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find a home, lonely heart

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She’s careful not to be seen, not wanting to disrupt the privacy Nicole will think she has with Curtis, but Waverly can’t resist peering out of the crack in the door that presents her with a very narrow view of the darkened street.

 

There’s not a lot actually visible in the non-existent light, but she can just make out the faint outline of Nicole, dressed in a similar outfit to what she had been wearing the other night, her lighter clothes, without a vest, and with her hair long and wet down around her shoulders, that makes Waverly’s heart flutter.

 

“Yes, sir,” Nicole replies with a note of worry in her voice, obviously distressed at being found down the back alley of Waverly’s shop after sundown. “I, uhhh… I was just…”

 

Waverly smiles at the endearingly sweet waver around her words, as caught off guard as she obviously is having not expected to find anyone else on her way here, before daring to look out again.

 

“It’s quite alright, Nicole,” Curtis says simply, resting his hand briefly on Nicole’s shoulder when he passes her, an obvious sign of his blessing, and Waverly can see Nicole’s face soften at that, even in the dark. “Just make sure you take care of our girl, you hear?”

 

Waverly can see Nicole’s expression change at that, from soft to hopeful, and then to something Waverly can’t quite ascertain the root of, although she thinks Nicole looks sad.

 

Curtis doesn’t seem to notice that, though, or if he does, he takes it for some other meaning, but Waverly has seen enough of Nicole’s expressions now, she’s spent enough time watching her closely. She’s spent enough time seeking to learn as much as she possibly can from the curve of Nicole’s lips and the angle of her shoulders and the way she sighs sometimes when Waverly walks within a few feet of her, to know the difference between Nicole happy and Nicole not .

 

“Have a good evenin’, Deputy,” Curtis says by way of a farewell before Nicole watches him leave. She doesn’t move for a moment, transfixed, Waverly thinks, by Curtis’s words, exactly the same way as they have frozen Waverly herself.

 

He doesn’t stall to talk further, having evidently said everything he needed to say, leaving Nicole alone in the alley for a moment to gather her thoughts. Waverly watches Nicole close her eyes, visibly steeling herself for a conversation she obviously doesn’t think is going to go well, before taking the few steps towards the door.

 

“Nicole,” Waverly asks half-rhetorically, because she can already see that it is her, smiling brightly when the redhead comes a little closer, trying to play nonchalant as best as she can.

 

“Hi,” Nicole says with obvious trepidation, and Waverly can see the flash of something warring within her, slowing her steps to delay whatever inevitability she obviously thinks is about to occur. She still moves for Waverly regardless though, as if bound to her by some invisible ribbon.

 

“Did you pass Curtis?” Waverly asks innocently, trying to play a little dumb so Nicole need not worry about having been overseen or heard.

 

“You didn’t hear us?” Nicole questions in return, tilting her head to the side in a way that makes Waverly’s heart swell .

 

“No,” Waverly answers easily, smiling at Nicole. “Not at all, I’m sorry. Oakley was fussin’ at my feet and I was bent down to her, so I…”

 

Waverly pauses before looking to Nicole, uncharacteristically quiet and uncertain. She softens instead of continuing directly, focusing on the bend of Nicole’s neck and the shade of her eyes, ever so slightly darker than they normally are.

 

“Are you…” Waverly begins, wanting to ask Nicole whether she’s okay. She’s not sure whether that will make things better or worse, and she really doesn’t want to push, so she changes the subject instead to give Nicole a moment’s breathing room. “Would you like to come in?”

 

“Of course,” Nicole says with, Waverly thinks, a nervous note in her voice. “If you’re not up to a visitor however, I can call on you another time?”

 

“Now is fine by me,” Waverly replies, trying to keep the desperation out of her voice, because she wants to do this now, before she loses her nerve. She doesn’t want to wait, even if she’s bone-tired. It’s important for her that she do - speak to Nicole about everything - now. “But if you’d rather…”

 

“No,” Nicole says quietly, shaking her head in a way that tells Waverly that despite Nicole’s own clear discomfort, she’ll acquiesce if it’s something Waverly herself desires. “If you’d like my company, then-.”

 

“Nicole,” Waverly interrupts with equal softness and strength, because she appreciates this, honestly she does, but she won’t keep Nicole here if she really doesn’t want to be here. “I want you to stay because it’s what you want. That’s what I want. I don’t want to put you out or make you in any way uncomfortable, or-”

 

“You’re not,” Nicole says, cutting across Waverly gently, shaking her head again. “I’m sorry, Waverly, it’s just been a day is all. But it’s not fair to bring that to you.”

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” Waverly asks before watching Oakley take herself up the stairs, gesturing for Nicole to join her inside. “I don’t want to presume, but if you’d like to stay, would you…?”

 

“Of course,” Nicole returns with a small smile, and it sounds a little bit more like the person Waverly has come to know when she does. There’s something in the strained timbre of Nicole’s voice that tells Waverly she’s still anxious though and it’s only then, too, that Waverly notices the basket draped over Nicole’s arm, as focussed as she had been on Nicole’s presentation and demeanour.

 

“Gus made me bring something over,” Nicole says a little sheepishly, holding the basket Waverly had just returned to her, now laden again with food. “She said you need to eat, and she’s right, Waverly.”

 

“Not you, too,” Waverly scowls at Nicole playfully before she starts to walk up the stairs behind Oakley. “Perhaps I’ll rescind my invitation, huh?”

 

When she looks back over her shoulder to smile at Nicole, Waverly catches sight of an unfamiliar expression on Nicole’s face that worries her. It makes her take the step quicker, so that she might finally sit Nicole down and ask her what it is that’s troubling her so clearly. They reach the upper floor and Waverly’s thankful she had thought to tidy up before she’d left to see Gus earlier, the room presenting itself similarly to the night previously when Nicole had arrived for their date.

 

“Your room really is lovely, Waverly,” Nicole sighs appreciatively when she takes the final step behind Waverly, looking around the space dimly lit by a few oil lamps Curtis must have turned on when he’d come up a moment before.

 

“Thank you,” Waverly says, smiling quietly, watching Nicole’s eyes move around the room, settling on different parts of Waverly’s heart assembled across the small space.

 

She moves to take the basket from Nicole’s hands and their eyes both fall, distracted, on different parts of one another’s bodies. Waverly’s to the strands of liquid fire draped over Nicole’s shoulder and the almost exquisite softness in her eyes, and Nicole’s across Waverly’s face before falling to the bruise now visible on her arm with the movement of reaching for the basket.

 

Nicole stops everything else, setting the basket down on the table so she can take Waverly’s forearm in her hands. She stops an inch away from the skin, though, remembering where she is and what she's doing, looking to Waverly for consent before she makes contact.

 

“I’m sorry, Waverly. I shouldn’t have assumed,” Nicole says quietly, pausing in her movement, looking to Waverly with an expression that’s so carefully thoughtful, Waverly could cry beneath the weight of it. “May I have a look?”

 

“Of course,” Waverly says with a swift exhalation, not moving her arm, but taking another step to bring the rest of her body towards Nicole’s, to be closer to her.

 

Nicole’s touch is so soft that Waverly barely feels it at first. Her fingers whisper across the skin as she meets Waverly’s gaze, something like confusion settling in her eyes at Waverly’s step forward before she returns her concentration back to Waverly’s arm.

 

“Are you okay?” is the first thing that falls from Nicole’s mouth, not an admonishment for letting this happen, or an accusation that Waverly must have done something to draw this upon herself. “Are you hurt anywhere else? Does it hurt badly now?”

 

“It aches a little, but it’s okay,” Waverly says, wincing ever so slightly when Nicole’s thumb brushes a particularly heavy part of the bruise.

 

“God, I’m sorry, Waverly. I didn’t…” Nicole says quickly, moving to draw her hand away, but Waverly’s free hand closes over it quicker, holding it in place.

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly says, her voice as gentle as Nicole’s touch. “It’s okay, Nicole. It’s nice. It feels nice. Your touch, I mean. Instead of his. I don’t mind yours at all.”

 

“You don’t?” Nicole asks with an uncertain waver in her hands, as well as her breath, looking to Waverly as though trying to ascertain something else from her gaze.

 

“I really don’t,” Waverly assures her, tilting her head to the side to watch Nicole watching her.

 

“He should never have been able to get his hands on you, Waverly,” Nicole says a little fiercely, and the emotion there is plain. “I’m so sorry that he did. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there. I promised you I’d be there for you, that I’d keep you safe, and I…”

 

“Nicole, it isn’t your fault,” Waverly hurries to say, taking Nicole’s hand off her forearm so she can hold it between her own hands. “It wasn’t your fault. It was Champ’s, alright? Only his.”

 

“I know, but-” Nicole tries to reason, but Waverly shakes her head gently, and she stops mid-sentence.

 

“No, buts,” Waverly says with a soft smile. “It was the middle of the day, with people everywhere. No one would have thought he would be so dim as to try and hurt me in plain-sight. I don’t think he thought he was going to until he did.”

 

“I want to knock his ass into the dirt,” Nicole growls quietly, and Waverly can see her concentrating on the way their hands touch, using it, Waverly thinks, to calm herself. “Or worse than. God, the nerve of him.”

 

“I think Gus shares the sentiment,” Waverly replies, trying to infuse her contact over Nicole’s hands with as much calm as she can. “It’s okay, though. I’m okay, I promise.”

 

“But he hurt you,” Nicole says with a heavy sigh, and Waverly can feel the ache of Nicole’s guilt in her own ribs, that she hadn’t been able to prevent it. “He hurt you, Waverly.”

 

“I know, but I’m alright,” Waverly breathes steadily. “And besides, I know it’s not an excuse, but I think I might have provoked him a little. Not intentionally, but…”

 

“What happened to make you think that?” Nicole asks, furrowing her brow in question, and Waverly sees the flash of something across Nicole’s eyes, the hint of what Waverly thinks is realisation.

 

That she knows what it was that had made Champ so angry. Something about them. It must have been something about them . Them, or Nicole, or both.

 

“It was barely anything at all,” Waverly says slowly, choosing her words as carefully as she can while maintaining contact through Nicole’s palms. “I told him I wasn’t his, that I was never going to be his, and he took that to mean… he took that to mean that I must have been… someone else’s .”

 

“Mine,” Nicole says a little distractedly as a look of horror crosses her face. “He thought you were mine . This is my fault.”

 

“No,” Waverly says strongly, tightening her grip on Nicole’s hands. “No, Nicole, this is not your fault. Not at all. Please, I didn’t mean for it to sound like that.”

 

“But…” Nicole begins, her face pale now, her grip slackening beneath Waverly’s with her worry.

 

“No,” Waverly says again, stronger than before. “It’s not your fault at all, but it did… it made me realise how greatly I need to talk to you about somethin’.”

 

If Waverly thought Nicole looked pale before, she looks deathly so now, and Waverly’s actually about to ask her if she needs to sit down, when Nicole speaks with an even shakier voice than before.

 

“Waverly,” Nicole says quietly, trying to draw her hands away from beneath Waverly’s. “It’s okay, you don’t have to… I understand.”

 

“You understand what?” Waverly asks, frowning again, and she tightens her grip on Nicole, not enough to feel oppressive, but enough that Nicole gets the message that she doesn’t want to let go.

 

“That you…” Nicole says a little thickly, and Waverly can feel her shoulders closing in already, trying to protect herself. Although from what, Waverly isn’t entirely sure yet. “That you… that you want to…sever our ties.”

 

“Why would I want to do that?” Waverly asks, genuinely confused, before every inch of Nicole’s behaviour tonight, her nervousness, her quietness, comes crashing down around Waverly’s shoulders. “Oh, god. You think I want to…”

 

“It’s alright, Waverly,” Nicole says stoically, swallowing hard, although Waverly knows it’s a front.

 

She can see the tears already collecting at the corner of Nicole’s eyes, in spite of how much Waverly knows Nicole will be fighting so hard against them. “It’s alright, truly, you don’t have to explain… I can just take my leave of you. I won’t bother you again, I promise.”

 

“Nicole,” Waverly says quickly, when Nicole tries to pull away more insistently, no longer meeting Waverly’s eyes. “Nicole, I don’t want you to go.”

 

That draws Nicole up short, and she stops like stone in place before looking to Waverly with a confused expression of her own.

 

“But…” Nicole utters quietly, her eyes moving over Waverly’s face for some kind of explanation. “But… Champ…?”

 

Waverly’s more than a little furious with herself for allowing Nicole to think for a moment that she had wanted to break off their contact at all, let alone because of Champ’s threats, and she’s even angrier at herself that she hadn’t realised what the clues Nicole had been subconsciously giving her the entire evening, meant.

 

“He’s the reason for this,” Waverly says, her voice soft and her eyes softer. “He’s what made me realise I don’t want to settle for someone like him, Nicole.”

 

“What do you want?” Nicole asks, barely above a whisper, one small grain of hope between her teeth.

 

“I want you , Nicole,” Waverly breathes, and she’s so nervous she feels faintly sick, but it’s worth everything when she sees Nicole’s whole body lift . “I don’t want to settle for someone I’m never going to be happy with. Someone who doesn’t know who I am. I want you .”

 

“You do?” Nicole questions in reply, and it’s so soft, her voice, that it feels like a heartbeat. “But…”

 

“No buts,” Waverly repeats shyly. “I just want you. I want to be by your side, Nicole. No one else’s. I want to be yours, and selfishly, want you to be mine.”

 

“Me?” Nicole says with such an exquisite softness that it makes Waverly’s ribs tense. “You want…”

 

“If you’ll have me, of course,” Waverly says quietly, shrugging her shoulders, dropping her eyes to their still-joined hands. “If you want me. But if you don’t, then that’s alr—.”

 

“I do,” Nicole replies with a glistening in her eyes and relief in her lungs. “Of course I do, Waverly. God, I’ve never wanted anything more in my entire life, but…”

 

But .

 

There’s a but. Waverly’s heart drops at the word, messily on the floor between them, because she was right. There is something there. Nicole doesn’t want her, just like she’d been worried about.

 

“I do,” Nicole affirms softly at the crestfallen look that must appear on Waverly’s face, before trying to finish her thought. “I really do, but… Waverly, have you thought about what this means, havin’ me by your side? Have you thought about what it will do ?”

 

“Thought about it?” Waverly asks, assuming Nicole is referring to the potential stigma associated with a relationship such as the one they’re considering pursuing. “I mean, I know it’s not gonna be easy, that we’ll have to be careful and we can’t be open about everythin’, but…”

 

“It’s more than that, though, Waverly,” Nicole says gently, imploringly, and there’s a pain that appears in her eyes that Waverly hasn’t seen before. “It’s more’n just havin’ to hide from everyone, it’s…if people find out, it can be worse than a few dirty stares down Main Street. There will always be men who want to do this to you, who will want to set you right like Champ does, and no matter how careful we are, that is always gonna be a risk.”

 

“I know it is,” Waverly answers, and she’s not sure, but she thinks it sounds as though Nicole is trying to talk her out of this. “I know all those things, Nicole. I’ve run them through in my head night after night after night since you set foot inside my shop.”

 

“The thing is, though, I’m not sure if you do,” Nicole says softly, and Waverly knows she’s not trying to undermine her, and it’s not that she’s not taking Waverly seriously. She’s worried . Waverly can see clearly how worried she is. “I’m not sure if you’ve thought about what that would be like, to be the object of conflict and hate like that.”

 

“Don’t I?” Waverly asks a little disbelievingly, her eyes widening defensively, and she knows Nicole won’t have thought of it like that, not when she watches another look of horror cross Nicole’s features, but it stings nonetheless.

 

“Oh, god. Waverly, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, of course you have,” Nicole hurries to clarify, her eyes pleading for Waverly’s forgiveness, shaking her head crossly and scowling at herself. “I just mean… it’s different like this. It can be more personal, when someone’s disgusted at you, not at your family. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to cause any offense to you, never ever that, it’s just…”

 

“It’s just, what?” Waverly asks quietly, waiting for Nicole to strike the death-blow to her tenderly-hanging heart.

 

“It’s just…” Nicole starts sadly, and Waverly can tell there’s a physical toll on each word that falls past her lips now. That every single breath hurts her to speak. If only Waverly knew where the origin of the pain was. “I don’t think I can do this again.”

 

“Don’t think you can do what?” Waverly asks, so, so quietly, waiting tremulously for everything to fall apart with Nicole’s answer.

 

“I don’t think I can do this with someone who hasn’t thought all that through,” Nicole says, with tears beginning to well in the corner of her eyes. “Who isn’t totally prepared for the consequences, every single horribly unpleasant one. Who’s gonna run back to safe when those come front and centre, because they’re scared. Because I fell in love with someone who wasn’t. I let my heart run away with me and cloud my judgement, and I fell, hard, and it broke me, Waverly. It broke every single bone in my body, and they took years to grow back.”

 

“What happened?” Waverly asks timidly, because she doesn’t want to cause Nicole any undue stress or pain recollecting what is obviously difficult, but she knows that whatever it is that Nicole’s holding on to, it’s important. “Will you tell me?”

 

“If you want to know?” Nicole offers quietly, dropping her head and breaking their eye contact for a second to give herself a moment’s reprieve. “Of course I’ll tell you.”

 

“I do,” Waverly replies with an equal softness, her thumb sweeping over Nicole’s knuckles. “But only if you feel like you can.”

 

“It’s better now,” Nicole says, sighing a little, and Waverly can tell that the weight of whatever it is, is less of a burden on the curve of her spine now than it was.

 

“You can stop whenever you need,” Waverly returns, conscious of Nicole’s still delicate appearance, and the fact that she really doesn’t want to push Nicole past a point she’s comfortable speaking about.

 

Nicole nods once at Waverly’s offer, smiling a small sad smile and taking a deep breath, squeezing their joined hands to draw strength from their connection, before she begins.

 

“We met young,” Nicole explains, dropping her gaze again. “We were still children when our friendship began. Just past ten years, I think? And we were friends for a long time before somethin’ changed. The first time she kissed me, I was eighteen, under the eaves of her family’s barn, and I couldn’t believe what was happenin’ because I’d spend the last three years pining after her.”

 

Waverly can see that Nicole is somewhere else as she speaks, her eyes in another time, another place, even if her body is here and present with Waverly herself. She watches Nicole swallow heavily, before she breathes and continues.

 

“It was good, for a while, we had a good couple’a years together,” Nicole explains with still-glazed eyes. “She was terrified of anyone findin’ out, but we were still young, so no one batted an eyelash when we spent every wakin’ second with each other. That changed after we both turned twenty, though. She’d had suitors sniffin’ around for the last year or so, pushing back against her parents to facilitate anythin’, under the guise that she wasn’t ready, when it had really been on account of me.”

 

She watches then as Nicole’s expression shifts from nostalgic to something slightly harder.

 

“The night I told her I wanted to be with her forever, and everything changed,” Nicole says with a firmer tone to her words. “I made some passin’ comment, nothin’ serious, and she changed. She panicked, I think. She froze, and said that could never happen because we’d need to be married someday —to men— and we could be friends maybe, but that this would have to stop, because she couldn’t have people find out . I knew she was scared, and I thought it was just a knee-jerk reaction, you know? So I calmed her down a little, reassured her that it wasn’t anythin’ we needed to worry about just yet, because we were young, but things were never the same after that.”

 

Nicole’s tone isn’t spiteful or resentful, as one might expect someone else recounting a tale of abandoned love. But not Nicole. Even faced with a thing like this, she stays calm.

 

“She started worryin’ every time we were seen out together. She stopped holdin’ my hand when we were around others, even though we’d done that for years,” Nicole recounts, looking up to Waverly briefly when Waverly tightens her grip around Nicole’s hands. “I saw the signs. I should’ve done something sooner, but I was in love, and I knew the only thing I could really do was break our bond.”

 

Nicole sighs heavily then. Waverly can feel her lungs creak under the depth of it. She looks to Waverly for a moment, clarity in her eyes breaking through the fog for a second.

 

“Are you alright?” Waverly asks gently, moving a half-step closer to Nicole in an attempt to help with the warmth of her own body. “You don’t have to carry on if you don’t…”

 

“It’s okay,” Nicole affirms, nodding, taking her turn to tighten her hands around Waverly’s.

 

Waverly nods in return, trying not to smile too widely when she notices the way Nicole reacts to her half-step, moving the same distance closer to Waverly. She gives Nicole a supportive little nod of the head, encouraging her to begin again, and Nicole does.

 

“It didn’t take long for it to come to a head after that,” Nicole says factually, and it’s a mild relief to Waverly that she hears very little emotion attached to the tale now, a demonstration that Nicole does seem, and is perhaps, over whomever this was. “Somebody made a passin’ comment about her not bein’ married and spendin’ all her time with me, and did she want to shack up with a woman like those women he’d heard tale of, and she just froze, which, of course, was the worst thing to do.”

 

Nicole pauses for a second, looking to Waverly, checking in, Waverly thinks, to make sure that she’s alright, too. Cognisant maybe that this can’t be easy for Waverly to hear, either. She’s okay, though, so she gives Nicole a little signal of affirmation before she begins to draw things to a close.

 

“His eyes went wider than hers, and the next thing we knew, she was battlin’ the local rumour mill,” Nicole says balefully, a reflection of the town, and not whomever this woman was. “That didn’t last long, though. A day after that happened, she turned up with the hardest look I’ve ever seen on her face and broke our ties. She said that she’d been confused. That she hadn’t known what she’d wanted, but that she knew now. And then she was engaged by the end of the week to one of the boys we’d grown up with.”

 

“Oh, Nicole,” Waverly breathes, stepping closer still, running one of her hands up to Nicole’s elbow and back, because it would have been hard enough snapping their relationship in two, but to have to watch her with someone else must have been torture. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“It’s alright,” Nicole says softly, and while Waverly can tell it hurts to say it, the hurt isn’t a fresh —still enamoured, still attached— hurt. It’s the hurt from an old wound that aches when pushed. Dull, and no longer invasive or controlling, but there as a part of her body still, as it will always be. “It was a long time ago now. I’m… the feelings I once had for her are long gone, and that makes it easier.”

 

“They are?” Waverly asks hesitantly, asking but not asking, the question she so badly wants to ask. “You don’t… you’re not still…”

 

“My feelin’s for her faded to nothing a long time ago, Waverly,” Nicole clarifies in reassurance. “They had to, or I wouldn’t have been able to draw myself from bed every mornin’.”

 

“How long?” Waverly questions, dropping her head to watch the way Nicole’s hands curl so beautifully around her own. “Since you… since that happened?”

 

“I was twenty and one,” Nicole replies with little emotion, as if recounting drops of water on a window after rain. “And I’m older than twenty and five now. God, it feels like so much longer. I feel like the world’s a completely different place now.”

 

“It is. You have me now, after all,” Waverly says sweetly, trying to draw a smile out of Nicole now that her story’s done, but she’s not quite finished.

 

“I know you say that, but…” Nicole begins, cutting herself off mid-sentence, sighing with a grief-heavy frown. “Don’t you see? That’s why I don’t know if I can do it again. What I did with Shae. With someone who hasn’t thought it through. Because it almost killed me with her, but Waverly, with what I feel for you already , I don’t think I’d survive that with you.”

 

Waverly’s heart stops at Nicole’s admission before she takes a breath, a slow trembling one, because this is her chance. This is it. This is her moment, toes over the cliff, for her to throw her bones into the earth with Nicole, forever.

 

“How do you know I haven’t?” Waverly questions with a shaky voice, gathering every scrap of courage, taking a breath and jumping into the abyss for Nicole. She slides her palms up Nicole’s forearm, watching Nicole’s eyes flick up to meet hers like a hawk with the intentional movement. “How do you know I haven’t been thinking about this since I was sixteen years old?”

 

Nicole’s face changes then, her eyes shift from devastated to confused, and then to something Waverly knows is hope . “What do you mean… wait…you have?”

 

“I might not have ever done anythin’ about it,” Waverly says shyly, shrugging her shoulders as she holds on to Nicole’s hands firmly. “But that doesn’t mean I didn’t think about it. Every night in the dark. Imaginin’ what it would feel like for soft lips to touch mine, instead of rough ones.”

 

“You did?” Nicole asks incredulously. “But… you’ve never…”

 

“It wasn’t for lack of wantin’ to, trust me,” Waverly laughs, rolling her eyes in a moment of lightness. “Well, not exactly, anyway. It was just… I never found anybody I wanted to take that risk for, you know? And I know you’re worried about me not thinkin’ this through, the consequences through, but I have, Nicole. I’ve worried about them night after night, wonderin’ if I should abandon what I know my heart wants for somethin’ easier. And do you know what? Do you know what I realised, lying in the dark, night after night, in the bed you’re sleepin’ in now?”

 

Nicole shakes her head simply, obviously not trusting the strength of her voice, which Waverly takes as a signal to continue.

 

“That I didn’t care,” Waverly says easily, and with the words, for the first time in her life, she feels free from a weight she didn’t even know held her to the earth, with its claws in her shoulders. “That when I met the right person, it would be worth it, all those consequences, if they loved me back.”

 

She watches a change fall over Nicole then; something shifts, something changes behind her eyes. Waverly watches Nicole unbind her affection for Waverly, free from the tight shackles she’s had it chained to, not wanting to give them free reign until she knew there was a chance.

 

“And I know that sounds naive, or like I’m just a young dreamer, but I promise you I’m not,” Waverly affirms, because this is important to her. It’s crucial that Nicole know how seriously she’s thought about this for years. “I didn’t come to that easily. I came to that through sweat and tears and despair , but I came to it nonetheless. If you don’t believe me, ask Wynonna about the conversation I had with her a couple’a years ago, because that’s how long I’ve known for sure that I wasn’t gonna settle for a man. You’re new, and my feelin’s for you are new, but my heart, and what it knows it wants... that’s not .”

 

Nicole takes one huge deep breath, rocking back on her heels to accommodate the movement, and Waverly thinks maybe she’s on the edge of tears.

 

“I’m not Shae, Nicole,” Waverly says softly, ducking her head to catch Nicole’s gaze properly, risking the gesture of tilting Nicole’s head back with a finger under her chin. “I know what I’m doing. And I don’t mean any disrespect, but it’s just that I know what I want, and I know what I’m riskin’ to have it. And I don’t know if you’ve felt something similar in your life, but this is it for me. You’re the one I want to risk it for.”

 

She watches as a thought crosses Nicole’s eyes then, and they widen before she stumbles over an explanation.

 

“I’m not… I need you to know, too, that I’m not the kinda’ girl that throws her attention towards the first person that pays her mind,” Nicole clarifies for her, imploring Waverly to see. “I know it might seem like that with me comin’ in here and all, but my feelings for you are… they came on quick as a flash, but they’re real, Waverly, more so than I’ve ever felt before. And I…”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly soothes, stepping in closer still, feeling Nicole’s knee bump gently against her own. She has to tip her head back to retain eye contact like this. “It’s okay, Nicole. I know.”

 

“You do?” Nicole asks so, so, softly, and the vulnerability in Nicole’s voice isn’t like anything Waverly has heard before.

 

“I do,” Waverly nods easily, running her thumb along Nicole’s jaw, and they’re close now; close enough that Waverly can smell the scent of her perfume she’d given Nicole the night before; close enough that if she pushed up off her tiptoes just enough, their lips would meet.

 

They both breathe in the echo of one another, balanced perfectly between present and hope , before Waverly sets her heart in the hollow their bodies create.

 

“I’m all in, Nicole,” Waverly whispers, barely daring to move, lest she break the network of fine lines around them. “I’m yours. I’m all yours. If you want me?”

 

She watches Nicole’s breath catch in her throat, watches her eyes well before biting her lip, and with a movement that stops Waverly’s heart, nods .

 

“I do,” Nicole sighs more than says, and Waverly watches as her face fills with possibility , and she moves further into Waverly’s touch at her jaw. “I’m yours, too.”

 

She has to strain to suppress a dry sob then as her entire body floods with relief, because she wants me, Waverly thinks, she wants me, she wants me, we can do this. Her eyes flood with tears, and she bites her lip and breathes in the smell of warmth radiating off Nicole, closing them before feeling Nicole’s hand hovering an inch off her hip.

 

“Can I…” Nicole asks softly, the puff of her breath moving over Waverly’s lips.

 

She’s not sure if Nicole is asking for permission to kiss her, or touch her, or both, but it doesn’t matter, because the answer is yes either way. Yes, yes, yes, Nicole, yes.

 

Waverly nods slowly, keeping her eyes closed, and it drives this simultaneous want to reach for Nicole, too, before she realises that she can now, she’s allowed to, if Nicole will permit it. She’s so distracted thinking about touching Nicole that she doesn’t notice Nicole’s hand moving to make contact with her hip until Nicole does , and Waverly can’t help jumping a little automatically in response.

 

“I’m sorry,” Nicole says hurriedly, moving to withdraw her hand before Waverly catches it and holds it in place. “I didn’t mean to…”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly returns easily, reassuringly, resetting Nicole’s hand where it was a moment ago, watching Nicole shiver when her hand makes contact. Her reaction is so whole, so satisfying, that Waverly doesn’t even know how they’re both going to survive when they finally touch skin to skin.

 

“I want you to touch me,” Waverly says, her voice quiet, and a little timid with the shift into now unfamiliar territory, and she’s relieved to see Nicole step into the hollow her retreating confidence has left. “I always do, just for the record…”

 

Nicole smiles the loveliest smile Waverly thinks she’s ever seen, before dropping her eyes down to the one hand they still have joined. She turns Waverly’s hand over, moving her fingers for the space between Waverly’s own, and Waverly can’t help but sigh when they settle there perfectly.

 

“I hope you won’t mind that I’ll always check,” Nicole offers sweetly, flexing her fingers to find an even more comfortable position. “Because I’d never want you to think that just because you say yes once, that means I can take whenever I want. I always want this to be what you want, too, Waverly.

 

It’s almost crippling, her kindness, and Waverly’s actually speechless for a second before swallowing heavily, nodding in lieu of a verbal response. She shakes her head to regain control of her faculties after a moment, because it’s important that she articulate just what it means that Nicole has given her choice . And she wants Nicole to know that she has the same in return.

 

“I hope you won’t mind that I will, too,” Waverly says, trying to put as much strength into her voice as she can, because she might be nervous, but that’s no indication that she doesn’t want this more than she wants to breathe.

 

Nicole’s face breaks out in a flawlessly wide smile, and she ducks her head for a moment to hide her blush, before taking Waverly’s other hand in the hand that was, until a second ago, resting over Waverly’s hip.

 

“Well, I hope you know that it’s always alright for you to touch me, Waverly,” Nicole affirms, placing Waverly’s hand, palm up, in the space over her collarbone.

 

She tries to control the shaking of her hand beneath Nicole’s, but it’s so hard when she can feel the pounding of Nicole’s heart beneath her fingertips, and the rise of Nicole’s breast beneath the heel of her palm. The ugly purple of the bruise is forefront in her mind, and she almost withdraws it in embarrassment, before Nicole reads the thought in her head. She takes Waverly’s arm gently, raising the bruise to her lips, stopping just short of touching her for Waverly’s nod, which she gives hurriedly. Nicole smirks a little before moving forward that remaining inch, pressing a featherlight kiss to Waverly’s arm.

 

There had been a tiny breath of pain with the previous touches, but there’s nothing but a tingling that spreads to the ends of her hair with this touch, and her heart stops so solidly she wants to beat her chest in order to prompt it into starting again. And she knows it’s ridiculous, because magic isn’t real, or at least Waverly didn’t think it was, but when Nicole’s lips touch her skin for the first time over that bruise, Waverly swears she can feel the blown vessels knitting themselves back together beneath her skin.

 

Nicole lifts her head after what feels like a lifetime, her eyes setting in place against Waverly’s, and Waverly can’t even think , because Nicole’s setting Waverly’s hand softly back on her chest so she can raise her now-free hand to push a few strands of hair back away from Waverly’s face. And then she’s leaning in, Nicole is finally leaning in, and then she licks her lips and Waverly’s stomach drops, and she’s looking to Waverly with a question, and all Waverly can do is nod yes, yes, yes , before Nicole runs her thumb along Waverly’s jaw, closing her eyes, and Waverly follows suit.

 

She feels the ghost of Nicole’s breath on her lips, and she can feel her moving in, and her heart is thundering like a runaway train, and just when they’re about to kiss, the second they should make contact, Oakley’s sharp bark halts them in place.

 

She barks once, and they freeze, and then she barks twice, and Waverly feels Nicole’s instincts trip, and she pulls her head away sharply - reluctantly, but sharply - to where Oakley has perched herself at the head of Waverly’s bed, presumably barking at something outside the window. Nicole has turned her body toward the source of the noise, but she hasn’t moved her hand from Waverly’s jaw, nor has she unwound her fingers from between Waverly’s own. Oakley begins barking more insistently, though, causing Nicole to turn back to Waverly with a heavily regretful look before she drops her hand from Waverly’s chin.

 

She goes to extract her hand from Waverly’s own, but Waverly holds tight at the movement, keeping their hands intertwined, causing Nicole to beam, before she begins to walk over to Oakley, still holding Waverly’s hand. She’s distantly nervous at whatever it is that’s making Oakley feel uncomfortable like this, but she’s distracted, almost entirely, by the fact that Nicole is holding her hand. The distraction is short-lived, unfortunately, because Oakley begins growling between her barks, menacingly, at whatever is bothering her outside, and it finally drags Waverly from her reverie.

 

“What’s the matter, girl?” Nicole asks in a soothing voice, keeping her distance from Oakley for a moment, lest she give the dog a fright. “Is there somethin’ out there?”

 

They both peer into the darkness, and Waverly doesn’t think she can see anything, but it’s pitch dark now, there aren’t any lights illuminating the street, and the moon is only small, the beginning of a new cycle, so whatever it is Oakley can see, if she can in fact see something, is invisible to Waverly’s eyes.

 

“Can you see anythin’?” Waverly asks, looking to Nicole, easing the frown on her brow from squinting into the darkness.

 

“Not a thing,” Nicole answers, not yet breaking her eyes away from outside, but not breaking away from Waverly’s hand either. “Can you?”

 

“No,” Waverly says with a slight waver in her voice, because she feels like she knows Oakley well enough now to know that she won’t bark unless there’s cause to. “I can’t see anythin’ at all.”

 

Nicole doesn’t bother to ask Oakley the rhetorical question of whether she’s sure she sees something out there to be barking at, because she trusts the pup as much as Waverly does, which does nothing to assuage the prickling hairs on the back of Waverly’s neck.

 

“I think I’d best go out and see if I can find anythin’ untoward,” Nicole says with a sigh, finally looking to Waverly with a sad frown on her brow, like she’d rather anything else in the world than have to move from this moment with Waverly.

 

“But…” Waverly says, before stopping herself halfway through her thought. Because she won’t ask Nicole not to go, because she knows this is Nicole’s calling, searching the dark corners so that other people, so that she , can remain safe, as much as she knows that helping people is her own.

 

“You’ll be alright here,” Nicole says, her eyes softening, looking at what she thinks is fear for Waverly herself in Waverly’s eyes. “I’d never leave you if I didn’t think you’d be safe somewhere.”

 

“It’s not me I’m…” Waverly says with a blush, averting her eyes, because yes, she’s a little unnerved at Oakley’s barking, and to say she wasn’t scared at all would be a lie, but it isn’t herself she’s worried about.

 

It’s Nicole. And she knows Nicole can handle herself better than the vast majority of people in this damn town, but still, Waverly hates the thought of risking it.

 

“It’s you .” Waverly admits shyly, scuffing her foot on the floorboard beneath her toe. “I’m not worried about me, I’m worried about you . And I know you’re… I know you can handle yourself, but…”

 

“It doesn’t stop you from worryin’?” Nicole finishes for her, eyebrow raised, and Waverly smiles at the playfulness in her voice. “Believe me, Waverly, the feelin’s mutual.”

 

“It is?” Waverly asks shyly, looking down to where their hands are still joined before flicking across to Nicole’s other hand, resting reassuringly on the butt of her gun.

 

“Yeah,” Nicole answers wryly, her answer curling up the edge of her lip. “It is. How do you think I feel seein’ that bruise on your arm? Worried, is what. And I hate that you would have been scared, too.”

 

“It wasn’t so bad,” Waverly fibs, her tone nonchalant, biting her lip in an effort to reduce Nicole’s worry, but Nicole sees through the thinly veiled attempt immediately. “Okay, so maybe I was, but I’m alright now. You seem to make everythin’ better.”

 

Nicole visibly softens at Waverly’s admission, and it makes Waverly’s heart feel even more whole than before.

 

“I hope you know you do the same thing to me. You just… everything feels calm, now. Settled,” Nicole admits quietly before something in her changes and a more confident expression settles over her features. “I don't want to leave you, but I want to make sure this is alright. If you don’t want me to go though, I won’t.”

 

“I don't want to stop you from doin’ your job,” Waverly says kindly, tugging Nicole a little closer to her, where they’re standing at the side of her bed. “Go, Nicole. I promise, I’ll be fine.”

 

“You’re sure?” Nicole asks hesitantly, searching Waverly’s face for any sign that it’s not, that Waverly needs her to stay.

 

“I am,” Waverly says, looking up to Nicole with what she hopes is a crystal clear line that says I want you to stay, but I know you need to go. “ You’ll only be outside, and I have Oakley here, just… be careful, will you? Because…”

 

“I’ll be back before you know it,” Nicole says softly, leaning down to press a quick kiss to Waverly’s cheek, freezing her in place, in the very best kind of shock. “You’ll come lock me out and then let me back in again?”

 

Waverly nods before following Nicole down the stairs with Oakley at their heels, Waverly’s constant shadow, just as Gus had said. They reach the hidden door, Nicole doing the honour of pushing it open, before they both breathe deep and peer out into the darkness. They can’t see anything, or at least Waverly can’t, and neither can Nicole, judging by the lack of reaction, and Waverly sighs a little in relief before Nicole turns to her with a frown.

 

“I’m just gonna do a quick scout around the building, alright?” Nicole says calmly, drawing her weapon and checking it’s loaded in readiness for her to face whatever could possibly be out there waiting for her. “I’ll knock three times and say your name if everythin’s alright to let me back in.”

 

Waverly almost goes to ask her under which circumstances it wouldn’t be alright to let her back in before deciding she’s not sure if she actually wants to know, biting her tongue instead. Nicole looks more reluctant now than she was before, looking heavily to Waverly’s slightly furrowed brow, leading Waverly to push her away gently.

 

“Go. The sooner you do, the sooner you can come back,” Waverly offers sweetly, already planning exactly what they could do when she does, her mind playing image after image of Nicole’s hands on her hips and her lips just glancing Waverly’s.

 

Nicole nods firmly, leaving Waverly with one parting reassuring look before disappearing out into the dark of the night. She takes two steps before turning back to Waverly, gesturing for Waverly to close and lock the door, which, with great reluctance, she does.

 

Waverly can just hear the sound of Nicole’s boots on the dirt outside, the echo slow and calming before the steps become more and more distant. She waits a moment before walking to the front of the shop, smiling in relief when Nicole appears at the front window, gun raised, but fine. She does a small circuit of the area outside the shop before turning to shrug at Waverly, gesturing back to the other door and disappearing down the side of the shop again.

 

Waverly walks quickly to meet her, smiling at Nicole’s three knocks and the sound of her name before pushing the door open with her hip in haste. Nicole appears in the door like a storybook vision, her long, loose hair swept roughly back off of her face. The unbuttoned collar and first two buttons of Nicole’s shirt do nothing to stop Waverly’s eye from settling there either, and it’s with an almost visible effort that she has to drag her eyes up and away from the sight.

 

“You’re okay,” Waverly sighs a little in relief, drawing Nicole into the room and bolting the door behind her, smiling as Oakley winds herself excitedly around Nicole’s legs.

 

“Fine,” Nicole beams at Waverly’s expression, happily taking a step toward the hand Waverly offers, outstretched.

 

“Did you see anythin’ out here?” Waverly asks curiously, walking back up the stairs to her room before gesturing to the small table for Nicole to take a seat, which she does, sitting much closer in comparison to her seat across the table last night.

 

“Not a damn thing,” Nicole grouses, running her thumb over Waverly’s knuckles. “No tracks, no noises, no nothin’. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say we were tryin’ to hunt a darn ghost.”

 

Waverly shivers subconsciously at the mention, the hair at the nape of her neck prickling like someone had stepped over her grave.

 

“Everythin’ alright?” Nicole asks with a frown at Waverly’s reaction, and Waverly shakes her shoulders to rid herself of the fleeting spirit.

 

“Fine,” Waverly says, softening her eyes again as the shadow retreats quicker once she feels Oakley’s soft weight settle over her feet. “I’m fine, sorry, Nicole. Just a little worried is all.”

 

“Would you prefer to sleep over at the Inn tonight?” Nicole asks, reaching for Waverly’s other hand, too, and she can’t help but glow at the small, but significant change in Nicole’s level of affection now that she knows she can touch Waverly. “I’m sure Gus wouldn’t mind if you wanted to…”

 

She considers it, honestly she does, but she makes the decision in her head swiftly enough. Because she might be scared, but she’ll be damned if she’ll let it rule or change her behaviour.

 

“Thank you for the offer,” Waverly says carefully, doing her best to sound soothing, squeezing Nicole’s hands lightly in her own. “But I think I’ll stay. I’ll be alright here if I lock the door, and I’ve got Oakley, and I’m sure if I needed to, you’d hear me from across the road. But, if you think I should, then I respect your opinion, too, Nicole, and I’ll go.”

 

“I want what you want,” Nicole says quickly, scooting forward in her chair a little. “And I’d much rather have you there where we can be in the same building, but I’m only…  it’s your choice, Waverly. You’ll be safe enough here, truly, I would insist on you coming over if I didn’t think you were, but… I’ll never tell you that you can’t do somethin’, alright? So if you want to stay, then you’ll stay.”

 

She has to physically smother the urge to crawl across the table top and kiss Nicole for her thoughtfulness, for understanding the importance of Waverly having independence , but she doesn’t want to push, not if Nicole hasn’t tried to replicate the almost-kiss before Oakley started barking, so she stays put and allows her eyes to fill with tears instead.

 

“Thank you,” Waverly says finally, taking her lip between her teeth to calm herself a little. “Thank you for letting me choose. I know it’s silly, but I’ve been fretting for years about losing that, and…”

 

“I’ll never take that from you,” Nicole says a little fiercely, loosening her hold on Waverly’s hands to demonstrate her point. “Never, ever, Waverly. Your life is yours. Yours to choose your own path, okay? And if I’m lucky enough to be on one of the ones you choose, then I’ve hit gold, but if not, then that’s fine, too, because your choice is more important than my own happiness.”

 

“I choose your path,” Waverly breathes, lifting one of Nicole’s hands to her mouth to press a light kiss there, watching with abject satisfaction as Nicole closes her eyes and shivers at the contact. “Our path. If you want that, too?”

 

“Never wanted anythin’ more in my entire life, Waverly,” Nicole admits softly. “And I’d be honoured to walk it with you, if you’ll have me there.”

 

It’s only a small thing, no sweeping declaration of love, but it’s hope. It’s a future and it’s Nicole , and in that moment, Waverly doesn’t think she’s ever been as happy, and judging by the look on Nicole’s face, she wonders if Nicole might just feel the same. Nicole’s hand closes around her own again, and Waverly’s heart lifts clean off the wall of her chest, and she closes her eyes for a moment, wishing to drink in as much of this night as she possibly can, winding the memory of Nicole’s hand in her own into her bloodstream.

 

Nicole looks back to her with a similar expression to the one she thinks is fixed on her own features before Waverly yawns, and the weight of the day, and of the evening, too, comes crashing down around her feet. Something must flash behind her eyes, because Nicole grimaces before looking at her with a concerned frown.

 

“Are you sure everythin’s alright, Waverly?” Nicole asks quietly, looking over Waverly for some sign or signal that something isn’t.

 

“I’m fine,” Waverly says, hiding her second yawn behind the palm she frees reluctantly from Nicole’s hand. “I’m just… It’s been a long day.”

 

She rubs her hand over the bruise on her other arm, the one still connected to Nicole’s, and she winces without thinking to hide the action, which, of course, beautifully attentive Nicole picks up on in an instant.

 

“Is your arm botherin’ you?” she asks with a soft, sympathetic breath, running her thumb over the edge of the bruise behind Waverly’s. “Is it painful? It’s okay to say if it is.”

 

“A little,” Waverly admits, and it’s not a huge pain, but there’s a dull ache somewhere deep in the tissue from being gripped so tightly that is just persistent enough to make her grit her teeth if she focuses on it. “It’s not terribly bad, though, just…”

 

“Can I make you somethin’ for it?” Nicole asks, her eyes brightening at the idea that she might be able to help. “Is there a tea you have on hand? Willow bark is good for pain, isn’t that what you said last night? I could brew you a cup if you tell me where it is?”

 

“Willow bark,” Waverly breathes in slight disbelief at Nicole’s recollection. “Did you…you remembered . You remembered what I…”

 

“Of course I remembered,” Nicole frowns at Waverly’s response, seemingly unable to comprehend why she wouldn’t have. “It was… I mean, I might have forgotten one or two details, but everythin’ you told me about last night was fascinatin’, Waverly.”

 

And she knows Nicole is thoughtful, and she knows Nicole was listening last night, but there’s a difference between listening, and then remembering and retaining information, and Nicole seems to have done all three, likely because she was interested, but more likely because it’s Waverly who was doing the talking.

 

“I can’t believe you…” Waverly utters, still a little flawed, looking to Nicole with wide eyes before she shurgs a little shyly and continues. “I know it sounds daft, but people don’t listen when I talk once they’ve heard what they need to, and certainly not when they don’t. And to have you… It means a lot that you listened, Nicole. More than I can say.”

 

“I’ll always listen,” Nicole says, barely above a whisper, reaching forward to push a strand of Waverly’s hair behind her ear. “Even if it’s the number of boards in the ceilin’ above your head, I’ll always listen.”

 

Waverly drops her eyes to hide a blush that she’s sure will be bigger than any other she’s born across the space of the evening, before Nicole collects her beneath her chin, tipping her head up to look Nicole in the eye. “Now, willow bark for pain, was I right?”

 

“Yes,” Waverly affirms with a nod, smiling at Nicole, not sure how she’ll ever actually stop . “Yes, you’re quite right. I have some in one of the small containers on the dresser, but you don’t have to… I mean, I’ll be just fine, or I can make it myself.”

 

“I don’t mind at all,” Nicole says sweetly, tilting her head to the side, and Waverly knows in that moment that she doesn’t. She really, really doesn’t. That she wants to do some small kind thing for Waverly in a way that so few people have ever done before. “Will you walk me through it? I’m sure I could manage, but I want to make sure it’s drinkable , so…”

 

Waverly laughs, they both do, both blushing before Nicole moves to stand, walking over to where Waverly had indicated a moment ago, holding up the jar Waverly had pointed to last night when she’d been telling Nicole about it. “This is the one?”

 

“Good memory,” Waverly sighs, setting her elbow on the table and placing her chin in her hand as she watches Nicole move around her room, so perfectly at home that Waverly could be forgiven for thinking she’d been there their entire lives.

 

“What do I need to do?” Nicole asks with a wrinkled brow, the tip of her nose adorably scrunched as she holds the foreign object in her hand. “Set the kettle to boil, and then…?”

 

“Just put a little pinch of those leaves in the cup to steep in the boiling water,” Waverly says, smiling as she watches Nicole begin to attend to the task with unrivalled intensity. “And then bring it over to me.”

 

“That’s all?” Nicole asks curiously, looking to Waverly with a slightly amused smirk. “Well, not all . I know it probably took you hours to make the mixture, but…gosh, I’m sorry, Waverly, that makes me sound like I don’t appreciate what goes into this at all.”

 

“You’re very sweet when you worry yourself about somethin’,” Waverly says a little forwardly, curious to see how her words affect Nicole, what her reaction is, before reaching for the steaming mug that Nicole offers her. “Did you know that?”

 

“You think so?” Nicole asks, genuinely taken aback, her hands freezing in place around the mug when Waverly’s cover her own in the action.

 

“I really do,” Waverly nods coyly, running her thumbs along the line of the delicate bones in Nicole’s hands.

 

“I am sorry, Waverly, I didn’t mean to do a disservice to your…” Nicole offers, her voice a little quick with the panic that she might have offended Waverly with her comment.

 

“I know,” Waverly says soothingly at Nicole’s half-sentence, her eyes kind. “I know you a little, you know? Not well, not as well as I’d like. Not as well as I hope I will , but…”

 

She’s quiet for a moment, because all of a sudden she wants to show Nicole just how all in she is, because Nicole has been brave, Nicole has taken so many first steps for her, and Waverly wants to pay her back in kind.

 

“Will you go on another date with me?” Waverly asks suddenly, looking up to Nicole with wide, hopeful eyes. “I want to take you home. I want to show you my home. I want to know everything, Nicole. If you want that, too.”

 

For a moment she thinks Nicole might cry or sob or something, because her face breaks into an emotion akin to pure joy, and she nods, biting her lip softly.

 

“Yes,” Nicole replies simply. Beautifully. “I’d like that very much.”

 

“You would?” Waverly asks, her voice relief-heavy, easing out her hard-held breath. “I mean…”

 

“Of course I would,” Nicole says with glassy eyes, reaching to cover both of Waverly’s hands around her mug. “I’d be honoured to go home with you, Waverly.”

 

“You would?” Waverly returns simply, not expecting the reaction from Nicole that she’s received at all . Anticipating instead some halted reluctance or a flat out denial, not jubilant acceptance.

 

“I would,” Nicole replies again, breaking out in a blush. “I think I’m gonna request to do a night shift tomorrow night, but maybe the one after? If that works for you?”

 

“I appreciate the sentiment, but there’s no way that invite is gonna change,” Waverly says confidently, playfully, holding Nicole’s gaze as she moves one of her hands from around her mug to run up Nicole’s forearm again.

 

The goosebumps that break out in the wake of her hand are one of the loveliest things Waverly has ever seen in her entire life —satisfying, too— and she’s a half-second from scooting closer to Nicole when a sizeable yawn leaves her lungs.

 

“You’re exhausted,” Nicole says kindly, taking her hands back so she can hold Waverly’s arm gently, running her fingers over the bruise again. “I really should take my leave and let you rest.”

 

“You don’t have to leave just yet. I’m not that close to sleep,” Waverly offers with a rushed breath before another yawn flows out between clenched teeth.

 

“I think if I don’t, you’ll be asleep at this table in less than a few minutes,” Nicole laughs softly. She must see something in Waverly’s eyes she doesn’t quite mean to portray, though, because Nicole bends a little toward Waverly then, leaning in low. “Are you sure you don’t want to come across the road?”

 

“I’m sure,” Waverly replies, smiling at Nicole’s flawless thoughtfulness. “I’ll be just fine, and as much as I don’t want you to go, I think you’re right. I'm sure it’s not overly charmin’ at all to fall asleep in front you.”

 

“I think you’re plenty charmin’, Waverly Earp,” Nicole replies instead, with a tone in her voice that Waverly hasn’t heard from Nicole, and it takes her a moment to place it, but when she does, it sends a shock through her stomach somewhere deeper.  

 

Hunger , Waverly thinks to herself. Want. I think that’s want.

 

“Well, I think you’re plenty charmin’ yourself, Nicole Haught,” Waverly says with a playfully shy sigh, because she doesn’t know how to do any of this, courting a woman, being courted by a woman, if that is what they’re doing now.

 

But she knows she wants it.

 

Nicole looks to her, holding her gaze without breaking it for what feels like minutes, or maybe hours, before shaking her head with a smile.

 

“If I don’t leave now, I don’t think I’m gonna,” Nicole says, reluctantly dragging herself away from the table a little.

 

“I wish you didn’t have to,” Waverly means to say internally, but by the surprised and pleased look on Nicole’s face, she verbalises it, too.

 

“So do I,” Nicole says, brushing off the front of her light trousers as she stands. “But imagine the gossip if I didn’t.”

 

The comment is meant playfully, but the insinuation, not of the town finding out, but of Nicole staying , sends that line of lightning down Waverly’s belly again. Nicole takes it for the other, though, apologising before Waverly shakes her head.

 

“I’m not worried about people findin’ out,” Waverly says, standing as well, a little distracted as her mind wanders elsewhere. “I promise, Nicole. Not that at all , I’m…”

 

Nicole looks puzzled for a second before the realisation of what Waverly is referring to strikes her, and the blush already present spreads across her cheeks, down her neck, and to the small triangle where the top of her shirt is unbuttoned, deepening Waverly’s blush, as well.

 

“Oh,” Nicole says simply, and the blush covering them both deepens. “You mean…”

 

“I’m sorry,” Waverly returns, jumping quickly to apologise. “I didn’t mean to…”

 

“It’s quite alright,” Nicole says once she manages her conscious thought a little better, regaining full control of her expressions before she lowers her voice, barely above a whisper. “If I could be so bold, my mind didn’t go somewhere dissimilar .”

 

The lightning bolt cracks again, and Waverly balls her hands into fists for a moment at her sides, catching the way Nicole’s eyes flick to them.

 

“I’m…I’m not sure how to do this. I know that I want to, but…” Waverly says shyly, balling and unballing her fists, because she wants this, but she doesn’t know the protocol.

 

Because she’s never really done this ever, let alone with a woman, and she’s not sure how much she can say or do that isn’t crossing a line. But she needn’t have worried for a second, because before she can utter another slightly drawn syllable, Nicole sweeps in with strong arms to catch her.

 

“I’ll show you everythin’ else,” Nicole says with a smile that’s warm, but it’s something else, too. “All you need is the want, alright?”

 

And Waverly sighs in relief, because she wants this, she wants it, and that’s all that matters. Nicole can lead her gently through the rest, with their fingers intertwined, and their hearts, too. Waverly takes a step towards her, reaching for Nicole’s hand like it's something they’ve practised a thousand times with their eyes closed, as Nicole bends without thought, meeting Waverly mid-step.

 

“I really should go,” Nicole says, taking a step back in the same breath, and Waverly can’t help but be a little disappointed, because they’d been leading to some kind of conclusion for the night before, and she feels like they’re on the precipice now, but Nicole obviously must not.

 

Or she’s holding back for some reason.

 

“Of course,” Waverly says, trying to school the disappointment out of her features. “Of course, I’ll see you out.”

 

And she understands, because the moment had mostly passed when Oakley had alerted them to whatever was outside, but Nicole’s right here, and they’ve talked now, they’re on the same page. But Nicole’s obviously not stepping forward for a reason, be it exhaustion, or the bruise on her arm and Champ’s shadow in the corner of the evening, or something . And Waverly wants to respect that. Whatever it is.

 

Nicole smiles gently, warmly, before bending down to pick Oakley up and press a little kiss to the top of the pup’s head and setting her back on her feet.

 

“Goodnight, shadow,” Nicole says to Oakley affectionately, leaning to pat her one last time. “You take care of Waverly, you hear me?”

 

Oakley yaps once, as if demonstrating that she understands, and both Waverly and Nicole laugh softly in reply. Nicole makes for the stairs in the second that follows, turning back to make sure Waverly is following her. They stop at the bottom of the stairs, and Waverly’s not sure how to proceed until the perfect thought enters her mind, and she reaches for Nicole’s hand.

 

“Thank you,” Waverly says simply. Kindly. Her body flooding suddenly with light. “Thank you for comin’ here tonight. Thank you for talkin’ to me. Thank you for trustin ’ me, Nicole. Thank you for… well, thank you for everythin’.”

 

“Thank you?” Nicole says, as though not quite able to comprehend what it is Waverly is saying. “Waverly, I think I should be thankin’ you for everythin’ you’ve done for me since I walked into town. Lettin’ me into your life, showing me kindness, and now…”

 

“You’re welcome,” Waverly says graciously, ducking her head and swinging their joined arms. “Will I…will I see you in the morning?”

 

“Of course,” Nicole replies, her voice easy and her hand steady in Waverly’s own, taking a step, Waverly notes, towards her again. “You’d be the first person I’d see if I could. You might be, if I beat Gus up before dawn.”

 

“I’d like that,” Waverly says coyly, moving towards the warmth of Nicole’s body. “I’d like that very, very much.”

 

“Good night, Waverly Earp,” Nicole bids her with a smooth silky note to her words as she steps finally away to push the door open, a sound that Waverly thinks she could get lost in. That she is getting lost in. “I hope you sleep well.”

 

“And you, also,” Waverly says sweetly in return, pulling the door back for Nicole to take a step through. “And Nicole…thank you again for tellin’ me about Shae.”

 

Nicole stops still in place, halfway in her movement to turn towards the door. She turns her body into Waverly’s, placing her hand on the door just above Waverly’s left ear. She bends down and her lips brush the top of Waverly’s ear, and shivers break over every inch of her body, only more concentrated when Nicole finally speaks. “Thank you for listenin’.”



-



Euphoria.

 

That’s what snakes its way around her wrists and across the small of her back as she kneels on her bed, watching Nicole walk across the road back to the Inn.

 

Oakley sits on the foot end of her bed, curled in a small ball atop the soft blankets, once again, at Waverly’s relaxed demeanour, fast asleep. Nicole’s steps are steady and calm as they cross the road, although there’s a waver in her step, just before she pushes through the Inn door, when she looks up for Waverly at the window, and Waverly sees a flash of something less calm.

 

Something more excited. Something, Waverly thinks, she can see still in the dead of night.

 

Regardless of whether she had or hadn’t kissed Waverly, Nicole, even in the dark of a new moon light, looks euphoric.

 

Hope , Waverly thinks calmly. Because Nicole likes her, because Nicole wants to show her everything, because Nicole told her everything, and she couldn’t have dreamed of a better reaction or ending to the evening if she had a thousand years ahead of her to ponder it through.

 

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