the porch steps, balancing the little red bundle on her knee carefully before hitching up her skirt to expose one of her calves. She makes quick work of strapping the gun in its holster to her leg securely, testing its comfort by standing and moving a little, before deducing that her hasty hack-job will do for the brief walk and evening, and making her way back into town.

 

Her heart starts racing the second she turns from Mattie’s residence, and she’s more than a little thankful for the red ball that seems to be having some sort of a calming effect on her, stopping her runaway heart from pounding too hard through her chest and into the ever-darkening night.

 

She was worried that carrying a squirming animal in her arms might have been a little hard with the basket in the other hand, but it’s not difficult at all with the pup as placid as she is, and as such, Nicole finds herself approaching the white boards of Waverly’s shop in no time at all.

 

Her heart is hammering thickly in her wrists as she knocks gently on the door, quiet enough that it shouldn’t bring any attention to them, not that there’s anyone around to see Nicole waiting outside, but loud enough that Waverly will undoubtedly have heard her from upstairs.

 

The nerves from a thousand different streams of thought converge on her all at once: the pup, her dress, the way she has her hair, the roll of ribbon in the pocket the seamstress had thoughtfully sewn into one of the darts for her, and even with the soft sleepy weight in her arms, she’s terrified, until Nicole sees Waverly’s boots appear at the top of the stairs and her heart stops .

 

Absently, she notices Waverly’s jaw almost hit the floor in shock at Nicole’s appearance before she casts a glance to Nicole’s arms, but it’s all background noise and movement, because Nicole only has eyes for Waverly herself.

 

Because she looks beautiful .

 

She’s changed into a clean white shirt, with the collar high, and a deep blue skirt that sits at her waist and drops to the floor, almost complementary to the colour of Nicole’s own dress, and her hair is loose down around her shoulders, in a way Nicole has yet to see, and quite honestly, she takes Nicole’s breath away.

 

Their eyes lock as Waverly makes her way across from the bottom stairs to the front door, and Nicole doesn’t miss the way she sees Waverly’s hands tremble a little when they move to unbolt the latch.

 

Waverly’s eyes don’t leave hers for a second as she opens the door and gestures Nicole through it, only speaking once she and the pup are standing inside.

 

“You look…” Waverly breathes, forgetting herself completely as her eyes drink Nicole in. “Nicole, you look…”

 

“Silly?” Nicole asks nervously. “I’m so sorry if you think it’s ridiculous, I just-”

 

“No,” Waverly says, cutting Nicole off quickly, but kindly. “No, you look… beautiful, Nicole. You look beautiful .”

 

“I could say the same thing about you, too, although I’m afraid the word doesn’t do you justice, Waverly,” Nicole offers, trying to quiet her racing heart, lest Waverly hear it thumping between them. “You might be the finest thing I’ve ever set eyes on, if you’ll permit me to be so bold.”

 

Waverly drops her head as a blush sweeps its way across her cheeks, and it only serves to endear her more to Nicole’s eyes, only making the desire to reach out, to somehow touch Waverly, even greater.

 

“I think I’ll have to argue that point with you,” Waverly says shyly, her eyes moving over Nicole again before they finally settle on the pup. “Although, I think this small body might be the only thing that could rival you. Who do we have here?”

 

“Oh,” Nicole replies, suddenly remembering as she looks down. “Well, it’s… I mean, if you’d like - and please, there’s absolutely no pressure if you aren’t comfortable with her, but… if you’d like, a slightly belated birthday present?”

 

“She’s for me ?” Waverly asks with a slightly astonished expression on her face.

 

“Only if you’d like her,” Nicole hurries to say. “She’s… I found her while I was out rangin’ today, and I couldn’t leave her, so I brought her back in with the intention of findin’ another home for her, before I thought she might make a nice companion for you here? I know it’s a little unorthodox to have an animal inside, but while you’re here alone at night, I wondered if you’d maybe like the company?”

 

“You brought her for me ?” Waverly asks again, as though she can’t quite believe what Nicole is saying to her. “She’s…”

 

“Yours, if you’d like her,” Nicole offers, smiling at the tremor in Waverly’s hands as she reaches to touch the small body in Nicole’s arms.

 

The pup stirs lightly at the touch, reaching out its nose to Waverly’s hand, sniffing it before licking Waverly’s knuckles softly. Waverly looks up to Nicole with eyes brilliantly alight before her lips part in a question.

 

“May I?” Waverly asks softly as the pup raises its weary head, looking to its new guardian before Nicole nods happily, shifting her into Waverly’s arms.

 

Her hand brushes over Waverly’s in the movement, and they both look up at the electric shock that echoes out from the touch, before Waverly’s attention shifts back to the little bundle.

 

“Hello there,” Waverly’s voice sings softly. “Aren’t you the second loveliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life?”

 

She looks up to Nicole in a way that leaves no doubt as to who the loveliest thing is in her mind, before her eyes drop back to the pup. “Does she have a name?”

 

“No,” Nicole says, shaking her head. “I thought maybe you’d like to be the one to…”

 

“What do you think your name should be then, huh?” Waverly coos to the pup before she rubs her nose on top of the little red head. “Nicole, I can’t believe you found me a puppy.”

 

“Do you like her?” Nicole asks nervously. “Because if she’ll just be a burden, I’m sure Mattie would have her in a heartbeat.”

 

“I love her,” Waverly replies gently as the little shape yawns in Waverly’s arms. “She’s beautiful, Nicole. It’s… I think she’s the best gift I’ve ever had. And she’s not goin’ anywhere. Mattie will just have to fight me for her.”

 

“I’m glad,” Nicole sighs in relief. “God, I was so darn worried you’d think it was a dreadful idea.”

 

“It’s the best idea,” Waverly replies with a wide smile. “The best. I think I might be in love already.”

 

And Nicole thinks the feeling might be mutual, by the looks of the way the pup seems to have come to life, sniffing Waverly’s face softly before pressing its nose against Waverly’s, making her own crinkle adorably.

 

It’s heart-meltingly cute, and Nicole has to repress the urge to sigh, tilting her head to the side as she watches Waverly happily.

 

“I think she’ll probably crash for the rest of the night once we get her settled,” Nicole offers as she holds her hand out when the pup looks her way, too. “Whatever she’s been doin’ hasn’t been easy on her, she’s been flat out of air all day, so I don’t think she’ll be a bother tonight. I mean, I didn’t want you to worry she’d interrupt-”

 

“Our evening,” Waverly says suddenly after she glances up to find Nicole looking at her softly, placing the hand not holding the pup to her chest on Nicole’s arm gently. “God, where on earth are my manners? Come in properly, won’t you? I hope you won’t think it presumptuous, but I’ve set the room out upstairs. If you’d prefer to stay down here, however, I can…”

 

“No,” Nicole says quickly, shaking her head. “I’m sure… I mean, if you don’t mind my bein’ up there?”

 

“Not at all,” Waverly says, a shy smile breaking across her face. “It would… I’d like to show you, if you’d like?”

 

“I’d love,” Nicole affirms before gesturing to the basket in her arms. “I had Gus throw us a few things together to sup on. I thought you probably don’t have much of a chance to slip away durin’ the day to eat.”

 

“That’s why Gus wouldn’t let me pinch anythin’ from the kitchen when I dropped by after I saw you just before,” Waverly says in comprehension. “She could have told me. I’ve been so panicked about what I had here to turn into something for us.”

 

“I’m sorry she didn’t just say,” Nicole says apologetically. “If I’d known you were worried, I would have told you at once.”

 

“Oh, I wasn’t too worried about me,” Waverly blushes. “I was worried about what a terrible first impression I’d make, cookin’ you somethin’ from the plain stores I had upstairs. I don’t tend to keep a lot here. I can normally convince Gus to let me cook somethin’ over at the Inn. Or pinch somethin’ she made, if it looks good.”

 

“I’m sure it would have been delicious, whatever you’d been able to make,” Nicole returns, watching the way Waverly’s face lights with every compliment. “And far better than what I’d be able to make myself. Maybe next time, Gus won’t be so generous, but we don’t have to worry for tonight at least.”

 

“Next time?” Waverly catches eagerly, and Nicole smiles at her apparent keenness.

 

“Of course,” Nicole says, her voice charming in reply. “If I make a good enough first impression myself, that is. And you’d like my company again?”

 

“I’d hate to presume too quickly, Deputy,” Waverly returns playfully. “Perhaps you’ll let me know when the evenin’ is over whether you’d like to?”

 

“That I can do,” Nicole says, smiling at Waverly’s reply, nodding before she gestures to the basket. “For now, though, can I tempt you with a bite?”

 

“Why, yes,” Waverly beams, her eyes alight with what Nicole thinks is the thought of their evening in front of them, before she gestures towards the staircase. “I’d like that very much. Would you like to…?”

 

“Yes,” Nicole answers with a simple nod, but even that feels loaded, too. With hope and anticipation and something else that tastes like a low lonely ache about to be fulfilled. “I’d like that very much, too.”



-



Waverly turns the shutters on the front window of the shop, Nicole offering her assistance after she watches Waverly attempt to do the task one-handed, before leading Nicole to the other end of the shop where the staircase is.

 

“The shop really is beautiful, Waverly,” Nicole offers, looking over the hanging dry herbs and the immaculate and extremely well-stocked shelves as she walks close behind.

 

“You think so?” Waverly asks, turning her body with a questioning grin.

 

“Absolutely,” Nicole replies with a nod of her head. “I must confess, I haven’t ever seen anything quite like it. In other towns I’ve visited, places often have a small doctor’s surgery, and there’s a much smaller apothecary, but I’ve never seen anything as extensive as this.”

 

“We’ve never really had a doctor in town,” Waverly replies, placing her foot on the first step of the stairs. “I think we had one before I was born, but never an established one. When I got a little older and started to gather more of an inventory, people just started to come here for ailments and the like. I guess we’ve been lucky not havin’ a demand for one.”

 

“It sounds like that’s because you’ve done a more than adequate job of takin’ the place of one,” Nicole compliments, trying to keep her wits about her as she catches the flash of bare skin around Waverly’s ankles when she takes the steps ahead of Nicole.

 

“Oh, I don’t presume to be anywhere as clever as a doctor,” Waverly replies modestly, dismissing Nicole’s comment. “I only help with some small things.”

 

“I think you’re bein’ far too humble, Waverly Earp,” Nicole returns, catching Waverly’s eye when she looks back down the stairs. “I think you do far more for this town than you realise.”

 

“Maybe,” Waverly says in reply, but Nicole knows she still doesn’t have Waverly convinced, as unsure as she seems to be about her own importance here.

 

It’s not easy to watch, Waverly’s self-doubt so strong even with the things that Nicole knows she’s good at. It makes her want to grab the whole town by the shoulders and shake into them just how poor their recognition of this young woman must be if she can have served this place for years now without being sure of her own value.

 

Nicole makes a note in her head during their time together, both tonight and tomorrow and the tomorrow beyond, to make sure she helps Waverly, slowly and gently, to see this herself.

 

“What do you think of Oakley?” Waverly asks just before they reach the top of the stairs, casting a look down at the red shape in her arms. “You know, like Annie Oakley? Do you think that might suit her?”

 

“I think that’s perfect ,” Nicole replies happily, looking to the pup as well. “I think that’ll suit her perfectly, Waverly.”

 

“What do you think little one?” Waverly asks the sleeping lump softly. “Will Oakley fit, do you think?”

 

As if on cue, the pup yawns widely, and Nicole looks to Waverly before they both laugh gently. “I think that’s a yes, don’t you?”

 

“I think so,” Waverly smiles in return, just as they reach the top of the stairs. “I do apologise for the lack of grandeur. I know it’s smaller than your room at the Inn. I find it a little cozy myself, but it’s home now, you know?”

 

Nicole takes a moment to look around the room, her jaw dropping at how beautiful the small space is. It’s whitewashed, like the shop is downstairs, and it might have made the space feel a little clinical, but here, it makes the space warmer.

 

There’s a low bed, neatly made, at the opposite end of the room to the stairs, the head of which is centred beneath the window that looks out to Nicole’s room, with a small table on one side, and Waverly’s tall armoire on the other.

 

There are a few clippings hung up on different spaces of the wall, their aroma filling the room softly, but beautifully, and at the other end of the room is a modest bookcase, positively crammed with different tomes, and a small, low table, set with two matching chairs, also low to the ground.

 

The whole space it lit with a number of candles, and it’s so effortlessly calming and peaceful, Nicole is worried for a second that she’s died and gone to heaven in the time they’ve walked up the stairs.

 

Her first impression is of Waverly. The space breathes Waverly.

 

“Waverly,” Nicole says, taken aback, not quite certain how to finish her sentence. “It’s…”

 

“Small?” Waverly offers as she wrinkles her nose. “I know, I-”

 

“No,” Nicole says quickly. “No, no, not at all. I was going to say beautiful. It’s beautiful, Waverly.”

 

“You think so?” Waverly asks shyly, watching Nicole’s wordless sweep of the room with a soft smile on her face. “I was really hopin’ you’d like it. I mean… if you did, you might want to come and visit again, or…”

 

“Visit?” Nicole offers, still a little thunderstruck by the calm the room seems to radiate. “God, I’d set up camp and stay forever if you’d have me, it’s that lovely.”

 

Nicole catches herself, registering what she’s just said, clambering to recover as Waverly watches on with a tilted head and an amused grin.

 

“I mean…” Nicole tries to reason. “I didn’t…”

 

“It’s quite alright, Deputy,” Waverly assures her. “It’s… it means a great deal you like it. I’m rather fond of it myself. What about you, Miss Oakley, do you think you’ll like it here, too?”

 

She raises her little nose to the air at the new set of smells, looking around inquisitively, so Waverly sets her down on her feet, standing back and watching with Nicole as she makes her way around the room. She does a small loop before climbing up onto the foot of Waverly’s low bed, once satisfied with her surroundings, curling herself up into a ball, and promptly falling straight back asleep.

 

“I think we can take that as a yes?” Nicole asks with a soft laugh, looking down to Waverly.

 

“I think so,” Waverly smiles in return before she shifts her attention back fully to Nicole. “Thank you, Nicole. For thinkin’ of me? I’ve… thoughtfulness isn’t somethin’ I’ve been lucky enough to be the recipient of very often, and I have to confess, I feel more spoiled these last few days with you than I ever have in my entire life.”

 

“You know, I feel a little the same myself, Miss Earp,” Nicole replies, watching the way Waverly’s face lights in response to Nicole’s admission.

 

“If you’ll allow me to be so bold as to rewind time before the very welcome distraction took my attention away,” Waverly offers, and Nicole can see the nerves almost visibly tingling along her arms as she reaches to place her palm at the crook of Nicole’s elbow. “Nicole, you look… I fear I don’t even have the words.”

 

“You like it then?” Nicole asks uncertainly, her eyes darting down to the place where Waverly’s touch has settled. “I was so nervous about wearin’ it, I almost didn’t, but Chrissy had gone through such trouble to help me with it, and she’d said it looked alright, so…”

 

“You didn’t have to buy anything special for little old me,” Waverly says as her hand falls from Nicole’s elbow so she can turn and look at Nicole more fully. “Anything would have been more than okay.”

 

“Maybe I wanted to make a good first impression,” Nicole winks playfully. “Besides, I only would’ve had my other attire to wear. I didn’t… I didn’t actually have a dress, and I thought you might prefer a dress to…”

 

Waverly’s face falls at the admission, and she wishes she could kick herself for adding on the last sentence, or turn back time, because she hadn’t meant to make Waverly upset, she hadn’t meant to mention it at all , come to that.

 

“Waverly, I-” Nicole hurries to apologise, but Waverly cuts over her gently.

 

“You bought a dress?” Waverly breathes in question. “You bought a dress for tonight? For me?”

 

“I mean, I’m sure I’ll find occasion to wear it again,” Nicole reasons as she watches an expression she can’t quite determine the base of cross Waverly’s face.

 

“Of course,” Waverly says airily, and Nicole knows the comment is rhetorical, so she doesn’t bother replying yet. “Of course, you’d normally wear…”

 

“I would, but I’m… I mean, I don’t mind if this is what you’d prefer,” Nicole offers, still watching Waverly’s face carefully.

 

“You did this because you thought it was what I wanted?” Waverly asks, as though not quite believing what it is Nicole’s saying.

 

“I didn’t want you to be uncomfortable with my other… attire,” Nicole admits, deciding to tell Waverly the truth, rather than try and disguise her actions. Because Waverly deserves only the truth from her, from the beginning. No smoke and hidden meanings. Even with something as simple as this. “I wasn’t sure what you were expectin’, so I thought it best to err on the side of this .”

 

“I don’t know what to say,” Waverly says a little speechless.

 

“You don’t have to say anythin’, Waverly,” Nicole offers. “I can... I mean the seamstress has my measurements now. I’m sure it’ll be no trouble for her to amend a few other things for me.”

 

“I don’t wish to offend you,” Waverly says carefully, and Nicole braces herself for an impact. “Truly, Nicole, because this dress is… it’s lovely. But your normal dress, I like that very much, too.”

 

“You do?” Nicole asks as her heart stops in her chest, because out of everything, that is not what she was expecting to hear.

 

“I do,” Waverly nods shyly. “It’s… you. It’s you. It suits you.”

 

She pauses, and Nicole’s entire body waits, poised on her next words. A fresh blush climbs her cheeks, and Nicole can feel her own burning as it rises warm from her heart.

 

“Last night, when you came to call before closin’, I… I thought you looked very fine in that, too,” Waverly admits shyly, her voice almost a whisper. “I mean, it was clear you were comfortable, and… you… your other attire, it’s you . If this is what you wish to wear, then I think that’s fine, too, but I’m fond of what I see you in normally. Very much so.”

 

She thinks Waverly doesn’t mean to admit so much, but it comes tumbling out regardless, and Nicole finds she doesn’t mind at all, because for the first time since the worry about her damn dress settled in her mind, she can breathe free , because Waverly likes her , just as she is.

 

“So, if I was to call on you another night wearin’ somethin’ different, that would be okay, too?” Nicole asks gently.

 

“More than,” Waverly affirms with a soft nod. “The dress truly is lovely, though. And your hair… I like it down. Do you wear it like this often?”

 

“Hardly ever,” Nicole admits with a little shrug as she shuffles the basket she’s still holding to her other arm. “It's a pain to have it down durin' the day, given that it's so long.”

 

“Gosh, where are my manners,” Waverly says quickly, taking note of Nicole’s movements before she bends to take the basket from Nicole. “Here, would you like to have a seat? You must be starvin’, too?”

 

“It’s more than okay,” Nicole laughs gently at Waverly’s panic. “I assure you. I could definitely eat, though.”

 

“I have a terribly distractible mind sometimes,” Waverly admits. “Wynonna always says so. I’m sorry, too, if that was too forward. Me sayin’ that I liked…”

 

“That’s more than okay, too,” Nicole offers clearly.

 

Because it is , because they have to be so careful how they carry themselves around others, but here, in the safety of a private room, Waverly can say whatever she damn well pleases to Nicole, and regardless of whether things between them will develop further, she intends to let Waverly know as much.

 

“I know we spoke of it a little last night,” Nicole says, remembering back to their conversation in the shop downstairs. “But you don’t ever have to temper your speech around me. If there’s something you don’t like… or somethin’ you do … don’t ever be afraid to tell me, alright? I don’t want there to ever be anythin’ between us but the truth.”

 

“You don’t mind?” Waverly asks, a little hesitant, and Nicole can tell she’s still a little embarrassed about speaking so frankly. “Some folks say that, but sometimes I think they just want a girl that doesn’t say much unless she’s asked.”

 

“I’m not most folks,” Nicole laughs, ducking her head bashfully.

 

“No,” Waverly replies, blushing a beautiful dusk. “No, you’re not.”

 

There’s a quiet moment between them, and Nicole feels the air in the room still again, as it has done on the edge of every turning point between the two of them, and when Waverly raises her hand, reaching forward, for her , Nicole knows this will be no different.

 

“In that case,” Waverly says as she reaches to touch the end of Nicole’s hair where it drapes over her shoulder, briefly. “I like you best in your other clothes, but I think… I mean… I like your hair… like this. Down like this. It suits you. It’s you, but a different you. One I feel like maybe only I get to see?”

 

Nicole can tell, she can tell how nervous Waverly is, and how much it’s costing her to put a foot forward, and Nicole adores her for it, but she doesn’t want Waverly to step forward alone.

 

So she takes a step, too.

 

“It is,” Nicole offers in return, running her forefinger to trace the strand of Waverly’s hair from her crown down to her shoulder, catching happily the shiver it draws from Waverly’s form. “Just for you. May I say that I like yours like this, as well?”

 

“You may,” Waverly replies a little breathily, her eyes darting to try and catch the movement of Nicole’s hand, and Nicole can just about hear her heart stop.

 

It’s bold , Nicole’s touch, and it’s one of the first intentionally suggestive moves Nicole has made, because she wants to respect whatever it is that Waverly wants, she doesn’t want to push too far and end up breaking her own heart again like she did with Shae, but at the same time, she wants to make it clear to Waverly where she stands and what she would have this relationship evolve into, if Waverly would have that, too.

 

Waverly turns her head slightly, as though chasing the warmth of Nicole’s hand against her cheek, and Nicole is just about to lift her thumb to brush the line of Waverly’s jaw when Oakley yawns loudly on the bed behind them, breaking the tension of the moment.

 

Nicole drops her hand slowly, a half-amused, half-exasperated laugh falling from her lips before she steps back, putting a little more space between them.

 

She steps back, but Waverly doesn’t .

 

She stays planted in the exact spot where Nicole had touched her, with glassy eyes, and it looks as though she’s trying to elongate the memory, before finally the veil falls, and she looks to Nicole again.

 

Raising her hand to the side of her face, where Nicole’s touch had glanced, she smiles before bending down onto her knees next to the seat she pulls out for Nicole to sit in and begins to unpack the food Gus had set aside for them.

 

“Will you sit?” Waverly asks shakily, her mind clearly still a little fixed on the lingering ghost on her cheek before gesturing to the seat she’s drawn up.

 

“I’d love to,” Nicole replies, unable to stop the smile at the obvious effect she’s just had with a simple touch.

 

Because that must mean something, right?

 

She bends to take her seat at the lower chair, her eyes catching Waverly’s across the short distance between them, when something stops her mid-movement.

 

“Oh,” Nicole says, frowning slightly.

 

“Is everything alright?” Waverly asks with a worried note in her voice. “Is something…?”

 

“No, no it’s not you at all. You’re perfect, Waverly,” Nicole offers, her hand traveling down her leg for the gun she had forgotten, as distracted as Waverly had left her, that was strapped to her calf still. “It’s just… I have my revolver with me. I don’t make a habit of bringing it as an added companion for dinner, I promise, but I thought it best to have it on me at all times while things are… should I have any cause to use it, I mean. I didn’t want to come here unable to protect you, should anythin’ happen.”

 

“Oh,” Waverly replies with a soft sigh, looking to Nicole with an expression that breathes how touched she is by the small gesture. “That’s… that’s very kind of you to think of me, Deputy.”

 

“Of course,” Nicole returns easily, smiling warm at Waverly. “The only thing is… it would probably be more comfortable to remove it for dinner, if you wouldn’t mind?”

 

“It’s not in the basket?” Waverly asks, a little confused before her eyes settle on Nicole’s dress and she blushes heavily. “Oh, it’s…”

 

“I didn’t want to alarm you by havin’ it in there,” Nicole says back, her own blush creeping up her neck now, too. “It’ll only take me a second to remove, if you would…”

 

And it’s not that she minds in any way revealing the long, lean muscles of her calf to Waverly in the process. It’s more a desire to preserve a touch of modesty, to save exposing quite so much bare skin until such time as Nicole knows that Waverly feels comfortable seeing her like that, and not simply in a moment of Nicole’s prompting.

 

“Oh,” Waverly says again, her blush deepening as she turns quickly, flushed at the prospect of what Nicole is saying once she takes the meaning. “Oh, of course. Here, I’ll turn so you can…”

 

It doesn’t take her longer than a few seconds to lift the hem of her dress and release the tie holding the gun in place, but she’s still almost sad to watch Waverly turn away. She sets the weapon down on the floor next to her before sitting across from Waverly, reaching for Waverly’s hand atop the table, indicating that she’s ready for Waverly to turn back.

 

Waverly turns with Nicole’s hand hovering just over her hand, like she could feel Nicole’s reach beneath her skin, and Nicole makes to move away, the touch now unnecessary, but Waverly surprises her, lifting her hand to make contact, regardless.

 

She drops her hand again after a second, but it’s enough. Because the simple fact that she crossed that last inch for Nicole, its significant .

 

“It’s very kind of you to think of me like that, Nicole,” Waverly says quietly. “About me bein’ safe, I mean. It means a great deal.”

 

“It’s my pleasure, Waverly, truly,” Nicole offers gently, because it is. To have Waverly trust her enough to grant Nicole the opportunity to look out for her, it’s a privilege.

 

She can sense Waverly’s shyness now, that she’s not quite sure whether to say whatever it is that’s on her mind, so she changes the subject gently instead, shifting their conversation back into a realm Nicole knows Waverly will feel more comfortable.

 

“So, you like to cook, too?” Nicole asks, shuffling forward in the low chair now that she’s free of her burden, helping to unpack the basket in front of them.

 

“When Gus lets me at her kitchen,” Waverly answers shyly, relief creeping into the edges of her smile. “It’s a little hard to do a lot here, but I do like playin’ with how different herbs help enhance different flavours and the like? I think Gus would rather I just cooked somethin’ straight half the time, but Curtis loves it.”

 

“I’m very glad you have them in your life, Waverly,” Nicole offers, watching the way Waverly’s hands move nimbly over the contents of the basket, setting everything out in front of the both of them.

 

“So am I,” Waverly replies gratefully. “We were exceptionally lucky, Wynonna and I, that they were able to help us after…”

 

“You don’t have to talk about anything that upsets you,” Nicole says quickly, reaching for Waverly’s hand again. “I’m sorry. We can talk about somethin’ else, if you’d…”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly returns, tilting her head at the unexpected thoughtfulness. “I don’t mind talkin’ about that. Or I don’t mind talkin’ about it with you, at least.”

 

“You’ll tell me if you’d prefer not to, though?” Nicole asks of her. Because the last thing she wants is to make Waverly in any way uncomfortable.

 

“Of course,” Waverly replies, smiling warmly, releasing Nicole’s hand so she can lay out the last of the food. “We were very lucky to have Gus and Curtis, though. We’re as good as daughters to them, I think.”

 

“I think so, too,” Nicole returns, her chest warm at the simple domestic scene in front of her. “I mean, look at this spread, Waverly. I don’t think love does what that woman feels for you justice.”

 

“Our family is different, but it’s no less a family, I don’t think,” Waverly says fondly, and Nicole can almost see Gus’s shadow at Waverly’s shoulder, guarding and present, always. “But what about you? I’ve just realised I don’t know a single thing about your own. Forgive me, how rude of me not to ask, Nicole.”

 

“It’s more than alright,” Nicole says, laughing softly at the minor horror etched into Waverly’s face at the perceived shortfalling. “I promise, Waverly. Truth be told, there’s not a lot to tell.”

 

“If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s okay, too,” Waverly offers gently.

 

“No, no, it’s fine,” Nicole returns. “It’s more than fine, we just don’t… we’re not close. They don’t approve of a many number of the ways I’ve decided to live my life is all.”

 

“Are they far from here?” Waverly inquires, gathering a small mouthful of food, passing it to Nicole as she watches Nicole intently. “Do you have any siblings?”

 

“Probably a month’s ride or so away,” Nicole answers with a casual shrug, devouring the mouthful instantly as her suddenly hungry stomach yawns for more. “And I… I did, yes. A brother. But there may well be…they may well have had more children since I left, I can’t be certain. I was such a disappointment to them, I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to erase me entirely. Them figurin’ out that my, uh… preferences were a little more delicate than they would have liked was the first straw, and me announcin’ I wanted to intern beneath the lawmen in town, instead of startin’ a family like a proper woman, that was the one that broke the horse’s back. The night I told Mama and Daddy that , they screamed the house down, and told me to leave and never darken their doorstep again.”

 

“They didn’t?” Waverly asks, horrified as she stills in her movements . “But… you’re… they’re your parents , Nicole.”

 

“Unconditional love isn’t a guarantee, I guess,” Nicole says sadly, and she knows it sounds cold to say such a thing so flippantly, but the truth of the matter is that it hurt her for years, her parents’ betrayal and refusal to accept who she was or the career she wanted to pursue, and the only way to stop the pain in the end had been to shut the emotion towards them off altogether.

 

“Oh, Nicole, I’m so sorry,” Waverly breathes from across the table, and she can feel the battle in Waverly’s body to reach for her snap the second before she actually does.

 

She’s expecting Waverly to take her hand again, or touch her arm, but she does more than that. She shifts out of her chair, shuffling on her knees over to Nicole before enveloping her in a hug.

 

Her hands fit perfectly in the hollow at the small of Nicole’s back and her chin rests on Nicole’s shoulder as Nicole rises on her knees a little to meet Waverly’s embrace.

 

She doesn’t bother to suppress the quiet sigh, because she wants Waverly to know how much the gesture of comfort means to her. Because she’s been on her own for a long time, but that doesn’t mean the hole her family left so long ago doesn’t still ache from time to time.

 

“I’m sorry, Nicole,” Waverly offers, her breath soft like a gentle breeze. “They don’t know what they’re missin’ out on. I know it doesn’t make it easier, but the people that have left your life? It’s their loss. It’s absolutely their loss. And if that’s led to you bein’ here, then that’s our gain.”

 

Nicole closes her eyes for a moment, savouring the way her own arms sit across Waverly’s shoulders like they were molded for the space, and Waverly’s final words on the matter are so quiet that Nicole’s not even sure if she’s heard them or dreamed them, but they fill the space between her ribs nonetheless.

 

And my gain, too.

 

“It’s their loss that they haven’t seen you grow into what you are now, Nicole,” Waverly says quietly, drawing back from Nicole slowly. “You haven’t seen them in a long time, then?”

 

“Not for many years,” Nicole replies, watching Waverly take her seat once more, her body already urging her to reach for Waverly’s touch again.

 

“Guess we’ll just have to adopt you into the family then, huh?” Waverly offers, winking as she takes a small bite of food herself. “The name’s not worth a lot to others, but it still means a great deal to us. And we’ve done the same with Doc, even though Wynonna hasn’t got her head out of the sand and told him that she reciprocates his feelings.”

 

“Gus mentioned him,” Nicole says, trying to control the flutter of her heart as a result of Waverly comparing her to the man that could be her brother-in-law. Her sister’s companion. Like she might one day be for Waverly. “Do you think that’s likely to happen soon, then?”

 

“I goddamn hope so,” Waverly replies in a rare show of exasperation. “We’ve only been waiting the last few years for it to happen. I think she’s on the verge of it, myself. Lord only knows why she’s holdin’ back. Gus thinks it’s because she doesn’t want to give up her independence, but I think it’s more than that. I think she doesn’t think she deserves happiness after what happened.”

 

“Everyone deserves happiness,” Nicole says easily. “Well, maybe not everyone , but your sister certainly does. Maybe more than others, given what she’s been through.”

 

“It means a lot that you think that,” Waverly returns. “Most people don’t, but it means more than I can tell you that you do.”

 

“I hope you don’t mind,” Nicole offers, softening her eyes as she watches Waverly, picking thoughtfully at the sweet things Gus had assembled. “Chrissy told me a lot of what happened. To your family, I mean. She didn’t mean to be a gossip or deprive you of your own story. I think she just wanted to make sure I wasn’t goin’ to run the other way like a coward, or form some sort of awful opinion about it.”

 

“It’s quite alright,” Waverly replies, smiling at the gentleness in Nicole’s voice. “She does a fabulous impression of a guard dog, Chrissy Nedley.”

 

“That she does,” Nicole says, smiling at the idea of Chrissy marching her away from Waverly’s shop if she’d said anything Chrissy wasn’t happy with. “Hey, will you tell me somethin’ she didn’t? Tell me more about your shop. How did that come to be? I’ve gotta say, Waverly, it’s pretty obvious your knowledge of this stuff far outstrips your years.”

 

“Oh,” Waverly says, a little surprised at being asked. “Well, I guess some of this is easy when you enjoy it as much as I do? And I always wanted to help people. That made the learnin’ easier, too? When I knew there was a purpose behind it?”

 

“You obviously have a natural aptitude for it, too, though?” Nicole says, smiling at Waverly’s modesty.

 

“Maybe a little,” Waverly admits shyly. “It’s just… I don’t know, some of the things that plants can do it’s… it’s incredible. Sometimes I’m not totally convinced it’s not magic, the way they work. If I didn’t know how they worked, or at least how we think they work, I’d definitely think they were. You just have to know how to unlock the potential they have, and you can fix almost anythin’.”

 

The colour rises in Waverly cheeks, breathing a tangible passion into what she’s talking about, and Nicole can’t help beaming in return.

 

“I got carried away again, huh?” Waverly blushes, dropping her eyes. “I’m sorry, it’s just… I don’t get to talk to someone often who seems to have a genuine interest in this topic. In me, I should say. It’s probably enough to bore you to tears, though. God, I’m sorry. We can talk about somethin’ else if you’d like?”

 

“No,” Nicole says quickly, shaking her head. “No, no, not at all. It’s not borin’ at all, Waverly. I’d love to hear more about it, sincerely. I have to confess a reasonably significant lack of knowledge of the topic myself, but I’d love to learn a little more, if you’d be willin’ to share?”

 

“Of course,” Waverly says, lighting up at Nicole’s interest and affirmation. “What would you like to know?”

 

“How about… everythin’?” Nicole asks, turning the corner of her mouth up in an ever-so-slightly forward way. “Does that work for you?”

 

“Everythin’,” Waverly breathes, looking to Nicole, eyes wide with possibility and potential and hope . “I could do everythin’. For you.”

 

“Well, where does one start then, with the world of knowledge at their feet?” Nicole asks, gathering a few small pieces of the sweeter items in an echo of Waverly a moment ago, smiling to herself.

 

“How about… the beginning?” Waverly offers, watching carefully, and smiling, too, when she notices Nicole’s preferences from their selection.

 

“The beginning?” Nicole says with a grin before she sucks a lingering morsel of sweetness from the end of her finger. “That sounds like a mighty fine place to start.”



-



They talk for what feels like hours, well into the night, first about the sweep of Waverly’s medicinal knowledge, then into the other more varied of her botanical applications -- cooking and liquor-making, tea-brewing, perfumes and fragrances -- until their voices begin to grow hoarse.

 

“Gosh,” Waverly says when the moon hangs high in the night, not quite able to stifle the entirety of her yawn. “I’ve been talkin’ for hours, Nicole. I’m so sorry.”

 

“There’s no need to apologise,” Nicole replies easily, standing and stretching her arms at her sides as Waverly does the same across from her. “I’ve barely noticed the time passin’, if I’m honest.”

 

Waverly levels her with a look that challenges the validity of her statement, but Nicole keeps her gaze, trying to demonstrate how true she holds that statement to be.  

 

“I know you’ll think I’m just sayin’ so, but this evenin’ has been fascinatin’, Waverly,” Nicole says gently, reaching to touch Waverly’s hand briefly. “I promise you. Your knowledge is rather…well, extraordinary, if I’m honest. And compelling. I don’t think I thought about the time for a moment.”

 

“I feel dreadful,” Waverly says, shaking her head insistently, refusing to believe Nicole’s assurance. “I’ve done nothin’ but talk at you for hours .”

 

“I assure you, if I wanted to change the subject, I would have,” Nicole affirms, her voice calm, but certain. “I wanted to hear about you. Not about borin’ old me.”

 

“I don’t think you’re borin’ at all,” Waverly says, mostly to herself, underneath her breath, but Nicole catches it, regardless. “But I do feel awful. I just get so carried away, when someone asks, and not so many people do, so when I get the opportunity to… I really am sorry, though. How about if I convince you to talk about yourself next time? Assuming I haven’t scared you off of spendin’ another evening with me, that is?”

 

“I’d like that very much,” Nicole replies sincerely, because she would . Because she won’t put pressure on Waverly by admitting as much, but this has been one of the better nights she can recall to living memory, and would have been just being in Waverly’s presence, let alone with the brilliant - and not as one-sided as Waverly fears - conversation. “If you think you could spend another night in my company?”

 

“Hmmm,” Waverly muses, teasing a little, prompting a smile to grace Nicole’s lips before she looks to Nicole seriously. “Yes, Nicole. I think I could. For now, though, I’d best let you find your bed? I hope you won’t be too tired in the mornin’?”

 

“I’ll be fine,” Nicole assures her. “I’ve slept a heck of a lot rougher than Gus’s Inn, with less sleep, and that’s without a stomach full of food. I hope I haven’t kept you ?”

 

“Like I said to you,” Waverly starts, her voice drifting a little before she comes back to finish her sentence. “I’m not much of a sleeper. It’ll be hours before I do. Although, who knows? Maybe all I needed was some small furry weight, warmin’ my feet at night.”

 

Nicole smiles before they both turn to look at the small chest rise and fall rhythmically, completely oblivious to the two heartbeats dancing delicately around one another while she sleeps on soundly.

 

“Will you be okay with her?” Nicole asks, walking over to bid goodnight to Oakley, fast asleep in a ball on top of Waverly’s bedding. “Because I can take her, if you’re…”

 

“We’ll be just fine,” Waverly says confidently. “I promise. I’m lookin’ forward to havin’ the company, if I’m honest. I don’t mind bein’ here by myself, but… it’s nice knowin’ I’ll have another little soul here with me. Thank you, Nicole. Again. I still can’t quite believe she’s mine.”

 

“I’m glad the two of you took to each other,” Nicole replies warmly, beaming at the way Waverly casts another longing glance at Oakley’s small, sleeping form.

 

She digs her hands into her pockets, tilting her head and watching Waverly distracted for a moment, frowning at the unfamiliar object her hand closes around, before she remembers what the item is.

 

“Oh,” Nicole says suddenly, before Waverly turns to her with a frown.

 

“Is everything alright?” Waverly asks, concerned, turning to face Nicole fully.

 

“Yes,” Nicole says happily, withdrawing the small wrapped package from her pocket. “More than. I forgot I had something small with me, is all…For you.”

 

“For me?” Waverly queries, her forehead lining in question. “But you…”

 

She doesn’t finish her sentence, but Nicole knows what she means to say. But you already brought me a gift. But you’ve already given me your evening.

 

“I found it before I came across our young Miss Oakley,” Nicole explains, not wanting to seem like she’s trying too hard to buy, or otherwise persuade or influence Waverly’s attentions. “It’s only a small thing. It’s just… I saw it at the store today with Chrissy, and I thought you might like it.”

 

She hands Waverly the small package, smiling as Waverly takes it with a slightly shaky grip before she unwraps it delicately, sighing when she reveals the wrapped length of ribbon.

 

Nicole ,” she breathes, holding the ribbon to the light to inspect the detail. “It’s…“

 

“It’s only small,” Nicole says again, trying to rationalise the extra gift, worried she’s gone too far, and kicking herself for giving Waverly something else. “I’m sorry if it’s too…”

 

“It’s not…” Waverly replies, and Nicole watches as her eyes start to well, tears collecting in the corners. “It’s… no one’s…”

 

“I’m sorry, Waverly,” Nicole hastens to say, leaning down to try and offer some comfort, having obviously upset Waverly. “I didn’t mean to…”

 

“It’s not…” Waverly says shakily before she clears her throat, steeling herself and looking to Nicole with more focused eyes. “I’m sorry, it’s only, very few people in my life have been generous enough to help me celebrate my birthday, and here you are, someone who I’ve only known for a handful of days, and you’re…”

 

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” Nicole tries to offer again. “I’m truly so very sorry.”

 

“I’m not upset,” Waverly returns, stepping closer to Nicole to help demonstrate her point when Nicole’s expression says I don’t believe you . “I’m not, Nicole. It’s just…it’s very kind of you, and I’m not so used to kindness like this.”

 

“I’m very sorry to have to advise that you’re going to have to get used to it,” Nicole says, her voice gently playful when she can see that Waverly really is okay. “Because as long as you’ll have me for company, you’re going to have to abide things such as this.”

 

“Well,” Waverly says with a playful tone of her own before turning to walk over to her armoire. “In that case, you’re going to have to abide something similar yourself.”

 

She scoops something off the top of the piece of furniture, Nicole doesn’t see what exactly, until Waverly walks back to her, gesturing for Nicole to hold out her hands, before placing a small glass phial into them.

 

Nicole frowns, confused for a moment, before Waverly opens her mouth to explain.

 

“It’s… now that I’m about to explain it, somethin’ that sounds terribly vain. I don’t mean it to be, I promise, it’s just…” Waverly says, and Nicole can see her questioning her own actions, so she tries to soften her own expression in an attempt to encourage Waverly a little. “It’s the perfume I wear. You seemed to enjoy the smell of the tea I made the other mornin’, and this is one of the complementary scents. It just so happens to be the one I favour myself, too, and I thought… I mean, I wondered if you might like a small measure of it yourself. If you like it, I’d happily set aside some more the next time I make some. And if you don’t, that’s more than okay, too, Nicole. I promise I won’t be offended if you set it in the bottom of your things, and never take the stopper out, it’s just… I wanted to say thank you. For spendin’ the evenin’ with me.”

 

“This is for me?” Nicole asks breathily, her turn to be rendered near speechless now as she holds the small glass bottle in her hands like the treasure it is.

 

“If you’d like it?” Waverly says, watching Nicole carefully as she turns the phial over. “It’s okay if you don’t, Nicole, truly.”

 

“No,” Nicole says quickly. “I do, I really do, it’s just… I’m not overly used to recievin’ gifts myself, you see, and I’m just a little…”

 

She runs her thumb over the smooth glass, scarcely able to believe she’s actually holding it. And, honestly, it could be water for all Nicole minds, but the fact that this is Waverly’s perfume, the scent that Nicole dreams of, it’s worth more than gold.

 

“Touched,” Nicole finishes finally, looking to Waverly with slightly cloudy eyes of her own. “I’m touched , Waverly. I don’t… I don’t know what to say?”

 

“I find thank you often works well in situations like this?” Waverly returns with a wink, and Nicole can tell she’s trying to lighten the mood, to make this a little less intimidating for Nicole.

 

“Thank you,” Nicole says, smiling at Waverly’s light teasing. “Really, Waverly. I…”

 

“I’m glad you like it, Nicole,” Waverly says kindly, reaching for Nicole’s elbow, to press her touch like a kiss there. Light, but like she’s trying to tell Nicole it’s okay. “I’m really glad you like it.”

 

“Thank you for the evenin’, as well,” Nicole says, watching Waverly’s hand as it drops back to her side before looking to her eyes. “I can’t remember the last time I’ve had such a pleasant one.”

 

“Nor can I,” Waverly replies warmly, and her smile heats every last drop of Nicole’s blood, because she looks like she means it. Really, really, means it. “And I’m especially glad that I didn’t bore you into a stupor.”

 

Never ,” Nicole winks back, more than a little satisfied when Waverly blushes in return. “In fact, I’d love to borrow a book sometime, if you’d be happy to lend me one. I wasn’t just sayin’ so when I said it was fascinating.”

 

“You would?” Waverly asks brightly, and Nicole is so glad she had thought to ask, because Waverly reads it as the genuine interest it is.

 

“Absolutely,” Nicole returns, casting a glance to the rather intimidatingly stacked shelves. “Although, it’s probably best to start somewhere reasonably simple. I fear I won’t have as much of a brain for it as you.”

 

“Simple, we can do,” Waverly says excitedly, skipping over to run her finger along the spines of the books. “I think this will do, as a start?”

 

She returns to Nicole’s side with a volume that looks to cover useful herbs and remedies found from simple plant applications, something that Nicole would potentially benefit from in a very useful day-to-day way.

 

“Don’t feel like you need to take it,” Waverly says, shifting from foot to foot nervously as Nicole thumbs through the first few pages. “I just… you might find a few things in here that might be helpful?”

 

“Absolutely,” Nicole breathes, already having found at least one thing she can very practically use. “I mean, I have a basic knowledge of what to try and eat and what not to locally, but that’s about as far as I can claim to understand. This will be immensely helpful, Waverly. Thank you.”

 

“Thank you for listening,” Waverly replies shyly. “I can’t tell you how much it means that you’re interested. Truly, Nicole. Tonight has been…”

 

“I know,” Nicole says easily. “As it has been for me, too.”

 

Nicole can feel the evening coming to a close now. She can feel the air start to still around them both again, she can feel the warmth of Waverly’s forearm where it rests only an inch from her own. Waverly is looking up at her, like she’s trying to read some unknown language in the freckles scattered across the bridge of Nicole’s nose, and she knows what she wants to do now, but she’s terrified at the same time.

 

She wants to lean down, to close the small distance between them, and press her lips sweetly to Waverly’s, and listen to time stop around them.

 

She wants to pull Waverly to her, with her hands gently on Waverly’s arms, she wants to feel Waverly sigh against her chest as the air leaves her lungs in a rush, she wants to kiss her and feel the end of the world.

 

But she’s terrified.

 

Because she thinks she’s read the signs correctly, she thinks Waverly understands her intentions, and reciprocated at least some of her feelings in return, but she doesn’t know . Not for certain.

 

And perhaps if she didn’t have the history and ghost of Shae at her back, watching her every move and breath with Waverly, she might be more carefree and willing to put her heart on the line. But it hadn’t just been bad before, it had been tragic , and both she and Shae had put her in a position she had not been comfortable with, and she will not do that to Waverly, too.

 

She won’t. She refuses. So if that means she has to play this slow and safe, holding back until she’s sure this is something Waverly wants, too, then she will.

 

Because she had loved Shae, with all of her heart, but things feel different with Waverly. Even now, it feels different. It feels bigger, deeper somehow, like they’re connected at more points than one. Or two. Or ten.

 

And she thinks that’s what Waverly is waiting for, for Nicole to lean down and start a new universe between their lips.

 

But she’s not sure .

 

So she holds back.

 

For now.

 

And she knows the second she steps back that she’s made a mistake, because Waverly’s face falls, an infinitesimal amount, barely discernible, but it falls .

 

Because she had wanted Nicole, too.

 

And damn it, she wants so desperately to lean in and fix her mistake, her misgiving, but she knows it’s too late, in this moment at least. She knows she’ll have to wait now.

 

She wants to kick herself or swear or do something , because she’s letting a shadow of days past rule her life still , even now, but then she tries to calm herself, because it’s done. In this moment, it’s done. And she just needs to focus on creating another moment for them now, so she can right that wrong.

 

Nicole burns to kiss her, but she can’t. Maybe she can do the next best thing, though.

 

Waverly exhales slowly next to her, and Nicole smiles as another yawn makes its way across Waverly’s small frame before she tilts her head with a suggestion.

 

“Time for me to take my leave, I think?” Nicole asks, trying to infuse her expression with as much warmth as she can in the face of her lack of physical attention. “As much I’d like to stay, I can’t have you yawnin’ to all your customers tomorrow. You’ll never have me back.”

 

“You want to come back?” Waverly asks hopefully, and Nicole bites her lip in response, because she’s an idiot for making Waverly question herself for even a second.

 

“Very much so,” Nicole replies easily. “If I haven’t outstayed all my future welcomes by stayin’ so late?”

 

“Never,” Waverly says, shaking her head in an attempt, Nicole thinks, to hide the tears collected at the corner of her eyes in relief, before she shakes herself right. “You’d best be gettin’ to sleep yourself, Deputy, or the Sheriff’ll have me cuffed as soon as he sees you.”

 

Nicole goes about gathering her things, setting the book carefully in the basket, with her gun easily accessible on top of that to save having to restrap it to her calf for the quick walk across the road. She nestles the small, precious phial in the bottom of her dress pocket before she turns to Waverly, ready for the shorter woman to walk her down the stairs.

 

She casts one last glance to find Oakley still fast asleep, before winking at Waverly and following her down the stairs. She makes to walk across the front of the shop before she remembers something Chrissy had said about another entrance.

 

“Waverly,” Nicole asks curiously. “I hope you won’t think this a strange thing to ask, but is there another entrance to the shop that isn’t the front door?”

 

“Oh,” Waverly says suddenly. “Yes, there is.”

 

She turns, walking to the end of the counter where it meets the wall, before placing her palms down on the wood panelling in an area that, to Nicole, is indiscernible from the rest. She drops to the floor, just out of sight, and Nicole hears a small click before Waverly rises, resets her palms, pushes hard, and a door shape reveals itself from the wood.

 

“It’s not meant to be secret,” Waverly says, blushing a little sheepishly. “I mean, Doc built it in for me at Wynonna’s beckoning so I’d have another exit in case anything set fire or the like. It opens out into the alley behind the shop.”

 

“I don’t mean to make it seem like I’m tryin’ to hide, but I think it’s probably for the best that I leave this way if I’m here after the shop closes?” Nicole says carefully, because she needs to make sure she words this in such a way that Waverly doesn’t take a drop of offence from it, because that’s not how she means it. Not at all. She’s trying to keep Waverly, to keep them both, safe.

 

Well, as safe as she can.

 

“Oh,” Waverly breathes in understanding. “Just in case…”

 

“I need you to promise me you understand that it’s not because I don’t want to be seen here after dark, because I don’t give a damn about what other people think, Waverly, but I don’t want… I think it’s best, for now at least,” Nicole says, a conscious meaning behind every word. “But you have to promise me you understand it’s not because I’m at all worried about what people think of me, okay?”

 

“I understand,” Waverly says warmly, nodding easily. “I promise, Nicole.”

 

“Good,” Nicole breathes in relief. Because the last thing she wanted now was for Waverly to feel in any way worse about the evening, and to have any more doubt in Nicole’s intentions. “That’s good, I’m sorry, Waverly. I know it’s a load of nonsense, but…”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly says with a soft smile as she reaches to pull the door ajar slightly so Nicole can see that it leads outside. “You’re forgettin’ I’ve lived with these people and their backwards thinking for years.”

 

“One day it’ll be different,” Nicole says, trying to reassure her, even though she knows it’s unlikely to happen in either of their lifetimes.

 

“Until then, a back door seems a small price to pay for a lovely evenin’,” Waverly returns thoughtfully, placing her hand on Nicole’s arm next to where the basket is propped over it.

 

“A small price, indeed,” Nicole says, steeling herself. Because she might have missed the opportunity to leave Waverly with a parting goodnight kiss, but she can leave her with the next best thing.

 

She leans in, placing her hand at Waverly’s elbow, watching as Waverly’s eyes track her movement like a hawk after a mouse, her eyes fluttering closed just before Nicole presses a kiss to her cheek.

 

It’s tempting to place it closer to the edge of her lips, but Nicole doesn’t want to push too far, not with an earlier miss in her hands, so she settles for safe, her body singing when Waverly’s breath catches, and then releases, in a shaky sigh.

 

It’s chaste, but she lingers, and Waverly responds beautifully .

 

“Good night, Waverly Earp,” Nicole says softly when she pulls back, smiling at the way Waverly’s entire body seems to have slackened, her cheeks darkening with a blush.

 

Her hand moves to cover the place where Nicole’s lips were a moment ago, her own lips slightly parted, her eyes glassy.

 

“Good night, Deputy Haught,” Waverly returns airily, her eyes flashing with something that looks a little like confusion, but Nicole isn’t certain.

 

“Thank you again, for the evenin’,” Nicole says, trying to read Waverly’s expression, but not quite finding something she can put her finger on. “It’s been wonderful.”

 

“It’s been my pleasure,” Waverly replies, coming back to herself with a smile. But it doesn’t quite reach her eyes, and Nicole’s heart falters a little, because maybe that had been too much. “Sincerely. Thank you. For everythin’, Nicole.”

 

“I’ll call on you in the mornin’, if you’d like?” Nicole asks, trying to test the water, because she’s really not sure what Waverly’s small withdrawal means.

 

“I’d like that very much,” Waverly says with softer smile, one that reaches a little further than before, and Nicole bends toward its warmth, concerned still, because it’s not quite as wide as before.  

 

She gives Waverly one last parting glance that she hopes says I’m sorry, and I wanted more, but I don’t want to push you further than I know you want , before she slips out the door Waverly holds open for her, waiting on the other side until she hears the click of the lock back in place and then walking down the alley towards the Main Street.

 

It’s dark, sometime well after midnight, if Nicole’s read on the height of the moon is correct. The street is deserted, and the scent of Waverly lingers overlong, and their evening had been wonderful, but Nicole can’t help but feel like she’d made a mistake in its final minutes.

 

Maybe she should have dropped it. Maybe she shouldn’t have taken the opportunity to right her earlier wrong.

 

Maybe she shouldn’t have nursed the idea at all.

 

She casts her eyes around the deserted, darkened street, looking for some sign of danger or concern, but there’s nothing, save the gentle summer night’s breeze, a little cool on her skin.

 

Sighing, Nicole makes her way with a slightly heavy heart across the road, looking left and right and left again before she finds herself face to face with the door of the Inn. It’s unlocked, and Nicole is surprised to find Curtis asleep at the front desk, a book beneath his arms in the candlelight, when she walks in.

 

She smiles at Gus’s obvious thoughtfulness, sending him down here to wait for her to return. Nicole is careful not to wake him, but blows the candle out, lest it knock over still lit, before leaving the basket, removing Waverly’s book and her gun, outside the kitchen door, and then waking as quietly as possible up the stairs, wincing with every one that creaks.

 

It takes her a while to get herself out of her dress, although it’s easier to do this than the other way around. She at least has some experience with having helped Shae out of hers enough to understand the mechanics, even without being able to see the back of the garment properly.

 

She’s not angry at herself, as she strips and pulls her soft nightshirt on, because the rest of the date had gone so well, she’s just disappointed she had let herself down at the last hurdle.

 

Because Waverly had been disappointed when she hadn’t given her a goodnight kiss, but then Nicole had, kind of, and Waverly had shone for a second, before her face had fallen into an expression of mild confusion.

 

And maybe she hadn’t been clear enough regarding her own intentions. Maybe she had given Waverly mixed signals. Slowly, it dawns on Nicole, and she begins to understand how her actions might have been misconstrued, no kiss to a half of one that could be taken as something expressed in friendship, too.

 

Damn it, Haught , Nicole thinks to herself, setting the small glass phial down on the top of her dressing table. You’ve gone and messed things up royally now.

 

Except, maybe she hasn’t. Maybe she just needs to make herself a little clearer. If Waverly is still interested in hearing her out.

 

She’s about to climb into bed when a thought comes to her, reluctant as she is to see the evening come to an end. Walking back to the dresser, she picks up the glass bottle carefully before releasing the stopper and closing her eyes.

 

Waverly, floods Nicole’s senses as she breathes the light, rich scent in. It smells exactly like her, soft notes and the deeper ones, Waverly, Waverly, Waverly.

 

She opens her eyes to the sight of Waverly’s shadow at her window, obviously about to crawl into bed herself. It’s too far to see clearly, but she thinks, Nicole thinks, she sees Waverly glance her way and smile.

 

She closes the stopper, reluctant to allow too much of the fragrance to escape, intent on treasuring the small gift, in the event that she has done something irreparable.

 

The bed beckons to her, and for a second, Nicole sees a flash of something that could be a spectre or a dream or a premonition, of Waverly in the bed, waiting for her, smiling as she turns the cover back, calling Nicole to her.

 

She’ll make amends tomorrow, Nicole thinks to herself sternly. She’ll make amends, and she’ll close that gap, and she’ll leave Waverly without doubt nor reason to be confused as to where Nicole’s chess pieces sit on the board between them, handing her the board so that Waverly might set her own.

 

Sliding between the sheets, the ghost of Waverly Earp softly humming some long-forgotten tune of Nicole’s childhood, Nicole submits to her exhaustion.

 

Sleep grips her limbs and pulls her underwater, slowly, peacefully, and with the smell of Waverly in her hands and her bed, Nicole sleeps .

 

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