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find a home, lonely heart

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NICOLE'S POV

 

-



The day feels brighter somehow when Nicole opens her eyes the next morning.

 

She wakes before the sun rises, stretching her arms above her head in a motion that makes her spine crack with relief before her breath comes out in a rush. Her heart feels buoyed today, and she still can’t quite believe she and Waverly actually had the conversation they’d had last night, because it feels almost too good to be true. Because they hadn’t continued to miscommunicate, they’d talked and listened and they’re something to one another now.  

 

Nicole’s not sure what yet, but they’re something .

 

And no, she doesn’t know exactly what that something is, but it’s okay, it’s okay , because Waverly Earp isn’t interested in Champ Hardy, or anyone else in this town, man or woman, she’s interested in Nicole Haught.

 

She wishes so badly she could have finished their small, but significant impromptu date with a kiss, she really, really does, and she thinks Waverly had wanted that, too, if the disappointed look on her face when Nicole hadn’t followed through was anything to go by, but it just hadn’t felt right . Because as much as she’d really wanted to, the whole night felt just slightly tainted by Champ Hardy and his damn manhandling, and she hadn’t wanted that milestone, them kissing for the first time, to be shared with anything as distasteful or horrible as that.

 

So she’d settled on the second best thing instead, on trying to leave Waverly with a little reminder of what it would feel like when they did, and hoped that would be enough to suffice. For now.

 

Until their next date, Nicole thinks. Their next date that Waverly has initiated. It would be the lie of the century if Nicole said she hadn’t been absolutely floored by Waverly’s invitation out to the homestead, because she’d already been planning a few ideas in her own head about how she might go about asking Waverly to spend another evening with her, but then the moon had changed, and Waverly had asked her , and she couldn’t have been more thrilled. The gesture itself is sweet, but it’s more than that for Nicole, it shows how much Waverly wants this, how much she’s willing to step outside her comfort zone for Nicole, because she’d seen Waverly’s nerves loud and clear, but Waverly had asked her anyway.

 

Waverly had asked her, and Nicole’s knees had almost gone weak, because never, in any world, would Shae have asked her the same thing. Never, ever would Shae have put her heart on the line like that; she only ever waited for Nicole to do it first.

 

I’m not like Shae, Waverly had said, and Nicole had known before, but she knows now. She knows how different they are in every single aspect of their personalities, but in their courage, too; in their braveness. Because Shae was a church mouse most of the time, and that was fine, Nicole would never have asked her to change a thing, but Waverly Earp is a lion , and Nicole loves her for it.

 

She knows it’s early to use that word, love , and she won’t until she knows Waverly is ready to hear it, but she already knows her feelings for Waverly run deeper and stronger than anything she’s ever felt in her life. It’s easy to drag herself out of bed this morning, because she knows what waits for her across the road, someone who wants to see Nicole perhaps as badly as Nicole wants to see her.

 

The way Waverly had shivered when Nicole had touched her lips to Waverly’s cheek last night —a small consolation, but still something— had been extraordinary, and Nicole thinks she’ll remember the sensation for the rest of her life. That’s what draws her out of bed, swinging her legs over to the side before standing and stretching again, the feeling of Waverly’s body next to hers, close enough to touch. Close enough to…

 

There’s a faint glow over the horizon, but it’s some time before the sun will rise fully, and Nicole is worried she might have to wait and bide her time before calling on Waverly, but one quick glance out the window reveals a soft candlelight glow, and Waverly’s silhouette moving around the room slowly behind the drawn curtain.

 

She’s awake , Nicole thinks, almost sighing in relief at the sight. I wonder if she could feel me thinking about her.

 

Nicole takes her time getting dressed this morning, not wanting to appear at the front door earlier than Waverly might be ready to receive her. She draws on a clean pair of trousers and a shirt that Gus had washed and dried for her the day prior, before pulling her waistcoat on and wrapping Waverly’s bandana around her neck, as well. She tidies her room a little before finally taking herself downstairs. The front desk is, for one of the first times since Nicole started laying her head down upstairs, empty.

 

There’s a delicious smell ebbing from the kitchen, though, so Nicole surmises that Gus must be preparing breakfast instead. A quick look into the kitchen confirms her thought, and she goes to give Gus a quick wave before stopping herself, not wanting to disturb the older woman as she concentrates, probably enjoying one of the small moments of peace she gets to experience during the day. She resolves to call back and pick some food up if she needs to a little later in the morning instead, the few bits of dried food in her satchel that Gus had given her the day before more than enough to tide her over until then.

 

The air is crisp this morning, but Nicole doesn’t mind at all, breathing in the chilled surroundings with a gratifyingly half-awake sigh before walking the short distance to the front of Waverly’s shop, pleasantly surprised to see Waverly walking down the stairs with Oakley at her heels as she approaches.

 

Waverly catches sight of Nicole the second she looks up from her feet when she reaches the bottom step, smiling widely in reply to Nicole’s small wave and walking smoothly over to the front door. She holds Nicole’s eye the entire time as she bends down to loosen the bottom bolt and reaches up on her tiptoes to release the top, so Nicole is a little breathless when Waverly finally does open the door.

 

“Good mornin’,” Waverly offers, holding the door open, peering out behind Nicole for any sign of anyone else before leaning forward to tug Nicole by the hand into the shop.

 

Nicole beams in response to the small show of affection, happily allowing herself to be pulled inside. Waverly takes a step back to accommodate Nicole’s entrance, but not one further, so when Nicole does move forward, she finds herself nice and close to Waverly.

 

“Good mornin’ to you, too,” Nicole says happily, turning Waverly’s hand in her own and winding their fingers together. “Did you sleep well?”

 

“Very,” Waverly replies, nodding as she looks to drink in as much of Nicole as she can. Her eyes move over Nicole’s face with a soft relief, as though worried Nicole and last night might have been a dream, before returning the question. “You?”

 

“Surprisingly well, too,” Nicole answers honestly, because she’s surprised she slept at all with how full of light she was when she did finally return to the Inn.

 

“Surprisingly?” Waverly asks with a furrowed brow, tilting her head adorably to look at Nicole. “What do you mean?”

 

“Oh,” Nicole says a little taken aback, not having expected Waverly to ask why exactly. “Well, honestly? I think I was so happy, I wondered if I’d sleep at all, but I guess it put my mind at ease instead, and knocked me right out.”

 

“Oh,” Waverly replies, a blush falling over her cheeks. “You were happy, after…”

 

“‘Course I was,” Nicole says shyly, shrugging her shoulders, suddenly feeling a little on display. “Weren’t you?”

 

“Very much so,” Waverly replies with a smile, her eyes refocusing on Nicole. “I think it’s why I slept so soundly myself.”

 

That makes Nicole smile even wider, and she looks - properly looks - at Waverly for the first time that morning. Her hair is still down, such as her haste or distraction must have been this morning, and she’s wearing a different skirt today, similar, but a darker khaki, with a clean, cream-coloured shirt.

 

“You look beautiful,” Nicole says easily, without actually stopping or thinking over the appropriateness of her comment.

 

“You think so?” Waverly replies with a deeper blush as she drops her gaze to their feet, obviously a little taken aback by Nicole’s comment. “I haven’t even done my hair yet, or…”

 

“It looks lovely down,” Nicole assures her, because it does, and she half-wishes Waverly didn’t have to tie it up to keep it out of the way during the day. “I like it like that very much, if I may be so bold.”

 

“I think you may,” Waverly returns coyly, looking up to Nicole again, a sweet pink covering her neck now, too. “Are you sure you do? Because once Champ saw it down, and he said I looked…”

 

“Champ Hardy is an asshole,” Nicole says a little fiercely, cutting Waverly off gently. “And he doesn’t know anythin’, alright? I know I’m not the fountain of knowledge in this big, wide world, but I know better than him, at least in this, and I think you look beautiful.”

 

“I don’t know how I’m ever gonna get used to this, you know?” Waverly replies with a sigh that Nicole can feel in her fingers, too.

 

“Get used to what?” Nicole asks, her turn to be slightly puzzled as she looks to Waverly.

 

“Havin’ someone say such nice things to me all the time,” Waverly says back, and Nicole’s heart twists in her chest because it kills her that Waverly doesn’t have someone in her life that shows her small kindnesses like this already.

 

“Well, you’d best get used to it,” Nicole says easily, turning their hands over so she can draw small shapes on Waverly’s palm. “Because, I’m sorry to say, it’s only gonna get worse.”

 

“Worse?” Waverly asks, and Nicole can see her trying to suppress the shiver at Nicole playing with her hand.

 

“Worse,” Nicole nods solemnly, but playfully, teasing Waverly a little. “Much worse, I’m afraid. Because now that I’m allowed to say things like that to you, I don’t know how I’m ever gonna stop .”

 

Waverly looks lost for words for a minute, only able to smile a wide, awestricken smile back at her, but Nicole doesn’t mind at all.

 

“Now,” Nicole says breaking the small moment reluctantly. “I’m afraid to say, as much as I’d far prefer to stay here for the rest of the day, I have to take my leave to see if I can talk Nedley into givin’ me a night shift tonight, so we can have tomorrow night to… so I don’t have to be worried about bein’ called in unexpectedly.”

 

“It’s fine,” Waverly returns airily, still distracted by the ghost of Nicole’s touch in her hand before she shakes her head to correct her attention. “I mean, I’d much rather have you here, too, but I understand. And I’d be terribly happy to have your company tomorrow night, but if you can’t…”

 

“I’ll be free,” Nicole says quickly, smiling easily at Waverly. “I promise, I’ll be free.”

 

“I was goin’ to offer to make you a cup of tea,” Waverly says sweetly, swinging her hands Nicole has since released to her side. “But if you have to go, perhaps I can propose the offer later? Just in case you needed motivation to call again.”

 

“You know I don’t need a scrap of motivation beyond what you already provide,” Nicole says wryly, smiling down at Waverly looking up to her with a beautifully innocent expression.

 

“Well, I didn’t think so, but I guess it never hurts…” Waverly shrugs innocently, and Nicole can’t help but beam in return.

 

“This mornin’?” Nicole asks, her voice hesitantly hopeful. “Later, I mean? If that’s not too soon? I can call again on my way back from callin’ on Nedley? I might swing past Mattie’s to see Lady Jane, but that’s about all. I’ll be right back here if you’ll have me after?”

 

Waverly is silent for a moment before her face turns in a frown, and Nicole isn’t quite sure what she’s said wrong until Waverly opens her mouth to speak.

 

“Lady Jane?” Waverly asks curiously, delicately trying to keep the sound of mild hurt and confusion out of her voice. “Who is…”

 

Nicole laughs, and she knows she shouldn’t, but she can’t help herself, because it’s mildly hilarious, the thought that Lady Jane is anything other than Nicole’s horse. A brilliant, constant companion, and perhaps her oldest friend now, but still…a horse.

 

“I’m sorry,” Nicole says apologetically, trying to soothe the frown on Waverly’s face, holding her hand when Waverly moves to take it from Nicole’s. “I’m sorry, Waverly, it’s just… Lady Jane is my…”

 

“Old friend?” Waverly interjects softly, her voice sad and a little worried. “An old…lover?”

 

“My horse,” Nicole says plainly, not wanting to cause Waverly any more undue stress. “Lady Jane is the name of my horse.”

 

Waverly blanches before blushing deeply, dropping her head before looking up to Nicole with a guilty look on her face.

 

“Your horse?” Waverly asks, embarrassed, her blush only deepening. “Lady Jane is the name of your horse.”

 

“No old lover - or recent lover - in sight, I assure you,” Nicole says soothingly.

 

“I’m sorry, Nicole,” Waverly says with a clear look of regret. “I’m so sorry, I should never have assumed.”

 

“It’s quite alright,” Nicole replies earnestly, raising Waverly’s hands in hers. “I’m terribly sorry to have concerned you. Let me assure you, though, there isn’t another soul in my heart apart from you. I promise. Except for perhaps Oakley and Lady Jane.”

 

“You’re sure?” Waverly asks, her eyes soft and uncertain, and she knows it’s not Waverly’s distrust of her that’s driving the need to ask, it’s the lack of assurance from others in her life before Nicole.

 

“More than,” Nicole says easily, trying to breathe some of her own confidence about the matter into Waverly through the point where their hands meet. “As sure as I am that there won’t ever be again.”

 

Nicole speaks the words without meaning to, really, and she’s terrified she’s overstepped the point beyond which Waverly might be comfortable speaking about, but one quick look to Waverly’s face assures her that there’s nothing at all to worry about, because Waverly looks like she might just leave the earth altogether if it weren’t for Nicole’s hand in her own.

 

“You are?” Waverly asks softly, incredulously, her eyes and hopeful. “You really…”

 

“I am,” Nicole says smoothly, because it’s the simplest thing to admit surenesses like this to Waverly now, only a simple translation of what her heart already knows.

 

Waverly looks like she’s about ready to kiss Nicole, or throw herself into Nicole’s arms or something, and Nicole isn’t sure she’ll have the self-restraint to stop anything now, not with how close Waverly is standing and how loud her own heart is in her ears, but a noise from outside causes them to move apart instead, Nicole dropping Waverly’s hands with a massive reluctance.

 

“No such thing as to soon,” Waverly says with a shy smile, referring to Nicole’s earlier comment about calling in on her, before reaching discretely for Nicole’s hand, gripping tight for a moment. “If I had my way, you’d never leave at all , so…”

 

“That so?” Nicole replies, raising an eyebrow and smiling at Waverly’s slight forwardness, buoyed, Nicole is sure, by Nicole’s revelation and Waverly’s newfound confidence in their connection. “Well, I wouldn’t either, just so you know. Maybe I should tender my resignation, in fact; spend the days here with you instead.”

 

“I’m sure you’d make a wonderful assistant,” Waverly beams at Nicole’s admission before letting Nicole’s hand drop to her side gently.

 

“I’d be terrible, I think,” Nicole laughs a little, transfixed by the way Waverly keeps fixing her bottom lip between her teeth.

 

“You would not,” Waverly scolds Nicole lightly. “I’m sure you’d be wonderful.”

 

“It would be to your own demise to test that, I’m afraid,” Nicole smiles, amused by the horrified expression on Waverly’s face. “My old Sheriff used to say he’d no idea how I was so graceful half the time, and so clumsy the other. Like I had two people in my body.”

 

“I guess it’s lucky you’re so darn adorable then, huh?” Waverly says nonchalantly, turning back with a smirk to gage Nicole’s reaction.

 

“I think you’ll find you’re far more deservin’ of that particular endorsement,” Nicole says sweetly, drawn closer to Waverly again by an invisible hand at her lower back.

 

“We’re goin’ to have to agree to disagree on that point I’m afraid then, Deputy Haught,” Waverly says, smirking at the eyebrow Nicole raises in disbelief.

 

Time suspends it’s eternal march for moment as Nicole looks past the front of Waverly’s eyes, somewhere much deeper, swallowing hard at the confidence she can see there, in Waverly’s feelings for her, and she could stay and watch all day long, until the sun sets and rises again, but she knows in order to do that tomorrow night, she has to leave now.

 

“I have to…” Nicole says with as little weight as she’s ever heard in her own voice, because she really doesn’t want to leave.

 

“I know,” Waverly smiles easily, her own voice much lighter than Nicole’s reluctant one. “Later?”

 

“Later,” Nicole promises, nodding before looking over Waverly with a faintly dreamy sigh.

 

She takes a step, crouching down to bid Oakley farewell also, sitting obediently at her master’s feet, before finally moving towards the door, her heart almost falling clean from her chest when she does so, because Waverly raises her hand to her mouth, blowing Nicole a perfectly subtle kiss, and Nicole’s heart swells .

 

Waverly gives her one last wink before pushing her from the shop with a gesture, and Nicole doesn’t lose her smile the whole walk to the jail.



-



It’s quiet when she steps through the door, only Nedley there, obviously having just relieved the overnight deputy, which Nicole is immensely thankful for, given her desire to be here so early.

 

“Haught,” Nedley says by way of a morning greeting, looking up to give her one quick nod before returning to whatever it is he’s looking over, thumbing through old-looking papers set in front of him.

 

“Mornin’ sir,” Nicole returns with an inclination of her head. “Any news?”

 

“Not at all,” Nedley looks up to her and sighs, although Nicole thinks he looks slightly impressed at that being the first thing she asks. “You notice anythin’ odd last night?”

 

She’s about to say no, when Oakley’s little reaction springs to the forefront of her mind, and she opens her mouth to recount the story to Nedley.

 

“Actually, sir, there might have been somethin’, although I couldn’t actually see anythin’ when I went out to look,” she says, watching his eyes flick up in interest.

 

“Where were you?” he asks, abandoning the papers in front of him and giving Nicole his full attention. “What happened?”

 

“I was…” Nicole starts and then trails off, not sure how to proceed before recognising that honesty is probably better than a half-truth. “I was up at Miss Earp’s, sir, seein’ her home safe after bein’ out, and the pup I found for her a few days ago that we’ve come to learn is an exceptional measure of danger, was fine one minute, and then she just started barkin’ at somethin’ outside.”

 

“And?” Nedley asks her eagerly, his eyes hard and worried, but intrigued.

 

“Nothin’,” Nicole says with a deep frustration, shrugging heavily. “I went and had a reasonably thorough scout outside, and I couldn’t see a damn thing. Couldn’t hear a damn thing, either, but I know Oakley must have seen somethin’. She doesn’t make a sound unless she thinks some harm is about to come to Waverly.”

 

“What time was this?” Nedley asks, scratching at his chin. “Early evenin’ or late?”

 

“Not late, but not early, neither,” Nicole replies with a frown. “Early enough that someone could have been out, but late enough that most people wouldn’t be.”

 

“Did you have a look around this morning?” Nedley questions again.

 

“A brief one, sir,” Nicole admits, because she had looked a little when she’d left the Inn, but honestly, her mind had been more on Waverly than anything else. “But I could definitely have another one, more thorough, if you’d like?”

 

“I think it’s probably not a stupid idea,” he grumbles before looking to Nicole. “What do you think, Haught? Or you think the night’s swept away any trace?”

 

“No, I think it’s always worth another look,” Nicole says in agreement of his idea. “You might turn up nothin’, but what if you don’t?”

 

“Exactly what I was thinkin’,” Nedley growls, nodding at Nicole’s answer. “You think you could do that sooner rather’n later? I’d imagine you’re eager to check on your horse, too, after your long day yesterday. Go and see her first if you want, but make it a priority after that?”

 

“Of course, sir,” Nicole says, nodding eagerly, almost forgetting the question she’d wanted to ask in the first place. “Actually, Sheriff, there was somethin’ I wanted to ask, if I could?”

 

“‘Course, Haught,” Nedley replies with a surprised look. “What is it?”

 

“I completely understand if not, but I was wonderin’ if I might be able to work the night shift tonight? I know I won’t be rostered on to a whole run for a while, but I’d like to do a night, just to see? And I kinda had plans tomorrow night, too, and I was hopin’ by doin’ tonight, I might have that off? Just in case I was rostered on.”

 

Nedley looks like he wants to ask her a question before reason gets the better of him and he nods in reply.

 

“‘Course, Haught. Jed is due to run things tonight, and I’m sure he’ll be more’n happy with the night off. I’ll make sure I’m here to walk you through things before we leave you to it,” Nedley says easily, and Nicole’s heart sighs in relief, the tension in her stomach relaxing in relief.  

 

“Thank you, sir,” Nicole says gratefully, nodding respectfully. “I appreciate the flexibility. And I promise it won’t be a regular occurance, it’s just…”

 

“Nicole,” Nedley stops her gently, raising his hand. “My people have lives, I understand that easily enough. You never have to feel like you can’t ask for somethin’ like that, alright? Besides, I’m glad to see you’re makin’ friends already after such a short time, too. I hope that means you’re plannin’ on stayin’ around here.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” Nicole replies with a soft smile, her pulse beating quicker at my people, and the fact that Nedley clearly has some desire to have her stay here, because by some ridiculous happenstance, Nicole feels like she might just have found herself another family here in Purgatory. “Truly. And, you know, I think I will settle here awhile, sir. Seems to me like a fine place to put down roots.”

 

“Glad to hear it, Deputy. Now, I suppose you’d best be off to get yourself back into bed before long,” Nedley says, taking Nicole’s compliment before shrugging it off, clearly uncomfortable with the kind words. “Would you mind havin’ a look around first? Don’t worry about comin’ to report it back unless it’s somethin’ important. You can fill me in tonight if it’s not.”

 

“Absolutely, sir,” Nicole responds, the feeling of elation high in her chest. “I will.”

 

“Off with you, then,” Nedley says, shooing her out with a gruff smile. “And if you see any of the others, be sure to tell them to keep an extra eye out, too, alright?”

 

“Of course, sir,” Nicole nods quickly in agreement. “Absolutely. And thank you again.”

 

He doesn’t reply again, just waves her away, a motion she’s beginning to become fond of, because she’s noticed he seems to reserve it for her and one of the other men, not bothering to reply at all to the others, and she takes it for the fondness she thinks he means it as, however subconscious the gesture might be. She settles her hat on her head again as she takes the step down onto the Main Street, the flare of sun above the buildings beginning to bother her eyes.

 

Worried for a moment, before realising that Mattie was probably up before her, Nicole turns and makes her way towards the stables, eager to check on her friend after their hard, hot, and totally empty-handed ride yesterday. They’d ridden for miles, visiting all the houses beyond the ones Nicole had been to the day before, and found nothing whatsoever, but Lady Jane had rode marvellously as always. She’d returned to Mattie’s defeated, exhausted, and running out of hope, before she’d made her way to the baths, where she’d found Waverly, to her obvious surprise.

 

Mattie is sitting on the porch, smoking a cigarette, when Nicole makes her way up to the house, as if having known Nicole was on her way. “Mornin’, Deputy,” Mattie says cordially, standing out of her chair as Nicole approaches. “Glad to see you managed to drag yourself out of bed after that day of yours yesterday.”

 

“It wasn’t so bad, in the end,” Nicole returns with a half-smile that Mattie, in her immense perceptiveness, catches hold of immediately.

 

“Sorted things out with Miss Earp then, did you?” Mattie asks with a wry smile, her grin only widening at Nicole’s look of shock.

 

“Come on, Haught,” Mattie says, walking down to clap Nicole roughly on the arm. “You turned up here yesterday lookin’ like someone’d stolen your heart. It wasn’t hard to guess what might have set that gloom beneath your bed.”

 

“Yeah,” Nicole replies a little reluctantly, her own smile getting away from her after a moment of trying to suppress it. “Somethin’ like that.”

 

Oh . That good’a reunion, huh?” Mattie says with wide eyes, jumping ahead to an incorrect conclusion that Nicole’s keen to steer her back from.

 

“No,” Nicole corrects her hastily, shaking her head. “It’s not… we haven’t even… we haven’t even kissed yet, Mattie. It’s nothin’ like that at all.”

 

“But you’d like it to be,” Mattie says, a statement and not a question, her eyes amused at Nicole’s embarrassment.

 

“‘Course I would,” Nicole says shyly, feeling her blush break down her neck as she tries to shrug off Mattie’s assumption. “But it’s not… it's more than that, Mattie, I…”

 

“Anyone with half a wit and eyes can see it’s more than that, Haught,” Mattie says with a laugh. “I’m just teasin’ you. Girl’s gotta get her kicks somehow out here, you know?”

 

Nicole gives Mattie a hard, but amicable, shove with her shoulder before Mattie laughs and begins walking them towards the stables.

 

“Was she alright yesterday after she had a bit of water and a rest?” Nicole asks, her concern now with Lady Jane. “I was worried I’d worked her too hard, but I just… Christ, I just wanted to find them yesterday, Mattie.”

 

“I know,” Mattie says with an unusual softness, waiting at the door for Nicole to walk through into the barn ahead of her. “I know you did. And she was just fine. She’d run you to the ends of the earth, that horse, if you asked her to.”

 

“I know,” Nicole replies with a frown, reaching into her satchel for a sugar cube she’d managed to get from Gus the day before. “I know she would, that’s why I’m worried about her. Because she won’t gripe when I push her. I think she’d rather fall over than stop. It’s why I’ve gotta keep an extra eye on her.”

 

“You’re right, but she wouldn’t leave you, neither,” Mattie smiles, reaching across the gate of Lady Jane’s stall to rub her neck when they arrive. “She knows her limits, and yours, too, I think.”

 

“I’m a lucky girl to have you huh, Lady J?” Nicole coos, holding her hand out to the horse so she can pluck the sugar cube from Nicole’s fingers.

 

“I think she’s mighty lucky to have you, too, Deputy,” Mattie says by way of a compliment. “Not so many people pay such a mind to their animals as you.”

 

“I don’t know why in damnation they don’t,” Nicole replies crossly, taking extra care to scratch between Lady Jane’s eyes. “Look at you, girl. How could they not.”

 

The horse nickers at the compliment, stamping her feet happily at the tone of Nicole’s voice she’s obviously come to recognise as being a positive one, and Mattie grins in reply.

 

“See?” Mattie asks, turning to Nicole with a relaxed expression. “I think she’s just fine.”

 

“Lucky for me, Lady Jane,” Nicole says to her horse gently. “Lucky for you, you get the day off, too.”

 

“You’re not ridin’ today? Mattie asks curiously, turning to Nicole with a frown.

 

“I’m workin’ the night shift, so Nedley’s asked me to do a few things around town instead,” Nicole says in answer, running her palm down the column of Lady Jane’s neck as she speaks.

 

“I thought Nedley normally waited a month or so before givin’ his men that shift when they start?” Mattie asks her perceptively while moving into the stall and looking down to check the horse’s legs and hooves in the morning light.

 

“I asked for it,” Nicole replies, leaning down to watch Mattie’s movements. “I have… I have an engagement tomorrow night that I need to keep, and I didn’t want to risk bein’ called in, so I asked to have a night tonight in anticipation.”

 

“Engagement, huh?” Mattie asks, grinning suggestively when she stands upright. “Not with Miss Earp, is it, by chance?”

 

“Hush, you,” Nicole grumbles in reply, trying to hide the flush of mild embarrassment at being read by the other woman so easily.

 

“I didn’t say a thing,” Mattie says, miming locking her lips while barely covering her smile. “On a serious note, though, I think it’s sweet. Gus said she’s scarcely seen Waverly so happy, since you found your way into town.”

 

“I’m glad,” Nicole says with a soft smile. “Truly, I’m glad. That girl deserves a world full of happiness for the start to life she’s had.”

 

“I couldn’t agree more, Deputy,” Mattie says kindly, her eyes flashing with lost love and regret. “She’s more deservin’ than most, in my opinion.”

 

“I hope I can… I’d like to think I could only build on that,” Nicole says, forgetting herself for a moment. “I’d like to try and give her everythin’, if I could.”

 

“And people say love like this is a sin,” Mattie scoffs before spitting in the dirt at the side of the stall. “Hell to the lot of them, I say. You go be happy, girl. And don’t let no one and their damn backwards opinion change that, alright?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole replies seriously before casting her eye to the now risen sun. “I’m afraid I have to leave the both of you for now. I need to go and have a look around town, and a few other small chores before restin’ for the afternoon.”

 

“Off with you then, Deputy,” Mattie says with a wink, turning back to Lady Jane. “We’ll be just fine, the two of us, won’t we girl?”

 

Lady Jane snorts her approval before pushing her nose against Nicole’s cheek when she extends her head over the gate of the stall. “Thanks for lookin’ after me, beautiful. You have a nice rest today, hmmm? If you’re good, Mattie might even give you a brush down.”

 

“First thing on my mind,” Mattie says, laughing as she holds the brush in her hand. “Now get out of here, Haught. Go find these assholes, will you?”

 

Nicole dips her head in a farewell, rubbing Lady Jane’s nose one last time before kicking the dirt with the toe of her boots on the way back out into the road.

 

It’s warm here already , Nicole notes, wiping the sweat from her brow in an echo of her first day here, casting a wide look around when she hits the Main Street. The heat feels off today, though. Not hot and welcoming like it had been her first day, but different somehow. Oppressive .

 

She takes her time walking down the street, checking every which way for anything odd or out of place, standing in the middle of the road, watching people pass her by, before retracing her steps from this morning. She looks down every side street, looping around to walk behind the Inn, and crossing the road a few shops down before checking for anything strange behind Waverly’s shop, but there’s nothing . Not so much as a smudge of black on any of the sides of the buildings.

 

Nothing.

 

But there can’t be nothing, there just can’t. Because people don’t go missing without a trace, no matter how much it might seem like they do. They don’t. They can’t . There must be something. There must be, she’s just missing it, she has to be missing it. Nicole just has to find it before it’s too late. Before anyone else…

 

The worry carries her down the street, only stopping completely once she sets eyes on the front of Waverly’s shop, sighing in sweet relief at Waverly leaning casually towards Chrissy Nedley, her elbow on the countertop with her chin resting on her upturned palm as they chat about something making Waverly smile wide like she does when she looks at…

 

Nicole . When she looks at Nicole .

 

As if feeling the object of her affection near, Waverly looks up, catching Nicole’s eye from across the street, and her smile, if possible, widens further. Nicole echoes the sentiment, her face aching with it, and she crosses the distance remaining between them without cognitive thought as to anything or anyone around them, only coming back to herself when she walks through the door of the shop.

 

“Hi, you,” Waverly’s voice sounds like a summer bell to Nicole’s ears, cutting through the heat outside like a cool stream of water.

 

“Hi, yourself,” Nicole returns, her eyes only for Waverly until Waverly hears her words settle against her skin - Nicole sees them still and simmer there - before she turns to smile at Chrissy. “Afternoon to you, too, Miss Nedley.”

 

“Hi, yourself ,” Chrissy says back with an equally bright smile, looking between Nicole and Waverly like the cat that stole the cream; like she knows exactly why they’re so happy. “Good mornin’?”

 

“I’ve had worse,” Nicole replies playfully, moving until she can lean against the counter, within touching distance of Waverly. “And yourself?”

 

“Just fine, thank you kindly, Deputy,” Chrissy says amicably in return. “Just fine. Waverly here was tellin’ me about your plan for tomorrow night?”

 

“She was?” Nicole asks, a little surprised at Waverly’s blatancy, to which Waverly pales, before looking around and finding the shop completely empty, but for the three of them. She exhales in relief before turning back to Waverly with a look that says if you’re okay with talking about this in front of Chrissy, then I am, too.

 

“I was,” Waverly repeats, easing her worried jaw at Nicole’s accordingly relaxed stance, leaning towards Nicole across the counter.

 

“Yes, she was,” Chrissy says a little sterner, before taking Waverly’s exposed forearm and holding it up in front of Nicole’s face. “And she was explaining away her bruise here, which she assures me you know all about?”

 

“Unfortunately, yes,” Nicole returns with a frown. “And trust me, I’m about as happy with the fact that it’s there as you are. Perhaps even less, so.”  

 

“I’ve half a mind to pay a visit to Mr. Hardy, my damn self,” Chrissy growls, looking over Waverly’s arm carefully before her eyes flick to Nicole.

 

“I‘m fine,” Waverly says casually, trying to bat Chrissy away, turning to Nicole for some kind of support. “Won’t you tell her I’m fine?”

 

“Waverly assures me she’s fine,” Nicole says pointedly to Chrissy before softening, because this isn’t Waverly’s fault, not one bit, so they shouldn’t be treating her like she should be making them feel better. “But she’ll tell us if she’s not, right? If there’s anythin’ we can do for her?”

 

“Of course I will,” Waverly replies gently, noting the change in tone in Nicole’s voice with a smile. “But I truly am fine, it barely hurts this mornin’.”

 

“Who the hell does he think he is?” Chrissy snaps, crosser than Nicole’s ever seen her before, about a handspan away from thumping her fist on the counter, or against Champ’s cheek…

 

“I don’t know,” Nicole replies, looking to Chrissy. “Someone who won’t dare try that again the second I see him, or Wynonna does.”

 

“Oh, you can’t tell Wynonna,” Waverly says with a slight shake in her voice, looking between Nicole and Chrissy with a worried expression.

 

“Why not?” Nicole asks curiously, turning to Chrissy with the question as well as directing it towards Waverly.

 

“Because she’ll shoot him,” they both say in unison, and Nicole knows she shouldn’t, but she can’t not laugh at the comment. Because she’s only met Wynonna once, but even from that small interaction, she doesn’t think Chrissy and Waverly are exaggerating one bit.

 

“Well, it won’t come from me, but your aunt’s bound to tell her the next time she sees Wynonna, isn’t she?” Nicole questions gently, balling her fists to stop from reaching for Waverly’s hand that’s so close to her own.

 

“More than likely,” Waverly grimaces, finding the reason in Nicole’s words, and Nicole thinks she sees Waverly’s hand twitch with the desire to reach for her, too. “With any luck, though, that won’t be for a day or two, by which time this will have faded a little, and it won’t look quite so bad.”

 

“He’s a real devil, huh?” Chrissy says, half-rhetorically, before blowing her exhale out through her teeth. “Anyway, enough of that nastiness. If you assure us you’re alright, Waverly, I won’t ask Daddy to dig us a nice deep hole.”

 

“Not that I don’t appreciate the offer, but I think it probably best not to get on the wrong side of the new law in town, don’t you?” Waverly says playfully, turning sweetly back to Nicole.

 

“You wouldn’t want that at all ,” Nicole replies dramatically, winking at Waverly before sliding down the counter just a fraction further towards her. “I hear she’s a real devil, too.”

 

“Well, I’ve heard completely contradictory statements, myself,” Waverly returns with an innocent shrug. “I hear she’s kind, and thoughtful, and very sweet…”

 

Nicole rolls her eyes at the compliment, but she can’t deny the warm swell it sets off in the pit of her stomach upon hearing Waverly speak like that about her.

 

She looks around the shop and out the window, assuring herself that there isn’t anyone within a distance to catch sight of what she’s about to do, and it’s only simple, not dramatic or inappropriate, but the urge to take Waverly’s hand is too strong to ignore. She moves her hand across the counter, expecting to have to lean over a little to reach, but she doesn’t, because the second she moves for Waverly, Waverly moves, too, meeting her half way.

 

The relief when their skin meets is instant and heavy and light all at the same time, and Nicole can’t help but sigh just a little in response.

 

“How is it that the perfect newcomer waltzes into town with eyes for you, Waverly Earp, and not me, huh?” Chrissy says ruefully, but Nicole knows there’s no malice in it, not at all, not when a smile stretches across her face at seeing the simple gesture of the two of them holding hands.

 

“Guess I’m just lucky?” Waverly replies simply, shrugging before turning back to Nicole with an expression that makes her heart pull.

 

“I think I’ll respectfully disagree, and argue that I’m the lucky one here, Miss Earp,” Nicole says with a wink, smiling at the exasperated sigh Chrissy lets off in the background before turning to apologise. “Sorry, Chrissy, I’m sorry, it’s not…”

 

“Don’t you dare apologise for bein’ happy, Nicole Haught,” Chrissy says sternly, inclining her head towards the two of them. “I won’t hear it. The two of you deserve it more’n anyone else in this damn town, save maybe Wynonna. Besides, if I can’t find a love of my own, I guess I’ll just have to live through yours.”

 

“Well, any other day that’s fine, although I have to insist on leavin’ you behind when I take Nicole out to the homestead tomorrow night,” Waverly replies, smiling to Nicole before winding their fingers together.

 

“Maybe next time?” Chrissy jokes, her eyes turning down to their joined hands with a look of longing.

 

“Of course,” Nicole says with sincerity, nodding in a way that brings a smile to Chrissy’s face, just as she had hoped.

 

“So what are the two of you gonna do out there, then?” Chrissy asks curiously, tilting her head in question.

 

“This and that,” Waverly says a little vaguely in reply, and Nicole looks to her with a face as curious now as Chrissy’s is.

 

“No clues, huh?” Chrissy asks, narrowing her eyes at Waverly. “Not a one?”

 

“Well, not with Nicole right there ,” Waverly answers with a slightly breathless laugh. “Then it’d spoil the evening, wouldn’t it?”

 

“I don’t think anything you do could spoil the evening’,” Nicole says kindly to Waverly, grinning at the way her eyes light with the compliment.

 

“You know what?” Chrissy starts before a frown appears on her brow. “I take it back. Be a little less happy, won’t you? You’re makin’ me feel even more envious than I was before.”

 

“Sorry, Chrissy,” Nicole says genuinely, releasing Waverly’s hand to turn to their friend. “I’m sorry, truly. I’ll keep it to a minimum, next time, alright? Besides, I’d best be on my way for now, anyway.”

 

“Oh, you don’t have to leave already, do you?” Waverly asks, reaching for Nicole’s hand again with a note of disappointment in her voice.

 

“I arranged to take the night shift for tonight,” Nicole says, trying to keep the regret out of her own voice, because she knows it’s for the best, that having to part now means they get the whole evening together tomorrow, even if it feels like a terrible decision at the moment.

 

“You’d best be off to rest soon then,” Chrissy says with the knowledge held of watching her father doing the same thing for years. “Daddy always has a better night if he can find sleep before midday.”

 

Not for the first time, Nicole is struck by the casual ease with which Chrissy seems so observant to things around her, seemingly subconsciously even, and it serves to remind her that she'd like to ascertain a way of helping Chrissy somehow make use of these talents, resolving perhaps to talk to her father about it this evening.

 

“I’m not sure how I’m gonna find it, if I’m honest,” Nicole replies with a frown to Chrissy. “I feel as wide awake as I’ve ever been.”

 

“Oh,” Waverly says suddenly before disappearing down the back of the counter, reappearing with a smile a few seconds later. “I can help with that, at least.”

 

“You can?” Nicole asks with a surprised and slightly amused smile at the happiness on Waverly’s face.

 

“I can,” Waverly repeats, placing a small phial of clear liquid between them on the counter.

 

“What in good graces is that?” Chrissy asks with a hesitant note, leaning forward to inspect the bottle. “Some kind of sleepin’ draught?”

 

“It’s only light,” Waverly assures Nicole softly, turning to answer her unasked question. “Nothin’ to take you into too deep a sleep, just somethin’ to help you clear your mind so you can find it to rest a little before tonight. It won’t make you feel anythin’ once you wake up, not like some of the others I’ve got, but you don’t have to take it if you don’t want to, I just thought…”

 

“That’s very kind of you,” Nicole says softly, brushing her fingers purposefully across Waverly’s when she moves to take the proffered phial. “I’d be happy to try it.”

 

“I know some people don’t like to have… you know that you don’t have to take it just because…” Waverly stammers a little uncertainly before Nicole fixes her with a look that says I trust you and I want to.

 

“I might have to ask Gus to come and rouse me,” Nicole says with a wink. “If this is as good as everythin’ else of yours I’ve had, I might need the wake up call.”

 

“It’ll only work for a few hours,” Waverly replies gently, her eyes following Nicole’s hand as they tuck the phial into the pocket of her trousers. “So you shouldn’t need to if you take it shortly, just as it is. You don’t need to mix it with water or tea or anythin’ else.”

 

“Thank you, Waverly,” Nicole says sincerely, casting her eyes around one last time to check for onlookers, before raising Waverly’s hand and pressing a kiss to her knuckles.

 

It’s bold, she knows it’s bold, but it’s so important to her in that moment that Waverly know exactly how much faith she has in Waverly and her abilities, that she trusts her, that she’s immensely thankful for any part of it that she’s able to share with Nicole herself.

 

My pleasure,” Waverly breathes in return, her cheeks glowing a faintly pretty pink. “It’s my pleasure, Deputy.”

 

“Don’t make me respectfully disagree with you again, now,” Nicole winks playfully, releasing Waverly’s hand slowly. “I really should get mo vin’, though. I want to head down to Shorty’s before I retire, to inquire around about…well, you know.”

 

She trails off, not wanting to draw any more attention toward the disappearances, and not wanting to distress Waverly or Chrissy in any way, either.

 

“Good time of the day to try there,” Chrissy says, nodding at Nicole’s plan. “You’ll find half the men in town there having a drink or a meal if you go now.”

 

“Is that so?” Nicole asks, highly interested at Chrissy’s additional observation. “Well, in that case, I’ll…”

 

“Call by on your way to the jail this evenin’?” Waverly asks hopefully, her eyes drawing Nicole in.

 

“If you’re not sick of the sight of me, of course I will,” Nicole smiles in return, and she’s amazed at the difference it makes, not having to hide her raw feelings for Waverly anymore, what a weight it is off her shoulders.

 

“As if she’d ever be sick of the sight of you,” Chrissy interjects with a wry smile.

 

Nicole beams at the compliment, looking to Waverly one final time before inclining her head in farewell.

 

“Sleep well,” Waverly says sweetly, tilting her head to the side in that soft way that makes Nicole’s heart skip and threaten to stop in her chest.

 

“I’m sure I will,” Nicole answers easily, tipping her hat back onto her head. “Later?”

 

“Later,” Waverly affirms, her reply warming the palms of Nicole’s hands when they fall back to her sides.

 

She throws Chrissy one last nod, too, before turning and making her way back down the Main Street, only relenting once and looking back to Waverly’s shop.

 

It doesn’t take her long to make it to the saloon at all, and she’s not sure why she’s filled with a hint of reluctance before walking in, but she is, so she pauses for a moment with her hand on the door, taking a steadying breath in just as she enters. It’s gloomy in here, and busy, just as Chrissy had said, the air heavy with smoke, and it takes her eyes a second to adjust before she makes her way down the step into the main part of the saloon towards Shorty himself.

 

“Good afternoon, Deputy,” Shorty offers cordially, leaning across the bar to shake Nicole’s hand. “What can I get for you today?”

 

“I’m not after a drink, though I thank you kindly for the offer,” Nicole says politely, nodding with respect before straightening up again.

 

“Serious business then?” Shorty asks, his tone growing a little more grave. “The Sheriff came in day before yesterday askin’ about the women missin’.”

 

“That’s exactly why I’m here, I’m afraid,” Nicole confirms, nodding again. “Nedley's requested I do another ask around town, see if anyone’s noticed anythin’ new the last few days?”

 

“I haven’t seen nothin’ myself,” Shorty replies, frowning before looking around the saloon. “Not a damn thing. And nobody that’s come in here’s said anythin’ beyond that they wish they knew where the heck those women had gone to, either.”

 

“And you haven’t seen anyone you’ve never seen before?” Nicole asks with one last push before resignation sets across her shoulders again. “No one new or unusual, nothin’ out of place, no one actin’ strangely?”

 

“I count myself a reasonably good judge of character, and a good eye for every person in this town, and I haven’t seen nothin’, Deputy,” Shorty says regretfully. “I almost wish I had, so I could offer you some help, but I haven’t.”

 

“That’s alright, Shorty,” Nicole replies with a sigh. “I appreciate you keepin’ an eye out, nonetheless. And I know the Sheriff does, too.”

 

“‘Course,” Shorty returns, looking pleased with the compliment. “Happy to help in any way I can. You’ll be sure to let me know if you’re in need of anythin’ else now, won’t you?”

 

“I surely will,” Nicole says with a smile, more than a little appreciative at his offer to help. “Thank you, Shorty.”

 

“Any time, Deputy,” Shorty says, giving her a quick wink. “You’re more’n welcome to go round and ask folks yourself, if you want? Just in case you’re able to get somethin’ out of ‘em they haven’t mentioned to me.”

 

“I might just do that,” Nicole replies, nodding as she looks around the room. “If it’s not too much of a hassle, and I’m not gonna drive folks away?”

 

“To be honest, I reckon people’ll be more than happy to answer any questions you might have if they, and you, think it’ll help,” Shorty says with a sigh, dropping his hands onto the bar.

 

“I won’t be long,” Nicole assures him, scooping her hat up off the counter, her eyes already travelling around the room, looking for her first point of contact. “I’ll be gone before you know it.”

 

Shorty gives her one last smile before turning to tend to another customer, and Nicole allows her eye to move around the room again. There are a few men in small groups, so she starts with them first, asking a few easy questions, watching for their reactions and body language as much as their answers, but they don’t appear to have anything of value to add to the information she already has in her head.

 

Nicole turns her attention to a few other solitary figures around the room next, but the answers to her questions are still the same: they haven’t seen anything strange or out of place, they don’t know anything. Nothing. In fact, if anything, things appear to have been quieter than usual, with little to no trouble in town at all.

 

She’s about to give up and head back to the Inn to rest when movement in the far corner of the saloon catches her attention, and her eyes find Champ Hardy and the two York boys curled around a large, otherwise empty table, taking up significantly more space than they should. They must have come in since she started talking to folks around the room, Nicole surmises, because there’s no way her eyes would have missed them if they’d been here to begin with.

 

The noise coming from their small group is, unsurprisingly, obtrusive and rude and much louder than anyone else in the room, and she catches Shorty frown in their direction briefly before tucking her thumbs into her belt and making her way over to them herself. She catches the end of what sounds like should have seen her face and reckon I should just have taken it, she’s almost mine anyway before the York boys dissolve in rough, ugly laughter, as she makes her way over to their table.

 

Champ looks at her pointedly before turning back to the other boys, ignoring her completely, so she has to clear her throat before they actually pause their conversation and look at her.

 

“What do you want, Deputy?” Champ sighs, taking a messy swig of his whiskey before narrowing his eyes at Nicole. “We aren’t doin’ anythin’ wrong, are we boys?”

 

“Yeah, Deputy ,” one of the boys jokes derisively before they all dissolve into obnoxious laughter again. “We’re just mindin’ our own business, nothin’ you can tell us off for. Champ here’s just tellin’ us here how close he is to baggin’ his girl, right lads?”

 

Nicole’s blood runs cold at that, because she’d known that was the she Champ had been referring to, but to hear one of them say it makes her feel sick.

 

“Your conversation is your own, but manhandlin’ women is another thing, Hardy,” Nicole says with as strong a voice as she can manage without letting her anger seep in.

 

“That all women, Deputy, or just the ones you’re tryin’ to court yourself?” Champ says boldly, tipping his chin upwards in Nicole’s direction.

 

“You’ll do better to mind your manners when you’re speakin’ to a Sheriff’s deputy, Mr. Hardy,” Nicole replies coldy, trying desperately to keep her own temper in check.

 

“Hit a nerve, did I?” Champ parries, his eyes light with the knowledge that he’s found something sensitive. “Anyway, what business is it of yours who I touch, Deputy? Last I checked, we didn’t have to run courtships in this town past the Sheriff. If we do, though, I’ll do so gladly. I’d love to see the look on your face when I bring Waverly Earp in on my arm. Willing or not.”

 

“That’s not a joke, Hardy,” Nicole says with steel on her tongue, because she hadn’t wanted to descend to his level, to argue with or threaten him, but she will, if that’s what it takes. “As a deputy of the law, I’m tellin’ you that you’d best not be forcin’ yourself on any more women, or I’ll drag you down to the jail myself.”

 

Her words seem to hit a nerve with him this time, and the legs of his chair screech across the wood when he scrambles to stand and set himself on Nicole’s level, broadening his shoulders in a childish attempt to make his shape look bigger.

 

“Is that a threat?” Champ spits, balling his fists at his side as he steps up into Nicole’s personal space. “You think you can take me?”

 

His anger doesn’t bother Nicole, she doesn’t flinch away, much to his disappointment, she thinks. She just stands her ground instead, meeting his eye evenly.

 

“I do,” she says calmly, her gaze following the furious tremble of his entire body as she holds her own position with a perfect stillness. “As a matter of fact, I do.”

 

Nicole senses his body about to move and take a step back, whether to take himself away or prepare to hit her, she’s not sure, but she readies herself to defend a blow or whatever he thinks he’s about to try and do, when the saloon doors swing open loudly, and Curtis comes through them, looking around the room before sighting Nicole.

 

He raises his hand in an amicable hello before moving towards the bar to greet Shorty, his eye trained on her and Champ in the corner of the room.

 

Nicole feels, rather than sees, the air leave Champ’s overextended chest in the second that follows, his eye obviously fixed on Curtis, too. He shrinks back, grabbing his drink roughly and downing it in one gulp before pushing roughly past Nicole, the York boys following him like stray dogs.

 

“This isn’t over,” Nicole hears him spit over his shoulder, the boys sniggering beside him as they leave the saloon, and it’s only then that she releases her breath, unclenching her own fists at her waist.

 

She isn’t scared of him, lord knows she’s met and dealt with worse men in the world than Champ Hardy, it’s Waverly that Nicole is worried for in the end. Because he isn’t likely to take out his anger on or around her directly; she knows he’s much more likely to take it out where he knows he’ll cause Nicole the most pain.

 

On Waverly, instead.

 

She’s tempted to go after him, to drag him down to Nedley for general disobedience, but she knows that’ll only make things worse, that that would only provoke his anger more, in the end. Instead, she takes a few steadying breathes before walking back over to the bar to apologise for any disruption she might have caused Shorty.

 

“You alright there, Deputy?” Shorty asks her with a concerned frown. “Everythin’ okay?”

 

“I’m sorry, Shorty,” Nicole says quickly, rushing to apologise. “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble, he just… he overstepped a line, and it wouldn’t have been right of me not to call him on it. I understand if you’d like me to…”

 

“It’s more than alright, Deputy,” Shorty reassures her with a friendly smile. “We all know what that Hardy kid is like. You did well to stand your ground.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” Nicole nods, appreciative of the compliment, particularly given she had been expecting the first thing to come out of Shorty’s mouth might be an order to leave. “I am sorry.”

 

“Don’t let him get the better of you,” Curtis offers Nicole with a kind voice, clapping his hand on her shoulder. “Lord knows he’ll try, but he’s just not worth it.”

 

“It’s worth it if it’s Waverly he’s threatenin’,” Nicole says partly under her breath, but the others hear it regardless.

 

“He what?” Curtis asks gruffly, looking after the door, as if of a mind to chase Champ himself.

 

“Not exactly,” Nicole replies, trying to explain herself without letting her anger disrupt her. “Seems he feels he can take something he thinks is already his, and I just corrected his misguided impression.”

 

“Christ, I’ve half a mind to make him see sense myself with something stronger than words,” Curtis says in the first show of anger or frustration Nicole’s seen from him since meeting him a few days ago, finding herself reassured by the fact that he seems as bent on ensuring Waverly’s safety as she is.

 

“I don’t need to remind you that it’s not worth it to pick a fight with that boy, do I?” Shorty says to his friend with a smile, before shaking his head. “Anyway, let’s not waste anymore breath on that problem. Did you happen to find anythin’ talkin’ to anyone, Deputy?”

 

“Not a thing,” Nicole sighs in disappointment, trying to let her frustration over Champ drop from her fingertips so she can focus on where the frustration should be directed. “I’m startin’ to wonder if I’m doin’ somethin’ wrong. Unless people really do disappear into thin air.”

 

“By all accounts, I think you’re doin’ a fine job,” Curtis says, smiling warmly at her. “Everyone I’ve spoken to’s said how it’s makin’ everyone feel a little more at ease knowin’ you’re on your guard lookin’ for those ladies so diligently.”

 

“Really?” Nicole asks quietly, and she’s not one to hunt for compliments, ever, but she can’t deny it’s nice to know the town doesn’t think she’s completely useless.

 

“Really,” Shorty affirms, agreeing with his friend, nodding to Nicole. “You’re doin’ a good job, Deputy. Just don’t give up, alright?”

 

“Never,” Nicole says quickly, shaking her head, dismissing the idea immediately. “I’d never dream of givin’ up, not until we know their fates, whatever they might be.”

 

“Atta-girl,” Shorty says before pouring Curtis a drink. “You sure I can’t offer you a drink? Lord knows you’ve just earned one. Might help to steady yourself before you leave?”

 

“Thank you for the offer, but I should get on my way,” Nicole replies, trying to convey how much she appreciates the gesture. “I’ve asked Nedley for the night shift tonight, so I’d best try and get some rest before it.”

 

“Boy, you’ll have made someone’s day, givin’ them the night off,” Curtis says, smiling broadly. “Make sure you stop in and get Gus to make you somethin’ before you rest, and to take with you for tonight.”

 

“I don’t want to trouble her,” Nicole says hesitantly, but Curtis is already shaking his head.

 

“No trouble, Nicole, none at all,” Curtis returns kindly, reaching to shake Nicole’s hand, and the use of her first name makes her feel warm. “‘Specially if you’re out here defendin’ our Waverly’s honour against that hound in the background of dealin’ with this other trouble.”

 

“I’ll ask, if I remember,” Nicole says with a shy shrug, reluctant to put Gus out at all, regardless of whether she’s helped Waverly or not, because she’s more than happy to do whatever it takes to defend Waverly, willingly and without reward.

 

“Make sure you do,” Curtis says pointedly, narrowing his eye like he knows that she has no intention of bothering Gus at all.

 

“I’ll see you later, sir,” Nicole replies respectfully instead, giving Shorty a nod of farewell, too. “And my apologies again, Shorty.”

 

Both men wave her goodbye before Nicole makes her way for the door. She takes a step outside, her eyes spinning white for a moment as she adjusts to the vastly different light source. She takes a long, grounding breath, closing her eyes and drinking in the late morning sun before opening them again.

 

Her gaze, whether by design or some unfortunate coincidence falls on Champ and his companions walking into one of the shops across the way. He doesn’t lay eyes on her, thankfully, but it makes her blood boil again, even seeing him from a distance, his words about Waverly still sitting like poison in the bottom of her stomach.

 

She finds her feet taking her to Waverly’s shop without directed thought, the walk disappearing somewhere into a half-conscious blur until she sets foot inside the bright white front room. Her pulse settles immediately, her racing heart quieting completely in Waverly’s presence, and Waverly looks up from measuring whatever herbs she has in a number of small bowls in front of her, sensing Nicole’s nearness again.

 

“I wasn’t expectin’ to see you so soon,” Waverly beams the second she sees Nicole, ducking beneath the counter to greet her in the absence of anyone else in the shop.

 

“Nor was I,” Nicole admits with a shy smile, shrugging, taking a step closer to Waverly whose hair is pushed messily up off her forehead, but with a series of lose strands falling beautifully around her face.

 

“Is everythin’ alright?” Waverly asks, frowning at whatever small thing must be off about her demeanour. “Did you… have you found…”

 

“No,” Nicole hurries to reassure her, taking Waverly’s hand softly into her own. “No, nothin’ like that at all, I promise.”

 

“But somethin’ else happened?” Waverly asks softly, perceptively, her thumbs soothing over the flat of Nicole’s palms. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

 

“It’s nothin’ to worry about,” Nicole says softly, not wishing to worry Waverly more than she already has. “Nothin’ at all, I’m not sure why I’m feelin’ a little uneasy, I just had a conversation with Champ Hardy at the saloon.”

 

“You did?” Waverly asks, blanching a little, and it makes Nicole want to hit him all over again, hating the reaction just hearing his name causes in Waverly. “What about?”

 

She thinks about telling Waverly a smaller version of the truth, not wanting to cause her anymore distress, but changes her mind, settling on the thought that the truth, and not keeping anything from her, is the more honorable route to take. Because Waverly Earp can handle far more than people give her credit for, and Nicole won’t assume anything less than her highest point of strength, ever.

 

“About you, unfortunately,” Nicole says, choosing her words carefully. “Nothin’ you’d done of course, he just… he made an inappropriate comment, and I couldn’t let it go unchecked, but it resulted in a… shall we say, a conversation between the two of us.”

 

Waverly grows a little paler for a second before she seems to find strength in Nicole’s hand in her own, looking to Nicole with something that might be awe.

 

“You defended me?” Waverly says quietly, her expression soft as she looks to Nicole with clear eyes.

 

“Of course I did,” Nicole says smiling down at Waverly gently. “I’ll always defend you, Waverly. Always . Without exception.”

 

Waverly takes a deep breath, closing her eyes for the length of a heartbeat before looking up to Nicole again, and Nicole thinks she sees something deep there, beyond Waverly’s simple thanks, something that sits further in her chest, hidden beneath her ribs.

 

“You’re…” Waverly starts before her eyes turn a little glassy, and she shakes her head, trying again. “Thank you, Nicole. It’s… to have someone who just… thank you.”

 

“It’s what I’m here for,” Nicole says simply, because she is. To be Waverly’s companion and friend and protector, too, not that she can’t defend herself, but because she shouldn’t have to do so alone all the time.

 

It’s the middle of the day, and anyone, including Champ himself, could walk past at any second, and Nicole knows they should be more careful, but that doesn’t matter, not in this instant. None of it does. All reason suspends itself beautifully, because Waverly Earp folds herself into Nicole’s arms, and Nicole finds home .

 

“Thank you,” Waverly says again, only this time the vibration from her voice makes its way through the wall of Nicole’s chest, to her heart, and Nicole feels changed from it.

 

Waverly’s hands slide around her waist, tying themselves together in the middle of Nicole’s lower back, and Nicole can’t stop the small contended hum that escapes when her chin comes to rest softly atop Waverly’s head.

 

“You’re welcome, Waverly,” Nicole says softly, her arms draping as unobtrusively as possible over the shorter girl’s shoulders, holding Waverly close, rocking them both slightly where they stand together.

 

She feels Waverly sigh heavily against her again before she takes a step back, extricating herself from Nicole’s body, her hand finding Nicole’s, reluctant to break their contact entirely.

 

“I’m sorry,” Waverly says a little shyly, her eyes moving down to where their fingers intertwine. “I know we probably should be…”

 

“It's alright,” Nicole replies with a reassuring wink, checking out the corner of her eye for any onlookers discreetly and finding none.

 

“I don’t wish you to think me careless,” Waverly says carefully, following the line of Nicole’s eye outside the shop. “I know we need to be careful most of the time, and I know you know that, too, but sometimes it’s more important…it’s worth the risk to reassure one another, don’t you think?”

 

Nicole nods, touched and impressed, both by the depth of Waverly’s understanding, but also her willingness to flout the rules for the sake of comforting each other, something she knows Shae would never risk, and did never risk, even at times when Nicole needed her to.

 

“I do,” Nicole replies, smiling at Waverly with something akin to pride in her voice. “I agree completely.”

 

Waverly drops her head, looking to Oakley who has moved off her daybed to wind herself around Waverly’s feet.

 

“I’m sorry you had to defend me,” Waverly says apologetically, looking a little embarrassed. “I wish I’d never given him the time of day to begin with, I just thought… I thought it might help… I thought it would make him lose interest, if he saw how little interest I had in him, but it only seems to have made things worse.”

 

“Try not to worry about him,” Nicole says, reaching forward to tuck a strand of Waverly’s hair behind her ear, smiling when she moves into Nicole’s touch. “I have a feelin’ he would have continued pursuin’ you regardless, Waverly. I don’t think there’s anythin’ you could have done to dissuade his interest.”

 

“He can’t do anythin’ can he?” Waverly asks with a slightly uneven voice, the fear there easy for Nicole to read. “I mean… he doesn’t have a claim over…”

 

“He can’t do anythin’, Waverly. I promise you, alright?” Nicole replies with a conviction and strength in her voice that she wants Waverly to hear loud and clear. “You’re your own person, okay? Neither he, nor anyone else can take your freedom away from you.”

 

She had come here to calm herself down, to reassure herself of the notion that Waverly was here safe. She hadn’t planned on needing to reassure Waverly, too, but she finds it does a better job of calming her than anything else, being strong for Waverly’s sake.

 

“I’m my own person,” Waverly says quietly, looking to Nicole with a small glint of something special in her eye, something that makes her smile a little deeper. “I’m my own person, but I’m yours, too.”

 

It makes Nicole’s heart skip and her pulse falter, to hear Waverly state such a thing so plainly, and she finds herself struggling with a response for a moment before her words come to her with a crystal clearness.

 

“As I am yours,” Nicole says with a simple smile, watching the way Waverly’s eyes glow in reply. “If you’d have me?”

 

“Never been anythin’ I’ve wanted more,” Waverly says sweetly after a moment, leaning back to rest against the counter between two of the high stools. “I’m keepin’ you, though, aren’t I? You need to go get some rest.”

 

“I’m more than alright for the moment,” Nicole replies with an easy shrug. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

 

“I’m fine, I promise you, Nicole.  Even better for the unexpected visit,” Waverly says in reassurance, in a way that makes Nicole’s tension ease more thoroughly. “Although, I’d be remiss if I didn’t send you off to rest now. I know you’ll be just across the way if I need anythin’, alright? Chrissy’s already promised to come and call on me again soon.”

 

“She’s an angel, that girl,” Nicole says, her thoughts flooding with appreciation for the young woman.

 

“Isn’t she just?” Waverly replies, although by the look in her eye, it isn’t so much Chrissy she appears to be thinking of with a dreamy expression written on her face, as someone a little closer .

 

“You sure you’re gonna be okay here?” Nicole asks her quietly, lowering herself a little to be closer to Waverly’s level.

 

Waverly nods back slowly, and Nicole can tell that she’s not saying it for the sake of making Nicole feel better, she means it, for now at least.

 

“But you’ll call on me on your way to the jail later?” Waverly asks hopefully, leaning up on her tiptoes, her body reaching for Nicole’s.

 

“Try and stop me,” Nicole says winking, and she wants so desperately to lean down and press a quick kiss to Waverly’s cheek, but she knows that’s pushing it, because they can explain away an embrace like a hug, but not that, should someone see them.

 

She reaches for Waverly regardless, though, as some sort of interim measure, running her hand down Waverly’s arm from shoulder to elbow, and Waverly leans into the touch with her eyes closed. Her hand moves from Waverly’s elbow down her forearm, squeezing her hand briefly before dropping her touch from Waverly’s fingertips, not missing the way Waverly hums in contentment.

 

They both sigh softly, and before Nicole loses the will to leave completely, she gathers her hat from the counter. She’s struck with the most peculiar feeling as she takes step after step away from Waverly, like her heart is watching her leave for war, and the feeling turns her body without her prompt, to find Waverly looking after her with something that smells in the pre-noon air... like love.

 

Her own smile must still be written high and plain on her face, because Gus has to suppress a smirk when Nicole walks through to the front desk.

 

“Good mornin’, Deputy?” Gus asks, amusement spelled easily between her words.

 

“It is now,” Nicole says a little dreamily, before coming back to the earth enough to turn to Gus and form a coherent sentence. “Sorry, Gus. Mornin’ to you, too. How are you?”

 

“I’m just fine, thank you, Deputy,” Gus replies with a continued look of amusement. “What brings you back here so early? You hungry for a bite of lunch?”

 

“I’m actually gonna work the night shift tonight,” Nicole explains, running her fingers through her hair, pushing back the strands knocked lose by removing her hat again. “So Nedley’s sent me back for rest before then.”

 

“Good on you, givin’ someone the night off,” Gus says, obviously impressed with Nicole’s work ethic. “S’pose you will want somethin’ then? I’ve got a stew settin’, and some bread, too, if you’d like?”

 

“I don’t want to be a bother,” Nicole tries to reason, just as her stomach growls loudly, and she realises she hasn’t actually eaten any of the small morsels in her satchel while she’s been out and about this morning.  

 

“Go and sit down,” Gus says, rolling her eyes at Nicole before walking off into the kitchen behind her desk. “I’ll bring you somethin’ in a minute.”

 

“You don’t have-” Nicole attempts one last time to reason, but Gus isn’t having any of it, walking quickly around the kitchen as Nicole takes a seat at one of the tables in the small dining area.

 

She’s more than efficient, Nicole will give her that, because before she can so much as try to argue, Gus is setting a bowl of something that smells delicious in front of her, with a freshly baked loaf to the side. Nicole must look at her with something close to love, because Gus just laughs, clapping Nicole on the shoulder lightly before gesturing to her food.  

 

“You’re welcome, Deputy,” Gus says, smiling at her while Nicole’s mouth waters, before leaving Nicole to eat.

 

She just about inhales the soup, only slowing when she gets to the warm bread, and it takes her a second to remember the last time she had a full meal like this, and not mouthfuls here and there. A few days at least, she thinks, before leaning back in her chair, pleasantly full.

 

Nicole sits there for a minute before she slips her hands into her pockets, her fingers brushing over the small bottle Waverly had given her. She does pause for a moment then, not because she doesn’t trust Waverly implicitly, but because she’s never not been in full control of her faculties before. She doesn’t ever drink to excess, she doesn’t smoke like so many others do. It’s the losing control that worries her a little.

 

But then she remembers that Waverly would never give her anything that she thought Nicole wouldn’t like, or anything that would make her feel uncomfortable, so she stands, resigned to take it when she makes her way upstairs, unsure how quickly the effects will take hold. She strips off her things, changing into the loose nightshirt she sleeps in, before picking up the little glass phial from where she’d left it on the small writing desk. Popping the top off, she drinks it down in one gulp, surprised by the pleasantly sweet taste it leaves on her tongue.

 

It takes a minute for the tonic to hit her stomach, but the second it does Nicole starts to feel pleasantly drowsy, and she climbs into the softness of her bed as it begins to take full effect. She looks at the ceiling, pulling the light blanket around her waist, her eyes travelling the lines of the wooden boards there once, twice , before her eyes grow too heavy to hold open, and easily, calmly, she finds sleep.




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