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find a home, lonely heart

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Nicole wakes a few hours later, the soft caress of sleep ushering her back down deeper while her consciousness battles to stay alert. It takes her a moment to become fully conscious, and the second she does, the planned events of the night ahead of her wake her immediately.

 

A date , Nicole thinks, rolling over in bed sleepily. I’m going on another date with Waverly Earp . To her home. She’s taking me home.

 

She glances briefly at the pocket watch that stays propped beside her bed when she’s not wearing it, absorbing the hands eventually, sighing in relief when they read four in the afternoon. Plenty of time for her to get ready before Waverly arrives to collect her for their ride out to the homestead.

 

Rolling herself out of bed, Nicole stretches long and hard, uncoiling the muscles held stiff from her hours of sleep, before standing and walking over to the basin, freshly filled with water by Gus earlier in the day.

 

Nicole would much rather have had the opportunity to visit the baths before their evening together, but she knows she’d be too pressed for time, and she’d rather spend the time with Waverly instead of soaking alone. She does as thorough a job of cleaning herself as she can with the fresh water, though, stripping right down to nothing before rinsing all over, feeling significantly more awake by the time she finishes.

 

It’s warm enough in her room that she doesn’t shiver too hard while she’s looking for a towel to dry herself off with. She takes her time getting herself ready, putting on her heavier woollen pants, and her gun at her waist, but her lighter shirt, in an attempt to strike a good balance between the current temperature, and the temperature she knows they’ll be contending with on their ride back into town much later.

 

Nicole’s about halfway through her braid, something done by muscle memory in her morning routine, before she stops herself.

 

She thinks back to how much Waverly had seemed to enjoy seeing it out and long instead, and settles for binding it together low on her shoulder, a good halfway measure that’s still practical enough for riding, and isn’t likely to get in the way should she need to have her wits about her at any stage, but closer to the style Nicole knows Waverly had a preference for.

 

Walking over to the mirror, Nicole buttons and then unbuttons the top two closures on her shirt, before nodding, pleased with her overall appearance.

 

She winds Waverly’s bandana around her wrist, still nice and clean on account of the lack of riding she’s had to do over the last day, readying herself to walk downstairs and wait, before she remembers one final thing. The small bottle of perfume Waverly had gifted her sits pride of place on the dresser with a few of her other tokens: a gold ring and a necklace she’d been given as a child by her grandmother, but had never really worn.

 

She’s used the perfume sparingly over the last few days, despite the fact that she can’t get enough of the scent, wanting to ensure she can draw the bottle out for as long as she’s able in the event that she doesn’t get another, but it’s important for her to show how much she appreciates the gift tonight, so she dabs a dot on her wrists and behind her ears, closing her eyes to breathe in the scent she marries so easily to Waverly in her head.

 

It’s heavenly and soft and it makes her heart pound a little quicker, so much so that it takes her a moment to come back to herself, focusing in the sensation of her bare heels on the ground to help settle back into her skin. She takes a seat on the edge of the bed next, pulling her socks and boots on before standing with her palms flat on her thighs, brushing the front of her pants.

 

She’s beginning to feel a little nervous now - excited, but nervous, too - and she wishes so badly she’d thought earlier to buy Waverly some small token to present her with this evening, resolving to make sure she picks something up tomorrow, instead, to thank her for what will undoubtedly be a wonderful evening.

 

Casting one final glance in the mirror to ascertain that she’s still happy with her appearance, Nicole smiles, a little buoyed by the reflection looking back, before making her way downstairs, grabbing her jacket at the last second, not that she thinks she’ll need it, more than acclimated to the cooler temperature at night, but Waverly might.

 

She takes one last look at her pocket watch, just after four-thirty, time yet to call downstairs and settle her rumbling stomach before Waverly arrives, a necessity, given it’ll likely be a few hours before she’s able to actually sit down with Waverly and eat. Gus is sitting at the front desk, thumbing through the ledger book in front of her, frowning at something she appears to be looking for, and from where they are, Nicole can also hear two men in what sounds to be a reasonably important conversation.

 

“Evenin’, Gus,” Nicole says softly, so as not to startle the older woman. “Is everythin’ alright?”

 

“Deputy,” Gus says, and she’s not sure, but Nicole thinks Gus sounds both relieved at her presence, and surprised to see her, as though she had been deep in thought up to that point.

 

“Is everythin’ alright?” Nicole asks again when Gus doesn’t answer right away, staring at something over Nicole’s shoulder.

 

“Everythin’s…” Gus trails off before seeming to realise who it is she has in front of her, shaking her head. “Alright. We're all alright.”

 

Something’s most definitely off , Nicole knows it is, she can feel it in her chest, beating next to her heart, only she doesn’t know quite what it is yet .

 

“Gus,” Nicole says again, in a way she means to be soothing, because she’s not sure why, but Gus appears to be a little shaken, and Nicole’s not seen her shaken the whole week she’s been in Purgatory. “Gus, what are those men talkin’ about?”

 

“Someone else has gone missin’,” Gus replies with a voice that sounds a little…broken, Nicole thinks, and when the words actually sink in, Nicole feels her stomach just drop .

 

“When?” Nicole asks breathlessly, feeling like the world’s been pulled from beneath her feet, because everything was fine…everything was fine , and now… “When did… when did they go missin’?”

 

She ,” Gus says, confirming the question Nicole hasn’t asked yet, because two women could be a coincidence, sheer luck, but three missing women is a pattern. “She went missin’ last night. Daisy Monroe. Didn’t come back in from feedin’ the horses. Her father’s just come in to see the Sheriff while you were restin’.”

 

“While I was…” Nicole trails off, and she feels sick , because she was on duty last night, she was responsible for the guard of the town, and on her watch, someone else has gone missing.

 

“Now you listen to me,” Gus growls at her, firmly. “Ain’t no bit of this that’s your fault, alright? It wouldn’t have mattered if it was you or Nedley on watch, their farm is an hour’s ride from town. What was gonna happen was gonna happen, regardless.”

 

“Why didn’t anyone come and wake me?” Nicole asks, her voice feeling strung out and her heart upset, because maybe Nedley hadn’t because he blamed her. Because he thought it was her fault .

 

“Nedley came here himself, and said not to,” Gus says, like she can read Nicole’s question on her tongue. “That you needed your rest, because he wants you good and alert tomorrow. And he didn’t want to see you tonight, neither. Said you were to go about your plans, they’ve got more’n enough people lookin’ tonight.”

 

“But…” Nicole attempts, but Gus is shaking her head again.

 

“No buts, young lady,” Gus says sternly, eyeing Nicole warily. “That’s the Sheriff’s order there. And don’t forget I know who you’d be standin’ up tonight, too.”

 

“I wouldn’t ever want to…” Nicole says quickly, because she’d never dream of standing Waverly up, but she could go and help once she had Waverly safely home much later on…

 

“And you’re not to stay up all night, goin’ to help them after, neither,” Gus returns, finishing Nicole’s thought for her. “You need rest, Nicole. And although you’re skilled, sure, you’re still only one person. You’ve gotta let them handle tonight, because believe me, they’re gonna need you tomorrow, when they’re ready to rest.”

 

“Okay,” Nicole replies, nodding as her mind tries to make sense of everything. “And he’s…”

 

“Certain,” Gus affirms confidently. “I’m certain. You think he wants to run you out of town the first chance he gets while you’re tryin’ to find your place here?”

 

“No,” Nicole admits, folding her shoulders a little in acquiescence, and Gus breathes in relief a little, too.

 

She knows both Gus and Nedley are right, of course they are, and if Nicole hadn’t arrived, they would be a man down anyway. And she knows Gus is right, too, that she couldn’t have helped that girl, not really, but that doesn’t stop her feeling sick with guilt, regardless. She tries to shake the thought from the front of her mind to focus on her actual plan for the evening, her mind and her heart turning to Waverly instead, and it doesn’t help completely, but the next breath comes just a little easier.

 

“Have you seen Waverly this afternoon?” Nicole asks, trying to make herself calm. “Has she… did she say when she was gonna call by?”

 

“I’ve seen her, alright,” Gus answers with a smile that says she knows more than she’s willing to share. “She said she’d be here any minute now, actually. Why don’t you come and have a little bite before she arrives? Help settle yourself a little.”

 

“Sure,” Nicole says a little vaguely, her mind wandering back to her guilt, allowing Gus to lead her by the arm into the kitchen, bypassing the men still talking in the dining room.

 

She sits at Gus’s direction at the small table, gladly accepting the sweet looking bread roll that Gus offers her. The roll is gone by the time Gus turns back around, and Nicole can only look a little guilty and shrug, as if to say I guess I was hungry after all .

 

The older woman comes back a few minutes later with a bottle of something deeply amber, placing the liquor and two small glasses in front of Nicole. Nicole gives Gus a slightly wary look, but doesn’t say anything, because as much as she needs to have a clear head, and not be under the influence of anything, she can’t deny that this might actually help.

 

Gus pours two generous measures, one for each of them, gesturing for Nicole to take the glass in front of her, before raising her own.

 

“To health amidst chaos,” Gus says clearly, saluting some unknown soul, before tipping her head back and drinking the shot down in one gulp.

 

Nicole wants to add something - a prayer, even though she’s never been a religious woman, or a plea, even though it’s been a long time since she asked anyone else for help - but the words fall flat on the palms of her hands, so she raises her glass, and toasts to Gus instead.

 

“To keeping family safe,” Nicole says simply, drinking her own shot, and Gus’s eyes glow with the sentiment in it, before she nods gravely.

 

“A very good toast, Deputy,” Gus offers, nodding solemnly before turning to Nicole seriously. “You feel better in your mind now?”

 

Nicole knows her concern is for Waverly in this instance, that Nicole will treat her to the evening she deserves tonight, but she can hear the worry in her voice for Nicole, too.

 

“I do, actually,” Nicole replies, and she’s surprised by how much that’s actually true, because she does feel better after her short time with Gus, significantly so.

 

“Good,” Gus returns easily, a relieved and very small smile on her lips before they both hear a noise across the room that can only mean Waverly’s arrival.

 

Oakley precedes her, tearing across the floor and all but throwing herself into Nicole’s lap. It’s a very welcome distraction, actually, and Nicole is busy trying to fend off Oakley licking at any inch of bare she can see, when her eyes find Waverly Earp.

 

“You should really carry her when you’re in here, you know, kid,” Gus scowls at Waverly when she walks through the door a moment later, but Nicole knows her heart isn’t in it, because she bends to pat the pup on Nicole’s lap, and her whole face lights up.

 

But Nicole doesn’t have eyes for that, she only has eyes for Waverly, because she looks beautiful .

 

She’s wearing a dress tonight, and it takes Nicole a moment to realise that she hasn’t actually seen Waverly in a dress before, only a skirt, because she’s so distracted by how stunning Waverly looks.

 

The dress is a deep olive, and not dissimilar to the dress Nicole herself had worn on their date a few days ago, but different enough that it takes Nicole’s breath away. She stands at Waverly’s entrance, chivalry and something deeper in her belly drawing her to her feet the second Gus scoops Oakley out of her arms, moving back to give the two of them a little privacy.

 

“Hi,” Waverly says airily, her eyes moving across Nicole, wide and a little glassy. “You look…”

 

“Waverly, you…” Nicole says with equal coherence, or lack thereof, her cheeks burning distantly at the way Waverly’s eyes move almost with a hunger over her presentation.

 

Gus makes some noise of dismissal behind them, but Nicole barely hears it, because Waverly takes a step towards Nicole, careful not to actually touch her given the dining room is open just behind her, but with eyes heavy enough that their interest may as well be tangible.

 

“Hi,” Nicole says finally, gulping around the lump in her throat, her eyes still not done absorbing the view in front of her.

 

“Hi, yourself,” Waverly says a little coyly, risking a lightning-quick touch to Nicole’s arm. “You look…”

 

“So do you,” Nicole replies dumbly, but sweetly, in return, and they both stand there in silence for a moment, eyes bright and alert and ravenous, before Gus clears her throat.

 

“You’d better get goin’ if you want to catch the last of the light,” Gus says from behind them, and Nicole can hear the amusement in her voice, even if she can’t actually see her.

 

“Of course,” Nicole says quickly, nodding, turning to Gus to acknowledge her. “Waverly, are you ready to make our way?”

 

“When you are,” Waverly says sweetly, smiling warmly at Nicole before looking to Gus. “You sure you’re alright with her? Because I’m sure Mattie’ll have her for the night if you’re—”

 

“She’s quite alright here,” Gus says quickly, and Nicole smiles at the woman’s obvious fondness for the small animal. “We’ll be just fine, won’t we, shadow?”

 

Oakley leans up, licking the underside of Gus’s chin, making them all laugh before Nicole turns back to Waverly.

 

“Shall we?” Nicole asks softly, holding her arm out for Waverly to take, even though they’re inside, and it’s just an excuse to touch in a way that’s actually socially acceptable, but Nicole will take it gladly. “Do we need anythin’ else with us?”

 

“All taken care of,” Waverly winks, gesturing to the small satchel at her hip that Nicole can now see is loaded with food, before looking over Nicole’s shoulder to Gus. “Thanks again for—”

 

“Anytime,” Gus replies, winking at Waverly quickly, obviously not wanting to ruin some kind of surprise before shooing them out. “Now, get, the pair of you. Make sure that Mattie’s alright, while you’re at it, won’t you?”

 

Nicole feels the temperature of her blood drop significantly, because she hadn’t thought about that, about the fact that they’ve got another missing girl and Mattie is so isolated out there by herself.

 

“We will,” Nicole says seriously, and Waverly, perceptive as she is, catches the look easily.

 

For a moment, Nicole thinks Waverly might actually ask what it is that’s just transpired between the two of them, but she doesn’t, allowing her attention to drift before pulling Nicole toward the dining room.

 

“Good night, Gus,” Waverly throws backward, turning her body in Nicole’s hold so she can look back at her aunt. “I’ll come get her in the mornin’ to save unsettlin’ her later on.”

 

“I get you for the whole night,” Gus coos down to Oakley, making Nicole and Waverly both smile. “Good night girls. And you be safe, you hear me?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole replies seriously, giving Gus a very quick salute before she rolls her eyes and turns her attention back to the pup, reaching over to the preparation table for a piece of dried meat.

 

With Gus and Oakley happily content in one another’s company, Nicole can turn her attention fully back to Waverly, smiling as Waverly beams up at her.

 

“It’s nice to see you,” Waverly says quietly when they enter the dining room, holding on a little tighter to Nicole’s arm, and Nicole’s about to reply when the men she had walked past earlier raise the level of their conversation.

 

She doesn’t catch a lot, thankfully, which means Waverly won’t have either, because Nicole wants to be able to tell Waverly in a manner in which she can release the information such that it doesn’t prompt panic, in a way that she can reassure Waverly. Not being overheard by two slightly-drunk guests of Gus’s.

 

It’s enough to slip her slightly into a melancholic frame of mind though, and she tries to shake it when they walk through and out into the Main Street, but it’s not so easily done, even in Waverly’s company.  If Waverly notes a difference, and somewhere Nicole knows that she has, she doesn’t say anything, choosing to sigh heavily into Nicole’s side instead, and Nicole is quite happy to accept that.

 

They walk down the Main Street, much quieter now, owing to the lateness of the day, and as heavy as her mind is, Nicole closes her eyes and focuses on the feeling of Waverly’s hand beneath her own in the crook of her elbow. The smell and quiet of the air, with her eyes closed, in this moment, they could be the only two people on the earth.

 

Waverly seems content to focus on the silence for a little while, too, and Nicole’s never really had this before, where the silence is comforting and not threatening or haunting, and it makes her feel easy, it makes her happy , and she thinks Waverly senses that, too. The end of the street approaches before Waverly gently breaks the silence, looking up to Nicole and biting her lip slightly.

 

“Thank you for doin’ this. For comin’ home with me,” Waverly says softly, and Nicole gazes back at her in amazement for a moment.

 

“Oh, Waverly,” Nicole says easily, leaning into Waverly’s warmth slightly. “Thank you for invitin’ me.”

 

“Can I confess somethin’?” Waverly asks, and Nicole can actually feel her nerves jump beneath her hand.

 

“Of course you can,” Nicole replies smoothly, nodding in encouragement. “Always.”

 

“I’m a little nervous,” Waverly admits finally after a moment’s silence, and when she looks up to Nicole next, she’s blushing. “To take you home, I mean.”

 

“Why do you feel nervous?” Nicole asks, a little concerned, because she hopes beyond hope that she hasn’t pressed Waverly somehow into thinking or feeling that she has to share this with Nicole if she isn’t ready.

 

“I’m just…” Waverly says before trailing off, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth again. “What if you don’t like it? What if it makes you think differently…? About me, I mean.”

 

Nicole softens, wanting nothing more in that moment than to sweep down and pull Waverly into a hug, but she can’t, even with the cloak of dusk around them, because they’re in the middle of the street, but she saves the emotion, intending to make up for it when they’re alone.

 

She can’t touch to express how she feels about Waverly, but she can speak, so she tries that instead.

 

“You listen to me, Waverly Earp,” Nicole says with a playful seriousness, drawing Waverly’s eye to her own. “Nothin’ short of you turnin’ into another person is goin’ to change that, you hear me? Lord, you could be runnin’ an opium den out there and I’d still probably feel the same.”

 

“Really?” Waverly breathes, and the relief is palpable, almost enough for Nicole to reach out and touch.

 

“Truly,” Nicole says easily, and Waverly beams a little brighter, lifting her head up higher at that realisation, too.

 

“I wish…” Waverly says to her then, turning her body into Nicole’s a little more, properly folding herself into Nicole’s side.

 

She’s looking at Nicole’s lips in a way that makes Nicole think she understands exactly what Waverly wants to say - wants to do, but can’t - and it drives everything from her mind and dries her throat…

 

…until she catches another MISSING poster nailed up alongside the other two on the last post before the street turns to Mattie’s road, and her pulse skips a beat in a way that makes her feel distinctly ill all over again.

 

Waverly visibly notices that time, too, but she still doesn’t say anything, and Nicole could kiss her for respecting the fact that if she wanted to talk, she would have, for now at least.

 

They talk about small things - Waverly’s afternoon, how Nicole slept - as they walk down the dirt road to Mattie’s house, nothing heavy or serious, obviously conscious of the fact that whatever they begin to talk about is likely to be interrupted by Mattie in a few minutes. During the day, Nicole might have gone straight to the stables first to see Lady Jane, but with things as they are, and night approaching, she steers them directly towards the house first instead.

 

A booming bark heralds their arrival, and Nicole can see the top of an enormous dog’s head through the window, shushed swiftly by Mattie, pushing in front of the dog to open the door.

 

“Do you mind if I let him out?” Mattie calls to them. “He won’t hurt you, but he’ll make a din if I just leave him in the house.”

 

Nicole feels Waverly tense reflexively beside her, and she doesn’t blame her, because she’s been around animals her entire life, but the dog is intimidating, there’s no doubt about that at all.

 

“I’m okay,” Waverly says beside her quietly, holding on a little tighter to Nicole’s arm in a motion that she doesn’t mind whatsoever. “I’m just… I haven’t been around big dogs a lot. We had smaller ones, growin’ up, and I loved them, but…”

 

“I can ask Mattie to leave him inside,” Nicole offers gently, putting her hand over Waverly’s in a gesture of reassurance. “She won’t mind. I’ll look after you, though, if he’s alright to come out. I promise.”

 

Waverly gives her a shaky nod that implicitly says, I trust you , before she calls out to Mattie. “It’s alright, Mattie. Let him out.”

 

Mattie nods, swinging the door open, allowing the dog to walk out behind her, and he lopes on long, high legs towards them, all the defensiveness of a moment ago completely gone.

 

“Not so bad after all, are you,” Nicole says, stepping in front of Waverly automatically when he walks towards them, effectively shielding Waverly entirely, but giving her plenty of room if she feels confident enough to step towards him herself.

 

She feels Waverly relax a little at her back, relieved Waverly hadn’t thought the gesture too overprotective, bending down toward him with an outstretched hand. The dog walks up to Nicole’s hand, sniffing it before promptly dropping to his haunches and rolling onto his back, exposing his belly, deferring to the obvious authority or something that he must be able to sense on Nicole.

 

She feels Waverly move next to her then, bending down and rubbing the dog’s belly, too, to his obvious delight, before standing back with her hands on Nicole’s shoulders lightly.

 

“You call yourself a guard dog,” Mattie scowls at the dog, bending to scratch at his stomach roughly, too, before standing to meet the eye of both women. “Evenin’ to you both. This is a surprise. I wasn’t expectin’ you till mornin’.”

 

“I hope it’s not a bother to drop by,” Nicole says apologetically, but Mattie shakes her head quickly.

 

“Not at all, Deputy,” Mattie reassures them both, looking from Waverly to Nicole. “Not at all. I presume you’re here to see young Lady J?”

 

“I’ve managed to trick the Deputy into comin’ out to see the homestead,” Waverly says with a smile, looking to Mattie and then back up to Nicole, but Nicole’s mind wanders a little as Waverly does so, only coming back to herself at the sound of a change in voice.

 

“I don’t think there’s much trickin’ to it, Miss Earp,” Mattie replies to Waverly in a tone softer than the one she uses for most other people. “I’m sure the Deputy is a willin’ companion.”

 

“Most definitely,” Nicole manages to return, but she’s a little distracted still, her mind replaying the image of the MISSING poster, when Waverly’s warmth moves temporarily at her side.

 

Mattie eyes her a little warily, but doesn’t call Nicole on her distraction just yet, locking the door behind her instead, and turning towards the stables.

 

“We had a good, short ride today, and I brushed her down after, so she’ll be in good form for a little nighttime outing,” Mattie remarks on the short walk to the barn.

 

“She’ll be fine to carry the both of us out all that way?” Waverly asks, looking briefly concerned before turning back between Nicole and Mattie.

 

“I forget, you won’t have seen her,” Mattie replies, smiling at Waverly. “Wait till you meet her, Waverly. You’ll know the two of you will be nothin’ for her.”

 

Waverly walks a little quicker then, and Nicole can’t stop the warmth that spreads through her body at Waverly’s obvious excitement to see her oldest friend. She breaks away from Nicole’s arm after a moment, walking ahead, looking back to them, grinning brightly.

 

“Everythin alright, Deputy?” Mattie asks quietly when Waverly is just out of earshot. “Has somethin’ happened, or your nerves gettin’ the better of you?”

 

“Is it that obvious?” Nicole sighs, disappointed in herself that she hasn’t been more discreet with her worry.

 

“Not overly, no,” Mattie reassures her, watching Waverly push through the barn door easily, not bothering to wait for them. “Although, Miss Earp is bound to pick up on it, if she hasn’t already, with the number of times she looks at you every minute.”

 

“There’s been a third disappearance,” Nicole says simply, coming to a stop just outside the stables, casting a glance to see Waverly near Lady Jane’s stall. “Another woman. That’s not a coincidence, Mattie. It can’t be.”

 

“Jesus Christ,” Mattie curses, stubbing her toe on the dirt when she stops still.

 

“You’ll make sure you’re extra vigilant, won’t you?” Nicole says seriously. “And if there’s anythin’ that bothers you, ride hard for town, come to the Inn, alright. Gus’ll find a bed for you.”

 

“I’m not gonna let nothin’ drive me off this land,” Mattie says stubbornly, and Nicole glares at her for a moment until she relents. “But I appreciate the concern, Deputy. Really, I do. And if I do find myself worried, I’ll come in. For sure.”

 

“You don’t have to be a martyr out here, you know?” Nicole says straight, not fussing around niceties, because Nicole doesn’t know Mattie well yet, but she has a distinct sense that this is the kind of women who appreciates a more direct approach. “You’re allowed to rely on someone else from time to time.”

 

“So they can let me down? The only person who won’t is the one standin’ in these boots,” Mattie says, gesturing to her feet, and Nicole can’t help but laugh at her stubbornness.

 

“I know,” Nicole says softly, turning to follow Waverly into the barn. “I had no one to depend on but that one for a long time, Mattie, but that person gets tired sometimes, I know she does, and it’s okay to let her rest.”

 

Nicole doesn’t wait for Mattie to answer before following Waverly into the barn, her heart swelling at the sight of Waverly patting Lady Jane’s neck softly, running her hand smoothly down to the horse’s shoulders.

 

“I was worried Waverly wouldn’t take to her, or she to Waverly, but…” Nicole says, trailing off, watching as Waverly takes Lady Jane’s muzzle in her hands, leaning her forehead to the top of the horse’s forehead.

 

“I don’t think that’s gonna be a problem,” Mattie finishes for her, laughing softly before whistling, obviously a little impressed at Waverly’s courage in approaching the impressively sized animal.

 

Nicole can see Waverly close her eyes and whisper something almost silently to Lady Jane before releasing a heavy breath, and pulling back slightly to look at Mattie and Nicole as they approach.

 

“She’s beautiful, Nicole,” Waverly says in awe of her horse, and Nicole falls effortlessly, even deeper, into adoration with her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horse so lovely.”

 

Waverly turns away from Lady Jane slightly to address Nicole and Mattie, her hand slipping from the horse’s muzzle, and before any of the can say anything else, Lady Jane headbutts Waverly gently, as if upset the affection has stopped.

 

“I think she might be of the same mind,” Nicole says sweetly, eyes for Waverly and Waverly alone, as she walks towards the stall. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her warm to someone so quick, save maybe Mattie. But I think that’s only ‘cause she’d figured out where her meals were gonna come from the second they met one another.”

 

“I resent that, Deputy,” Mattie replies, with mock-hurt, moving away as Gus had, to give the two of them a moment alone with Lady Jane.

 

“You think she likes me?” Waverly asks nervously, looking from Nicole to the horse, and then back again. “How?”

 

“I know she likes you,” Nicole affirms, taking a step closer into the shadow of Waverly’s body. “And I know that because we have been friends for a very long time, she and I.”

 

“Really?” Waverly asks, blushing a little, moving forward a breath in answer of Nicole’s compliment.

 

“Truly,” Nicole returns easily, grinning at Waverly’s smile.

 

“Do we need to do anythin’ else for her?” Waverly asks, turning back to glance at the horse quickly. “Does she need to eat? Before we…?”

 

“She’s already eaten,” Mattie confirms, turning back to the two of them. “Fed her an hour or so ago, so she’s good’n ready to go when you are.”

 

“Thank you,” Nicole says gratefully, moving around Waverly so she can pull the stall open and lead the horse out by the halter that she’s just slipped on. “For everythin’, Mattie. I’ll bring her back later on tonight, but I’ll try not to wake you.”

 

“No great concern if you do,” Mattie shrugs, before turning back to the both of them with a smirk. “Enjoy your evenin’, won’t you ladies? Don’t do anythin’ I wouldn’t.”

 

“So that leaves us with murder, or…” Nicole teases her before moving back to allow Waverly to approach the now saddled Lady Jane.

 

“That mouth’a yours is gonna get you into a fight one day, Deputy,” Mattie says with a playful warning, pointing her finger at Nicole.

 

“Already has,” Nicole replies, to which both she and Mattie both laugh before she turns to Waverly, giving Waverly her full attention. “Do you feel alright ridin’ in the front? Normally I’d take that, but…”

 

“Front is fine,” Waverly says quickly, her eyes flashing with something that looks like hunger or excitement, and Nicole feels her own blood pick up in response.

 

She throws Mattie a warning look when she catches her with a smirk off to the side, to which Mattie just winks at her before turning her attention to another horse a few stalls away.

 

“Do you ride often?” Nicole asks Waverly quietly, wracking her brain, unable to recall whether Waverly has already answered this question in the midst of their other conversations.

 

“Not as often as I used to when I was a child,” Waverly recalls, placing her foot in the stirrup and reaching for the saddle horn. “Wynonna's a much better rider than I am, but I do okay, I think?”

 

“I’ve seen you ride, Waverly Earp,” Mattie calls from a few feet away. “And that sister of yours is somethin’ else on a horse, but you’re not too far off, either.”

 

“I’m always a little nervous to begin with, though,” Waverly tries to reason to Nicole, as if requiring an excuse for why they should ride out on one horse, and not two. “When I haven’t ridden for a long time? So I’ll still need…”

 

“I’m not goin’ anywhere,” Nicole says gently, placing her hand on Waverly’s shoulder. “Promise. I’ll be right there behind you.”

 

“You will?” Waverly asks quietly, and Nicole has the distinct feeling that she means now, but further beyond tonight, too.

 

“‘Course I will,” Nicole replies, her voice easy, and Waverly positively beams in response. “Always, Waverly.”

 

She knows Waverly wants to do something, make some gesture to show Nicole how much that means to her, but she obviously doesn’t want to push Mattie’s accommodation of their friendship, either, so she settles for covering Nicole’s hand, still on her shoulder, with her own hand.

 

“You’re somethin’ else, Nicole Haught,” Waverly says quietly, only just loud enough for her alone to hear. “You know that, don’t you?”

 

“Well, I’ve heard that before, only it’s had a distinctly different connotation spoken by different people,” Nicole returns, smirking down to Waverly. “But I think I like it much better comin’ from you.”

 

“I’m glad,” Waverly says with a smile of her own, leaving Nicole with a wink before moving smoothly up onto Lady Jane’s back.

 

She moves a little in the saddle before she finds a comfortable position, and Nicole is suddenly struck with exactly what she has to do now, and just how close she and Waverly are going to be for however long it takes them to ride out to the Earp homestead.

 

“Everythin’ alright?” Waverly asks, her voice concerned when she sees Nicole falter. “Do you want me to…?”

 

“Just fine,” Nicole says quickly, afraid Waverly might start climbing down if she doesn’t pick up her pace. “You okay if I get up there with you now?”

 

“Plenty of room,” Waverly replies easily, gripping the saddle horn and shuffling forward to demonstrate. “See?”

 

Nicole reaches for the saddle horn to grab onto, sliding her foot into the stirrup and praying to someone or something that she does this smoothly, like she does everyday, and not awkwardly, just because Waverly is watching. The prayer must work, or perhaps luck is just with her, but she slides in behind Waverly as fluidly as water, coming to rest with Waverly’s warm back against her front.

 

She’s not sure what makes her cheeks burn harder, though, the fact that Waverly is here, so very close to her, the fact that Waverly’s hands cover hers atop the saddle, or the smile that Waverly presents her when she turns slightly in her seat to look at Nicole.

 

“Comfy?” Waverly asks coyly, and she can almost feel the flutter of Waverly’s heart against her chest, because she can tell that Waverly’s trying to play this a little calmer, but the very faint tremor in her hands, and the hitch in her throat gives her away.

 

“Very,” Nicole says, looking down over Waverly’s shoulder to the faint blush almost invisible amidst the darkening light. “Are you ready?”

 

“When you are,” Waverly says easily in return, leaning back into the warmth and comfort of Nicole’s body slightly.

 

“Be safe, you two,” Mattie offers by way of a parting comment when Nicole clicks her tongue and gestures for Lady Jane to start moving.

 

The slow step, step, step , of the horse’s walk only serves to completely eliminate the conservative modicum of space Nicole had tried to leave between the two of them, for decency’s sake, and she should have known better, really, but it’s a shock nonetheless to feel Waverly so warm, suddenly pressed everywhere .

 

Waverly makes a small noise in front of her when they start moving properly, Nicole’s hands slipping around Waverly’s waist, beneath Waverly’s arms to hold the reins, and she’s not sure if it’s the contact, or Nicole’s touch against her skin when she takes the reins gently from Waverly, but the sound makes her pulse skip, regardless.

 

“Still alright?” Nicole asks quietly, and she just catches Waverly nodding breathlessly, her cheeks an obvious pink now.

 

“Fine,” Waverly manages to breathe, before she attempts speech again. “More than, it’s just… you’re warm.”

 

“Good warm?” Nicole asks a little hesitantly, preparing to shuffle back if the contact is too overwhelming for Waverly to begin with. “Because I can move if it’s-”

 

“No,” Waverly says quickly, but shyly, shaking her head. “No, stay, please?”

 

“I’m not goin’ anywhere,” Nicole replies, her voice soft and reassuring. “Remember? Not unless you want me to.”

 

“And if I want you to stay?” Waverly asks softly, turning to look up at Nicole with eyes that make Nicole’s ribs stretch with the urge to lean down and press their lips together oh, so softly. “What if I want you to stay forever?”

 

In the days, weeks, months to come, Nicole still won’t be able to ascertain exactly whether her heart stops or not in that moment, in the moment where Waverly Earp gives her the gift of forever .

 

“Then I stay,” Nicole replies as if it were the simplest thing in the world. “As long as you’ll have me, Waverly.”

 

She feels, rather than hears, Waverly make a low noise of contentment, her eyes glowing before she bites her lip and focuses forward, and Nicole can’t help but beam , too.

 

They make their way out of the barn, waving one final goodbye to Mattie, holding the larger door open for them, before making their way out onto the road. Nicole pauses for a second, realising for the first time that she’s not actually sure where to go, before Waverly turns around in her arms, a little sheepishly.

 

“Sorry,” Waverly says with a small, warm smile, Nicole’s pause bringing her out of whatever daydream she had been in, resting against Nicole’s front. “Left. We have to go left. And just follow the road. We can’t miss it.”

 

Nicole gestures for Lady Jane to head in the direction Waverly had indicated, before leaning forward a little to scratch the horse’s neck. “Good girl, Lady J.”

 

The animal picks up the pace a little, only slightly, but enough to demonstrate that she, too, understands the importance of not being out in the dark for longer than they need to be, regardless of how pleasant their current closeness might be.

 

“Nicole?” Waverly asks after a moment of quiet while Nicole is busy casting her eyes around their surroundings.

 

“Mmmm,” Nicole says by way of reply, looking down to see a creased and slightly concerned forehead. “Is everything alright?”

 

“That’s the question I wanted to ask you, if I may?” Waverly replies quietly, and Nicole feels her remove her hands from the saddle to rub them together a little nervously.

 

“You can always ask me anything, Waverly. Any time, okay?” Nicole says with as casual a tone as she can manage, reprimanding herself internally at the same time.

 

Because she’s been upset at this most recent disappearance since Gus told her earlier, and angry at herself for that, and she thought she’d been putting on enough of a front that Waverly wouldn’t notice, but she hasn’t , Waverly had picked up on something , and it makes her feel a little sick with guilt that she’s made Waverly worry.

 

“It’s just…” Waverly says quietly, and Nicole’s stomach drops, because maybe she’s changed her mind. “I haven’t done anythin’ wrong, have I? You haven’t changed your mind about comin’? Because it’s okay if you have. You could ride me out and come directly back. You don’t have to stay if you—”

 

“I do,” Nicole returns, interrupting Waverly as gently as she can. “It’s not that at all, Waverly. It’s nothin’ you’ve done. You’ve been perfect, and I’m so sorry, because I’ve been an absolute fool for makin’ you worry.”

 

“You still want to come and…” Waverly begins before Nicole nods behind her quickly.

 

“Of course I do,” Nicole breathes deeply, and she feels Waverly sigh in relief against her.

 

“Thank goodness,” Nicole says, sighing in relief, too, and they both laugh softly before settling against one another again, comfortably, and Nicole can’t help but remark at how well Waverly fits in her arms.

 

Because Shae had been closer to her own height, even from the time when they were children, and they’d never fit comfortably on a horse together, one never able to get comfortable against the other, but this , being with Waverly, it feels perfect.

 

“Is there somethin’ else?” Waverly asks perceptively after a moment. “If it’s not…me… is there somethin’ else worryin’ you?”

 

The sigh that escapes her lips then is entirely accidental, and she just about claps her hand over her mouth, because she had wanted to wait until they were within the safety of the homestead before telling Waverly, and not on the open road, but she needs to be honest now, because she doesn’t want anything but truth between the two of them, not if they’re about to embark on something together.

 

“I want you to promise me somethin’, alright?” Nicole asks Waverly softly, reaching forward to cover Waverly’s hand with her own gently.

 

“Anythin’,” Waverly replies easily, fluidly, as though she had been waiting years for Nicole to ask that of her. “Anythin’, Nicole.”

 

She blows a breath out between clenched teeth, so reluctant to threaten or ruin the shine of the evening, but wanting - no, needing - to show Waverly that she has no intention of babying her, like so many others in her life seem to have.

 

“After I woke up up this evenin’,” Nicole says slowly, sliding forward slightly to give Waverly the comfort of her body, smiling when Waverly moves back into it willingly. “When I went downstairs, Gus told me there’d been news today, that there’s been… that another girl had gone missin’. That she had gone missin’ while I was on watch last night. And I’m so sorry... I’m so sorry that I hadn’t told you before, because you might not have wanted to come out in the dark, I just… I was bein’ selfish, Waverly. Because I wanted to spend the night with you. But I’m so sorry.”

 

“Oh, Nicole,” Waverly breathes, turning around to try and look Nicole in the eye, while Nicole looks out into the growing darkness around them with determination.

 

Her throat grows thick with grief and frustration and anger just thinking of it, but she’s brought out of her trance by Waverly’s soft touch on her jaw, turning, leading Nicole to turn her head around so that Waverly can meet her eye.

 

“You have to listen to me,” Waverly says firmly, and it’s the first time she’s heard Waverly use that tone since she reprimanded Champ the first day Nicole had arrived in town. “I can hear you thinkin’ and blamin’ yourself from here, Nicole Haught, but that wasn’t your fault, alright? That was in no way your fault, or in any way your wrong-doing.”

 

“But, I should have been more aware,” Nicole replies, and she doesn’t know who it’s to exactly, but her voice is a plea . “I should’ve known somethin’ was wrong.”

 

“Would you have blamed Nedley, if he was in your position?” Waverly reasons simply, kindly, and the argument falls right out of Nicole’s mouth, because she’s right. She would never have blamed anyone else if they’d been in her position.

 

“No,” Nicole says softly, shaking her head. “Of course not, I just… I feel like I should have been able to do more, to do somethin’, you know?”

 

“I do, actually,” Waverly says, her voice quiet, and Nicole feels her stomach drop, because of course she does.

 

“I’m so sorry, Waverly,” Nicole tries to say quickly, desperately trying to patch the hole she’s terrified that she’s just punctured in Waverly’s heart. “I didn’t mean…”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly soothes in return, and Nicole knows she means it, that she’s not just trying to make Nicole feel better. “Truly, it is. I don’t mean to bring it up to make you feel uncomfortable, I just… I’ve spent most of my life goin’ over that night again and again and again, tryin’ to find some way I could have helped, some way I could have done somethin’ to stop Wynonna doin’ what she didn’t mean to, not for Daddy’s sake, or Willa’s, but for hers.”

 

She pauses for a moment, moving slightly so she can settle more closely against Nicole’s front, and Nicole glows at the not so small fact that Waverly must find some comfort there.

 

“I spent years cryin’ myself to sleep, tryin’ to find some small moment or motion to change, until Gus found me one night, huddled in the corner of that room you’re sleepin’ in, and told me that there is nothin’ I could have done then, and nothin’ anyone could do now, and that it’s a terrible, terrible thing to live with, but we do ourselves an injustice by holdin’ onto and focusin’ on things we can’t change, instead of lookin’ to the things that we can,” Waverly explains quietly, and the youth falls from her from then, demonstrating a soft wisdom that feels ancient and kind.

 

And slowly, gradually, Waverly’s words start to sink in, and softly, gently, they begin to heal .

 

“I know it is a far easier thing said than done, but you can’t blame yourself, Nicole,” Waverly says whisper-soft, sliding her fingers between Nicole’s atop the saddle. “You just can’t. Because it wasn’t your fault. And if you ever start questionin’ that, remind yourself that you wouldn’t blame me for what I didn’t do, would you?”

 

“No,” Nicole says quickly, shaking her head. “Of course not, Waverly. I would never .”

 

“Good,” Waverly says simply, turning to face the open field around them. “Well then you understand exactly how I feel about you and your circumstances.”

 

And she wants to argue that there is more that she could have done, that her inaction is a crime in itself, but then she runs Waverly’s argument through her head, and as much as she does want to find a loophole, to blame herself, she can’t. It’s airtight. So slowly, she begins to feel a little calmer about her own guilt.

 

Waverly is right , she runs as a mantra in her head to ground her. Waverly is right, Waverly is right.

 

“Thank you,” Nicole says when she feels like she has the strength to speak without her voice breaking, causing Waverly to turn in her embrace again. “Thank you, Waverly. It helps. More than I think you know.”

 

“It does?” Waverly asks, and the hope and happiness is beautiful .

 

“It definitely helps,” Nicole affirms, and she wants to lean down and press a kiss to Waverly’s shoulder, to show her how much it means, but she doesn’t want to push…

 

…but then Waverly leans back into her, purposefully and a little heavily, as if trying to emphasise the motion, and something in Nicole warms, deep, deep down, and she thinks a gesture like that might not be so unwanted after all.

 

Now that she has the wider capacity to notice it more, with less of her brain taken with worry, Nicole takes stock of how lovely it is to have Waverly relax into her, to have Waverly trust her enough to relax into her, in addition to the fact that they’re now very, very close. There had been some distance between them to begin with, but there’s none now. They’re flush, back to front, and Nicole can almost certainly feel Waverly’s heartbeat thump , thump , thump next to her own through her thin shirt, and the fabric of Waverly’s dress.

 

Waverly is warm, almost pleasantly hot, from shoulder to hip, and Nicole is desperately trying to keep a handle on her wandering mind, because they haven’t even kissed yet, and Nicole’s mind keeps focussing on her own warmth, where it meets Waverly’s chest, and her back, and lower, too. Nicole knows she shouldn’t, but her control slips and her mind trips a little longer, and she imagines what it would feel like to have bare skin between the two of them, and not two layers of fabric instead.

 

It’s so very intimate, this position they find themselves in, and Nicole’s ridden with others before, a thousand times, but this is different, because in those situations, there are still two very definable bodies in the equation, but here, now, it only feels like there’s one. They feel like one. Waverly sighs in Nicole’s arms, and Nicole feels her own blood breathe the oxygen out.

 

And it’s intimate in other ways, too, because Nicole is very aware of the bite in the air, and the way her body itself is reacting to that and having Waverly so near, and the change it’s bringing against her skin, and the fact that Waverly, so very close to her, with so little between them, can probably feel that change, too.

 

And she’s about to bring herself out if it, she’s about to snap herself back into the here and now, when Waverly breathes something that makes her stomach drop.

 

“Is it different?” Waverly asks quietly, and Nicole can feel her breath stop in her chest. “Being with a w—“

 

Waverly is halfway through her sentence when the wooden archway onto the homestead dawns suddenly into view, and they both still completely. “Home,” Waverly breathes instead, and Nicole can hear the familiarity present in her voice, but there’s something else there, too.

 

Fear, Nicole thinks as her blood stops. She’s scared. Waverly is afraid to be here.

 

“Home,” Nicole echoes in a way that she hopes breathes comfort into Waverly, because Waverly might fear this place, but Nicole will see the end of the world before she allows Waverly to meet any harm here.

 

Or anywhere else, for that matter.

 

Nicole leans forward, closing her hand around Waverly’s, and her body around Waverly’s, too, and Waverly senses what Nicole is offering her immediately. Comfort and safety and a partner .

 

It’s not big or grand, but something about the homestead commands power, and Nicole finds herself a little in awe as they ride up to the house. The property is surprisingly well kept, considering it’s only Wynonna and Doc managing the affairs here, but Nicole imagines it would be a point of pride for Doc in keeping the place as tidy and as nice as he could for Wynonna’s sake, so she has something to be proud of, in a way that she probably hasn’t ever had before.

 

Nicole can see the faint glow of a few lit lamps, but there aren’t any dogs barking or signs of life inside, or animals otherwise heralding their arrival. In fact, it’s actually eerily silent once Nicole focuses on the noise, or lack thereof.

 

“It’s strange huh?” Waverly says, answering her unanswered question. “There’s never any sound here, no crickets chirpin’ or birds squawkin’. It’s always been that way, for as long as I can remember. Even before Daddy died.”

 

“Does your sister have a dog to keep her company?” Nicole asks quietly, almost afraid to speak too loud, and she feels, rather than sees, Waverly shake her head.

 

“No,” Waverly replies in a whisper, before laughing softly. “Although Wynonna jokes that Doc does the job of one just fine, half the time.”

 

“She sounds like she keeps him well on his toes, you know,” Nicole returns, smiling, pleased that Waverly seems a little less tense than she did a moment ago. “Are we okay to ride up, or should we…?”

 

“This is my house, too,” Waverly says with a conviction Nicole wouldn’t have thought her capable of presently. “We don’t have to wait for an invitation.”

 

Without waiting for Nicole to reply, Waverly clicks her tongue, urging Lady Jane on, and to Nicole’s immense surprise, the horse complies, carrying them closer to the house. They ride up almost directly to the front door, and Nicole can see a hitching post to tether Lady Jane to, so she gestures subtly with the tension of her legs for the horse to move in that direction.

 

When they near the door, Nicole hesitates for a second, reluctant to lose the heat of Waverly’s body, but aware that they can’t stay on the horse forever, as much as she may want that. She dismounts smoothly first, instantly missing the feeling of Waverly against her, before turning to help Waverly down off Lady Jane, too.

 

Waverly blushes when Nicole holds her hand out to her, smiling with some breathtaking softness, like the movement of placing her hand in Nicole’s means so much more than the simple gesture suggests. Waverly’s hand slides into Nicole’s own, and neither of them can miss the crack of electricity that jumps between the two of them, unmistakably electric.

 

Nicole watches while Waverly dismounts with a surprising amount of grace for someone wearing a long dress, stepping down onto the ground, close to Nicole. There’s only an inch or so between them now, and Waverly’s hands hover over Nicole’s chest before settling high, above the line of Nicole’s breast. She glances up to Nicole, as if to ask whether it’s okay to touch Nicole like this, and Nicole can only smile a little dumbly in reply, because it feels like her heart has found Waverly’s hand on the other side of her chest, stopped-still beneath the touch.

 

Nicole doesn’t speak for a second, because she’s not sure she actually can, not with Waverly this close and her hand right there, and her heart pressing against her ribs in an effort to meet it, but she doesn’t have to.

 

Because Waverly breaks the silence and speaks for her.

 

“I like this much better,” Waverly says with a shaky confidence, running her fingertips down the front of Nicole’s shirt from collarbone, stopping just shy of the swell of Nicole’s breast, making Nicole shiver deeply. “Your clothing, I mean.”

 

“You do?” Nicole says a little breathlessly, as her eyes dart from Waverly’s eyes to her lips to the position of her hand, unsure where they want to settle the most. “May I ask why?”

 

“It’s more… you ,” Waverly says simply, shrugging, and the gesture is so adorable Nicole almost crumbles beneath her touch.

 

“It is?” Nicole asks automatically, and she’s only really half-paying attention to what Waverly is saying, because the sensation-overload coming from being so close to Waverly is beginning to make her head feel like it’s full.

 

“Most definitely,” Waverly says while her eyes move to Nicole’s lips and stay there. “Most…”

 

Waverly’s voice trails off, but her gaze doesn’t. It lingers and holds and then she licks her lips, and Nicole begins to worry that she’ll lose the ability to stand upright after a moment longer.

 

But then a flash of something playful crosses her eyes, and she pushes off from Nicole’s chest lightly, turning away with the fluidity of water, walking towards the door. She reaches the top step of the porch, waiting for Nicole to tie Lady Jane up before breaking into a grin, holding her hand out for Nicole.

 

“Will you come in?” Waverly says simply, as though it were as easy as that to offer your life to someone. “I want to show you my home.”



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