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Aftertaste.

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Since Willa's death there has been a bad taste in her mouth.

This is both literal and figurative.   

Waverly has been struggling to reconcile her feelings on the whole thing. Her heart breaks daily at the hollow, numb look on Wynonna’s face but there is an ugly, embarrassing part of her that is not particularly mourning Willa

It is not that she is glad that Willa is gone, it is that Waverly knew so little of her to begin with. 

As a child, Willa had been their father’s protégé. She had been the heir, the one to take Ward Earp’s place eventually. He was hard on her and he made Willa hard in turn. Waverly doesn’t blame her, but Willa was not an easy person to live with when they were kids. She shaved the fur off Waverly’s stuffed animals and she scribbled in Waverly’s favourite books. So many people would see this as something siblings simply did to each other, but there was a vindictive, angry quality to everything Willa used to do when they were kids. She wasn’t simply acting out, she had wanted to hurt Waverly. 

She made Waverly do dangerous, sometimes near-impossible challenges to buy secrecy or affection, and she excluded Waverly as much as possible. As a child, Waverly had loved Willa because she was supposed to, but she had never really liked her. 

And with the memory of the attack on the homestead fading like an old newspaper entry over time - the story still present and legible, but duller than before - Waverly almost forgot to miss Willa. When she returned, Waverly had struggled to make sense of her eldest sister being alive. 

Now, with Willa dead (for real) it was as though Waverly was simply hearing about the death of someone else’s sister; it was a sad story, but it didn’t pierce Waverly the way it perhaps should. She feels guilty and a little bit ashamed of herself, but she cannot engineer her own sadness. 

There are other things for Waverly to care about, and these take precedence. 

There is the haunted look on Wynonna’s face - responsible now for the death of Ward and Willa - and she tries to hide it by drinking and stalking outside to shoot at the empty bottles. Waverly is scared half to death now that a drunken accident is brewing. 

Then, there is Nicole. Poor, kind Nicole who had been shot and was trying to pretend that it was nothing. Nicole, who was brimming with pride at becoming a part of Black Badge, and had no idea how fearful the prospect made Waverly. There is Champ, who had told the Sheriff about the two of them, and would not keep their relationship a secret now he knew the truth. The whole town would know by now, and Waverly still had not worked out exactly how she felt about it. 

There is Bobo too, or rather the echo of his words spinning around Waverly’s head without reprieve. She couldn’t be anything but an Earp, could she? The idea that Bobo might be manipulating her once again made her sick to her stomach. That man had been inside her head for years. He had made Waverly into the reason the homestead was attacked. He thought her weak.  

But Waverly was not weak. She had never, ever felt less weak in her life. It was like there was something in her blood, simmering and spitting as it tried to bring itself to the boil. In the days after Bobo’s Poker Spectacular and Willa’s death, Waverly has spent her time trying to ignore how different she felt, how things had changed since she had crouched down and reached out to a shimmering, sable puddle.

Because something had called to her then, too. Just as Bobo had all those years ago. Everyone thought her weak. They were all wrong. 

But since touching that puddle there had been a taste like acrid smoke in the back of her throat, matching the metaphorical bad taste there, and no amount of food, drink, or mint toothpaste had yet taken it away.

So when, barely two days after Willa’s death, Nicole tells her that she tastes different , Waverly feels her stomach turn over itself. 

There is something wrong with her, but she just cannot put her finger on it. 

Perhaps she might have said something there and then, but Doc bustles into the kitchen for tea and Nicole - still perhaps not quite at home here yet - makes her excuses. 

Doc, God bless him, does his awkward best to give Waverly and Nicole his blessing before following Nicole’s path out the room and leaving Waverly with her thoughts. It is entirely the wrong time for Waverly to get stuck in her own head, however. Too much is going wrong around her, and Waverly has always hated feeling as though she is swimming against a current of change. 

That being said, there are some changes in her life which are unequivocally good . She is adrift now but not without a buoy. This time, she has Nicole and that means everything. 

She had not expected to speak the words I love her about Nicole so soon, least of all to Wynonna first, but she knows that they are true. Waverly has always been scared of loving others because it only seemed to drive them away, but she can no more stop herself from loving Nicole than she can stop the sun from rising each morning. 

She knows it is early days in their relationship, but there are some things which are unquestionable and being in love with Nicole is one of them.

So after a few hours in which Waverly tries (and fails) to conduct some BBD research, she allows herself to check her phone when it buzzes on the table next to her. 

She wonders if Nicole knows how much Waverly needs her; if Waverly’s silent call for guidance had stretched from her heart directly to Nicole’s. 

I’m going crazy being off work. Think I’ll go to town and get some groceries.

Anything you want me to get for you?

 

Waverly knows immediately what she is running low on. Even since Nicole had left she had tried to scrub the taste of fire, of something burning , out of her mouth. She types back can you get me some toothpaste please? before erasing the message and instead saying:

 

Would you mind coming by the homestead? I’d like to get out for a bit too.

Maybe I can come with you? If that’s okay…

 

Nicole replies immediately.

 

Definitely okay, I’d love that.

I’m actually ready to leave now, is it okay if I’m with you in like half an hour?

 

The sooner you’re here the sooner I see you again.

 

Waverly means these words intensely, but it is also her way of pretending everything is alright.

It is not alright, but she thinks that if she can spend even an hour with Nicole things might be infinitely better. Even just riding in her car and raiding the drugstore would be better than nothing. Perhaps they could stop at a diner for takeout food or coffee. Perhaps they could do something normal.  

Nicole is as good as her word when she turns up almost exactly thirty minutes later. She knocks on the door, although Waverly wishes she would just walk in, and greets Waverly with a ready smile and a hello, you kiss that Waverly feels in her fingertips. 

Nicole drives them both into town, fiddling with the console in the cruiser until they find a radio station they both like. They chatter aimlessly, and Waverly gives into the urge to reach out towards the driver’s seat and coast her hand gently over Nicole’s thigh. 

At this, Nicole sends her a knowing, playful look and Waverly almost wonders if Nicole is half-tempted to pull the car over for a moment or two. It would not be the first time. 

They have not quite reached that point yet, but Nicole had slept over at the homestead last night because Waverly wanted her close but did not want to leave Wynonna alone in the house. They were nearly ready , Waverly could tell, and although Waverly felt almost ridiculously nervous she also knew she wanted everything with Nicole.

Perhaps this was fortuitous because from the moment they park up in town and amble towards the store, there is a strange atmosphere around them. 

In truth, there is always a strange atmosphere in town. It is just Purgatory in its rawest, most demon-infested form. Plus, it has only been a short moment since half the townsfolk were poisoned with drugged-up booze, only to then be told a lukewarm lie to try and cover up the reality of their experience. 

For a short while, Waverly puts the odd mood down to this. After all, it was only last week that everyone was chasing about town trying to find Wynonna so that they could sacrifice her to Bobo. Strange events and all sorts of oddities followed the Earps around. To a degree, she is used to people watching her out of the corners of their eyes. 

She is not, however, used to sweet Mrs Burdet from the drugstore openly staring as Waverly crosses the short stretch of floor space, diverging briefly from Nicole who has a shopping list of her own. 

Waverly has known Mrs Burdet all her life - the lady is only slightly younger than Aunt Gus - but the other woman is watching Waverly now like she is a total stranger. 

Waverly flashes her a weak smile. “Afternoon, Mrs Burdet.” 

She waits for the usual response: your Aunt never used to let you girls call me Sarah and now it’s gone and stuck. But how are you today Miss Earp? 

But, for the first time in Waverly’s memory, the reply does not come. 

Instead, Mrs Burdet nods slowly. 

“Afternoon, Waverly.” 

Her voice is heavy and deliberate, tinged with something that Waverly cannot quite place. She does not get the impression it is a particularly positive undertone but she puts it down to a bad day on the store owner’s part. 

She drifts down the short aisles, picking up a few other essentials - body wash, nail polish remover, a new makeup sponge - before ambling towards the dental hygiene shelves. 

There are few other customers in the store and they all seem to fix Waverly with the same odd, narrow look as Mrs Burdet. Most of the people Waverly knows well, and the others she is acquainted with in passing. Within obvious reason, not one of them has ever paid her a second glance before now. 

Trying her best to ignore the odd atmosphere following her around, Waverly stands herself opposite the rows of neatly stacked little boxes. Most of them are decorated with shimmery foil and bright colours offset with white. Apparently, there was only so much variation to be had when advertising toothpaste. 

From her position she can just about see Mrs Burdet out of the corner of her eye, stood behind the register and preparing to serve Kirk Sheridan, an old regular at Shorty’s. Something in the way they talk - heads tilted together, eyes darting outwards occasionally, as if fearful of being caught red-handed at something - arouses Waverly’s suspicion. 

She cannot help but watch them cautiously, distracted only when Nicole rounds the corner with two boxes of ointment in her hand. 

“Babe, which of these do you th-” she pauses at the look on Waverly’s face. “What is it?” 

Waverly pauses, feeling as though she has been given a physical jolt. She looks at Nicole, who is staring down at her with a soft-eyed, serious look of concern on her face. 

“Oh. No, nothing, sorry - just in a world of my own. What were you going to say?” 

Nicole’s brow crinkles, and it is clear that she does not believe the lie. Waverly flashes her a little pleading look - not right now, please - and Nicole clears her throat. 

“It was nothing important, just wondered which of these you thought. For my ribs, you know?” 

Waverly looks at the two options, but in reality she cannot focus on either. 

Nicole had come to Waverly’s side without fanfare, had spoken so softly that there could no doubt that no one else in the shop had heard her term of endearment. It was a private, completely innocuous moment between the two of them, but Waverly had still been spying on the cash register before turning to Nicole. She could not have missed the identical, ugly looks that dripped down Mrs Burdet and Kirk Sheridan’s faces like excess paint. 

It had not occurred to Waverly, not initially, but this is the first time she and Nicole have been out together since the party. 

Everyone knows, a voice sounds in her head. Everyone hates you for it.  

Somehow, it manages to feel both surprising and entirely expected. Waverly had known the relationship would be cause for remark amongst the townsfolk here, but somehow it still feels like an electric shock to see it in the cold light of day. 

It had been a physical reaction, seeing the looks on the faces of two people who had known her all her life (or thereabouts). They were looking at her with disgust, as though she had suddenly ceased to be Waverly Earp at all. 

She had barely had time to prepare herself for loving Nicole - for loving another woman - and had not even begun to steel herself for an onslaught such as this.  

She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t prepared for everyone to know, for them to take something so beautiful and delicate as her relationship with Nicole and drag it through the mud. She thought, unbidden, of beautiful blue butterfly wings crushed beneath someone’s boot. That is how it had felt, just those two short looks. 

She was supposed to be ready for this adversity, and Champ had taken that away from her. 

You kissed her at the party , that same ugly little voice chimes in. You barely hid your feelings for each other at the party. Stupid girl, you should have known this would happen eventually if you didn't keep this a secret.  

Then, much stronger, Waverly’s conscious voice follows. 

We shouldn’t have to

She focuses back in on Nicole’s potential purchases. 

“That one,” she says decisively, tapping the box in Nicole’s left hand. “Gus used to use it all the time. It’s good.” 

“Okay, thanks,” Nicole says, still giving Waverly a probing look.  Ignoring it for the time being, Waverly adds, 

“I have to buy all this, plus toothpaste.” She grabs blindly at a box that she thinks is her brand. “Why don’t you go put the other one back and I’ll get these.” 

“Oh, well I have some change,” Nicole counters, reaching into her back pocket for some money. 

“I don’t care,” Waverly says quickly, wanting to pay before she loses her nerve. “It’s a couple of dollars, it’s fine.”

Before Nicole can protest, Waverly adds the bruise ointment to her little stack of items and carries them to the register.

By now, Mrs Burdet is on her own. She does not seem to need safety in numbers, however, because her eyes are trailed on Waverly with a look of what can only be described as open, unashamed contempt. 

“Just these, thanks,” Waverly mutters, stacking everything neatly in front of Mrs Burdet. “I have a bag with me.” 

She tries to smile, tries making the same idle chitchat she always would. She asks after Mrs Burdet’s husband and her sons, who were born a year either side of Waverly and who had been at countless birthday parties with her as a kid. Hell, she had been in their home more times than she could not recall. 

Normally, it is hard to stop the proprietor from talking, but she manages barely a word to Waverly and never once meets her eye properly. 

Eventually, Nicole appears quietly nearby, waiting for Waverly to pay. 

At this, Mrs Burdet seems to lose any small shred of restraint she had managed to hold onto. She angrily piles everything into Waverly’s bag, before shunting it back to her as though touching it might be a health risk for her. 

“Twenty-eight fifty-seven.”

“Of course,” Waverly says, checking to see if she has the correct change. She turns to Nicole. “Do you have twenty cents?” 

“Yeah, probably,” Nicole mutters, pulling a handful of shrapnel out of her back pocket and sifting through. 

Inaudible to Nicole from her short distance away, Mrs Burdet actually tsks under breath when Waverly takes a coin from Nicole. 

“You know, I really am just here to buy toothpaste Mrs Burdet,” Waverly says gently, with a narrow, forced smile.

“That’s fine. It’s twenty-eight fifty-seven.”

“Sure, I have it,” Waverly says, working to keep her voice soft and even. “Here.”

She offers the money, but when Mrs Burdet does not hold her hand out Waverly simply drops the cash onto the counter. 

“That’s fine, thanks.” 

“Don’t you want to count it?” 

“It’s fine. You can go. Both of you.” Normally, Mrs Burdet would say that she trusts Waverly. She would make a joke along the lines of I know where you live if you underpay. This time, Waverly feels that she has been all but thrown out the store.

“You’ve known me since I was born,” Waverly says icily. She will not beg or implore someone to reach into a well of tolerance that should flow freely of its own accord, but she has no aversion to simply pointing out others’ lack of humanity. 

Nicole says nothing, but watches the exchange as though ready to interject if needed. She catches Waverly’s eye and by silent assent, they both leave the store together.

It is only when Waverly shuts herself into the car that she realises she is shaking. 

Nicole drops heavily into the driver’s seat, looking at Waverly with a stricken, heartbroken look on her face. She gives Waverly a second, watching as she screws her hands up so tightly her nails make shallow welts in her palms. Nicole waits until Waverly has taken a few deep, steadying gulps of air. 

“Waves…” Nicole breathes, sounding so painfully sorry that Waverly’s heart breaks all over again. 

“Can you uh,” Waverly begins, but finds her voice cracking slightly. She wants to cry, but she doesn’t know why . It is just stupid Mrs Burdet. Waverly doesn’t even care what she thinks. She tries again, feeling a few tears dribble onto her cheeks. “Can you drive us somewhere that isn’t here please?” 

Nicole says nothing more, just starts the engine and pulls away.


 

 

“I don’t even know why I’m crying,” Waverly says, swiping angrily at the tears on her face. “I’ve known her forever but I don’t like, know know her. Her opinion doesn’t matter to me.”

“It’s okay,” Nicole murmurs, body angled towards Waverly’s in the front of the car, her hand tight on Waverly’s arm. “It’s okay.” 

She had stopped at the diner and bought them coffees, before driving them out of town and parking up off the road, in front of an objectively breathtaking view of the mountains. Waverly forgets sometimes how beautiful it is out here. In amongst the muck of the demons and revenants and apparently bigoted townsfolk, it was sort of easy to lose sight of what they did have.

And this moment - coffee with Nicole in the shadow of the Rockies - was certainly something . Even if Waverly is crying. Especially, perhaps, because Waverly is crying, because Nicole is here with her; she is warm in skin and in soul, and she is as steadfast as the mountains behind the windscreen. 

“It’s not okay,” Waverly says, tearful. She has been oscillating between hurt and fury since they left the parking lot by the drugstore. “Who does she even think she is? Why should I care what she thinks of us?” 

“Because it hurts Waves,” Nicole says plainly, and whatever equivalent experiences she has had show themselves in a flash of sadness behind her eyes. “It’s not okay that they do it, but it’s okay to be hurt by it. I’m sorry, I sort of feel like I’m r-” 

“Whatever you’re about to say,” Waverly cuts in, voice thick, “please don’t.” 

She does not want Nicole to feel responsible. She is worried enough as it is about Nicole experiencing the same reaction when she goes back to work. 

“But if I wasn’t h- ” 

“The alternative is that I never met you, never got to be with you,” Waverly points out, dabbing at her eyes with the hem of her sleeve. “And that’s worse. That’s so, so much worse.” 

“Are you sure?” Nicole asks, watching Waverly and looking rather as though she did not want to ask the question, let alone hear the answer. 

“Of course I’m sure.” 

Nicole nods. “Okay. Good.”

“It’s not gonna get better is it?” Waverly asks, realising as she does that she does not just mean Purgatory’s backward views. She is talking about Willa, about Wynonna hurting, about Black Badge and the revenants and whatever it is that is causing this goddamn disgusting taste in her mouth. She thinks longingly of the toothpaste packed away in the bag at her feet, but decides that even that will taste strange on her tongue now because of what happened. 

She hasn’t been able to cry over Willa, but she has cried over that stupid box of toothpaste. Maybe it was better that way. Maybe it was all the same in the end. 

Nicole drops her coffee safely into a cupholder in the central console, before putting her other hand - warmer than normal from holding onto the hot drink -  over Waverly’s.

“I don’t know for sure, but from experience I think it does slowly. As far as I’m concerned, we’re not going anywhere. Once they see that, they’ll have no choice but to get over it.” 

Silently Waverly wonders what damage they - Purgatory’s other inhabitants - might do to the two of them before they find something else to divert their attention. Waverly had seen what happened to kids in her grade who were gay (or who were suspected of it). Admittedly, everyone was older now but Waverly knows nonetheless how cruel life here can be in a multitude of ways. 

“We’re not?” Waverly asks, eyeing Nicole carefully. “Going anywhere, I mean?” 

People always leave her eventually; only Wynonna had ever come back. 

“Well, I’m certainly not,” Nicole answers, tipping her a small but weighty smile. “And if you are, I hope you’ll tell me in advance. I could use a vacation.” 

Waverly manages a small laugh, her tears now dried up. “Me too.” 

“To the ocean, maybe?” 

“That sounds wonderful.” 

Waverly finds herself smiling at the thought, then she finds herself smiling all the more when Nicole leans in.

The angle is awkward when they kiss, but this is far from the first time they have stolen a moment or two in Nicole’s car (front and back seats alike) and it will not be the last. 

There is still fear in Waverly’s heart. Because there really, really is something going wrong somewhere beneath her skin and she cannot know if Nicole actually will stay when it all becomes apparent.

When bad things happened and Waverly cried, her mother used to say that it’ll all come out in the wash. God she longs to wash the dirt of the drugstore interaction off her skin, and to scrub the thick tar out from between her teeth. 

Because Waverly knows she tastes different, even though Nicole makes no mention of it now. Perhaps the coffee masks it, or perhaps Nicole is growing accustomed to it already. 

Waverly cannot say the same for herself. But she is growing used to the feel of Nicole’s sweet lips and strong arms and soft fingertips. She wants to grow used to them forever. 

“We’ll face whatever comes,” Nicole murmurs when the kiss fades and, in its wake, they press their faces close and breathe the other in. 

“I hope we can.” 

“I know we can.”